Toulon doesn’t really have a good reputation as somewhere to visit, in fact, internationally Toulon doesn’t really have a reputation at all, whether good or bad. Despite being the 3rd biggest city in the PACA region and situated mid-way between Marseille and St Tropez most foreign visitors to France, have never heard of it. As for its reputation in France, it’s known for rugby, the Navy and ferries to Corsica but not tourism. So is Toulon worth a visit?
When a friend asked me if I wanted to accompany her to Toulon for the day as she had some business there, I thought why not? I had nothing on that day and decided a little day trip was just the thing. It’s only 1.5 hours from home, an easy and pleasant drive mainly through rosé vineyards and it was a beautiful day. It was time to find out if Toulon is worth a visit.
I’ve technically been to Toulon many times over the years, to see friends who live on the slopes of Mont Faron (photo above) but each time we’d spend hours around the table eating delicious Provençal food, drinking copious amounts of local rosé and playing boules in their shambolic Mediterranean garden.
Sometimes we’d go to a nearby beach, or to the top of Mont Faron for a walk, and once for a boat ride on the harbour, but I’d never actually visited the old town of Toulon, until now. I’d always had the impression it was a drab place, run down and of little interest, but it appears I underestimated Toulon. Perhaps it’s been significantly renovated, or perhaps I just never showed an interest, but I positively enjoyed what I saw of the city on a recent visit.
Toulon Old Town
I happily wandered the narrow car-free alleys of the old town, passing through shady little squares with enticing cafés and plenty of fountains. I discovered passageways and shortcut tunnels between streets, even some interesting murals on the pastel coloured walls. It turns out Toulon, has the 2nd biggest opera house in France after the Palais Garnier in Paris (photo below), something I never expected. I was charmed.
My meanderings eventually took me to the harbour front. I remembered it as being ugly, unsympathetically rebuilt after being bombed in the Second World War. While it’s far from the prettiest harbour around, I’m sure it’s been renovated, the buildings clad with a fresher look, as it now looks quite pleasant. Toulon is really all about its harbour. The natural harbour formed by the Giens peninsula in the east and that of St-Mandrier in the south has meant that Toulon has been used as a port since Antiquity.
The prolific French military architect Vauban created what has become the current naval port during the reign of Louis XIV and it is now the biggest naval base in France, with a vast fleet of warships, submarines, helicopter and aircraft carriers. It is home to the greatest of all French ships, the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, though at the time I visited she (I believe ships are referred to as feminine, yet how can one called Charles de Gaulle be a “she”?!) was on holiday in Singapore, so I didn’t see
This massive military base sits bang in the middle of a busy commercial port, with huge ferries to Corsica and Sardinia, cruise ships, tour boats, tiny local ferries, yachts, pleasure craft, traditional wooden boats and fishing boats all vying for space.
Many of the military craft are in among this, very close in and easy to see which makes for fantastic viewing for anyone into warships and their ilk. And let’s face it, having brought up 2 sons and been surrounded mainly by boys on both sides of the family, French and English, I’ve known enough little boys to reckon there aren’t many who don’t go through a fascinated-with-the-military phase.
Visit the harbour by ferry
So here’s a tip, you can take a tour around the harbour, with guided commentary in French (only) for 14€ per adult, 9€ per child, or you can take a public ferry that zips back and forth across the harbour to La Seyne sur Mer for 2€ While it doesn’t get quite as close to the warships as the tour boat, it gets absolutely close enough to several impressively large vessels and costs a fraction of the price. 2€ gets you an hour which is long enough to go across the bay to La Seyne (25 mins) wait the 5 minutes it takes to unload and load up again and get back to Toulon.
If you want to get off and explore La Seyne then you’ll need to pay another 2€ to come back. If you’re like me and not that bothered by the military side of things then the boat trip is just a lovely blowy way to get a different view of Toulon and the magnificent hills that surround it. Either way, it’s a bargain in my mind.
More maritime heritage
I didn’t have enough time to visit the many forts that surround the harbour, or go into the Maritime Museum which is by all accounts rather good. Its gateway is one of the few buildings that didn’t get destroyed in WWII and is a historic monument in its own right (photo below).
But I’ll be back and will definitely explore more. My stroll around Toulon left me with the feeling that the city doesn’t do nearly enough to market its potential, especially as a destination for people interested in military/naval history and maritime heritage. But then, in these days of mass over-tourism it was rather refreshing to visit a place without the crowds.
To answer my original question is Toulon worth a visit, I’d say a resounding yes! What do you think? Had you heard of Toulon before reading this?
