At the very south of Burgundy is a sweet town by the Saône, where the region’s glazed roofs and timber framed buildings are replaced by the flat-fronted pastel houses of the south.
Suddenly you get the sense that you’re approaching the Mediterranean in Mâcon, which despite being small has lots to hold your attention for a day or two.
You might not know the place, but you may know the name, as Mâcon is where a lot of Burgundy’s best chardonnays come from.
Wine-lovers won’t be short of inspiration for days out with a big directory of wineries close by.
It’s also a sign of the richness of the Saône valley that none of the natural landmarks or heritage sites in this article are more than 30 minutes from the town.
Lets explore the best things to do in Mâcon:
1. Musée des Ursulines
The former Ursuline convent was chosen to host the town’s museum in the 1960s, and it shines a light on Mâcon’s history.
Ground level is devoted to archaeology, showing tools, bones and weapons from the prehistoric site in Solutré, and Gallo-Roman artefacts like coins and ceramics unearthed at Mâcon’s ancient necropolis.
Go up a floor for the ethnography department, which reveals the techniques of local potters, winemakers and fishers on the Saône.
And then you have the art exhibits, running from the 1500s up to the present day, stopping by Titian, Charles le Brun and Monet en route.
2. L’Apothicairerie de l’Hôtel-Dieu de Mâcon
Mâcon’s hospital dates to the 1770s, and while the facility has kept up with the times, one room has been frozen like a time capsule since 1775. The apothecary sends you back to the reign of Louis XV in a room with an antique distiller, parquet floor and expertly caved walnut cabinets, drawers and panelling.
In the cabinet are dainty ceramic jars for all manner of outlandish substances like silk powder, borax, ground bones, ivory and opium, all with their names painted on the sides.
3. Maison de Bois
The oldest house in Mâcon is also the most unusual: The Maison de Bois is from the turn of the 16th century and its upper three floors are made entirely of wood beneath a cantilevered roof.
Don’t be surprised to spend a few minutes on the corner of Place aux Herbes engrossed by the carvings on the second floor facade.
There’s a bizarre line-up of characters with odd expressions on their faces, in various states of undress , some holding animals both real and mythical, and others depicted with wings.
Ambling along the banks of the Saône you’ll know why they say Mâcon has a hint of the Mediterranean.
It’s to do with the long terrace of pastel-coloured Italian-style houses on the riverside.
The main way across is Pont Saint-Laurent, the site of a ford up to Roman times.
After their conquest the Romans furnished the crossing with a wooden bridge, which eas eventually replaced by a stone one in the 1000s.
This is pretty much the structure that remains today, barring alterations like adding extra arches in the 1400s to avoid flooding.
Vaunted 19th-century artist Camille-Corot stopped to paint Pont Saint-Laurent and the riverside in 1835.
5. Vieux Saint-Vincent
Mâcon’s old cathedral was torn down during the Revolution, and the only structures left standing were towers and the narthex (porch area). But these alone make the building worthwhile as they’re compelling fragments of the town’s romanesque and gothic heritage.
The gothic south tower with its distinctive belvedere is a recognised symbol for Mâcon.
See if you can poke your head through the openings in the facade to view the oldest remaining part of the church, dating to the 1000s, with sculptures on the capitals.
6. Église Saint-Pierre de Mâcon
To look at its towers and portal you may not realise that the church of Saint-Pierre is actually quite new, and not another of Burgundy’s medieval romanesque wonders.
It was finished in 1865 and was the work of André Berthier, a disciple of Viollet-le-Duc, the architect and historian who refurbished many of France’s medieval monuments in the 19th century.
The church is in a romanesque revival style with two imposing towers, 53 metres tall.
Pop in for the murals, organ, rose windows and a striking pulpit with two stairways.
7. The Rock of Solutré
A brief jaunt west and the enormous Rock of Solutré hoves into view.
This rugged limestone escarpment pokes through the vine-laden countryside of Pouilly-Fuissé all of a sudden.
The rock is a cherished site, not just for its distinctive geology but for what it meant to prehistoric cultures.
It was a landmark for hunters, who used to butcher and smoke their quarry (woolly mammoths and such) right here, as shown by the mass of bones recovered from the soil, some belonging to humans.
After getting to know the distant history of the rock at the museum you can copy François Mitterrand, who used to climb the rock once a year during his term as French president in the 80s.
8. Cluny Abbey
A short road trip west of Mâcon takes you to one of medieval era’s greatest monasteries.
Cluny Abbey was founded by monks who adhered to the Rule of Saint Benedict more strictly than anybody else, and so it became a prominent centre for the Benedictine order, influencing thousands of people in Western Europe.
