Capital of Poitour-Charentes towards the west of France, Poitiers is a university city with layer upon layer of medieval history to delve into. All you need is a bit of background and the many churches take on deep meaning as the queens, dukes and counts who ruled from this city come alive.
There are loads of endearing half-timbered houses on squares like Place Charles de Gaulle, and you can have fun hunting down the gothic and renaissance palace’s where the city’s gentry used to live. And then you can leave the past behind, at least for a few hours, at the ultramodern Futuroscope theme park.
Lets explore the best things to do in Poitiers:
1. Musée Sainte-Croix
The biggest museum in the city is in a labyrinthine brutalist building from the 1970s.
After an intensive trawl through these galleries, broken down into prehistory, ancient archaeology, medieval history, fine arts ethnography and regional, you’ll be feeling pretty clued-up about Poitiers and the region.
You’ll be riveted by the archaeology department because the museum is built over the 7th-century Abbey of Sainte-Croix.
Don’t leave without seeing the Roman sculpture of Minerva, the hoard of Gallo-Romain coins from Chevonceaux,6th-century stucco from the Priory of Saint-Pierre and outstanding artworks by Rodin, Camille Claudel and Eugène Boudin.
Since the Lumière brothers in the 19th-century France has always been at the forefront of the cinematic arts, and the Futuroscope theme park springs from that legacy.
It is France’s third most popular theme park and has been dazzling visitors for more than 30 years with simulators, rides and breathtaking presentations in IMAX 3D and 4D theatres.
The venues for these rides and shows are phenomenal metal and glass structures, some angular and others rounded, but all with vast dimensions.
Most of the shows have set starting times, so as opposed to most theme parks you can plan ahead and not waste your day in queues.
3. Baptistère Saint-Jean
In Poitiers you can step in to the oldest Christian church in France, built in the 4th century and then altered in the 7th century to its present form.
In the Merovingian times they didn’t mess around when it came to baptism, and instead of a small font, the church contains a large octagonal pool in which people needed to be totally immersed to complete the ritual of admission.
There are Merovingian sarcophagus covers on displayed at the small archaeological museum inside, and incredible murals from the 12th and 13th centuries decorate the walls.
4. Église Saint-Hilaire Le Grand
Because of its location on the Way of St. James pilgrimage route, this hushed romanesque church is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Revolution wasn’t kind to the building, and the nave was torn down and had to be rebuilt.
But in the choir and ambulatory there’s lots of glorious medieval art.
The four chapels have frescos from the 1000s, among them one of the earliest medieval representations of the apocalypse.
Down in the crypt a 17th-century chest holds the relics of St.
Hilary, Bishop of Poitiers in the 4th century and the foremost writer and theologian of the time.
5. Parc de Blossac
In the mid 18th-century the Count of Blossac had big plans for Poitiers to shed its medieval image with wide boulevards and open spaces like this sumptuous park.
The park is actually skirted by some of the old city walls, as you can see on the southern corner.
From there you can also follow the Chemin de la Cagouillere footpath down to the right bank of the Clain River.
Most of the park is French-style parterres, with arrow-straight avenues beside topiaries.
There’s also a romantic English garden with flowerbeds, an ornamental river, statues, grotto and a little menagerie with guinea pigs, parakeets and rabbits.
6. Église Notre-Dame la Grande
This 11th-century church is an incredible piece of poitevin romanesque architecture.
Inside are medieval paintings above the choir, showing Christ in majesty and the Virgin and Child surrounded by a mandorla.
But it’s the church’s portal that wins most acclaim, with sophisticated 12th century friezes showing images from passages in the old and new testaments.
In the middle ages the sculptures on the church’s facade would have been painted, and on summer evenings since 1995 the light artist Skertzo has staged the Polychromies de Notre-Dame, restoring the vibrant colours to these walls with breathtaking projections.
7. Grande Salle – Palais de Poitiers
There’s only one room to be seen at Poitiers law courts, formerly the seat of the Dukes of Aquitaine and Counts of Poitou, and you have to brave airlines tyle bag-checkers to get in.
But if you’re curious about English and French history this is small price to pay.
Because the Grand Salle was a dining hall ordered in the 1190s by Eleanor of Aquitaine, one of the most powerful women in medieval Europe.
At 50 metres by 17 it may well have been the largest in Europe at the time.
There are three gigantic fireplaces, wondrous traceries on the windows and sculptures of figures in the court of Poitiers, like John of Berry and Isabeau of Bavaria.
8. Poitiers Cathedral
Eleanor also commissioned the city’s imposing cathedral in 1162, and it was completed around a century later, which was quite swift for a building of this size in medieval times.
