If you’re visiting Montpellier and looking for things to do the Fabre Museum, the wonderful old town including the Place de la Comédie and even the amazing trams and tramlines should all be on your to do list. And as for food and drink. You really are spoilt for choice with so many cafes, bars and restaurants to choose from.
Where is Montpellier?
Montpellier is the capital of Languedoc-Roussillon, on the department of Herault and the region of Occitanie. It used to be France’s twenty-fifth biggest city; today it is its eighth. To say it is experiencing growth is an understatement. It’s a rich, cultural and vibrant city and well worth a visit.
Montpellier – a multi-cultural city
The cosmopolitan end-product, if what you seek is a vibrant, energetic multi-cultural city, is a delightful mélange of ethnicity and traditions made all the more effervescent by the seasonal influx of students.
Inevitably, cultures far and wide have contributed to the city’s growth. There were Arabs here, and a significant Jewish quarter, although there is little evidence of this today except for a few street names, a Jewish bath-house found when building work was being undertaken for a new shop, and the former Jesuit building that now houses part of the Fabre Museum.
The Fabre Museum – pride of Montpellier
If you are an art fan and are staying or passing through Montpellier, then it would be a sin not to visit the Fabre Museum. This epicentre for fine and modern art was founded back in 1825 by Francois Xavier Fabre and has since become one of the finest art museums in the country.
The main focus of the exhibitions is on pieces by European artists. You will find a large collection of more than 800 works of art, 3500 drawings and 900 etching among others. If you have a penchant for more ancient pieces, then there is a beautiful collection of Greek vases on display but there’s also a huge number of more modern pieces.
Many of the exhibitions are based around pieces created in the 17th and 18th century. If your aim is to view more well known pieces then you will be pleased to find the Venus and Adonis by Poussins located within the Fabre Museum.
This is one of the largest museums in the country covering more than 9000 square metres so there’s a lot to discover. What’s more, it’s set in a stunning Jesuit college building and is now considered to be a Musee de France, an important part of the country’s culture.
But it’s also so much more than just a museum. Here you will also find bars and conference rooms so you can hold events here or simply sit back and relax while enjoying a drink. There’s a restaurant that’s well worth visiting as well as activities for children to engage younger minds in the world of art.
The Montpellier egg – Place de la Comédie
It ought to be self-evident, but by all accounts isn’t, that living in a city is noticeably different from living in the surrounding countryside – even though said countryside is never far away, nor the sea for that matter.
To live at ease here it is vital to get to know the place, to feel at one with it, and the key place from which to launch an appraisal of Montpellier is the Egg, or, more correctly, the Place de la Comédie.
Twenty years ago, with traffic tearing around it, the Place de la Comédie was oval shaped, a roundabout at the centre of which was the statue of the Three Graces, and known as the Place de l’Oeuf.
Today, the oval is still there, but only as a pattern of embedded marble amid a huge plateau flanked by elegant, Parisian influenced, 19th-century buildings and the sleek blue trams that criss-cross the city.
Bistros, brasséries and cafés spill onto the square, which is theoretically pedestrianised these days and at night becomes the stage for impromptu student exhibitionism, of the acceptable variety.
During the day lone musicians plough their furrows of melodic spontaneity, and, because they are ‘out there’ in the face of hundreds of passers-by, are really quite accomplished.
More professional displays take place in the nearby 19th-century opera house; museums and art galleries abound.
Montpellier Old Town
Montpellier is the eighth largest city in France and it draws in more than 30 million tourists every year. One of the major attractions here is the Old Town which is filled with heritage, culture and beautiful things to see and do.
The Old Town is particularly attractive to students since the university here currently teaches more than 80,000 people. What’s even more interesting is that this is one of the oldest universities in Europe. Because of this, there is a beautiful contrast between the Old Town’s heritage and a hip, modern vibe.
As we’ve already mentioned one of the biggest attractions here is the Musee Fabre which is home to thousands of modern and fine art pieces. But you will also find plenty of other things to entertain you. Why not start in the Place de la Comedie, more commonly known as Place de l’Oeuf which is the epicentre of the Old Town.
If you’re a foodie, Montpellier’s Old Town is a hub of cafes, bars and restaurants each offering its own delights. L’Atelier Bar can be found in the Place de la Canourgue where you’ll find a lot of locals if you want to get chatting. Cafe Joseph is excellent for lunch and dinner and serves some mouth watering dishes.
There’s a typical French market in the Old Town that opened in 2018 where you can buy a whole host of delicious French foods such as cheeses, pastries and breads. The market, called Halles Laissac, also has a bar where you can order drinks while you sit back and pick at your purchases.
