Known as the Gateway to Champagne, just 45 minutes by train from Paris, Reims is renowned for its prestigious champagne houses, Gothic cathedral and Art Deco architecture.
Little of the original Roman town remains except Porte Mars, an ancient gateway to the town and the cryptoportico – a semi-underground gallery dating from the 3rd century. The city was largely rebuilt after the First World War caused extensive damage as it was virtually on the front line.
Reims has an extraordinary place in history thanks to King Clovis I, who in 498AD converted to Christianity when he was baptised by the Bishop of Reims, the future Saint Remi, creating a link between the church and the monarchy in France for generations to come. In fact, 33 French monarchs were crowned here – giving the town the name the Coronation City.
Day 1 in Reims
The two absolutely must-dos in this town: Reims Cathedral and a Champagne house visit and tasting.
Top tip: Pick up a Reims City Pass from the tourist office. A 1, 2 or 3-day pass which gives access to more than ten museums plus free public transport in the city and discounts at many of the town shops and restaurants.
Notre Dame Cathedral is renowned as a gem of Gothic architecture, founded in 1211. The Smiling Angel statue has become the symbol of the city. Every evening in summer there is a stunning free ‘Son & Lumière’ (sound and light) show in front of the Cathedral. Inside the stained glass windows are sublime, including modern windows designed by Chagall.
It is one of three UNESCO World Heritage sites in Reims, along with the Palais de Tau, the former residence of the Archbishop, now the cathedral museum, which includes the Palatine Chapel. The Palais displays the coronation gown of Charles X, the last French king to be crowned here in 1825.
The monastery of the Abbey of Saint Remi is today a museum of the history of Reims with a rich collection. The Saint Remi Basilica next door houses the relics of its namesake. This is where the special ampoule containing the holy ointment for anointing new kings was kept.
Shop at the market
Boulingrin Market covered market was built in 1927 and has been renovated to its former glory. The market which is open Wednesday, Friday and Saturday is located in the town centre next to the Porte de Mars, a major ancient access point to the city, at the beginning of the Rue de Mars, where you can also find the charcuterie specialist Aux Gourmets des Halles and other gastronomic boutiques.
Au Piano des Chefs: Next to the Cathedral in the centre of town. It is a creative wine and cuisine experience offering English and French speaking cookery classes.
The Champagne Houses
The visits of the cellars of some of the Champagne Houses incorporate the famous ‘crayères’ – giant chalk pits excavated by the Romans to build the first city of Reims. These underground chambers were joined by connecting tunnels over the centuries, developing into an intricate underground network of over 200 km. Used as a shelter for both soldiers and civilians during times of siege, (an underground hospital and school were set up during the First World War), the cellars of Reims, dug deep into the chalk, provided ideal storage conditions for champagne, with a constant cool temperature and high humidity. The Champagne Houses set up their headquarters above the cellars, each one adapting the visit of their cellars to reflect the individual history and heritage of their brand, such as the contemporary art exhibitions at Champagne Pommery.
There are plenty of places to stop for a glass of bubbles in town but Pol Couronne, with its boutique and tasting bar in the shadow of the Cathedral is fabulous (11 Cours Jean-Baptiste Langlet; champagne-polcouronne.com)
Book a Champagne experience – tastings, workshops, sabrage, vineyard visits and more with www.champagne-booking.com
Champagne house must-sees:
Ruinart: www.ruinart.com this one is about a mile outside the centre of the city, it’s the oldest Champagne house in existence and their Champagne is elegant and memorable. You can take a great tour, it’s a little pricier than the rest but it’s well worth it.
Mumm: www.mumm.com the tour and tasting are superb and you’ll get a fascinating insight into the world of Champagne making.
Newly reopened, the revamped Brasserie Conti of the Grand Continental Hotel**** has become a trendy institution in the city after a recent refurbishment.
Day 2 in Reims
Take a City Tour – no matter the weather, this is a great way to see the city with commentary by audio-guide. Book at the tourist office in the centre of town, right next to the Cathedral.
Visit a museum – there’s plenty of choice in Reims:
Fort de la Pompelle
This is an unusual museum housed in a fortress, built in the nineteenth century, which was very important in the First World War protecting the city of Reims. The impressive collection of memorabilia from the First World War includes an enormous collection of Imperial German helmets and headgear. Open all year.
Musée de la Réddition
It is a little-known fact that the surrender at the end of the Second World War was actually signed in secret in Reims on 7th May 1945 in the map room of the American Army headquarters. This revered place has been preserved and is open to visitors all year round.
The Automobile Museum
Houses over 200 vehicles dating from 1908 to the present day, which includes rare motorbikes and prestigious vintage cars.
Historic Café du Palais (14, Place Myron Herrick). With its sumptuous interior, great menu where classic Champenoise has a little bit of Italian influence, you’ll be happy to while away the hours here! It’s also great for an afternoon and early evening snack and glass of Champagne.
Of course you have to have more fizz – this is the capital of Champagne after all. The Boutique du Club Trésors de Champagne was created in 1971 to showcase the quality vintages of 27 artisan wine makers, promoting the exceptional character of the wines they produce. If you don’t make it to a champagne house this Champagne bar is an ideal alternative to taste some top champagnes.
Try a local speciality: Le Biscuit Rose de Reims was created in the 17th century by a local baker who left his ‘little cakes’ in the oven to use up the heat, turning them to biscuits. Vanilla floavoured and coloured pink with natural carmine, the biscuits are very light and crunchy and are also used as an ingredient in desserts.
Shop for souvenirs: Reims Vinegar and Reims Mustard The vinegar is created from the yeast sediment disgorged from the champagne before corking which is then aged in oak barrels for a year. The vinegar is mixed with brown mustard seed to create the Reims Mustard which is made with black grapes and is an ideal accompaniment to Reims Ham which is cooked in special stock and has a unique flavour.
Bake your day at: Waida et fils, a superb boulangerie/patisserie with a charming art deco tea room, service can be slow at peak busy times (5 Place Drouet d’Erlon).
Brasserie Excelsior. A fabulous way to round off your 48 hours in Reims with a quintessentially French and Champenoise menu (really great value) in a beautiful setting and a lovely summer terrace for when the sun shines.
Thanks to Gillian Green, Gillian Green PR for some great tips for visiting Reims.
Reims tourist office for lots more details: reims-tourism.com