Montpellier Guide: Planning Your Trip

Montpellier

TripSavvy / Taylor McIntyre 

Montpellier is a bustling and vibrant city in the South of France often overshadowed by its more popular neighbors Marseilles and Nice. However, thanks to its historic architecture, trendy boutiques, sidewalk cafes, and the nearby Mediterranean coast, Montpellier is one of Southern France's most delightful hidden gems. Many of the magnificent squares dotted throughout the city go back centuries, and the university founded in the 13th century is the oldest medical school that's still in operation in the world.

The massive student population gives this medieval city a decidedly young vibe, and there's plenty to enjoy in the city center after spending a day lounging on the beach or trekking around the nearby hills. Montpellier is easy to reach from Paris or Barcelona, and you won't regret adding this city with its belle époque appeal to your itinerary.

Planning Your Trip

  • Best Time to Visit: July and August are the most popular months to visit, but the prices reflect that and the weather can be uncomfortably hot and humid. Visit in the shoulder season of May, June, or September for comfortable beach weather and off-season prices. If you aren't going for the beach, then mild winters and holiday markets make a strong case for visiting in December.
  • Language: French is the language spoken in Montpellier. Within the city center and especially in places frequented by tourists, English is usually spoken as well.
  • Currency: The currency used is the euro, although credit cards are widely accepted.
  • Getting Around: It's easy to walk around the center of Montpellier, but there's a tram available with four lines for getting to outer neighborhoods or nearby villages. There's also a bike-sharing program called Velomagg with docking stations throughout the city that foreigners can also take advantage of.
  • Travel Tip: The easiest way to use one of the Velomagg bikes is to use your chip-enabled credit card to rent a bike directly from one of the stations throughout the city. If your credit card doesn't have a chip, you can call the phone number on the station to pay by phone (English-speaking attendants are available).

Things to Do

Montpellier's historic center, known as the Old Town, is the place to begin. Make your way through the winding streets and discover the delightful little squares you come across by accident. Like many old towns, Montpellier was the subject of much rebuilding and you'll see beautiful 17th- and 18th-century mansions lining the streets. Outside of the city, nature awaits you. Head south and you'll hit the Mediterranean coast with its enviable beaches, or go north and you'll find yourself in the limestone cliffs that define Southern France.

  • On the edge of the Old Town sits La Promenade du Peyrou, a huge open space that's perfect for a stroll or a picnic on one of the city's many sunny days (this Mediterranean town gets an average of 300 days of sunshine a year). The park has an 18th-century aqueduct on one end and its very own Arc de Triomphe on the other, making a perfect backdrop for some very Instagrammable photos. Daily fruit and vegetable markets show off the colors and scents of Southern France, while the Saturday flea market gives visitors the chance to pick up some local artifacts and souvenirs to take home.
  • When you're in the south of France, a day trip to the beach is practically obligatory. The closest beach to Montpellier in Palavas-les-Flots can be reached in 20 minutes by car or in an hour by bike, but that's hardly the only one in the area. L'Espiguette Beach is about 40 minutes from the Montpellier city center by car and is often ranked as one of the most scenic beaches in all of France.
  • Take an excursion into the Occitan countryside with a visit to the nearby village of Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert, a rustic small town nestled in a gorge between limestone mountains that surround Montpellier. The stone houses and ninth-century monastery give this idyllic town an especially romantic feel, and it's a perfect escape to get out of the city and experience the bucolic side of French life.

What to Eat and Drink

If you're a fan of seafood, you'll feel right at home in Montpellier. The local cuisine draws on whatever is freshly caught in the nearby sea, such as mussels, crabs, and various fish that are grilled or used in stews. One of the star dishes of the region, however, is oysters, or huître. You can find them on menus all over the city and they are eaten raw, sometimes with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice or a dash of vinegar.

Even though regions like Bordeaux or Champagne are more internationally known for their wines, the area around Montpellier called Languedoc-Roussillon is actually the biggest wine-producing region in the world. While the area once had a reputation for quantity over quality, local vintners are working to change that status and show off the best of the best in Languedoc-Roussillon. Where other French wines are considered extravagant and even pretentious, around Montpellier they are more modest vin de pays, or "country wines."

Where to Stay

Montpellier has a wide range of accommodations, from budget hotels to upscale lodging. The city is divided into seven distinct districts, and the central district called L'Écusson is generally the best for basing yourself as a tourist. All of the main sites in the city are within easy walking distance, which is also the best way to get around since the entire historical center is car-free and reserved for pedestrians.

Adjacent to L'Écusson is the district of Les Beaux-Arts, a neighborhood with a hip Bohemian vibe and popular with the local student crowd. You'll find plenty of trendy bars, cafes, and bistros throughout the area but still have the most popular tourist attractions within walking or biking distance (or a short tram ride). Since it's not quite the center of the city, prices for homestays or hotels tend to be a bit cheaper in Les Beaux-Arts compared to L'Écusson.

Getting There

The most convenient cities to begin your journey are generally going to be Paris or Barcelona, which always have direct connections to Montpellier. The city does have an airport with direct flights to Paris as well as other major cities around Europe—depending on the season—including Amsterdam, Madrid, and London.

There's also a train station in Montpellier and passengers can book a high-speed train from Paris or from Barcelona, with the total trip time taking about three hours from either city.

Money Saving Tips

  • If you don't mind the long ride, then taking the bus is the cheapest way to get to Montpellier. The bus journey from Barcelona takes nearly five hours while coming from Paris will take at least 10 hours. But if you're booking last-minute tickets then prices for trains or flights may be out of budget, so look at bus tickets for a cheaper alternative.
  • Get an overview of everything there is to see in the city on a free walking tour. It's a convenient and comprehensive way to get an overview of the city, and you're sure to learn more about Montpellier's history than if you were to explore on your own. And since the tour is free, all you have to pay is the gratuity to your guide at the end.
  • Look for a menu du jour in local restaurants at lunchtime, which is typically a prix-fixe menu at a reduced price using whatever is fresh that day. For even better deals, get out of the touristy historic center when you're looking for a restaurant. You'll not only pay less but also find out where the locals eat.
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