If Montbéliard in Doubs looks nothing like a French town it’s because it wasn’t actually French until the Revolution. Before that it had been in of the Duchy of Württemberg, and that German flavour is still obvious today. When the population swelled at the start of the 1600s Montbéliard was updated by a Swabian master architect, and a lot of the houses, churches and engineering from this project remain.
Meanwhile if you’re an automobile fan you may be excited to hear that Sochaux next door is the home of Peugeot. There’s an awesome museum taking you back to the brand’s humble origins, while its factory, the largest, most high-tech car plant in France, is open for tours.
Lets explore the best things to do in Montbeliard:
1. Château de Montbéliard
There has been a castle resting on this crag above the confluence of the Allan and Lizaine Rivers since the 900s.
Needless to say things have changed a lot over time, and the building is now a maze of interconnecting rooms, mostly from the 1700s.
The oldest elements on the outside are the two bulky circular towers, dating to the 1400s and crowned with lanterns.
But the building’s value lies in what it symbolises, as the seat of the Dukes of Württemberg and a residence for historical figures like Margravine Friederike of Brandenburg-Schwedt.
She is an ancestor to several monarchs reigning today, like the current Queens of England and Denmark and the Kings of the Netherlands, Belgium, Norway, Sweden and Spain.
2. Château de Montbéliard’s Museums
There are also two museums to see at the château: The larger of the two is the Musée Cuvier, named for Georges Cuvier, who was born in Montbéliard and was one of the pioneers in the field of palaeontology.
You’ll see his office and get to grips with his work, studying finds from the region’s many archaeological sites: Among the fossils are dinosaurs, mammoths, prehistoric bears and fragments of Neanderthals.
There are also Gallo-Roman artefacts including jewellery, statuettes and fragments of mosaics and frescos.
The Musée de Pays de Montbéliard meanwhile deals with the complex history of the region and introducing you to Heinrich Schickhardt, who expanded both the château and town at the turn of the 17th century.
3. Schickhardt’s Montbéliard
Heinrich Schickhardt was an architect and polymath working at the turn of the 17th century and who has been dubbed the “Swabian Leonardo da Vinci”. In the early 1600s Montbéliard’s population mushroomed with the arrival of Huguenot refugees.
Schickhardt was hired to draw up a new urban plan and a raft of construction projects in an Italian Renaissance style.
A lot of this heritage is still visible and he is one of the reasons Montbéliard has earned the coveted ” Pays d’Art et d’Histoire” label.
The tourist office has set up a three-kilometre walking trail around the town, with information boards explaining the part he played in building the citadel, churches and Ferme de la Souaberie mansion (now a school).
4. Musée Beurnier-Rossel
In the resplendent 18th-century mansion, the Hôtel Beurnier-Rossel is a museum with three floors of art and artefacts uncovering the history of the Montbéliard county and principality.
You will see a lot of personal items belonging to the aristocratic Beurnier-Rossel family, including portraits and furniture in their private suites.
You can admire ornate inlaid furniture (desks, drawers, cabinet) from the 18th century, crafted by the highly regarded Couleru workshop.
There are also toys, a tiles stove, music boxes, a library and Protestant religious items to give a sketch of well-heeled life in Montbéliard in the past.
This 10-hectare park is at the end of a peninsula stranded by the Allan River and the Canal du Rhône au Rhin, and has a scientific vocation.
Not only is it a leafy and calming “green lung”, with waterside paths, Près-La-Rose is also strewn with installations to stimulate your mind: Amid 100 different tree species there are sundials, a Foucalt’s pendulum and giant sculptures of insects.
But out of many cool things here the Fontaine de Galilée might be the show-stopper.
This is a sphere of polished granite weighing 1,500kg that can be turned by hand as it sits on a small layer of water, eliminating friction.
6. Pavillon des Sciences
The journey of discovery continues at this science attraction also inside the Près-La-Rose.
The attraction collaborates with the Cité des Sciences in Paris to put on temporary exhibitions for topics as varied as the chemistry of food, renewable energy and light and shadow.
There are also fun labs several times a year, in case you have a child curious about science.
And there are also two permanent zones at the pavilion: La Forêt Mystérieuse, exploring the animals and plants of the Franche-Comté region, and L’Ile de la Découverte, an educational play area for the youngest family members, encouraging them to find a treasure by using each of their senses.
7. Temple Saint-Martin
If there’s an easy way to tell that Montbéliard was separate from the Republic of France until the Revolution, it’s the presence of Protestant places of worship.
The Temple Saint-Martin is also a big deal because it’s another structure designed by Heinrich Schickhardt.
It was built in his preferred Tuscan Renaissance style in the first few years of the 17th century, and is the largest Protestant church in France.
Take a moment to appreciate the exterior, which blends white Alsatian limestone with pink sandstone from Alsace, and has pilasters and pediments reminiscent of antiquity.
