MONTPELLIER is a city with so many different faces it seemed impossible to see everything in three days…but I tried.

The city is quite new by French standards, founded in the 12th century, and is extremely proud of its heritage. Montpellier has one of France’s oldest schools of Medicine and Universities, and learning is important here. Today around a third of the population are young people, both those who are born in the Herault or Languedoc regions and those who have come there to study.

Now that a direct Easyjet flight from Bristol goes to Montpellier twice a week, the French are keen to bring its attractions and similarities, which they feel sure visitors will enjoy, to the attention of West Country visitors who will benefit from the new link.

First there is the charm of the city’s historic quarter, where classic French five storey buildings are separated by wide boulevards complete with tracks for the Tramway which criss-crosses the city, and enchanting series of small winding, sometimes cobbled, side streets which are packed with shops, cafes, private homes and the occasional surprise.

Many city centre shops and restaurants, like the Maison de la Lozere, where I dined on delicious food and regional speciality aligote, feature vaults which are all that remain of the historic Middle Ages buildings, which make lovely cool refuges from the heat of the day and bustle of the city centre.

For this is truly in the South of France – even in late May typical temperatures reach 30 degrees and by the height of summer I can image the French siesta in the afternoon is more than essential.

Down another side street I stopped for lunch at La Maison D'Anna, where Italian food dished up by a welcoming Italian host made a change from gourmet cuisine Francais. A plateful of antipasti and the most delicious ravioli a la limon I have ever tasted set me up for an afternoon's sightseeing.

Montpellier is full of places to stay. The Ibis Style room I occupied was only a minute away from the central Place de La Comedie, but the hotel itself was quiet and transquil, with friendly welcoming staff and decor echoing the building's former use as a theatre. The tourist office at is the best place to start for ideas about hotels of all sizes, price ranges and styles.

Montpellier is teeming with museums, art galleries and many different styles of art and culture. I fitted in a visit to the Musee de Art Brut, on a quiet side street, stuffed with amazing art created by people with little or no background in the arts. Literally dry art, Art Brut is the French name for what we generally term naive art, although its director Patrice Michel was keen to make it clear to me that in French art culture naïve art is a specific strand, and his collection includes art singulaire, one-off pieces often created by people whose harsh life experiences, or physical and mental illnesses, have driven them to art as their only form of self-expression; naïve art, French-style and art Brut.

Pottery, paint, collage, sculpture on a grand and miniature scale, and an amazing collection of zinc art, a form created by his own late father Fernand Michel, which involved exposing zinc sheets to the air for different lengths of time across one piece, creating different colour tones, depth of field and patina. I could easily have stayed far longer, but our next port of call beckoned.

Classical art is housed in the Musee Fabre, where work by some of the city’s most famous artists hangs in well lit galleries, together with pieces by artists of similar age. Some is as dark and gloomy as that on show in many English museums, while others glow with the fabulous light that characterises the south of France and which has inspired painters for generations.

The museum also has an impressive collection of modern art, and has hung this in some of the lightest and brightest spaces I have ever seen. Works like this need space and distance to appreciate, and it was amazing how much quiet contemplation of some of these huge pieces made me think and reflect. Which is surely the aim of all art: if the things they made me think of, or discover – like the fact that in one piece, walking a semi-circle around it made the tones of brown and gold in the slabs of paint change shade according to your perspective – are not those the artist intended, is that wrong? While I will freely admit modern art is not my favourite I certainly found I appreciated it more here than in many UK museums, including Tate Modern.

Next door is the Hotel de Cabrieres-Sabatier, a more familiar type of museum to English eyes, where galleries display 18th and 19th century furniture and paintings set up in rooms like National Trust stately homes we enjoy here. Again, it was interesting to see how different the way art is displayed in France showed through, with set piece tableaux often giving way to small paintings or pieces of art in corridors, and a desire to showcase the lifestyle that was once enjoyed.

Some of these houses are only open to the public on specific occasions, being still the home of the families who created them, just as they are here. Others, hidden down the city’s side streets, are now divided into apartments round a central courtyard.

