In the Tarn Department in southwestern France, the city of Albi’s calling card is its architecture made from red brick. This material seems to change colour depending on the light or time of day and permeates the six quarters of Albi’s sizeable historic centre. The red-brick showpiece is the Episcopal City, a fortified cathedral complex steeped in medieval history.
This bastion of Catholic power was the base for the bloodthirsty 13th-century Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars, and still looks like it’s ready for war. If your idea of the perfect city break means specialist museums, historic monuments and animated old city streets Albi is well worth looking into.
Lets explore the best things to do in Albi:
1. Albi Cathedral
This hulking cathedral was erected in the 13th-century, on the back of the Albigensian Crusade that crushed the Cathar sect.
The building was meant to convey the authority of the Catholic church and this fearsome edifice does that successfully even now.
Building material for this sort of project doesn’t occur naturally around Albi, so bricks were used instead.
If the outside is threatening, the interior is extravagant, with the largest and earliest set of Italian renaissance frescos in France in the high vaults.
The choir is stunning too, and rare because it still has its ornate filigree roodscreen, a barrier separating the clerical elite from common worshippers.
2. Musée Toulouse-Lautrec
Chances are that you know the work of the 19th-century artist and illustrator Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec even if you don’t know the name.
This post-impressionist recorded the glamour and seedy underbelly of Belle Époque Paris and his paintings often appear on posters for the Moulin Rouge.
The museum, in the refined surrounds of Albi’s medieval Palace de la Berbie (episcopal palace), is the largest cache of Toulouse-Lautec’s work in the world, boasting more than a thousand pieces.
Complementing these collections are paintings by some of his contemporaries, like Pierre Bonnard, Henri Matisse and Maurice Denis.
3. Jardins de la Berbie
Once you’ve finished in the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum come for a dignified amble above the formal gardens slotted between the Palace de la Berbie and the left bank of the Tarn River.
The terrace high above the water is the perfect vantage point from which to admire the immense cathedral and its outer structures.
But you can also gaze across the Tarn at the northern districts of Albi and the gorgeous bridges spanning the river.
And of course you can contemplate the flower beds and topiaries in the gardens, which are set off by the muscular walls of the episcopal palace.
4. Pont Vieux
There’s no grander entrance to the Episcopal City than via this 150-metre 11th-century bridge.
Pont Vieux is one of France’s oldest bridges still in everyday use.
Like the rest of the cathedral complex the bridge belongs to the UNESCO World Heritage Site.
But the allure lies in the views and photo opportunities of the cathedral and the Tarn.
Unlike the buildings in the Episcopal City the bridge is made of stone, and only has a brick cladding that was added in the 19th century.
5. Historic Centre
Albi is rightly proud of its central old quarter and has devised three different routes to see every nook and cranny.
The centre is divided into six distinct neighbourhoods, each with a different personality.
Castelnau for example is where Albi’s most affluent medieval citizens resided, just south of the cathedral and where Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s family home is set.
Saint-Salvi on the other hand was a district of commerce, with street names like Payrolaria (coppersmiths) hinting at the workshops that used to be here.
There’s also an assortment of fine renaissance townhouses for rich merchants in Saint-Salvi.
6. Collégiale Saint-Salvi
Overshadowed in more ways than one by its near neighbour the cathedral, this marvellous church is also worthy of a visit and is part of the World Heritage Site.
The architecture is very composite as work was halted for during the Albigensian Crusade.
What you’re met with is a striking melange of Romanesque and Gothic, pale stone and dark red brick.
If you’re pushed for time, head straight for the cloister, which has a sequence of Romanesque and Gothic capitals on the south gallery.
These arches give way to a kitchen garden of the kind that would have fed the clergy centuries ago.
7. Musée de la Mode
A quick jaunt from the cathedral is an exquisite assortment of couture assembled by a private collector over 25 years.
The location alone merits your attention, as the museum is housed in what used to be the Convent of the Annunciation.
There are traces as old as the 12th century, and lots of eye-catching features like painted ceilings, spiral stairways and carved wooden doors.
And about the fashion: There are thousands of opulent dresses and accessories from the 1700s up to the 1970s, all beautifully presented.
