15 Best Things to Do in Rhône-Alpes

Found  between Paris and the French Riviera, and bordering both Italy and Switzerland, you could say that Rhône-Alpes is at Europe’s crossroads.

For natural splendour there’s nowhere that can pack in so much: Three of the five largest lakes in France are set here, as well as the mythical Mont Blanc, the tallest mountain in Europe.

The largest ski areas in the world are in Rhône-Alpes, as well as a catalogue of spa resorts that attracted the first tourists to the region in the 19th century.

Despite the epic terrain, the road and rail network, as well as cable-cars and funiculars, grant you access to some of the most forbidding you’ll ever see.

Let’s explore the best things to do in Rhône-Alpes:

1. Winter Sport

Wintersport

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Wintersport

There’s no debate: Rhône-Alpes is the world’s top winter sport destination.

Three Winter Olympics have been hosted by the region.

It also has several of the largest ski areas on the planet, including Les Portes du Soleil, Paradiski, Espace Killy and the gargantuan Trois Vallées, which has 600 kilometres of pistes.

If the statistics of these places make your head spin, you’ll be pleased to know that areas like Trois Vallées have adapted technology to make your ski holiday simpler: You can download apps that will plot runs for you depending on how long you want to ski for and your ability.

2. Outdoor Adventure

Chamonix

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Chamonix

One fifth of France’s national parks are found in Rhône-Alpes, and there are also seven regional parks to discover too.

If you come in summer the region is one big playground for active sports, with world-beating opportunities for hiking, mountain biking, climbing, canoeing and rafting.

High-elevation cities like Chamonix are full of adventure companies offering guided hikes, which are a must if you want to see the best of mountains like Mount Blanc on the famous TMB. Every detail will be taken care of, from food to navigation, so you need only enjoy the wildflowers, mind-blowing peaks and mirror-like lakes.

3. Lyon

Parc de la Tête d'Or

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Parc de la Tête d’Or

This city is a World Heritage site and can take days to get through if you’re inquisitive.

Lyon’s ancient remnants like the beautiful Roman theatre, are clustered around the Fourvière Hill.

Also here on the site of the Roman forum and soaring above the rest of the city is the neo-renaissance Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière, a glorious landmark that also houses a museum of sacred art.

Anyone in the region in December should do all they can to see the Festival of Lights, when the whole city is illuminated with light displays by leading artists from around the world.

Superb in the summer is the Parc de la Tête d’Or, which has a zoo, elegant iron and glass greenhouses and a boating lake.

4. Lac d’Annecy

Lac d'Annecy

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Lac d’Annecy

Cradled by forested peaks, France’s second-largest glacial lake also claims to be the cleanest lake in Europe.

This is down to a clean-up campaign that started in the 50s and imposes ultra-strict environmental regulations.

Away from Annecy and the other lakefront communities wildlife thrives: You can sight kingfishers, grebes and herons from the shore, while freshwater species from brown trout to blennies have a habitat in the deep blue waters.

You can cycle or walk the trail around the lake’s perimeter, swim  or hang out on the beach.

Vessels of all types are available for rental, and if you’ve ever been curious about trying wake-boarding, there won’t be more beautiful location to take the plunge!

5. Annecy Old Town

Annecy Old Town

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Annecy Old Town

This city on the northern shore of the is billed as the “Venice of the Savoie”: It is laced by the the Thiou River and Vassé Canal, which are bordered by medieval buildings, making it an achingly pretty place to walk around.

Palais de l’Isle is a delight, a former stronghold on an island in the Thiou River that for hundreds of years served as a jail.

You can go inside to see the old courtrooms and dungeons.

On Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays the cobblestone streets in the centre are laid with tables selling fresh produce and regional delicacies like cheese.

Annecy is also the trailhead for some wonderful hikes, to the gorges on the River Fier or up to the Tournette peak for a breathtaking view of the lake.

6. Aiguille du Midi, Chamonix

Aiguille du Midi

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Aiguille du Midi

You can get to Aiguille du Midi, a peak 3,842 metres above sea level, without ever needing to lace up your hiking boots.

There’s a record-breaking cable car running, from Chamonix up to the summit, stopping only once, at Plan d’Aiguille at 2,317 metres where you’ll transfer onto a different line.

The 2,807-metre climb is the highest ascent by a cable car in the world.

Once you arrive you’ll take the lift up to the terrace to gaze across to Mont Blanc.

It’s the closest you can get to Europe’s highest mountain without climbing it.

You can also get a meal at 3,842 metres or brave the skywalk, a glass box with a 1,000-metre drop directly beneath your feet.

7. Gorges de l’Ardèche

Gorges de l'Ardèche

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Gorges de l’Ardèche

In the very south of the region is a spellbinding river gorge, with mammoth limestone walls guarding 32 kilometres of the Ardèche River.

In places the cliffs climb to more than 300 metres, and you can either hit the gorge’s dusty trail to track down the most spectacular lookouts, or rent a canoe for  two days and camp overnight under the stars.

There’s a suitably grand entranceway to this epic landscape at the Pont d’Arc, a natural arch that will make you feel like you’re passing into a fantasy world, which isn’t far from the truth really.

