Toulon is a city in southern France and a large military harbor on the Mediterranean coast, with a major French naval base. Located in the Provence-Alpes-Côte-d'Azur region, Toulon is the capital of the Var department in the former province of Provence.
Toulon is an important centre for naval construction, fishing, wine making, and the manufacture of aeronautical equipment, armaments, maps, paper, tobacco, printing, shoes, and electronic equipment.
Archaeological excavations, such as those at the Cosquer Cave near Marseilles, show that the coast of Provence was inhabited since at least the Paleolithic era. Greek colonists came from Asia Minor in about the 7th century BC and established trading depots along the coast, including one, called Olbia, at Saint-Pierre de l'Almanarre south of Hyères, to the east of Toulon. The Ligurians settled in the area beginning in the 4th century BC.
In the 2nd century BC, the residents of Massalia (present-day Marseilles) called upon the Romans to help them pacify the region. The Romans defeated the Ligurians and began to start their own colonies along the coast. A Roman settlement was founded at the present location of Toulon, with the name Telo Martius – Telo, either for the goddess of springs or from the Latin tol, the base of the hill – and Martius, for the god of war. Telo Martius became one of the two principal Roman dye manufacturing centres, producing the purple colour used in imperial robes, made from the local sea snail called murex, and from the acorns of the oak trees. Toulon harbour became a shelter for trading ships, and the name of the town gradually changed from Telo to Tholon, Tolon, and Toulon.
A Saint Cyprian, disciple and biographer of St. Cæsarius of Arles, is also mentioned as a Bishop of Toulon. His episcopate, begun in 524, had not come to an end in 541; he converted to Catholicism two Visigothic chiefs, Mandrier and Flavian, who became anchorites and martyrs on the peninsula of Mandrier. In 1095, a new cathedral was built in the city by Gilbert, Count of Provence. As barbarians invaded the region and Roman power crumbled, the town was frequently attacked by pirates and the Saracens.
In 1524, as part of his longtime battle against Emperor Charles V and the Holy Roman Empire, King Francis I of France completed a powerful new fort, the Tour Royale, Toulon, at the entrance of the harbour. However, a few months later the commander of the new fort sold it to the commander of an Army of the Holy Roman Empire, and Toulon surrendered.
King Louis XIV was determined to make France a major sea power. In 1660, his Minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert ordered Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban to build a new arsenal and to fortify the town. In 1707, during the War of the Spanish Succession, Toulon successfully resisted a siege by the Imperial Army led by the Duke of Savoy and Prince Eugene. However in 1720, the city was ravaged by the black plague, coming from Marseilles. Thirteen thousand people, or half the population, died.
In 1790, following the French Revolution, Toulon became the administrative centre of the département of the Var. The leaders of the city, however, were largely royalists, and they welcomed the arrival of a British fleet. At the siege of Toulon, the British were expelled by a French force whose artillery was led by a young captain, Napoleon Bonaparte. To punish Toulon for its rebellion, the town lost its status as department capital and was briefly renamed Port-la-Montagne.
In 1820, the statue which became known as the Venus de Milo was discovered on the Greek island of Milo and seen by a French naval officer, Emile Voutier. He persuaded the French Ambassador to Turkey to buy it, and brought it to Toulon on his ship, the Estafette. From Toulon it was taken to the Louvre.
In 1820 Toulon became the base for the conquest of France's colonies in North Africa. In 1820 a French fleet with an army departed from Toulon for the conquest of Algeria.
1849, during the brief Second French Republic, Baron Haussmann was named Prefect of the Var. During his year as prefect, he began a major reconstruction of the city, similar to what he would later do in Paris. He tore down large parts of the old fortifications and built new boulevards and squares. The new Toulon Opera House, the second-largest in France, opened in 1862.
In 1867, on the orders of Napoleon III General François Achille Bazaine arrived in Toulon without an official welcome after abandoning the Mexican military campaign and Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico.
In 1974 Toulon became again the préfecture, or administrative centre, of the Var. Five years later the University of Toulon (University of the South, Toulon-Var) opened. Toulon was one of four French cities where the extreme-right Front National won the local elections in 1995. The Front National was voted out of power in 2001.
- Toulon Cathedral is a Roman Catholic cathedral and a national monument of France, begun in the 11th century and finished in the 18th century. From the 5th century onwards it was the seat of the Bishops of Toulon, and since 1957 has been the seat of the Bishops of Fréjus-Toulon. The Classical façade was created in 1696–1701, in the reign of Louis XIV. Angels on the tympanum of the massive porch, supported on Corinthian columns, hold the arms of Toulon. The façade was badly damaged in the French Revolution, but was restored to its original appearance in 1816. It also displays a memorial plaque from 1239, dedicated to Gilbert of Baux, who died in 1239, and to Gaufridet of Trets and Toulon, and his wife Dame Guillaumette, both of whom died in 1234. The clock tower was built between 1737 and 1740, the same time as the monumental gate of the Toulon Arsenal. It is 36 meters high, and three meters thick at the base. On top of the tower is an iron campanile, where a bell has kept time in Toulon since 1524. The original bells were taken and melted down during the French Revolution. In 1806 and 1807 they were replaced by four new bells.
- The Tour Royale (also known as La Grosse Tour) is a fort built in the 16th century to protect the entrance of the Petit Rade, the naval port of Toulon. It was the first fortification of the harbor, built 22 years after Provence became a part of France. The fort was commissioned in 1513 by King Louis XII at the request of the bishop of Toulon and of the Senechal of Provence. It was placed on the cap de la Manegue, at the end of the pointe de la Mitre, where it could fire at any ships coming into the Rade. The design was by the Italian engineer Gian-Antonio della Porta. It was a classical example of a Torrioni, a round tower with cannon, constructed around Renaissance Italy in the 16th century. The tower was sixty meters in diameter and seven meters thick. Construction began in 1514 and was finished in 1524, during the reign of Francis I of France, at a cost of 30,000 florins. Because of its impressive size, the residents of Toulon called "La Grosse Tour."
- The Toulon Opera (L'opéra de Toulon), inaugurated in 1862, is the second-largest opera house in France, after the Palais Garnier in Paris, and it is one of the country's national historic monuments. It is currently the home of the Opéra Toulon Provence Méditerranée, under the direction of Claude-Henri Bonnet. The house seats 1,797 people on five levels. The theatre sits on 2,000 square meters of foundation and has a stage width of 22 meters 80 centimeters and a depth of 12 metres (39 ft). The permanent opera staff consists of over 200 people.
- The Museum of the French Navy (Musée national de la marine) is located on Place Monsenergue, next on the west side of the old port, a short distance from the Hotel de Ville. The Museum was founded in 1814, during the reign of the Emperor Napoleon. It is located today behind what was formerly the monumental gate to the Arsenal of Toulon, built in 1738. The building of the museum, along with the clock tower next to it, is one of the few buildings of the port and arsenal which survived Allied bombardments during World War II. It contains displays tracing the history of Toulon as a port of the French Navy. Highlights include large 18th century ship models used to teach seamanship, models of the aircraft carrier Charles De Gaulle.
- Mount Faron (584 metres) dominates the city of Toulon. The top can be reached either by a cable car from Toulon, or by a narrow and terrifying road which ascends from the west side and descends on the east side. The road is one of the most challenging stages of the annual Paris–Nice and Tour Méditerranéen bicycle races.
At the top of Mount Faron is a memorial dedicated to the 1944 Allied landings in Provence (Operation Dragoon), and to the liberation of Toulon.