When planning a trip to the south of France, you should definitely consider Montpellier. The city used to rival Paris as France’s pre-eminent city back in the day, but how does it compare today? Bustling with young energy, still with plenty of historical monuments to explore and easy access to a beach, Montpellier has a lot going for it.
“Montpellier is adorned with the trappings of grandeur which saw it rival Paris in the Middle Ages”
Funky café culture. A vibrant atmosphere. Beautiful historical monuments. Stunning weather. All of these are reasons to visit Montpellier. Home to some 60,000 students at the Université de Montpellier, the city has a young feel and is buzzing with energy. Yet Montpellier mixes the new with its glamourous past so well, and the city is adorned with the trappings of grandeur which saw it rival Paris during the Middle Ages. For me, Montpellier was one of those towns I didn’t know much about before visiting but was so happy that we made the choice to. I’m a Francophile after all! So we set out to see what Montpellier had to offer.
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What to do in Montpellier?
So once you’ve made the decision to visit Montpellier, what is there to do? Although we only had one day to make the most of what the city had in store, we managed to get in the highlights and get the sense of the city before we, reluctantly, had to leave. Here is what you should see and do in Montpellier.
Place de la Comédie – Montpellier’s buzzing boulevard
You’re going to want to start your adventure from the Place de la Comedie, Montpellier’s buzzing and vibrant main promenade. Flanked by the typically French Opera building on one side, and stretching hundreds of metres through tree lined boulevards to Le Corum conference centre on the other end, this area is a haven for sunshine, people-watching and strollin’ French-style. Although most would recommend you stop here and have an aperitif or coffee, seeing some hideously expensive prices kind of put us off and we decided to move on.
Place Jean Jaures – Hang with the hip crowd
For a slightly more affordable but an equally nice chill out spot, walk up Rue de Foch to the Place Jean Jaures, a favourite hang-out of university students and other young folk. By this time I was dying for a café au lait or five so we found a table overlooking the busy street, did some people watching and absorbed the eclectic vibe of Montpellier. The thing I really liked about this area was its unpretentious nature and it’s really easy to just lounge around in that typical French-person-in-the-sun kind of way. Needless to say, I think Kim-ling couldn’t wait to keep going and check out the rest of the sights, so off we went to explore the city.
Porte du Peyrou – Montpellier’s ‘mini’ Arc de Triomphe
Just a short walk up Rue de Foch will bring you to Montpellier’s very own version of the Arc de Triomphe, the Porte du Peyrou. Constructed in 1693, it’s small compared to the version in Paris but stunning all the same and definitely worth a look if you do visit Montpellier. Although we had the amazing fortune to photograph the Porte while construction crews worked to remodel the sidewalk (didn’t they know we were on HOLIDAY?!), you will hopefully appreciate its beauty under better conditions. At night, the Porte is lit with lights and makes for an absolutely stunning photo.
Walking through the Porte de Peyrou will bring you to the Place de Peyrou. While we loved the Montpellier weather (around 30 degrees Celsius in June), it was nice to walk under the shade of the magnificent, tall trees towards the city’s former water tank. Probably taking first prize for the best looking reservoir in the world, the tank and the Saint-Clement aqueduct which lead to it, were originally built in the 18th century to supply the city’s water from a nearby town.
Cathédrale Saint Pierre – Fortress meets church
Just a short walk to the east of the Porte and Place du Peyrou, through small, winding backroads, sits the Cathédrale Saint Pierre. I imagine when Pope Urbain V decided to build a portico for Montpellier’s cathedral in the 14th century, he wanted to go big and bold. That’s my type of Pope! The two towering spires completely dominate the courtyard of the side entrance to the cathedral, and give the building a fortress-like quality.
Step inside the cathedral (entrance is around the corner from the spires) to get a better view of its Gothic domes and bright and colourful stain glass windows. And escape the heat, but mostly for the architecture and stuff. As if the French authorities somehow knew about our dwindling travel fund at this point, entrance is free, although a small donation is requested for maintenance of the church. And as far as church interiors go, it’s pretty damn nice.
By now you’re probably feeling like some lunch, so walk up from the cathedral into Place de la Canourgue and choose any of the restaurants with tables set in the nice gardens here. These places are set in the backstreets of Montpellier’s old town and are trés chic. If you’re on a budget, then you’re also in luck. All along the Rue de Foch and other main streets you will find many boulangeries, patisseries and kebab shops offering deals for financially challenged students.
Jardin du Champ de Mars – THE place to relax in Montpellier
With our bellies full, we decided to take a leisurely stroll with what seemed like every other person in Montpellier through the Jardin du Champ de Mars (or simply ‘garden’, as Kim-ling would remind me when I tried to get all ‘Frenchy’). This tree lined promenade is perfect for enjoying the summer weather and strollin’ French-style. If in need of some refreshments, you can stop by these nice little cafes on the side of the park for fresh juices, cakes or patisseries and other assorted treats.
For the art lovers amongst you, you won’t be able to go past the Musée Fabre which sits off the side of the promenade. But for me, it was a big hell no….. I must admit by this time, I could not summon up the motivation or interest to see ANOTHER beautiful painting by I-don’t-care-who-the-artist-is and pretend that I understood what it all meant due to wanderlust fatigue. Culture is seriously wasted on some….
Antigone – Montpellier’s designer suburb
Montpellier is a pretty bold city, cleverly mixing architecture from the Middle Ages all the way to the present. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the city was game enough to allow Catalan architect Ricardo Bofill to construct and build a neo-classical designer suburb just south-east of the city and within an easy walk from the Place de la Comedie.
Just a quick walk down the wide boulevard, with its residential apartments either side, you’ll see how Bofill incorporated Roman columns, classical Greek arches and open green spaces into modern day constructions. It’s pretty amazing to see this futuristic suburb so close to the heart of Montpellier and while it can feel a little soulless by comparison to more traditional Baroque-style buildings, I can’t help but admire the boldness of the design.
Although we didn’t have enough time to visit the beaches close to Montpellier, this would have definitely been on our list of things to do. The city has plans for the tram service to eventually reach all the way to the beach, allowing tourists to discover the city throughout the day and hit the beach in the late afternoon.
Montpellier is a great day trip from Nîmes, Avignon or other surrounding larger French towns and is typically within an easy 30-40mins train (our TER train from Nîmes took 20mins and cost 26 euros return per person). I think 1-2 days in Montpellier is plenty: spend the first day exploring the city and the second day at the beach or relaxing in the squares.
Montpellier has a unique charm and vibe from the rest of the south of France; young and vibrant but with enough history to keep the engaged traveller interested. We really enjoyed exploring Montpellier and we hope you do to!
So Paris or Montpellier, you be the judge. Comment below!
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