Reims is champagne-central, and all your favourite houses are lined up for you to tour and taste. What’s more, and you might not know this, but every single French King, from 987 to Charles X in the 19th century, was crowned right here at the Reims Cathedral.
The city also sparkles with minor discoveries that will bring a smile to your face: A specialist museum about a historical event that took place in Reims and changed the world, a Roman arch in the middle of a square, a chapel painted by a great modern artist and an art deco library donated by Andrew Carnegie.
Lets explore the best things to do in Reims:
1. Reims Cathedral
At the site of 900 years-worth of royal coronations, it’s almost mind-blowing to think of all the historical figures that have passed through.
Before you enter see if you can find the Smiling Angel in the north portal of the west facade.
It’s a 13th century sculpture with its own story to tell, as it was beheaded during the German bombing in 1914 and the fragments became a famous piece of anti-German propaganda within France.
The Smiling Angel is one of a small army of sculpted figures on the facade, more than any other cathedral in Europe apart from Chartres.
And finally for art lovers, in the apse you can find stained glass windows designed by Marc Chagall to replace those damaged in the war.
Available tour: Reims: Notre-Dame Cathedral 2-Hour Guided Tour
2. Palace of Tau
The Episcopal Palace next-door is where the cathedral’s treasury is kept, and also had a role in the coronation ritual.
The king would come here to don his robes, and from 990 to 1825 this was where the post-coronation banquet would happen.
On display is an astonishing assortment of tapestries, reliquaries and statues.
Among the must-sees is a 9th-century talisman belonging to Charlemagne.
But nothing can match the Holy Ampulla for importance: It contained the anointing oil for every coronation from Louis VII in 1131 to Louis XVI in 1774.
Tickets available online: Palace of Tau Skip-the-Line Ticket
3. Villa Demoiselle
Next to the Pommery Caves is a gorgeous mansion built during the transition between art nouveau and art deco at the start of the 20th century.
After being left to rot in the 80s and 90s it was done up in 2004: The president of Vranken Champagnes, Paul-François Vranken spared no expense restoring the villa to its Belle Époque splendour.
Some sublime pieces of furniture and decoration were also added, like sinuous chairs crafted by Gustave Serrurier-Bovy, and a Cuir de Cordoue ceiling Émile Gallé.
There’s also a fireplace by a student of Louis Majorelle, which was submitted to the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900.
4. Saint-Remi Basilica
This church is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and acclaimed as a gothic masterpiece for its sculptural decoration and architecture.
Parts of the building are much older than the gothic period, as the romanesque nave and transepts are from the 1000s.
Later gothic additions like the choir ambulatory and facade are masterful in the way they help form a unified whole.
The historic relics of Reims’ patron saint are inside: Saint-Remi was the bishop noted for baptising Clovis the King of Franks around the turn of the 6th century.
5. Champagne Houses
You can’t come all the way to Reims and not go for at least one tour of the champagne houses that have taken up residence in the town since the 18th century.
The tricky bit will be working out which one to visit: Mumm, Veuve Clicquot-Ponsardin, Tattinger and Ruinart are just a few of the prestigious names, and they’re all open for visitors.
All will take you down into the crayères, man-made chalk tunnels that predate the champagne industry and offer the ideal temperatures and humidity for the second fermentation that takes place in the bottle and creates that unmistakable fizz.
Maison Ruinart was the first producer to set up in Reims, and its tunnels, 40 metres underground, are protected as an historical sire
6. Musée des Beaux-Arts
Set in a former abbey, Reims’ fine arts museum is a product of the Revolution: Its collection is based on a works seized from the region’s aristocracy.
Since then the inventory has grown with donations, and gives you a comprehensive overview of the main European art movements from the 1500s to the 1900s.
There are paintings by Renoir, Matisse, Monet and Charles Le Brun (who decorated the Palace of Versailles). But the museum is noted for its set of 27 works by the 19th-century landscape artist Camille Coroy, the second-largest collection in the world.
7. Porte de Mars
There isn’t a great deal of Reims’ Roman history surviving, but this arch in Place de la République is still going strong.
It was built in the 200s, and at 33 metres in length is the largest Roman arch in the world.
The arch has a lot of wear, but if you know your Roman mythology you can show off by identifying the reliefs of Romulus and Remus, and Leda and Jupiter.
One of the reasons why the Porte de Mars has remained intact is that it was a city gate, and then part of a medieval castle for Reims’ archbishops.
