With a massive natural harbour protected by the peninsula of Saint Mandrier and defended from the north by the colossal Mont Faron, Toulon was made to be a port. The French navy has been based at Toulon for more than 500 years, while the Ancient Greeks were the first to realise the value of this favourable anchorage.
So many of your activities will have a maritime theme; seeing the aircraft carrier and warships in the port, and submerging yourself in military history at the naval museum. Take the cable car to the summit of Mont Faron, to observe the harbour as watchmen did for thousands of years.
Lets explore the best things to do in Toulon:
1. Mont Faron
The hulking 584-metre mountain behind Toulon made it such an attractive harbour in ancient times.
Mont Faron blocked the northwesterly Mistral wind and, being right on the coast, was the ideal lookout post to monitor sea traffic and spot enemy ships.
Nine towers and forts once watched over the bay, remnants of which are still visible up here.
You don’t need to be a mountaineer to reach to the summit, as there’s a cable-car running from a terminal in the north of the city.
You’ll be at the top in six minutes flat, and can fall in love with the view, go for walks on cliff-top tracks and take the little guys to a sanctuary for wild cats.
2. Rade de Toulon
Pick a port ferry or charter and you can embark on a tour of the military harbour, used by the French navy since the 15th century and, along with Brest, the main base for the French fleet.
If you’re a military or history geek then you may want the inside story on a guided tour of the piers of the Baie du Lazare and the historic naval cemetery.
But you could save money by just taking the city ferry from the Gare Maritime to La Seyne and see most of the sights without commentary.
Kids will be wowed by the gigantic ships and the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier.
You’ll also see the fortifications made by the military mastermind Vauban in the 17th century, still in use by the French military today.
3. Musée de la Marine
Add some depth to your French naval knowledge at the museum on the harbour.
You’ll make a grand entry too, as the 18th-century gatehouse to the former arsenal makes up the building’s facade.
This, along with the nearby clock tower, is one of only a couple of buildings to survive the bombardment in the war.
Go inside to browse a riveting hoard of historic model ships, old maps, paintings of the harbour from the 17th and 18th centuries, figureheads from legendary ships like the 80-gun Neptune and a cache of weapons such as canons from the 1600s.
There’s also a gallery with insights and artefacts about the pioneering Gymnote submarine, developed in Toulon in the 1880s.
4. Plages du Mourillon
Just east of the port, the Plages du Mourillon are four contiguous sandy beaches, all flying the Blue Flag and each similar to the next.
They’re all horseshoe-shaped bays, screened by long breakwaters that leave the seas shallow and smooth.
In all there are 15 hectares of sand, a dozen bars and restaurants and enough amusements to occupy littler sun-seekers, with a ball pool, carousel and mini-golf.
If you choose to walk from the centre you shouldn’t need more than 20 minutes to get there, while drivers will be happy to know that there’s a large, totally free car park.
On summer nights there are fireworks displays from Fort Saint-Louis and in mid-August it’s just the place to see aerobatic shows by the Patrouille de France French Air Force team.
5. RC Toulon
In the last few seasons Toulon’s rugby team has arguably been the best club side in the world.
RC Toulon, known as Les Rouge et Noir, won the prestigious Heineken Cup three years in a row from 2013 to 2015 and is always at or near the top of France’s Top 14. This league pays some of the best wages anywhere, so if you come and see a match at the Stade Mayol, right by the harbour, you can be sure you’re seeing some of the best players the game has to offer.
Watch like a true Toulonais, and get one of the cheaper seats in the north or south stands.
You’ll hear their famed Pilou-Pilou rallying cry, and if you’re fortunate you’ll experience the full ire of these fans when bitter rivals Toulouse show up!
6. Musée Mémorial du Débarquement
You can buy a combined ticket with the cable-car for this military museum on a terrace on Mont Faron.
The museum and memorial commemorate the Allied invasion of the coast of Provence on August 15, 1944. If you’re into military history you’ll be riveted by the presentations of the different operations and battlefields around Toulon, elaborated with maps, models and photography.
There’s loads of contemporary uniforms, weapons and field equipment to inspect, and outside there’s hardware, with an American tank and German anti-tank and aircraft guns left behind after the battle.
7. Cours Lafayette
Street markets are a way of life in Provence, and if food provenance means something to you, it will acquaint you with all the local produce and delicacies.
Cours Lafayette is a long pedestrian street stretching down to the harbour and worthy of your time whenever you come.
But on every morning of the week except Monday there’s a market running the length of this street.
