Old Besancon

Besançon - city and visitor guide 

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one of France's
hidden treasures.
The capital of Franche Comté
boasts a fine historic city centre, Roman remains, two really good museums and a Renaissance palace. Above the town stands Vauban's great 17th century citadel, a UNESCO world heritage site
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Besançon city guide

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Discover Besançon - things to see and do 

On this page Location and access Tourist attractions
In the area Local accommodation

BesançonCradled in a loop of the river Doubs, the ancient city of Besançon is one of the best preserved historic cities in France.
   In pre-Roman times, it was the capital of an area known as Sequania. When the area was conquered by the Romans, Julius Caesar described this naturally defensive site as "the jewel in my crown". Today Besançon is the capital of the region of Franche Comté, a thriving university town, and one of the more popular places to visit in eastern France.

Location and access

    Its location at the crosssroads of two major trans-European routes has always made Besançon a strategic city. It stands at the intersection of the Rhine-Rhone corridor and the historic main route between Rheims and Milan - or the UK and Switzerland.  Today it is located at the intersection of the A36 Mulhouse-Beaune (Germany-Spain) motorway and the N57 - N83 route from Nancy to Lyon, as well as on the shortest route from the UK to the Swiss cities of Lausanne and Neuchâtel.
   The city is also served by the brand new Rhine-Rhone TGV route, and has direct TGV services from Paris in less than 2h 30, as well as from Lille, Lyon, Strasbourg, Marseille, Basel and Zurich.  The nearest airport to Besançon is the Basel-Mulhouse Euroairport.

Tourist attractions

Quai Vauban Besançon
Tourist boat passing in front of 17th century Quai Vauban
Roman gate
The Roman "Porte Noire", recently renovated, and
behind it the cathedral 
      Besançon, capital of the Franche-Comté region, has a wealth of tourist attractions. The most visited of these is the Citadel - a UNESCO World Heritage site - a magnificent example of seventeenth-century military architecture, designed by Vauban. The imposing Citadel stands on a massive rock - sheer on both sides - that blocks the entrance to the loop of the river Doubs. As well as being an important historic monument in its own right, the Citadel contains a number of museums, including a folk museum, a museum of the Resistance and the Deportation, an insectarium, and a zoo.
     Visitors driving or walking up to the Citadel pass by Besançon's St. Jean cathedral: built on the groundplan of an earlier Carolingian cathedral, with an altar at both ends, St. Jean's is a fine mediaeval cathedral which also houses one of the great works of the Florentine Renaissance master Fra Bartolomeo, as well as a great astronomic clock, a fitting nineteenth-century monument to Besançon's past glory as capital of the French clock and watchmaking industry. Just outside the cathedral is the Porte Noire, a Roman triumphal arch that is the principal vestige today of the Roman city that once stood on the site.

Bonnard - café du Petit Poucet
Bonnard's Café du Petit Poucet - Besançon, musée des Beaux Arts 
MUSEUMS     The town centre of Besançon boasts two impressive museums; The most important of these is the city's Musée des Beaux Arts, one of the best and oldest provincial art galleries in France. Standing on the old market square, the museum - entirely rebuilt in the nineteen-sixties - contains a rich collection of paintings and historic artefacts. These include Egyptian mummies, Roman bronzes and mosaics, and mediaeval sculpture, as well as a major art collection with - among many others - works by Cranach, Bronzino, Bellini, Reubens, Zurbaran, Goya, Fragonard, Courbet, Renoir, Bonnard, Signac, Marquet and Picasso. The layout of this museum is such that the visitor is taken effortlessly on a coherent journey through the history of art in a manner that is quite impossible in larger museums such as the Louvre.
  Unfortunately, the museum is closed for full renovation, and will not reopen until 2017.

Besancon citadel
View across the old city, to Vauban's citadel
     Besançon's second important museum is the Museum of Time - a legacy of the city's watchmaking tradition - that is housed in the Renaissance Granvelle palace. The palace itself is one of the finest Renaissance town houses in France, built for Cardinal Granvelle, who was chancellor to the Hapsburg emperor Charles V. It houses not only the museum of time - with its static and interactive exhibits - but also a fine collection of seventeenth-century Bruges tapestries depicting the life of Charles V, still hanging in the room for which they were originally commissioned.
     Other attractions in Besançon include boat trips on the river Doubs, that take visitors round the historic city centre and through the canal tunnel under the Citadelle, and the birthplace of Victor Hugo - close to the Porte Noire. Hugo - reputed France's greatest poet - was born in Besançon, where his father was posted, though his family was not from the region.
     The whole of the old centre of Besançon - the central area of which is pedestrianised - is a delightful urban environment that has survived more or less intact against the onslaughts of modernism; the old streets are lined with houses and buildings from the Renaissance to the early twentieth century, built in the local two-coloured limestone. The city centre is also the starting point for a number of well-marked hiking trails up and down the valley, and to the hills around the city.

In the area

     The Franche Comté region has masses to offer; firstly its countryside and natural environment of forests, hills and valleys. The area also contains plenty of places that are worth a visit.
    Southeast of Besançon, a twenty-minute drive from the city, lies Ornans, birthplace of the 19th century painter Gustave Courbet. Ornans is in a beautiful natural setting, in the steep valley of the river Loue. The town has a recently renovated and very interesting Courbet museum, in the artist's birthplace.
     Southwest of Besançon lie the Royal Saltworks of Arc et Senans - designed in the eighteenth century as an ideal city, by the visionary architect Claude Nicolas Ledoux. The Royal Saltworks have long been classed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
       At Nancray, east of Besançon, visitors can admire the Museum of Comtois houses, a living history open-air museum housing an ever-increasing collection of traditional houses and rural buildings from the region that have been carefully dismantled and rebuilt at Nacray.


Click here for a choice of hotels in Besançon at best online rates.
Besancon has plenty of hotel accommodation. In the town centre, most of the hotels have car parking facilities. The centre is a pedestrian zone, but hotel access is of course permitted. Town centre accommodation can be recommended to visitors staying for a couple of nights or more, as everything in the town centre, museums, cathedral, citadelle, river cruises, can be easily reached on foot.  Alternatively, hotels on the outskirts of town and near the railway station are close to bus or tram routes; and Besançon is reputed as having one of the best urban public transport systems in France

Contact:   info "at" about-france.com 

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Key tourist information for Besançon:

: Franche Comté
Nearby cities: Belfort, Dijon, Lausanne
Nearest airports: Basel-Mulhouse
Besançon is on the routes between:
Strasbourg and Lyon
Germany and Barcelona
Reims and Lausanne,  Calais and Milan.
and on:
Euro Cycleway 6 - Budapest - Nantes.
Population:  120,000
Main sites:  Vauban's Citadel, historic city centre, Musée des Beaux Arts, Palais Granvelle, birthplace of Victor Hugo
Nearby attractions:  Ornans, Saline d'Arc et Senans, Musée des maisons comtoises, Jura mountains

Click for Hotels in Besançon

Location Besançon

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Fra Bartolomeo madonna

Virgin with saints, by the Florentine master Fra Bartolomeo, in Besançon's cathedral