8. Musée-Hôtel Le Vergeur
On Place du Forum is a 16th-century mansion built by the bourgeois merchant Nicolas Le Vergeur.
Before you go inside you can appreciate the gables and half-timbering over the stone base.
The museum within has taken donations from people of all kinds of backgrounds, so the collection is wonderfully diverse.
There’s gothic and renaissance furniture, German Meissen porcelain and oriental art from the 19th century.
But the absolute must-see is a collection of 50 engravings by the German renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer.
Step out into the courtyard to see historic architectural fragments rescued from around the city, like romanesque arches from a 12th-century templar church.
9. Hôtel de La Salle à Reims
On Rue Dr Jacquin, Hôtel de La Salle is a renaissance mansion built in the mid-16th century.
Outside you can make out the influence of classical architecture in the Doric and Ionic pilasters (ornamental pillars) on the ground floor and first floor respectively.
If the name of the building rings a bell, it’s the birthplace of Jean-Baptiste de La Salle, founder of the very first Catholic Schools and the patron saint of teachers.
There’s an exhibition about the Institute of the Brothers of Christian Schools, and if you do go in you should head for the courtyard, which has an exposed spiral staircase leading up the turret.
10. Fort de la Pompelle
This fortress was a component in the nationwide Séré de Rivières defensive system, which France developed in the decades following defeat in the Franco-Prussian War.
Fort de la Pompelle was completed in 1884, was armed with six 155mm de Bange guns, and had a company of more than 270 men.
Reims suffered some of the First World War’s heaviest fighting but despite taking almost four years of bombing this fortress was never taken.
Today you can navigate the tunnels that were dug during this conflict, and inspect the Freise collection, which has some 550 German Pickelhaube (pointed) helmets.
There’s also a room for René Dorme, the fighter ace who claimed 23 victories and died around Reims in 1917.
11. Musée Automobile Reims Champagne
With more than 230 cars on display, this museum will give you as a clear a picture of the history of the French automobile as you could wish for.
The oldest vehicle dates to 1908, and what will thrill automotive historians is the amount of cars from long defunct marques like Salmson, Delage, Berliet and Chernard-Walcker.
Some are limited editions and among the last remaining models in the world.
There’s also an extensive bike collection, and a whopping assortment of 5,000 miniatures and toy cars.
12. Place Royale
The most magnificent square in the centre, Place Royale was plotted in 1760 in the neoclassical style, with balustrades on the roofs, arcades and cast-iron lanterns.
It was built to honour King Louis XV, and there’s a statue of him dressed as a Roman Emperor (no coincidence, as the square is on part of the Roman forum). The original monument to the King was sculpted by the celebrated Jean-Baptisite Pigalle, and although his statue of the king was destroyed in the Revolution the pediment below survived and depicts the Pigalle under the protection of the king.
The current statue is from 1818, designed by Pierre Cartellier.
13. Bibliothèque Carnegie
Reims was one of three cities damaged by First World War that were chosen to receive a library from the American philanthropist Andre Carnegie.
In the library’s catalogue are medieval manuscripts, incunabula (books printed before 1501) and numerous books printed during the Ancien Régime.
Most people come just for the aesthetics: The library was built between 1921 and 1927 and is an art deco marvel.
Entry is free for all and you have to go in to poke around quietly for a few minutes.
Check out the mosaics in the reception, the geometric railings in the Salle du Catalogue, the various stained glass windows and the lantern and fountain beneath in the hall.
14. Chapelle Foujita
In the grounds of the Mumm Champagne house, opposite from their caves, is a magical curiosity to track down.
Tsuguharu Foujita was a Japanese painter who spent most of his career in France and was a member of the Paris School.
In the 1960s designed this chapel in the garden, and painted the fabulous frescoes that cover the walls inside.
Foujita had converted to Christianity ten years earlier, and it’s startling to see Christian themes portrayed in his oriental style.
Special mention goes to the glass windows made by the master-glazer Charles Marq.
15. Musée de la Reddition
It’s hardly common knowledge, but Germany’s official surrender at the end of the Second World War was signed in the Reims’ Lycée Franklin-Roosevelt on 7 May 1945. The museum commemorating the event was opened 40 years later and is packed with military memorabilia, photographs, medals and framed newspaper from the momentous date.
You’ll discover which military units were positioned in Reims at the time, and how this technical college game to be used as General Eisenhower’s headquarters.
The very room where the document was signed has been untouched since the surrender 70 years ago.