Everyone knows Dijon in Burgundy for its mustard, however there’s far more to this ancient town than this piquant sauce. Dijon is the capital of Burgundy and was once the home of the Dukes of Burgundy. They were fabulously wealthy and more powerful than the King until their empire became part of France in the 15th Century. Their architectural and cultural legacy is everywhere you look. Dijon is amazingly well preserved and boasts over 100 hectares of magnificent monuments, medieval buildings and 100 hotel particuliers (grand mansion houses).
There is a great transport system in the town with free hop on/hop off buses. There’s also a tram service which connects you to lots of places around Dijon; and there’s a major train station (about 90 minutes to Paris).
What to see and things to do in Dijon
Don’t forget to stop and take advantage of the many cafés and restaurants in the town – there is a huge choice to suit all budgets. For great views you can’t beat sitting in the Place des Ducs or Place Francois Rude with its little carousel where mamans and papas sit sipping coffee while their enfants play.
It’s also good to wander off the trail in Dijon, there are lots of winding little streets and grand houses whose gates are open – just ripe for peeking and no one seems to mind.
Palais de Ducs Dijon
The Palace of the Dukes was originally a residence built against the Gallo-Roman castrum (a fortified building). The Roman influence is evident in the style of architecture. Reconstructed in 1366 and again in the 17th Century by Versailles architects Jules Hardouin-Mansart and Ange-Jacques Gabriel. There is clear influence from Versailles and Fontainebleu in this hugely imposing building. Since 1799 the Palais has been home to the Musée des Beaux Arts, one of the oldest and most beautiful museums in France, it is currently being restored, though it remains open to the public. It is also the location of the town hall where, if you wander up the stairs you’ll see where the workmen who are renovating removed a wall and discovered a hidden staircase and wall frescoes that are hundreds of years old.
Rest your weary feet and relax on one of the grand stone benches and watch the synchronised fountains which the kids run in and out of on hot days.
Tour Philippe le Bon
Climb the 316 stairs of the 46-metre tower which was built in the middle of the 15th Century. The views of jewel coloured tiled rooftops (a trademark of Burgundy), crooked mediaeval streets, and, further afield, vineyards, forests and villages are worth the effort.
Dijon’s covered market
Les Halles, Dijon’s main covered marketplace – will probably look familiar – it was designed by a famous son of Dijon, Gustave Eiffel who went on to design the iconic Eiffel Tower in Paris. Spend an afternoon perusing stalls of local delights. Who can resist as jambon persille (ham terrine with parsley) or volaille de Bresse (chicken from Bresse)? This being Burgundy, of course there a escargots. And, if you’re feeling brave try the snail cake terrine that is a speciality of this area.
Market days are Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturday mornings.
The Owl of Dijon
The church of Notre Dame was created between 1230 and 1250; the remarkable elaborate facade is decorated with 57 gargoyles, representing the struggle between good and evil. Inside, there’s a wooden Virgin Mary from the 11th century, one of the oldest in France. The old ladies of Dijon say she can work miracles though she hasn’t received official recognition.
On the outside wall of the church is a small stone dragon and a small stone owl. As you pass by, you should rub the owl with your left hand (the hand closest to your heart) and make a wish as people have for centuries.
Look up to the top of the church is a 14th Century mechanical clock known as “Jacquemart”. Its four figurines chime every quarter of an hour as they gaze over rue de Musette where second hand book sellers have their stalls on a Saturday morning.
Museum of Burgundy Life Dijon
This lovely free to enter museum has an eclectic and rather wonderful mix of objects. And, the recreations of shops from the 19th and early 20th Centuries are superb. This museum is well worth a look.
Boutique Maille Dijon
The famous mustard shop has hundreds of different mustards and a tasting bar.
Place Francois Rude Dijon
With its little carousel and surrounded by cafés and bars whose tables spill onto the pedestrianised square, this is a lively place in the centre. It’s named after the Dijon-born sculptor of “La Marseilleise” which graces the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. The locals call it Place du Bareuzai thanks to the statue of a naked man treading grapes. The name means “red stockings” (from bas rosé) which the winegrowers had, after crushing grapes with their feet.
Shopping in the Rue de la Liberte Dijon
At the top of the street is Dijon’s Arc de Triomphe, Porte Guillaume. The street is lined with shops and restaurants located in the ancient buildings.
After a day of sightseeing, relax with a kir, a typically Burgundian aperitif made from creme de cassis. It’s a speciality of Burgundy (blackcurrant syrup) buy the 20% volume one for the best taste and aligote (a Burgundian white wine) or with champagne or sparkling wine for a kir de roi, or kir royale.
Hire a bike: There are lots of cycle paths and the streets are bike-friendly. Velodi bikes are for tourists and locals and the first 30 minutes of use are free (velodi.net)
Pick up an owl trail booklet, restaurant guide, book a tour and tickets for the Phlippe le Bon Tower at the Dijon tourist office – all available in several languages. Addresses and opening times for all the places mentioned above can be found on the Dijon Tourist website.
Top tip: Wear comfortable shoes for walking – there’s a lot to see and do!