Forget Paris—seriously. The Southwestern student city of Toulouse has incredible cuisine (foie gras, anyone?), welcoming people, an unbeatable pastry scene, and it happens to be just two hours from the Spanish border. Toulouse has the fourth largest student population in France, and is also the home to Airbus, meaning that there are a lot of eager 18-year-olds and European ex-pats who speak french with adorably off-kilter British accents.
Know Before You Go
If you are a normal human with emotions, you will fall in love with Toulouse. In LOVE. This is especially true for (but not exclusive to) students who can enjoy the young atmosphere, ubiquitous bars and low-key French lifestyle. But if you are someone who needs a huge metropolis or designer brands, Toulouse might not be the right fit. Nearby Biarritz is also beautiful, but more bougie (like bourgeoise, not the word “candle,” for French speakers).
Pastry scene – Toulouse is obsessed with British tea time, and each salon de thé (tea house) is a delightful mix of French and UK pastries and flair.
Pink Architecture – Known as La Ville Rose, many of Toulouse’s buildings have a pink hue. It’s très romantique.
Regional Culinary Specialties – The Southwest is primarily known for two dishes: cassoulet, a heavy bean stew that will induce an immediate bear-like hibernation, and foie gras, the creamy, fattened duck liver that other regions try to produce but can’t quite compete (and it tastes way less disgusting than that description suggests).
Small city center – While it’s perfect for a weekend getaway, people who are looking for the go-go-go of a tourist city might feel a bit restless. The entire city center can be walked in about 20 minutes, and Toulouse is more about the eating, drinking and lounging than the frenetic energy of Paris.
Young vibe – Much like Boston, Toulouse feels like a thriving university town. Sometimes it’s great, but other times when you’re bombarded by drunken teens at Place Saint Pierre, it can make you feel old.
Couvent des Jacobins – this enclosed courtyard is a serene place to hang out, feating the perfectly manicured hedges that only Europeans seem to have perfected.
Capitol – it’s the government building, the city center, and the ideal spot for photo ops. Hang out and people watch at one of the outdoor cafés or restaurants around the periphery.
Tapas – Toulouse’s location right near Spain means it’s TAPAS TIME. Café Chouchou does a combination of traditional French and tapas-style dishes, and its fuzzy pink outside chairs don’t hurt its cool factor, either.
Shopping – Wander around Esquirol, a winding, Brooklyn-esque neighborhood with thrift stores like Le Grenier d’Anaïas; check out the upscale boutiques around Carmes , and the antique stores around Palais du Justice.
Eating – For an upscale and intimate treat that gives you the “eeeeeeek France is so damn ca-yute!” willies, go to La Popote (make reservations at least several days in advance). For a basement restaurant that is equally as charming but a bit more affordable, opt for Le Cri de La Truffe. And for a taste of the beloved–if heavy–specialties of cassoulet stew and foie gras, don’t miss La Cave au Cassoulet, an unpretentious staple for visitors and locals.
Markets – There are local markets in almost every neighborhood. Shop around the largest, Victor Hugo, and make sure to check out the Saint-Aubin marché on Sundays–there’s music and empanadas!