This medieval city is isolated atop a 100-metre-high limestone rock that punctuates the low, flat plains around.
In the high town, encircled by eight kilometres of walls and formidable gates is France’s biggest protected historic centre.
There are more than 80 historic monuments to discover in a city that was the capital of the Carolingian Empire in the early middle ages.
But the crowning glory is Laon Cathedral, which is visible for kilometres in every direction, and one of the earliest and greatest Gothic monuments in France.
The ground beneath your feet in the high town is also furrowed with tunnels first dug in Roman times and revealed to the public on tours in July and August.
Lets explore the best things to do in Laon:
1. Laon Cathedral
The first sign of Laon as you approach by road will be the towers of this cathedral peeking over the horizon.
And you can see how it might have left medieval travellers awestruck.
It was completed in 1235 and was one of France’s first major Gothic buildings, even predating the Notre Dame in Paris.
Take as long as you need to appreciate the sculptures on the porches of the western facade, as well as the traceries in the rose window above.
The use of local white stone makes the interior of the nave feel almost luminous.
For decoration, see the 12th-century font, the painted relief of the Passion from the 14th century and a Serbian icon donated to the cathedral by Pope Urban IV in the 13th century.
2. Chapelle des Templiers
Knights Templar chapels are rare finds in France, and it’s even rarer to see one in such good condition.
And only two others in the country share this chapel’s octagonal floor-plan.
The monument dates from 1140, about 12 years after the Templar order settled in the city and would have served as a funerary chapel.
Check out the mosaic floor, fragments of decoration, tombstones and sculptures in the choir.
And outside on the sides of the walls of the narthex are weird sculpted gargoyles.
The peaceful flower garden around the chapel is where the cemetery used to be and is good for a minute or two of repose.
3. Musée d’Art et d’Archéologie
The chapel is also on the grounds of Laon’s museum of art and archaeology.
In a city with 1,500 years of powerful tenants you can be sure that the museum is overflowing with artefacts: There’s a Gaulish torque, 7th-century fibula, medieval tiles, the disturbing cadaver tomb of the physician to Charles VI and dainty faïence from Sinceny.
The art galleries are enriched by painting from the 1500s to 1800s,composed by French, Dutch, Flemish and Italian artists.
Henri Bles and Hubert Robert are among the better-known names, but there are also drawings by the great Eugène Delacroix.
4. Laon’s Ramparts
When you approach the high town from the plain and see it dominating the countryside you know that the views are going to be breathtaking.
And they don’t disappoint: The best panoramas can be had from atop the old walls on the north and south side of the high town.
Of these, Rempart Guillaume de Harcigny and the Promenade Yitzhak Rabin are spectacular, and there’s an uplifting lookout with trees and benches between the citadel and the Porte d’Ardon.
You can just sit back and gaze in wonder at a collage of forest and farmland that stretches out forever.
5. Porte d’Ardon
The old southeastern entrance to the city is at the top of a road snaking up the stiff slope to the upper town.
There has been an opening in the defences right here since the 10th century, and the current gate is from around the 1400s.
It looks like a little fortress of its own, with a turret on each side crowned with conical roofs.
As you pass through the portal look up at the wooden beams in the ceiling, while just down from the gate is an old lavoir, or communal wash-house.
6. Porte de Soissons
Confronted by this beast of a gate an invading army might have thought twice about taking on Laon.
The Porte de Soissons is less noble and worse for wear than the Porte d’Andon, but is slightly older than the gate across town.
This one is from the early-1200s and has two burly circular towers with many arrow loops in the walls.
The top floor of the building is a guardhouse that was installed in the 16th century, and though the gate is a ruin you can make out the beautiful stonework when you look up.
7. Cours de Dauphin
Hidden in the warren of cobblestone streets a few steps from the cathedral is a fabulous townhouse around a courtyard.
One of the curious things about this building is it composite style, with sections from the 13th, 15th, 16th and 17th centuries all easy to identify.
On the south wall is a lovely timber and brick building with a wooden gallery above the old stables on the ground floor.
