When I moved back from Scotland to France, I had mixed feelings. I would see all my friends and family again, and I would find delicious food and wine on the table. However, Paris would still be crowded, polluted and far from the ocean. I may have stayed only 2 years in Scotland, but it was enough time to make good friends and feel at home diving its west coast. 10 days after I landed with all my stuff at Paris-CDG Airport, I was invited to leave the French Capital the time of a weekend to visit the sunny French Riviera.
Even if I had visited a large area of my home country in the past, Toulon had never been on my itinerary. “Ugly industrial port”. This is what I thought it would look like. It was until I had a private guide for myself to show me the most beautiful spots of Toulon above and underwater. It worked a little too well I guess as Toulon became visit after visit my scuba diving base in France. Let me show you why.
Wandering around the Provence style old town
It was my first surprise. Behind the modern buildings that enclose the main harbour, there is an old Provence style town, similar to Marseille. Here are the places I like the most in Toulon town centre:
- Opera Square: The opera is the most elegant building in town. The cafés of the square around it might be one of the most enjoyable places to sip a drink. Don’t miss looking up, on your right, to the mural. It’s a tribute to one of a famous Toulon-born actor, Raimu, playing the most celebrated writer from Provence, Marcel Pagnol.
- Lafayette Avenue: Recently renovated, this long avenue is where the morning food market takes place every morning. Expect mouth-watering flavours from Provence, Italy and Northern Africa.
- Liberty Square: Most of the time, nothing special is going on, but a few times a year; this is where you will find the local rugby fans celebrating the victory of their beloved RCT team! I like the way this elegant square looks, so perfectly aligned, with an impressive statue representing the French Republic at the centre of a fountain.
Beyond these landmarks, don’t hesitate to get lost in the narrow streets of the old town to discover here and there a fountain, another intriguing statue or a tiny square with olive trees. You don’t want to miss the most interesting sights in town? Just follow the golden arrows on the pavement.
Learning about the largest Navy base in Europe
Thanks to Saint-Mandrier Peninsula, the bay of Toulon is a natural harbour where ships can always shelter in any condition. Before visiting Toulon, I was unaware it was such a huge Navy base. Today, it is the largest in the European Union and the home base of the enormous Charles-de-Gaulle aircraft carrier.
The navy base is of course not open to the public, but here are two ways you can learn more about it and its history from its creation by Richelieu in 1631. Make sure you get the combo ticket for the two activities below to save some money. You can also buy a ticket for one on a day and with the receipt, get the discount for the other on another day:
- Going on a Toulon Bay boat tour: The 1-hour boat tour goes all around the bay from the main harbour of Toulon to La Seyne-Sur-Mer and Saint-Mandrier. The guide gives many details about all the different Navy ships that are present at the time of the tour. In my case, I saw the giant Charles-de-Gaulle aircraft carrier and a few stealth ships. Comments are only in French, but they can provide you with the comments written in English. More information: www.lesbateliersdelarade.com
- Visiting the National Navy Museum: Just 5 minutes walking from the main harbour, you can learn all the history from the ancient Roman port of Telo to its modern development. Their collection of ship models and figureheads was my favourite part of the exhibition. I also liked the section dedicated to what happened during WWII and why Toulon Bay could be considered as the French Scapa Flow. More information: www.musee-marine.fr
Scuba diving in some of France’s best dive sites
From Toulon Centre, there two large diving playgrounds scuba divers can enjoy. You only need a 30-minute drive to reach each diving centre, which can also be reached by public transportation in about the same time:
- Saint-Mandrier Peninsula: it includes famous dive sites such like the Arroyo shipwreck and the “Two Brothers” (“Les Deux Frères”), a dive site made of two twin rocks loaded with marine life. The area around the peninsula also includes plane wrecks from WWII with many other shipwrecks.
- The Gold Islands: From Hyères, you can access to the marine protected area of Port-Cros and Porquerolles. This National Park was the first Marine Park in France to be established in 1963. The islands of Porquerolles and Port-Cros offer some of the best dive sites in France. “La Gabinière” (or “La Gab” if you want to call it as the locals do) is a dive site of Port-Cros Island, famous for its population of friendly but shy groupers. It is often said the best dive site in France. The area between Port-Cros and Porquerolles islands is also the home of two fantastic shipwrecks, the “Grec” and the “Donator”; the latter is, unfortunately, resting deeper than the maximum recreational depth.
I have started a series of blog posts detailing all the best diving you can do in Var, the region of Toulon. I will undoubtedly write more, but here are the first ones:
Hiking natural sites with breathtaking views
Nature is all around the city: if as a scuba diver I can enjoy fantastic underwater spots, the inland also offers many beautiful places for outdoors lovers. Here are two fabulous places perfect for a short hike that will add nature to your program.
