Many of us might struggle to place Montpellier on a map, but this French city deserves to be better known.
Just inland from the Mediterranean, it’s a mix of medieval alleyways and 21st-century high tech, with apartment buildings that look like trees and trams transformed by fashion designer Christian Lacroix.
Small squares burst with restaurants and bars that are packed past midnight on sultry summer evenings. 70,000 students give it youthful energy and throughout the year a multitude of festivals keep everyone entertained…
City of contrasts: Montpellier is a mix of medieval alleyways and 21st-century high tech
Where to stay
Despite the name, this hotel might have more functionality than actual style, but it is in a great location just off the main Place de la Comédie, which means a lot of what you want to see in a weekend is walkable from it, and there are plenty of cafes and restaurants around, too. There’s a small courtyard where you can take breakfast on sunny mornings (accorhotels.com, B&B double from £71).
Hotel des Arceaux
This 18-bedroom hotel is set in a converted 19th-century mansion with a lovely garden near the city’s impressive 1700s aqueduct. Its location means it’s nice and quiet but you can walk to the centre of town in about 15 minutes. Corridor noise can be noticeable so light sleepers might want to pack ear plugs (hoteldesarceaux.com, room-only doubles from £88).
Best Western le Guilhem
Impressive: The Cathedral of Saint Peter pictured at dusk in Montpellier
The Best Western name carries more cachet than perhaps it does in the UK, and this hotel in a 16th-century building that’s close to the Place de la Comédie, is pretty stylish considering the corporate umbrella. Some rooms have lovely views towards the impressive gothic cathedral (above). Breakfast (£11) isn’t a high point — you’re better off going to a cafe nearby (leguilhem.com, room-only doubles from £85).
Hotel Campanile Gare St Roch
This hotel is near the city’s main rail station: on the high-speed TGV you’re only three and a half hours from Paris and less than three hours to Barcelona. To be honest, the hotel is more about location (it’s just a short stroll to the centre) than somewhere you’ll actually want to hang out, but if you’re the type who just wants somewhere to dump their bags, shower, sleep then max out your time sightseeing and eating, this is a good bet (campanile.com, room-only doubles from £61).
What to see and do
You’ll see people offering ‘free’ guided tours of the historic centre with its narrow lanes and alleyways (although there is usually a hard sell for tips), but these groups aren’t actually allowed inside some buildings. You’re best going for a fully-trained and paid guide such as the excellent Bruno Martinez who can be booked via the tourist board website (see below) from £10pp, depending on group size, for two hours.
Life’s a beach
Place de la Comédie with its Parisian-style architecture and blue trams
Montpellier isn’t actually by the sea but it’s not far. If you want to feel the sand between your toes, ask at the tourist information centre in Place de la Comédie for bus and tram directions to Carnon Plage or the wilder Villeneuve-lès-Maguelone. Or take a 20-minute train to Sète, where you can slurp oysters then relax on the beach there.
If you only have time to take in a couple of museums, head to the recently-opened Moco (moco.art, £7) and the Musée Fabre (museefabre.fr, from £7).
The former houses contemporary art in a stylish mansion close to the centre and only opened in June. Save time for a glass of wine afterwards in its shady courtyard.
The latter is one of the biggest in France, founded in 1825, and houses a large eclectic range of paintings as well as sculptures and ceramics, all spanning several centuries.
Hic hic hooray!
Montpellier is in the heart of the Languedoc wine region. If you don’t have a hire car you can easily reach the vineyard at Château de Flaugergues (flaugergues.com, from £3.50) by bus, which also means there’s no worries about driving back after a tipple or three. (It’s about two miles from the centre.) Or go on a five-hour guided trip (instant-terroir.com, £70pp) which includes transport, a visit to two local wineries and lunch.
Where to eat
This is a pleasant spot in buzzy Place Jean Jaures if you enjoy a glass of wine or two and some plates of cheese or charcuterie (£15) to share on a warm summer evening, eating outside with excellent people watching possibilities. Mains might be something along the lines of a burger or tempura prawns. Service is friendly and attentive. (3 Place Jean Jaures, no website).
An airy cafe in the centre of town, this is a great stopping place for a light lunch, with indoor and outdoor seating. It has a daily changing choice of a starter and main, which might be a soup followed by quiche and salad for example, for £12 (6 Rue de l’Herberie, alorigine.rest).
Wander down narrow, quaint Rue de Candolle, with its family-run shops and cafes and you’ll come into a small square with a statue of an embracing Adam and Eve in the middle. It may be out of the way but this pizzeria is perfect for a relaxed meal (large margherita, £10) on a summer night with outdoor seating. (4 Rue du Four Saint Eloi, pizzerialaterrasse.com).
Halles du Lez
Halles du Lez is a funky food hall that opened just last month as part of the arty, creative hub Marche du Lez
This funky food hall opened just last month as part of the arty, creative hub Marche du Lez, and is packed to the rafters with small bars and cafes where you eat on the hoof or pull a stool up to the counter. It’s all fresh, local and has a great vibe. You can move from stall to stall having a starter here, main there, dessert a bit further on. Outside a DJ plays music while young locals play pétanque. It’s about ten minutes’ drive from the centre so download Moov (moovapp.fr), Montpellier’s answer to Uber (1348 Ave Raymond Dugrand, marchedulez.com).
Fly to Montpellier from Gatwick and Bristol with easyJet (easyjet.com) from £58 return. There’s a regular bus service from the airport into town for £1.40 one way, which takes about 20 minutes (montpellier-airport.com).
A Montpellier City Card is good value and recommended: it’s £18 for 48 hours and includes local transport, a guided walking tour and free or discounted entry to several museums: available from Montpellier Mediterranee Tourism (montpellier-france.com).