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Toulon is located on the southern coast of France, east of Marseille. Until recently, tourists were mainly attracted by the beaches nearby. The dilapidated, dingy, old center did not appeal to many people and the surrounding suburbs with ugly high-rise building even less. Toulon is the home base of the French Navy Mediterranean fleet and that was all. There was really nothing else to say. This all changed in 2002 when Hubert Falco became the city's mayor. He started a renovation program, which revived the historic city center. Large parts were pedestrianized, the Opéra was renovated, Place de la Liberté was revamped and embellished with palm trees, and the buildings in the whore district Le Petit Chicago were also renovated. As a result of this refurbishment, more and more cafés and restaurants open their doors and the vieille ville (also called basse ville, because of its lower location) is enjoyable again.
The pedestrian area starts directly behind the Opéra de Toulon and runs until the harbor. This Opéra is France's second-largest opera house (after Palais Garnier in Paris). It was built in 1860 in the pompous style of Napoleon III's Second Empire. Just southeast of the building lies Place des Trois Dauphins, named after the fountain with three dolphins from the eighteenth century. Nearby lies Place Puget, the heart of the old town with cafés and bars. Victor Hugo lived on this square (at number 5), to perform research for his book Les Misérables. As you may know, at the beginning of the story, the protagonist Jean Valjean is released from the Bagne of Toulon.
Nearby this square lies the Cathédrale Ste-Marie-de-la-Seds with a classical façade from the seventeenth century. Inside it becomes clear that the church dates back much further: Romanesque and Gothic architecture from the eleventh and twelfth centuries. In between the Cours Lafayette and the harbor lies the pink, Baroque church St-François-de-Paule from the eighteenth century.
On this Cours Lafayette, every morning (except on Mondays), a colorful and lively market is held with fresh produce from the Provence. In the afternoon the merchandise changes and you can buy souvenirs and handicrafts. The stores in this street are also worth a visit, just as those along the Rue d'Alger. The Centre Mayol shopping center on the Rue du Mûrier is said to be indispensable for shoppers. In actual fact, it is a regular shopping center, as you can find anywhere in France.
Near the harbor, the Avenue de la République, a busy arterial road with horrendous apartment blocks, encloses the old town. To the west lies the Musée National de la Marine where you can see large mock-ups of naval vessels as well as replicas, paintings, drawings, photos and movies of the French Navy's history. The photo series about the sinking of 77 navy vessels in Toulon's harbor is shocking. This happened in 1942 to prevent the fleet from falling into German hands.
Toulon is situated at the foot of the five-hundred-meter-high Mount Faron. There is a footpath to the top, but you can also reach the top by a cable car which leaves from the Boulevard Admiral Jean-Vence. At the top, next to the zoo, lies the Fort de la Croix with inside the Musée du Débarquement, dedicated to the allied liberation of the Provence in 1944.
Just south of Toulon lies the peninsula of Saint Mandrier. Here you have a beautiful view over the Mediterranean and the southern coast of France. When looking east, you can see the island of Porquerolles. It is an oasis of tranquility; over three quarters of the island is a protected nature reserve. In your rental car you can easily reach the island by driving from Toulon to Hyères and then past the airport to the Giens Peninsula. Here you take the boat to Porquerolles.
Brignoles is located 45 kilometers north of Toulon. It is the Var's wine trade center, but its main attraction, the Abbaye de la Celle from the twelfth century, can be found just outside the city. The abbey was abandoned in the seventeenth century, but has been converted into a hotel in 1945. Here the renowned chef Alain Ducasse owns his Hostellerie de l'Abbaye de la Celle. Delicious food and a comfortable overnight stay, but only for people with a hefty wallet.
There are only a limited number of hotels in Toulon. There are a few over twenty with in total less than a thousand beds. Although Toulon is not (yet) overflown with tourists, given the limited supply, we do recommend booking your hotel room in advance.
There is a large parking garage underneath the Place de la Liberté and a large parking lot near the harbor. You can also park your rental car relatively easily elsewhere around the city center. Paid parking out on the streets is available at those locations that are indicated by a white dotted line on the road. Do not leave any valuables in your car!
The airport is located 23 kilometers east of Toulon, just south of Hyères. By rental car, you can reach Toulon Airport in about twenty minutes via the A570 (Hyères, Saint-Tropez). If you are not in a rush, we recommend taking the nicer route right along the coast.