- Mount Faron (“Mont Faron”) is to Toulon what Table Mountain is to Capetown. It is easily accessible by car or by cable car from the city centre. Many easy hiking trails start from the upper cable car station. You walk on rocky and dusty paths through pine trees until you reach some of the best views of Toulon Bay, looking at it from its inner side.
- Cape Sicié (“Cap Sicié”) is a bit further west in Six-Fours-Les-Plages, about 40 minute driving from Toulon. Depending on the trail you choose (please check the map at the entrances, forget about Google map, seriously, I tried to rely on it, and I got lost), it can be a nice little walk or serious hiking including climbing steep rocky paths. In all cases, the view of the outer side of Toulon Bay, Saint-Mandrier Peninsula, The Two Brothers rocks, and Hyères Peninsula is just fabulous. The higher you climb, the further you’ll see.
Sunbathing at the Mourillon beaches
If you come from the city centre of Toulon, you can either walk for 20 minutes following the cycling path along the harbour or take the bus line 3 which links the two districts in less than 10 minutes. Stop at the Lamalgue bus stop and walk up the Lamalgue street for a quick first look at the charming neighbourhood of Mourillon. After passing bakeries, cheesemongers, flower shops and cafes on small plane trees squares, you will find at the end of the street, the Mourillon Beaches. They are artificial beaches in a multi-activity park with cafés and restaurants all along but, the city rehabilitation project from the 1980s is a success. The ability to enjoy going to the beach in the middle of the city reminds me of Barcelona.
The Mourillon district is where you have the most chances to meet me since this is where I live when I am in the south of France. I love its small village feeling. If you are looking for a place to chill for breakfast, brunch, ice cream break or dinner, I think this is the most beautiful area in town. Here are my favourite addresses:
- BloemGracht: the best brunch in town with their mouth-watering plates starting from 10€ – 128 Rue Auffan, Toulon
- Côté Jardin: a quiet place to read a book in the shade of the bougainvillea while sipping a coffee and overlooking the sea, besides, they have free wifi! – 437 Littoral Frédéric Mistral, Toulon
- Les Roses des glaces: nothing better than a scoop of their homemade organic ice-cream in the heat of the summer, I love the melon sorbet, 1 scoop 2,90€ – 25 Rue Lamalgue, Toulon
- Le Petit Sud: The place to sip a cocktail at “apéro” at sunset with your feet in the sand and lounge music in the background – Anse Mistral, Toulon
I haven’t stayed at any hotel yet in Toulon since I have a home at friends’ every time I’m in town, but Mourillon neighbourhood is definitely my recommended place to stay if you decide to spend a few days in Toulon. I had a look on booking.com and found these excellent options:
- If you have a comfortable budget, the Best Western Plus La Corniche is your best option. The stylish 4 star boutique hotel has a stunning sea view and is only a few minutes walking to the Mourillon beaches.
- If you on a budget, your only option in Mourillon neighbourhood will be to rent a flat. I have found this budget studio starting at 42€ a night and this quirky one bedroom flat with a terrace starting at 60€ a night.
How to go to Toulon from Paris?
There are several ways to come to Toulon, but the best is to take the TGV high-speed train from Paris-Gare de Lyon train station. I love taking the train. The 4 hours of the journey give me enough time to work on my blog, I can dive both days of a weekend if I want as I’m not flying back and it is more eco-friendly.
One big tip is to book as early as possible, the earliest being 3 months in advance. If you can try to avoid weekends as many French people use TGV to travel around France, trains tend to be full, so prices are higher. During the week you can get the best deals but avoid the early mornings and late afternoons as they are the favourite times for business travellers. You can grab great deals with the Ouigo trains (the low-cost brand of TGV) for as little as 15€ if you are willing to travel at off-peak times such as Tuesday or Wednesday around noon.
Once you arrive at Toulon train station, the Mistral buses can take you all around Toulon and even as far as Hyères.
Line 3 goes to Mourillon beaches and Line 102 links Toulon train station with Toulon Airport which is actually in Hyères. I take the latter to go diving from Hyères, and it takes only 30 minutes. A bus ticket cost 1,40€ for 1 hour with a connection. To go to Saint-Mandrier, the easiest way is to take the Mistral shuttle boat for only 2€. You can also buy a 10 bus ride card for 10€, and you can share it with your friends, or a day ticket for 7,50€ which includes unlimited rides on the bus and boats, and the cable car to Mount Faron.
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