For a champagne aficionado a trip to Épernay is a lifetime ambition. The Avenue de Champagne is a who’s who of champagne houses, where Moët et Chandon, De Castellane and Mercier are all cosy neighbours. You’ll be led beneath the earth to 200-year-old tunnels where the steady cool temperatures allow champagne to mature in peace.
Sparkling wine practically runs through Épernay’s veins and gave the town its wealth and dignified architecture like the stately town hall, the Château Perrier museum and the Théâtre Gabrielle-Dorziat. Be sure to call in at all the main house and then you’ll be free to strike out on the Champagne Route for winery visits, châteaux and other engaging fragments of history in green countryside.
Lets explore the best things to do in Épernay:
1. Avenue de Champagne
Whether you’re in Épernay to quaff the exalted beverage or not, the Avenue de Champagne needs to be your starting point.
That’s because this is where the town’s most magnificent architecture is found, in the shape of stately 19th-century mansions built for Champagne houses like Moët & Chandon and Perrier-Jouët.
Their past is linked inextricably with Épernay’s.
As you go you may get a frisson to know that you’re walking on one of the richest streets in the world, as beneath your feet are many miles of chalk tunnels where endless racks of champagne are quietly maturing.
2. Moët et Chandon
Épernay’s champagne houses are world-renowned, but Moët et Chandon has achieved universal recognition going way beyond wine circles.
On Avenue de Champagne Moët et Chandon also has the longest maze of underground tunnels, extending to almost 30 kilometres.
You’ll learn why the steady temperatures and humidity down here, up to 30 metres underground, are so beneficial to storing champagne and the secondary fermentation process.
You’ll pass through the cellars and get the facts before the best bit: A chance to taste the prestigious champagne.
You can do all this with a group or book in advance for custom one-to-one experiences.
Onto another esteemed brand, also on the Avenue de Champagne.
Mercier has been in the champagne business since 1858 and pitches itself as a more stylish and rebellious brand.
The cellars is an 18-kilometre labyrinth of tunnels with high ceilings that may surprise you with their grandness.
Some of the chambers are decorated with chandeliers and sculpted reliefs for banquets.
A neat touch if you have kids with you is the mini train that courses through the tunnels, while adult will of course appreciate the opportunity to savour a flute or two (depending on the package) at the end of the tour.
4. De Castellane
The Castellane house was founded in 1895 and invites visitors to browse its Museum of Champagne Tradition before descending into six kilometres of subterranean cellars.
A highpoint is the Label Room, where some 5,000 labels from every period in de Castellane’s history are on show.
De Castellane touts itself as the “most mysterious champagne in the world”, and you’ll get to know a few of the secrets of this house and how it produces its feted beverage.
You’ll recognise the de Castellane headquarters from miles off for its neo-renaissance tower, and you can scale this structure as part of the visit for a good panorama of the Avenue de Champagne and Épernay.
5. Town Hall and Gardens
Next to the tourism office, Épernay’s Hôtel de Ville is on the western end of the Avenue de Champagne.
The resplendent neo-renaissance mansion was donated to the town by the Auban-Moët family after the previous building was destroyed in the First World War.
You can ponder the architecture for a couple of minutes but the big draw here is the garden.
This was designed by the Bühler Brothers, landscape architects who plotted gardens across France in the 1800s, most notably the Parc de la Tête d’Or in Lyon.
There’s a rockery, pond, formal flower beds and a beautiful pavilion to saunter around.
6. Château Perrier
A mid-19th-century mansion built in the renaissance Louis XIII style, Château Perrier was intended as a whimsical and extravagant home for Charles Perrier.
At this time he was both the director of the Perrier-Jouët champagne house and the mayor of Épernay.
But in the 20th century the mansion would have a very different use, serving as the headquarters for first the British army (1940), then the German (1940-45) and finally the US (1945) during the Second World War.
The mansion was eventually sold to the town, and has been a museum since, with volumes of documents about champagne-making and archaeological displays that span the Palaeolithic to the middle ages.
As of writing this is currently closed for remodelling, but may be open by the time you stop by.
7. Théâtre Gabrielle-Dorziat
Épernay’s theatre commemorates the actor Gabrielle-Dorziat who was born in the town and made waves on the stage in Paris in the 1910s and 1920s, before embarking on a film career that lasted to the 1960s.
Like many of Épernay’s grandest buildings, the theatre was erected in the late-19th century, and its design borrows from Louis XV-style neoclassical architecture.
In its lifetime it has come through fires and bombing in 1918 during the First World War.
