Last Updated on 6th June 2023 by Sophie Nadeau
Poitiers is a sleepy city in western France with a rich Merovingian heritage and a mesmerising tapestry of medieval churches scattered across its historic city centre. Indeed, Poitiers is home to so many church towers that it has been nicknamed “la ville aux cent clochers” (the town of a hundred steeples). Here’s your guide to the best things to do in Poitiers, as well as what to know before you go.
I didn’t do much research about what to do in Poitiers prior to my visit. I had passed through once before on a bus journey back from Biarritz to Paris and had seen nothing of the French city save for a single crumbling ruin and a few classic French houses- and to be honest, it didn’t leave much of an impression.
However, the city is pretty well connected to the rest of western France thanks to its international airport and so it made sense to visit as something of a gateway into the wider Nouvelle-Aquitaine region.
According to my dad, some of our ancestors come from Poitiers (I have no idea if this is true or not!), and so I set out to discover the best of the city and see where some of my roots *may* have originated from.
And what I found truly astounded me. Despite being a lesser-visited city, Poitiers amazed and thrilled me in equal measure with its cobbled lanes, rich architectural offerings, and sheer beauty of the churches- I have never seen so many well-preserved frescoes in French churches before!
- What is Poitiers known for?
- A brief history of Poitiers
- Best things to do in Poitiers
- How long do you need in Poitiers?
- Getting to Poitiers
- Getting around Poitiers
- Where to stay in Poitiers
- Watch the Poitiers Video
What is Poitiers known for?
If I’m honest, Poitiers lies a little off the beaten path (unless you’re following the Way of Saint James) and isn’t really famous for as many things as other cities in the region; Anglouême (famed for its comics), Limoges (world-renowned for its pottery), or La Rochelle (known for its pastel hued port).
With this being said, the quiet town is pretty attractive and is famed for its Romanesque architecture, boasting one of the greatest collections of Romanesque architecture in France.
If you look hard enough, you can also find neat examples of Gothic architecture too. There’s ecclesiastical history to be found around almost every turn and so this is definitely the city for history buffs.
The leading industries are electronics manufacturing, food processing, and printing, though tourism is also common enough thanks to the fact that the Church of Saint-Hilaire the Great Poitiers is a fine example of Romanesque architecture and is on the Routes of Santiago de Compostela in France.
It’s also worth noting that most people (especially French tourists) venture into the area surrounding Poitiers to visit Futuroscope, which is an amusement park, which boasts attractions such as 4D cinemas and spectacles. Poitiers also enjoys its own microclimate, meaning that temperatures throughout the year rarely go below 15 degrees.
A brief history of Poitiers
Just an hour and a half’s drive inland from the Atlantic coastline, Poitiers has seen plenty of inhabitants over the Millennia, and today remnants of the past can be found all over the city..
Poitiers was originally inhabited by the Celtic tribe the Pictones and was known as Lemonum (after the elm tree). After the Romans took over, the town became known as Pictavium, for the Celtic tribe.
In the Middle Ages, there were a staggering 27 parishes within the city and each of these churches had their very own steeple.
In the 15th-century (in 1431 to be precise), Poitiers university was established. Founded by Pope Eugene IV and chartered by King Charles VII, the University was once one of the most prestigious in France, second only to Paris.
Though the university was briefly closed down during the French Revolution, today Poitiers enjoys a status as a university city, with the highest student/inhabitant ratio in France!
Poitiers was once the capital of Poitou-Charentes, a now-defunct region of France that was absorbed into the fabric of the larger Nouvelle-Aquitaine region following an administrative shakeup in 2016. The city remains part of the Vienne department.
Best things to do in Poitiers
The church of Notre Dame is undoubtedly the star of the show when it comes to attractions in Poitiers. Conveniently located just a stone’s throw away from the tourist office, the first thing to greet you when it comes to Notre Dame is its impressive façade, which features 12th-century carvings recounting scenes from the bible.
Inside, even greater treasures await the curious travellers. The interior of the church is free to visit and is honestly a must. As well as painted columns, there are various chapels which were paid for by wealthy merchant families in the 15th and 16th-centuries.
Cathédrale Saint-Pierre de Poitiers (Poitiers Cathedral)
Bells have been ringing out in Poitiers since the 11th-century. One of the grandest churches in town is the impressive Saint Pierre (Saint Peter Cathedral), which was constructed in 1162 on the ruins of a former Roman basilica. The cathedral is free to visit.
Baptistère Saint-Jean (Baptistery of Saint John)
The Baptistery of Saint John is alleged to be the oldest surviving Christian building in the west and probably dates back to between 630-700.
The building is not only a rare surviving example of a baptistery (octagonal baptismal pool which was used up until the 8th-century still intact) but is also pretty unique in that it’s a fine example of Merovingian architecture.
