Between bustling Paris, the wild and rugged coastline of Brittany, and the glittering Azure Blue Sea of the South, Eastern France often misses out on much of the press it so rightly deserves. After all, travel here in the East and you’ll soon discover timber-framed towns, long-forgotten cities, countless Roman ruins, and a gourmet scene that’s enough to make any foodie drool. Here are the best-kept secrets of Eastern France!
Why you must visit Eastern France
Historically, the region is made up of five distinct regions. Though these have since been swallowed up by much larger administrative areas, each region retains its own distinctive cultural and historical feel. Filled with varying architectural styles, unique foodstuffs, and in some cases, even their own language, the regions are Alsace, Champagne-Ardenne, Franche-Comté, Lorraine, and the Rhône-Alpes.
Some of the best reasons to visit the East of France include getting to see a side of l’Hexagone that’s a little off the beaten track. From cities where few tourists venture into to centuries-old abbeys where the relics of Saints are now alleged to lie, there’s something for every interest when it comes to this little parcel of Europe. And of course, there is perhaps no wine in the world quite as famous as the rich reds of Burgundy. After all, the most expensive wine in the world can be found along the UNESCO Route des Grands Crus.
#1 The underrated city of Metz
Just a half-hour drive from the small and landlocked country of Luxembourg, the stunning settlement of Metz is a highly underrated city with plenty to do and even more to see. Situated at the confluence of the River Moselle and the River Seille, some of the best things to do in Metz include wandering around the Centre-Pompidou Metz art museum and admiring the 13th-century Porte des Allemands.
#2 Dole, the town of Louis Pasteur
If you’re looking for an off the beaten tourist track town with plenty of history, then you should stop your search now. Dole is a charming city built alongside the River Doubs in the Jura region. Constructed around the Collégiale Notre-Dame de Dole, there’s a free museum fill of Roman artefacts and many a cobbled lane worth strolling along.
Situated somewhere on the train line between the mustard city of Dijon and the greenest city in France, Besançon, Dole also happens to be the birthplace of Louis Pasteur, the man who discovered the rabies vaccination and pasteurisation, among other things. While in Dole, be sure not to miss out on other French attractions such as the hospital turned library (Hôtel Dieu de Dole) and the pretty walkway along Canal des Tanneurs.
#3 The Pastel-hued city of Mâcon
With a Provençal feel and plenty of wonderful weather to match, the Southern Burgundy city of Mâcon is a must-see on any visit to Bourgogne, especially so if you’re looking to experience the Beaujolais wine region. Highlights of this Saône side city, which is known as Mascon in English, include the ruins of the once impressive Old Cathedral of Saint Vincent and the timber-framed oldest house in the city.
If you’re visiting in the spring, then plenty of beautiful cherry blossom can be found in a car park close to the Musée des Ursulines, a town museum housed within a former convent. And if you’re looking for an extra luxe stay during your time in Eastern France (at a very reasonable rate), then I highly recommend booking a room at the Panorama 360. The four-star hotel even has a sky bar where you can sip on a kir while watching the sun go down.
#4 The mountain resort of Châtel
Less frequented by international tourists than many other ski resorts in France, Châtel is not only a winter destination but also a well-sought out summer spot for adventure activities such as hiking and mountain biking. One of many resorts along the Portes du Soleil complex, a stretch that encompasses some 650 kilometres of ski trail. While in the area, be sure to visit the beautiful Saint-Laurent Church, as well as sample locally made Abondance Cheese.
#5 Evian-Les-Bains, home of Evian water
Situated on the border with Switzerland and quite literally located on the ever-glittering Lake Geneva, Evian-Les-Bains has been a lakeside getaway for the French since at least the 19th-century. Main attractions of Evian-Les-Bains include the Palais Lumiere (which houses Picasso artwork) and sampling Evian water at source from the Source Cachat.
Today, the town is most synonymous with Evian bottled water, though the city also has plenty of world-famous spas thanks to the alleged special properties of the mineral water found in the area. If you have a little more time while in the area, be sure to catch the ferry to the other side of the lake so as to explore the Swiss city of Lausanne.
#6 The Roman city of Vienne
Of course, everyone has heard of Lyon, the third-largest city in France, but not everyone has heard of the pretty city of Vienne, the other Roman city of the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes. Once known as ‘Vienna’ and one of the most important cities in Roman Gaul, today Vienne is a small city characterised by its many Roman ruins.
Highlights of the city by the River Rhône include a Roman Theatre that once seated some 10,000 people as well as the magnificently preserved Temple of Augustus, an ancient place of worship that only survived thanks to its transformation into a church many centuries ago. While in the area, there’s also breathtaking views of the Château de la Bâtie, as well as the Museum and archaeological site of Saint-Romain-en-Gal.
#7 The UNESCO Citadel of Besançon
Dubbed France’s ‘greenest city,’ Besançon also happens to be the birthplace of Victor Hugo. There’s even a museum dedicated to the world-famous author on the very same square where the developers of the cinema, the Lumiere brothers, were born. However, with this being said, it’s well worth noting that Hugo actually only lived in Besançon for six weeks before leaving, never to return again!
Close to the border with Switzerland, you could easily spend a long weekend meandering the city’s many quays, exploring the Roman ruins, and admiring the impressive astronomical clock of Besançon’s cathedral. And for the history buffs, there are even the UNESCO Vauban fortifications, which merit half a day of exploration in their own right and date back to the 17th-century.
#8 Varennes and the Flight of Louis XVI
What you may well not know about North Eastern France is that there’s plenty of Renaissance history to unpack within the region. For example, somewhere in a rural region of Meuse, the small village of Varennes-en-Argonne (also known simply as Varennes) is where Louis XVI was captured together with Marie-Antoinette following his attempted escape from France during the French Revolution.
