The administrative centre of France’s new Grand Est region, Metz has been a base of power for more than 2,000 years.
The Cour d’Or museum, which illuminates eastern France’s late-antiquity and early middle ages, will help you to come to terms with the time when the Merovingian kings of Austrasia ruled their kingdoms from this city.
You’ll notice that Metz’s historic buildings have a singular appearance: That’s because they’re made with Jaumont limestone, mined in the Moselle area and imbued with a yellowy tone by the iron oxide in the rock.
So on sunny days the city is quite literally lustrous! Wander the avenues and gardens where the old walls used to be and get some modern culture at the Pompidou centre.
Lets explore the best things to do in Metz:
1. Metz Cathedral
Constructed across more than 300 years from 1220 to 1552, Metz’s cathedral is one of the tallest in Europe, with breathtaking vaults in the nave soaring to 42 metres.
With more stained glass than any other cathedral in the world the building has earned the name, “La Lanterne du Bon Dieu” (the Lord’s Lantern). The windows have been created by gothic and renaissance master glassmakers, as well as the modern artists Marc Chagall and Jacques Villon.
Adding to this sense of radiance is the yellow Jaumont limestone, which makes the cathedral seem bright, even on dull winter days.
2. Centre-Pompidou Metz
Metz made history in 2010 when it unveiled the first satellite of the Pompidou centre in Paris.
The building is the work of three architects, Shigeru Ban, Jean de Gastines and Philip Gumuchdijan and easily recognised for its outline, meant to resemble a Chinese bamboo hat.
Exhibits in the vast galleries are all temporary or semi-temporary, with landmark shows along with “Beacons”, a revolving array of painting, sculpture, photography and illustration from the enormous collection of the National Museum of Modern Art in Paris.
Think Picasso, Fernand Léger, Joseph Beuys, Joan Miró, Anish Kapoor and so forth.
3. La Cour d’Or Museum
In a group of buildings that includes the historic former Petities Carmes Abbey are three museums giving you the clearest picture of Metz’s glorious Gallo-Roman and Merovingian past, as well as its culture since then.
The museum ensemble is named after the palace in which the Austrasian Kings reigned and is an often bewildering maze of chambers and passageways, leading you to unforgettable artefacts, like the 7th-century sculpted chancel from Saint Pierre-aux-Nonnains, or historic architecture in situ, like the Roman baths in the basement.
There’s also a fine arts gallery devoted to the Metz School in the 19th century.
4. Église Saint-Pierre-aux-Nonnains
Dating to 390, this former church is the oldest in France.
But it didn’t start out life as a place of worship; Saint-Pierre-aux-Nonains was a palaestra where boxers and wrestlers would train, and was also part of a spa complex, traces of which can be seen outside.
The hall became a church as part of an abbey for women from the 7th century, which is roughly the date of the chancel on show at the Cour d’Or museum.
When Metz’s citadel was built the church became a military warehouse and barracks, which it remained until the 1900s.
Now it’s an exhibition hall and cultural centre between the Esplanade and the Arsenal.
5. Porte des Allemands
Spanning the Seille to the east of the old centre, the magnificent Porte des Allemands is the last remaining castle bridge in France and the greatest piece of Metz’s old fortifications.
It is essentially a gate with two sets of towers: Angular, crenellated ones facing towards the east and the Saar in the distance, and circular ones on the city side.
The structure is named after the Teutonic Order of knights who had founded a hospice at that time on the adjacent street.
The gate is the climax of the “Circuit des Remparts”, a walking tour that shows you round the remaining pieces of Metz’s walls.
6. Église Saint-Maximin
The choir, transept and the square tower of this church are all from the 12th century and are seen as a perfect representations of the romanesque style.
On the right arm of the transept, linger by the opening to the chapel of the Gournays to see the two three-centred arches connecting it with the rest of the church.
The stained glass windows were designed by the artist, writer and filmmaker Jean Cocteau in the ealry-1960s and installed posthumously.
In ethereal blue and green pastel shades, they’re the only known windows that he designed so warrant a good look.
The church also has superlative acoustics, so see if there’s a concert scheduled when you’re in town.
7. Place Saint-Louis
The west side of this medieval square in the old centre is one long terrace of renaissance houses over a handsome arcade.
The arches are more reminiscent of somewhere like Tuscany than eastern France, and show how well the city was doing for itself in the middle ages.
Back then many of these buildings would have been occupied by early bankers from Lombard in Italy, which explains the design.
While the square is now where the fantastic Christmas market takes place.
