This medieval city in Eastern France was one of the capitals of the Europe-spanning Duchy of Savoy. And in this capacity it got its marquee monument: The Royal Monastery is from the early 1500s founded as a place to bury and pay respect to the Dukes and their families. Margaret of Austria was the woman behind it, and you’ll be moved by her story.
The old centre of Bourg-en-Bresse is sprinkled with half-timbered houses that instead of being museum pieces are used for shops and amenities, which somehow makes them more alive. And simply have to journey out into the wider Bresse countryside, which has an identity all of its own.
Lets explore the best things to do in Bourg-en-Bresse:
1. Royal Monastery
A French national monument, this stunning monument was ordered by one of Renaissance Europe’s most powerful women as a dynastic burial place.
Margaret of Austria was the Duchess of Savoy and governed the Habsburg Netherlands twice in the first decades of the 16th century.
There’s a lot to get through on a guided tour of the monastery, which amazingly has three two-storey cloisters.
Linger to admire the glazed tiling on the roof of the church then go in to be blown away by Conrad Meit’s extraordinary marble tomb effigies of Margaret, her husband Philibert and his mother, Margaret of Bourbon.
2. Musée de Brou
In the second of the monastery’s three cloisters is Bourg-en-Bresse’s municipal museum.
A lot of what you’ll find in these galleries were the property of one man: Thomas Riboud helped to save the monastery from destruction in the 19th century and had it protected as a “Monument National”, and later donated his art collection to the city.
Much of the space is dedicated to painting from the 15th to the 19th century by French and Flemish artists.
See the portraits of the monastery’s founder, Margaret of Austria and her nephew Emperor Charles V by Bernard van Orley who was Charles’ favourite painter.
There’s also earthenware, furniture and religious sculpture up to the 17th century.
3. Old Town
Allow some time to discover the best of Bourg-en-Bresse’s historic centre.
Every now and again you’ll be surprised by a delightful building, like Maison Gorrevod, a sizeable 15th-century timber-framed house out of sight on Rue du Palais.
At 5 Rue Teynière there’s a slice of Ancien Régime splendour at the magnificent Hôtel Marron de Meillonnas, a mansion with an interior commissioned by the namesake Baron in 1772. On your jaunt around the town you’ll be sidetracked by the fabulous little specialty shops selling wine, poultry, chocolate, corn-flour biscuits and bleu cheese from the surrounding region.
4. Demeure Hugon
Also known as the Maison de Bois (Wooden House), the Demeure Hugon is a gorgeous colombage house at 16 Rue Gambetta.
Dating to 1496, the house is on a shopping street, with a ground floor take up by a high-street chain, but there’s a small plaque by the entrance indicating the age of the building and its status as an official historic monument.
The lower level still has the same openings as it did 500 years ago, and above it are three storeys of timber framing, each floor sticking out over the level below and anchored by corbels.
5. Apothicairerie de l’Hôtel-Dieu
Bourg-en-Bresse’s old hospital is a few streets southeast of the centre.
It dates to 1782 and one of the remarkable things about it is that the pharmacy inside has hardly been changed in more than 200 years.
It was run by nuns before closing in 1963, and has now reopened as a museum granting a rare snapshot of medicine from a bygone age.
There are two rooms lined with shelves, and a working laboratory.
The splendid wooden cabinets with antique books and jars and little packages are a cross between the Louis XV and Louis XVI styles.
Many of the containers on these still contain their original medicine, though you may be appalled by some of the ingredients!
6. Église Notre-Dame
This church was built with brilliant white stone in the 1500s, just as the Flamboyant Gothic style was being replaced by the new Renaissance architecture.
So there’s a fusion of both deigns, as the apse and nave are both Gothic, while the western facade and domed tower, completed later, are clearly from the Renaissance.
Of the many things to see within are the wooden choir stalls, carved in the 1530s, a 13th-century Black Madonna statue, the sculpted pulpit from 1760, the great organ from 1682 and stained glass windows going back to 1526.
7. Porte des Jacobins
At the corner of Rue Jules Migonney and Rue de la République is a historic vestige with an interesting story to tell.
The Porte des Jacobins is a portal from a 15th-century convent, and the delicate pointed arch is all that is left of the building after it was burned down during the Revolution.
Pause here for a moment before heading to Rue Jules Migonney, where there’s a lovely row of timber-framed houses that were where the medieval city’s drapers and weavers had their workshops.
