As France’s main naval base, Toulon harbour is home to submarines and warships, fishing boats and ferries. It’s managed to stay pretty and is full of cafés and bars. By the waterfront, the old fishing village of Le Morillon is full of narrow lanes and colourful fishermen's houses. It also has acres of lovely sandy beaches.
The town itself is vibrant; daily markets are awash with fruit and veg fresh from the fields. Flea markets and antique shops provide plenty of local colours. And Toulon does like a festival - Festival de Musique de Toulon is a classical music festival in historic venues and Jazz à Toulon fills the city with free al fresco jazz throughout the summer.
There’s plenty of history here too. The famous Caryatide sculptures at the Hôtel de Ville are definitely worth a look. Or jump aboard the tourist train that chugs from Le Mourillon and passes the 16th-century Tour Royale, an impressive fortified building from the time of Louis XII.
There’s no escaping Mont Faron as it rises majestically behind the city. If you’re not afraid of heights, a cable-car trip to the top is a must. If you are afraid of heights, we say do it anyway. The views will be more than worth it.
Île de Porquerolles
Boat rides from the port take you to the Îles d'Or, or golden islands. The largest is Île de Porquerolles, a perfect mix of secluded coves, shady pine forests and snorkelling in the pristine sea. It’s more than just nature though – there are high-end restaurants and a lively jazz festival in July.
As the name might suggest, come here in season and the lavender fields will take your breath away. Sitting at the foot of the Massif des Maures and with 12 kilometres of coastline, divers are especially drawn to the rich marine life and crystal clear waters.
Named after the tamarisks that grow here, Tamaris is a popular resort with a lovely harbour. Above it stands Fort Napoléon, built for the Emperor but never used in battle. Today, it houses an art gallery and is a venue for a jazz festival and a Cuban dance and festival. Behind the fort is a beautiful coastal strip that boasts miles of sandy beaches.
The impressive Mont Faron literally cannot be missed. You could drive to the top, but we think it’s more fun to take the cable car. If you’re feeling energetic, you can also hike the 548 metres to the summit. In the unlikely event you should tire of the views from the top, there are restaurants, a zoo, pleasure gardens and even a museum up there to keep you occupied.
Toulon is famous for its markets. The biggest and best is held on Cours Lafayette every morning except Mondays, a jumble of stalls piled high with fruits, vegetables, cheeses, flowers and Provençal textiles. The locals will all be here, getting their supplies for the day. There’s also a farmers’ market at Petit Cours, and the Morillion market near the port is alive with fresh fish and weathered fishermen.
Musée de la Marine
Toulon is all about the sea. Discover its history at this waterfront museum devoted to all things maritime. From Roman times to its travails in the second world war, the story of Toulon is intertwined with that of French naval warfare.
A wander through the streets will give you a good idea of what to expect in the restaurants. Scents of thyme, rosemary and olives hang in the air. Food is simple, fresh and rustic. Think tapenade with bread washed down with local rosé. Fresh seafood abounds. Try out cade toulonnaise, a speciality made from chickpea flour. Follow it up with chichi Frégi, a traditional local doughnut.
If you’re really hungry, it’s time for a ‘smash’ sandwich from a street seller. A variation on the theme of a hamburger in a Panini with whatever extras you want – often with French fries included in the sandwich. Should keep you going for a while. This is Provence, so the wines are top quality, plentiful and great value.
In keeping with the Provencal pace of life, the best food is to be had at the little pavement cafes and bars, perhaps beside a fountain or a square. You’ll get delicious seafood at almost every stop. There’s plenty of choices, many with amazing views of the harbour and the Mediterranean.
Toulon may not be as well known as its coastal neighbours, but it’s got a lot going for it. A busy working town that is also an engaging resort, there is plenty to keep families, couples and single travellers entertained.
Once you’re finished in the bustling markets, the aptly-named golden islands offer a tranquil contrast. Or there’s fresh air filled with the scents of lavender and thyme in the surrounding countryside and hills. And this place is a haven for jazz lovers, with events both in the city and surrounding areas pretty much the whole summer long.
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