Besancon is the capital city of the Franche-Comte district in the East of France that is often named the French Switzerland for its emerald green fields, sloping hills and a variety of local cheese. Many people skip Besancon as it’s not on the traditional tourist route, yet the city is absolutely worth paying a visit for the next five reasons:
Wander around Besancon’s medieval city centre
Originally established in the 1st century BC by the Romans, there are still a few picturesque remains scattered around town. Most of the houses in the center date back to the middle ages or to the period of the Spanish Renaissance (15th-16th Centuries). The center is compact and mainly pedestrian with marvelous cathedrals and palaces. Visit the imposing 16th century Palais Granvelle where a museum of time is currently located; check out the amazing building of Faculty of Medicine and the neoclassical 18th century Église de la Madeleine cathedral.
Another must-see is Cathédrale Saint-Jean de Besançon with amazing murals and renaissance paintings. At noon, the amazing astronomical clock in the clock tower of the cathedral will chime. It provides 122 indications including years, seconds, time of the sunset and sunrise and much more. There are 21 animated figures that perform various biblical scenes depending on the time – at noon it’s Resurrection of Christ.
The birthplace of Victor Hugo is located at 140 Grande Rue, you can see a permanent exhibition here, dedicated to the great writer.
Explore the Citadel of Besancon
Dating back to the 18th century, the Citadel is well-preserved and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s a fine example of military architecture designed by Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban – Louis XIV’s famous engineer; he created around 40 fortification and upgraded more than 300 existing ones in cities around France. Placed on the very top of mount Saint-Etiennet, the Citadel overlooks the Old City Center and offers spectacular views of the nearby villages, mountains and the beautiful curve that the Doubs River makes as it flows around the city.
You can spend the whole day wandering around the ramparts and there’s a pretty little zoo which will please the kids.
Go green and take a bike ride around the picturesque villages
Besancon is lovely to visit in late April or early May. It’s warm already and the flowers bloom with deep rich colors; there is a super convenient bike rental system with over 30 stations spread around the city. The rates are very low and free to use for less than 30 minutes. Get your bike payment card and check the rates at the Tourist office. There are lots of specially designed bike routes in and around the city with easy-to-navigate directions.
Take a ride to the nearby village of Thoirase through the colorful green and yellow fields and sparkling river Doubs about 10 miles from Besancon. Make a stop at the Thoriase Tunnel which is lit up and makes for a very interesting boat ride!
Enjoy delicious white wines of the Jura
Though Bordeaux and Burgundy wines are known all over the world, the local white wines made in Jura region can easily compete with them, the Chardonnays are particularly fine. If you have time to spare, take a trip to Arbois which specialises in white wines. It will take around 40 minutes by car or 20 minutes by train. There are a number of wine caves where you can taste the local specialties before buying. Besides wine, you can buy amazing local cheeses from a farm shop nearby – ideal to go with your wine.
Appreciate the beauty of nature
Spend a day at the utterly beautiful Lac de Chalain that is around 80 km away from Besancon. With a long golden beach and a variety of water sports like diving, windsurfing or fishing, it’s a perfect getaway on a sunny summer day. You can also opt for hiking to get the most spectacular views from the top of the mountains or enjoy a spot of horse riding.
Besancon in video
Elena Prokopets is a twenty-something girl, getting lost in different corners of the world and currently settling as an expat in Besancon, France. Check out her travel blog for more fantastic travel guides around France, expat advice and budget travel tips.