This sacred town in Normandy’s Calvados department hardly needs introduction for Catholics as it’s France’s second pilgrimage site behind Lourdes.
The 19th-century Saint Thérèse spent nearly all her life in the Lisieux, first in an idyllic house with her father and then at the Carmelite convent from the age of 14. If you’re following in her footsteps there’s a smattering of Thérèse-related sites around the town.
But for everybody else there’s just as much to see and do: Lisieux has a real gastronomic pedigree, making Calvados apple brandy and some of France’s most prized cheeses, while there’s an acclaimed zoo, sophisticated châteaux and the chic resort of Deaville all a breeze away.
Lets explore the best things to do in Lisieux:
1. Basilica of St Thérèse
This church built in St Thérèse’s honour is the second most-visited pilgrimage site in France after Lourdes.
To get a picture of the fervour that Thérèse generated in the first decades of the 20th century, the entire cost of this church was paid for by donations.
There was enough to start work in 1929 and following a pause during the war the decorative neo-Byzantine basilica with a 45-metre high campanile was consecrated in 1951. The crypt is the essential bit and was the first section completed; it is furnished with sculpted marble and mosaics depicting the stages of Thérèse’s life.
It was here that Lisieux’s few remaining locals took refuge during the Allied bombing in 1944.
2. Château de Saint-Germain-de-Livet
Cloaked in woodland outside Lisieux, this magical château dates back to the 1400s.
The property was built on top of an earlier fortress, but apart from the moat you can tell that this home was designed for luxury rather than defence.
The Renaissance gatehouse and towers are from the end of the 1500s, and are made from stone and glazed bricks arranged in a chequer board pattern, while the bulk of the house is older, from the 1400s and is half-timbered.
The interior has been richly decorated and features paintings by the Romantic artist Léon Riesener, a cousin of Eugène Delacroix.
3. Les Buissonnets
The home of Saint Thérèse from the age of 4 to 15, when she joined the Carmelite convent, Les Buissonnets is a lovely 18th century property a short walk from the centre of town.
The Martin family moved to Les Buissonnets in 1877 shortly after Thérèse’s mother died, and it was here that she suffered from an unknown illness whose cure she attributed to a statue of the Virgin Mary in her cousin’s room.
Step inside to browse the Martin family’s possessions, such as the robe Thérèse wore for her first communion and her father’s study.
In the garden there’s a statue memorialising the moment she asked her father if she could enter the Carmel in 1887.
4. Musée d’Art et d’Histoire de Lisieux
With an enchanting home in one of the last remaining timber-framed houses in the town, Lisieux’s museum of history and art reopened in 2013 after a few years of renovation.
It holds the coveted Museum of France label, and maps out the story of the city from Roman times to the present day, pausing on the most important periods along the way.
So you’ll get detailed insight about the 19th-century dressmaking industry, the post-war reconstruction of the town and the medieval bishops who wielded great power hundreds of years ago.
5. Lisieux Cathedral
At the transition between Norman Romanesque and Gothic, Lisieux’ cathedral was built in 60 years up to 1230 and was one of the only monuments to come through the war without too much damage.
Outside the architecture is sober and understated, but inside you’ll be awed by the height of the vaults in the nave, which are similar to those at the Notre-Dame in Paris.
If you’re on the Thérèse trail you’ll be thrilled to learn that it was while praying in the cathedral’s chapels in the 1880s that her religious calling was revealed to her.
She would stop to pray in the Notre-Dame chapel here every morning before school, while the confessional is the same that she visited after her First Communion.
6. Zoo de CERZA
A couple of minutes outside Lisieux is a 60-hectare safari park where more than 1,000 animals live in semi-freedom in woodland and green valleys.
You’ll be able to view them on two trails, or aboard a “Safari Train”, sure to go down well with younger kids.
Many of the species in the park are threatened with extinction, and CERZA is involved in 40 breeding programs and directs profits conservation around the world.
Some rare species have given birth at the park in the last few years, like the Indian rhinoceros (a first for France) and red pandas.
7. Carmel Museum and Chapel
At 14 Thérèse moved from her home to this Carmelite Convent where she remained until she passed way in 1897 at just 24 years old.
This is a working convent but there’s an exhibition about her time here and a chapel where you can visit her reliquary.
This shrine features a recumbent marble sculpture of the saint above her remains, which are carried through the town on a procession on the last weekend of September.
