Toulon street marketThis is a guide to the centre of Toulon, taking in the large street market, Old Town and elegant 19th century quarter.

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Click here to read about Toulon's beaches and the picturesque quarter of Le Mourillon, here to read about the harbour, naval base and maritime museum, here to read about the cable car ride up Mont Faron and here to find out about the Toulon Rugby Club and its legendary Stade Mayol.

This part of Toulon is compact and you can easily visit the sights mentioned here in a leisurely couple of hours' stroll. If you don't want, or are unable to walk (or if you want to go further afield), click here for how full guide to how to get around Toulon by various forms of transport.

The best starting point is on the place Louis Blanc, where you can stop by the Tourist Office for a large-scale map of the city centre.

You can also get here a guide to a recommended walk following little brass plaques set in the ground (if you are arriving by cruise ship, you can pick up this trail of plaques from the Toulon cruise port). Note the Art Nouveau Wallace drinking fountain in front of the Tourist Office, one of the few to be found outside Paris.

THE TOULON STREET MARKET

Pictured top left, the Marché de Provence claims plausibly to be the biggest street market in the region. It starts here and sprawls for several hundred metres up the Cours Lafayette, a wide, shady boulevard lined with micoucouliers (nettle or hackberry trees) which runs along the former ramparts of the mediaeval town.

The main market is on every day except Monday; the best days are Saturday and Sunday.

Cade kiosk in ToulonOn the Cours Paul Lendrin (a street off to the left near the top of the main market) is a little Marché des Producteurs (farmers' market) selling goat cheeses, honey and the like. These stalls are distinguished from the others by their green canopies and can be found on Tuesday, Friday and Saturday.

Both markets (plus another market in the beach area of Le Mourillon) run until 1pm all year round, and sell mainly food produce; they're mostly of interest if you're in self-catering accommodation.

But, for a tasty street snack, don't miss the little stall selling cade, a Toulon speciality made of ground chickpeas - similar to the panisse of Marseille or the socca of Nice, but less fatty, since it's not fried but baked in the oven in a round pizza-style dish.

Called cade after caldo, the Italian for hot, this snack can be either savoury (flavoured with olives anchovies, cumin, you name it... ) or sweet. If you miss the market, you can buy it nearby at La Cade à Dédé, 17 rue Charles Poncy.

THE LOWER (OLD) TOWN

To the left of the Cours Lafayette as you walk north is the historic centre of Toulon, the oldest part of which dates back to mediaeval times. Locals refer to it as the Basse Ville, or Lower Town.

This maze of narrow back streets, which constantly surprise you by opening out into little squares with fountains and terraced cafés, is pleasant to wander through. But bear in mind that more than half the remaining houses in this part of town are over two hundred years old and many of them are in a resulting state of disrepair.

A massive urban renewal project is underway to renovate these and create new housing, businesses and recreational spaces and, when we visited October 2014, scaffolding, road works and building sites were everywhere.

When it's finished, this part of Toulon will be a jewel. Already, there are quirky art installations everywhere that bring the city's heritage alive.

Fresco on Rue Chevalier Paul-ToulonIf you have time, it's worth stopping by beforehand at the Musée du Vieux Toulon at 10 rue Saint Andrieu, a treasure trove for anyone interested in history.

Run by an association of local enthusiasts, it has a permanent exhibition of maquettes, maps, model ships and a richly stocked library and also mounts temporary shows. Admission is free.

Just round the corner on the place de la Cathédrale is, logically enough, the Cathedral Sainte Marie Notre Dame des Seds. It dates back to the eleventh century and, like many churches, has mixed and matched its architectural styles through the years.

Among the art inside is a painting of the Annunciation by the multi-talented Marseille-born architect, painter and sculptor Pierre Puget. The Cathedral discourages visits during services and is closed at lunchtime.

All self-respecting ports have a part of town reserved for sailors up to no good and Toulon is no exception. The area of the Old Town west of the rue d'Alger towards the port and naval base was - and indeed still is - locally known as Chicago, for obvious reasons.

In the 1950s its bars, restaurants and brothels were strictly off-limits to American sailors on shore leave. Once a raucous quartier chaud (red light district), Chicago is now getting gentrified too, but the ladies of the night on a big trompe l'oeil mural on the rue Chevalier Paul, pictured above, are one of the reminders of its heyday.

Toulon Card-Players statueNearby, the place Raimu celebrates one of Toulon's most famous sons, the actor of that name who played César, the exuberant, big-hearted bar-owner in Marcel Pagnol's Marius, Fanny, César trilogy (Daniel Auteuil played the role in his own recent remake).

On the square is a statue, pictured, of the iconic card game from the first film in the trilogy which every French visitor will instantly recognise. Only two of the four places are occupied, to allow tourists to pose for photos on the two vacant seats. Read more about card players in provençal art.

Just north of Chicago, the Eglise Saint Louis, with its clean neo-classical architecture, is one of Toulon's most graceful churches. It was built just before the French Revolution (1789-1799), after which it became a "Temple of Reason". Today it's a church again.

On the adjacent place Vatel, surrounded by palm trees, a surreal and splendid sculpture seems to surge right out of the wall of a modern apartment block. It's a life-size replica of the prow of a royal 17th century ship (the original of the Neptune figurehead is in the Musée de la Marine).

place Pierre Puget ToulonThe other most beautiful square in this part of the Old Town is the place Pierre Puget, pictured, formerly the main square of Toulon before the city expanded north in the 19th century and a seductive spot to linger for a coffee or something stronger.

