The Best of Mediterranean Living in Laidback Toulon, France
By Tuula Rampont
Given its ideal placement along the French Riviera, the coastal city of Toulon in southeastern France provides an idyllic lifestyle for residents and short-term visitors. Away from the hustle-and-bustle of big “resort” towns like Nice, Cannes, and St. Tropez, unassuming Toulon lies a bit off the radar and residents wouldn’t have it any other way.
Known as one of the top naval ports in France, it can be easy to dismiss the city as a military town, but that would be missing out on this affordable city in the fabled South of France. For those who live and work in the city, the secret is already out. They enjoy an easy, laidback lifestyle for which the region is famous.
Since the city is directly on the Mediterranean Sea, you are never more than a short walk or bus ride to Toulon’s picturesque beaches. The principal beaches, in Le Mourillon neighborhood, provide a jumping-off point for water sports like diving and paddle boarding and are also host to the city’s yacht club. Traditional French restaurants and cafés line this stretch of sea and many festivals take place on Le Mourillon’s grassy embankments during the spring and summer months.
Toulon has a thriving art and cultural scene. The historic center is home to the city’s opera house and several theatrical and comic venues—the Theatre Liberté being one of the principal favorites among locals and a great space to watch plays and musical productions. In 2017, Toulon inaugurated La Rue des Arts, also in the historic center. This pedestrian avenue is home to art galleries, artisan jewelry and clothing-makers, and several restaurants and off-beat cafés. You can find traditional French food, vegan and vegetarian options, or different ethnic foods like Thai or Tahitian throughout town.
A mid-size city by U.S. standards, the last census counted Toulon’s population at around 165,000. Easily accessible by train, you can reach Marseille (the second-largest city in France) in 45 minutes, and the charming Provençal city of Aix-en-Provence in about one hour. Toulon shares a small airport with the city of Hyères, about a 15-minute drive east of the city. Flights are mainly focused on French destinations like Paris, but there are an increasing number of European cities being added.
International flights leave from the Marseille airport, which also houses several low-cost European airlines like Ryanair.
For getting around Toulon proper, residents generally use their cars and there is an excellent bus service operated by the Reseau Mistral. This same service operates a “bateau bus”—a ferry which runs between Toulon and the neighboring beach town of La Seyne sur Mer. Visitors can ride the ferry for the price of a bus ticket. A popular walking/cycling trail connects the historic center to the beaches of Le Mourillon and continues up the coast to Hyères city and beyond.
Retire in Toulon, France
The South of France is a retirement haven for anyone dreaming of living a stress-free, laidback lifestyle that centers around the sea and sun. Retirees in Toulon can expect a slow pace of life with a focus on the outdoors and social gatherings. Typical days can include a morning walk along the Mediterranean, followed by a coffee in a seaside café and later a long lunch at a local bistro. Afternoons can be spent meeting up with friends or attending local art, music, or food festivals. Given Toulon’s busy social calendar, there’s always something going on.
There are several groups and clubs for retirees; including walking clubs, book clubs, volunteer groups, and food-centered hobbies. Since France is known for its passion for cuisine, many activities revolve around cooking and learning more about regional wines. The area is famous for rosé wine and several festivals take place every year to celebrate this local favorite. Many retirees enjoy taking food and wine pairing classes and several opportunities exist to learn French-cooking techniques. Wine-tasting is free in France, and with over 20 local vineyards and wineries within in a 15-mile radius, it’s easy to spend your weekends becoming a French-wine expert.
The Toulon train station is walking distance from many points in the city. Expats and retirees find it easy to visit the beach towns which run up and down the coast. The resort-style beach town of Bandol is a 20-minute ride by train, and cozy portside Sanary-sur-Mer is a 10 minutes away. Both are also on the Reseau Mistral bus route.
The cost of retiring in Toulon is a lot less than seaside towns of comparable size along the Mediterranean Sea, which makes it particularly attractive as an expat destination. Since it’s a “working town” and not as well-known as other South-of-France hot spots, there are less expats living in the city but English-speaking groups do exist for newcomers. Another huge draw for retirees in France’s excellent healthcare services known for its comprehensive coverage and ease-of-use.
Lifestyle in Toulon, France
Life in Toulon is lived out-of-doors for most of the year. Visitors and residents can be found at the beach as early as 7 a.m. until the later evening hours—enjoying a dip in the sea or simply relaxing on a lounge chair and taking in the brilliant blues of the Mediterranean. During the summer months, a mobile library van allows residents to pick-up reading material to take back to their beach towels. Yoga and exercise classes take place at Le Mourillon beaches as well. A popular class is “water-trekking”—a slow-paced group class which involves walking from one end of the beach to the other, in the shallow end of the sea.
