The eastern French city of Besançon, bordering both Switzerland and Germany, may not ring a bell to most travelers — but its rich history, lush nature, and hearty cuisine are sure to make it any travelers’ latest coup de coeur.
This university town, located 2.5 hours via high speed train from Paris, comes to life in many different ways throughout the year, between the hiking, year-round festivals, Christmas markets in the winter and open-air markets during the warmer months, and need we not forget the terrace culture whenever the sun is shining. Regardless of the time of year you choose to visit Besancon, there is always something to do in this mini city tucked away in the valley of Le Doubs.
Before you book, CF’s fashion editor Lisa Haynes gives us her perfect packing wardrobe.
shop the essentials
What To See
La Boucle, Centre Ville
Walk through the heart of the city and experience the real “French touch”. Most of the center’s architecture dates back to the 16th and 17th centuries, with touches of Roman and Italian influence. Each street — even the tiny, hidden ones — are lined with restaurants, bars, cafes and boulangeries. Whether you are sipping a warm cafe au lait or a refreshing rose outside in one of the city’s main squares (Place de la Revolution, Place Granvelle, Place du 8 Septembre, for starters) or sitting along one of the quays bordering the river below while eating a classic Alsatian flammekueche from L’Alsacien restaurant or drinking a local beer at Le Tandem bar & bistrot, it is easy to simply enjoy and soak in all of the history and nature within your midst.
A UNESCO Heritage site since 2008, this 17th century fortress was designed by the famous French architect Sébastien Le Prestre Vauban, who designed other various fortifications all over the country. The view from the top offers a 360-degree view of the city and its surrounding hills, but within the citadel’s walls is also a zoo, including a nocturnal animal exhibit, an insectarium, and a small aquarium, as well as Le Musee Comtois, which takes guests through a history of the region, and Le Musée de la Résistance et de la Déportation, offering a very detailed history of World War II across the world, while focusing on the Franche-Comté region.
Musée du Temps
Besançon is known for its watch-matching, and this museum showcases various watches and clocks created over the past few centuries. A large part of the museum is also dedicated to the history of the city and its most important families, citizens and leaders, dating back to the 1600s. Located within the famous Granvelle Palace, the Italian-style monument is reason enough to step within the museum’s quarters.
Maison Natale de Victor Hugo
The famous author of Les Miserables among other various works was born in Besançon, and the house where he grew up is located at the end of city’s Grande Rue. This museum gives visitors an inside look into the life of the writer, his childhood, and his works.
Musée de Beaux Arts et d’Archéologie
Located in the heart of the city center in Place de la Révolution, this museum just reopened at the end of 2018. This fine arts museum is considered the city’s “little Louvre,” and is the oldest public museum in France, having opened in 1694, nearly a century before the Louvre opened in Paris.
What To Do
Go for a hike
The city lies in the heart of a valley, surrounded by lush, green hills at nearly all sides. You can walk up to le Monument de la Libération (Our Lady of Liberation), a four-kilometer walk from the city center, which sits at an altitude of about 500 meters and pays homage to those who from Besançon who perished during World War II; the Fort of Bregille, for our personal favorite view of the city, and about a 2.5-kilometer walk out of the city center; or Fort Chaudanne, about three-kilometers out of the city, for a view of all the red-bricked rooftops belonging to La Boucle.
Take a boat tour along Le Doubs River
Weather permitting, the Vedettes de Besançon take tourists on a ride along the river surrounding the city center, offering a history of the city from a different perspective. There is also dining aboard, for a bit of a more luxurious experience.
Experience one of the city’s many festivals
Come September, there are festivals galore in Besançon. Taste regional as well as national specialities at Les Instants Gourmands in Place Granvelle at the beginning of the month, or discover different styles of music from world, folk and classical at the International Festival of Music (Festival international de musique de Besançon) with various dates and groups from all over the world. If pop, hip-hop, rap and electro are more your style, Détonation Festival, hosted in tandem by local music venue La Rodia, lasts for one glorious weekend from September 26th to 28th. In October, there is the Festival du Bitume et des Plumes, a festival focused on public street arts, from theatre to music to dance and beyond. Even more street art is brought to life once June rolls around, with the Bien Urbain festival: think public installations, art tours and interactive soirées with local and international artists alike.
Where To Eat & Drink
This restaurant holds all of the charming ambiance of a cabin tucked away in the mountaintops. Share one of their several fondue variations over a regional Macvin wine, or try another one of the regional delicacies such as raclette, morbiflette or the Gratinette Comtoise. Regardless of your choice, you will be very full and very happy after testing this popular address.
17 Avenue Elisée Cusenier Website
Le Café Café
With an inviting, friendly and tight-knit staff, tables both inside and en terrasse, daily cocktail specials, a menu that changes regularly depending on seasonal ingredients, and bathrooms that are basically transformed into mini dance clubs, this address is an experience in itself, not to mention a Besançon must-try. An alternative take on classic French cuisine, dinner specials and desserts never disappoint, and always leave us wanting to make another reservation directly afterward. Website
36 Rue Claude Pouillet
L’Ô à La Bouche
A family-managed restaurant, chef Sylvain Piguet creates international fusions, with influences from Asia, Madagascar, the Basque Country and local Franche-Comté. His cuisine changes month to month, with new ideas using fresh, local produce and products of only the utmost quality that will make your taste buds sing. Website
9 Rue du Lycée
Café Bohème Boire, Rire & Manger
This bar’s name says it all: its motto is all about drinking, laughing, eating and good times with friends and neighbours. Café Bohème often hosts local DJs, thus offering great music and great ambiance, along with extensive wine and cocktail menus. Accompany your ice-cold rosé or summery Aperol spritz with a surf & turf platter or some homemade olive tapenade and guacamole and let the good vibes work their magic.
40 Rue Bersot
This bar is easily one of our most frequent go-to’s in Besançon. Having only opened in spring 2018, this café/bar already has a faithful — not to mention eclectic — clientele. With frequent Sunday brunch, outdoor concerts on the terrace during spring- and summertime, local DJs all year round, a great beer and wine list, season-themed cocktails, and mini bites to snack on, this location is great for any and all occasions. Settled in the heart of Place de la Revolution, the outward-looking view of the square as well as the floral, positive ambiance of the bar’s interior is sure to make this one of your favorite spots when visiting this city.
23 Rue des Boucheries
Where To Stay
Hôtel Le Sauvage
A former monastery, this charming location is tucked away at the base of the citadel and named after the famous inn, “Du Sauvage,” where Vauban, the genius behind the design of the citadel, would stay during its construction. Rooms and a terrace overlooking the river Doubs and its valley as well as the historic center offer stunning views that will be difficult to forget.
Rooms from €147 (£132) per night
Hôtel de Paris
Located on Rue des Granges, in the heart of the city, this chic and elegant location has been around since the 18th century. Rooms offer views looking out onto the quaint rooftops of the city center, and mere steps outside of the hotel is a plethora of shops and cafés. Relax and take it easy on the terrace with a morning café almost as rich as the city’s and this hotel’s history.
Double rooms from €92 (83£) per night
Mercure Parc Micaud
The more modern among the hotel’s in Besançon, this Mercure property is located right outside the city center. Just opposite the lush and floral Parc Micaud and the Office of Tourism, this location remains an easy walking distance to all of the city’s sights and livelihoods and even has its own bar, L’Instant, and restaurant, Le Vesontio — the latter named for the city’s former Latin name.
Rooms from €62 (£56) per night
For more 48 hour guides, click here