Of course, when thinking of French cities to visit, there’s Paris, Nice, Marseille, and Bordeaux. What’s missing from this list is Montpellier – France’s eighth largest city. It’s also home to France’s first and oldest medical school.
Banner image credit: istockphoto.com/PictureReflex
Located in the South of France, 10 kilometres from the Mediterranean Sea, Montpellier receives almost 300 days of sunshine per year.
Despite its size, Montpellier has an intimate feel. It’s a university town, with a third of the population being students. Don’t be surprised if, at one table in one of the many cafés, you hear a group of researchers speaking in Italian, French, and English.
Due the city’s small size and convenient tram network, you can fit in a large array of activities into 24 hours. Visit the beautiful historic sites, shop extensively, and try some local gastronomic specialties tucked away in restaurants of the medieval old town, all in one day.
La Place de la Comédie: a people-watching breakfast
La Place de la Comédie, the heart of Montpellier, is situated on the outer boarder of the old historic centre. It’s a lovely place to admire the panorama and marvel at the hubbub of daily life as you enjoy a French breakfast.
La Place de la Comédie. Image credit: Annie Andre
Most mornings, there are rows of vendors selling clothing, books, shoes and food under tents. You’ll also see students hurrying to school and well-dressed men and women catching the tram which runs parallel to the square. On warm days, there are always street performers vying for your attention.
Then there’s the view. At one end of this marbled, egg-shaped plaza is the large Opera Comédie with the famous Three Graces Fountain directly in front. At the other end is the Ésplanade Charles de Gaulle – a cooler, quieter area lined with trees and cascading fountains.
A mid-morning walk to the Arc de Triomphe
After breakfast, pop into the tourist office just off the plaza to pick up a map.
From la Comédie, head up La rue de la Loge, the main pedestrian street lined with shops and restaurants. At the top, the street doglegs left and becomes la rue Foch. You’ll immediately see Montpellier’s Arc de Triomphe (yes, there’s more than one Arc de Triomphe in France), built at the end of the 17th century in honour of Louis XIV, the Sun king.
Montpellier’s Arc de Triomphe. Image credit: Annie Andre
Walk through the arc to the Jardin de Peyrou, a large park with panoramic views of the city and surrounding area. There’s a bronze statue of the king on horseback in the middle of the park’s path. If you happen to be there on a Sunday, you can browse antiques at the flea market.
At the far end of the park is the Château d’eau (the water castle) which was once the water supply for the entire city. Walk up the steps for an even better view of the city and the hills beyond. Behind the water castle is the Aqueduct Saint Clement, a 14 kilometre, 18th century aqueduct which ran water to the Chateau d’eau. It’s an amazing thing to see in the middle of a modern city.
Next, retrace your steps and head back down rue Foch to explore the city’s old town named L’Écusson (the Crest), derived from its crest like shape. Have a map on hand for it’s a maze of winding medieval streets and alleyways that make up one of Europe’s largest pedestrian zones.
Be sure to stop over at Des Rêves et du Pain (Dreams and Bread), a famous bakery in the Sainte-Anne district of the old town, where locals flock to try the bread and pastries. The bakery shot to fame when it won a 10 week competition on the famous TV show La Meilleure Boulangerie de France (The best bakery in France).
There’s a quiet grassy square nearby, surrounded by a few cafés with outdoor seating called Place de la Canourgue. Considered one of the most beautiful spots in L’Écusson, you’ll see no shortage of people enjoying the afternoon out there.
La Place de la Canourgue. Image credit: Annie Andre
An afternoon shopping
Strolling the narrow streets, you’re likely to come across L’Ancien Courrier, one of the oldest streets in the city, dating back to the 16th century. It’s lined with quaint shops, selling everything from clothing to art. Take your time to wander through this picturesque area, discovering and admiring the gothic architecture.
If you’re after something a little more modern, head back over to La Comédie and catch the number one tram towards the Odysseum. This is a flashier outdoor shopping mall where you can even do some indoor rock climbing!
Montpellier offers a great number of pre-dinner sight-seeing.
For art, head straight to the Musée Fabre.
Musée Fabre. Image credit: Annie Andre
For a bit of nature there is the Jardin des plantes, created under Henri IV in 1593 – it’s the oldest botanical garden in France.
For something different check out the Museum and Conservatory of Anatomy which has an interesting collection of anatomical parts.
For architecture, situated right next to the Museum of Anatomy, there is the Saint Pierre Cathedral. Built in the 1300s, this massive structure looks more like a fortress than a cathedral.
For history, a few minutes from the Opera house, there is La Tour de la Babotte, a 12th century observatory. According to legend, on December 26, 1783, the first test of a parachute was performed by its inventor, Sebastien Lenormand.
Montpellier has no shortage of restaurant choices, especially in and around the old town. Dinner in France starts after 7.30 pm – show up too early and you could be in for a wait.
If you want something typically French, try the savoury crepes at La Creperie Jean Moulin.
If you’re in the mood for something trendy, there’s Playfood which serves appetizer size meals in transparent glasses called les verrines which can best be described as French tapas.
Just behind the opera house is Les Bains de Montpellier serving classic French food under palm trees in a hidden courtyard.
Fountain of the Three Graces and Opera House. Image credit: Annie Andre
And finally if it’s a burger you’re craving, head over to Grand Slam Burger, run by a half-Canadian, half-French man. He serves some of the most progressive burgers around from blue cheese and duck burgers to the classic cheese burger.
If you’re still full of energy after dinner, take a stroll to one of my favourite bars in the city – BerThoM Montpellier. It has a cool atmosphere, serving artisanal beers.
If it’s a warm evening, head back to La Comédie, where your day began, and enjoy the outdoor plaza all over again before heading to bed.