Residents often meet at the cafés and restaurants along the beach and also at the port of Toulon. Popular spots include La Plage restaurant and Coté Jardin, both along Le Mourillon beaches. For portside dining, La Tortue and Le Grand Café de la Rade are very good options. Food trucks are becoming more and more popular in the city, and wine and sports bars are both found in the trendy Le Mourillon neighborhood.
A daily stop at the outdoor market on Cours Lafayette is a must-do for many residents. Here you can find fresh and local produce (sourced from surrounding farms) and cheese and French deli-products. Small bakeries line the market as well as several organic food shops. There is an outdoor seafood stand which serves lunch daily, as well as an Italian restaurant with homemade pizza and pasta options.
Cost of Living in Toulon
Several affordable real estate opportunities exist in Toulon for individuals interested in renting or buying. The market is far from saturated in comparison to other South-of-France cities along the coast.
Apartments are the cheapest option when considering a move to Toulon. You can rent a furnished, two-bedroom, one-bathroom, 1,000-square-foot apartment for $895 in the center of town. A two-bedroom, one-bathroom, 750-square-foot apartment with a sea view in the Le Mourillon neighborhood will run you about $1,100.
A lot of retirees in the area prefer to buy an apartment, so the choices are plentiful. Apartment buildings line the seaside promenades and even cheaper options are available if you move away from the beach. In the center of Toulon, and in surrounding neighborhoods, you can buy a two-bedroom, one-bathroom, 1,000-square-foot apartment for $180,000 to $210,000. An apartment of the same size near the sea starts at $250,000.
There is also a thriving market for home sales in Toulon. A typical, three-bedroom, two-bathroom, 1,300-square-foot home in a residential neighborhood runs from $350,000 to $420,000.
The benefit of living in a mid-size city like Toulon is the availability of low-cost shopping options across the board. Regular French supermarkets exist, but so do discount chains like Aldi and Lidl. These markets provide excellent value-for-money, and also sell cut-rate home goods—everything from hammers and nails, to sheets and bedding. Average wine prices start at $4 a bottle, with $8 being on the very high end.
And then there is the daily (except Mondays) outdoor market in Toulon. This is where the locals shop for the best deals in town on fruits and vegetables. A head of lettuce is $1.20 and a pound of apples goes for $1.60. At the end of the market day, around 12 p.m., vendors will sometimes offer discounts to get rid of their stock—avocados can sell for three for $2.20 and vegetables can be grouped together to sell as a “lot” for $1-$2 a pound.
For dining options, French bistros exist all around town. For $13 to $15 you can have a three-course meal with a glass of wine. These are hearty meals like steak with fries, sautéed pork and vegetables, or fillet of sea bass and saffron rice. You’ll find a good range of dessert choices like chocolate mousse, crème brûlée, or a lemon tart.
Food trucks sell quick meals on-the-go, including burgers for around $8 and kebabs and French-style tacos for $5.00.
Here are a few examples of basic monthly costs for a couple living in Toulon:
|Rent (Two bedroom apartment)||$800 to $1,100|
|Entertaining and dining out||$300|
|Total||$1,986 to $2,228|
10 Things To Do In Toulon
The city of Toulon, situated along the fabled French Riviera has often been overlooked as a travel destination compared to its more glamorous neighbors, Cannes and St. Tropez. However, in recent years, Toulon has undergone a complete revitalization and is considered a charming detour along the Southern France coastline.
Next to the azure waters of the Mediterranean, you’ll find a thriving arts and restaurant scene, sandy beaches which rival the best of the Côte d’Azur, and a bustling outdoor market dubbed one of the liveliest in Provence. The city also earned the distinction of the “sunniest place in France” in 2016 enjoying around 2,600 hours of sunshine that year.
My guide outlines the 10 things to do on a visit to Toulon and gives a roadmap for visiting this picturesque South-of-France destination.
Spend the day at the Le Mourillon beaches
One of the most attractive things about Toulon is indeed its “off-the-beaten-track” status, so you’ll find a lot of room to set-up your beach towel on the sandy beaches of the Le Mourillon. Located in the eastern part of town, the beaches represent a protected stretch of coastline equipped with restaurants, cafés, and grassy areas for picnics or sports games. Of course the real draw of the area is the stunning views you’ll find of the Mediterranean Sea and the opportunity to do what the French call “far niente”—enjoy a long, lazy day at the beach.
