Montpellier City Guide
Welcome to Montpellier, Languedoc's
Montpellier really is special. What’s more – very few people outside France have understood just what a fantastic city this is. Broad boulevards lined with shady plane trees, a huge car-free central square laid out in the 1700s surrounded by elegant balustraded buildings, even a vast triumphal arch – you name it, Montpellier’s got it. Oh, and it’s just minutes away from the beach, too.
If you're in the market for chic boutiques, designer wine bars, electronic music and art house films, then Montpellier is the place for you. Languedoc-Roussillon’s capital city is arguably the chicest spot on France’s south coast, and it certainly pulls in the punters. An extra 18,000 folk make Montpellier their home every year, and the burgeoning student population (an estimated 70,000) means that the nightlife, fashions and café culture tend to cater to Bright Young Things, with a reasonable helping of up-market wine bars, modern restaurants and smart stores targeting the sizeable community of lawyers and doctors.
Visitors tend to start their Montpellier sightseeing on the central expanse of Place de la Comédie, seduced by its café terraces and imposing, 19th century opera house. All well and good, but to escape the gawking tourists and Saturday afternoon out-of-towners, hot foot it up the pedestrian-only sweep of Montpellier's rue de la Loge into the ancient, most attractive part of town known as l’Ecusson.
Eat, drink and be merry
Halfway up on the right, the street widens out to form a square covered in café chairs and tables: welcome to Place Jean-Jaurès, home of Montpellier students and other twenty-somethings (the copious weekend brunch at Pain et Cie is highly recommended). Head up the street, hang a right just before the Préfecture (beside the post office) and you’ll hit Place Marché Aux Fleurs; on the other side of Montpellier's Préfecture lies petite but perfectly formed Place Chabaneau. Both are ideal for people-watching and a pre-dinner apéro; on the former, Le Café de la Mer is a friendly, long-established Montpellier gay haunt, while on the latter, Esprit Vin is the young professionals’ bar of choice.
A multitude of wine bars have recently sprung up in Montpellier, mushroom-like, and they are a great way to sample the region’s many excellent appellations and Vins de Pays. Among the best are Le Comptoir (rue du Puits-du-Temple), Mi Barrio (rue du Plan d’Agde) and the Times Café (rue des Teissiers), all within spitting distance of the church of Montpellier’s patron saint, St. Roch. Well-chosen wine lists, tasty platters (think fresh baguette paired with olive tapenade, sun-dried aubergines, paté, garlicky charcuterie and goats cheese) and a buzzy vibe make for value-for-money good times.
Take some time to wander around the handsome ancient buildings and elegant hôtels particuliers (private mansions) of Montpellier’s historic centre; don’t miss the 14th century Cathédrale de Saint Pierre, the 16th century botanical gardens (le Jardin des Plantes) and the imposing Arc de Triomphe lookalike at the end of rue Foch (see below). The narrow back streets and attractive squares of Montpellier's 'Ecusson' are packed with bistrots serving southern French cuisine; Place Candolle and Place de la Chapelle Neuve are perfect for al fresco dining.
With its two Michelin stars, contemporary décor and vast dining room, Le Jardin des Sens is the place to splurge in Montpellier, but there are umpteen more accessibly-priced gourmet options, like Les Vignes (rue Bonnier d’Alco, just off Place Marché aux Fleurs), Prouhèze Saveurs (avenue de la Pompignane), La Réserve Rimbaud and its fabulous riverside terrace (avenue St. Maur), or La Maison de la Lozère (rue de l’Aiguillerie). On boulevard Louis Blanc, Le Baloard serves well-priced modern French fare in a funky setting, or for a more exotic experience, try Nuniki’s great value sushi on rue Terral, or the Laotion cuisine of the humble, keenly priced Bane Lao (rue Rhin et Danube).
Contemporary culture is available in spades in Montpellier. Every summer the city hosts dance, music and theatre festivals showcasing work by leading international artists. Classical music, ballet and opera are regularly staged at the Corum and Comédie, but thanks to the tender years of Montpellier’s 250,000-odd inhabitants (43 per cent of the population is under 30), experimental electronica, leftfield films and challenging choreography are always on the agenda, too.
Unlike neighbouring Nîmes, Montpellier does not have a contemporary art museum, but the recently renovated Musée Fabre has a vast collection of 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th century works (including a whole floor devoted to the gorgeous paintings of Pierre Soulages) and is the perfect place to while away an afternoon. Plans are afoot to create a new art space within the former Montpellier School of Pharmacy, on rue de l’Ecole de Pharmacie, but meanwhile La Panacée hosts temporary exhibitions of contemporary work: be sure to check out its characterful buildings and courtyard.