A walk through Montpellier town centre
There is a great intimacy about this welcoming city, even if the almost total pedestrianisation of the old town is one concept beyond comprehension for velo riders and motor cyclists.
Yet the centre remains an inviting warren of narrow streets imbued with a vibrant, buzzing friendliness, relaxing street cafés, and a captivating atmosphere fanned by the warm breezes of the Mediterranean. You just have to dodge the two-wheeled psychos.
Raise your eyes above Galeries Lafayette level, and you suddenly become aware of the stunning architecture. In the Place de la Comédie it is plainly evident, but you need to study the side streets to appreciate the full force of masonic craft, reason alone for spending many years patrolling Montpellier’s streets.
In the Grand Rue Jean Moulin is the Hotel Perier, a hotel particulière or mansion house, and the birthplace of Frédéric Bazille, an impressionist painter of some acclaim. Bazille, or at least his head, appears in many places across Montpellier.
Not least because it was used by his friend Auguste Baussan to feature on a number of statues of other distinguished people. Make of that what you will.
Private mansions of this type are dotted about the centre, but are not so evident, lying as they do behind ornate doorways (the clue), beyond which intimate courtyards give into opulent houses funded by evident wealth.
That wealth is today most clearly seen in the city’s most celebrated bequest, the stylish Musée Fabre, founded by the Montpellier artist Francois-Xavier Fabre in 1825. It lies not far from the eastern end of the Place de la Comédie, and reopened in 2007 to great acclaim following four years of detailed renovation.
The museum illustrates the story of Europe’s artistic evolution from the Renaissance period to modern times, and hosts an outstanding series of works – more than 800 – that are a delight.
These include masterpieces by Courbet and Poussin, not to mention the exceptional gift of works by contemporary painter Pierre Soulages, over 90 years of age and still painting….mostly in black.
It doesn’t take long to realise that Montpellier is not only energetic but avant-garde and open-minded, and welcomes everyone with open arms ranking among its virtues the fact that it is France’s second largest gay city.
That aside, there is an appealing proactive approach to the agenda of Montpellier, something that shows itself, for example, in its twenty language schools for those who want to learn French as a second language, attended every year by no less than 10,000 students, most of whom stay for two weeks or more.
Tourism-speak aside, it is hard to put the finger on the pulse of Montpellier. It may resonate to the charms of its architecture or its unrivalled sea-influenced cuisine. Then there is its student idiosyncrasies, or its all-round appeal.
But the search for its uniqueness, its character and its charisma should be taken neither lightly nor in the expectation of disappointment.
Montpellier trams and tramlines
Many cities such as Lyon have been home to a tramway for decades but the one in Montpellier only opened back in 2000 making it one of the newest in the world. But that doesn’t mean that it hasn’t become one of the most popular attractions in the city.
Of course, it’s used for getting from A to B but it’s also where tourists come to see the city from a different perspective.
While this is a newer tramway, there used to be one that closed back in 1949. The city went for some time without this means of public transport so it’s no wonder it has become so popular since its resurrection.
There are four different lines that connect around the city and passes are available both online and in plenty of stores around Montpellier.
One of the major attractions of the tramline is the uniquely decorated trams which come in different themes according to the line they’re running.
The first line has trams decorated with white swallows while the second line has brightly coloured trams adorned in a flower power style.
If you’re a fan of all things 60s, you’ll want to travel on one of these gems. Moving along to the third line, you’ll find trams kitted out in delicate summery hues while the fourth line’s trams are bright and hard to miss.
Each line serves a different part of the city and the tramlines are a great way to move between tourist attractions as they stop at all the major points around Montpellier.
It is also worth noting that there are plans for a fifth line and while it initially should have been in operation by now, the mayor currently suggests it’ll be open by 2025.
A brief history of Montpellier
And while its currency as a place of popular resort is comparatively recent, its heritage dates from 985, when the city was founded at an advantageous position at the crossroads of the Roman ‘Via Domitia’, the salt road a little to the south, and the ‘Cami Roumieu’ taken by the pilgrims bound for Compostela.
Today, Montpellier is envied throughout France as a centre of intellectual excellence, and, while it may be an excess of Corbières that colours my judgement, the students of Montpellier do seem to have a more focused, studied air than those of, say, Toulouse.
Montpellier was less than 200 years old when Guilhem VIII declared that anyone regardless of religion or origin had the right to teach medicine in Montpellier.
Enter the Faculty of Medicine at the end of the 13th century, and still the oldest active medical school in the western world. It was at the Faculty that Rabelais, writer, doctor and Renaissance humanist, is said to have found inspiration for the scenes of drunkenness that fill the lives of students in his Pantagruel.
As Rabelais was a student here himself in 1530, it might be supposed that his descriptions are based more on fact than fiction.