In southern Burgundy, Chalon-sur-Saône is a charming riverside town at the heart of the Côte Chalonnaise wine region. If you have a palate for fine wine you can fill your trip with memorable and educational trips to vineyards and caves.
Meanwhile in the 19th century Chalon-sur-Saône gave the world Vivant Denon, the godfather of the modern museum, and Nicéphore Niépce, the man who took the first ever photograph. Both men are remembered with their own museums. The town was also once a bustling inland river port, though trading boats have been replaced by pleasure cruises on the Saône and up the Canal du Centre.
Lets explore the best things to do in Chalon-sur-Saône:
1. Musée Nicéphore-Niépce
A place of pilgrimage for amateur and professional photographers, the Musée Nicéphore-Niépce is all about photography’s innovators.
Nicéphore Niépce was born in Chalon and is credited with the first photograph ever taken, View from the Window at Le Gras, from 1826 or 1827. The museum delves into Niépce’s life and work, and has a couple of his inventions, including his velocipede, an early bicycle.
But the main focus is on photography, with a collection of more than 1,500 cameras and three million photographs from the 19th and 20th centuries, developed with a range of processes.
2. Musée Vivant-Denon
Chalon-sur-Saône’s art and history museum is named in honour of Vivant Denon, director of the Louvre under Napoleon and a trailblazer in fields like archaeology, art history, Egyptology and museology.
The museum has a room dedicated to the man, documenting his career and displaying some of the engravings he made.
You can also dip into Chalon’s local history, especially the Gallo-Roman period, which is represented by a set of six bronzes and a lapidary collection.
And then there’s the fine arts collection, in which Italian Baroque painting takes centre stage, with works by Luca Giordano, Bernardo Strozzi and Corrado Giaquinto.
3. Chalon Cathedral
You could say that the town’s cathedral is a potted history of religious art in the Burgundy region.
The building has long and complicated past, and there’s a big mishmash of architecture.
The Neo-Gothic facade and two towers newish, dating to the 1800s, but there are elements inside that go right the way back to the 1000s.
Burgundian Romanesque design can be seen in the more modest of the chapels, which have been decorated with medieval and Renaissance art, like a stunning fresco from the 1400s.
And in the sanctuary check out the marvellous tapestry, woven in Brussels in 1510.
4. Côte Chalonnaise Wine
Chalon is on Burgundy’s Route des Grands Vins, and the Côte Chalonnaise extends from the south of the Côte d’Or, beginning at the Maranges vineyards, which have just been awarded UNESCO World Heritage listing.
The region is on the elevated west bank of the Saône, and undulates for around 25 kilometres north to south.
Sheltered in this idyllic landscape are 44 wine villages, where winemakers grow mostly pinot noir and chardonnay grapes and ferment their wine in large oak barrels.
There’s a distinct character to the wines in this part of Burgundy: As a very general rule of thumb, the reds are robust and have a gourmand side to them, while the whites have the exotic notes you’d normally associate with wines from the South of France.
5. Chemin de l’Orbandale
The tourist office has drawn up a walking trail around the old centre of Chalon.
There are 30 stops in all, and you can download a pdf from the website or pick up a leaflet from the office with descriptions of each stop.
Every corner you turn there’s something interesting to see, whether it’s a Renaissance half-timbered house in the Saint-Vincent quarter or the view of the town and cathedral from the Pont Saint-Laurent.
The discoveries continue on the Île Saint-Laurent, which is guarded by the 15th-century Tour du Doyenné, a fine belfry built from brick, with white limestone quoins.
6. Ancien Hôpital Saint-Laurent
Also on the Île Saint-Laurent is the town’s old hospital, which was founded in 1530 during the reign of Francis I and has counted Victor Hugo among its patients.
Being a historic hospital there’s an unmistakeable religious seam running through the building, at the oratory and the living areas and rectory for the Sainte-Marthe sisterhood.
And as with similar institutions around France one of the most absorbing parts is the 18th-century pharmacy.
This has antique vials and earthenware pots in wooden cabinets.
Get up close to see the strange ingredients that passed for medicine in days gone by, as well as alarming instruments from the 1500s to the 1900s.
7. Place Saint-Vincent
This is the sociable and charming square fronting the cathedral, which dominates the scene.
Place Saint-Vincent is almost completely filled with restaurant and bar terraces, and on three sides are timber-framed houses four storeys tall.
