Located in the south of the country as a part of the Midi-Pyrénées region, Haute-Garonne is very much an area for lovers of the outdoors, with some of the best skiing, sports and hiking opportunities in the region.
Haute-Garonne is one of the larger departments in France, with a population of over 1.1 million across a land area of 6,309km². The majority of the population reside in the prefecture of Toulouse, but there are other important communes:
One of the original 83 departments established in March 1790 during the French Revolution, the territory of Haute-Garonne has a colourful history as part of the former Languedoc province. Much of this heritage stretches back to the era of Roman sovereignty when, from the 2nd century BC onwards, the vicinity acted as one of the chief trading posts between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic.
Such was the connection with Italy that most of the subsequent history was indistinguishable from that of Occitania rather than France. Many of the chief cities, most notably Toulouse, did not fully incorporate themselves into France until the 17th century.
Today, Haute-Garonne is one of the fastest growing departments in the country, with tourism being part of the reason. Despite necessary changes though, the strong regional feeling endures today, reflected in Toulouse's use of the Occitan Cross and the proliferation of the Occitan dialect. Indeed, it is this distinctive culture, coupled with the fantastic opportunities for all manner of activities, which makes the department so very appealing.
Haute-Garonne has what can be best described as a pseudo-Mediterranean climate, with excellent summers and mild winters symptomatic of southern France. Toulouse is representative of average quarterly temperatures:
Average temperature in Toulouse
Capital of the entire Midi-Pyrénées, Toulouse is home to some great sights, one obvious example being the Capitole de Toulouse. Originally constructed in 1190, progressive development has meant that the current neoclassical façade only dates back to 1750, while the interior stretches back to the 16th century. However, the Henri IV courtyard and gate stand as reminders of the original structure. As well as being beautiful in its own right, the Capitole is also home to the Théâtre du Capitole and the Salle des Illustres art gallery, making it a huge point of interest for any visitor.
Built between 1080 and 1120 in Romanesque style, another must-see monument is the Saint-Sernin Basilica. Although this Romanesque sheen was taken off in the 19th century with modifications, the Basilica is currently being renovated to restore the original appearance. Nevertheless, it still retains much of its aesthetic appeal, thanks largely to the Porte des Comtes and Porte des Miégeville medieval doorways and the adjoining bell tower. The interior is also noteworthy due to the many relics contained in the crypt, a number of which stretch back to the era of Charlemagne, and the magna opera of Cavillé-Coll, completed in the 19th century and one of the most important organs in France.
Continuing the trend of outstanding edifices, the Cathedral of Saint Etienne also has the honour of being the oldest building in the city, stretching back to the 9th century. In general though, wherever you go in the 'Ville Rose' (named as such for its pink brick buildings), you will be impressed by the fine architecture.
There are a few points of interest outside of Toulouse as well, most notably in Bagnères-de-Luchon. These include the thermal springs and 19th century baths, the outstanding Gothic-style Cathedral of Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges and the Romanesque basilica.
Classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Canal du Midi in Toulouse was originally established in the 17th century to connect the River Garonne to the Mediterranean. Today, the Canal offers opportunities for tranquil and thoroughly pleasant boat rides.
Lovers of sport will also be satisfied by Haute-Garonne. Toulouse is home to rugby union's Stade Toulousain, who play their games at the Stade Ernest-Wallon and are considered one of the top clubs in France. If football is your sport instead, you can also check out Toulouse FC, who play their matches in Ligue 1 at the Stadium de Toulouse.
There are a number of spots for a family day out, such as the zoo in Plaisance du Touch. However, the most popular location is Cité de L'espace in Toulouse. Visited by millions since its opening 1997, this theme park focuses on the space industry (which the city is heavily involved in) and contains a planetarium as well as mock-ups of various areas of a rocket ship.
The fun doesn't end there either, with opportunities for activities like horse riding at clubs like Les Farfadets in Saint-Gaudens, skating in Pibrac and paragliding in Bagnères-de-Luchon.
Museums, galleries and culture
Toulouse is the premier spot in the department for museumgoers. The main repository is the Musée des Augustins. Situated within a picturesque 19th century building, it provides an insight into local history and an excellent art gallery containing pieces by Delacroix, Monet and Toulouse-Lautrec. As a compliment to the Augustins, you will also find 'Les Abattoirs' Museum of Contemporary Art, with its stimulating collection of 20th century art home to works by Picasso and notable artists from the Midi-Pyrénées region.
In many other communes of Haute-Garonne, you will find local museums and galleries, the best of which are the Musée du Pays de Luchon (providing an interesting mix of natural history, archaeology and art) in Bagnères-de-Luchon and the Musée de Préhistoire in Aurignac (naturally focusing on archaeological findings from prehistory).
There are a number of festivals and events in the department. The most prominent of these are held in Toulouse and include the Rio Loco Festival in June and the Toulouse les Orges classical music series between September and October.
Toulouse is naturally the best spot for shoppers, particularly around the rue St-Rome and the rue Croix-Baragnon (the latter is excellent for luxury goods and fashion). The Allées d'Étigny in Bagnères-de-Luchon is also packed with outlets.
Markets are held throughout the department each week, the most popular being those in Toulouse at the place Victor Hugo and the place St-Sernin.
Haute-Garonne has a number of resorts due to its situation by the Pyrénées, specialising in downhill skiing. Bagnères-de-Luchon and Saint-Gaudens are the two main locations, due to the resorts of Superbagnères and Peyragudes.
The Bagnères-de-Luchon is unquestionably the best spot for hikers, due to the Vénasque and Céciré mountains and their respective peaks of 1860m and 630m. The valley of Lys is also outstanding, with its promenade composed of approximately 450km of trails.
Should you want something a little less taxing, there are a number of fine gardens in the department such as the Grand-Ron, Jardin Royal and Jardin des plantes in Toulouse. The Parc des Quinconces in Bagnères-de-Luchon is also excellent.
There are some nine courses in Haute-Garonne, including Golf Club de Luchon in Bagnères-de-Luchon, Golf de Toulouse la Ramée in Tournefeuille and Golf de Toulouse in Toulouse.
The Languedoc province has a history of winemaking stretching back to the 13th century and makes up roughly 40% of all wine production in France. The vicinity of Toulouse is one of the better areas, specialising mainly in red or rosé wines.
Food and drink
The cuisine in Haute-Garonne, and Toulouse in particular, is exceptional, with local specialities like saucisses de Toulouse, cassoulet Toulousain (pork and bean stew), foie gras, and pistache Luchonnaise (a specially prepared stew). The best places to eat in the department are Toulouse, Bagnères-de-Luchon and Muret.
Ease of access
Reaching Haute-Garonne from outside France is no problem thanks to Toulouse Blagnac International Airport, which is connected to London and other UK airports through Thomas Cook Airlines, Flybe and easyJet. The train network is also fairly extensive, with Toulouse-Matabiau station connected to the TGV and Corail national lines.
Once inside the department, travelling around by car is made easier by the autoroute links. However, getting around in the southern areas is difficult due to the predominantly mountainous terrain.
Value for money
Prices in Haute-Garonne are generally very reasonable for accommodation. Hotels in Saint-Gaudens might be a representative example, where the average price for a double room in a 3-star hotel is 60-70 Euros.
The same is true if you're planning a skiing holiday. A whole range of accommodation is available in Bagnères-de-Luchon, from hotels to campsites and bed and breakfasts. Skiing is also very affordable in Bagnères-de-Luchon.
For a range of outdoor activities from skiing to paragliding, Haute-Garonne is a great spot. As one of the expanding departments in the country, now is the time to visit and enjoy the myriad opportunities on offer.