Close to the majestic Jura Mountains and the Swiss border, Besancon, located in eastern France, is an under-the-radar destination for American visitors.
Besancon is the capital city of the Franche-Comte, a significant cultural and historic region of France. Named an official Town of Art and History by the French Ministry of Culture in 1986, Besancon has enjoyed UNESCO World Heritage status since 2008.
The history of Besancon can be traced as far back as 58 B.C., when it was called Vesonio and appeared in Julius Caesar’s journal on the Gallic Wars. In the 15th century, during the Renaissance period, Besancon was ruled by the kings of Burgundy. The city also played an important part in World War II, when the Nazis occupied the citadel and executed more than 100 Resistance fighters between 1910 and 1944. During that time, Besancon was home to an internment camp where the Germans imprisoned close to 4,000 British citizens in very harsh conditions.
Pro Tip: Watch the excellent French TV series A French Village to learn about the strategic importance of Besancon during World War II.
What To Do
Built and rebuilt over the centuries, beginning in the 11th century, the Besancon Cathedral is a rich mix of architectural styles, including Romanesque and Gothic. Besides beautiful architecture, the cathedral has a collection of religious paintings and an 11th-century altar made of white marble. A number of the Dukes of Burgundy are buried in the cathedral.
An exquisite example of a fine timepiece produced in the city is the astronomical clock inside the Besancon Cathedral. The clock stands an incredible 20 feet high, contains 30,000 moving parts, and has 70 faces. It records the orbits of the planets and the timing of eclipses. The clock was designed and built by master clockmaker Auguste-Lucien Verite between 1858 and 1863.
Musee Du Temps
Due to its proximity to Switzerland, Besancon was once a major center for watchmaking and timepieces.
The Musee du Temps is housed in the Palais Granvelle, a stunning Renaissance chateau built in the 1530s. The museum features timekeeping artifacts — sundials, a Foucault pendulum, astronomical clocks, antique watches, and more — alongside cutting-edge exhibitions on nanotechnology.
One of the most important figures in the history of Besancon was the Marquis de Vauban, a brilliant military engineer under Louis XIV. The citadel, a striking fortress laid out on 30 acres perched 300 feet above the city near the Doubs River, was one of Vauban’s architectural masterpieces.
The citadel contains three museums: the Museum of Resistance and Deportation, the Museum of Franche-Comte, and the Natural History Museum. Be sure to leave time to visit the zoo, botanical garden, and children’s farm.
Pro Tip: Guided tours of the citadel are available in English.
Connected by the Pont Battant bridge, which dates to the Roman era and is only 12 feet wide, the Battant neighborhood is a great place to spend a few hours. The narrow cobblestone streets have handsome architecture from the 14th and 15th centuries, and in recent years, the neighborhood has become known for its restaurants, cafes, nightlife, small boutiques, and bustling food market.
Other notable attractions in the neighborhood include the Pelote Tower, a stone tower dating to 1475 that was once part of the fortification around Besancon; the 15th-century House of Wood Beams, the oldest house in Besancon; the Besancon synagogue, built in 1860; and the Saint Madeleine Church.
Maison Victor Hugo
The great French writer Victor Hugo, who wrote The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Les Miserables, was born in Besancon in 1802. Hugo only spent two months in the city, however, since his father, who was in the military, was soon deployed to Marseilles.
His birthplace home was turned into a museum in 2013. It covers Hugo’s life and accomplishments in a series of interactive displays on three floors. Artifacts and memorabilia are also spread around the museum.
The square the house is located in is where the great painter Gustave Courbet lived and where the Lumiere brothers, who invented the technology of cinematography in the early 1900s, were born.
Musee Des Beaux-Arts Et D’Archeologie
The oldest museum in France is the Musee des Beaux-Arts et d’Archeologie in Besancon. It opened in 1694 and is best known for its superb collection of Gallo-Roman archaeology from the region. It also has an extensive collection of drawings by Rodin and Delacroix and paintings by Matisse, Rubens, Goya, and Titian.
Where To Eat
Les Tables D’Antan
A cozy restaurant in a rustic setting with wooden beams and exposed brick walls, Les Tables d’Antan, serves hearty comfort food. It specializes in various types of gratins, such as sausage, chicken, and smoked trout, as well as savory crumbles like potatoes and duck confit, mushrooms and escargots, and goat cheese, endives, and honey.
La Brasserie Du Commerce
A grand brasserie dating to 1873, La Brasserie du Commerce is decorated with crystal chandeliers, tall ceilings, and decorative moldings. The classic French menu features dishes such as salad Comtoise, a salad with the popular local cheese Comte; steak tartare with fries; local trout with pesto; and herb-crusted lamb chops. For dessert, try the crunchy profiteroles with a rich chocolate syrup and vanilla ice cream.
Pro Tip: The restaurant offers three-course meals for 29 euros per person.
Where To Stay
Hotel Le Sauvage
A former monastery has been converted into the highly rated Hotel Le Sauvage, which is located within walking distance of all the important attractions in Besancon. Room amenities include flat-screen televisions, parquet floors, queen-size beds, and views of the citadel.