It’s summer vacation here in France, and I’ve been using my much-needed pause from work to snuggle my cat and attempt to finally resurrect this blog. Going through old photos and files made me realize that it’s been almost four years since I moved to Toulouse 😳 Time flies when you’re teaching during a pandemic, I guess !
Despite Toulouse officially becoming the place I’ve lived the longest in France, I have not shared much about the city and my life here (let’s be honest, I haven’t shared much of anything in a couple of years…). Toulouse is a beautiful, bustling, southwestern city, France’s 4th largest after Paris, Marseille and Lyon. It has charm, history, sun, and a lot of airplanes — it is after all the aerospace capital of France and Europe, boasting the Airbus headquarters as well as France’s principle CNES research center (basically French NASA).
If I’m being really honest though, something about me and Toulouse hasn’t clicked as much as I want it to. Months of lockdown and curfew coupled with the start of a new and extremely demanding career has left me feeling sometimes isolated or bored here. But looking back through my pre-pandemic photos is helping me remember what it was like wandering around this city for the first time, and how excited I was to arrive here. I’ve decided to give Toulouse a second chance, to dust off my newcomer-goggles and to make an effort seek out new experiences that may change my perspective on La Ville Rose.
So here’s my quick take on Toulouse : The Good, the Meh, and the Wish List !
charming southern vibes : La Ville Rose, or the pink city, gets its name from the numerous red brick buildings found especially in the city center. Paired with baby blue or green shutters, they give off that absolutely unbeatable French charm.
great cafes with wifi : Once a relative rarity in France, Toulouse has opened more and more “American style” coffee shops, where it’s not weird to bring your laptop or a stack of papers to grade and stay for a couple of hours to work. I love doing this on afternoons where I don’t have to be at school, or on a Sunday afternoon when I just can’t concentrate at home.
pubs and terrasses galore : One perk of living in the south is the great weather, and Toulouse really knows how to take advantage ! This city is chock full of bars and restaurants with sunny outdoor seating, whether you’re looking for a low-key pub ambiance, a more fancy dining experience, or a raucous party-all-night vibe. Some of my absolute favorite outdoor spots are the terrasse at Breughel, the gardens at Biergarten and Bar Basque, and all of the summer-time “guinguettes” or outdoor pop-up restaurants !
chocolatine : This Southwestern name for a chocolate croissant is so much more expressive than its more common name “pain au chocolat“. Be careful, as there is a very real regional rivalry over this name…Ask for a pain au chocolat at your local bakery and you could get some dirty looks !
bikeable : I occasionally rented a city bike in Marseille to bike around the beaches, but the city was far too hilly and the bike stations far too sparse for it to really take on. Toulouse on the other hand is mostly flat and extremely bike-friendly. After some initial fear/hesitation, I finally bought my own bike and now use it for 95% of my travel within the city. Because biking is so popular in Toulouse, I’m almost never the only bike on the road, which makes me feel safer.
unique identity : Between its very ancient history dating back to the Visigoths and its current status as the capital of the European aerospace industry, Toulouse has a very visible and unique identity that makes it stand out among other French cities.
so many churches : I know this isn’t uncommon in a lot of European cities, but I’m still always surprised by the number of churches in Toulouse ! Apart from the very large Cathedral Saint Etienne and the architecturally-renowned Basilica Saint Sernin, there are dozens of historic churches and of all sizes lining the streets. Even after four years I’ve barely scratched the surface of visiting them all.
parks and green spaces : While Toulouse does have some really nice municipal parks, there is a huge lack of green space and trees overall. Most squares are paved with stones and most major roads, even in pedestrian areas, lack tree cover. Not only does this make the city very hot (see the next point on the list…) but this distinct shortage of natural spaces makes it difficult to “escape” the city.
can you say canicule : Toulouse and the Southwest in general is usually the region hardest hit by France’s summer heatwaves. We have been experiencing one currently for the past week, and temperatures have been above 100F during the day, not dropping much below 70F at night… couple this with a lack of green space described above and you’ve got a recipe for very very unpleasant summers.
expensive housing : Rents are going up across France and across the globe it seems, and Toulouse has not escaped the phenomenon. It’s classified as a “zone tendue” or a region with a very tight housing market. Between the numerous students who come to study at the universities here, and the many aerospace engineers, project managers, etc finding affordable housing is really tricky and can take months.
regional transportation : The train network serving Toulouse is shockingly underdeveloped for France’s 4th city !! There is a train station that links Toulouse to many other major French cities, but few high speed trains, making train travel sometimes less convenient than driving, depending on the destination. (4 hours to Marseille, which is the same time it would take to drive. 4.5 hours high speed train or 7 hour regular train to Paris, whereas driving is around 6 hours. Around 2 hours to Bordeaux vs 2:30 driving) When I lived in Marseille, which has a very busy high speed train line, I felt like I could get almost anywhere quickly and efficiently, which is not always the case here.
proximity to nature – so close and yet… : The most difficult transition I made leaving Marseille for Toulouse was the lack of access to a beach or a mountain. People in Toulouse like to brag about its prime location between the Mediterranean and the Pyrenees, but the reality is that neither are really close enough to plan a spontaneous afternoon (maybe unless you have a car…). Whereas in Marseille I could roll out of bed at 10AM and decide to take the bus 30 minutes to do a fabulous 3 hour hike in the calanques, in Toulouse this requires more careful planning ahead so spontaneous jaunts happen with less frequency.
The Wish List
sunset at the Pêche David : This park on top of a big hill supposedly has some of the best views in the city. I’ve yet to check it out, a fact which is made even more embarrassing because I just moved to a neighborhood not far away. There is even a new sky tram that takes you directly to the hillside, so once the current heat wave is over, I’ll be making a beeline for that sunset panorama !
drive to the countryside/villages/mountains : The occitan region where Toulouse is situated boasts many charming little villages, beautiful countryside, and proximity to the Pyrenees mountains. While I’ve been lucky enough to visit a few small cities and villages by public transportation, I would love to rent a car to take full advantage of what this area has to offer and get a much needed nature-boost !
bike to Carcassonne : Toulouse has definitely awoken a love of biking, and while I’m still sort of a novice, I would love to try my hand at a longer bike trip. Carcasonne is a lovely city that I have visited by train, but which is also accessible by biking approximately 100km (62 miles) along the famed Canal du Midi. A challenge that I’m looking forward to attempting one day soon !
go to the Cité de l’espace : while I have managed to take advantage of a number of Toulouse’s museums, one that I have yet to visit is the Cité de l’Espace ! Given Toulouse’s aerospace mania, this space-themed museum, while relatively expensive, seems like an essential experience.
boat on the canal or the Garonne : maybe it’s just because it’s been so hot here, but I am excited about water sports these days !! There are boat tours that navigate the canal and the Garonne river, as well as opportunities to rent a kayak or a paddle board to float around yourself. Drinking a cold beer along the riverside is nice, but I think it’s high time I got even closer to the water !
day trip to Foix for castles and hiking : again in the theme of connecting to nature and the larger region, Foix is a medium-sized city that’s been on my day-trip list for a while. Besides being home to a very big castle, there are also a fair amount of accessible hiking trails that go up into the mountains which I have my eye on. Not having a car means always being on the look-out for hikes that don’t start in remote parking lots…
That’s all for now. Have you been to Toulouse ? Let me know what you thought !! ❂