Shaded by ancient plane trees, it's dominated by the Fontaine des Trois Dauphins, an imposing 18th century fountain covered in vegetation. Though Aix en Provence may be more famous for its fountains, Toulon has over two hundred of them dotted all over town.

Victor Hugo stayed at a hotel on the place Pierre Puget when he visited Toulon in 1839. He later set a large chunk of Les Misérables in the city's infamous former prison, Le Bagne, where the novel's hero, Jean Valjean, languished for 19 years.

THE UPPER TOWN

The whole shape of Toulon changed almost overnight in the mid 19th century. This was the era of France's Second Empire and famously saw the vast-scale renovation and resdesign of Paris under Napoleon III and his administrator Georges-Eugène ("Baron") Haussmann.

But before all that happened, Haussmann turned his attention to Toulon. You could almost see it as his "practice run" for Paris.

We'd always vaguely thought Haussmann was a professional architect or town planner, but it turns out he was just a shrewd political operator who moved around frequently.

He was only posted in the Toulon region for just over a year, in 1849-1850. The Toulonnais refer to this area as the Haute Ville (Upper Town) rather than the Haussmann Quarter and it is, in fact, up a very gentle hill.

Toulon operaDespite his short time in the area, Haussmann was swift to implement his urban project. In short order he had Toulon's old fortifications torn down and expanded the city north with new boulevards and squares. The railway arrived too in 1859 and a station was constructed.

The Opéra de Toulon opened in 1862, predating (as locals love to point out) the Opéra Garnier in Paris by 13 years. On the place Victor Hugo, it sits on the boundary between the lower and upper town.

This building, pictured, is magnificent, inside as well as out, with a huge and ornate ceiling fresco featuring 123 figures. It's the second biggest opera house in France with seats for 1,329 spectators.

Insider tip for the Opera de ToulonYou can buy tickets for unallocated seating in paradis (the gods, or upper balcony) very cheaply online We saw a production of Lakmé which was of extremely high quality. Website for the Opéra de Toulon.

Bring bottled water as it can get hot up there. We spotted some people close by having a full-blown picnic during the performance!

There's no bar on the upper levels, but from the amphitheatre on Level 3 you can go out during the interval on to a very large raised outdoor terrace with wonderful views over the Old Town. Raimu pops up once more here on a fresco on the side of one of the buildings on the square, again portraying César in Pagnol's film Marius.

 

 

Turn left along the boulevard de Strasbourg behind the Opéra past Toulon's administrative tribunal, whose wedding cake architecture and belfry are spectacular when lit up at night.

Toulon place de la libertyOn the other side of the boulevard is the enormous main square in the upper town. Originally called the place d'Armes because it was used for military manoeuvres, it was renamed place de la Liberté in 1889 to mark the centenary of the French Revolution.

Surrounded by more mundane-looking newcomers, the dominant building here, on the north of the square, is the impressive Grand Hôtel (1868-1869), pictured, now turned into offices. It also houses Toulon's main theatre, the Theatre Liberté.

Several museums line the boulevard: L'Hôtel des Arts, a showcase for contemporary art, and the Italianate Musée d'Art, which houses over four hundred paintings, mainly landscapes, dating from the 15th to the beginning of the 20th centuries. Entrance to both these - as to many of Toulon's other museums - is free. Next to the latter, the Jardin Alexandre 1er is a lovely leafy spot to end the tour.

 

PRACTICAL INFORMATION

The Toulon Tourist Office is at 12 place Louis Blanc, 83000 Toulon. Tel: (+33) 4 94 18 53 00

Where to eat and drink: One of the best bars in Toulon is Le Chantilly at 15 place Pierre Puget. Founded in 1907, this historic brasserie has been recently taken over by new owners and refurbished with a super retro interior, pictured, featuring green velvet banquettes, classy chandeliers and curved mezzazine.

Le Chantilly brasserie ToulonThe clientele is a mix of students, tourists and ladies who lunch: Le Chantilly is open all day for teas, crêpes, ices and apéritifs, but serves serious hot meals too. A bonus is the friendly service and an outdoor terrace on one of Toulon's prettiest squares.

Like most cities in Provence, Central Toulon is not renowned for its nightlife, but Le Zinc at 12 rue Molière, next to the Opéra, remains open late and sometimes has live music.

The restaurants and bars of Le Mourillon and the beach area are better bets for late-night dining and drinking, but bear in mind that the buses back to the centre stop running in the early evening outside the peak tourist season.

In Le Mourillon locals recommend Le Gros Ventre (the Big Belly: despite the name it's a gastronomic restaurant) by Fort Saint Louis at 279 Littoral Frédéric Mistral. Also, a short walk further along the seafront, Le Lido, on the beach of that name.

Back in the city centre, Chez Pascalou at 3 place à l'Huile is prized for its fish and shellfish, while one of the best restaurants on the harbour front is Le Saint Gabriel, 334 avenue de la République, where we had lunch. It serves enormous portions of beautifully presented provençal cuisine in a suave grey and purple decor.

Students at Toulon's Catering and Tourism School, the Lycée des Métiers de l'Hôtellerie et du Tourisme de Toulon, on the place Vatel in the Old Town will serve you a gourmet lunch or dinner for a very modest price - but check first on its website, as it's not open every day.

Where to stay: For a town of its size, Toulon is surprisingly short of hotels. We stayed at the Best Western Plus La Corniche, which is - somewhat amazingly, given the city's long coastline - the only hotel with sea views: it's in the beach area of Le Mourillon. Click here to read our review of La Corniche.

Photo credits (from top): © SJ for Marvellous Provence (four images), Town Hall of Toulon, pinpin for Wikimedia Commons (two images), SJ for Marvellous Provence.

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