Stroll along the “hidden creeks” of Cap Brun
Located further north from the Le Mourillon beaches are the natural coves and rocky inlets of Cap Brun. This is a popular local walking spot, where a well-marked trail guides you along a gently-sloping footpath. Dotting in and out of secluded coves, you’ll discover perfect spots for sunbathing or taking a dip in the Mediterranean. The trail ends at the Notre Dame du Cap Falcon chapel. This small church, perched high on a hill overlooking the sea, offers exceptional views of the bay of Toulon and, on a clear day, you can see the neighboring island of Porquerolles.
Cruise the bay of Toulon and Porquerolles Island
Often listed as the “most beautiful bay in Europe”, the bay of Toulon can be visited by tour boats departing every hour from the city’s port. Naval fans can opt for a tour of the city’s impressive military sites and naval ships, while nature-lovers can take a day-trip to exquisite Porquerolles Island. The island is about a 15-minute journey from the port and a paradise for beach-goers and sports- enthusiasts alike. Sea activities include diving, snorkeling, fishing, and whale-watching. On land you can rent a bicycle to tour the island’s beaches or grab a glass of rosé wine from Porquerolles’ own winery: Domaine de La Courtade. https://lacourtade.com/
Take a guided tour of the city with Le Petit Train
Le Petit Train is a staple in many French cities and gives travelers the opportunity to learn more about principle sites with a guided tour in English. The tour of Toulon costs around $8, lasts 50 minutes, and covers the historic center of town to the Le Mourillon beaches. You’ll pass several local monuments, like the Opera House which dates from 1862 and St. Francois de Paule church. Other important sites along the route include the Provençal market on Cours Lafayette, the fisherman’s port of St. Louis, and Mayol Stadium—home to Toulon’s renowned rugby team.
Spend an evening at the Toulon Opera
The Toulon Opera is the second-largest opera house in France and is classified as a national historic monument. Fashioned in a neo-classical style, its impressive façade gives way to a charming square surrounded by cafés and restaurants. Visitors can tour the opera house and, if the timing is right, book tickets to see a performance. Reputed for it sumptuous interior and superior acoustics, it’s a favorite with opera fans far and wide.
Shop with the locals at the outdoor Provençal market
The outdoor market on Cours Lafayette is one of the largest, and best-priced, in the region of Provence. The market runs every day except Monday, from 7:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., and is a real feast for the senses. Beyond the traditional market-fare of seasonal fruits and vegetables, you’ll also find food stands, lavender and olive oil soaps, fresh and dried herbs, and flower stalls. Don’t miss the oyster bar and pop-up seafood restaurant at the top-end of the market (dubbed Le Petit Cours) and “The Cade Man” who sells the local specialty of “cade” (a seasoned chickpea flatbread) baked before your eyes in his mobile, stone oven.
Ride a cable car to the top of Faron Mountain
The top of Mont Faron (Faron Mountain) offers sweeping views of the city of Toulon and its bay. Cable car rides depart from the base of the mountain and carry riders to a height of 1,916 feet. Visitors can spend the day taking in the views or enjoying nature along several guided footpaths. Dine on traditional French fare at the La Panoramique restaurant where, true to its name, you’ll enjoy a panoramic view which stretches far along the Riviera.
Explore the “village within the city”, Le Mourillon
Perhaps the nicest neighborhood to live in Toulon is Le Mourillon. Often referred to as a “village within the city”, this area of town is just that—a charming, tucked-away French village with its own outdoor market, boutiques (clothing, shoes, home goods), and an impressive restaurant scene. Spend an afternoon at the market and you can pop-in to any of the neighborhood’s many wine bars for an early happy hour or to nibble on a plate of mixed tapas. Since the beach is just a short walk away, locals enjoy starting the evening with a cocktail by the sea.
Enjoy a long lunch along the port
The French are known for having some of the best food around and often your best travel memories will involve an unforgettable lunch or dinner. The pedestrian-friendly port of Toulon is just such a spot to enjoy a very memorable French meal. There are several mid-range restaurants which serve the freshest catch of the day; including regional South-of-France specialties like bouillabaisse (a seasoned fish stew) and ratatouille (a mix of sautéed, Mediterranean vegetables). Be sure to look for the signs which read: Fait Maison (homemade). Chefs take a lot of pride in shopping locally and preparing everything on-site. Two great restaurants to try are Le Saint Gabriel and La Tortue.
Visit Toulon’s artistic quarter, La Rue des Arts
The city made a huge investment in 2017 to create an artistic quarter in the heart of the historic center. The Rue des Arts includes around 40 art galleries, creative boutiques, artisans, restaurants, and bars, and is a 10-minute walk from the port. Offering everything from abstract paintings to handcrafted jewelry to bespoke tote bags, a stroll down the Rue des Arts will be a memorable stop on your visit of Toulon. A nice way to end your tour is by sampling some artisanal chocolates at Ma Petite Chocolaterie.
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