This industrial city in eastern-central France isn’t on the map for many tourists. For most of its life Saint-Étienne has been a hotbed of mining and manufacturing, but is now reinventing itself as a hub for the arts: The Manufacture-Plaine-Achille is a whole district of former factories turned over to the creative industries.
You can literally go deeper into Saint-Étienne’s coal-mining history at the Musée de la Mine, while football fans can pay homage to one of Europe’s great clubs, AS Saint-Étienne at the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard. Fresh air and nature are also in easy reach at the Pilat Regional Park with mountain peaks and deep forest you can access right from the city’s southern suburbs.
Lets explore the best things to do in Saint-Étienne:
1. Musée d’Art et d’Industrie
There’s no quicker way to acquaint yourself with the city’s culture and history than by poking around this museum for a couple of hours.
Among the industrial exhibits is the large gallery about bicycle manufacturing, which began on a large scale in Saint-Étienne in the 1800s.
You’ll see the technical evolution of the bike with the help of some antique prototypes.
For hundreds of years the city was also famed for its weapon-making , and there are 350 guns to view, drawing on a cache of more than 3,000 which is the largest outside Paris.
A huge space is also devoted to Saint-Étienne’s textile industry, which won fame for its ribbon-making and presents the skills and machinery needed for this trade.
2. Musée de la Mine
Arguably France’s premier mining attraction, the high-rated Musée de la Mine preserves Saint-Étienne’s last mine, which closed in 1973. You can descend into a reconstruction of a tunnel to see what a day in the life of a miner was like in the 20th century, and the history of coal mining is presented with modern museography.
But if you love industrial machinery you’ll be delighted with just how much of the mine’s machinery and outbuildings survive.
There’s the gigantic steel headframe, compressor room, the maintenance workshop for the mine’s locomotives and a large washroom that could accommodate hundreds of miners at a time.
3. Musée des Verts
AS Saint-Étienne (ASSE) are a football team with serious pedigree: Les Verts are always in the top half of Ligue 1 and back in the 60s and 70s they were the team to beat, bagging nine league titles in 18 years and just missing out on a European Champions Cup in 1976. This distinguished history is laid out for you at the 42,000-seater Stade Geoffroy-Guichard.
In these stylish galleries you can browse trophies, accounts about ASSE’s legendary players in the 1970s and get the inside story on the 1976 final at Hampden Park, after which the team got heroes’ welcomes on the Champs-Élysées despite finishing as runners-up.
To bring a bit of wonder to your children’s trip you could come to this state-of-the-art Planétarium.
What makes this one a cut above the usual star-gazing shows is its vast astronomical database charting more than 100,000 stars and even small bodies in the solar system.
And with its simulator the planetarium can project a high-resolution image to show how the cosmos would look from any location in the galaxy, like from the Rings of Saturn for instance.
These shows are also now combined with 3D movies to ensure a memorable day out for any budding astronomers.
5. Musée du Vieux Saint-Étienne
In the fine Hôtel de Villeneuve townhouse (a historic monument of its own) is a museum that looks back at how Saint-Étienne came to be and explains its sudden industrial frenzy in the 19th century.
There’s a historic charter here from 1258 that records the name of the town for the first time, and a large lapidary collection of carved ancient sandstone.
Maps, engravings and sketches will give you a sense of how the city grew over time.
But maybe the most engaging part is the trove of original caricatures by the 19th-century cartoonist Étienne Carjat, who illustrated contemporary celebrities like Alexandre Dumas in a fun and affectionate style.
6. Cité du Design
Manufacture-Plaine-Achille is an entire quarter designated for Saint-Étienne’s burgeoning creative industries.
In 2017 this will be the new location for the Comédie de Saint-Étienne, the prestigious National Drama Centre.
The neighbourhood’s showpiece is the Cité du Design, which opened in 2009 and is set in the Saint-Étienne’s former weapons factory on Rue Javelin Pagnon.
The architecture of the three restored buildings is something to behold, especially the ultramodern La Platine, which is clad with thousands of triangles, some opaque some transparent and some even containing photovoltaic cells.
Go in to peruse the temporary design exhibitions and take a look around the futuristic greenhouse.
7. Place Jean-Jaurès
When Saint-Étienne started to flourish in the 1800s this square became the city’s administrative and commercial core.
It’s the location that was chosen for Saint-Étienne’s modern cathedral, which was consecrated in the 1920s.
