In Montpellier, there are no well-organized arrondissements as in Paris. While municipal publications divide the city into "cantons", few of its inhabitants are aware of the boundaries of these administrative regions, preferring to orientate themselves by certain well-known quartiers or landmarks. For an overview, it is best to follow Montpellier's own growth and development over the centuries, from the medieval walled city out west to the outlying suburb of the Paillade and south-east to the modern projects that stretch towards the Mediterranean.
The Historic Walled City
The vibrant historic center of the city, referred to as the Ecusson, encapsulates the varied aspects of this diverse city. A pedestrian paradise and a car-owners nightmare, the labyrinth of lanes is a rich storehouse of historic architecture, churches and hidden courtyards as well as diverse shops, bars and restaurants. Of the city walls, the Tour des Pins and the Tour de la Babotte are the sole survivors of twenty-five towers that once encircled the city. The main streets meet around the Prefecture and the covered market, Halles Castellane, while the nearby bars of Place Jean Jaures remain crowded until late into the night. For a more intimate rendezvous, seek out the tiny Place St Ravy or elegant Place de la Canourgue . Alternatively listen to the musicians behind the church of St Roch, or under the soaring spire of St Anne — for many a symbol of the city. If the southern part of the center is well stocked with chic boutiques, art galleries and tourists, don't forget to visit the less frequented streets and alleys of the northern side of the Ecusson. Home to the fortress-like Cathedral St Pierre and once dominated by university faculties, this area is still popular among students. Good bars, restaurants and boutiques can be found here.
Just outside the center lie a number of Montpellier's most distinctive landmarks. Most famous of all is the spacious Place de la Comedie . This pedestrianized square and the nearby leafy Esplanade Charles de Gaulle , are home to numerous cafes, markets and street entertainers. As for culture, the Corum conference center, the historic Opera the Musee Fabre , and many cinemas are also located here. On the other side of the historic center, the Promenade du Peyrou , offers superb views of the city. Frances oldest botanical garden, the Jardin des Plantes , is also in this area.
The increasingly sought-after districts of Beaux-Arts and Boutonnet are situated just north of the Ecusson, and have maintained individual village-like identities despite their inherent diversity. Beaux Arts, home to Montpellier's first Mosque and an active Jewish community, is particularly multicultural. Large bourgeois nineteenth-century properties, modern apartment blocks, narrow terraced housing and leafy suburban residences give it aesthetic variety.
In the nearby district of Les Arceaux regular markets and games of petanque all take place alongside more shady dealings beneath the arches of the St Clement aqueduct , from which the district takes its name. Originally a nineteenth-century working-class district on the outskirts of the city, the network of streets is home to hidden shops and restaurants. The car park at the foot of the Promenade du Peyrou is free during the evenings.
South west of the centre is Figuerolles, a lively quartier arabe where the music, language and aromas evoke the North African roots of many of its residents. Home to one of Montpelliers cheapest markets and numerous inexpensive shops, restaurants and bars, this area is off the tourist trail.
There are many restaurants and bars around the station and the adjacent Rondelet district. Dominated by busy boulevards, the district lacks any distinct identity, but concerts at the Cargo, the Antirouille and the Diagonal Centre cinema, are all popular attractions.
To the north of the central districts lies an agglomeration of hospitals and university faculties, the Hopitaux-Facultes. Further north again are the green spaces of the Bois de Montmaurand , the Zoo de Lunaret and Parc Agropolis. To the West lie the suburban districts of Plan des Quatre Seigneurs and Parc Euromedecine, site of many modern biomedical companies and research institutes. These residential areas are much quieter than the bustling center of town.
Westwards to the banks of the Mosson
The western suburbs of Les Cevennes and La Chambette are characterized by small clusters of flats and spacious villas. The village of Celleneuve enjoys a cinema, shops and bars as well as one of Montpellier's oldest churches, Sainte Croix. By the banks of the Mosson lies the park of the eighteenth-century folly, the Domaine de Mosson , and the 1998 World Cup football stadium, Stade de la Mosson, whose large car park hosts a weekly flea market. Recently linked to the city center by a tramway, La Paillade has a multicultural flavor. Dominated by multicolored tower blocks, this lively district has several cultural, sporting and administrative centers, but there is no real nightlife.
