In the foothills of the Vosges, Épinal is a historic town noted for its printing pedigree: There are workshops here that mass produced colourful woodcut and lithographic prints for hundreds of years. You’ll have a rare chance to see these old techniques in action at the Imagerie d’Épinal and browse a huge library of prints at the Musée de l’Image.
Old Épinal is made to be seen on foot, with arcaded squares, old defensive walls, and the striking ruins of a medieval castle at the top of the town. For days out, the Vosges Regional Park is 20 minutes by road, and the action-packed Fraispertuis-City theme park will make a kid’s entire holiday.
Lets explore the best things to do in Épinal:
1. Parc du Château d’Épinal
On a rise by the right bank of the Moselle are the ruins of Épinal’s castle, dominating the town and valley.
The fortress was built in the 1200s by the Bishop of Metz, and was both an imposing fortress and a stately residence.
But after a turbulent period in the 17th century it was razed in 1670 by Louis XIV’s troops and left as the spectacular ruin that greets us now.
The park around it is a delight and offers 25 hectares of gardens, a vineyard, playgrounds for kids, an animal park and a decorative Chinese tower built in 1804.
2. Musée Départemental d’Art Ancien et Contemporain
There’s a serious collection of more than 30,000 pieces of art at this museum on the river island.
The museum is in the 17th-century Hôpital Saint-Lazare with modern additions made in the 1990s.
Rembrandt, Georges de la Tour, Brueghel the Elder, Simon Vouet and Claude Lorrain are a few of the masters on show.
These are matched by interesting accounts of Épinal’s historic printing trade, and exhibitions of Pop Art, Minimalism and Nouveau Réalisme from the 20th century.
And if that’s not enough there’s wonderful archaeology, with finds from across the Lorraine region dating to Celtic, Gallo-Roman and Merovingian times.
3. Musée de l’Image
Épinal’s rich printing heritage is proudly laid out here.
The museum is in a snazzy, purpose-built hall from 2003 and preserves some 100,000 popular prints going back to the 1600s.
A great deal of these were made at local printmakers like Pinot and Pellerin and date to the 18th and 19th centuries: There are religious pamphlets for congregations, children’s stories and games, soldiers’ documents, satirical cartoons, advertisements, theatre programmes and pieces of propaganda.
There’s also material from a host of other printmakers around France, as well as China, Japan, Austria, Spain, Italy and Germany.
4. Imagerie d’Épinal
An ideal partner to the museum, the Pellerin printmaker is next door and is still going strong.
These works date to 1796 and have a collection of thousands of historic engraved woodblocks and lithographic stones.
The old workshops have been preserved, with hundreds of years of printing savoir-faire to discover.
On a tour you’ll watch demonstrations to get a handle on various techniques like woodcut printing, lithography and screen printing.
At the end you’ll be able to buy your own Épinal print, made exclusively at these works.
5. Basilique Saint-Maurice
This powerfully-built church dates from the 1000s and blends several regional styles.
You’ll be struck by the formidable main facade, which is in a classic Rhenish style.
Then passing through the portal you’ll arrive at the Burgundian Gothic nave from the 1200s, recognised by its three tiers.
This leads to the choir, which is typical of Romanesque churches in the Champagne region to the northwest and has a five-sided apse and exquisite stalls.
There’s a set of paintings by the Épinal painter Nicolas Bellot depicting the Passion and, curiously, the Château d’Épinal symbolising Jerusalem.
6. Place des Vosges
A very pretty square in the centre of town, the Place des Vosges was is the town’s former marketplace.
The square is laid with cobblestones and bounded by arcaded houses.
There are restaurants and cafes under these arches with seating that invades the square.
Stop for a coffee or cold drink in summer, and cast your eye over the old houses that surround the square.
The Renaissance Maison du Bailli from 1604 stands out for its mullioned windows and balcony reinforced by decorative corbels.
In summer if there’s a concert or public gathering in Épinal it will usually take place on the Place des Vosges.
7. Parc du Cours
Another of Épinal’s welcoming green spaces, the Parc du Cours is directly on the right bank of the Moselle for waterside strolls.
The park is so quiet you’ll hardly know that you’re in the middle of the town: There are spacious lawns, flowerbeds and avenues hemmed by sculpted lime trees.
A lot of the trees in the park date to the 1800s like the gigantic red beeches, Douglas firs and cedars.