On number five you can spot the engraving of a hand.
Apparently, this was the house of a glover who, after winning a legal dispute against a German, got permission from the city to put an ornamental hand on his building.
8. Avenue Foch
South of the old centre this beautiful avenue has an a diversity of historicist art nouveau villas on the sides and a footpath in the middle, meandering through lawns and between hedges and past flower beds.
It’s not just a lovely place to while away a few minutes, but an interesting part of Metz’s history.
That’s because this is site of the city’s old ramparts and where there used to be a moat filled by the River Seille.
They were removed while Metz was part of Germany, and the buildings you see went up at the start of the 20th century, forming the boundary between the centre of Metz and the Nouvelle Ville to the south.
9. Gare de Metz
The city’s train station is preserved as an historic monument and was also built during Metz’s German era.
It’s a wondrous building but also politically-charged, ordered by Wilhelm II and designed in the Rhenish romanesque revival style.
Rumour has it that Wilhelm himself drew up the plans for the clock-tower, which has a sculpture of the Frankish knight Roland to represent German imperial protection over the city.
The station was designed to be able to move large numbers of troops quickly, and its arrivals hall resembles a Holy Roman palace, which was of course no coincidence either.
Another fun fact is that the SNCF offices are now in Wilhelm II’s private apartments.
These marvellous gardens also follow the course of Metz’s old defences, on the site of a vast ditch filled in after the citadel was pulled down in 1816. In these French gardens with geometric lawns and hedges trimmed to right angles you can look out to Mont Saint-Quentin, climbing to the west of the city.
The Esplanade is the life and soul of Metz’s city celebrations; During carnival time the fair takes place in the Esplanade in February and March, and then the Mirabelle Fair is here in late-summer.
And at Christmas there’s a skating rink set up next to Avenue Ney.
11. Le Temple Neuf
Another landmark created in the decades of German control is this romanesque revival church on the Petit-Saulcy river island, just down from the Place de la Comédie.
Le Temple Neuf is where Metz’s protestant congregation comes to worship and is constructed with a dark grey sandstone, giving it a completely different feel to the city’s older monuments, made with yellowy Jaumont limestone.
At night the church’s arcade openings emit light like large lanterns, and the view of the Le Temple Neuf reflected in the water from Pont Moyen is now one of Metz’s unmistakeable sights.
12. Covered Market
Thanks to the French Revolution Metz may have the grandest covered market in France.
The building was begun in the 1760s and intended as the Episcopal Palace.
But after the Revolution at the end of that century it was repurposed as the market after plans to turn it into the courthouse fell through.
The market is open from Tuesday to Saturday, and on the latter a large assortment of stalls fill this side of the cathedral square.
Along with stalls selling a tantalising range of cheeses, charcuterie, pastries, fruit and vegetables, there are small eateries for lunch, some serving classic moselle specialities and others selling international food like pizza.
13. Musée de la Guerre de 1870
The Franco-Prussian War seems obscure now, but was certainly one of the causes of the First World War and so had a massive impact on the 20th century.
This museum is at the scene of the worst of the fighting and investigates the war’s many causes and consequences.
You’ll get insights about the Treaty of Frankfurt, which annexed Moselle and Alsace to Germany for almost half a century and see how the region changed during that period.
And relevant to the fighting, together with original weapons and uniforms there are contemporary paintings such as pieces of the Panorama de Rezonville by Edouard Detaille, portraying the Battle of Mars-la-Tour.
14. Chapelle des Templiers
On the grounds of the Arsenal cultural centre, Metz’s Chapel of the Templars was built between the late-1100s and early-1200s, and is the last remnant of the commandery that was here.
The octagonal floor-plan, sober absence of ornamentation and narrow windows with semi-circular arches marks it as a romanesque building, but inside the ribbed vaulting and colourful frescos are more gothic.
These paintings were made in the early 1300s and adorn every inch of the walls with images of apostles and other saints.
The Arsenal around it dates to 1864 and the rule of Napoleon III, the central hall was restored and turned into an auditorium in 1989.
15. Local Cuisine
You can’t talk about food in Metz without first mentioning quiche lorraine, a pastry pie made with eggs, crème fraîche and bacon.
The earliest mention of this dish dates to the beginning of the 17th century and it was originally also made with emmentaler cheese, which still appears in some varieties.
The German influence is clear in potée a cabbage stew simmered for hours and served with sausage and boiled potatoes.
The damson and mirabelle plums grown in the countryside appear not just in tarts, brandies and jams, but also some of the charcuterie made in the Lorraine region.