Street Art and Charm in Le Panier Marseille
Discovering the Lovely Provençal Town of Fréjus
Postcards from Aix en Provence
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Thanks for the wonderful blog. I liked the idea of a boat ride and get a different view of Toulon. You inspired me)
Planning a vacation to Toulon in the spring, plan on staying there for a month. Will use Toulon as a home base to explore the French Riviera.
we have visited Toulon a few times to watch the rugby, in the stadium that must have the best views in France …. we have ambled around the old town, bimbled around the harbour and eaten supper in restaurants next to the boats. It may not be the biggest of tourist traps, but we have certainly enjoyed our visits there #allaboutfrance
A good, enjoyable read! A reason, other than a rugby match, to visit Toulon 😉 Thanks for sharing your thoughts!
We drove through Toulon a few years back. I didn’t get overly positive vibes and, as there are so many very pretty places to visit in the area, I’m happy to have seen it through your eyes. I do however like the idea of a 2 euro ‘cruise’…
Such a pretty place but not somewhere we’ve spent any time. The Old Town and harbour look lovely. Thanks so much for sharing on #fearlessfamtrav
Hi Phoebe thanks for the terrific round-up about all the many reasons to visit Toulon. #AllAboutFrance
I have definitely heard of Toulon, I’m guessing because of the rugby! I’ve never been there but will add to my ever extending list. I would also love to visit Corsica. The photos in your post make the town look very inviting!
We went to Toulon but didn’t really enjoy. Maybe we should give it another shot after reading this #fearlwssfamtrav
I’ve never heard of Toulon but my son says he has – they have a rugby team apparently! I love the buildings to the left of the Opera House but agree it’s not the prettiest of harbours.
But it’s a lot better than it used to be! However compared to Honfleur up your way or Cassis down my way, it’s still very ugly!!!
I can never resist a harbour so I’d come to Toulon for sure. That said, I’m fairly certain I’ve visited a couple of times over the years but can remember very little about it. I clearly need to go back again. Thanks so much for sharing on #farawayfiles
It’s not a hugely memorable place, except perhaps for the warships. But it should be better known.
Somewhere else I’ve never visited, although I had heard of it from its Rugby connections. Thanks for sharing Pheobe #AllAboutFrance
Yes it’s a big rugby town. It’s what most non-French know about it.
I love how you answered that question: Is Toulon worth a visit? Definitely. It looks great. I hope I get there soon. #farawayfiles
Combine it with a trip to other parts of Provence Côte d’Azur and you’ll have a great time
I had not heard of Toulon before but thanks so much for sharing!
I remember passing through Toulon many years ago during a holiday in Saint-Mandrier. The city left me unimpressed, to be honest, much like you before your day trip. My 3 boys would love to check out the military ships, of that I’m sure!
It’s hard to imagine a little boy who wouldn’t like the ships isn’t it?
Can’t say that I’ve heard of Toulon before, but it looks like a lovely spot to explore for a couple of days. Port cities are often fun.
Yes I agree, port cities have a lot going for them.
I love port cities and I enjoyed visited Toulon years ago although my memories are rather vague now! My boys (typically!) would love to do the harbour tour so I’ll have to consider a return trip. We took a ferry to Corsica from Savona this summer but Toulon looks far more interesting for children. #fearlessfamtrav
Toulon is the main French port for Corsica ferries. If you go again, book your ferry from there and stay a night. I’m glad you liked your visit to Toulon
These are lovely photos, Phoebe! I especially like the reflection of the boats in the water. And the narrow alleys are enchanting. It looks like yes, Toulon is definitely worth a visit!
Thank you Sharon, the narrow alleyways were especially enchanting as they were so empty compared to so many other nearby towns.
I love this! There’s nothing like discovering a place with low expectations. So many as you say are over crowded & sometimes overrated. I always enjoy being pleasantly surprised when I have no/slow expectations. Thanks for sharing!
So true. I was so pleasantly surprised rather than disappointed which made for a great day out!
Sold! How could you not like a place with cute streets, a hinterland of rosé vines and a harbour choc full of interesting vessels
Put like that Catherine, I have to agree with you.
I hadn’t heard of this location either, and we’ve been exploring this area on the map to plan for a three month trip around the South of France next year. Looks like a good place for a meal stop, but not sure I’d want an overnight there….
I totally agree Jay, I don’t think there’s any need to stay in Toulon, there are plenty of prettier choices. Depending how many are in your party please don’t forget I have a vacation rental in the South of France! I’d love for you to come and stay.
How lovely. We’ve driven by countless times and never stopped. Inspired to now. thank you. kx
It’s always good to have a new place to visit. I hope you enjoy it.
This is a great blogpost, thank you for a good read!
Cheers from Stockholm Sweden 🙂
Thinking about a month in France next year…so thanks for this. I am not familiar with this city and it looks perfect, particularly if it has fewer tourists.
It’s very close to lots of other great places, though I think it’s also just fine for a day trip. My gîte may be just what you’re looking for for your trip next year! Please check us out.
What a surprising and fantastic little city. I love the old architecture and I just want to pack my bags and go explore the city. Thank you for giving me another city to add to the bucket list.
My pleasure Lynnette