Couched in a valley between mountain ranges in the Prealps, Chambéry is a historic city that was once the capital of its own sovereign state.
The old centre is a confusion of alleys and dim passageways, ruled by the Château from which the Dukes of Savoy commanded a large tranche of central Europe.
The architecture, art and food all tell you that Chambéry was as much Italian as French, as the city was only annexed by France in 1871. Plan ahead, because you’ll be torn between the charming old town, the peaks of the Chartreuse and Bauges natural parks, and the huge and majestic Lac du Bourget, all minutes away.
Lets explore the best things to do in Chambéry:
1. Old Town
A functioning university town and not just an outdoor museum, the compact core of Chambéry is most people’s idea of the perfect old town.
It’s not very large, but you could wander for hours without feeling like you’ve quite seen it all.
That’s to do with the vaulted passageways, similar to the Traboules in Lyon: These lead into secret courtyards and out onto parallel streets and alleys no broader than arm’s width.
Things take a turn for the grander on Rue Croix d’Or, the now pedestrianised street draped with the Savoy colours where the nobility once lived, and wherever you are you’ll never be more than seconds from a cafe, crêperie or glacier.
2. Place Saint-Léger
Despite its name, Place Saint-Léger is more of a long street than a city square, and is Chambéry’s main pedestrian thoroughfare.
Along its length the street opens out to large areas with restaurant and cafe seating, then tapering to just a few metres across, and is paved all along with pink granite.
The buildings, a big jumble of styles and eras, are painted in all kinds of pastel colours.
As you go you might be tempted to duck down one of the vaulted passageways that branch off the street, which are known as allées.
There are three lovely old townhouses to look out for here: Hôtel Dieulefis, Hôtel de Montjoie and Hôtel du Bourget, dating between the 1500s and 1700s.
3. Fontaine des Éléphants
On many postcards and possibly Chambéry’s main identifier, the Fontaine des Éléphants dates to 1838 and is listed as a French historical monument.
On the fountain’s plinth are four elephants, one on each side, with only the head and front legs protruding.
This has given the fountain the affectionate nickname, ” les quatre sans culs” (the four without butts). Atop the 17-metre column is the statue of Benoît de Boigne, the man who the fountain commemorates.
He was a general who earned his reputation in India (hence the elephants) and returned with a fortune that he lavished on Chambéry through public works and welfare.
4. Chambéry Cathedral
Although quite small the city’s cathedral still has much to recommend it.
Most noticeable is the interior which has some 6,000 square metres of extravagant Italian trompe l’oeil painting, the largest ensemble in Europe and composed in stages in the 1800s.
Before becoming a cathedral this structure had been a church attached to a Franciscan monastery and for a time in the 1400s it was home to the Shroud of Turin.
That treasure has of course moved on, but the treasure room now holds a Byzantine ivory altarpiece painting dating to the 1100s and a polychrome nativity scene from the 1400s.
5. Musée des Beaux-Arts
The fine arts museum is further proof that Chambéry hasn’t always been French, as nearly all of the works hanging here are Italian.
These date to between the 1300s and 1700s, and start with the Primitives.
The 14th-century altarpiece depicting the Trinity by the Sienese artist Bartolo di Fredi is sublime, and from there you can trace the evolution into the Renaissance, Mannerism and the Baroque, from the Neapolitan, Venetian, Florentine and Bolognese schools.
Also have a peek at what’s on when you’re here as there’s a lot of exhibition space reserved for temporary shows.
6. Les Charmettes
As a young man the polymath Jean-Jacques Rousseau lived in this pretty country house in a wooded hollow on the edge of Chambéry.
He stayed here from 1736 to 1742 with his mentor and mistress Madame de Warrens, and later in life he described his time in Les Charmettes in idyllic terms.
Ever since Rousseau became an icon of the Enlightenment and Romantic movements people have come to Les Charmettes to understand why it was so dear to Rousseau.
The house is decorated as it was in the 1730s, including some of Rousseau’s possessions, and there’s an 18th-century style garden laid with herbs, medicinal plants, fruits and vegetables in the grounds.
7. Château des Ducs de Savoie
Holding sway over Chambéry’s old town, this dominating building was where the Lords of Chambéry and then the Dukes of Savoy called the shots for hundreds of years.
It’s exciting to know that you’re looking at the stronghold for a whole sovereign state before Savoy was annexed to France.
The building is an architectural medley, with fragments that are almost 1,000 years old.
