You can guess from the name that this town is in the Champagne region. The Route du Champagne puts a world of champagne makers at your fingertips, one of which is right in the town: Joseph Perrier offers tours in its chalk caves and the chance to try and buy its distinguished cuvées.
As the capital of the Marne department, Châlons has a few other strings in its bow, with a rich religious heritage including two UNESCO-listed churches, and a museum with astonishing Romanesque sculpture. The town’s canals are almost Venice-like, and are magical when lit up on summer nights, while the National Circus Centre adds a splash of whimsy with special events in June and December.
Lets explore the best things to do in Châlons-en-Champagne:
1. Châlons Cathedral
The original Romanesque cathedral, consecrated by Pope Eugene III, burned down in 1230 to be replaced with exuberant Gothic architecture.
There are traces of that old church in the crypt, on the sculpted baptismal font and in some of the panels of the glorious stained glass windows.
In the 17th century Louis XIV praised Châlons Cathedral as the “most beautiful church in the kingdom”. Its ethereal atmosphere is heightened by the triforium, a long gallery of windows near the ceiling, bathing the nave with soft light.
As you potter around check out the old inscribed funerary slabs, many of which are listed as historic monuments.
There’s a lot of art to ponder here, but one of the musts is the 15th-century painting imagining the consecration of the cathedral by the pope, three centuries before.
2. Collégiale Notre-Dame-en-Vaux
Part of Châlons-en-Champagne’s World Heritage Site, this sublime Romanesque church dates to the 12th century and was a gathering place for pilgrims on the road to Santiago de Compostela.
They called in to worship the Holy Umbilical Cord (really), until this relic was destroyed in the 18th century for attracting too much superstition.
Some of the stained glass in here is magnificent, not least the 16th-century windows relating the life of St James, Life of the Virgin and Passion scenes.
3. Notre-Dame-en-Vaux Cloister Museum
Attached to the church is a small museum revealing finds from excavations in the original Romanesque cloister in the 1960s.
These statue-columns and capitals are the height of 12th-century workmanship and had been lost after the cloister was torn down in the 1760s.
There are 55 columns adorned with sculptures of standing figures.
These columns are valuable not just for their skill but because they were crafted right on the transition between the Romanesque and Gothic, with elements of both styles.
There’s also some more religious art to see, like the 16th-century polychrome Pietà (Mary holding Christ’s body).
4. Champagne Region
You can get onto the 600-kilometre Champagne Trail within a few minutes of the town.
For aficionados it’s the trip of a lifetime, because the Champagne region has a huge cast of small producers alongside the most famous names.
So while you can tour the big champagne houses, with their hundreds of kilometres of underground caves, you can also have a chat with a small producer and get insights about rare champagnes that can’t be found in supermarkets.
There are more than 15,000 growers in all, and the choice of bistrots (wine-oriented bistros), bed and breakfasts and wineries is almost bewildering.
5. Caves Joseph Perrier
At Joseph Perrier Châlons has its own venerable champagne house, with three kilometres of underground caves starting on the left bank of the Marne.
The chalk tunnels date back more than 2,000 years and are optimised for secondary fermentation (this is what gives champagne its fizz); the tunnels have a steady temperature of 11°C, are well ventilated and lit with skylights.
Not only that, but the arboretum on the grounds acts as a natural climate and humidity regulator.
Stop by the tourist office to sign up for the next tour and chance to taste and buy this vaunted champagne at the source.
6. Canal Cruise
In a town that touts itself as La Venise Pétillante (The Sparkling Venice), you can’t leave without taking a boat ride along its calm canals.
These waterways cut through the historic heart of the town, passing right under the Notre-Dame-en-Vaux Church, the Château du Marché and the old Convent of Sainte-Marie, now housing the departmental government.
The canals grant you clear views of the Champagne-style architecture, old stone embankments, greenery and bridges.
And if your French is up to scratch you’ll also be given expert running commentary from your skipper, recounting fun pieces of trivia and a few secrets about the town.
7. Les Jards
Another nickname for Châlons is Ville Jardin (Garden Town), and that’s because there’s a big green band right in middle of town.
This is composed of three parks, the Petit Jard, the Grand Jard and the Jardin des Anglais.
All three are a legacy of the medieval times, but were redesigned in the 18th and 19th centuries when the bishop’s properties were seized.
