The capital of Reunion is exactly the place to get a handle on this island’s unique culture.
On just one street you’ll see a Buddhist pagoda, Mosque, Hindu Temple and Cathedral, and if you think that’s multicultural, wait until you visit the Grand Marché or tuck into some Creole cuisine.
The city has museums and parks, and brims with lovable Creole architecture.
But it won’t be long before you’re pining for Reunion’s famous wildlife and volcanic landscapes.
And for that you’ll have adventure sports companies, flight tour operators and wildlife experts at your disposal.
Lets explore the best things to do in Saint-Denis:
1. Rue de Paris
North to south in Saint-Denis’ Centre-Ville, this street is the perfect introduction, not just to the city, but the culture of the island of Reunion.
The grander mansions and government buildings have verandas overlooking beautiful, florid gardens, which are a trademark of the island.
Guided walks are offered by the tourist office, and it pays to join one because of a the historical titbits you can pick up: There’s Villa Déramond-Barre, birthplace of former French PM Raymond Barre, the brilliant white minaret of the Noor-e-Islam Mosque, and the birthplace of the poet and painter Léon Dierx.
The more noteworthy places all have little information plaques to clue you in.
2. Rue du Maréchal-Leclerc
East to west, this street is shopping central in Saint-Denis and intersects with Rue de Paris.
But like its neighbour it can tell you a great deal about the island: You have the mosque, the Shri Kali Kovil Kampal Tamil Temple and a Chinese Pagoda on the parallel Rue Sainte-Anne.
“Melting pot” doesn’t begin to sum it up! But also on this street are the Petit and Grand Marchés, where the cosmopolitan spirit goes into overdrive, was people of all sorts of extractions, Indians, Madagascans, Creoles, rub shoulders and sell their wares.
3. Musée Léon-Dierx
In the former Episcopal Palace on Rue de Paris is Saint-Denis’ museum of fine arts.
It has been here since 1912, and took the name of Reunion’s famous son, Léon-Dierx, who died the same year.
It’s a rather small museum, but that doesn’t stop it from packing a serious punch: There are paintings by Cézanne, Gauguin and Renoir, as well as a bronze by Picasso.
You can also dip into Reunion’s culture a little by finding out about François Cudenet, the photographer and painter who helped bring cinema to the island at the turn of the 20th century.
4. Jardin de l’État
In the centre of town is a botanical garden overflowing with plant life, boasting avenues of palms, a Wallace fountain and water gardens.
Now, the thing that makes the park so interesting is that none of what you see occurs naturally on Reunion.
Everything was imported in the 18th century to see how it would fare in Reunion’s climate.
This was all started by the horticulturalist Pierre Poivre, whose bust is just inside the entrance on Rue de Paris.
There are more than 50 tree species and more than 1,950 species of other plants in this marvellous environment.
5. Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle de La Réunion
In the old Conseil Colonial building inside the park is the natural history museum for the entire island, and its specimens mostly come from the Western Indian Ocean.
The zoological displays recall a different time, as they’re nearly all taxidermies and might not be to everyone’s taste.
Even so, you’ll get a great summary on the island’s birdlife and minerals, and the museum goes into depth about the tiger sharks that lurk just off Reunion’s coast.
But the museum’s building and history makes up for some of the exhibits.
6. Saint-Denis Cathedral
Full of poise, the city’s low-key cathedral was built over a few decades in the middle of the 19th century.
It replaced a church that had been on the same spot for around a century.
What you’ll encounter is a demure and well-formed classical building without anything that will blow you away, although there are a few features to hold your interest.
Just outside, see the bust of the abolitionist priest Alexandre Monnet, whose ideas got him kicked out of Reunion in 1847. In the nave the pulpit is a remnant from the previous cathedral and is carved from Indian teak, while the altar is made of marble shipped all the way from the Camargue in the South of France.
7. Maison Brasseries de Bourbon
On Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays you can book a guided tour of the only beer brewery on Reunion.
Its best-known beer is the blonde lager, Dodo, which is stocked pretty much everywhere on the island.
You’ll find out some of the secrets about the beer and where the ingredients come from.
The rice, sorghum and spring water are all local, while the malt needs to be imported.
Your guide will walk you through the finest details of everything from fermentation to bottling, on a two-hour visit.
And the whole thing ends with a crisp bottle of Dodo!
