The city of Albi had been calling me for a number of years and, despite staying only a couple of hours away at Olonzac on numerous occasions, I still hadn’t visited. A three-day road trip from Toulouse to Albi via the villages of the Tarn and Tarn-et-Garonne departments meant I could finally tick Albi off my must-visit list.
We arrived late morning on a warm summer’s day after our drive from Montricoux and immediately fell in love with the city. With a population of around 60,000, Albi is the principal town in the southern French department of Tarn but as we wandered through cobblestone streets of the medieval quarter, we noticed a very relaxed feel to it.
Many of Albi's buildings are built from a lovely red-hued brick, similar to the pink-hued buildings that we had admired in Toulouse. Perhaps that’s why it felt so familiar.
All of the main Albi attractions are within the historic centre of what was once a walled town, with the massive Cathedrale Ste-Cecile taking pride of place. After grabbing a city map from the very helpful Tourist Office (adjacent to the main square), we set off to find the best things to do in Albi.
It seemed the right thing to do to start with a visit to the magnificent Albi Cathedral – after all, the 78-metre bell tower can be seen from all over the city.
Built in the wake of the Cathar Crusade in the 13th century, and under construction for some 200 years, the Albi Cathedral was originally a fortress to protect against invading crusaders. Today, it serves as the seat of Roman Catholicism in Albi and it leaves no doubt that the church’s hierarchy were making a statement about the power that they held in the Middle Ages.
Given its enormous size, some claim that the cathedral is the largest brick building in the world. It is certainly imposing and was classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2010.
The somewhat austere exterior of the cathedral does its interior no justice. Hand-sculpted wooden carvings adorn rows, chapels are set with stained glass, and the ceilings are bursting with colours and delicately carved trusses set into the vaulted ceilings high above.
If you don’t have a tour guide, the audio guide will allow you to circle through the enormous cathedral at a pace all your own, so that you can take in the wonders of this stunning architectural masterpiece and learn its secrets at the same time.
Opening hours: Albi Cathedrale is open daily from 9am to 6.30pm. Entry is free.
Next to the Cathedral, and house inside the Berbie Palace (Bishops’ Palace), is the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum, our next port of call.
The museum is dedicated to showcasing and preserving the works of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, an Impressionist painter born near Albi and features the largest collection of Toulouse-Lautrec's works in the world.
Whether or not you’re an art enthusiast, the museum is worth a visit.
Toulouse-Lautrec is probably most famous for his Moulin Rouge posters but these play just a small part in the works on display. Drawings and paintings inspired by the artist’s family life, including his first and last works, can be admired.
Set inside a restored brick building complete with vaulted ceilings, it’s easy to lose yourself in history as you look at snapshots of French life through the eyes of a troubled painter.
We spent about an hour browsing in the museum but if you want to learn more about Toulouse-Lautrec's art, guided tours are available.
Opening hours: The museum’s opening hours vary throughout the year but it is generally open from at least 10am to 5.30pm (sometimes with a two-hour midday closure). Check the opening times for your visit HERE. Entry fees are around €9 per adult (children up to 13 years are free).
The building in which the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum and the Tourist Office is housed, the Berbie Palace, is not only beautiful it is also classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Construction of the Berbie Palace began in 1282 under the orders of bishop Bernard de Castanet, and finished in the late 13th century, as a completed bishop’s palace greatly resembling a fortress. Today it is one of the best preserved episcopal palaces in France.
Alongside the palace walls, and overlooking the River Tarn, you'll find the magnificent palace gardens which I highly recommend you visit.
Mirroring the style of gardens at the Palais de Versailles outside of Paris (though on a smaller scale), the beautifully manicured gardens with their mass of green contrast perfectly with the warm, earthy tones of the palace walls.
Elevated walkways around three sides of the garden provide panoramic views over the River Tarn and back to the Berbie Palace.
Opening hours: The Palace gardens are open every day from 8am to 7pm. Entry is free.
Having admired it from the Berbie Palace gardens, it was time to aquaint ourselves with another of Albi’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the Pont Vieux (Old Bridge). Dating back to 1040 AD, the bridge was originally built in order to accommodate growing trade business and a booming economy.