8. Bresse Countryside
Bourge-en-Bresse is a unique farming region with a lot of distinctive traits including its own food, dialect, architecture and traditions.
A typical Bresse farmhouse for instance will be half-timbered, with ears of corn hanging from its porch.
Capping the roof will be a “Saracen” or Moorish-style chimney, which looks a little like a minaret.
It’s easy to realise when you’re driving through Bresse, as the farmland is irrigated by many tributaries of the Saône River, and is covered with poultry farms, raising more than 1,200,000 chickens every year.
It’s also a region that is easy to embrace as there are show farms and museums showing off Bresse’s heritage.
This walled hill-top village is one of those places that makes you wonder if you’ve entered a time-warp.
Pérouges is only a small community, but has more than 80 buildings registered as historic monuments on its twisting cobbled streets.
Most are either rustic stone cottages or half-timbered houses, with wisteria creeping up the walls.
On the central square there’s a 200-year-old lime tree and you can go up the village’s watchtower, which used to belong to a medieval castle.
It will come as no surprise that Pérouges has been a shooting location for many historically-themed movies.
Four different versions of the Three Musketeers have been filmed on these streets since 1921.
10. Grottes du Cerdon
A simple excursion from Bourge-en-Bresse, these caves have a few qualities that lift them above a normal trip underground.
Yes, you can see the usual the stalactites and stalagmites, and watch the calcium-rich water dripping from one concretion to the next.
But it’s also exciting to know that you’re in the home of Upper Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers, who used the caves up to 17,000 years ago, leaving behind bones, weapons and tools.
Another cool feature is the spectacular belvedere, a prehistoric shelter that opens out over the vineyards of the Cerdon Valley.
11. Ferme de la Forêt
While you’re journeying through the romantic Bresse countryside you could stop at an authentic farm outside Courtes to get in touch with old ways.
The museum is inside a creaking 16th-century farmhouse that functioned up the 1970s.
It’s enough just to be able to poke around the half-timbered building with its Moorish-style chimney, first-floor gallery and an enormous wooden beam that weighs four tons.
But the interior has also been furnished with Bressan furniture, tools and kitchenware.
Outside are the stables, abounding with antique horse-tending gear, and a traditional kitchen garden.
12. Musée Départemental de la Bresse
At Saint-Cyr-sur-Menthon there’s another attraction that goes into a bit more depth about Bresse’s culture and history.
This one is also on a farm, but commands a large domain and has more than 600 years of architecture.
Naturally the stunning half-timbered manor has a “Saracen” chimney, but there’s an up-to-date exhibition space that leaves no aspect of Bressan culture a mystery.
There are costumes, models depicting construction techniques, musical instruments and more than 1,700 restaurant menus going back to the 1800s to show ingredients and eating habits.
13. Musée de la Mécanographie
A bit of a niche attraction, this museum is all about typing and adding machines.
It is the only collection of its kind in France, assembling more than 300 typewriters and calculators going back 300 years.
There are in-depth descriptions of the various advances and inventions, and the story of the brains behind them.
If you have a thing for vintage items you’ll adore the typewriters from the 50s and 60s, while the museum is staffed by people who made their living with this equipment and can give you demonstrations.
14. Parc de Loisirs de Bouvent
Summer days can be stifling in this landlocked region of France, but fortunately you won’t have to travel far for a beach and swim.
The Bouvent leisure park is practically at the city gates, and has 56 hectares of parkland with a lake and golf course.
When it’s really hot you’ll be tempted to do nothing but laze on the supervised beach and cool off in the lake’s pristine waters.
But there’s a big activity centre here too, with a sailing school and kayak and rowboat hire.
Onshore there’s table tennis, volleyball courts, walking trails and that nine-hole golf course with driving range.
15. Food and Drink
At the heart of a region that owes its reputation to the quality of its poultry, you better believe that the chicken in Bourge-en-Bresse is off the charts.
The local signature dish is Bresse Gauloise chicken in a rich cream sauce, and this goes well with a regional dry white Bugey wine.
Another main course to try is a quenelle, which in this city is creamed freshwater fish poached in a sauce made with cream, béchamel or tomato and crayfish.
Frog’s legs are also big in this part of the country, while for dessert Galette Bresanne is a sort of praline pie.