In the Revolution, the abbey’s status made it a target for the mobs and most of the complex was destroyed, so now you come to take in the significance of the setting rather than tangible history.
The abbey’s transept survived the ransacking and the 13th-century choir capitals are intact, while a new 3D presentation shows the full glory of the complex in its prime.
9. Chapelle des Moines
In 1887, the layers of white paint coating the interior of this former priory chapel flaked away to reveal three stunning romanesque frescos from the early 12th century.
They’re a vital document of art from the period, helping experts understand what the destroyed paintings at Cluny Abbey would have looked like, as they match the illustrations from an illuminated manuscript made at the abbey around this time.
They show Jesus lit by a mandorla (luminescent cloud) and accompanied by his apostles.
10. Château Berzé le Châtel
Up a country lane from the Chapelle-des-Moines is a castle reigning over the Grosne Valley from a ridge.
The first fortress on this perch was built in the 900s, and renovations were made three times up to the 1800s.
The biggest changes were made during the time of Louis XI in the 15th century when the fortress was claimed to be unconquerable.
The two outer rings of towers and curtain walls demonstrate this strength (and command astounding views), while the stately interior was refurbished in the 19th century after having been abandoned in 1591 when the castle became obsolete.
Seek out the Carolingian chapel, one of the earliest buildings on the site.
The gardens that were restored at the same time are sublime, with terraced vegetable patches, orchards and a French parterre.
11. Château de Pierreclos
Another of the Grosne Valley’s strongholds is a castle that can trace its origins to the 1200s and is ensconced in vineyards.
The castle does a great job of piquing the interest of adults, with cellars where you can sample the five different wines produced by the vineyard.
While kids aren’t neglected either thanks to the vivid reproductions of chivalric life: They can be locked up in the dungeon (only for a moment!) and then try on chainmail and armour in the castle’s weapons room.
In the banquet hall the table is a laid in preparation for a courtly feast and every room has a game to keep littler tourists engaged.
12. Brou Monastery
Margaret of Austria, widow of the Duke of Savoy Philibert II, built this flamboyant gothic monastery in her husband’s honour in the early 1500s.
You have to see the alabaster and marble tombs for Philibert and Margaret in the church, designed by the German gothic and renaissance sculptor Conrad Meit.
He used portraits of Philibert to create the duke’s likeness and did the same for his mother, who had died in 1483, 50 years before the monastery was completed.
Margaret and Philibert’s tombs diverge from the medieval style by showing them alive and in their youth rather than recumbent on their deathbed.
The monastery buildings also contain the town of Bourg-en-Bresse’s art collection, with pieces from the 1200s to the 1900s.
13. Musée Départemental de la Bresse
Mâcon is on the eastern boundary of the historic Bresse region, which was an official Province of France until the Revolution.
Wrapped in a landscape of meadows, hedgerows and deciduous thickets is an old farmhouse informing visitors about old ways of life in this pretty corner of France from the 1400s onwards.
The intricate enamel creations and furniture carved made from walnut show you Bresse’s savoir-faire, while you’ll see the frankly strange pointed hats that country women once wore in the traditional costume section.
The farm is a museum piece in its own right, with rustic timber framing and reconstructed interiors helping you picture how 18th-century peasants made a living from the land.
14. Walks and Bike Rides
If you’ve got a decent pair of walking shows you could easily walk to the Rock of Solutré from the TGV station just outside Mâcon.
The trail that snakes past this landmark is actually an ancient pilgrimage route leading all the way to Compostela in Spain, on the Way of Saint James.
This 17-kilometre section ends in Cenves where you can meditate over a view that encompasses the Saône Valley, the Jura Mountains and even the Alps.
Mâcon connects with two long-distance cycle trails far from the roads: You can ride most of the way to Lyon on a dirt track that ends in Genay 55 kilometres to the south, or tour Solutré and the Mâconnais wine villages on the Voie Verte, rolling along a former railway through vine-covered countryside.
15. Food and Drink
With top-notch chardonnays from Saint Véran and Pouilly-Fuissé, Mâcon’s wine has a fame that goes far beyond France.
In 7,000 hectares of vineyards is a wealth of caves, visitable wineries and cooperatives, all in dreamy countryside.
If you go to taste these superb wines, the chardonnays or pinot noirs may be paired with a Mâconnais cheese, which has an AOC label, and boasts a soft, smooth texture.
The Saône river is a big source of freshwater fish, and whitebait here is deep-fried and comes with a squeeze of lemon.
And lastly, snails are a part of Mâcon’s identity, and normally a starter cooked with garlic and parsley.