On a loop in the River Doubs known as the Boucle (Oxbow), Besançon is a wonderful city that was once a strategic prize for Europe’s great empires. With the Doubs giving the city a natural moat Besançon could hardly have been easier to defend, especially because the only way in by land was over a monumental promontory.
And on this landform the military architect Vauban constructed a sky-scraping citadel that has no equals in France. The older buildings in the city are as peculiar as they are beautiful because of their “Chailluz” stone, which is streaked with hues of blue, grey and beige.
Lets explore the best things to do in Besançon:
The UNESCO-listed citadel is arguably Vauban’s crowning glory.
The military mastermind conceived this 11-hectare fortified complex in the 1660s, and it adapts to the mammoth promontory at the neck of the loop in the Doube River.
The project was as innovative as it was costly, and Louis XIV wondered in jest whether the walls had been built with gold.
The gigantic construction could hold a city of 10,000 and is its own attraction, with almost absurd dimensions, like the well that bores through the bedrock to a depth of 132 metres.
There are also museums in the citadel’s preserved buildings, as well as a botanical garden, zoo and children’s farm.
2. Musée des Beaux-Arts et d’Archéologie
In 1694 the abbot and scholar Jean-Baptiste Boisot left his hoard of manuscripts, busts, medals, paintings and books to the Benedictine monks of Saint-Vincent, providing it was made available to the public two days a week.
And so was born the oldest museum in France.
Further donations since then have swelled the collections, which are divided into archaeology, drawing and painting.
All departments merit your time, whether it’s the Gallo-Roman bronze bull and mosaics, or an amazing drawing cabinet with pieces by Rubens, Dürer, Rembrandt, Delacroix and Matisse.
The fine art section is outstanding too, with work from Titian, Bellini, Breughel the Elder, Goya and Renoir to name a few.
3. Musée de la Résistance et de la Déportation
Besançon’s museum about the resistance and the concentration camps packs an emotional punch.
The museum’s home is the cadet building in the Citadel, and this setting isn’t coincidental as some 100 resistance members were shot here in the war.
Across 20 rooms there are documents, photographs and written accounts of ambushes and acts of sabotage, as well as the wider story of the rise of Nazism and the Vichy government.
Also moving are the galleries for the deportation, with artworks by Jean Daligault and Léon Delarbre, painters and resistance members who ended up in concentration camps.
4. Musée du Temps
In the late-18th century Swiss craftsmen poured into Besançon, turning it into one of Europe’s capitals for watchmaking.
That legacy is evident today in the city’s nanotechnology industries, for which Besançon is a world leader.
The Musée du Temps documents the ancient quest to measure time, and is crammed with sundials, hourglasses, antique watches, astronomical clocks and a Foucault’s pendulum.
There are also state-of-the-art exhibits on nanotechnology and the advent of electronic timekeeping in the mid-20th century.
The museum’s home, the Palais Granvelle, is as engrossing as the galleries, dating to the 1530s and with architecture inspired by the Renaissance.
5. Besançon Cathedral
With many renovations and rebuilds down the centuries, the cathedral is an arresting jumble of styles, from Romanesque to Baroque.
Something that sets it apart from most churches is its two choirs, a choir and counter-choir.
This is something you normally only see in Rhenish architecture.
If you have time there’s a lot to see in the interior, like the masterful astronomical clock (which we’ll come to next), 30 sumptuous paintings and an 11th-century Romanesque altar hewn from white marble.
There are also some important people buried here, like eight of the sovereign Dukes of Burgundy in the Sacré-Cœur Chapel.
6. Astronomical Clock
In the 1850s the cathedral commissioned master clockmaker, Auguste-Lucien Vérité to build an astronomical clock to replace a defective one made a few years earlier.
Because of the scale, workmanship and complexity of this instrument many people come to the cathedral just to see the clock.
It stands almost six metres tall and is made up of 30,000 mechanical parts.
There are 70 faces, measuring a mind-boggling array of data, like the orbits of the planets, and even depicting eclipses with its own little planetarium.
7. Quai Vauban
The Doubs riverside around the Pont Battant is absolutely gorgeous.
The arcaded docks here are named after the military engineer responsible for the citadel, but they don’t really have much to do with him.
They were conceived in the early 1690s by the architect Isaac Robelin and may even have been built against Vauban’s advice.
Whatever the origin story, the setting is a dream, especially from the right bank or the bridge, where the facades’ greyish blue stone is reflected in the Doubs.
