The stunning Southern French city of Toulouse is known unilaterally as ‘La Ville Rose’ thanks to the abundance of pink bricked buildings dotted around the city. Located along the River Garonne, Toulouse is the fourth largest metropolitan area in France, meaning that there’s plenty of hidden and secret things to do once there! Here’s your complete guide to unusual, quirky, and secret spots in Toulouse!
Galeries Lafayette Toulouse Rooftop Terrace
While the Galeries Lafayette department store is by no means a secret, what you may not know is that in Toulouse, as in the department store in Paris, it’s possible to go up onto the rooftop and glean a bird’s eye view of the city. Best seen at sunset, so as to see the pink city in a warm glow, you can purchase drinks on the terrace, sit in the chic loungers, and watch the world go by numerous floors below.
Hotel de Bernuy, 1 Rue Léon Gambetta
Once upon a time, Toulouse was ruled by great, wealthy families who constructed mansions (known as ‘hôtels’ in French) all over the city. Today, lots of these imposing houses survive and have since been transformed into galleries, art spaces, museums, and administrative buildings.
And behind a certain beautiful carved wooden door, on Rue Léon Gambetta, one of these 16th-century Renaissance hôtel particuliers can still be found. All intricate stone carvings and beautiful balconies, the mansion was built for a woad merchant (the blue pastel/ woad is a local product which gave rise to Toulouse’s great wealth).
Old Street signs (in various locations across the city)
Of all the secret spots in Toulouse and hidden gems this Southern French city has to offer, the old street signs are the easiest to spot of them all. In times gone by, street markings would indicate where you were in the city by the colour and number.
While yellow signs indicated that you were parallel to the River Garonne and are numbered from downstream to upstream, grey signalled the complete opposite. Grey meant that you were perpendicular and were numbered from upstream to downstream. Today, many of these old signs can still be found, hanging inches apart from more modern street signs.
L’Enfant au bonnet d’âne (the child with a dunce cap) red statue on the Pont Neuf
The Post Neuf is an ancient monument spanning the River Garonne. And in spite of its name of ‘new bridge’, the Pont Neuf actually happens to be the oldest bridge in Toulouse! For those with keen eyesight, the red l’enfant au bonnet d’âne (child with the dunce cap) can be seen on the bridge when looking at the river from close to the Basilica Notre-Dame de la Daurade.
Created by plastic artist, James Colomina, the installation is meant to represent everyone who is sidelined, stigmatised, or isolated from society. The red art installation was first installed on the bridge in June of 2017 and has most certainly seen its fair share of drama since its initial placement!
For, just weeks after installation, the statue was stolen. However, by November, Colomina once again set out onto the Garonne in a little boat in the dead of night and replaced the sculpture. Since then, the resin sculpture has sat on the bridge, hands in its pockets, being spied by passersby…
La Morgue de la Daurade
Head towards the River Garonne on any summer evening and you’ll find crowds of people soaking up the last of the sun’s rays. In use since the Middle Ages, the Quai de la Daurade (Daurade in French means ‘bream’- like the fish) holds dark secrets beneath its pretty exterior.
For example, a yellow stone-faced façade which now touts coffees and ice creams was once the city’s ‘morgue of the drowned’. In times gone by, corpses which were washed up from the shores of the Garonne would be displayed in the small building so as relatives would be able to recognise them.
Today, it’s hard to imagine that such a lively location, a place where locals hang out in the summer months and a destination for friends to relax with one another finds its roots in such a morbid way. Now, the former morgue even sells refreshments during the summer months!
24 hour Clock of Rue Alsace-Lorraine
Though this clock (known as ‘horloge’ in French) is passed by thousands on a daily basis, few likely notice that it’s rather unusual. For instead of having 12 markers or numbers, this clock actually has 24! As an aside, it’s worth noting that in days gone by, the difference between a timepiece and a clock was that while a timepiece was silent, a clock would have to chime to be considered a ‘clock’.
On the corner where Rue Rivals meets Rue Alsace-Lorraine, the clock is a pretty rare sight and the 24-hour markers are not usually placed on such large clocks. Instead, this kind of quirk is usually reserved for astronaut or military watches. Installed on a Haussmannian building in 1895, this clock is only one of two in France, the other being located in Auxerre.
Art on the metro (line 2/B)
Toulouse is a pretty easy city to navigate on foot, and thanks to its location in South West France, the weather is great for much of the year, meaning that you’ll likely need to use the public transport very few times when exploring the city.
However, with all that being said, one quirky feature of the Toulouse metro is that there’s a piece of artwork on all stops on the metro line B! Comprising of twenty stations total, there’s everything from modern installations to interesting examples of optical illusions.
Le Palmier du Couvent des Jacobins (the Palm tree of the Church of the Jacobins)
You may wonder why the Couvent des Jacobins appears on this list. After all, the Dominican Monastery is one of the top attractions Toulouse has to offer. Located close to Le Capitole and just steps away from the magnificent Hotel de Bernuy, the brick building was constructed in the 13th-century and is a prime example of Southern French Gothic at its very finest.
While you have to pay to see the refectory (which is one of the largest in Europe), frescoes from the Middle Ages, and the magnificent cloisters, the church part of the Covent is free. Home to the relics of St. Thomas Aquinas, the church is home to some stunning stained glass windows, as well as a column which resembles a ‘palmier’ (palm tree!)
Balcony on Rue Tripière & Musée du Compagnonnage de Toulouse
In the very middle of the historic old town, where cobbled lanes and narrow medieval streets can be found abundance, there’s many secret spots in Toulouse where history is never far away. One such location can be found along Rue Tripière, whose name derives from ‘tripe- as in the butcher meat‘ in the form of a stunning balcony and adjacent museum.
The balcony is now part of the musée du Compagnonnage de Toulouse, a museum is dedicated to understanding the trade of the journeyman. The term was used within medieval trade guilds and signified that the young apprentice had learned the three pillars of training; the learning of the trade, travelling, and handing down their craft to future generations.
The small museum is comprised of two levels and takes around an hour to walk around if you want to make your most of the experience. Outside, there’s the skilled wooden balcony to admire, as well as small terracotta hares dotted over the façade of the building and that represent the young apprentices.
Gallo-Roman piece of wall
When wandering around the old town part of the city, be sure to keep an eye out for fragments of the Gallo-Roman wall which formed part of the ‘Remparts de Toulouse’ (Toulouse Ramparts). Once upon a time, Toulouse, like many other cities in France, was a walled city.
Between the 1st Century CE and right up until the middle of the 16th-century, the wall was constantly modified and enlarged to encompass an ever-growing city. Today, few pieces of the walls survive, so be sure to keep your eyes peeled when walking around the historic city centre!