Bastille Day is today, and I’m daydreaming about the fabulous week I recently spent in the south of France. I fear that most Americans, when they dream of visiting France, get stuck on Paris. And while that’s all well and good, I urge my fellow countrymen and women to explore a few other French cities this summer. Montpellier enchanted me with its easy-going, free-thinking vibe, lively festival nightlife, and the moss-smothered fountains that calm its many green spaces.
Here’s my rundown on five things to do in Montpellier this summer:
- When you first arrive, dump your bags and take a tour with the Montpellier Tourism Office. Tours depart from the office, which is located in the thick of things at place de la Comédie. An English-language tour heads out Thursday mornings at 10:30 am in July and August. Tours cost only seven euros and are a great way to get oriented. Our guide, Christine, burst with enthusiasm for Montpellier and took us to the top of the city’s mini Arc de Triomphe from which we could see the Mediterrean (only 11 kilometers away). Another treat on Christine’s tour was a stop at a subterranean medieval mikvah (ritual Jewish bath).
- Get some culture at the Musée de Fabre, a 9,200-square meter museum whose permanent collection contains 800 pieces from the medieval era to the modern age, including Reubens, Heems, Zubarán, Delacroix, Courbet, Monet, Matisse, and Soulages. Your ticket to the Musée de Fabre also allows you admittance to the furniture museum, another stop you won’t want to miss.
- Pick up one of the 2,000-plus chartreuse bikes available for rent from one of the city’s 50 bike-sharing stations (called Velómag) and explore the 150 kilometers of paths that weave their way through the city and its suburbs. One euro gets you four hours; two euros, the entire day. The terrain is pretty gentle and the paths are well marked and maintained.
- We took our bikes a few kilometers east of the city to the Château de Flaugergues where we enjoyed a leisurely lunch outdoors at its le Folia restaurant and sampled some of the vineyard’s own wines. After our meal, we toured the late 18th-century château, with its owner, Count Henri de Colbert, as our guide. The château has a lived-in feel (because it still is) and it’s packed with priceless historical artifacts, including Flemish tapestries, a zograscope from the time of Louis XV, and a Turkish bloodletting bowl. After marveling at his home, step out into the château’s vast and varied gardens of olive trees, bamboo, and palms.
- After all this culture, cycling, and touring, you’ll be hungry, right? Every Friday night this summer, until September 9th, Montpellier hosts Les Estivales de Montpellier in its main square, place de la Comédie. The sycamore tree-lined plaza buzzes with 150 merchants, food vendors, and musical acts from 6 pm until 12:30 am. Plus, four euros gets you three wine tastings and a souvenir wine glass to take home.
Have you been to Montpellier or another French city overshadowed by Paris? Send us your recommendations.