Place Jean-Jaurès is the most walkable spot in the city-centre, and a much-loved meeting place for locals, with fountains, lawns, tree-shaded paths and statues, as well lots of cafes and restaurants around the sides if you want to linger for an aperitif or meal in summer.
A cherished landmark on Place Jean-Jaurès is the lovely 19th-century bandstand, bringing a dash of Belle Époque panache to the square.
8. Modern Art Museum
In the same complex as the Mining Museum, the Modern Art Museum is a cavernous cube-shaped hall with 24 large galleries.
More than half of these are for temporary shows, which last no more than a couple of months and have presented work by the likes of Antony Gormley, Mario Schifano and Gilbert & George.
The permanent collection deals with a range of modern art movements from abstract expressionism to minimalism.
There are pieces by Fernand Léger, Pablo Picasso and Claude Monet to check out here.
As a working town that expanded in the 1800s, Saint-Étienne isn’t rife with historic architecture, but there are some compelling fragments here and there.
One is the Grand’Église, the only Gothic building in Saint-Étienne and the largest church in the city until the cathedral was built in the 20th century.
The 14th-centuryb building has rusticated walls made from sandstone, and has a design that is mirrored across the Forez region in this part of France.
Duck inside for a minute or two to see the organ that was installed in 1922, and a gorgeous polychrome sculpture of the burial of Christ.
10. Place Boivin
Just in front of the Grand’Église is a small square around a green where the city’s northern defensive walls stood in the 1400s.
There are hints of what Saint-Étienne once looked like here at the four-storey La Maison François I er, which was built in 1547 and is protected as a French “monument historique”. Take a little while to study the facade, which is half-timbered on one side, while the other has stone medallions which are a trademark of Renaissance architecture in this region.
11. Place du Peuple
A cornerstone of daily life in Saint-Étienne is this large square at the centre of the city.
The tram whizzes off in all directions from this point, and cafes and restaurants have pavement terraces on all sides of the square should you feel like pausing for a coffee.
There’s a bit of history here too, at the Tour de Droguerie, which is an old pharmacy with a round stone tower built in the 1500s and one of the oldest pieces of secular architecture left in Saint-Étienne.
12. Crêt de la Perdrix
While Saint-Étienne remains an industrial town it’s reassuring to know that there’s unfettered nature just moments from the city limits.
The Pilat Regional Park, which makes up the eastern foothills of the Massif Central has scenic drives, walks and cycle trails to give you a generous dose heart-lifting scenery.
For a wonderful hike set a course for the Crêt de la Perdrix, the highest point in the park at 1,430 metres.
This curved peak is a stiff but achievable climb, and has awesome views of the Jasserie, a humongous natural amphitheatre of meadowland that seems to roll out forever.
13. Gouffre d’Enfer Dam
A couple of kilometres in to the park from Saint-Étienne is the colossal dam that was constructed in the 1860s to supply the city with water and prevent the Furan River from flooding.
The dam was quickly supplemented by another at the Pas-du-Riot as is more of a site for exploration than a key piece of infrastructure.
The rugged location is glorious, and you can see where the sides of the gorge were sheared away to make room for the dam.
There’s a path winding down the rock-face to the foot of the structure, and then you make your way to the top via a stairway for astonishing vistas.
There’s also a year-round “via ferrata”, cable walk for kids and adults opposite the wall of the dam.
14. Saint-Pierre, Firminy
Deserving an excursion is this peculiar church that was designed by the epoch-making Swiss architect Le Corbusier.
It’s one of his last ever projects, and was even begun six years after his death in 1970 using plans that he had drawn up in the 1950s.
The white concrete building has a strange pyramidal outline, measuring 33 metres in height.
Work wasn’t finished until 2006, and now the building isn’t actually an ordained church, but more of a shrine to Le Corbusier.
The best bit here is the altar, where cleverly positioned windows on the opposing wall project the Constellation of Orion.
15. Local Food
Strolling Saint-Étienne’s streets you may be enticed by the scent of “bugnes” being fried.
These are donut-style fritters made with butter, flour, milk and yeast, dusted with sugar and flavoured with vanilla and orange zest.
The potato is a big ingredient in the Loire Department, and goes into dishes like râpée, in which it is grated into a batter and fried as a pancake, or slow-cooked in a “barboton”, a stew with lamb and carrots.
Finally, Sarasson is a versatile cheese preparation that goes well with almost anything, and can be eaten as a sort of vegetable dip, spread on bread or served with sautéed or boiled potatoes.