15 Best Things to Do in Burgundy

Written by Veronique Raes
Updated on
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World-famous wine, natural parks, heritage, pastoral countryside and acclaimed cuisine, Burgundy’s got the lot.

If you want to know Burgundy’s rich oenology you’ll need days to see everything; this is the region of chablis, meursault and rully after all, and there are five official wine trails to follow.

For history, Burgundy is replete with early-medieval romanesque abbeys and churches that have stood the test of time, but also has clues of far older civilisations, in the Roman ruins of Autun or the Gaulish former city of Bibracte.

Tour elegant old cities like Dijon and Beaune, or sail into the countryside on one of the region’s two idyllic canals.

Lets have a look at the best things to do in Burgundy:

1. Bibracte

BibracteSource: flickr

On Mont Beuvray near Autun are the remains of pre-Roman Gaul’s largest city, still being uncovered.

Bibracte was a hill settlement of 10,000, completely abandoned after the Roman conquest and only rediscovered in the 18th century.

The site couldn’t be more important: Vercingetorix was announced as leader of the Gauls right here in 52BC before the pivotal Battle of Alesia that same year.

The Museum of Celtic Civilisation at Bibracte informs you about how the city was discovered and excavated, and illustrates how the Bibracte fitted into Celtic Europe.

There are pieces of jewellery and pottery and tableaus of everyday scenes using information learned during the various digs.

2. Rock of Solutré

Rock of SolutréSource: flickr
Rock of Solutré

In a landscape of forest and Burgundy’s most prestigious vineyards is this sudden limestone ridge that is crying out to be conquered on foot.

The walk isn’t that difficult, and as this is the highest point in the area the 360° panoramas are astounding.

On cloudless, sunny days you can even see the Alpine peaks covered in snow to the southeast.

The limestone landforms in the area have been inhabited by humans for more than 50,000 years, and at the foot of the rock is a Museum of Prehistory where the flints, tools and animal bones left by nomadic hunters are on show.

3. Château de Cormatin

Château de CormatinSource: flickr
Château de Cormatin

In a period when French stately homes were growing ever more ostentatious, this 17th-century château went for clean, simple exteriors.

It’s built on an island in the River Grosne, enveloped by 12 hectares of pristine formal gardens.

You won’t be able to go inside without joining a tour, but what awaits you are rooms that haven’t been changed for 400 years.

The great staircase is a masterpiece, 20 metres tall and 9 metres wide, and is the first thing that you’ll see when you enter.

Of the many memorable rooms the Cabinet of Sainte-Cecilia is a marvel, with painted panels and abundant gilt and lapis-lazuli.

In the grounds, make your way to the château’s fantastic kitchen garden, which may give you some ideas if you’re a keen gardener.

4. Parcours de Chouette

Parcours de ChouetteSource: flickr
Parcours de Chouette

Inspired by the Notre-Dame Church’s symbolic lucky owl that has been smoothed and shined by centuries’ worth of people touching it for good luck, Dijon has introduced a tourist trail with this cheerful character as the star.

There are 22 stops on the way, and you can break the tour down into the Roussea, Zola and Moses loops to delve even deeper into the city’s historic neighbourhoods.

Each noteworthy stop is marked by a brass owl in the pavement, but there are plenty of distractions as you go, whether it’s Dijon’s museums, upmarket shops, restaurants or cafes.

5. Hospices de Beaune

Hospices de BeauneSource: flickr
Hospices de Beaune

After the ravages of the 100 Years’ War and outbreaks of plague, Burgundy’s chancellor Nicolas Rolin established this almshouse and hospital for the poor in Beaune in 1443. These buildings are an invaluable piece of Burgundian heritage, from their wooden galleries to the timber framing and the polychrome glazed roof, which is a trademark of the region.

What’s more the hospices are at the heart of 60 hectares of Grand and Premier Cru vineyards, and are the venue for a famous charity wine auction every November.

In the museum you can savour the Beaune Altarpiece, a polyptych painted for the hospices’ chapel by the Dutch artist and revered as a masterwork of 15th-century gothic art.

6. Musee des Beaux-Arts de Dijon

Musee des Beaux-Arts de DijonSource: flickr
Musee des Beaux-Arts de Dijon

A distinguished museum with a distinguished home, Dijon’s Museum of Fine Arts is in the Palace of the Dukes of Burgundy, where some of Europe’s most powerful men ruled in the middle ages.

The many exhibits veer off on all sorts of tangents, including art by Monet, Boudin and Titian, but also Tibetan sculpture, Korean stoneware and the splendid renaissance tombs of the dukes, John the Fearless and Philip the Bold.

In the Egyptian collection you need to make time for the set of Fayum mummy portraits, which are ultra-realistic paintings from 2,000-year-old Egyptian burials.

They look like they should be from the renaissance 1,500 years later.

7. Burgundy’s Canals

Burgundy's CanalsSource: flickr
Burgundy’s Canals

Until they were surpassed by railways in the 19th century, Burgundy’s two canals – Canal du Nivernais and the Canal du Bourgogne – helped transport goods such as timber from the Morvan over long distances.

The Canal du Nivernais connected the Seine with the Loire, while the Canal du Bourgogne ran from north to south and pushed on for more than 300 kilometres.

On a boat you’ll get out into the green Burgundy countryside, floating past vineyards, woodland, historic locks, old villages and regal châteaux high on promontories.

But you can also drive to a canal and either walk or cycle along the former towpaths.

8. Wine Trails

Wine TrailsSource: flickr
Wine Trails

The region, whose very name is synonymous with first-rate wine, has devised five wine routes to help you get the best out of the many prestigious vineyards, and all the caves and wine museums to find as you go.