Also from that century is the iron bandstand, dating to 1863 and a weather station from 1892.
8. Quartier du Chapitre
This magical neighbourhood in old Épinal is where the noble canonesses of the old chapterhouse used to live.
The Rue du Chapitre is flanked by their charming, pastel-painted houses, dating to the 17th and 18th centuries.
In the chapterhouse museum listed below there’s a gallery with portraits of these canonesses.
The original convent disappeared in the Revolution, and on its site is now a small patio.
At the end of the Rue de Chapitre you’ll come to a 75-metre length of Épinal’s medieval walls, made from red sandstone and still equipped with three circular towers.
9. Musée du Chapitre
Also in the old core of Épinal, this museum has a super location, in an authentic medieval tower on the wall.
On three levels are artefacts charting life in the town in the last four centuries.
You can peruse the finds made during excavations around the defensive walls and the castle, among them architectural fragments and even cannonballs.
Paintings and prints reveal the evolution of the town, while the main attractions is the scale model of Épinal as it was in the 17th century.
This was created using Nicolas Bellot’s Plan d’Épinal painting from 1626, now hanging at the town’s art museum.
10. Port d’Épinal
Épinal’s pleasure port is just a short way downriver from the centre, at the very start of the Canal de l’Est.
You’ll find the capitainerie opposite the Musée de l’Image, and this can be your launchpad for activities on warm summer days.
You could hire an electric boat for a couple of hours and float off down the canal or simply stroll next to the water and watch the holiday barges chug past.
There’s also a cycling centre next to the capitainerie renting out bicycles, both traditional and electric assisted for trips along the towpath.
11. Église Notre-Dame-au-Cierge
This church was started in 1900 but then bombed during the war, and so had to be rebuilt in its entirety in the 1950s.
For the reconstruction the architect Jean Crouzillard drafted in a couple of well-known artists: The master glassmaker Gabriel Loire created the stained glass, including the monumental 180m2 window in the choir that recounts the life of the Virgin Mary.
And the sculptor Leon Leyritz contributed the church’s enamel doors, depicting a radiant Christ.
These sublime works have earned the church “monument historique” status.
For a family day out there’s an award-winning theme park within half an hour.
Fraispertuis-City has a Wild West theme and is still going strong after more than 50 years.
For most of this time it’s been a tame, relaxing place with pony rides, miniature trains and amusements.
But since the 90s the park has also started packing in white-knuckle rides.
In 2011 Timber Drop briefly held the world record (it still holds the European one) for the highest inclined vertical drop.
This is joined by splash rides, a tower drop and two other rollercoasters.
Littler outlaws can take wagon rides, meet the animals at a ranch-style farm and ride the original Express miniature train, which was the very first ride at the park.
13. Voie Verte des Hautes-Vosges
You can take a laid-back day trip through the natural splendour of the eastern Vosges via this greenway beginning at Remiremont.
The 54-kilometre route follows the paved-over railway lines of the Moselle and Moselotte valleys, so even though you’ll be exploring some mighty scenery the gradients are never taxing.
Ban de Vagney, with its lofty wooded hillsides, is achingly picturesque, and the route also crosses the marvellous Crosery river gorge.
You can stop at a couple of visitor attractions on the way, like the Bleu Forêt textile factory and the Terrae Genesis geology centre in Saint-Amé.
14. Cascade de la Pissoire
For another jaunt into the Ballon des Vosges Regional Park you could set off on a hike to this minor natural wonder in the forest.
The Cascade de la Pissoire might have a rude name, but is a beautiful setting, with a five-metre waterfall and little wooden bridges to get you in for a better photo.
You can park up in Vagney and walk to the waterfall in a few minutes.
But there’s also a longer trail marked in green that will take you a little deeper into the park on an hour-long looped trail.
15. Regional Food and Drink
Traditionally potatoes have been ingrained in the regional diet and one of the reasons for this is that they were cultivated in the Vosges earlier any other part of France.
An old-time speciality is the beignet de pommes de terre, potato fritters that are much like hash browns.
Also designed to be filling, a Vosges salad will have fresh leaves with boiled egg, ham, cheese and bacon.
And bacon is of course at the heart of a quiche Lorraine, made with pastry, egg and crème fraîche.
The region’s mirabelle plums are also divine, and show up in many desserts, as well as tasty mirabelle brandy.