On the one hand, Grenoble is cosmopolitan and vibrant, with a modern twist and a long association with being the gateway to the Alpes and winter sports. On the other, it’s historic, traditional and refined with a rich cultural heritage and a strong affiliation with the arts. The great joy is that you can dip into either of Grenoble’s eclectic personalities as part of a long weekend break.
Grenoble is in the Isère department of the Auvergne Rhône Alpes region in the south east of France and sits at the confluence of two grand rivers, the Drac (known locally as the dragon) and the Isère (known as the snake). It describes itself as the flattest city in France and is completely surrounded by mountains making it feel surprisingly remote for a city that’s so centrally placed.
An ancient city with a passion for art
Looking over the city from 500 metres above is the Bastille (top photo). The fortifications here date back to medieval times but the current Bastille was first built in the 17th century and rebuilt in the 19th century. And it’s from here that you start to understand Grenoble.
Beneath you the city lies like a map, with the red roof tops of its distinct old quarter, long, straight Roman roads and winding rivers and river peninsulas. And all around you are the snow-capped Vercors, Chartreuse and Belledonne mountains giving the city below a hushed reverence.
A walk to the Bastille
You can walk to the Bastille and back down via the Jardin des Dauphins and a series of winding paths, or take the rather unusual cable car which has baubles for carriages. There’s a decidedly 1920s feel about it and it was the first urban cable car in France. In fact, you can almost feel the presence of the intrepid hikers of the 1920s setting off with their woollen jumpers and wooden skis.
Back down in the city, the old quarter fans out from around Place Saint-André which is home to a large fountain, street cafés and restaurants, and the majestic Gothic / Renaissance façade of the old Dauphiné Parliament building. It feels scholarly here and ideal for an early morning coffee in the sunshine.
Close by, there’s a change of mood in the Jardin de Ville which feels almost tropical and is presided over by the beautiful 17th century Hôtel de Lesdiguières as well as by ancient trees and palms. Narrow streets then lead you from one bustling square to another where you’ll find plenty of markets, boutiques and cafés, including the covered 19th century Parisian style Saint Claire market and the Place aux Herbes.
Museums and monuments
Grenoble is rich in museums and historic landmarks with its Place Notre-Dame, a 13th-century cathedral, the Musée de l’Ancien Évêché and Fontaine des Trois Ordres, which commemorates the 1788 events leading to the French Revolution. The Musée de Grenoble, right in the heart of the city, has an astonishing collection of 900 works of fine art and sculpture and with a new contemporary exhibition every 3 months, is worth a few hours of your time.
A more modern affair
If you’re ready to embrace Grenoble’s other personality, hire a bike for the day from Métrovélo near the train station and take to the streets. There are hundreds of kilometres of designated cycle paths in and around Grenoble and you could do worse than by starting with a discovery of the city’s street art collection, hidden around the back streets. Maps of where to find the different works are available from the tourist office and for diehard street art fans, the Street Art Fest (throughout June) includes pop up workshops and exhibitions.
As with all French cities, the Grenoblois are proud of their local produce and cuisine which includes walnuts, the Chartreuse liqueur and of course cheese, and you’ll find some of the local food artisans in the Rue de Strausbourg, to the east of the Hoche district.
No city is complete without a larger than life personality and in Grenoble this comes in the form of cheese specialist and award winner, Bernard Mure-Ravaud! With an encyclopaedic knowledge, he’ll guide you round the many cheeses he offers at the Fromagerie Les Alpages, and help you wash it down with some wine…even if it’s only 11am!
And from there, don’t be afraid to move on to some charcuterie at the Boucherie Marché Grenette, a short distance away. Or laden with produce, head to the bohemian Championnet district, where there’s an eclectic mix of designers, unusual boutiques, art galleries and workshops to peruse.
Float above the city enjoying haute cuisine or linger in a cocktail bar
When it’s time to eat, head back to the Bastille and eat at the Chez le Pèr’Gras restaurant which has floated quietly above the city serving gourmand cuisine since 1896. A three-course meal here is a thing of beauty and great culinary delight and what’s more, costs just €59!
The Grenoblois seem fond of their cocktails too and in amongst the cobbled back streets there’s plenty of bizarre concoctions and bars to try. At the “Keep it Weird” bar (and they did) for example you can sit on a sofa made from an old car bonnet as you sip on a Chartreuse Mule from a chilled copper mug. The Mule is an eclectic mix of the local Chartreuse Liqueur, lemon and Ginger Beer and it’s supposed to have long lasting health benefits. Whether it did, I’m not sure but it was strangely moor-ish, and after a couple more Mules, you probably won’t care!
And just one last dance
If you’re still not ready to bed, visit Grenoble in September. At the Festival Jour et Nuin you can dance the day or night away – an electric music event for all ages!
Grenoble contains a curious mixture of styles and is surrounded by outstanding natural beauty which could take a life time to explore. It feels calm, yet energetic, traditional, yet modern. It’s a place where different cultures seem to blend happily together. It dances to a very different beat to other cities in this region and with its warm summer climate is a place that you may find that you linger. Or better still, come back for more!
Discover Vienne, Grenoble’s neighbour with a Roman vibe