Few wine routes in France could ever top the Grands Crus de Bourgogne, along which you’ll taste the world’s premier red wines. Of Burgundy’s 33 grands crus, 24 are on this trail.

If you’re a connoisseur of whites, make sure you add Montrachet and Corton Charlemagne to your itinerary, as this is where the most celebrated chardonnays are produced.

9. Abbaye de Fontenay

Abbaye de FontenaySource: flickr
Abbaye de Fontenay

With so many of its amenities remaining, this breathtaking UNESCO-listed former monastery illustrates how self-reliant the Cistercian monks were in the 12th century.

As well as the dormitory, refectory and cloister, you can see the monastery’s own forge, bathing complex and bakery.

It’s rare to find an ensemble of romanesque and early gothic buildings all perfectly conserved and with mostly the same style of architecture.

The grounds are meticulously groomed and have a formal layout, with linear gravel paths between lawns subtly adorned with topiaries on the corners.

10. Guédelon Castle

Guédelon CastleSource: flickr
Guédelon Castle

A thrilling project that has gained international recognition, Guédelon Castle is a recreated 13th-century castle being built today in an abandoned quarry using only techniques, tools and materials from the 1200s.

The castle won’t be completed until the 2020s but for now you can come to see medieval savoir-faire in practice.

Around the castle’s building site are workshops where you get the perfect window on how medieval carpenters, stonemasons, quarrymen, rope-makers, tilers and blacksmiths worked; and it’s even more thrilling to know that these crafts are being put to practical use to build the castle, which grows with each new year.

Littler historians can also meet medieval farmyard animals like pigs, lambs and geese.

11. Basilique Sainte-Marie-Madeleine de Vézelay

Basilique Sainte-Marie-Madeleine de VézelaySource: flickr
Basilique Sainte-Marie-Madeleine de Vézelay

Another UNESCO site, Vézelay Abbey could well be the greatest of Burgundy’s wonderful assortment of romanesque churches.

One of the reasons for this is the majestic tympanum above the portal; this isn’t just masterfully carved, but is utterly unique across Europe.

Instead of showing the usual images of the apocalypse it expresses a defence of the crusades which were taking place in the Middle East at the time, by depicting the world’s “ungodly” people and reminding worshippers of the Pentecostal Mission of the Apostles.

You probably won’t find a more beautiful piece of political propaganda!

12. Autun

AutunSource: flickr

You may be taken aback by the abundant history in this small rural town on the eastern foothills of the Morvan.

The story begins with the rule of Emperor Augustus, who ordered a town to be built at the crossing of two roads.

The structures from this period, like the gates of Saint-André and Arroux, the amphitheatre, the Temple of Janus, the Couhard Pyramid and the town’s ramparts will give you frissons when you remember they are 2,000 years old.

But the interest doesn’t end there, as Autun is a sophisticated town with an exquisite romanesque cathedral and more than its share of stately townhouses from the 16th century onwards.

13. Châteauneuf-en-Auxois

Châteauneuf-en-AuxoisSource: flickr

A dramatic landmark to see from the old towpath of the Burgundy Canal, Châteauneuf-en-Auxois is one of the few 15th-century castles left in the region.

The castle actually dates to the 12th century (the large square tower is from this time), but was expanded during the 100 Years’ War, with towers and curtain walls added to defend the prosperous hilltop village that also survives.

There are five towers in all, and they’re in good shape considering their great age.

In the courtyard is a much more ornate gothic château, added after the war to make life a bit more comfortable for the nobility.

Come in  summer and there are all kinds of goings-on in the village, with medieval baking demonstrations and roaming troupes of minstrels.

14. Abbaye Saint-Philibert

Abbaye Saint-PhilibertSource: flickr
Abbaye Saint-Philibert

A sparkling piece of romanesque architecture, the Abbey of Saint-Philibert belongs to a former Benedictine monastery in Tournus.

What’s impressive is how much of the 11th-century building is still here, but it’s not just the church and its restrained beauty that have survived; the chapterhouse, refectory and cloister are all standing, and open to the public.

You’ll feel like a real explorer going down in to the dark and surprisingly large crypt, which has seven chapels and delicately painted murals.

Upstairs you have to go slow as it’s easy to miss features like the mosaics, which were made in the 12th century, and the baroque organ, added in 1629.

15. Basilique de Paray-le-Monial

Basilique de Paray-le-MonialSource: flickr
Basilique de Paray-le-Monial

A 12th-century romanesque on the Bourbince River, this is a building that you need to inspect from all angles before you go in.

There are loads of intriguing elaborations, like the two towers at the front: You can just about tell these were built at different times as the newer left one has some gothic ornamentation, while the right is plain, in a more austere romanesque style.

Then go to the other side to see the beautiful geometry of the small circular chapels branching off the larger circular apse.

Inside there’s even more to discover, but the foliate and bestial carvings on the capitals above the choir are extraordinary.

Get the audio-guide to make sure you don’t miss a thing.

15 Best Things to Do in Burgundy:

  • Bibracte
  • Rock of Solutré
  • Château de Cormatin
  • Parcours de Chouette
  • Hospices de Beaune
  • Musee des Beaux-Arts de Dijon
  • Burgundy's Canals
  • Wine Trails
  • Abbaye de Fontenay
  • Guédelon Castle
  • Basilique Sainte-Marie-Madeleine de Vézelay
  • Autun
  • Châteauneuf-en-Auxois
  • Abbaye Saint-Philibert
  • Basilique de Paray-le-Monial