If you’re fascinated by medieval history you could have a field day in here.
First, nearly all the stained glass windows in the choir and transept are original, and if you’re eagle-eyed you’ll identify Eleanor and Henry II in one.
The wooden choir stalls are some of the oldest in France, carved in the Parisian gothic style in the mid-13th century.
Originally there would have been 100, but even with the 74 remaining you’re left in no doubt about the high status of the cathedral chapter in these times.
9. Hôtel Fumé
Rue de la Chaîne is one of the most delightful streets in the city, crowded with medieval houses with criss-cross patterns on their timber frames and iron gaslights suspended over the middle of the street.
Follow it up the hill and it turns into Rue René Descartes , on which you’ll be taken aback by the majestic, curving facade of Hôtel Fumé.
This is a flamboyant gothic mansion built in the 15th and 16th centuries by the city’s mayor, and now housing the university’s humanities department.
Go through the passageway into the courtyard, where sculpted, twisting columns support a half-timbered gallery with mullioned windows.
10. Place du Maréchal-Leclerc
The principal square in Poitier’s Cente-Ville has a totally different feel to the city’s narrow medieval streets, but is just as easy to love for its sense of space and airiness.
Place du Maréchal-Leclerc is enclosed by Belle Époque and art deco buildings.
Note the facade of the Société Générale, dating to 1928 and the former municipal theatre built in 1954 in an art deco revival style.
The City Hall is a bit older, dating to the mid-1800s during the Second Empire, and it hosts occasional open weekends when you can go in to poke around the salons and grand staircase.
In the last couple of years stylish modern benches have been added to the square, and there are cafes all around if you need a break from sightseeing.
11. Hôtel Jean Beaucé
If you continue past the City Hall on Rue Le-Bascle the street ends at a remarkable renaissance mansion built by the banker of the same name in 1554. Unfortunately you can’t go inside as it’s a private residence, but you can console yourself with a photo of the unusual facade.
In the middle is a staircase tower, with windows spiralling up to a conical roof.
To the right there’s another, this one topped with a cupola.
The mansion has a bit of everything, with gabled dormer windows, busts of Roman emperors, pilasters, scrolls and medallions.
12. Église Sainte-Radegonde
This romanesque and gothic church has enough to keep you occupied for at least a few minutes.
The bell-tower and apse are the oldest portions, dating to the 11th and 12th centuries, while the nave in the middle is gothic, from the 13th century with vaults added 100 years or so later than that.
In the crypt below the chancel is the 10th-century sarcophagus for Radegund, a Frankish queen who died in Poitiers in 587. Next to this is a statue representing the saint donated by Anne of Austria (the Queen of France) in the mid-1600s after she had come to pray at the tomb.
13. Jardin des Plantes
If your head is spinning from all those dates and historical personalities you can go for a meditative walk in the Jardin des Plantes, Poiters’ soothing botanical garden.
The park has 150 species of exotic plants in its greenhouse, most with medicinal properties.
That might be because the park was established by the university’s faculty of medicine, all the way back in 1621. The rest of the garden is a freewheeling English park: There’s a pond, waterfall and winding paths in woodland scattered with unusual trees like an Atlas cedar and an American bald cypress.
14. Local Walks
There are 400 kilometres of marked trails accessible from Poitiers, and the countryside that borders the city is all woodland, meadows and farms, littered with medieval remains like chapels and old stone bridges.
There’s some pretty dramatic scenery too thanks to the Clain river, which formed the rocky outcrop on which Poitiers was built.
The Clain Valley has steep, rugged walls that will grant the more energetic walkers exhilarating views, and the same can be said for the Auxance tributary, which joins the Clain just north of Poitiers.
If you go east along the Boivre river things get gentler as you enter the Bocage Bérugeois, a very bucolic area of hedges, meadows and orchards around the tiny village of Béruges.
15. Food and Drink
Farci Poitevin is a distinctive local delicacy; a kind of vegetable hash made with chard, spinach, sorrel, cabbage leek and bacon wrapped in a net and cooked for hours until it sets into a pâté.
It is eaten cold and you’ll normally see it served as a starter in restaurants.
Also served as an appetiser, but occasionally eaten after a meal, is Chabichou de Poitou goats’ cheese, which you can easily spot at market stalls because it has an uncommon cylindrical shape.
The local lamb, butter and melons are all protected, and in the windows of patisseries you may be enticed by Montmorillon macarons.
Unlike Parisian-style meringues, these are denser almond biscuits with a soft centre, baked to a 17th-century recipe.