In the very south of Burgundy, an area famed around the world for its wine production, a quaint city by the name of Mâcon (sometimes Anglicised as Mascon) lies on the edge of the River Saône. All pastel-hued houses, cobbled lanes, and with plenty of chances to explore the nearby wine country, here’s a guide to the best things to do in Mâcon.
A very brief history of Mâcon: The South Burgundy City you’ll want to visit
Archaeological evidence suggests that human habitation of the area surrounding Mâcon predates the Romans when the area was largely occupied by the Gallic group, the Aedui. Following the 1st century CE, when the Romans did arrive in the area, the city (oppidum) that had been founded as early as the 1st century BCE, soon became known as Matisco.
In 1764, one of the most impressive hoards of Roman treasure in Eastern France was discovered. So spectacular was this mass of coins (perhaps as many as 30,000), statuettes, and silver plate, that the hoard soon became known as the ‘Mâcon Treasure’. Sadly though, greed or corruption got the better of the find and now all that remains is a paltry collection of fewer than a dozen artefacts. The find can now be viewed in the British Museum in London.
In more modern times, one of the most famous Frenchmen to have emerged from Mâcon is Alphonse de Lamartine. Born in the city on the 21st of October 1790, he was both a poet and politician and grew to be one of the most famous Romantic poets in French history. During his turbulent career, de Lamartine was also a diplomat in Naples, Florence, and Rome.
Lamartine then published several books and even briefly ran the French government during 1848. Today, if you wander along the quay closest to Pont Saint-Laurent, you’ll soon discover that the quay is not only named for the poet (Quai Lamartine) but that there is also a statue for him.
Come springtime, on the quay, close to the River Saône is also one of the best places in Mâcon to see the blossoms. Visit the city of around 34,000 inhabitants today, who are known locally as ‘Mâconnais,’ and you’ll soon discover an off the beaten path city with easy transport links to the rest of France and beyond.
Things to do in Mâcon, France
#1 Église Saint Pierre (Church of St Pierre)
One wander through the city of Macon and you’ll soon discover that the city is home to a myriad of churches, both great and small. One of the more impressive of these can be found on Place Saint Pierre, surrounded by cafés and opposite an exhibition space which regularly hosts free gallery displays.
Though it may look ancient, the church of St Pierre was actually designed by a pupil of Viollett-le-Duc (the man who renovated Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris and Mont Saint Michel in Normandy) during the 19th-century. On the same square, you’ll find the Mâcon tourist office, as well as Hôtel Montrevel, the town hall.
#2 Maison de Bois (House of wood), 13 Place aux Herbes
In the very centre of the city, it’s hard to miss the oldest house in Mâcon! After all, constructed sometime between 1490 and 1510 (no one is quite sure of the exact date!) the structure can be found in the form of a wooden building that’s covered in ornate wooden panelling.
Be sure to stop and observe some of the shocking imagery on your way past; a blend of the mythical and magical, there’s a selection of both real and fictional characters represented within the wood. On the ground floor, a brasserie and café by the name of La Maison de Bois serves coffee and cakes from Monday through to Saturday.
#3 Cathèdrale (Old Cathedral of Saint-Vincent)
All ruinous stone with several modern additions, what remains of Saint Vincent leaves to the imagination just how impressive the full cathedral must have been. The original building probably dated all the way back to the 6th-century and would have been around 74 metres long.
What you see today was likely constructed between the 11th and 14th Centuries in the Byzantine-style structure and served as the seat for the Bishop of Mâcon right up until 1801. Like many cathedrals, churches, and monasteries, Saint-Vincent was largely destroyed during the French Revolution and what little is left is currently being restored. Of note is the beautiful Belvedere that has since become a symbol for the city.
#4 Wander along the banks of the River Saône
Truth be told, one of the simplest pleasures to be found in Mâcon is simply to stroll along the banks of the River Saône and watch the world go by. The quays are where the locals head to in order to hang out and make for the perfect spot for a picnic if you’re looking for a rest stop when strolling around the city during the summer months.
#5 Pont Saint-Laurent
There’s been a bridge linking the right and left banks of the river ever since the middle ages, connecting the small village of Saint-Laurent-Sur-Saône in Bresse to Mâcon in Burgundy. Once a toll bridge, and before that a toll ferry crossing, the bridge is characterised by its many arches.
#6 Musée des Ursulines
Set against the backdrop of a former Ursuline convent, the town’s museum has been in situ since the 1960s and is themed by era. While on the ground floor you’ll find treasures from the Roman and Prehistoric times, the upper floor is devoted to documenting the specific techniques of local winemakers and fishermen along the River Saône over the centuries.
#7 Passages des Amphores
If you’re looking for a glimpse into Roman Mâcon, then you need to look no further than the narrow pedestrian passage situated above the old Macon cathedral. Once upon a time, the Rue de la Rochette ran parallel to the wall of the Gallo-Roman castrum.
