Auvergne’s capital is dominated by volcanic peaks to the north, west and south, in a setting that will give you goosebumps.
If you come by car the first landmark you’ll spot below is the cathedral, made with jet black igneous rock and like no other church in the country.
Clermont-Ferrand is crammed with engaging history, and is a young and convivial university city, with a pedigree for learning that goes back to Blaise Pascal.
The city is also the home of Michelin, which is famed for a lot more than just tyres, as you’ll discover at the L’Aventure Michelin a new museum showing how an iconic French brand came to be.
Lets explore the best things to do in Clermont-Ferrand:
1. Basilique Notre-Dame-du-Port
The most revered of the romanesque churches of Auvergne, this basilica was first founded in the 6th century but rebuilt some 500 years later.
Don’t go in without seeing the geometric mosaics on the exterior walls of the apse and radiating chapels, made with sandstone and volcanic rock.
You may need some form of interpretation but it’s well worth going slow and observing the capitals between the chancel and ambulatory, as each one is full of symbolism and tells its own story.
These carvings are the best-preserved romanesque art in the region and show bible episodes like the assumption and Adam and Eve being expelled from paradise, as well as medieval allegorical images.
Soaring just a few kilometres west of Clermont-Ferrand, there’s no excuse not to add this titanic 1,465-metre volcano to your plans.
The good news is that you don’t need to be an outdoor adventurer to get the best out of the Puy-de-Dôme: Road traffic is prohibited but there’s an electric rack railway serving the summit at all times of the year and will get you there in just 20 minutes, with departures ever 40 minutes off season and 20 minutes in summer.
On the grassy peak you’ve got the choice of being dazzled by the views, getting a table at the restaurant or discovering the ruins of the Roman Temple of Mercury, which itself is on a Roman road still used as a route by hikers.
3. L’Aventure Michelin
This fabulous museum about the origins, present and future of Michelin will also tell you much about modern Clermont-Ferrand.
That’s because Michelin is the biggest single employer in the city and developed whole districts for its workers.
You’ll see how Bibendum (Michelin Man) came to be, and will be guided through all of the innovations the company has introduced, like the first removable tyre and the famous guides.
Although mostly dealing with technology and transport the museum is far from dry and technical, with lots of interactive displays and reels of archive video.
4. Clermont-Ferrand Cathedral
There’s no missing Clermont-Ferrand’s cathedral, not least because its black lava stone allows you to identify it easily from steep slopes outside the city.
It was built in the 13th century and was influenced by the gothic cathedrals of northern France, though wouldn’t be completed for many hundreds of years.
In the 19th-century the master restorer Viollet-Le-Duc laid out plans for the final touches, including the western spires, which rise to 108 metres.
There are lots of flourishes that are from the medieval era though, like the 13th-century red and blue stained glass windows and marvellous frescos in the crypt, sacristy and ambulatory from between the 12th and 15th centuries.
5. Old Montferrand
Clermont-Ferrand, being composed of two medieval cities, actually has two old quarters.
Montferrand is a couple of kilometres northeast of the cathedral and is best discovered under your own steam, when you’ll see churches, arcades, an old apothecary, merchants’ mansions made from Volvic lava and lots of timber-framed houses from medieval era onwards.
Make sure you pass the romanesque Maison de l’Elephant, from the 13th century on Rue Kléber.
Montferrand was a purpose-built bastide town constructed in the 12th century and was hostile towards its neighbour Clermont until they were forced to merge in the 17th century.
It wasn’t always a happy marriage either, as Montferrand has petitioned for independence four times, the last as recently as 1911!
6. Old Clermont
In the streets around the cathedral you have to keep your eyes open because there are all sorts of cool buildings and historical surprises.
One is on Rue des Chaussetiers: Hôtel Savaron is a 16th-century renaissance mansion with a courtyard that has a beautiful carving of the Savoron crest in the lintel above the entrance and three storeys of covered passage each with cross-vaulting.
Place de la Victoire next to the cathedral is a spot with cafes and restaurants, where friends meet up in the evenings.
The Christmas market sets up here every December, and there’s a statue of Pope Urban II who launched the First Crusade from Clermont in 1095.
7. Musée d’Art Roger-Quilliot (MARQ)
Partly located in the former Ursuline Convent in Montferrand, the fine arts museum for the city is named for a former mayor.
The museum opened in 1992, with a modern atrium three storeys high, lit by a glass roof.
In the medieval rooms there’s a lot of compelling artefacts like a romanesque wooden sculpture of the Virgin and Jesus “Notre Dame d’Usson” and capitals from churches in the region.