Many of these spaces are used for Montpellier’s annual festival of street art and architecture this month, one of the many cultural events which Montpellier specialises in as a way of showing off its heritage and drawing in visitors.

Street art, accepted as part of French culture long before Bristolian Banksy brought it to reputable status here, is everywhere in Montpellier. You need to open your eyes and look around you – and look up! From the graffiti on the tops of chimneys, unexpected figures peering from balconies, modern garish colours screaming at you – there is a trail of bright squares drawn by Space Invader around the city to follow – to spraypaint masterpieces which mark lost football games, or clearly have a political meaning.

There’s also a vast collection of bicycles, stuck half way up walls and sometimes half buried in them, reputedly the brainchild of someone who commandeered a stray bike to get home one night after a skinful and then found he had created an art form.

Trompe l’oeil is everywhere too, in varying sizes. Look carefully – is that a cat in the window above you or a painting? Opposite the Cathedrale is a whole house side painted so cleverly you have to look hard to see which windows are real, and are open so you can see the room inside, and which are not, and where the figure hanging out haranguing you the passerby is only painted.

One set of buildings are painted so cleverly I had to cross the street to convince myself they were actually a flat surface, and not a street corner with an alleyway between and buildings either side.

Everywhere history hides – my guide on a tour of the city not only took me up the spiral stairs to the top of Montpellier’s own l’Arc de Triomphe, which spread the cityscape out before us in panorama, but also into a section of what was once the Jewish quarter where recently, hidden from everyone but a few descendants of the original inhabitants, a Jewish immersive ritual bathhouse has been discovered and restored. Its greeny-blue waters, still supplied from underground springs, feel as if they are just waiting for people to descend their steps for ritual purification or ceremonial bathing.

But Montpellier is not simply a city with historic culture: the brand new market Les Halles Laissac is a round steel-girdered building under a vast glass roof, cleverly painted to look like the inside of a melon, where as you would expect stalls gleam with fresh fruit and vegetables, meat, fish, seafood, groceries, leatherware and material. The outer ring boats a host of outlets selling food to take home for tea and to eat now, while the central area is packed with table to share so you can come and shop, eat lunch and take tea home all in one visit. Delicious quiche and salad made a lovely lunch, and a box of macaroons sneaked their way into my luggage.

The next layer outwards in the city abounds with apartment blocks and offices, and here modern methods of architecture rub shoulders with traditional red-tiled white walled buildings. The beige-y concrete used on many office blocks, presumably a bid to echo the pale and golden stone of the older city centre, has often been shaped and shaded to give an appearance of texture, rather than slab construction, and things are constantly evolving.

I spotted one large block of, I think, offices with curiously large ovoid windows, like pebbles on a beach. I don’t know how light the rooms inside are, but the exterior effect is pleasing to the eye.

Alongside a small grassed roundabout topped with a small classical proportioned stone building is the Arbre Blanc, the city’s latest architectural marvel. Architects Sou Fujimoto, Nicolas Laisne and Manel Rachdi have created a block of apartments, with a ground and first floor restaurant and rooftop terrace bar, to fill quite a small plot of land with a tall building in which it seems no two planes are the same. I lost count of how many faces it has, from the outside none of the windows and balconies line up from floor to floor while projecting sets of clothes-hanger like bars appear like leaves, casting shadows and distracting your eye still further.

The effect, as the name would suggest, and which is especially noticeable at night when it is illuminated, is that of a giant white tree which almost seems to move in the breeze as your perspective changes.

A speedy lift took us up the 17 stories to the top, for more amazing views of the city and in the distance the sea. The restaurant and bars are run by Pierre Morel and Eric Celier, whose Maison de la Lozere restaurant in the city is such a success, and it is fast becoming the city’s go-to place to be seen.

It's very impressive, but I did wonder how they will maintain the sparkling white façade. An annual cleaning is promised, I was told, but whether that will be enough to counter the scouring effects of the storms from the coast, with their windborne sand and salt from the great marshes for which the nearby Camargue is famous, only time will tell.