8. Grenoble

Grenoble

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Grenoble

The historical capital of the Dauphiné province has enough heritage and museums to keep anyone enthralled for a couple of days at least.

The most exciting is the Bastille, a fortified mountain that you can reach with a cable car, or by a challenging 40-minute hike.

The Romans were active in this city, and you can see some recently-discovered ruins at Musée De L’Ancien Eveché where the walls and a paleochristian baptistery from the 4th century are on show.

There’s more ancient history at the excellent archaeological museum, where the overwhelming amount of ancient artefacts unearthed in the city are on show.

Grenoble is also just 45 minutes from nearest ski stations and hosted the Winter Olympics in 1968.

9. Yvoire

Château d'Yvoire

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Château d’Yvoire

On the French south shore of Lake Geneva, many people approach Yvoire from the water on a ferry or tour boat from Geneva, Nyon or Lausanne.

It’s as compact as it is pretty, and is one of the “most beautiful village in France”. The Garden of Five Senses in the centre is a labyrinth with 1,300 plant species, appealing to your sense of smell, sight, touch, taste (thanks to the homemade jams sold at the shop) and hearing because of the soothing trickle of the fountains.

The gorgeous château from the 1300s is the dominant landmarks, and you can also find fragments of the medieval walls and gates, now recognised as a French historic monument.

10. Saint-Étienne Mine Museum

Mine museum Saint-Étienne

Source: wikipedia

Mine museum Saint-Étienne

For something very different you can go to Saint-Étienne, Lyon’s rival city.

It’s a less fashionable destination, known for its industrial heritage and successful football club(in the distant past!). You can get the background at the Mine Museum on the site of the Couriot pit, which was in use from the mid-19th century up to 1973. At its height it accommodated 2,000 miners a day.

When it closed it was hardly touched, and reopened in 1991 with all its machinery intact.

You’ll view the hoists, power room and washroom, where miners’ overalls are still hanging above the showers.

Below ground there’s also a reconstructed tunnel where you can get a feel for the working conditions in the mine.

11. Jardin d’Eden, Tournon-sur-Rhône

Jardin d'Eden, Tournon-sur-Rhône

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Jardin d’Eden, Tournon-sur-Rhône

Tumbling down hillside terraces on the left bank of the Rhône is a garden in the grounds of an old convent.

This site was abandoned until recently, and the garden is a work in progress, but is already one of the highlights of the Drôme Department.

In the lower part there are ponds, fountains and sculptures, and then as you wind your way up the hill you enter leafy woodland.

What imbues the garden with a sense of drama are the convent’s defensive walls, which include a renaissance-era tower.

As you climb you’ll be presented with great vistas of Tournon and the river flowing through it.

12. Parc de Merlet, Chamonix

Parc de Merlet, Chamonix

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Parc de Merlet, Chamonix

Open from May to September, this animal park overlooking the Chamonix Valley has supreme views of Mont Blanc.

It is set in more than 21 hectares of verdant pasture and gives you the chance to see native Alpine wildlife in semi-freedom.

If you’re patient and quiet you’ll have some very close encounters with roe, sika and fallow deer; marmots, mouflons, ibexes and chamois.

Not indigenous, but sure to win the adoration of little ones are the park’s llamas.

Throughout the summer there are talks and workshops revealing lots of interesting titbits, like what antlers can tell you about the age of deer and how to identify the Alps’ many wildflowers.

13. Château de Grignan

Château de Grignan

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Château de Grignan

Grignan is a tiny hill-top village in the southern Drôme, and at the pinnacle is a one of the region’s most captivating châteaus.

It has a history going back to around the 1000s, but its current appearance is mostly from the 1500s.

It’s a beautifully understated renaissance design, but it might not be here at all if it wasn’t for the work of one Marie Fontaine who bought was then ruins and restored them to their former splendour, after more than a century of decay following the French Revolution.

The scenery from the balustrade on the terrace is heart-stopping and on July and August evenings there’s a season of plays that attract thousands of spectators each year.

14. Bois de Païolive

Bois de Païolive

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Bois de Païolive

This forest covers 16 square kilometres and in places gives you perfect vantage points over the Chassezac Gorge.

There’s a mosaic of different natural environments in quite a small space but the bits that the little guys will adore are the weird karst outcrops.

Kids can wear themselves out clambering over these rocks and joining in the quest to find small nooks and caves.

If you take the Corniche route you get those lovely vistas of the Chassezac River, and if you bring a picnic along you could easily spend a whole summer’s day in this slightly unearthly place.

15. Pérouges

Pérouges

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Pérouges

Also on that list of France “plus beaux villages” is Pérouges, a former weavers’ settlement.

This is a walled medieval village, and, like many of France’s most beautiful, it has the quality of a film set brought to life.

It’s a mass of cream-coloured limestone houses, some clad with wisteria, plotted in a circle and protected by two old gates.

Any visit will entail a circuit on the bumpy cobblestone Rue des Rondes, delivering you to most of the villages sights.

There’s a well here 33 metres deep, and the 15th-century Maison du Sergent de Justice, bolstered by a circular tower.

Where to stay: Best Hotels in Rhone-Alpes, France
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15 Best Things to Do in Rhône-Alpes:

Grenoble