8. Battant Quarter
On the right bank of the Doubs, north of the Boucle is the Battant Quarter, which has more than 30 hectares of protected stone-built streetscapes to idle around for a few hours.
The reason for all this history is that for centuries the Pont Battant was the only river crossing, so a kind of suburb formed around the bridge and then up the slopes that had originally been vineyards.
As the northern approach to the city needed to be guarded, there are ramparts designed by Vauban, and earlier towers, Pelote and Montmart from the 15th and 16th centuries.
9. Porte Noire
As it twists down from the cathedral, Rue de la Convention passes under a triumphal Roman arch that has been here since the 170s.
After 1,800 years of erosion the arch’s many carvings have been rendered rather faint.
That’s down to the material they were made with, as the Vergenne limestone used for the arch is known for being very workable but is also prone to weathering.
You can still make out traces of these ancient sculptures, which were fashioned to mark Marcus Aurelius’ campaigns against the Parthians.
10. Victor Hugo’s Birthplace
A few steps down from the cathedral and the Porte Noire is the apartment where the great author and humanist Victor Hugo was born in 1802. Hugo’s military father was stationed in Besançon for just a few months before he was transferred to Marseille and took his family with him.
The apartment became a museum in 2013, while the Jacques de Besançon pharmacy that occupied the ground floor of the same building was restored as it was at the start of the 19th century.
Some of Hugo’s possessions are here, while the walls of the apartment have boards with his memorable quotes, inviting you to reflect on his ongoing political and literary influence.
The Lumière Brothers and the author Charles Nodier were also born at this square on Grand Rue
11. Fort de Chaudanne
To gaze at both Besançon’s centre-ville and the citadel in one photo-friendly vista, make the trek to the Fort de Chaudanne on a neighbouring hill beside the Doubs.
It’s one of the best ways to see Vauban’s citadel in all its majesty and notice how it seems to grow from its rocky bluffs.
The view down towards the city is all the more striking for the many patterned glazed roofs, that are the mark of traditional Franche-Comté architecture.
The walk to the fort, built in the 1840s and now used as a theatre, takes around an hour from the centre through deciduous woodland.
There’s loads of space for picnics up here and you can find a memorial for the American soldiers who fell while taking this position in 1944.
12. Église Sainte-Madeleine
In the 1700s the old Gothic Sainte-Madeleine church that stood here in the Battant Quarter was starting to fall apart, so grand designs were made for an imposing neoclassical replacement.
This went up in stages over the century that followed and is feted for its exquisite vaults supported by high fluted columns.
There’s a lot of art from the previous church inside, like the 16th-century Renaissance baptismal font representing the Tree of Life.
There’s also a three-room museum inside the church about the absorbing history of the Battant Quarter, showing how it grew and who its important personalities were.
13. Hôtels Particuliers
Besançon’s has a very complicated history, and for around 200 years up to the 1670s it was part of the Hapsburg Empire, in essence belonging to Spain.
That period overlapped with the Renaissance and furnished the city with many of the Spanish-style stone mansions, most still standing today.
Hôtel de Champagney is a French “monument historique” and dates to 1565, with a two-floor Renaissance gallery, mullioned windows and gargoyles.
The 17th-century Maison Espagnole was completed a little after the city had come under French control, but shows the lingering Spanish influence with wrought-iron grills over the ground floor windows.
14. Maisons Comtoises de Nancray
In 15 hectares of greenery up the road in Nancray is an outdoor museum presenting authentic rural Comtois culture to children and adults.
Grown-ups will be impressed by the historic timber buildings as old as the 1600s, saved from demolition, transported here and rebuilt piece by piece.
Inside you’ll be immersed in the region’s country life at the weaver’s workshop, granary and bakery.
Youngsters will be crazy for the farm animals, which are all regional breeds, and there are eight downloadable treasure hunts around this bucolic setting for you to play using your phone.
15. Forêt de Chailluz
You hardly have to leave the city to enter this tract of wilderness that begins to the north of Besançon.
Come for a restorative walk, on one of seven different trails, which are all well signposted and complemented with information boards about the forest’s rich history and nature.
This is where the oolitic limestone for most of the centre of the city was quarried from the 1500s onwards.
There are forgotten vestiges of small industry in the undergrowth, with a dozen historic flagstone quarries and more than 200 lime kilns, going back as far as the 1400s.
As you go keep your eyes peeled for deer, chamois and peregrine falcons that nest in the recesses in the Dame Blanche cliffs.