Besançon – The perfect French slow travel city
My first introduction to Besançon was when my husband and I were searching for a rental apartment on Airbnb. We were planning our first European slow travel trip and France was our starting point.
A quick Google search of Besançon returned ‘charming’, ‘cultured’, ‘city of art and history’. Photos appeared of the red tiled city wrapped in the winding Doubs river. Immediately we knew we had found our first destination and booked our one-bedroom attic apartment on the edge of the old town.
Having grown up on French campsite’s every summer as a child, I was surprised I hadn’t heard of Franche-Comté’s green city. My friends didn’t really know the area either. When I told people where we were going, the usual response was ‘where is that?’. So I would just refer to it as a small town in France near the Swiss border.
But apparently, we were not the only ones in the dark. Tony, the friendly and engaging owner of a beer bar on Rue Claude Poulliet was also surprised we had come to Besançon. He joked that people in Paris didn’t even know where Besançon was. According to him, we had ventured out into the depths of rural France.
Of course, Besançon has a number of historical sights and museums to attract and entertain tourists. However, its real attraction is that it is an ‘everyday life’ kind of town. Multiculturally diverse, yet still withholding its traditions. A working town and university hub.
Locals dominate the town centre, not tourists. Restaurant menu’s remain in French. Roads don’t become clogged up with tour buses. Green spaces are in abundance. Popular sights escape the overcrowding crisis. Bliss!
For me, this emulates what travel in France should be. Besançon’s character and beauty will feed your intrigue to explore every inch. We stayed here for a month and found it to be the perfect base for a French slow travel sojourn.
Relish in history
Besançon’s architecture is not only of French flare. German and Spanish influences appear throughout the town, mixed with Roman, Medieval, Renaissance and 19th-century masterpieces. The preserved streets of the Grande Rue and Rue des Granges lead you through the old town towards the monumental Citadel. At each corner, you have the opportunity to get lost in the side streets of this architectural gem.
The town is home to Vauban’s 17th century UNESCO world heritage Citadel and Cardinal Granvelle’s Renaissance Palace. A number of museums relevant to the town and region include the Museum of Resistance and Deportation, Museum of Beautiful Arts, Museum of Time and Victor Hugo’s birthplace home. The magnificent Cathedrale Saint-Jean and Eglise Sainte-Madeleine reflect the religious heritage of the city.
If you are spending time in Besançon you will notice its strong focus on green open spaces. Footpaths and bike trails offer easy access to the surrounding hill forts and countryside. Hike up to Batterie du Rosemont, Fort de Bregille and Fort de Chaudanne for panoramic views of Besançon’s centre.
The city also boasts a number of parks to take a stroll in, enjoy a picnic, or watch the world go by. La Gare d’Eau and Parc Micaud sit on opposite sides of town along the banks of the Doubs river. The Botanical garden, established and still run by the Franche-Comté University, features outdoor plants and greenhouses offering peace and tranquility.
Ditch the car
When I researched Besançon and the surrounding Franche-Comté region, many websites insisted you needed a car. This is totally untrue. We arrived from Paris by train in just two and half hours and visited several surrounding towns and villages on foot, bike and using local transport.
The Véloçité bike rental system is a terrific way to explore the city and get from A to B. There are over 30 stations dotted around the city. Simple to use and work similarly to those in other cities. We used the bikes to ride from our apartment to the other side of town, and cycled out along the Doubs river to nearby villages.
Besançon’s bus and tram system serves central locations like Besançon-Viotte’s train station all the way up to the Citadel, and out to the suburbs. You can also reach nearby towns such as Ornans, ‘Venice of the Franche-Comté’, in 50 minutes taking the Mobidoubs bus, line A.
Dijon, Dole, Belfort, Montbéliard, Arbois, Arc-et-Senans and Poligny were all easily reached by train. Made even easier with a Bourgogne-Franche-Comté TER Carte. Pay €20 and receive a 30% to 60% discount for yourself and one other travel companion. We even made it out to Les 4 Lacs, a natural heritage site of lakes in the Jura mountains by taking a train to La Chaux-des-Crotenay and hiking in three miles.
Whatever your taste, budget or fancy – Besançon certainly won’t disappoint. Restaurants range from traditional French cuisine, brasseries, pizzerias, burger joints, kebab and French taco shacks, sushi houses, Thai, Chinese and Indian. Rue Bersot and Rue Gustave Courbet are lively spots to enjoy a meal.
Besançon also holds a farmer’s market every Tuesday and Friday morning in the Place de la Revolution. Here you can buy fresh, local produce at very cheap prices. Bakeries, cake shops, butchers, and delicatessens are still alive and kicking in this provincial town. Giving you the opportunity to cook a traditional French dish with authentic ingredients.
Beer bars offering traditional and craft styles are in growing force thanks to the town’s proximity to the German border and thriving student vibe. Mister-y bar, Kilarney pub, and Le Brass’éliande cafe all have extensive beer menus to quench your thirst. Classic wine and cocktail bars are also easy to find, along with wine shops and cellars, such as the popular Barthod wine store.
Enjoy local life
So if you are searching for your next French slow travel destination, Besançon really should be a top consideration. At the end of our month’s stay, I can honestly say how fond I have become of this city and the people who live here.
From the sweet lady at our local corner shop, who we’d buy late night snacks from every weekend. To the local walkers and runners, who would always greet us a warm ‘bonjour’ as we passed. I truly feel we have experienced local life in this charming city, and if you chose to visit one day, I am confident you will feel the same.
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