If you’re less interested in the Thérèse phenomenon you’ll appreciate the footage and photographs that give an idea of the life of the Carmelites up to the present day.
8. Jardin de l’Évêché
André Le Nôtre, the man who landscaped the grounds at Versailles, laid out these gardens beside the cathedral in the 17th century.
And in true Le Nôtre style they have a French formal plan, with geometric lawns, flowerbeds and paths organised around a fountain and set below a terrace where you can ponder over the view.
The park was laid for the city’s bishop and canons, who lived in the episcopal palace next door, which was later converted into Lisieux’s courthouse.
You can be on the beach in half an hour from Lisieux.
And there’s nothing ordinary about the closest resort: Polished Deauville is a seaside escape that developed in the 1860s and was put on the fashion map by Coco Chanel in the 1910s.
Earlier, Deauville had been visited by the writer Flaubert and painter Eugène Boudin, who died here in 1898. An American Film Festival pulls in the stars ever September and the resort’s luxury status is accentuated by its casino, sea spa, plush hotels, boutiques and two racecourses.
But for a day trip from Lisieux you can content yourself with more than three kilometres of spotless golden sand.
10. Graindorge Fromagerie
Livarot is under 20 kilometres from Lisieux, and this village is a household name for anyone who loves good cheese.
You can tour the Graindorge Fromagerie here, which has been in business since 1910. Each wheel of Livarot and Pont l’Evêque it makes is the product of three generations of cheese-making knowhow.
The dairy has been laid out in a way that lets you see most aspects of cheese production via glazed galleries that look directly onto the dairy floors.
There are explanatory videos, information boards and you’ll get to sample of the fromagerie’s delicious wares at the end of the tour.
11. Château de Boutemont
Recommended by a prestigious “Jardin Remarquable” listing, the grounds of the Château de Boutemont are billed as some of the most beautiful in Normandy.
The castle goes back to the 1500s, but the layout of the gardens is more recent, and was plotted by Achille Duchêne at the start of the 20th century.
Duchêne was part of the same tradition as Le Nôtre 200 years before, and conceived a parterre with an exquisite greenhouse, fragrant garden and Italianate garden decorated with 17th-century sculpture and furniture.
Lisieux is deep in the Calvados AOC, and close by you can see how this delectable apple brandy is made.
The tricky part will be choosing where to go, as Le Père Jules, Boulard, Pierre Huet, Le Lieu Chéri and La Ribaud all welcome visitors.
A typical tour will show you around the picturesque orchards, old copper stills and capacious warehouses with oak barrels where the brandy can mature for as much as 40 years.
Naturally you’ll get to taste the calvados at the end, but many of these distilleries also brew cider and press their own apple juice, both for pommeau (a blend of apple juice and calvados) and to sell along with their alcoholic range.
13. Château de Crèvecoeur
On the way to Caen from Lisieux is a château owned by the descendants of the Schlumberger Brothers, who made crucial technological advances in the oil drilling industry in the 20th century.
There are exhibitions about the two men, who were born in France but whose career took them around the world.
The setting also has some 1,000 years of history to uncover, and has sensational half-timbered architecture from the 15th century.
It’s a place for children too, thanks to all the activities held in the grounds throughout the year, like old-time fairs, falconry demonstrations and the “Médiévales” festival in August when there are re-enactments of battles and court life.
14. Château de Vendeuvre
Dating to the 1750s, the Château de Vendeuvre epitomises Ancien Régime splendour both inside and out, and fortunately was spared from destruction in the Revolution.
Full of period furnishings, the interior has been cleverly configured so that each room represents a different aspect of upper class daily life: In the study for example you can find out about correspondence, while the dining room presents the art and etiquette of entertaining guests.
In one room there’s even a collection of aristocratic pet beds, carriers and kennels.
The grounds are majestic too, with an ice house shaped like a pyramid and a boxwood maze where little ones can search for a “lost rabbit”.
15. Clos des Ratites
Another excursion that will go down well with the younger family members is this farm that breeds flightless birds.
The park is open between April and October, and provides guided tours next to enclosures with ostriches, emus and rheas.
There’s a video presentation explaining the biology and behaviour of these creatures.
There are also free range dairy farms like Chèvres de Noémie, which is close to Lisieux and breeds goats for local chèvre cheese.
Kids can get up close to the animals and you can call in at the farm shop afterwards for a slice of this fabulous local product.