In the 14th an 15th centuries Dijon was the capital of the Duchy of Burgundy, which controlled a big tranche of eastern France, the Netherlands, Flanders and Luxembourg. The sumptuous home of the Dukes of Burgundy is still in place and is now a superb art museum as well as the city’s Hôtel de Ville.
In the stylish old centre you’ll have fun discovering Dijon’s history with the Parcours de la Chouette trail, which labels 22 sights with the city’s iconic owl motif. This being Burgundy, the cuisine is out of this world but also very familiar: Think beef bourguignon, coq au vin, onion soup, and match all that with some of France’s most distinguished wine.
Lets explore the best things to do in Dijon:
1. Ducal Palace
At Place de la Libération you’re greeted by the home of the Dukes of Burgundy in the 14th and 15th centuries, now the town hall.
If it doesn’t look like it’s from this time that’s because the building has been in use by the city ever since, and was extended in the 17th century by Jules Hardouin-Mansart, who was responsible for the Grand Trianon at Versailles.
He also designed Place de la Liberation, and if you look between the two classical porticoes you can see the renaissance Tower of Philip the Good poking up between.
This is the oldest part of the building visible from the square, and dates to the 1450s.
If you’re up for climbing more than 300 steps you’ll have the ultimate view of Dijon as your reward.
2. Musée des Beaux-Arts
Also inside the Ducal Palace is Dijon’s Fine Arts Museum, which was founded in 1787 and conveys the wealth and opulence of the Dukes of Burgundy.
This is clearest in the tombs of John the Fearless and Philip the Bold, with their masterful early-renaissance alabaster sculptures.
Down the years many wealth benefactors have donated their collections to the museum, so you can see Islamic weapons and glassware, Oriental porcelain, African ceremonial mask, Ancient Egyptian antiquities and Roman art from Switzerland and Germany.
In the supreme painting galleries you’ll contemplate old masters like Titian, Lorenzo Lotto, Breughel the Elder and Rubens, as well 19th-century art from Monet, Manet, Sisley and Géricault.
3. Parcours de la Chouette
On the north side of the Church of Notre-Dame is Dijon’s symbolic owl, sculpted in the 1500s.
The stone has been buffed shiny by centuries of people touching it for good luck and making a wish.
Strictly you should do this with your left hand when you pass it on your left hand side, or your wish won’t come true.
The owl is the inspiration for a 22-stop tour around the historic centre, with each sight labelled by a brass waymarker with the cute owl motif.
Get a trail guide from the tourist office and the walk will take an hour or so; ideal for a whirlwind tour of the city.
If you want to go at your own pace you’ll can make it a leisurely afternoon calling in at shops and pausing at cafe terraces on your way.
There are three loops within the trail: Moses, Rousseau and Zola.
4. Musée de la Vie Bourguignonne
With a lovely home in the cloister of a 17th-century Bernardine Cistercian monastery, this ethnographic museum presents rural life and city life in Burgundy from the 1700s to the start of the 1900s.
On the ground floor there a general ethnographic collection from the 19th century, with regional costume, furniture, household tools and decorations.
The first floor is a little more exciting, with ten tableaus representing traditional trades in the region, with hatters, grocers, butchers and barbers, and the real tools they used in the 1800s and 1900s.
And if you want to know more about the history of Dijon mustard, the museum relays all the background on this condiment.
5. Rue des Forges
From Place François-Rude to Rue Verrerie, Rue des Forges is in the city’s conservation area, and is both a favoured shopping artery and a way to admire some the city’s most handsome old buildings.
Wedged between the posh boutiques are mansions belonging to distinguished inhabitants from Dijon’s history.
At 52-56 for example there’s Hôtel Morel-Sauvegrain, once the home of the nurse of Charles the Bold, the former Duke of Burgundy.
But at 34-36 is the highlight, at Hôtel Chambellan you can go through the decorative gate to the courtyard to see a fabulous carved wooden gallery and a stone spiral staircase, dating from the 15th to the 17th centuries.
6. Musée Magnin
From the end of the 1800s to the 1930s the wealthy Parisian magistrate Maurice Magnin and his sister Jeanne amassed around 2,000 pieces of art, which they bequeathed to the city, along with their 17th-century hôtel particulier.
They had spent decades at auctions buying art they admired, whether or not a famous name had created it.
So you have a wonderful store of paintings by lesser-known French, Flemish and Italian artists.
At the core is a detailed exhibition of the French school from the 1500s to the 1800s, outstanding for its works from the 1600s by the likes of Bourdon, Laurent de La Hyre and Eustache Le Seur.
7. Church of Notre-Dame
In the middle of the old centre, this 13th-century gothic church has a design that resembles few in France.
The flat western facade is most unusual of all, with a large porch made up of three arches on the lower level.
On the two levels above are rows of columns, each row bordered by a long line of gargoyles representing monsters, animals and also humans (there are 51 gargoyles in total). Step back from the western entrance and you can identify the jacquemart in the tower above.