In the renaissance area there’s furniture, sculpture and a retable by the early Dutch painter Cornelis Engebrechtsz.
then in the Grande Galerie you’ll be struck by the richness of 19th-century French art, with contributions by Delacroix, Gustave Doré and Camille Claudel.
8. Place de Jaude
Clermont-Ferrand’s main square was completely revitalised ten years ago at great expense, around the time the city introduced its new tram system.
Place de Jaude is almost completely car-free and is ringed with fountains, laurel, tulip and American sweet gum trees, and as you’d hope there are many places to take the weight off and order a coffee.
Get a photo of the bronze equestrian statue of the Gaulish leader Vercingetorix which was shaped by Bartholdi, who made the Statue of Liberty.
Also check out the northern part of the square, which is made of basalt and has 250 red and yellow diodes denoting the movement of lava.
9. Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle Henri-Lecoq
You may not have heard of the French botanist Henri-Lecoq, but he was referenced by Darwin in “On the Origin of Species”, and during his life acquired a collection of 80,000 specimens from around the world that contained all groups of molluscs.
Lecoq worked in Clermont-Ferrand, where he was dean of the city’s Faculty of Sciences.
The natural history museum is in his mansion and now has hundreds of thousands of minerals, insects, fossils and plant specimens.
Those molluscs are still here, but if you’re impressed by the volcanic activity in Auvergne there’s an array of igneous rocks that might pique your interest.
10. Jardin Lecoq
Also in homage to Henri Lecoq is this soothing public garden plotted in the English style, so with sinuous paths, shrubs and rolling lawns.
It’s a botanical garden too, with 25,000 varieties of season plants putting on a spectacle of colour and scent in spring and summer.
There are also 300 different trees, and the whole environment is kept ship shape by a busy team of gardeners.
The pond has a bridge traversing it and a pavilion with a cafe, while those with younger children could bring them to the playground should they need something fun after trailing around the city.
11. Parc de Montjuzet
On a rise a short way northwest of the centre is another welcoming park, this one a little larger, covering 20 hectares.
There’s a fragrant Mediterranean garden here with lavender, rosemary, olive trees, cypresses and pines, and playgrounds for little ones.
But the reason to make the trip is for the panorama, which is as good as it gets.
You can come for a picnic and have the whole of Clermont-Ferrand as your backdrop, while Puy-de-Dôme and the other volcanic domes an plateaux imbue the scene with real drama.
12. Fontaine d’Amboise
A short jaunt from the city hall on Place de la Poterne is a historic fountain that is well worth a few minutes of your attention.
First the Fontaine d’Amboise was crafted between 1511 and 1515, which already makes it significant, but what’s also intriguing is that it’s transitional.
The supporting buttresses and traceries are clearly gothic, but the sculptures are definitely renaissance.
The crowning sculpture is a wild man carrying the coat of arms of Jacques d’Amboise, the Bishop of Clermont who commissioned the work.
He wields a club and is partially dressed in a fleece.
Just like the cathedral the fountain is made from Volvic lava.
In a city at the foot of volcanoes you can’t be blamed for wanting to strike out onto the slopes around the city for spectacular views.
Along “Les Côtes” to the north of Clermont-Ferrand there are more than 40 kilometres of trails, all on the natural bowl that surrounds the city, so you’ll never be far from home.
The Puy-de-Dôme is of course conquerable on foot if you have a few hours, while the Puy de Pariou is also marvellous and is part of the walk.
This extinct volcano has a pleasingly rounded crater and is lush with vegetation.
14. Mozac Abbey
If you haven’t had your fill of romanesque sculpture, the little town of Mozac is close enough to Clermont-Ferrand to practically be a suburb.
Mozac Abbey was a romanesque abbey that was destroyed by earthquakes in the 15th century and rebuilt in the gothic style with that black Volvic stone.
Thirty incredible sculpted capitals survived the damage and were later rediscovered to be put on display at the lapidary museum in the adjoining building.
These are from the 1100s, while there are 47 more in the abbey on the side of the church.
There isn’t much delicate about the cuisine in the Auvergne, which is simple and helps to combat the harsh winters.
This definitely goes for Truffade, which can best be described as a kind of loose pancake fried with thinly sliced potatoes and tomme fraiche cheese.
It’s gooey, unctuous and hits the spot when the snow is falling outside.
If you order it in a restaurant pair it with the regional reds, Gaillac or Cahors.
And if you’re into cheese then the Auvergne region will be a big playground, where national faves like Cantal, Salers, Bleu d’Auvergne and Saint-Nectaire are made.
Stock up at the Marché Saint-Pierre in Clermont-Ferrand or get going on the Auvergne Cheese Trail to visit the dairies in person.