It has been transformed many times in the course of the centuries, though it still has an administrative function to this day.
For this reason access is limited, but regular tours are organised in summer to show you around the towers and ceremonial chambers, as well as the Sainte-Chapelle that contained the shroud in the 16th century.
8. Rue Basse du Château
Dubbed the oldest street in Chambéry, Rue Basse du Château is a crevice-like alley in the pedestrianised centre.
Like most old medieval arteries it’s incredible narrow and intersects with more of Chambéry’s passageways.
Above your head there’s one remaining wooden walkway traversing the street.
There were many more in the past, but these were dismantled because they pose a fire hazard and block the light.
As you can tell, light is a precious commodity: The stone stalls in front of several shops are known as “banches” and were a means of doing business in daylight instead of the shadowy interiors.
9. Rotonde Ferroviaire
The finest piece of industrial heritage in the city is this colossal circular cast iron behemoth built between 1906 and 1910. The rotunda has a diameter of more than 100 metres and was constructed to house up to 72 locomotives when they weren’t in use.
It took some damage in the war, but was restored and is still a part of the railway infrastructure and a permanent home for many retired locomotives.
For this reason you can only get an inside look when there’s a guided tour but you can consult Chambéry tourist office to make sure you don’t miss out on what is a one-of-a-kind building.
10. Hôtel de Cordon
If you’ve booked a guided tour of the city with the tourist board it will most likely start at this 15th-century “Hôtel Particulier” on Rue Saint-Real.
Talks about the city’s history are given here, and inside there’s an interpretation centre for Chambéry’s architecture and heritage, with a small exhibition of models and paintings that outline the changing appearance of the city since medieval times.
If you’re an urbanist or into architecture, the displays also deal with heritage, design and town planning on a broader level, not limited to Chambéry.
11. Église Saint-Pierre de Lémenc
The oldest church in Chambéry goes back as far as 1,500 years, and was built over the remains of a Roman temple dedicated to Mercury.
The exterior is much newer, and was updated in the 16th and 18th centuries.
But the clues to the church’s antiquity lie in the 9th century crypt, which is recognised as a French historical monument and is a bit of a mystery to archaeologists who are undecided whether it was a reliquary or baptistery.
12. Lac du Bourget
Less than 10 kilometres to the north is the largest freshwater lake in France.
The scene is fabulous too, as the water is in a natural crucible of mountain peaks, rendering some parts of the western shoreline accessible only by boats on the water.
If you’re a casual visitor you could hire a pedalo for a couple of hours of affordable and relaxing summer fun.
But all manner of watersports are on offer on the lake, or you can take on one of the peaks beside the water like the Dent du Chat which at 1,400 metres has views that stretch as far as Mont Blanc.
On the east shore of the Lac du Bourget is a resort that was frequented by the world’s royalty and aristocracy from the mid-19th century up to the Second World War.
The architecture here will leave you in no doubt of Aix-les-Bains favour with the upper crust, as the town is still festooned with palatial hotels in the Art Nouveau style.
The elite came for the spring waters which still attract visitors today, but were first tapped by the Romans who left some compelling ruins behind.
The sensational lakeside esplanade is picnic central in summer, and also the venue for the Musilac festival, which packs in the biggest rock and pop names every July.
14. Mont Granier
Rising to the south of Chambéry are the Chartreuse Mountains, a range in the French Prealps that sits within a natural park.
You’re within a simple but spectacular drive of Mont Granier, easily the most famous natural site in the range.
That’s due to the titanic cliff on its north face, which soars to more than 900 metres.
This hulking wall of rock was actually the upshot of a disastrous landslide that sheered thousands of tons of limestone from the mountain in 1248 and wiped out several villages down the valley at the cost of 1,000 lives.
Come for hikes or hook up with an adventure sports company for a more intrepid day of caving or rock climbing.
In Chambéry there’s quite a rich food culture, thanks to the opulent Court of Savoy, but also in a rustic region where peasants used their ingenuity to make the most of what they had.
The Italian influence from Turin is clear in the pasta like ravioli and crozets, small square pasta pieces made with buckwheat flour.
The diot is a local sausage that comes cured or can be cooked in stews, or eaten with nothing more fancy than boiled potatoes and Dijon mustard.
Beaufort cheese is almost exactly like Gruyère, except for the name.
And second only to cheese production is wine, with mostly whites made from chardonnay, chasselas and the jacquère and altesse, which grow almost exclusively in Savoy.