The clockwork automatons that strike the church’s bell were looted from the city of Kortrijk by Philip the Bold in the 1380s.
8. Jardin Botanique de l’Arquebuse
The Arquebusiers were a company of soldiers that trained and lived on this site in the centuries up the late-1700s, at which time their final captain laid an English-style garden.
At the start of the 19th century it was turned into a botanic garden and now has more than 4,000 plant species.
The idea is to acquaint you with all the plants that are native to the Burgundy region, while around a quarter of the species are from other parts of the world.
You don’t need to have a green thumb to revel in the park and its serene arbours, pergolas, ponds and formal flower beds.
9. Museum d’Histoire Naturelle
Located in the Jardin des Sciences, the Natural History Museum is in the former barracks of the Arquebusiers, dating to 1608. The museum has been going since 1838 and was established by Leonard Nodot, a Dijon naturalist.
The ground floor relates the geology of the Burgundy region, and has some thrilling fossils, such as a leg bone from a mastodon, several molluscs and the antlers of an Irish megaloceros deer extinct for many thousands of years.
The upper floor combines new interactive exhibits about the natural world with a kind of 19th century “cabinet of curiosity” featuring shells, taxidermies and butterfly collections, showing what the museum would have been like in the 1800s.
10. Dijon Cathedral
Dijon’s gothic cathedral was completed in the 15th century but has plenty of architecture that is several hundred years older.
The thing to see before you go inside is that marvellous Burgundian patterned roof.
You have to pay a couple of Euros to go into the cathedral’s crypt but it’s well worth the price, as you’ll be entering the oldest part of the church.
This is from the 1000s and was the underground part of an abbey built to shelter the tomb of the 4th-century Saint Benignus.
The design was intended to resemble the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
11. Musée Archéologique de Dijon
Right next-door to the cathedral is Dijon’s archaeology museum, set in the main wing of the former abbey.
It holds the coveted “Musée de France” label, and deals with human activity in Burgundy from prehistory to the middle ages.
Because of its wonderful setting Christian art and architecture take prominence in the exhibition, so you can wander around the 13th-century Monks’ dormitory and go into the crypt’s dark tunnels.
On level two is the Bronze Age Treasure of Blanot, which is a set of bronze and gold jewellery and tableware.
Also look out for the Rochepot bracelet, made of solid gold and weighing 1.3kg.
12. Les Halles
Dijon’s covered market is an official “monument historique” and was constructed of cast iron and glass in the 1870s.
City markets in France are always something to see, but few are as large or beautiful as this one.
Look at the animal motifs in the spandrels between the great arches, and try to make out the medallions of Ceres (Greek harvest goddess) and Hermes (god of trade). We haven’t even got to the food yet, which eye-opening to say the least.
There are hundreds of stalls overflowing with flowers, seasonal fruit and veg, cheese, fish and spices, and if you’re brave you’ll see first-hand how no part of an animal’s anatomy goes to waste in Burgundy!
13. Église Saint-Michel de Dijon
This fabulous church was built at the transition between the gothic and renaissance on the cusp of the 16th century.
Both styles are present as construction was delayed because of a lack of funds caused by the conflict between Louis XII and the Maximilian I, the Holy Roman Emperor.
So you can see gothic elaboration in the marvellous carvings in the South Portal from 1537, depicting myriad angels.
Then next to it, on the central portal the sculptures are from 1551, and you can already identify the switch to the renaissance, with yet more angels, but now resting on pedestals and decorated with garlands and rosettes.
So many French staples come from around Dijon, and we’ll try to deal with a few: There’s Coq au Vin, the chicken and wine stew that everyone knows.
Also well-known is onion soup, with slices of baguette and melted Saint-Nectaire cheese.
Wine is also a big ingredient in Beef bourguignon, the classic braised beef stew.
Don’t forget snails or, of course, Dijon mustard.
The condiment is no longer made right in the city, but you can get a good sense of its heritage at the Epicerie Maille on Rue de la Liberté, which has been here since 1845 and sells the brand’s mustards, oils and vinegars.
For another dose of culinary history stop by at Multot & Petitjean on Hôtel Catin de Richemont at 15 Rue Bossuet: It’s the oldest pain d’épices (a spiced cake) bakery in the city.
Available tour: Historic Dijon Market 2.5-Hour Food Tour
Produced with blackcurrants cultivated around Dijon is Crème de cassis, a liqueur that is usually taken as an after-dinner digestif, and also goes well in cocktails like Kir.
But Burgundy is a part of France synonymous with wine, and has more appellations than another region in the country.
Beginning directly south of Dijon is the Côte de Nuits region, where six communes produce grand cru wines.
To pick one, Gevrey-Chambertin is less than 15 kilometres away and is noted for its intense reds, and has an incredible nine different grand cru vineyards: You can taste the amazing variety of local wines at the Philippe Leclerc Cave, where there’s also a museum, explaining local viticulture through the ages.