In order to create a crawl space within this area, amphorae that had transported olive oil to Matisco from Spain were used. Today, you can walk along the Passage des Amphores and see some of these ancient pots, as well as a sign with further information about the Gallo-Roman defences of Matisco.
#8 Cathédrale Saint-Vincent (Cathedral of Saint-Vincent)
Since the 19th-century, Saint Vincent has sat on the other side of a green square from the Hôtel Dieu and has served as the city’s cathedral. Constructed between 1808 and 1818 in the Neoclassical style, this buttery yellow building is characterised by its Corinthian columns and beautiful stained glass windows.
#9 Hôtel Dieu
One of the most famous buildings this Burgundian city has to offer is its rather impressive old hospital. Still functioning as a health facility today, while modern machinery whirs inside, the impressive exterior hasn’t changed much since the building was constructed in the 18th-century.
If you’re looking for a further glimpse into the past, then L’Apothicairerie de l’Hôtel-Dieu de Mâcon (the apothecary) is filled with ceramic jars and appears just how such a room would have looked during the reign of Louis XV. The room is generally open to the general public from the beginning of June through to the end of September each year.
#11 Visit Saint-Laurent-Sur-Saône
Though this small Bresse village has little by way of attractions, it’s a nice and gentle stroll over the Pont Saint-Laurent to the French settlement of Saint-Laurent-Sur-Saône. Once under the jurisdiction of the Dukes of Savoy, today the village offers a pretty church, stunning views over La Saône and of Macon, as well as plenty of riverside cafés where you can stop and people watch for a while.
#12 Take a day trip to Beaujolais
By far one of the more famous wine regions in Burgundy, Beaujolais is an easy day trip from Mâcon and can be reached in less than an hour. Though less well known than the great wine route that surrounds Nuits-Saint-Georges, the Route des Vins Mâconnais-Beaujolais is filled with stunning countryside and plenty of vineyards!
If you have access to a car, then a visit to Berzé-le-Châtel is most definitely in order. Located within the Grosne Valley, the foundations of this fortress date all the way back to the 9th-century. Over time, additions and renovations have taken place, resulting in a blend of fairytale fortress that’s well worth the car journey!
Where to stay in Mâcon
Thanks to its prominent position as one of the best producers of Chardonnay in France, there are plenty of places to stay in Mâcon. From the city, it’s perfectly possible to take day trips to nearby cities such as Chalon-Sur-Saone, Lyon, and a myriad of vineyards and French Châteaux estates.
Staying in Mâcon is also much more affordable than nearby and pricier Lyon. A full list of the best prices for accommodation in the city can be found here. However, when it comes to a personal recommendation from myself, I can recommend none other than Panorama 360.
I stayed in this gorgeous four-star hotel during my stay in the French town, and in addition to sumptuous bedding and a welcoming reception, the hotel has a ‘skybar’. This rooftop terrace offers panoramic views over the city so you can watch the skies turn pink while sipping on your apero as the sun goes down…
How to visit Mâcon and the best time to go
With easy train connections from nearby Dijon, Beaune, and Lyon (Lyon has a budget-friendly international airport with plenty of flights to the rest of Europe), Mâcon even lies on the train line between Paris and Lyon. The best time to visit this quintessential French city is entirely dependant on what you want to experience.
Head to Mâcon in the winter, and you can expect to find lower rates and fewer crowds, the summer promises much better weather with a much heftier price tag. Alternatively, visiting Mâcon in the European shoulder seasons (i.e. Spring and Summer) offers the best of both worlds: fewer tourists, ample weather, and more affordable rates on accommodation and the like.
The spring also offers the chance to see some of France’s cherry blossom trees at their finest. Top tip: the best cherry blossom in Mâcon can be found along the River’s Edge, as well as in an otherwise insignificant car park next to the Musée des Ursulines.
Tips for visiting Mâcon in Bourgogne
As soon as you step off the train, you’ll soon spy signs to reach the tourist office. Located in the heart of the city, the tourism board offers maps of the city, as well as a suggested walking route. Marked by small triangular plaques ‘Le Tracé de la Plume’ takes a couple of hours to walk if you want to soak up the attractions and ambience of the city.
While pretty much everyone in the tourism industry speaks English, you’ll want to bring a simple French phrasebook like this one with you in case you need to talk about something other than ordering a coffee (i.e. if you need to visit the pharmacy).
If you’re looking to learn a little more about wine prior to your visit, then I recommend purchasing a book like this one. Though it’s not absolutely necessary to know anything about vin before visiting Bourgogne, a little knowledge will certainly help you understand your preferences when selecting where you should go wine tasting and what you should purchase!
Though the city is not nearly as hilly as neighbouring Lyon, if you do choose to follow the walking route suggested by the tourist office, you’ll soon discover that comfortable shoes are an absolute must! En route, there are plenty of small cafés and coffee shops in which to enjoy one or two ‘pauses gourmandes’.