Given the young vibe, Mediterranean disposition and long hours of sunshine, it’s no wonder that Montpellier is growing in status. But it’s now growing physically, too, sprawling eastwards towards the coast with new districts of modernist architecture. And the recent opening of contemporary art museum, Montpellier Contemporary (MOCO), adds an extra cultural dimension.
What to do
But is it art?
The headline event this summer is the opening of MOCO, the new hub of the city’s burgeoning contemporary art scene. Expect some serious chin-stroking over the challenging pieces from the inaugural exhibition, based around the Ishikawa Collection, which runs until the end of September. The artworks are set in the Hotel Montcalm, a grand 17th-century townhouse with manicured gardens, plus there’s an art-themed bookshop and restaurant featuring striking art installations. Open Tuesday to Sunday noon-7pm (10pm in summer); entry €8.
Old town charm
The 19th-century Place de la Comedie, styled on Haussmann-era Paris, is the beating heart of the city with its illuminated fountain, The Three Graces, at its centre. But it’s the place to meet, not hang out. Join a two-hour walking tour from the tourist office on the western flank of the square to uncover the city’s medieval origins amid the labyrinthine backstreets of the Old Town. This area can be hard to navigate but the Essential Montpellier walk combines the story of Montpellier as an historic centre for medicine with visiting hidden-gem attractions only accessible on tours, such as some of the 18th-century Hotel Particuliers, private mansions set around courtyards, and the Mikve Jewish baths, a site for spiritual ritual. Back at Comedie, finish at the stately Musee Fabre, the classical art museum. Tours €10, or included with the City Card.
For a totally different perspective on city life, take a tram to the eastern Rives du Lez district to stroll around the modernist buildings shifting the city eastwards to the beach. You can take a guided tour (€10) of the still somewhat work-in-progress area, or simply wander around, watching out for such landmark buildings as The Cloud, designed by Philippe Starck, and the RBC Design Centre (see where to shop). Finish at the Marche du Lez for lunch (see where to eat).
Where to stay
Hotel rooms are at a premium during the busy summer period, so it may be worth checking out Airbnb options, too.
To be at the heart of the action, it’s hard to beat the Grand Hotel du Midi, located just off the Place de la Comedie. The historic building has a red-hued interior and arty vibe with views across the main square. Doubles from €125, breakfast €17.
A 10-minute walk to the centre, and a place with a more homely, low-key feel, is the Hotel des Arceaux. Two historic townhouses have been joined to form this 18-room boutique hotel set in quiet, pretty gardens. Doubles from €75, breakfast €11.
If you’re looking to spend more time exploring the Rives du Lez district than the city centre, the Marriott Courtyard is a modern hotel with an outdoor pool located next to the modernist Town Hall designed by architect Jean Nouvel. There’s a direct tram link to Place de la Comedie that takes 15 minutes. Rooms from €250, B&B.
Where to eat
The city covers all bases from fast snacks to fine dining but beware: many places close Sundays and Mondays.
Ignore the decent if less authentic places around Place Jean-Jaures and head deeper into the backstreets, seeking out Place Saint-Ravy and Place Saint-Roch for places the locals frequent. Try Rosemarie for fresh, bistro-style food, served on a breeze-cooled terrace, for lunch and dinner (mains around €15).
Les Halles Laissac is the city’s new covered market and food hall for lunch on the go and plenty of local produce. For a weekend brunch, try the cafe at MOCO Panacee, a gallery space dedicated to emerging artists that forms part of the MOCO project. It hosts a popular Sunday brunch until 3pm (€18), evening tapas and a set lunch (€14).
Heading outside the centre to the up-and-coming Rives du Lez district, the Marche du Lez has a lively food market and food trucks offset by street art. The pick of the restaurants inside the main courtyard is La Baraquette with a good-value two/three-course set lunch for €18/21.
Where to drink
A pavement cafe and a glass of local Languedoc wine is the quintessential Montpellier aperitif. The main squares attract the tour groups but there are plenty of more authentic places in the backstreets.
Linger over an all-day glass at L’Atelier de la Canourgue on Place de la Canourgue, Montpellier’s most attractive historic square. This is also home to the Jardin des Sens, the restaurant and hotel (re-opening at the end of 2019) in the 17th-century Hotel Richer de Belleval.
Craft ales have also reached the Med with the new brewpub Hopulus located just off Place Jean-Jaures. It has a €5 happy hour from 4-7pm, beers brewed on site and some small tapas plates, all located in a rustic, air-conditioned bar on Rue Collot. Open 4pm until late.
For a taste of Hemingway-era charm, Le Papa Doble on Rue du Petit Scel is a cool cocktail bar with a Cuban twist for a mojito in the sun and a classic cocktail menu. Open 6pm until late.
Where to shop
Exploring the labyrinthine backstreets of the Old Town reveals lots of interesting places to hunt for souvenirs, especially around Instagrammers’ favourite, Rue du Bras-de-Fer. Look out for retro-style postcards, prints and poster on Rue de l’Ancien Courrier, the oldest pedestrian street in the city.
The local speciality is a rather uninspiring sweet, the Grisettes de Montpellier, which are flavoured with liquorice. A better bet is a bottle of Languedoc wine, especially if it’s from the Pic Saint-Loup vineyards located just outside Montpellier in the Herault region. Stock up on a few bottles and try other local flavours at deli-epicerie Le Panier d’Aime, located on Rue du Plan du Palais. Open Monday-Saturday, 9.30am-7pm.
Finally, if you’re inspired by the city’s experiment with modernism, the Rives des Lez district is home to the RBC Design Centre for designer homewares and a books section devoted to weighty tomes on architecture and urbanism. Open Monday-Saturday, 9.30am-7pm.
The city’s latest symbol of architectural modernism is the Arbre Blanc, a striking Japanese-style pagoda on the banks of the Lez River. There’s a trendy ground-floor restaurant and a chic rooftop bar – if you can get in. L’Arbre Blanc is one of Montpellier’s most striking pieces of architecture (Getty Images)
Nuts and bolts
What currency do I need?
What language do they speak?
Should I tip?
Tipping in restaurants is voluntary, usually about 10 per cent.
What’s the time difference?
Montpellier is one hour ahead of the UK and flight times average two hours. EasyJet and British Airways fly direct from London; Air France-KLM flies from Manchester.
You can explore the historic centre on foot but you’ll need to make friends with the Tam network to explore other districts. A day public transport pass costs €4.30.
Climb the 90 spiral steps to the top of the city’s Arc de Triomphe, part of the Place Royale du Peyrou, for cityscape views across the rooftops to the Mediterranean coast beyond.
Pick up a 48-hour City Card at the tourist office for €22. It includes one guided tour, discounts for attractions and free public transport, including a link to the beach at Carnon in 30 minutes. Many places are closed on Mondays.