The interior is low-key, but you can see the 18th-century organ, the gilded altar and a ceiling fresco of the Good Shepherd, painted in the 1600s.
8. Musée de l’Aventure Peugeot
One of the things that may strike you about the Peugeot Musuem is that the company goes right back to 1810, long before the car was invented.
And while you may know Peugeot as a bicycle manufacturer, you might not be aware they started out making coffee mills! You’ll find out all about these origins.
A few of those early grinders are on show, along with around 130 bicycles dating far back into the 19th century.
There are also some 130 vehicles, with several exceptionally old models like the Type 3,4,5,8 and 10 houses in a Belle Époque-style glass pavilion.
9. FC Sochaux-Montbéliard
It was the Peugueot group that founded the local football team, which swept all before it in the early days of French professional football.
Sochaux were one of the French first division’s founding members and have spent more time in the top flight than any other club.
Their most recent stint in Ligue 1 came to an end in 2014 when they were relegated to Ligue 2, where they remain a solid mid-table team.
Matches at the Stade Auguste-Bonal never sell out so you’ll have no trouble getting tickets during the season.
And there’s a chance you’ll be watching the next big thing: Sochaux has produced France international stars like Euro-winner Bernard Genghini, while the current Barcelona defender Jérémy Mathieu came through these ranks.
10. PSA Factory Visit
The Pays de Montbéliard tourist office organises tours of the PSA Sochaux Plant.
This is not an experience to pass up, as the Peugeot-Citroën factory is the largest in France, and one of the most technologically advanced in Europe.
At the moment this facility assembles the 308, 3008 and 5008. But even cooler is that the Sochaux Plant is also the company’s centre for research, development and experimentation, so you may get a glimpse of what the future holds.
Tours are given from Monday to Friday, are multilingual and last for two hours, 90 minutes of which is spent on the factory floor.
11. Théâtre Gallo-Romain de Mandeure
By the Doubs River not far beyond the south of Montbéliard is a Gallo-Roman theatre dating from the 1st century.
This originally belonged to a port town on the river, and lay hidden for hundreds of years until 1819. The size of the site is almost staggering; with a diameter of 142 metres the theatre had a capacity of up to 18,000. This puts it among the largest Roman theatres in France.
The terraces use the natural slope of the hill and were laid partly on the bedrock and partly with their own masonry foundations.
12. Église du Sacré-Cœur d’Audincourt
Also on the Doubs to the southeast of Montbéliard is a 20th-century church that must not be missed.
It was built in the 1940s in a neighbourhood that grew with the rise of the local automobile industry.
The church is not to be missed because of the contribution of the artist Fernand Léger who designed its 17 wonderful stained glass windows.
Using abstract symbolism, these depict the different stages of the Passion and have appeared on French postage stamps.
The master glassmaker Jean René Bazaine crafted these windows using Léger’s plans, and also created the colourful mosaic at the entrance.
13. Église Saint-Maimbœuf
Montbéliard’s main Catholic church is newer than it seems, with Neo-Renaissance architecture from the middle of the 19th century.
It is on the site of an older church, which had stood here since at least the 1000s and had been visited by Pope Leo IX for the marriage of his cousin, who was Count of Montbéliard.
This new construction is now an official French historic monument and noted for its tall and slender bell-tower.
You can poke around for a few minutes, checking out the barrel vaulted ceiling, the oak altarpiece, the decorative organ case and paintings of the Annunciation and Martyrdom of St Maimbœuf.
14. Marché de Noël
Warming the infamous eastern French winters, Christmas is an extra special time of year in Montbéliard: The illuminations are some of the most dazzling in France, with whimsical decoration and as many as 60,000 individual bulbs lighting the streets.
And in the grandest part of town, in front of the solemn Temple Saint-Martin is the best Christmas market in the region.
The market sets up the 25 November and 24 December, and invites more than 160 artisans from around the Franche- Comté region as well as other parts of France.
There’s a village for kids, a mini-farm and different aisles with sustainable produce, regional delicacies and old time Christmas favourites like mulled wine and pain d’épices (gingerbread).
15. Covered Market and Local Specialities
When you go shopping at Les Halles in Montbéliard you’ll be following in the footsteps of generations of townsfolk as the market has been here since the 1300s.
The present hall is a historic monument, built in stages between the 16th and 17th centuries and shares the same Renaissance mullioned windows with other buildings in the town.
You should make for the charcuterie counter and pick up some saucisse de Montbéliard, which is smoked and flavoured with cumin.
For the sweet tooth there’s tutsché cake, a buttery brioche covered with a mix of egg, sugar and crème fraîche.
And if you want to taste something local at a restaurant go with deep-fried carp or petit salé aux lentilles (cured pork belly with lentils).