A quintessentially French town with a distinctively historic feel, Vienne is an easy day trip from Lyon, or alternatively, a must-visit destination in its own right. Set in a natural valley surrounded by hills forged by human hands and lying alongside the River Rhône, here’s your complete guide to the best things to do in Vienne, France.
Introducing Vienne, the other Roman city of d’Isere
You’d be surprised by how many quirky and unique attractions are to be found in the city of Vienne. After all, there’s a castle, cathedral, plenty of Roman ruins, and lots of cobbled lanes. And while there’s evidence of human habitation in the area as far back as Neolithic times, the settlement didn’t rise to true prominence until the arrival of the Romans.
Prior to this time, the region was inhabited by the Gallic Allobroges. It was only in 47 BCE that Julius Caesar founded the Roman colony at Vienne, then known as Vienna (Vienna in Austria was known as Vindobona at that time). Soon enough, the city’s strategic position along the River Rhône soon saw it grow into a major centre for commerce and trade.
Wander around the city today and there’s no telling what you might stumble upon next. Whether it be a fragment of Roman road, a piece of the ancient fortifications, or a plaque from times gone by, Vienne is just bursting with history waiting to be discovered. For music lovers, it’s worth noting that an annual jazz festival is held in the town at the end of June/ beginning of July.
Best things to do in Vienne, France
#1 Musée Gallo-Romain-en-Gal
Though technically on the fringes of Vienne (after all, the archaeological site is located on the other side of the river, which is outside of the city limits), the Musée Gallo-Romain-en-Gal is easily one of the best hidden gems of Auvergne-Rhone-Alpes.
For a fee (an audio guide is included in the price, subject to availability), you can now enter the impressive archaeological site and see the warehouses, commercial, and residential districts of Roman Vienna. However, though there is an indoor section, I don’t recommend going if the weather is particularly bad as the best of the museum is outdoors!
#2 Château de la Bâtie
High above the city on the largest of the five such mounts that surround the city, the Château de la Bâtie is an impressive vestige of times gone by. Constructed on the foundations of what was likely an earlier Roman lookout point or fortress, the ruins of the structure you see today were probably erected during the 13th-century.
#3 Tour de Valois
Following the Roman period, the right side of the River Rhône was all but abandoned. The Roman settlement spanned the townships of what are now Vienne, Sainte-Colombe, and Saint-Romain-en-Gal. Though the Right Bank of the Rhône was all but abandoned, the Cordeliers chose to build a monastery on that side of the river in 1260. The tower you see today was originally planned to be one of three towers, providing protection for Sainte-Colombe.
#4 Hôtel de Ville
Typically French in style, the Hôtel de Ville is in the heart of Vienne. Up until 1768 when the property was acquired by the city, the building was a private mansion house owned by the Marquis de Rachais. Later additions in the 19th-century standardised the look of the town hall, leading it to appear like many other French town halls of that period.
#5 Temple d’Auguste et Livie
Impressive, in the very heart of a maze of cobbled lanes and surrounded by cafés, the Temple of Augustus and Livia is a true sight to behold. Constructed during the 1st Century CE as the centrepiece of the then Roman forum (main town square), there is only one other such well-preserved temple like this in France (in Nimes). Many buildings like this would have been destroyed over the centuries and the Temple at Vienne only survived thanks to its transformation into a church during the 6th-century.
#6 Jardin Archaeologique de Cybèle
One of the best places to chill out or enjoy a picnic among friends can be found somewhere between Vienne’s impressive cathedral and its equally imposing ancient theatre. The archaeological garden is not only a tranquil green space but is also littered with pieces of Vienne’s Roman history. For example, aside from several pretty archways, there are the foundations of several houses and plenty of tall walls.
#7 Historic city centre
Truth be told, if you want to get a true feel for Vienne, then you’ll need to dedicate at least an hour or two to wander around its many streets, snapping photos, and simply soaking up the ambience of the place. After all, the shuttered pastel houses have an almost Mediterranean feel about them, while traces of the city’s Roman past can be found around nearly every corner.