Starting in the east, the Petit Jard is a landscaped park around the Château du Marché, with an arboretum.
The Grand Jard is a grand esplanade, with chestnut avenues and a waterfowl sanctuary on its banks.
And then the Jardin des Anglais has meandering paths, flowing lawns and a postcard-worthy view of the cathedral.
8. Whirlwind Tour of the Town
If time is of the essence, Châlons has posted information boards outside of 19 of its unmissable sights.
Some are listed here, while many several others are worth your attention but can’t be entered.
One regal landmark is the Porte Sainte-Croix triumphal arch, dedicated to Marie-Antoinette on her arrival in France to marry Louis XVI in 1771. By the river, the Porte de Marne is where the old town gates were replaced with arcades at around the same time.
On Place Foch the Hôtel de Ville is a bold Neoclassical building also from the 1770s, while a few sumptuous historic buildings like the Vinetz convent and the 17th-centruy Hôtel Dubois de Crancé, now house government offices.
9. Église Saint-Alpin
One of the smaller churches in town, Saint-Alpin still deserves to be in your plans as it’s crammed with riveting history.
Give yourself some time to investigate the side chapels, with their medieval funerary slabs, the 16th-century stained glass windows and Renaissance paintings.
There’s also tons of sculpture, flanking the nave and decorating the facade in the form of saints and gargoyles.
Like the other local churches, this is mostly a fusion of Romanesque and Gothic, but Saint-Alpin stands out because it has been left untouched since the 1500s.
10. Musée des Beaux-Arts et d’Archéologie
The town’s fine arts museum was created in 1794 and is one of France’s oldest museums.
This institution gathered up the belongings of aristocratic emigrants during the Revolution, as well as art from abbeys and churches in the region.
The permanent exhibition is has some real treasures, with paintings by Hieronymus Bosch, Courbet and Delacroix, and several sculptures by Auguste Rodin.
The medieval archaeology gallery is also sensational, full of marvellous Limoges enamels and a variety of precious religious sculptures and altarpieces.
11. Basilique Notre-Dame de l’Épine
The other UNESCO-listed church around Chalons is a Flamboyant Gothic masterpiece dating to the 15th and 16th centuries.
The building was most likely modelled on Toul Cathedral in Lorraine, and has a facade rich with sculpture.
There’s so much in fact that you could lose all track of time trying to count the gargoyles (there are 123 in all). There’s a lot of at inside too, with two statues to the Virgin, the earliest from the 1300s, and a wooden carving of St James as a reminder that this was also a pilgrimage church.
12. Centre d’Interprétation Marne 14-18
Châlons was close to the Western Front in the First World War, and was even occupied for a few days in September 1914. At the site of the Champagne front at Spuippes there’s an enlightening little museum about the war in this region of France.
Marne 14-18 uses testimonies of both local civilians and soldiers to present an absorbing account of warfare and daily life.
This is presented along with general information about the build-up to the war, the main offensives and life in Champagne behind the front.
There’s also an audiovisual reconstruction that places you in the middle of a trench during an assault.
By boat or on foot you can see the town in a whole new way on evenings from spring to autumn.
Metamorph’eau’ses is a light and sound show that began in 2015 in partnership with the performing arts company Skertzò.
The monuments on the water’s edge are painted with animated illuminations telling the story of the building.
Each year a new part of the waterside is selected for the show: In 2015 it was the Château du Marché and last year the Circus Centre, Petit Jard and the Pont des Mariniers took centre stage.
14. Circus Performances
Châlons is the French capital of circus, hosting the Centre National des Arts du Cirque.
One site is a modern complex by the Marne and the other is a beautiful 12-sided 19th-century arena in the town.
The centre is a well-regarded institution for research and training, and also contributes to the town’s cultural calendar.
In June Châlons is turned into a giant marquee for the FURIES street arts festival.
Then in the first fortnight in December there’s an annual show put on by the centre’s students and directed by a leading star of the circus world.
Not a real beach, but the next best thing, Châlons-Plage is like a small resort that takes over the Grand Jard for the months of July and August.
Kids and teenagers will get the most out of Châlons-Plage, playing games of touch-rugby and football in the big sandpit, going on pony rides or taking off on a pedalo or canoe trip around the Marne’s lateral canal.
Adults can bring a book and park themselves on a sun lounger by the water, taking in views of the cathedral or sharpening their chess skills at a special workshop.