Visiting en famille? Montpellier has two major child-pleasers. A short bus-ride to the north brings you to the Serre Amazonienne, an Amazonian hot house full of ferns, fig trees and palms, plus tropical fish, flora and fauna (my kids adored the anteater, the giant spiders, the bat cave – and the impromptu rain forest storm). At the other end of Montpellier, Montpellier’s brand new aquarium, Mare Nostrum, is an undersea world of wonder featuring 3,500 exhibits and 300 species of marine life; take tram line number 1 and jump off at Odysseum.
Splashing the cash, bagging bargains
Shopaholics can indulge their habit in Montpellier's centre. Many shops in rural France are traditionally closed on Mondays, but most of Montpellier’s stores are open all week bar Sunday. Well-known names like Galeries Lafayette, Habitat, Zara, Benetton, FNAC and Gap can be found in the charisma-free zone that is the Polygone shopping mall (between Place de la Comédie and the Antigone quarter).
For more recherché labels, head back into the Ecusson and the side streets branching off rue de la Loge (rue de l’Argenterie and rue de l’Ancien Courrier offer rich pickings). A pedestrian zone, this shopper’s paradise is the place to snap up stylish menswear, womenswear, footwear, jewellery, leather goods, eyewear, fragrances and homewares.
Hunting for timeless French classics? Try the Lacoste store on rue Saint Guilhem; on rue de la Loge, French chain La Compagnie des Cotonniers stocks hip, understated womenswear, and for ultra-chic kids’ clothes, Petit Bateau is on the same street. The rue Saint Guilhem boasts a couple of fancy tableware outlets in the shape of Guy Degrenne and L’Emprin, as well as the excellent Puig fromagerie and the Maison Régionale des Vins et des Produits du Terroir (a long name for a fine wine and specialty foods emporium).
At the corner of Montpellier's rue Saint Guilhem and rue de la Loge stands the covered market of les halles Castellane, selling mouth-watering fresh fruit, vegetables, fish, meat, charcuterie, cheese and bread. Stop to stock up on picnic provisions and then take a seat outside for a refreshing glass of chilled white wine (un ballon blanc) or a noisette (espresso coffee with a splash of foamed milk).
And so to bed
When you’re ready to drop, the swishiest beds in Montpellier are at luxury B&B Baudon de Mauny, an 18th century hôtel particulier in one of the Ecusson’s nicest streets. Owners Nathalie and Alain de Bordas have created five stunningly stylish rooms, combining carefully preserved original features with contemporary chic (urbanites travelling with babies should ask for rooms on the second floor with access to the well-equipped kitchen). Prices start from €160 a night.
In the pretty Montpellier neighbourhood of Place de la Canourgue, surrounded by cafes and antique shops, three-star Hotel Guilhem (rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau) has 34 rooms in a 16th century building with a leafy garden; equally charming is the two-star Hotel du Palais (+ 33 (0)4 67 60 47 38), or for modern comfort and a view of the Place de la Comédie, there’s the New Hotel du Midi.
True, Montpellier isn’t as old as nearby Nîmes, but it does have a rich past dating back to medieval times when it started out as a farm. The settlement soon swelled with the arrival of merchants importing and selling spices. Business boomed and the town grew to become second only to Paris by the late 1200s. A university was founded at this time attracting students from all over Europe.
However, much of Montpellier’s early successes were wiped out by the Reformation and around 1600 the city had stagnated. Leftist traditions have always been strong in Montpellier – the French national anthem, La Marseillaise, was born in the university here. Today, though, the city is keen to present its progressive and dynamic face – the latest Montpellier showpiece is a state of the art supertram network fit for the 21st Century which will even run out to the beach.
Montpellier’s Top 5:
- Place de la Comédie. Montpellier’s main square crowned at its southern end by the elegant 19th century opera house. This is the place to sit and sip a coffee in one of the main cafés which line the place.
- Saint Peter’s Cathedral. Known for its two rocket-shaped pillars which support a stone canopy above the main door, this bulk of a building dates from the 14th Century. The interior though is sadly lacking anything of interest.
- Rue de la Loge. Montpellier’s Oxford Street, stuffed with shops and boutiques selling everything from chewing gum to designer clothes. It runs from the Place de la Comédie to the centre of the old town. Another popular square, particularly for young people, is the Place Jean-Jaurès is roughly half way down the street.
- Antigone district. This is Montpellier at its most modern. Get here by walking through the Polygone shopping centre in Place de la Comédie. Using Ancient Greek motifs and designs as inspiration, this ultra-chic suburb of flats, shops and restaurants is certainly eye-catching if a little O.T.T.
- Musée Fabre This is the place to come to get your art fix when you’re in Montpellier. One of the best collections anywhere in France of old masters from Flanders, France and Italy. This truly impressive array of paintings is mainly the work of a local artist and collector who bequeathed them to the city in 1825.