#8 Église de cloître Saint-André-le-Bas
This pretty church and its adjoining cloisters date back to the 6th-century, though little is known or documented about the ecclesiastical building’s past. What is known is that during the 900s, the Burgundy Kings likely worshipped here. Today, you can visit the church and cloisters, which are the only complete example of a Romanesque cloister in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes.
#9 Cathédrale Saint-Maurice
Situated in the very heart of the historic town, however impressive Vienne Cathedral may appear today, it’s not actually a true cathedral! This is due to the abolishment of the Archdiocese of Vienne following the French Revolution. Instead, the still impressive Gothic structure is a co-cathedral. Now, you can visit for free and admire the intricate stone carvings and stained glass windows of this medieval building.
Much like in neighbouring Lyon, Odéon was a smaller Roman theatre constructed for the purpose of musical performances. Though in a ruinous state today, the theatre would once have seated 3000 spectators and was probably constructed between the 1st and 2nd Centuries CE.
#11 Théâtre Antique
If you make it your mission to see just one thing in Vienne, make sure it’s the ancient theatre. Impressive and still used for concerts to this very day, the Théâtre once seated around 13,000 people and was built in 40 CE. In an astonishing turn of events, the second largest Roman theatre in Gaul actually ended up lost and forgotten for centuries, only being rediscovered during the 1900s.
#12 Best view of Vienne: Belvédere du Pipet (Mont Pipet)
For the very best view of Vienne, you’ll need to put your very best walking shoes on! For at the top of Mont Pipet, there’s a small church and a viewpoint offering a glimpse of the ancient theatre from above. And that’s not all. From the top, you can see the ancient city spread out below you and the impressive Château de la Bâtie from a whole new perspective.
# 13 Ancient house in the town centre
You’ll know you’re in the right place when you spy a timber-framed building close to the archaeological gardens. Downstairs is an ever-so-modern takeaway shop, while the upper floors look like they’ve been pulled straight out of the history books.
#14 Le Pyramide (also known as the Plan de l’Aiguille)
Around a ten minute walk from the train station, in the opposite direction to the rest of the historic town centre, the Pyramid is set in the centre of a roundabout. Largely forgotten and neglected by passersby in favour of more ‘must-see Roman Vienne sites,’ this obelisk marks the place where the Roman chariot rides would have taken place in ancient Vienna.
#15 Vienne weekly food market
For all the gourmet lovers and foodies out there, Vienne in France is an absolute must see. As well as a myriad of bars and restaurants scattered across the city, every Saturday morning sees the second largest market in France take place. In total, there’s around 5km worth of stands to explore, making it a must-visit event!
How to visit Vienne as a day trip from Lyon
It couldn’t be easier to reach Vienne as a day trip from Lyon. There are direct trains to the town from both Gare de Lyon Part-Dieu and Lyon Perrache. Both routes take around the same amount of time from city to city and trains take anything from nineteen minutes to half an hour.
Book your tickets far enough in advance and you can expect to purchase tickets for as little as €5 each way. In order to make the most out of your time in Vienne as a Lyon day trip, I highly recommend setting aside an entire day so as to be able to see all of the Roman sites, stroll around the city, and visit several of the museums!
Where to stay in Vienne France
If you’re looking for a city escape that’s off the beaten path and away from the crowds of Lyon, then you need to look no further than Vienne along the Rhône. Although you can obviously visit the city as a day trip, in order to truly visit the town’s four museums, explore its many churches, or see all of the Roman ruins in the vicinity (not to mention the castles), I highly recommend an overnight stay. Check here for the best accommodation prices in Vienne.
Practical advice and things to know before visiting Vienne
Don’t be fooled by the size of the visitor’s map that will be handed to you when you reach the tourism office. The city is much bigger than you might have first imagined and you’ll likely spend hours on your feet. During my visit to Vienne, I clocked up well over 20,000 steps and climbed countless flights of stairs. As such, bring along some water and be sure to wear comfortable walking shoes.
While Vienne largely relies on tourism and you’ll find visitor maps in French, English and several other languages in the Vienne Condrieu Tourisme (a five minute walk from the train station, address: Pavillon du Tourisme, Cours Brillier), I highly recommend bringing along a simple phrase book like this one for situations where you need to know a little French!