These Renaissance buildings are delightfully irregular and the cantilevered upper floors almost hang over the square.
There’s also a fountain with modern sculpture, which adds a bit of contrast to the square’s history.
Stop by on Friday and Sunday mornings for the weekly markets that have their roots in the early middle ages.
8. Quai des Messageries
Maybe the loveliest spot on the right bank of the Saône is this quay beginning just west of the Pont Saint-Laurent.
There’s a broad walkway by the water, skirted by a row of plane trees that give shade to the benches underneath.
You can contemplate an unbroken view across the water to the Tour du Doyenné, the old hospital and the grassy riverbank livened up with flowerbeds.
The tourist office is at the far end, and there are concerts here in the summer.
It’s all a far cry from the old times, when this was the site of Chalon’s docks, shipping Côte Chalonnaise wine to all corners of France via its inland waterways.
9. Espace Nautique du Grand Chalon
East of the town centre is Chalon’s modern aquatic centre, and although a pool complex might not seem like the most inspiring day out, this one in Chalon is a different class: There are indoor and outdoor pools, and the centre springs to life in summer when there’s lots more on offer.
Young ones can go nuts at the wave pool or on the Pentagliss slides.
And parents can unwind on the outdoor terrace around the pools or on the massive grassy area that borders the banks of the Saône.
10. Église Saint-Pierre
This eye-catching church was built at the turn of the 18th century as a Benedictine chapel.
The inside still has its Italianate Baroque design, but the outside was given a Byzantine Revival makeover in the 1800s.
But the most compelling thing about the church the story of some of the people who were ordained here.
One was Anne-Marie Jahouvey, a nun who took her vows in 1807 and went on to help liberate slaves in the South American colony that is now French Guiana.
There’s also a valuable organ inside, crafted by the esteemed Callinet workshop in 1812.
11. Water Excursions
The Quai des Messageries is also your embarkation point for a cruise on the Saône, and there’s a big menu of excursions available.
You might prefer a brief 90-minute jaunt between Saint-Rémy and Crissey, or a three-hour picnic trip to the mouth of the Grosne in Marnay.
Or if you want to make a day of it you could go on a lunch or dinner cruise through the Saône-et-Loire countryside.
You’ll float beside banks with woodland and rich pasture where cormorants, herons and kingfishers make their nests.
12. Carnaval de Chalon
If you happen to visit Chalon in late February or early March you’ll be in time for the carnival celebrations, which are the biggest and craziest in the region.
These festivities are now coming up for their centenary and promise lots of mayhem, fun and dancing.
Over the ten days there are parades with artful papier-mâché floats and bands of gôniots, which are a bit like medieval jesters, causing mischief at every opportunity.
There’s a mix of free events like the parades, concerts and funfair, and paid banquets and balls in the evenings.
13. Chalon dans la Rue
Now in its 31st year, Chalon dans la Rue is a street theatre festival taking over the old centre of town every July.
More than 200,000 spectators flock to the town to catch more than 1,000 performances staged by more than 1,000 artists.
The event lasts for five days, around the third weekend of the month.
Chalon dans la Rue is a highlight of France’s cultural calendar, and in 2016 the culture minister Audrey Azoulay attended to help celebrate its 30th anniversary.
14. Outdoor Pursuits
In southern Burgundy the old industrial infrastructure of canals and railways has been repurposed for walks and bike rides.
By design these routes are easy to navigate, with low gradients and easy access to towns.
Burgundy’s tourist board has laid out a cycling itinerary between the towns of Chalon, Cluny, Mâcon and Tournus, using mostly canal towpaths so you won’t have to deal with much road traffic.
And if you want to keep it local the Côte Chalonnaise is as bucolic as it gets, with rolling hills deck with lush vineyard, forest, water meadows and with serpentine tracks marked with ancient milestones.
15. Local Gastronomy
When it comes to food the Saône-et-Loire is classically French.
Straight off, escargot is often the starter of choice, serving snails with garlic butter and chopped parsley.
The diet is a carnivore’s dream, founded on the best produce like Bresse chicken for preparations like coq au vin and charolais beef for the staple boeuf bourguignon.
Mâconnais cheese has its own AOC and is made with unpasteurised goats’ milk, while charolais cheese is made with a similar process, both maturing for just over two weeks and in season during the summer.