It sits on eight arches to hold the weight of the building materials - stone covered with brick - and is one of the most photographed structures in Albi.
The views of the River Tarn and the bridge from the Cathedral side of town are lovely but are perhaps even better from the other side of the river.
A footpath with designated viewing spots is well signposted (Pont Vue) when you cross the bridge and there are ample opportunities to capture the arches of the bridge with the Cathedral and Berbie Palace in the background in your photos.
TIP: A less well-known viewing spot is not signposted but worth checking out. After crossing the bridge, turn left on Rue du Tendat and walk to the end of the street. From here, you look across the river directly at the Berbie Palace.
Albi's Covered Market
After revelling in the beauty of Albi and absorbing so much history, you’ll probably be hungary. Fortunately, Albi has a wonderful fresh food market.
If perusing through vendors’ carts, picking fresh produce, and chatting with locals is something you love to do while travelling, don’t miss out on this large indoor market.
There’s something for everyone among the endless selection of cured French cheeses, fresh fruits and vegetables, fresh-caught seafood, farm-raised poultry and warm crusty breads.
Located not far from the Toulouse-Lautrec museum on Rue Emile Grand, the market makes a perfect lunch stop between the city’s top attractions or a good spot to stock on provisions for a yummy outdoor picnic along the river.
Opening hours: Albi’s Covered Market is open daily except Mondays from 7am to 2pm.
The Collegiate Church and Cloister Saint-Salvi
Dedicated to Albi’s first Bishop, Saint-Salvi, the Collégiale is a collegiate church, managed by a body of secular clergy offering daily prayer and worship.
One of the oldest buildings in the city (it was built in the 6th century), the Collegiate Church was largely destroyed during the French Revolution in 1776, and as such only the south tower of the cloister remains.
Despite this, the blend of Romantic and Gothic styles in the remaining wings of the structure seems to blend seamlessly, thanks to the use of both stone and brick together.
An intimate and quiet reprieve from the rest of the city, this is a beautiful and serene place to rest your weary feet, even if only for a few minutes.
Opening hours: The Collegiate and Cloister are open daily but hours vary depending on the day of the week. Check times HERE.
If you’ve had your fill of museums and churches and want to escape the heat and the crowds for a little while, relief is close by.
Just a 15-minute walk from the Cathedral, Parc Rochegude is a haven of greenery bursting with blooms, carefully tended shrubbery, and perfectly symmetrical garden pathways.
Consisting of different garden styles including both French and English gardens and lawns, there’s also a bird island and small ponds of koi and carp. The park is also home to over 85 different species of established trees, making this a real haven of calm in the city.
Restaurants and cafés line the main streets outside the park, so whilst you’re losing yourself in this calming oasis, your next meal or cold drink isn’t too far away.
Opening hours: Parc Rochegude is open daily from 8am to 6pm (until 8pm from May to September).
Albi's Old Town
Don’t leave Albi without a wander around the narrow cobblestone streets around the Cathedral/Palace complex. These mostly-pedestrian-only streets are brimming with charming buildings is varying shades of red, and now house shops, cafes and restaurants.
Where is Albi?
Albi is located in the southern French region of Occitanie, and is the capital of the Tarn department. It is 700 kilometres south of Paris, 287 kilometres south east of Bordeaux, and 76 kilometres north east of Toulouse.
How to get to Albi?
Albi is a major centre in southern France and is well connected by the excellent road network. Even if you don't plan on staying overnight, a day trip from Toulouse to Albi or a day trip from Carcassonne to Albi is a great way to see the city. Both Toulouse and Carcassonne are less than two hours from Albi.
If you don't have your own car, it is still easy to get to Albi as the city is served by frequent trains from all over France.
Where to stay in Albi
There's a good range of accommodation to suit all budgets but two of the best hotels in Albi are Hotel Alchimy (click here to check prices) and The Hostellerie du Grand Saint Antoine (check prices here).
For more accommodation in Albi, click this link.
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