#9 Hostellerie du Château des Monthairons
I must admit that my first stay in a French Château truly was one of those ‘pinch me moments’ that you can’t quite express with words. And so, if you’re looking for a fairytale French château stay in Eastern France, then you simply must book a stay in Hostellerie du Château des Monthairons. Located in several dozen acres and with no less than two chapels on-site(!!), the hotel is laid-back, warm, and friendly.
#10 Abbey of St Germanus in Auxerre
Though the city of Auxerre is undoubtedly best known for its imposing clock tower, there’s much more to this compact city than meets the eye. Characterised by its three impressive churches (an Abbey, a Cathedral, and a Church), Auxerre lies alongside the River Yonne and is filled with timber-framed houses and cobbled lanes.
Truth be told, the most important ecclesiastical building in the city is the Abbey of Saint Germanus, a building named for a bishop of the city in Late Antiquity. If you speak French and you have some spare time, then be sure to embark on a guided tour of the Abbey and its associated buildings. Deep in detail, this 1.5 tour will show you hidden gems of the Abbey, including parts of the Merovingian cathedral and 9th-century beautifully preserved frescoes.
#11 The timber-framed city of Chalon-Sur-Saône
When you imagine Burgundy (or Bourgogne as it is so-called in French), you likely picture the Hôtel Dieu of Beaune or the Cathedral of Dijon. But what you may not know is that there also plenty of other cities in the region that have just as much to offer the visitor in the form of museums, beautiful views, and plenty of history.
Chalon-sur-Saône is set across mainland France and a small island in the centre of the River Saône. Of particular note is a series of statues and museums dedicated to Nicéphore Niépce, the man who took the earliest surviving photograph. Elsewhere in the city, the cathedral square is home to many a timber-framed house and is the perfect spot to stop off for a coffee break.
#12 Follow in the footsteps of Joan of Arc
Domremy-la-Pucelle is alleged to be the birthplace of Joan of Arc and there are many small towns and cities where Jeanne d’Arc is alleged to have attended services, marched through, or simply rested within during her travels through France during the 15th-century.
And when it comes to Eastern France, several cities display plaques, denoting that d’Arc once passed through. Among these towns are Auxerre, Sens, and the medieval city of Provins. Today, if you want to follow in the French heroine’s footsteps now, here’s a guide to Joan of Arc in France.
#13 Reims Underground Tunnels
Though Reims may be most famous as being the capital city of Champagne, what many visitors to the city don’t know is that there is a plethora of history to the city that predates even the invention of the bubbly French tipple (even though that’s many visitors’ main reason for frequenting the region).
You see, Reims was an important city during the Roman era, and the chalky ground beneath the topsoil was perfect for mining. While the Romans would have quarried the chalks, centuries later people realised that the underground tunnels that ensued as a result of the mining were perfect for storage, particularly that of Champagne.
Today, the tunnels are UNESCO world heritage listed and you can even often visit them for yourself should you opt to take a Champagne House tour. Of course, between a library overlooking Reims Cathedral and hidden churches across the city, Reims also has plenty of other secrets to uncover. Check here for the best-kept secrets of Reims.
#14 Discover the many hidden gems of Dijon
Once upon a time, Dijon was the French capital city of mustard. And while there are no houses producing the piquant sauce within the city itself, there remains ample opportunity to go mustard tasting in Dijon. Otherwise, while the Burgundy settlement is by no means a hidden gem, there are still plenty of secret spots in Dijon that you’ll want to discover for yourself on your next trip to Bourgogne.
For example, did you know that Gustave Eiffel was born in the city? Or that there’s a café bookshop in the very heart of town? And so, if you’re looking to escape the crowds of Paris and don’t wish to stay for too long in Beaune, then I highly recommend heading to Dijon next time you’re in Eastern France!
#15 The picturesque town of Eguisheim
Though some of the biggest cities in the Alsace Region of France are Strasbourg and Mulhouse, followed closely by the often underrated city of Colmar, there are plenty more smaller and off the beaten path towns and villages worth discovering, if only you know where to look.
For example, the charming French settlement of Eguisheim is to be found just a fifteen minute drive from Colmar and is a picturesque timer-framed throwback to centuries gone by. Surrounded by rolling hills and lush green hills, Eguisheim is located on the Alsace wine route and is best-known for the three castles of Eguinsheim, a set of ruinous sandstone fortifications which date all the way back to 1006!
One of the best-kept secrets of the Alsace region in Eastern France is easily the tiny village of Niedermorschwihr. Characterised by its tiny nature and surrounded by swathes of vineyards (the Alsace is one of the largest wine-producing regions in l’Hexagone), the town has a selection of Alsace taverns serving a selection of regional food, as well as plenty of pretty timber-framed houses! Of all the secrets of Eastern France, this matchbox-sized settlement is one of my favourites!
#17 The secret history of Strasbourg
Of course, the capital city of the Alsace region, i.e. Strasbourg, is by no means a secret! However, what many people don’t know about is one of the most surprising (and tragic) episodes in the settlement’s long history. After all, during the 16th-century, the Strasbourg Dancing Plague overtook the city and resulted in the deaths of dozens of local residents.
Things to know before visiting the East of France
Nearly all the major cities and towns found within the region can be reached by either train or bus. You don’t need to generally book tickets in advance and train travel is, for the most part, inexpensive. However, due to the more rural location of many of these destinations, accommodation is more limited and is often more expensive. Check here for accommodation in South-East France and here for accommodation in Franche-Comté.