Billed as the gateway to Burgundy, Sens is a town that had its glory years in the Middle Ages and Renaissance.
At that time the archbishop here exerted serious power; future popes studied in Sens, and Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury spent his exile here.
These times are recounted at the town’s museum in the episcopal and synodal palaces, with one of the richest displays of medieval art in France.
Sens is always keen to show off its architecture, whether that’s a restored section of the Gallo-Roman walls or a gorgeous half-timbered house with intricate wood carvings.
And on summer nights come to the main square to watch the brilliant lightshow projected onto the cathedral.
Lets explore the best things to do in Sens:
1. Sens Cathedral
The town’s cathedral is outstanding for all sorts of reasons: The biggest of these is that is claimed to be the earliest Gothic cathedral in France, started in 1135. It was also larger than any of the churches being built at this time.
William of Sens, the architect who designed the choir, also worked on the UNESCO-listed choir at Canterbury Cathedral in England.
The Flamboyant Gothic sculpted facade on the north transept is from the start of the 16th century and has astonishing workmanship.
If there’s one thing you need to see inside it’s the stained glass windows.
These date from the 1100s to the 1500s, with a sequence depicting the story of Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury murdered in 1170.
2. Palais Synodal
Next to the cathedral is a Gothic palace built between 1230 and 1240 by Archbishop Gauthier.
In the 19th century it was declared a French Historic Monument and restored by Viollet-le-Duc, the celebrated architect responsible for breathing new life into medieval monuments around the country.
The building housed the ecclesiastical court and in the former jail cells on the first floor you can still see messages scratched by prisoners in the walls, going back to medieval times.
On the upper floor is the grand hall, where the synods were held; this has diagonal ribbed vaults lit by Gothic windows with delicate rosettes.
You can admire them on the tour at the Musées de Sens.
3. Musées de Sens
In the sumptuous episcopal palace is a set of museums with one of France’s great ensembles of medieval art.
These galleries comprise the collections of Sens’ Archaeological Society, the cathedral’s treasury and various donations over time.
Prepare to be blown away if you’re into history as there’s a Bronze Age treasure, a whole room of Roman stone carvings from the old town walls, stunning 15th-century tapestries, Thomas Becket’s vestments, silverware and tons of medieval sculpture.
The art collection here has two bronzes by Rodin, and Renaissance paintings by Breughel the Younger and Abel Grimmer.
4. Marché Couvert
Fronting the cathedral, Sens’ covered market dates to 1882 and has recently been given a makeover.
This building, with a strange triangular footprint, couldn’t be anywhere else in France as you’ll tell from the patterned brickwork in the same style as Burgundy’s glazed roofs.
It combines Burgundian tradition with the Baltard design that was fashionable for covered markets in the 19th century: There’s a large cast iron frame supporting a glass canopy that bathes the interior in light.
There’s a food market here on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday mornings, with stalls spilling out onto the square in front on Mondays and Fridays.
5. Poterne Garnier des Prés
At this enthralling little fragment of old Sens you can see several stages of the town’s history in one wall.
Take a look at the rougher lower section as these stones go all the way back to the 3rd century when a enormous, three-kilometre enclosure was built around the town.
The material for the base was recycled from temples, baths and even funeral monuments.
The postern, a small opening in the wall for escapes and surprise attacks on besieging armies, is also from this time.
The rounded tower on the corner is later, from the 13th-century when the defences were updated.
6. Maison d’Abraham
Another glimpse of medieval Sens, the Maison d’Abraham is a 16th-century half-timbered house at a crossroads in the old town, with some creative carpentry.
It’s a building that merits a few minutes because of the many carvings on its timbers.
There are decorative patterns, filigrees, cherubs and medallions with portraits.
But the most detailed carving is on the supporting pillar on the corner.
This has been sculpted into a Tree of Jesse, representing the ancestors of Christ.
7. Old Centre
For a small town Sens has a lot of listed historic monuments, in the shape of Renaissance wooden houses and luxurious mansions from the 18th century.
The only problem is that nearly all of these are private properties, but you can plot a route around the town to find the best examples.
There are more than 20 noteworthy buildings on streets that follow the same pattern as when the Gallo-Roman walls were built 1,800 years back.