Drama, classical music, jazz, dance and world music are all showcased here, so check the listings before you come to see if something takes your fancy.
8. Portail Saint-Martin
Possibly the oldest monument in Épernay, this ruin is the last remnant of the renaissance Abbey of Saint-Martin, which stood at this port until it was demolished in stages in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
This western portal is from 1540 and has to be seen for the quality of its stonework, representing cherubs, Hercules and a variety of animals, among them salamander.
This helps date the church to the reign of Francis I in the first half of the 16th century as the salamander was his personal emblem.
9. Champagne Tours
There are around 300 Champagne crus in the region so if your thirst for this heavenly drink hasn’t yet been quenched then you can hop on the Champagne Route and see what you can find.
There’s a long list of companies based in Épernay and nearby Reimes providing transfers to and from wineries or bespoke tours.
You won’t need to spend long on the road either, as the acclaimed Domi house is in Grauves a couple of kilometres away.
And we’ve also hardly made a dent on the houses of the Avenue de Champagne, as Comtesse Lafond, Michel Gonet, Collard-Picard and A. Bergère are all in exquisite properties here and awaiting your visit.
10. Abbaye Saint-Pierre d’Hautvillers
The village of Hautvillers is just across the Marne, a couple of minutes north of Épernay.
Champagne connoisseurs come to pay their respects to the 17th-century Benedictine monk Dom Pérignon, who was the cellarer here from 1668 until he died in 1715. Dom Pérignon was pivotal in the genesis of the champagne industry, setting out the earliest rules to help stop bottles of sparkling wine from literally exploding because of re-fermentation when the weather warmed up in spring.
And his name is of course now given to Moët et Chandon’s cuvée.
You can enter the abbey church to see his tomb
11. Jardin Botanique de la Presle
Awarded the coveted “Jardin Remarquable” label, this botanic garden was laid out around 20 years ago.
At first it was a private nursery but after maturing for a few years opened up to the public in 2001. The variety of plants expanded as its horticulturalists travelled to places as far-flung as Kyrgyzstan, Eastern Turkey, the Balkans and Spain’s Sierra Nevada, returning with specimens.
Younger visitors will be wild for the topiaries clipped into the shapes of monsters and there’s also a labyrinth to solve.
Adults will revel in the sights and scents of 500 different rose varieties and all-round serenity.
12. Hôtel-Dieu de Château-Thierry
This Augustinian hospice and hospital for the poor operated from the early 14th-century until the death of the last nun in 1966. Throughout that time the hospital was expanded and reworked, including a big redesign in 1876, which gives it an outlandish blend of architectural styles.
For hundreds of years the hospital had some very wealthy patrons, which accounts for the awesome assortment of religious sculpture, embroidery, paintings, clocks and furniture on show.
There are also wonderful if grisly insights into historic medicine and you can pause at the cells in which the nuns lived.
13. Château de Condé
On the Champagne Route, the Château de Condé is a fabulous mansion with refined interiors from the 18th century.
The design of the two cylindrical gatehouses at the front is from the 1500s, but there has been a castle at this location since at least the 1000s.
The 16th-century gatehouse on the right is particularly compelling for its underground jail, which retains its sophisticated original locking system.
The bulk of the Château has sumptuous interiors with trompe l’oeil painted walls and ceilings, and luxurious period furniture and art.
You can visit the bedchamber in which Cardinal Richelieu stayed, and kids can take part in a treasure hunt in the spacious grounds in summer.
At only half an hour from Épernay, this city is both a crucial stop on the Champagne Route and the setting for some momentous events in French history.
Many of these happened in the spectacular cathedral, where every French kings for almost 1,000 years was crowned.
Occasionally these coronations changed the course of history in France, like when Charles VII ascended the throne in 1429 just after Reims had been recaptured from the English.
Marvel at the treasures in the Palace of Tau next door, and get back on the champagne trail in the labyrinthine cellars of Veuve-Clicquot and Taittinger.
In addition to wine grapes, vegetables do very well in the fertile soils of the Marne Department.
Carrots, leeks, beans, beets, cabbage and potatoes all go into the cuisine.
In the colder months Potée Champenoise warms the cockles and has bacon and sausage, with carrots, cabbage, turnips and potatoes.
On Saturdays drop by at the Halle Saint Thibault.
Épernay’s metal and glass covered market to see locals going about their weekly shop and to sample the best of the region’s produce.
This is where to go to get your hands on brie cheese, which tends to be made in the region between Épernay and Paris.