Every year there’s a new themed exhibition to check out, so no two visits will be the same.
8. Musée Lapérouse
An 18th-century son of Albi is honoured by this museum next to the Tarn and a short hop from the Pont Vieux.
The venue is Albi’s former pasta-making mills, which are from the 1850s but adapted to a building that goes back to the 1600s.
Jean-François de Galaup was an explorer and naval officer, most famous for an ill-fated expedition around the world in 1785 that ended in unexplained circumstances at Vanikiro in the Solomon Islands in 1788. The museum is a treasure chest of nautical artefacts from the era, among them paintings, uniforms, map, navigational instruments, weapons and compelling finds recovered from Lapérouse’s shipwreck .
9. River Tarn
One of the three loops devised by Albi’s tourist office will send you off on a short tour of the Tarn’s riverbanks.
The right bank has a different character to the Episcopal City, with its old warehouses and mills that have all been converted into cultural attractions or stylish hotels.
The view back across the river at the Palais de la Berbie and the Cathedral is one you won’t soon forget.
“Les Copains d’Abord” and “L’hirondelle” are two flat-bottomed barges that glide along the river from June to September and present the city from a new point of view.
Hop aboard at the quay just below the Palais de la Berbie.
10. Centre d’Art de LAIT
In the old flour mills on the right bank of the Tarn is this exhibition hall and contemporary art studio.
Artists have been creating works specifically to be displayed in this atmospheric industrial space since it opened in 1989. There’s no permanent exhibition , but there’s a lively schedule of workshops, talks and temporary shows, so you might be in for an unexpected feast of modern art when you’re in town.
The mill’s garden terraces are also special as they look out over the river across to the Episcopal City.
11. Hôtel de Reynès
On Rue de Timbal is possibly the finest renaissance house in Albi.
The Hôtel de Reynès was built for the family of Roger Reynès which made its fortune in the woad dye business.
It was finished in 1530 and was one of the first mansions in the city to be constructed without timbers, instead using bricks for the main material with stone for quoins and window frames.
If the door is open take a quick look inside the courtyard, which has a loggia gallery connecting to an older 14th-century tower, as well as 16th-century busts of King Francis I and his second wife Eleanor of Austria.
12. Musée-Mine de Cagnac-les-Mines
A few minutes to the north of Albi is what used to be a coal mining community.
A few years after the mine was shut down for good it was resurrected with all of its buildings and machinery in place.
Now it’s the last testament to the Tarn Department’s once crucial mining industry, opening a window on both the technical and social side of an industry that helped France get back on its feet after the war.
You’ll get to go down in the lift to find 350 metres of galleries with tools to illustrate what it was like to make a living in the mines.
13. Académie Des Miniatures
Across the Pont Vieux on the right bank of the Tarn is a recently opened museum that stands as a 40-year labour of love by the artist Annie Jaurès.
Now in her 80s, she has painstakingly crafted 34 amazing vignettes at a 1/7 scale.
Many of these recreate the interiors of an opulently decorated 19th -century mansion, while others are old-time shops and remembered scenes from Annie Jaurès’ childhood.
If you appreciate miniatures and dollhouses you’ll be staggered by the attention to detail and the faithful representation of period design.
14. La Maison du Vieil Alby
The historic Castelnau district has another must-see dwelling, this one among the oldest houses in the city.
At the junction of Rue Croix-Blanche and Puech Bérenguier is the half-timbered Maison du Vieil Alby.
The house is cantilevered so the first floor hangs eccentrically over the street, while the top floor is an open attic that would have been used as a warehouse.
There’s a little exhibit about medieval Albi inside.
A short walk from there to Rue Timbal will take you to Maison Enjelbert, also cheerfully crooked and with symbolic figures carved into its timbers.
Traditional Albigensian food is meaty, generous and uncomplicated: Along those lines is the local “Pot au Feu”, which has sausage, beef, haricot beans and duck confit, and bears a close resemblance to cassoulet.
As with much of southwestern France, duck and goose are often on the menu, while if you visit in spring you’ll be in time for the wild asparagus season.
This vegetable goes best in omelettes or salads.
In winter a warming way to follow up a meal is with croustade aux pommes, a kind of apple pie.