Besançon: France's Hidden Historic Gem

Besancon La Boucle de Besancon
Seen here is Besançon's boucle, or the city center, which is also the economic heart // Photos by Ville de Besançon

Savvy travelers who think they know France may have one more city to visit, and that’s Besançon. One of the two major cities in the recently combined Bourgogne region of France, this eastern city might just be France’s hidden gem. Located two and a half hours east of Paris via high-speed train, this quintessential city prides itself on its greenery, its cuisine and — quite possibly most of all — its historical significance. 

From the rich, hearty meals, to the sweeping views of both the nearby hills and urban city center to the Roman ruins that can be found in the center of town, there is almost always something new to discover — and treasure — in Besançon. As a former fortress city, it is home to a famous 17th-century citadel, while also being the hometown of world-renowned writer Victor Hugo, author of “Les Misérables.” 

This regional city is great for travelers planning a stay for about three days, as this is one of France’s smaller major cities. But this doesn’t mean there isn’t much to do, or there aren’t many sites to visit, or places to drink and eat here. If anything, there is more to do here than meets the eye. There is always a new festival to go to, a new restaurant to try, a new place to shop, or a new view to behold.

Besancon Porte Noire Rue de la Convention
 
La Porte Noire a Gallo-Roman triumphal arch, decorated in original fine sculptures representing deities of Greek and Roman mythology and battle scenes.

Before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s talk about the places to stay in Besançon. We sat down with Severine Descourvieres, hotel manager of Besançon’s Hotel de Paris on Rue des Granges — a location that is perfect for those hoping to explore the city center and all that it has to offer, which may be a surprising lot. Descourvieres says there has been a hotel here since the 18th century, but in 2010, it underwent a complete renovation, which included the addition of an elevator, something that is often hard to come by in a city as historic — and not to mention, old — as Besançon. Despite the renovation, Descourvieres says the hotel has maintained its original 18th-century charm and spirit. 

The high season for tourists, she says, is summer. Between the end of June and the end of September, most of Descourvieres’ clients are visitors exploring the city. Throughout the rest of the year, the hotel is occupied mostly by businessmen staying for inter-city and inter-hotel conferences. Descourvieres says the hotel does its job of pointing tourists in the right direction to discover all of the city’s treasures, whether it is the museums, festivals, tours or restaurants. 

“The city has a certain attractiveness during summer,” she says. “It’s beautiful, it’s filled with flowers, everything is lush and green.” 

The hotel has 50 guestrooms of varying styles: standard, luxe, executive, prestige and prestige superior. There is also a 20-car parking lot in the courtyard — another thing that is hard to come by in Besançon. 

Besancon Place de la Revolution

Place de la Révolution, the largest square in the city of Besançon, has shops and restaurants that are popular with tourists.

There is also The Mercure Parc Micaud, a four-star hotel located across from lush and bright Parc Micaud and a short walk to the office of tourism as well as the city center. At the tourism office, the welcome desk can provide brochures, information and guided tours. When the weather permits, there are also boat tours along the Doubs — the river bordering Besançon’s old town. Atop Rue de la Vieille Monnaie and mere footsteps to the citadel is another quaint, three-star hotel: Le Sauvage

We caught up with Frédérique Coobar, director of press relations at the city’s tourism office, who, like Descourvieres, agreed that Besançon is not the typical French summer destination, but a place people come to discover. It’s the historic buildings and heritage that make the city attractive and curious. 

Since the citadel and the city’s fortifying walls were listed as UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008, Coobar notes, Besançon has seen an increase in both national and foreign tourism by 20 to 30 percent. According to her, a large number of French, American, German, Swiss and Italian visitors come to explore the city. The Centre de Linguistique Appliquée (CLA), she says, brings in lots of tourism as well, from its large international student population. Nearly every walk of life can be found at the CLA, a school where people from across the globe come to learn the French language.

Coobar points out that in Besançon, visitors can get the best of both worlds. There is the city center, or la boucle, which she says is “culturally rich” and explores l’art de vivre; and then, there are the nearby hills, perfect for hiking and immersing oneself in nature. 