You have to pay a small fee to enter the hexagonal building today, and be aware that the entrance is cash only, but there are plenty of amazing things to see once inside. This includes murals from the Middle Ages and Merovingian sarcophagi.
Musée Sainte-Croix (Museum)
The largest museum in Poitiers was built in the 1970s, is situated close to the baptistery and cathedral, and features exhibitions showcasing the history of Poitiers and its surroundings. The true star of the show is all of the Roman artefacts and ruins, though there are plenty more modern exhibitions too.
Hôtel de Ville (town hall)
Like many important towns and cities in France, the town hall of Poitiers is a well appointed building standing firmly in pride of place in a central square. The edifice itself was constructed in the latter half of the 19th-century and is still used for many important functions today, including weddings.
Directly outside the front façade of the town hall, the Place du Maréchal-Leclerc is one of the more happening places in town, particularly on Friday and Saturday evenings. Here, bars spill out onto the streets and it’s a pleasant spot to sit and people watch.
Palais des comtes de Poitou-Ducs d’Aquitaine (Palace Of The Aquitaine Dukes)
The fortified and splendid grandeur of the Palace Of The Aquitaine Dukes has not been diminished by time and still today the Palace stands in pride of place in the very heart of old Poitiers.
The entire complex is surrounded by ditches and was once one of the principal residences of the Dukes of Aquitaine. Several parts of the buildings are free to visit (including the Salle des Perdus), and there are daily tours of The Maubergeon Tower.
The jewel in the crown of this Gothic masterpiece is the Salle des Pas Perdus, which was rebuilt by the Plantagenêt family just before the 13th-century and remains one of the best examples of non-church Gothic architecture in France.
One of the most important churches in town is to be found in the form of Saint-Hilaire, which is named for Hilary of Poitiers. The original church was built in the 12th-century, though it was heavily modelled in the 15th and 16th.
The church is free to visit and is of the utmost importance thanks to the fact that it is one of the churches on the Way of St James on the pilgrimage route from France to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Step inside during opening hours and you can find painted frescoes, sacristy-museum, and the tomb of Saint-Hilaire.
Statue of Liberty
The Statue of Liberty in Upper New York Bay was a gift from France to the US, and so it’s perhaps not surprising that there are countless Statue of Liberty replicas in France today. One such replica is in Poitiers in Place de la Liberté.
How long do you need in Poitiers?
Since Poitiers is a fairly small city with just a handful of attractions, the attractive old town and its accompanying highlights can easily be seen over the course of a day.
If you’re particularly interested in church history, then set aside two full days as the frescoes within the churches and their accompanying museums are truly breathtaking. If you’re looking to take further day trips into the surrounding area, then you’ll want to set aside two or three days to explore.
Getting to Poitiers
Poitiers is served by its very own international airport (Poitiers-Biard), which connects to destinations such as London. The actual flight time between London and Poitiers is just over an hour (actually in the air), meaning that it’s the perfect destination for a weekend getaway.
You should note that there is no airport bus to get to the city centre and so you can take a taxi or walk (like I did- though I don’t recommend this as the first part is along a busy road).
Alternatively, Poitiers has its own train station which is served by the TGV (high speed train). Within an hour and a half of the city, you can be by the seaside at La Rochelle. There’s also a direct high speed train from Poitiers to Paris Montparnasse and the journey takes just 1.5 hours.
There are regular bus routes which pass through Poitiers as well (buses can often be a more affordable, albeit more time consuming, way of travelling through France)
Getting around Poitiers
As with many historic towns in France, the best way to get around the city is on your own two feet. Be sure to wear comfortable shoes (trainers are fine- especially if they’re in a neutral colour) and avoid heels as cobbled streets are pretty abundant!
Your first port of call when arriving in the town should be the tourist information office, which is right outside one of the greatest attractions Poitiers has to offer: the Romanesque church of Notre Dame.
You can pick up a free tourist map, and if you speak French, there are other detailed brochures about the history of the town and further attractions to look out for when wandering around Poitiers.
Where to stay in Poitiers
As a medium sized city, there are a few options when it comes to staying in Poitiers. Since the real draw of the town is its historic city centre, I personally recommend to opt staying right in the heart of all the action. Plus, it won’t be too long to walk back to your accommodation after you’ve been out for your evening meal!
ibis Styles Poitiers Centre: I personally stayed in the Ibis Styles Poitiers Centre and personally found the rooms to be clean, comfortable, and enjoyed the complimentary breakfast the next day. The best thing about the hotel is that it is very conveniently located just a short walk away from many important monuments in town. Check prices and availability here.
Watch the Poitiers Video
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Sophie Nadeau loves dogs, books, travel, pizza, and history. A fan of all things France related, she runs solosophie.com when she’s not chasing after the next sunset shot or consuming something sweet. She currently splits her time between Paris and London. Subscribe to Sophie’s YouTube Channel.