You can’t beat Paris but if you’re after a mini version of the French capital then head to Montpellier in Southern France. It has its own l’Arc de Triomphe, a small art gallery in its version of The Lourve, botanical gardens and an aqueduct. We had one full day in which to explore the university city where students account for a third of its inhabitants. Here’s what we did in one day in Montpellier with our two daughters (4 and 1). Be sure to check out my vlog below to get the full Montpellier experience.
We arrived in Montpellier late Saturday afternoon in early August. We’d travelled from the Dordogne where we’d spent a week with friends. It took around four hours to get there and with empty bellies, we ate at Burger et Blanquette (the burgers were very good). As it was already getting late, we went back to our hotel, put the kids to bed and got an early night ahead of a full day of exploring the next day.
Waking up early we headed to Cold Drip Food and Coffee. I spotted it the previous day and after a week in France, I was desperate for a decent cappuccino!
Cold Drip delivered. Run by a French/Kiwi couple Katy and Steven, they know how to make good coffee – and food. We enjoyed a very substantial breakfast which kept us going until mid afternoon. I had smashed avocado on toast, the hubby enjoyed eggs benedict and the girls devoured pancakes. We were fuelled up and ready to go.
Place de la Comédie
Our next stop was to the Place de la Comédie. It’s the largest pedestrianised square in Europe and is also know as l’Oeuf (the egg) due to its oval shape. The space is a hive of activity, particularly in the evenings. It’s surrounded by cafes and restaurants while street artists perform in the square.
If you’ve after some high brow entertainment though, the space has two opera houses. The square is named after the main theatre, L’Opera Comedie, which was built in the 18th century and rebuilt in the 19th after being damaged by fire. Outside the front is a statue of Three Graces, Montpellier’s emblematic goddesses.
Arc de Triomphe
We headed through the shopping district and walked up Rue Roch towards Montpellier’s version of the Arc de Triomphe. It was constructed towards the end of the 17th century to celebrate Louis XXIV’s triumphs. He wanted Montpellier to become the capital of the Languedoc region so the famous arch from Paris was reproduced.
Under the arch you come to the Place Royale du Peyron. Taking centre stage is a statue of Louis XXIV on his horse. At the top is the 18th century Saint-Clement aqueduct which has great views to the east of the city and an octagonal water tower.
As we were looking around I was struck by how much it reminded me of Paris. Turns out the was designer was inspired by none other than the Place de la Concorde in Paris.
Market stalls were set up on the Sunday morning we were there selling antiques and clothing between lines of trees, giving it a more local feel.
We headed towards Montpellier cathedral which looks more like a fairytale castle than a religious building with two large conical turrets at each side.
We didn’t go inside but admired its exterior for a while. It was founded in 1364 but suffered severe damage during the wars of religion (the protestants and catholics) in the 16th century. It was rebuilt to create today’s structure in the 17th century.
Jardin des Plants
Around the corner from the cathedral is Montpellier’s Jardin des Plantes. Dating back to 1593, it is the oldest botanical gardens in France. On this occasion it was Montpellier which was the inspiration behind Paris’ own botanical gardens.
The shady, quiet gardens provided some respite for us all. Southern Europe was in the midst of a heatwave so it was good to get out of the sun and slow down the pace. The gardens are free to enter and fairly compact (nothing on the scale of London’s Kew Gardens). It has a glass house there too.
We made our way through the old town to the art gallery, Musée Fabre, soaking up the medieval streets. I was struck by a common occurrence. Trainers hanging off chains across the street. Student high jinks perhaps? If anyone knows the significance, do let me know!
Paris has the Louvre but Montpellier has Musée Fabre. The art gallery is one of Montpellier’s most popular attractions and has a large collection of European art with some big names such as Renoir and Courbet.
There were a couple of interactive touch exhibits which the girls enjoyed sampling.
We spent around an hour there before leaving to get some food which we enjoyed on the terrace of Restaurant l’Insense next to the museum. It was very good! My daughter spied the playground opposite so afterwards we headed there.
Petit Train tour
Having seen the ‘Petit Train’ driving around the city, we thought it would be fun to go aboard. Departing from the Place de la Comédie, we bought the tickets and waited in a nearby cafe. The train took us on a similar route to the one we’d done that morning. It drove through the Arc de Triomphe and around its medieval streets in a 40 -minute tour.
With audio commentary it was helpful to get some extra context. The girls had fun and we finished it off with the standard bad family selfie.
There ended our day exploring Montpellier. As we wandered back to our hotel, we glanced into the vintage toy shop, la Pomme de Reinette – which is worth a look.
If we had stayed another day, we’d have headed down to the beach. It’s just 13km from the centre of Montpellier. That’s something you don’t get in Paris now, is it?
Where we stayed
We spent two nights at the boutique hotel Baudon de Mauny. An 18th century mansion in the centre of Montpellier, it was in a perfect position for our exploring.
The room had a main bedroom with beautiful butterfly wallpaper and a living room where the girls slept. It was roomy enough for us. There was also a separate kitchenette which we had breakfast in on Monday morning. There were several flights of stairs to access the hotel – so we left the buggy at the bottom and carried Cheeky up.
A mini Paris?
Montpellier is a compact alternative to the capital Paris and we thoroughly enjoyed the sights, food and atmosphere. There are plenty of nods to the French capital but Montpellier is far quieter than Paris – and sunnier for more months of the year. It’s worth visiting for a long weekend or as part of a road trip around southern France.
Have you been to Montpellier before? Would you like to visit?
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