Besancon La Maison Natale de Victor Hugo

Besançon is the hometown of Victor Hugo. Seen above is the place where the world-renowned writer was born.

“Besançon is a very walkable city,” she says. “Anyone can walk  through the center city by foot or by bike. But at the same time, anyone can very easily visit the neighboring hills, go hiking and be completely surrounded by nature, which is quite an exceptional quality.”

Her workplace, she says, provides visitors with the inside scoop to all the things to do and see during their stay in Besançon. This includes year-round festivals and events. From July to August there is Bien Urban, which recognizes street art and artists from around the world and puts their artwork on display all over the city. In September, there is the Festival de Musique, celebrating the classical genre over the course of two weeks; Les Instants Gourmands, celebrating regional cuisine from Franche-Comté and beyond; and Les Journées Européennes du Patrimoine, commemorating historic sites, buildings and local heritage all over France.

When it comes to spots, you don’t want to miss out on the Musée du Temps (Museum of Time), Maison Natale de Victor Hugo, and the citadel.

Besancon Cour du Palais Granvelle

The Granvelle Palace is a 16th-century historical monument, which houses the Museum of Time.

The Museum of Time is located within another historical monument itself: the 16th-century Granvelle Palace. Within its quarters, it houses a detailed, mini-relief model of the city, gifts given to the powerful Granvelle family during their heyday, centuries-old sundials, hourglasses, oil lamps, a clockmaker’s boutique, some of the first-ever watches, pendulums, calendars, works of art, tapestries, as well as breathtaking views of Grande Rue, the city’s main street, and the quaint, red-tiled rooftops. 

Just down the road is the Maison Natale de Victor Hugo, which takes visitors on a quick journey through the writer’s childhood, adulthood and his life’s works. The citadel is within reach from the Museum of Time, and offers visitors a view across the city, details about its history, a zoo, an aquarium, an insectarium and more.  

On the way up to the citadel, it is worth a pit-stop at some of the city’s other notable landmarks: La Porte Noire, believed to have been built between 171 and 175 A.D., and the astronomical clock, located inside the Cathédral St. Jean and built in 1860. 

Besancon Hotel de Paris

Hotel de Paris, which was completely renovated  in 2010, has maintained its original 18th-century charm.

If contemporary artwork is more your style, the Fonds régional d’art contemporain Franche-Comté (FRAC) is where to head to next. A modern wooden work of art itself, the FRAC is found on the Passage des Arts, bordering the Doubs. The expositions at this contemporary art museum are constantly changing; exhibitions may consist of video or digital art, written works, paintings, drawings and sculptures, along with other thought-provoking installations. Sometime in 2018, Besançon will also reopen its “little Louvre,” the Musée des Beaux Arts et d’Archéologie.

When the time finally comes to sit down and eat, there are endless places to try. But to experience a true Franche-Comté  meal, it is imperative to visit Le Coucou, whether for lunch or dinner. This little spot is known for its range of local dishes and wines, and is loved and appreciated by natives and foreigners alike. Located at 12 Rue Luc Breton, this restaurant has a country-style theme with red-and-white checkered decoration, and leaves patrons with a full belly and a warm, homey feeling. 

Besancon Citadelle de Vauban

The Citadel of Besançon is a 17th-century fortress designed by Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban.

Want to warm your spirits? La Grange, along Place de la République, serves regional and Swiss fondue with just about anything in it — white wine, champagne, mushrooms, saucisse de Morteau (a regional sausage) or garlic. If you’re in search of a little hole-in-the-wall that serves a variety of both sweet and savory crêpes, look no further than La Boîte à Crêpes, located on Rue Ronchaux. Winter is mont d’or season, which means this regional cheese will make an appearance at just about any of Besançon’s regionally themed restaurants. 

To get to Besançon take the TGV directly from the Paris Gare de Lyon station to Besançon Viotte. To reach Centre-Ville, take the 3 bus toward Centre-Ville / St Maurice or the No. 2 tram toward Hauts du Chazal. To purchase train tickets, visit voyages-sncf.com.

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