A thousand years of trade and intellectual activity have made Montpellier a teeming, energetic city. Benjamin of Tudela, the tireless twelfth-century Jewish traveller, reported its streets crowded with traders from every corner of Egypt, Greece, Gaul, Spain, Genoa and Pisa. After the king of Mallorca sold it to France in 1349 it became an important university town in the 1500s, counting the radical satirist François Rabelais among its alumni. Periodic setbacks, including almost total destruction for its Protestantism in 1622, and depression in the wine trade in the early years of the twentieth century, have done little to dent its progress. Today it vies with Toulouse for the title of the most dynamic city in the south, a quality you’ll appreciate as you explore the atmospheric pedestrianized streets of the old town. The reputation of its university especially, founded in the thirteenth century and most famous for its medical school, is a long-standing one: more than sixty thousand students still set the intellectual and cultural tone of the city, the average age of whose residents is said to be just 25. In many senses the best time to visit is during the academic year (Oct–May), when the city teems with students. The nearest beaches for a dip are at Palavas (tram direction “Odysseum” to Port Marianne, then bus #28), but the best are slightly to the west of the town.
Montpellier is renowned for its cultural life, and hosts a number of annual festivals, notably Montpellier Danse (late June to mid-July), and for music, Le Festival de Radio-France et de Montpellier (second half of July).