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Sunny, beautiful and delightful: Montpellier is simply one of the loveliest cities in France! It’s easy to fall in love with the historic centre Écusson and the maze of old alleyways and narrow streets, packed with elegant town houses, trendy stores and restaurants. This city in the south of France is an authentic university town with live music on almost every corner and patios that are packed until late at night.
Only the tram has access to the city centre; the historic core of Montpellier is completely free of cars so visitors can peacefully stroll around. The lively heart of the city is Place de la Comédie, a large square that exudes 19th-century glamour and a monumental fountain across from the opera. But the best spots for a drink are found in the fascinating maze of old streets and squares in Écusson.
The best way to explore Montpellier? Dare to get lost! You will stumble across many fabulous surprises, such as Rue de l’Ancien Courrier, a century-old street paved with white marble. Take a side street to reach the charming Place de Saint-Roch, a square with bustling patios set around a neo-Gothic church (a famous stop-over on the way to Santiago de Compostela). This neighbourhood is packed with trendy Mediterranean tapas eateries and wine bars. Another great discovery is Place Saint-Ravy, a tiny square with a few pleasant patios and an old fountain.
A little bit to the north lies the large Place Jean-Jaures, the vibrant heart of student life. Montpellier is home to 70,000 students and half of the city’s residents are under the age of 35. For years young revellers gathered at this square without realising that a forgotten crypt lay right underneath their feet: the Notre-Dame-des-Tables. Today the underground section houses the Musée de l’Histoire. Unlike many other cities in the south of France, Montpellier doesn’t have a Gallic-Roman past. The city was only founded in the Middle Ages. In the 12th century Montpellier was the second most important city in France, in both economic and cultural terms. Founded in the 13th century, the university also contributed greatly to development: Montpellier still boasts an internationally acclaimed medical faculty and the oldest botanical garden in France.
The 17th and 18th centuries were the height of Montpellier’s wealth, when rich merchants built the most luxurious ‘hôtels particuliers’. The gables of these town houses are impressive in themselves, but behind the façades you can find even more beautiful courtyards with spiral staircases and ornate railings. Most can only be visited during a guided tour organised by the Office du Tourisme. But one of the loveliest examples is open to the public: Hôtel de Varennes. This building houses 2 museums. The 18th-century façade of the Musée du Vieux Montpellier hides a much older interior with Gothic arches. You will find more beautiful town houses around Place de la Canourgue, a 17th-century square with a marble fountain and a view of the cathedral. A few streets down, a home owner uncovered one of the oldest Jewish ritual baths in Europe. Looking for the source of a leak, the owner stumbled across a 13th-century ‘mikveh’, a stone bath used in Jewish cleansing rituals.