The South of France is a dream vacation spot with its sparkling beaches, relaxed culture and comfortable weather. For locals, the dream lives on — once the art of navigating tourists is learned. But nestled along the coast is one of the French Riviera’s best-kept secrets: Toulon, France.
The rugged landscape of Provence surrounds easy-going Toulon, perched on France’s Mediterranean coast. Its harbor, said to be one of the most beautiful in Europe, is France’s principal naval port and is home to dry docks, shipyards and fishing boats. It is also a popular port stop for cruise lines.
Because it’s not as well-known as Nice, Saint-Tropez and other French Riviera hot spots, it doesn’t attract as many visitors. Fewer ex-pats live in Toulon, which had a population of more than 180,000 (as of 2020).
The Vibe in Toulon
Toulon offers the bustle of a busy French port and the quiet of a laid-back lifestyle focused on the Mediterranean. Residents are never more than a short walk or drive to picturesque beaches and water sports. Boating enthusiasts will enjoy the maritime artifacts at the Musée National de la Marine—one of the port’s few buildings that survived the Allied bombing in World War II—and admire the different vessels docked in the bay. You might even catch a glimpse of the Charles de Gaulle, France’s flagship aircraft carrier. January temperatures in Toulon average 50 degrees Fahrenheit; in summer, temperatures are in the 70s.
How the Locals Live in Toulon
Arsenal de Toulon: The naval base, the largest in the Mediterranean, covers more than 660 acres and is home to almost 12,000 workers. It is not open to the public but can be seen from tour boats on the bay.
Cathédrale de Notre-Dame-de-la-Seds: Construction began on the towering Catholic cathedral, a national monument, in the 11th century. Its main features include a 118-foot clock tower and a Baroque-style altar.
La Tour Royale: The 16th century fort was built to defend the entrance to the port of Toulon. It’s now used in the summer as a venue for cultural events.
Mont Faron: A cable car quickly whisks visitors to the 1,900-foot summit, which offers panoramic views of the bay and surrounding countryside, picnic areas and paths for walking and hiking.
Stade Mayol: Most rugby matches in Toulon happen at the Stade Mayol, a multi-purpose stadium that holds as many as 17,500 people;
Dining and Shopping
Seafood is the cuisine of choice in Toulon, but the city does offer a diverse mix of cafes and restaurants. You’ll find traditional French and vegan restaurants in La Rue des Arts. The pedestrian street is home to arts and crafts shops, studios, galleries and artisan jewelers.
The Cours Lafayette market is another good place to eat and shop. The outdoor market sells fresh produce, meats, cheeses, flowers, clothing and accessories.
Need to Know
The Toulon–Hyères Airport is less than 30 minutes by car from Toulon. For international flights, the Marseille Provence Airport is an hour’s drive. The Gare de Toulon railway station has service to Marseille, Nice and Paris, while a train ride to the nearby beach town of La Seyne-sur-Mer takes only 25 minutes. Reseau Mistral operates passenger bus and boat routes to and from Toulon. Most residents drive in Toulon. If you want a weekend escape, Marseille is less than an hour by car. You can also drive for 1½ hours to visit Saint-Tropez and other cities east of Toulon.
Toulon offers a good mix of formal and vocational education for students. Some of the area’s high schools include the Institution Notre Dame Toulon, Lycée Régional Parc Saint-Jean and Lycée Dumont d’Urville.The Conservatoire TPM teaches dance, music and performing arts. An art academy, the École Supérieure d’Art et de Design Toulon Provence Méditerranée, offers a three-year course in design and a five-year art course. The University of Toulon offers degrees in four fields of study: art, literature and languages; law, economics and management; humanities and social sciences; sciences, technology and health.