8. Le Barachois
The northern most district of Saint-Denis also happens to be the part that was the first to be settled.
And although the name applies to the entire quarter that sits on this cape, most people use it to talk about the stunning esplanade that lines the ocean-front.
From here you can peer west to the rocky La Montagne district or set your sights on the ocean, in the humbling knowledge that due north of this point is nothing but thousands of kilometres of ocean.
The canons aimed over the water are a hint of the history of La Barachois, while the boules court and cafe terraces invite tourists and locals to gather and unwind at this memorable setting.
9. Parc du Colorado
You don’t have to stray too far from the city to get a feel for Reunion’s natural splendour.
With its trails and stables, the Parc du Colorado is springboard for many a hike or horseback ride.
The park is on high ground next to the city and on clear days gives you astonishing views of Saint-Denis that you can share over a picnic.
The rest of the time you can experience what it’s like to be in the clouds, quite literally.
There’s also a generous playground for kids, and you’re right by the Golf Club Colorado, also blessed with those awesome panoramas.
On the Rue de Paris is this “art library” inside a gorgeous 19th century Creole mansion.
It was established in 1991 to help cultivate contemporary art on the island.
In that time it has gathered more than 2,000 works from Reunion and other places in the region.
Although it’s not something you can participate in, the library raises money by allowing Reunion’s residents to rent some of its art for a modest fee.
The Artothèque is also a place where artists and their audience can meet, take part in workshops and put on temporary exhibitions.
The time will come when you have to experience the savage beauty of Reunion’s inland scenery.
It is nothing less than astounding, with basalt cliffs and gorges that soar to hundreds of metres, while waterfalls are almost ten-a-penny.
This terrain calls for a different type of activity, which is why canyoning is doing so well.
Companies like Guide-Pro974, based on the outskirts of Saint-Denis can take you to 12 sites around Reunion’s North Zone for a blend of diving, climbing, abseiling and hiking.
You’ll be wearing a wetsuit and helmet so there’s no room for a camera, but your guide will have a GoPro to capture the scenery for you.
12. Papangue ULM
Reunion is a small island, but the volcanic topography that makes it extraordinary can also cause long car journey times for things that you absolutely have to see.
So in these circumstances an air tour is the only way to get the best out of Reunion.
Based at the Roland Garros Airport just next-door to Saint-Denis are companies like Papangue ULM, providing bespoke flights over calderas, including the Piton de la Fournaise, one of the world’s most active volcanoes.
Other scenes from the realm of fantasy are the Cirque de Mafate, Cirque de Cilaos, the Piton des Neiges and the alien landscape of the Plaine des Sables.
13. La Vanilleraie
Reunion’s plantations will take you straight to the source of the island’s colonial and botanical history, and a brief drive from Saint-Denis is one for the vanilla crop.
A warehouse on this estate has been set up with panels to shed light on how this plant is cultivated and harvested, and the different ways the vanilla is then processed.
On your walk around the estate you’ll be informed about its introduction to Reunion, and will get to know one Edmond Albius.
This remarkable man discovered how to pollinate vanilla plants faster and started an industry on the island at the age of just 12.
14. Whale and Dolphin Watching
June to October is whale season, when the giants of the ocean like, humpback, sperm and fin whales migrate to Reunion for the warmer waters.
The great thing about Saint-Denis is that you can often spot them from the waterside at La Barachois, with or without binoculars.
Boat trips will get you even closer and in 2014 Reunion introduced the O²CR label, to ensure that tour operators don’t break rules about interfering with the whales by getting too close.
So it’s an activity that you can take part in with peace of mind.
Dolphins are here every season, and certain dive centres give you the chance to swim with them in the ocean.
15. Creole Cooking
The diverse backgrounds of its residents has given Reunion a cuisine that fuses all kinds of influences into something special.
A single meal could involve dishes that originated in France, China or India but have taken on their own local twist.
Curry is the main dish, and this will come with meat, fish or different kinds of seafood.
The sauce will consist of a blend of roots, herbs and spices, including onions, garlic, turmeric and cloves.
These will come with Indian style pickles that once again have a Reunionais accent: Take rougail, made with pistachios, lemon and tomato.
And to drink, Reunion’s sugar cane crop produces some delicious rum punches that come infused with coconut or tropical fruit like pineapple or lychee.