A few that deserve mention here are half-timbered Maison du Portal and Maison Jean Cousin, both from the 1500s and the cultured Hôtel Vezou which used to Sens’ town hall.
8. Parc du Moulin à Tan
This 10-hectare park is irrigated by the Vanne and the Lingue, two tributaries of the Yonne River.
It was landscaped in the 1880s as a green buffer between the town and countryside.
In the last few years it has gained the title “jardin remarquable” and has a mosaic of spaces like the wild rose garden, stations to watch the waterfowl, children’s playgrounds, arboretum and a small menagerie.
During the week you can book an informative tour of the park’s greenhouses with the gardener, or have a look around by yourself in the afternoons.
9. Théâtre Municipal
Provincial theatres of this type are difficult to find in France today.
Sens’ theatre was constructed in 1882, in the same year as the covered market.
The outside has a Classical design, while the interior is inspired by the Italian Renaissance, and flush with gilded plasterwork.
The building fell into disuse in the 70s and was almost turned into a bus station before being rescued and reopened in the 80s.
Some of the performances staged here in the 36 seasons since then are Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Don Juan, Siegfried and the Marriage of Figaro.
Artists welcomed in that time include Michel Portal, Alexandre Lagoya and Kenny Garrett.
10. Église Saint-Maurice
With a very photogenic position on the Île d’Yonne, the Église Saint-Maurice is a 12th-century church built for Sens’ river folk.
This island was a base for fishermen and people operating the old horse-drawn boats that would transport wine between Auxerre and Paris.
The church looks lovely from the Pont d’Yonne thanks to its slate-clad spire.
The pillars, wall arcades and apse are Romanesque and all go back to the 1100s, while the flat, half-timbered chevet and vaults are Gothic and from the 1500s.
11. Lumières de Sens
On Fridays, Saturdays and public holidays from June to September there’s a cool free lightshow on Place de la République.
The annual event began in 2014 to commemorate the cathedral’s 850th anniversary.
The show runs for half an hour, starting at 22:30 and projecting colourful scenes onto the facade of the cathedral, recalling historical events as well as images of Sens.
If you’re in Sens for the first night of the Lumières, around mid-June, all of the restaurant and bar terraces in the square are cleared for an hour-long concert by the town’s orchestra.
The Lumières de Sens show is interrupted for two nights in July for a performing arts festival that pulls in several thousand spectators each year.
Musicasens has a very broad appeal, staging anything from contemporary dance to hard rock.
It’s a fun time to be in Sens because there are lots of sideshows around the town, with street-performers, an impromptu circus and art installations, workshops and even dance classes.
The party goes on long into the night, with the headliners not taking the stage until close to midnight.
13. Basilique Saint-Savinien
The last of Sens’ churches was begun as early as 1068 and like the cathedral was built over a far earlier structure.
The French Wars of Religion in the 1500s, bad weather, fire and plunder during the Revolution all took their toll on the church.
But there’s still a lot of original Romanesque architecture remaining: Best of all is the crypt, which goes way back to the early middle ages and may well be the earliest Christian site in the region.
The body of Saint-Savinien was brought and buried here by Archbishop Wenilo in 847, which is how the church got its name.
14. Château de La Motte-Tilly
After this property was gifted to the Duke of Noailles by Louis XV his family tore down the old medieval castle and built an extravagant château in its place.
It was a hunting lodge and summer home, composed of brick and sandstone and featuring wooden-panelled interiors, parquet floors, chandeliers and lots of other dainty decoration and fine art that you can still view today.
For this you can thank the Château’s 20th-century owners, who went to great lengths to retrieve the original furnishings.
The gardens are as lovely as you’d hope, with a large water mirror and long central avenue, the Grande Allée, edged by topiaries.
15. Regional Food and Drink
At the boundary between regions, Sens has borrowed its food and drink from neighbouring areas.
For beverages that might be Burgundy wine from the southeast and champagne from the northeast.
But it also applies to andouillette, a rich tripe sausage from Troyes, honey from the Gâtinais region and apples from the Pays d’Othe a little way east.
Auxerre should be your destination if you want to get in touch with Burgundy wine, especially Chablis.
This adored white wine is made solely from chardonnay grapes grown on the south faces of rolling chalk hillsides to soak up as much sun as possible.