It’s got the sunshine, the beach and a cool new art museum. No wonder that France’s youngest city (by age of population – the city itself was founded some time in the 900's) is growing fast as a hub for visitors in search of the Mediterranean lifestyle. A place firmly having its moment in the sun, this is why you should visit Montpellier this summer.
Montpellier attracts huge numbers of students and language exchanges. They know they’re onto a good thing. You can wander the backstreets of the Old Town, hit the beach, or simply soak up the laid-vibe, sipping a glass of local Languedoc wine at a pavement café. Think all the attractions of the better-known Cote d’Azur without the overpriced restaurants and fake pretensions.
With the opening of a landmark new contemporary art museum this summer, new high-season flights from Heathrow and Bristol and new places to try local food, it’s a great time to visit. France has been swelteringly hot over summer so far, but all those language students know that Montpellier is hot all year round. Here are five reasons why Montpellier, and the surrounding Herault region, should be on your hit list this year.
The opening of the art museum, Montpellier Contemporary (MOCO) is the latest development in a city embracing art. There was always a flirtation with street art and a regular summer arts festival but MOCO has really put the city on the map as a hub for all things conceptual. The temporary collections find a new home in the 17th-century Hotel Montcalm, providing a striking counterpoint to the classical building.
To mark the opening, 100 Artists in Town, running until July 28, is a walking trail around the Old Town with modernist art installations. Look out for works by the artist Mona Hatoum and Jean Denant, the latter outside the Musée Fabre, the city’s classical gallery. As part of the MOCO project, La Panacée is a complimentary art space in the Old Town with a gallery devoted to emerging artists.
The cobblestone backstreets of the Old Town are a hive of history and souvenir hunting. Take a walking tour through the city’s heritage, starting from the Tourist Office on Place de la Comédie, to trace its medieval origins to 19th-century heyday. You will visit Rue du Bras-de-Fer, the steep passageway with brightly coloured steps that makes for the ultimate Instagram post. You can stock up on vintage postcards and prints on Rue de l’Ancien Courrier, the oldest pedestrian street in the city.
Contrast the Old Town with a stroll around the modernist architecture of the Port Marianne district, taking the tram over the Lez River. This sprawling new district is pushing the city limits eastwards towards the coast and features some landmark buildings, such as The Cloud, designed by architect Philippe Starck, and the Arbre Blanc, a strikingly modern take on a Japanese-style pagoda with a chic rooftop bar.
One of the great joys of Montpellier is its proximity to the beaches of the Mediterranean. The closest strip of golden sand to the city is at Carnon, which is 30 minutes away via tram (plus a 10-minute walk from the terminus). A day pass for public transport covers the journey and the beach has plenty of little cafes for fresh fish and cool drinks between bouts of sun-basking.
Further afield, there are more beaches at the resorts of Palavas-les-Flots and La Grande Motte, although you need a car for these. You can try activities like scuba diving and stand-up paddleboarding and don’t worry if you fall in — the water is lovely. Afterwards, the beach bars crank up for sundowner cocktails and sunset DJ sets.
A couple of new food markets are showcasing the region’s best goodies, like local olives, cheese and seafood. Les Halles Laissac is the city’s new covered market and food hall for lunch on the go. The Marché du Lez, located outside the centre in the Port Marianne district, is a new development with a market, food trucks and vintage stores around a courtyard, set in a former nightclub decorated with street art.
A glass of local wine is the perfect aperitif, especially a fruity red or rosé from the Pic Saint-Loup vineyards outside Montpellier. Head for Place de la Canourgue, the most charming of all Old Town Squares, for a terrace seat at L’Atelier de la Canourgue and watch the world go by. If you prefer craft ales, brewpub Hopulus, located just off Place Jean Jaures, has a daily happy hour and a range of beers brewed on-site.
Montpellier is the hub of the Herault department and offers convenient rail links for a day trip. The closest place to visit is the former fishing port of Sète with its attractive Old Port, sandy beaches and a clutch of restaurants serving fresh local seafood — try the oysters. Take a boat trip around the canals out to the Thau Lagoon, where the Canal du Midi comes from Toulouse to meet the sea.
Also close by, the Roman city of Nimes is one of the most stunning places in the area, especially for history buffs. The Museum of Roman Civilisation opened last summer, tracing the development of Nimes from the Iron Age to the halcyon days of the Roman Empire. Other Roman buildings across the city include the amphitheatre and the extremely well preserved Maison Carré, the former Roman forum.
There are year-round flights to Montpellier from London Gatwick and new high-season flights from London Heathrow and Bristol. Search for flights from your area.
The Grand Hôtel du Midi, located just off the Place de la Comédie, is at the heart of the Old Town action. Doubles from €125, breakfast €17. Hotel des Arceaux is a quieter spot, an old townhouse set around a shady garden for breakfast. Doubles from €75, breakfast €11.
Find more information on Montpellier from www.montpellier-france.com
Top image: St. Peter's Cathedral in Montpellier, France © Picturereflex/Shutterstock