Besancon occupies a stunning site on a meander in the River Doubs; not surprisingly, this is the capital city of Franche Comté.
This is also the birthplace of Victor Hugo, and is renowned for its many museums and outstanding architecture.
The city has a most beautiful historic centre. A broad horse-shoe of the river Doubs, “la Boucle”, encircles the old town, while Vauban’s imposing Citadelle blocks off the neck.
Things to do in Besancon
The historic centre presents a remarkable ensemble of classic stone buildings, some dating back to the Middle Ages and others to the Spanish Renaissance.
Among the most visited historic monuments, all worthy of your attention, are:
Several Roman ruins.
The 16th century Palais Granvelle.
Vauban’s citadel (Citadel of Besançon).
The Cathedral of St. Jean.
Several Spanish Renaissance-style buildings.
The Église de la Madeleine (Church of Madeleine).
The river frontage.
Citadel of Besançon
An imposing structure that dominates the skyline the Citadel of Besançon is an incredible piece of military architecture. Even if you’ve no interest whatsoever in military history you will find the citadel absolutely fascinating.
It’s built atop Mount Saint-Etienne and covers well over 25 acres. It was built in the late 17th century and overlooks the bend in the river Doubs and the old quarter of Besançon.
The Citadel of Besançon was built by French military architect Vauban and is one of a dozen similar sites in France which together are listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
However, the fortifications in Besançon are by far the most impressive.
Walking along the walls and around the ramparts is so interesting. It’s hard not to imagine the lines of musketeers at the walls ready to repel all-comers.
And you can’t help but be impressed by the engineers who built the place. The walls are incredibly strong. They are around 20 feet thick and up to 66 feet in height. You really wouldn’t have wanted to be a soldier tasked with capturing this place.
The citadel may sound like any other ancient fortification but it is so much more than that.
The citadel now houses many museums including a natural history museum with aquarium and zoo. The zoo is home to many exotic species including endangered big cats.
The Museum of the Resistance and Deportation is a must-see attraction which tells the (often dark and disturbing) tale of France during the Second World War. As can be gathered from the name of the museum there is an unflinching retelling of the deportation of French citizens during the war.
There is also a nice homage to Vauban himself and 17th century warfare.
The citadel is well worth a visit if you are going to Besançon.
The town of Besancon
The historic centre lies within the ‘boucle’, while numerous shops and restaurants can be found on the Grande-Rue, near the bridges. The modern town lies across the river.
Half a day may well be sufficient time to explore Besançon, but a full day would allow a more leisurely appreciation, especially of its fine architecture.
UNESCO added the citadel, the city walls and Fort Griffon to its list of World Heritage Sites in 2008, as part of the “Fortifications of Vauban” group.
Church of the Madeleine
Like many churches in France the scale of the Église de la Madeleine is awe inspiring. As churches go it isn’t that old – it was completed in 1830 though it was built and destroyed several times before that. The first church dates back to the 11th century.
There is a wonderful automaton on the south tower which is quite a strange thing to see on a church. Inside there is a huge organ though the most impressive sight is undoubtedly the life-size Way of the Cross.
You don’t have to be religious to enjoy looking around churches and the Église de la Madeleine certainly deserves some of your time. The church can be found on the Rue de la Madeleine.
Roman Ruins in Besancon
The Roman ruins in Besancon are one of the most beautiful historic sites in France and yet they’re something of a hidden gem that are not given anywhere near as much credit or tourism as they deserve.
If you’re in Besancon and have a taste for history then we’d highly recommend spending some time exploring the ruins.
The ruins are set in the Square Caston in this city of arts and culture and while small, they’re filled with interesting sights.
What’s surprising is the history behind the ruins and how the Romans came to be in Besancon in the first place. That was all down to the infamous Julius Caesar and in France, Besancon was one of the first cities he conquered.
There are eight magnificent Corinthian columns as well as the ruins of a Roman theatre. You wouldn’t be able to spend a whole day here, or even an afternoon.
But there is enough for a quick visit and if the weather is good, it’s the perfect place to stop off and rest your feet while soaking up the history.
There are information signs dotted about but these are primarily in French, so better get those phrasebooks out before paying a visit.
While most of the ruins are located in Square Caston, there are other points of interest around the city that date back to Roman times.
For example, the breathtaking triumphal arch known as the Porte Noire that casts its shadow over the Saint Jean district and is thought to have been standing proudly since the 2nd century!
There is also the Promenade Micaud and the remains of the Vestonio arena. This area is only partially uncovered but there are ongoing archeological excavations to this day.
It’s believed that much of the unearthing took place in the Middle Ages when the stone was reclaimed and used for building.