Also see the stone turret with its carved lintel and the mullioned windows over the passageway: Legend has it that Louis XIV was conceived here by Louis XIII and Anne of Austria after their pilgrimage to the Black Virgin in Liesse.
8. Ancien Hôtel-Dieu
Many French tourist offices are set in historic buildings, but few can be as enchanting as Laon’s medieval hospital.
The Hôtel-Dieu is by the cathedral and dates to 1167. While you’re browsing the leaflets, books and scale model of the city here, take a peek at the walls, which retain faint traces of medieval frescos.
The old reception room, with its columns and vaults, is very solemn, and you’ll notice how the arcades that once opened onto the Place du Parvis Gualter de Mortagne have since been filled in.
9. Église Saint-Martin
Finished roughly the same time as the cathedral, this early-Gothic church was an abbey for the “Premonstratensian” order of canons.
Although the building suffered some damage in 1944 it has been fully restored and has plenty of things to see close up.
First there’s the unusually long nave, which is a classic Romanesque trait and shows how the church was built just as the Gothic style was being adopted.
There’s a beautifully carved oak pulpit from the 19th century and two medieval recumbent tomb effigies, one of Jeanne de Flandres a former abbess, and the other of Raoul II of Coucy.
10. Laon Souterrain
One of the first things you should do when you arrive in Laon in summer is put your name down for a tour of the tunnels under the city.
These walks are organised by the tourist office and will take you deep into the limestone bedrock below the citadel.
There are hundreds of metres of tunnels, dug across 2,000 years.
They were originally quarries for monuments like the cathedral, but were later used for defence after the advent of gunpowder.
What’s astounding is how you’ll step into a different era every few metres down here.
11. Episcopal Palace
The palatial 13th-century home of the Bishops of Laon has long since become the city’s law courts.
But while access is restricted you should definitely mark it down on your walking tour.
It powers above Laon’s northern ramparts and on Promenade Barthélémy de Jur the three turrets show you that this courtly home was also designed to bolster the city’s defences.
On the other side next to the cathedral you can look through the gates across the courtyard to the ambulatory with a row of noble arches with foliate motifs on the capitals.
12. Basilique Notre-Dame de Liesse
No more than 15 minutes in the car from Laon is this Gothic church in the small town of Liesse-Notre-Dame.
The church is from the 12th century, and has a few additions from the late middle ages.
It’s a beautiful building, but your main reason for visiting can be found in the choir: The statue of the Black Virgin with Child here has been a pilgrimage site for centuries.
The thrill comes from knowing that you’re standing on the same ground as Joan of Arc and three Kings, Louis VI, François I and Louis XIII. In fact Louis XIII and Anne of Austria visited several times in the 1630s to pray for an heir.
13. Caverne du Dragon
Allow 20 minutes or so to reach this cave that became a strategic goal during the First World War.
It was originally a limestone quarry, providing the material for the Abbey of Vauclair close by.
For most of the war it was in the hands of German forces, and got its name because of the sight of flames and sparks bursting from the machine guns positioned here.
There’s an hour-long bilingual tour that illustrates the stark realities of life for First World War soldiers, and recounts the fraught period when French and German troops had control of different chambers in the same cave.
14. Vauclair Abbey
Now in ruins, Vauclair Abbey is a Cistercian monastery founded in 1134 at the request of Bishop of Laon.
The building survived the Hundred Years’ War, French Wars of Religion and the Revolution, but succumbed during the First World War.
Today it’s clearly missing most of its walls and roof, but with enough columns and window arches remaining to spark your imagination and give you a feel for how it would have been.
A medieval medicinal garden and an orchard with pear and apple trees make this somewhere to reflect for a while.
15. Local Food
If you’re in town in the summer months the stalls at Laon’s weekly market are laden with fruit grown on the farms around the city.
The cherries, strawberries and raspberries are out of this world and won’t have travel more than a couple of kilometres to get here.
In 2003 Laon decided to come up with a trademark sweet, and Pavés de Laon were result: These are shaped like the cobblestones in the centre and are chocolate and praline coated with meringue.
The speciality of the wider Aisne department is the ficelle, crêpes rolled up with ham, mushrooms and béchamel, and baked in the oven with a layer of melted cheese.