Arrive in the morning for a freshly baked pastry and squeezed orange juice, and browse stalls selling seasonal fruit and vegetables, cheese, olives, fish, preserves, local lavender, flowers and herbs.
8. Sentier des Douaniers
Excluding the harbour, Toulon is on a network of coastal walking trails that begins at Six-Fours in the west and continues all the way to Hyères in the east.
This is known as the Sentier des Douaniers, which was laid down in the early 19th-century during the First Empire to make it easier for customs officers to discover smugglers.
By turns you’ll be hoisted up on natural balconies, or descend to craggy coves with crystalline waters.
The 300 hours of sunshine a year in this part of France allows many of the plant species by the path to remain in bloom, even in winter.
Hardcore walkers will want to test their mettle on the gruelling course between Pointe de Cap Vieux and Cap Sicié.
9. Anse Magaud and Anse Méjean
On the Sentier des Douaniers is a pair of small coves with a blend of sand shingle.
The walls of the fishing cottages come right down to the beach, and behind them are steep rocks with cypresses, palms and pine trees.
Furthest from Toulon is Anse Magaud, a snorkeller’s paradise as a cluster of large rocks in the middle of the cove form a natural barrier to currents and conceal lots of underwater life.
Lunch is taken care of at the restaurant on the headland dividing the two coves.
10. Place de la Liberté
Toulon’s main square is the city’s transport hub and nerve centre, and warrants a brief stroll or a stop at one of the cafe terraces on the sides.
Holding court over the north side of the square is the neoclassical Grand Hôtel, a stately symbol for Toulon built in 1870. In the Second World War this is where the occupying army were headquartered.
The hotel was converted into apartments in the 90s, and recently the stylish Théâtre Liberté opened on the ground floor.
The fountain is from 1890, representing France, Strength and Justice in marble from nearby Calissane, and celebrating the transport of the Statue of Liberty from France to America in 1886.
11. Génie de la Navigation
Right on the water in the harbour is a portentous marble statue from 1847, emphasising Toulon’s seafaring heritage.
The figure, with an anchor at his feet, has one arm and finger outstretched towards the sea, and is an allegory for the spirit of conquest and the exploration of the deep sea.
The statue’s nickname undercuts some of its grandeur though: “Cul-vers-ville”, which means “bum towards town”, because its exposed buttocks point towards the town hall.
“Cul-vers-ville” is a cheeky pun on the name of Jules Cuverville, a 19th-century naval officer and politician.
12. Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle de Toulon et du Var
You’ll understand why the Var region should have its own natural history museum when you realise the astonishing diversity of animal and plant species around these parts.
The attraction does its best to sum it up, gathering 978 bird specimens and 250 mammals.
This pales in comparison to the entomological collection that boasts 27,000 insects.
And if you’re enthused by palaeontology and anthropology you can study the pterosaur skeleton fossil and range of prehistoric agricultural tools.
Outside in the grounds is the museum’s living botanical collection, listed as a “jardin remarquable” and equally relaxing and informative.
13. Musée des Arts Asiatiques
It makes perfect sense that you should come across a museum of Asian art in a port like Toulon, because generations of sailors and explorers came back from expeditions in southeast Asia, Japan, India and Tibet with all manner of acquisitions.
Another cornerstone of the collection is 473 coins from China, Japan and India donated by a journalist based in Asia in the early 20th century.
Precious items from China and Japan are organised according to their dynasty or period, and the oldest exhibits date to 1520BC.
14. Art Museums
The Musée d’Art has paintings from the 1400s to the present and will introduce you to Provence and Toulon-based artists you may not know.
The most eminent of these is the maritime painter Vincent Courdouan, whose work shows you the drama of Toulon’s harbour in the 1800s.
And if you’re a frequent visitor to Toulon you can call in at the Hôtel des Arts Général-Leclerc and be met by a different and surprisingly illustrious contemporary exhibition every time.
Recent temporary exhibitions have featured Spanish artist Eduardo Arroyo and the French comic illustrator Enki Bilal.
If you do go to the Cours Lafayette market you may be tempted by the smell of a couple of local snacks being cooked by vendors: Cade toulonnaise is a flatbread similar to Nice’s socca, made with chickpea flour and seasoned with salt and pepper.
Another is chichi frégi, a cross between a donut and churro, flavoured with olive oil and orange blossom extract.
If you’re shopping for a gift to take home then lavender honey from the Var will go down well.
And for lunch, bouillabaisse, the fish stew is a speciality, just like daube a braised beef stew made with provençal herbs.