For just a 10 minute drive from the city centre, or a short bus ride is the Mediterranean coast, with a vast stretch of sand and shingle beach, beachfront cafes and restaurants serving snacks, ice cream and gourmet meals, with lots of delicious seafood specialities. The water is clean and cool, and beautifully safe for bathing, with shallows where children can play and swim, deeper water for stronger swimmers and a host of watersports.

You can also head down to the beach along a broad walk/cycleway which runs beside the River Lez through Montpellier (bikes can be hired at several places). To cycle takes about 30 minutes, to walk perhaps an hour, but along such a level surface that’s not too difficult a trek even for families.

If you take this route, about half way along is the Marche du Lez, which would make a good stopping place. The complex has bric-a-brac market stalls and those selling nouveau-retro style items, jewellery and crafts, with lots of street food stalls dishing up world cuisine, a large electric cycle shop and a children’s playground.

Here too progress is evident: they are building a giant new undercover Halles Gourmandes, using old shipping containers for stalls in a very industrial style. The locals seem delighted with the idea, as the owner of one food stall proudly showed us round the building site and explained how he plans to run two stalls, one a champagne bar and the other serving seafood.

The French attitude to change and progress seems so different to ours: a move like this here would probably garner protests that it was destroying the area’s heritage, and would be costly. Here it’s seen as the chance to develop what they have and build something new, an opportunity. And it is happening as soon as it’s thought of and suggested, and clearly has the blessing of the authorities: there must be some fundamental difference between the French system of civic management and our own that makes this rapid change possible.

Montpellier has plenty to interest all ages: no family trip here should be complete without a visit to Planet Ocean, the city’s aquarium and planetarium combined. On the edge of the Odysseum complex, at the end of one of the Tramways – a ride on these is a great way to see French life anyway - it’s been created in an effort to encourage everyone, young and old, to relate to the planet we all live on and our role in its survival to its place in the universe. The world is two-thirds water, after all, so linking that part of the globe to the stratosphere above us seems logical, especially when its fun.

It’s easily possible to spend several hours wandering the maze of corridors and walkways, many of which have different viewpoints, sometimes from board platforms and giant windows and others from narrow windowslits, on the giant central aquarium, several stories high.

This is home to dozens of species, from large ragged tooth sharks (watch one glide by, its mouth gaping with snaggled fangs and a gleam in its eyes, in wonder or terror, depending on your age), to rays of all sizes with amazing tails, smaller and less ferocious sharks, schools of fish coated in silver and brightly coloured scales and the occasional amazing pointy-nosed swordfish.

While constantly admiring the fish, you move through a series of displays about marine and waterborne lifestyles. An excellent section explains fishing worldwide, and how the industry is responding to the need for sustainability. Beware the simulator of the bridge of a deep sea fishing trawler unless you’ve got sea legs and a strong stomach. Then it's on through tropical swamps and beaches to space.

The moving carpet lightshow of an asteroid belt is great fun, especially once people catch on to the fact that you can ‘kick’ an asteroid out of your way, and the view from the space shuttle’s cupola, broadcast via feed so it changes constantly, is amazing. You find yourself standing there for far longer than you thought as Earth unrolls before your eyes and you can spot landmarks from space.

Once outside again you can dine off French specialities, gastronomique or otherwise – crepe de Nutella, anyone? – or go for a familiar taste with international fast food brands. There’s also a vast shopping complex, with big names French and worldwide vying for your attention. Don’t expect everything you’ll see at home however – I was told Primark has not yet set foot in France. A trip here could easily take you all day and satisfy the entire family’s taste of entertainment and information.

Montpellier is, most of all, a French city, rather than a tourist destination. Yes, some people speak English, but many others don't - or, reassuringly like us, are unsure about trying their skill. If you want to sample the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of the real France, rather than the seaside resorts which cater to the international trade, then this is the place to head for.