MONTPELLIER, FRANCE — When travellers venture to Southern France to sunbathe and sip a refreshing cocktail at cafés along the Mediterranean Sea coast, it’s Nice that comes to mind. But nestled about halfway between Marseille and Toulouse is this charming, much less crowded city that’s always bathed in sunshine.
I first visited Montpellier in 2007 on a solo adventure across Europe and fell in love with the palm trees and narrow, Medieval streets. At that time, France was hosting the World Cup of rugby and the city had set up a giant screen in the grand Place de la Comedie for citizens to watch the matches. Thousands of people filled the square, passionately singing the national anthem while cheering France’s national team, which at the time was led by superstar Sebastien Chabal.
The crowd roared for “Chabal le cheval!” (named for his ponytail mane and large, horse-like thighs) and I felt like I was part of a community. I felt at home.
I’ve had a longing to revisit Montpellier ever since. This time, though, I really explored the city and what I found is that it has a lot to offer.
A quick stop at the tourist office (just a few steps from Place de la Comedie) fills my head with ideas of what to see and they also give me tips on how to navigate the transit system — the very cute flower-patterned tramway is reason enough to visit Montpellier.
Most of Montpellier can be accessed by foot, but the three tramway lines — they run every 10-15 minutes — will help you get anywhere you’d like to explore quicker.
Wandering around the Ecusson (Old Town) I find streets lined with boutique shops, popular brand stores, cafés, restaurants and bars. This is the epicentre of this small city’s hustle and bustle. After grabbing a quick breakfast and coffee at one of the many cafés or bakeries, I recommend taking a relaxing walk through La Jardin des Plantes (on Boulevard Henri IV). Established in 1593, this is France’s oldest botanical garden. Maintained by the Universite de Montpellier, the gardens feature over 2,680 plant species, including 500 native to the Mediterranean region. The garden is free to enter and makes a great place to sit and read a book, update your travel journal or enjoy a snack.
Above: Montpellier is cloaked in sunshine most of the year and is one of France's most regal cities.
The larger plants also provide some shady comfort from the hot summer sun.
After a relaxing morning, it’s nice to sit down on the small, street side patio at Coffee Club (12, rue Saint-Guilhem) for lunch or a latte. While in Montpellier, I visited them twice and enjoyed their avocado toast, granola and yogurt bowl, hot mocha and iced latte. (Be careful, the patio really is street side and cars will sometimes zip past you very closely).
Not unlike most European cities, Montpellier has much to offer in the form of art. However, two of its most interesting museums go beyond what you would expect.
At the Musée du Vieux Montpellier (Place de la Comedie), for example, you’ll be able to explore the history of Montpellier from its origins in the Middle Ages to the present day. The museum has five rooms, each filled with diverse objects connected to the city’s past, including furniture, statues, weaponry and artwork. Montpellier’s Musée d’Anatomie, which belongs to the city’s medical university, contains more than 5,600 pieces linked to the study of the human anatomy. Collections include wax castings of dissected body parts, malformations, skeletons and old surgical equipment.
Above: Streets lined with palm trees and the glorious Payrou gardens, right, make Montpellier one of France's most attractive cities.
Perhaps my favourite thing to do while in Montpellier — and its biggest secret — is to visit one of the three nearby beaches (all accessible by bus) — La Grande Motte, Carnon Plage and Palavas Les Flots. All three are lined with beautiful white sand and offer plenty of space to relax and swim in the clear, blue Mediterranean Sea. Each beach has its own offerings of food, drink, chair rentals and other beach amenities.
To escape the heat and catch some shade, my partner and I grab a seat and a cocktail at one of the hotel bars featuring a dock right on the sand. It was easy to spend the whole day relaxing and swimming without feeling overwhelmed by large crowds.
Montpellier really comes alive at night, thanks to its student population. There’s lots of casual dining, drinks and dancing. Both nights in town we visited the same English pub for dinner — The Beehive (15 Rue du Plan d’Agde), which serves up delicious English comfort food (mushy peas, anyone?). I enjoyed the Buttered Chicken while my partner had the Bangers and Mash, which may have been better than some of the traditional food we had while in England. There was a great selection of beers on tap, as well, and football filled the television screens. Are we really in France and not London?
Montpellier is currently France’s fastest growing city, and I’m excited for more people to visit and fall in love with it. I’m sure I’ll be back again to get lost in its charm and to lay on the beach on another hot summer’s day.