Montpellier seeks the Sea - agenda for the 21st century
Just beyond the central 60s shopping center of the Polygone, the monumental neo-classical Antigone is the 80s response. By the banks of the Lez the recently developed districts of Les Aubes, Port Marianne and Richter are dominated by modern apartment blocks, student halls of residence and University buildings. Nearby, the enormous new Odysseum leisure complex will soon boast around the clock entertainment. Further east, among new business parks and eighteenth-century country retreats like Flaugergues and the Château de la Mogère , stand Domaine Grammont and the Zenith exhibition center. Towards the beaches, the shopping centers, clubs and cinemas of Lattes and Perols attract a mixed crowd.
With a long history, yet young population, Montpellier's bars and restaurants vary in mood and setting. Choose between appetizing local specialties, or if you prefer, Italian, Spanish, Moroccan, and Mediterranean cuisine, which are all particularly well represented here.
If you're tempted by local specialties (goat's or sheep's cheese, cold cuts, shellfish, olives and chestnuts), the Maison de la Lozère is great for rural produce and the Bonne Bouille, for fish.
Lovers of Italian food will appreciate the high class Verdi , Pizza Pizzeta, Pizzeria Sicilia, and the little Maramao . Tapas fans should try La Cueva .
The best of Arabian cuisine is also on offer: try couscous & tajines at Palmier, Regency, and Jardins de Marrakech. Cèdres du Liban and Al Manara are a good spots for Lebanese cuisine.
If you're after a snack, other establishments are both easy and cost-efficient: the Pita Grecque (good sandwiches), the Petit Ogre, Botan Kebab, the Aligot (particularly weekday lunchtimes)... The city's tea rooms offer a pleasant change of scene: try Simple Simon or L'Heure Bleue .
The large student population gathers, especially on Wednesdays and Thursdays, in all its different bars, open until one o'clock (2 o'clock in summer). There's bodega at the Toro Loco, games at the Rebuffy , electronic music at Next and l'Antidote, themed evenings at l'Odyssee. Serious party-goers and casual drinkers alike meet at the Macadam Pub .
Aesthetes will love the town's beautiful squares, and their vestiges of ancient chapels and churches, now destroyed. The Place de la Chapelle Neuve, is home to Chez Marceau, a bistro-style restaurant, and the Vieil Ecu. If you find yourself on Place Candolle check out the friendly Roule Ma Poule . Aperitifs at La Place or tapas at Pepe Carvalho are the order of the day in the charming Place Saint Ravy, with its beautiful fountain. On the squares near Saint Roch, there are a reasonably priced Mediterranean restaurant, La Posada, and the slightly more stylish Sister's Cafe. In the Place du Marche aux fleurs you will love the fresh cuisine at Saleya and the popular bar des Capucins.
You should also explore the original establishments that nestle in the city's suburbs: specialties from North Africa at Cafeteria Boutonnet in Boutonnet; organic food at Quatres Saisons in the Beaux-Arts quarter; more African cuisine at Maquis in rue de la Mediterrannee; the excellent Chinese Cheng Du, specialties from the mountains at the Grenier Savoyard . Figuerolles is also worth a visit. There's the cheap, oriental Mac Khalid; the exotic Port Salengro or the endless pizzas at Repalatin .
Don't forget that the city extends to the banks of the river Lez (Antigone) and to the sea (Port Mariane) where you can also find luxurious restaurants like the Chandelier and Fabrice Guilleux.
Take a trip off the beaten track to some great restaurants on the littoral (at Sète or close to the Etang de Thau for seafood & shellfish) and good inns that are typical of the garrigues region: Chez la Tchèpe, Pressoir de Saint Saturnin.