On a plateau between the Jura Mountains and the Vosges is a city that has been hotly contested for a millennium.
Belfort was the only feasible route into France for hundreds of kilometres to the north or south, and many French Kings and leaders did their best to fortify it.
Louis XIV ordered the Iron Belt and the elaborate citadel that was planned by Vauban, the great military architect of the day.
These walls and the satellite fortresses around need to be seen, and a few have museums inside for art or about the tempestuous history of this city.
The city’s indomitable spirit is encapsulated by the monumental Lion of Belfort statue, commanding the scene from the face of a cliff.
Lets explore the best things to do in Belfort:
1. Belfort Citadel
The Belfort Gap was seen as a chink in eastern France’s armour for almost a 1,000 years and has been heavily fortified since the 13th century.
But in the 17th century these defences were modernised for artillery, first by the Comte de Suze and then the famed military mastermind, Vauban.
He built a second wall for the city, with an elaborate system of hornworks and ditches that was so advanced that it successfully withstood a siege in 1815, more than a century after its construction.
There are soaring lookouts and subterranean passages and a program of re-enactments in summer to bring different stages of the citadel’s past back to life.
2. Lion of Belfort
In an epic position on a ledge beneath bluffs and a section of the citadel walls is the redoubtable statue of a lion.
This was made in 1880 by Frédéric Bartholdi and commemorates the siege of Belfort during the Franco-Prussian War, when the city held out for 103 days despite a big disadvantage in manpower.
Bartholdi of course was the man who designed the Statue of Liberty in New York, and his lion is made from sandstone blocks, sculpted down the slope and brought up to this ledge piece by piece to be assembled.
3. Ring of Fortifications
Amid rising tensions with neighbouring Prussia in the 1800s, a succession of French kings and then the Third Republic tried to shore up the Belfort Gap.
They did this with a gigantic network of fortifications that expanded on Vauban’s citadel and the Iron Belt so that the city wasn’t vulnerable to long-distance artillery.
So the scenery around the town is just strewn with 19th-century military buildings in different states of repair.
Many of them, like Fort de la Miotte, Forte des Basses-Perches, Fort Dorsner and Fort de Meroux can be freely explored, and this is really just the tip of the iceberg.
4. Musée d’Histoire et d’Archéologie
In the citadel’s old barracks is a museum covering thousands of years of history in the Belfort area.
It began in 1872, after work at a local fort unearthed Neolithic artefacts.
Now there are three distinct spaces: A museum of archaeology with prehistoric, Gallo-Roman and Carolingian objects, an exhibition about Bartholdi containing sculptures, models and sketches of the lion, and a gallery about the stormy military history of Belfort.
Each section has its merits, whether it’s Roman mosaics, Prussian weaponry or an inside look at the process of one of history’s most famous sculptors.
5. Porte de Brisach
A solemn way to ente the city from the east, the Porte de Brisach was also fashioned by Vauban and passes through the fortifications from Rue des Mobiles.
There’s a bridge across the ditch before you’re faced with a portal that leaves you in no doubt about the King’s authority: In the pediment at the top is the famous Sun King emblem and Louis XIV’s motto “Nec pluribus impar”, which means literally, “not unequal to many”. Lower down there are flags and trophies around fleurs de lys and the French royal crown.
6. Musée d’Art Moderne
In this elegant Belle Époque mansion is a neat little summary of modern art in the first decades of the 20th century.
The cubist and surrealist movements are well-represented, with work by Picasso, Juan Gris, Georges Braque, Fernand Léger and André Masson.
These 150 pieces of painting, sculpture and drawing were all donated to Belfort in 1997 by the curator Maurice Jardot.
This man had a long-term partnership with Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, who was a big patron of cubism and became one of France’s leading art dealers of the 20th century.
7. Musée des Beaux-Arts
One of the citadel’s bastions, Tour 41, is an atmospheric setting for the city’s fine art museum.
A mix of government deposits and donations down the years have endowed the museum with 150 works from the Renaissance up to the end of the 19th century.
And there are plenty of epoch-making artists to be found, like Albrecht Dürer and Auguste Rodin in particular.
It’s especially rich in French art from the 1800s, by the likes of Eugène Carrière, Gustave Courbet and Paul Signac.
Tour 46, a few steps away, is for temporary exhibitions of history and art organised by each of Belfort’s museum.
8. Belfort Cathedral
With pride of place in front of the Place d’Armes, Belfort’s Neoclassical cathedral almost resembles the ancient monuments at Petra when you see it from the west side.
It was intended as an abbey church in the first half of the 1700s and didn’t become a cathedral until 1979 when the diocese of Belfort-Montbéliard was created.
The striking pink sandstone used in the construction was quarried close by in the village of Offemont.
And the interior was a platform for Franche-Comté artists of the time to show what they could do and has sculpture by Antoine Cupillard and paintings by Gustave Dauphin.
At the back, feast your eyes on the very decorative Great Organ in the gallery, which was installed in 1752 and is a French historic monument oin its own right.
9. Lac du Malsaucy
You could drive, cycle or hike out to this serene 55-hectare lake bordered by woodland and low hills.
In what had previously been marshes, the lake was dammed as long ago as the 1400s to supply water to Belfort and create a body of water for fishing.
People still come fishing today, but now it is more valued for its natural splendour and the sandy beach on the east shore.
The beach is supervised in the summer as part of a whole activity centre that rents out paddleboards, canoes and rowboats.
There’s even an outdoor cinema by the water on summer evenings.
10. Tracking down the Lions
Bartholdi’s lion has fathered some 150 cubs around the city, which appear as statues, sculpted architectural features, murals, fountains and door knockers.
In the summer Belfort’s tourist office arranges guided walking tours finding each one, explaining a little about the buildings they appear on and offering historical anecdotes about the city as you go.
If you’re not around for a guided tour the office can provide you with a trail map with all the information you need for your own “urban safari”.
11. Ballon d’Alsace
Rising to just under 1,250 metres, this mountain is a sensational upland drive north of the city and lies within the Territoire de Belfort.
No matter the season there’s something to attract you to this “Grand Site de France”. Winter means alpine and cross-country skiing at a resort that has just been equipped with artificial snow-making machinery.
Summer is the time for twisting drives of mountain roads to viewpoints, hikes and bike rides.
There is also the Acropark, a family adventure attraction of treetop rope-bridges, Tarzan ropes and zip lines.
12. Musée de l’Aventure Peugeot
The A36 will get you down to Sochaux in 15 minutes or so, and the reason to go is to visit this excellent museum for the car brand Peugeot.
It’s a company that was around long before the car was invented, so you might not expect to find antique coffee grinders with the Peugeot insignia.
You can also see more than 100 bicycles, going back to the 1880s, with models that have won the Tour de France.
And as for cars, there are 130 on show, from a collection of more than 400. There’s a Type 3 here, assembled in the early 1890s, along with the legendary 205 rally car, sports-protoype race cars and Formular 1 models.
The plateau around Belfort has been industrialised since the 1800s, and the big hub for manufacturing in the region is Mulhouse.
And while this city doesn’t have the dainty charm of the Alsatian towns further north it’s a place that will entrall you with its industrial heritage instead.
This is shown off by attractions like the marvellous Cité du Train, the largest railway museum in the world.
At EDF Electropolis you’ll go behind the scenes at the power giant, while the Impression sur Etoffes museum charts Mulhouse’s once roaring printed textile trade.
Last up is perhaps the most amazing, the Cité de l’Automobile, a massive fleet of vintage cars assembled in secret by two textile magnates in the middle of the 20th century.
14. Notre Dame du Haut
Anyone who loves modernist architecture, and especially the buildings of Le Corbusier, cannot miss the chance to see the sensational chapel he built here in 1955. It’s in Ronchamp, 25 minutes from Belfort, and like all his buildings is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The chapel is high on a hillside and replaced a pilgrimage chapel that was wrecked in the war.
Debris from the old building was incorporated by Le Corbusier in the walls of the new one.
Fans of architecture can lose a lot of time engrossed by the chapel’s characteristics: The way it slopes down to the altar with the hill, the glowing stained glass windows in the deep walls, the roof that appears to hover above the building, and a whole lot more.
Belfort is at a culinary crossroads, and this doesn’t just apply to the fusion of German and French cuisine: The city is also on the boundary between Alsace Franche-Comté and takes the best of both cuisines.
So restaurants are as likely to serve fondue comtois and stock wine from the Jura mountains, as Alsatian delicacies like choucroute (sauerkraut and cold-cuts), or tarte flambée (bread dough rolled out and covered in crème fraîche, onions and lardons). And we don’t need to tell you to try the Riesling, gewürztraminer and sparkling crémant d’Alsace wines produced on a long strip beginning a few kilometres northeast of Belfort.