This City of Art and History in Picardy’s Aisne department has deep, obscure roots that descend to ancient Gaul. Soissons peaked in the Frankish period as the place where Clovis defeated the Romans, becoming the capital of the Kingdom of Francia, and later where Charlemagne’s sister became an abbess.
If your dream holiday is discovering historic ruins and appreciating forgotten stonework hand-crafted hundreds of ago, Soissons’ decaying abbeys and castles will be right up your street. After wars, Revolution and religious upheaval, these chapels, cloisters and crypts are in varying states of repair, but all have been conserved as exhibition spaces or monuments.
Lets explore the best things to do in Soissons:
1. Soissons Cathedral
From the western portal you’ll notice that the cathedral, started in the 1100s, looks a lot like the Notre-Dame in Paris.
This is no coincidence, as the plan for the south tower was based entirely on the famous cathedral in the capital (with the exact dimensions), and although plans for a matching north tower were drawn up the work was never carried out.
The nave’s interior is acclaimed for the purity of its symmetry, and if you keep going to the choir you’ll see 13th-century stained glass windows.
In the northern transept there are paintings by Rubens and Philippe Champagne, while the southern transept is out of the ordinary as it culminates in an apse.
2. Abbaye de Saint-Jean-des-Vignes
When the cathedral needed restoration in the 1800s, a lot of the stone came from this former monastery just around the corner.
The abbey for Augustinian Canons was suppressed in the Revolution and left abandoned, but more than 200 years later there’s still loads of the Flamboyant Gothic architecture remaining to fall in love with.
The two towers above the western portal are standing tall and decorated with window traceries and pinnacles.
You can go round to the other side to find the large and small cloister and the delicately sculpted windows to the refectory.
3. Arsenal de l’Abbaye de Saint-Jean-des-Vignes
When the abbey was suppressed in the 1790s some of the outbuildings were repurposed as a military site and much later an arsenal was built here in 1878. Today, the elongated magazine in which up 36,600 kgs of gunpowder were once stored is a cultural centre for the city.
The restored interior is a space for temporary exhibitions, and there are concerts in this remarkable setting in the summer months.
There’s also a handy interpretation centre about the abbey, with exhibitions about the site’s architecture in the former abbot’s residence.
4. Abbaye Saint-Léger
Yet another sublime piece of religious architecture is in store at this 12th-century abbey, named in honour of the 7th-century Bishop of Autun whose mother had retired to Soissons’ Notre-Dame Abbey.
Practically all the architecture here is from the height of France’s Gothic period, and dates to between the 1200s and 1300s.
The traceries and vaults in the cloister’s north gallery are nothing short of exquisite, and are an official French “Historic Monument”. Be sure to see the chapel and crypt, as well as the city’s museum, which we’ll come to next.
5. Musée Municipal de Soissons
Soissons’ city museum has lots of compelling snippets of local history and archaeology, complete with galleries for fine arts.
The museum moved to the Abbey of Saint-Léger in the 1930s, but many of its collections were assembled much earlier, in the 1850s when the museum had been set up in the city hall.
We’ve seen that Soissons has a rich and engrossing story to tell, and this museum exhibits ancient finds from the Aisne Valley.
You can cast your eye over architectural fragments, Gallo-Roman marbles, ceramics, glassware, jewellery as well as maps and illustrations showing how the city has changed.
6. Sights around Soissons
Soissons had been a medieval treasure but was ripped apart in the First World War.
The most important houses and monuments were restored, while much of the city was simply rebuilt in a fresh Art Deco style, which is visible in the bold geometric shapes of many facades and whimsical motifs carved in the stone.
For older history there’s the imposing city hall, which started out as the palace of the intendant (representative to the King) in the 1770s.
The Pavillon de l’Arquebuse meanwhile is a sweet little pavilion dating to 1626 and designed in the Louis XIII style.
7. Crypt of the Abbaye Saint-Médard
Our final abbey in Soissons is the one that, on the face of it, has the least of its architecture remaining.
The story of this Benedictine Monastery begins in the 500s, and it’s a tale of many destructions and rebuilds: The abbey was razed by the Normans, then by the Huguenots in the 16th-century Wars of Religion and then finally in the Revolution.
All that was left after that was the crypt, but this is well worth seeing and could be as old as the 9th century.
It’s an exciting structure to explore, with dark vaulted passageways that bring you to funerary chambers, with alcoves in the walls and the remnants of tombs.
8. Donjon de Septmonts
Soaring in the centre of a village on the southern outskirts of Soissons is the impossibly romantic keep of a lost château.
This place used to the home of the Bishops of Soissons, and after the Revolution was allowed to slip into dereliction in the 1300s.
The keep is a strange asymmetrical structure, seven storeys high and built with towers and platforms that you’ll need a few minutes to get your head around.
You can go up to the belvedere at the top and see more of the lovely site around it, with medieval and renaissance architecture in different states of repair.
9. Marché Couvert
Soissons has always taken pride in its medieval character.
And when, in 1911, the time came to build a covered market the city adopted the metal and glass architecture that was in fashion at the time.
But there was a twist because the outside the hall had to match the city’s old stone buildings, like the cathedral on the other side of Place Fernand-Marquigny.
So to look at the market and its slate roof and stone pillars you’d think it’s much older than the 20th century.
Be here on Wednesday and Saturday mornings for farm-fresh local produce and Picardy’s artisan delicacies.
10. Forest of Retz
The N2 will take you to this French National Forest in around 10 minutes from Soissons.
This 130-square-kilometre tract of woodland is enthralling because, since the 1670s, it has hardly been touched.
It’s a vestige of a time when most of France was decked with forest, and in the early 16th century was a favourite hunting ground of King Francis I. So if you’d like to break out into unspoiled nature this ancient beech and coniferous forest should do the trick.
The tourist office will provide you with more than 28 walking routes, including one to the Cave du Diable, a cellar built in the 1600s.
11. Château de Coucy
Like Soissons, much of the Aisne department was practically levelled in the First World War.
One of the most moving memorials to this devastation is only a few minutes up the road from Soissons, at the ruins of the Château de Coucy.
The muscular castle once had the largest keep in all of France, rising to 55 metres in height.
Coucy quickly fell to the Germans in 1914, and when they retreated in 1917 they dynamited it to prevent it becoming a base for the Allies.
The destruction created uproar in France and the site was left as a “memorial to barbarity”. And while the keep is gone, you won’t tire of investigating the walls, dungeons and vaulted passageways.
12. Abbaye Notre-Dame de Longpont
If you still have an appetite for Aisne’s medieval ruins, this abbey is a short drive south of Soissons on the eastern cusp of the Retz Forest.
This Cistercian Monastery was another victim of the Revolution, and although its roof is long gone, the flying buttresses, western portals and the remnants of the western rose window are an eerie testament to its former glories.
The abbey is a private property that welcomes visitors on summer weekends for tours to see the monastery’s facilities.
You’ll be shown round the large hearth in the calefactory, the monks’ cellar and the Gothic cloister with its idyllic gardens.
13. Soissons Memorial
For World War I historians the Aisne department is strewn with places that had a large bearing on the conflict particularly during its last few months.
You can take guided tours of the battlefield at Saint-Quentin and stop by cemeteries and memorials in Fère-en-Tardenois, Bony, Belleau and Château-Thierry.
Soissons has its own memorial to the 3,887 British soldiers with no known grave who were killed around the city in the Spring Offensive between May and August 1918. The memorial dates to 1928 and was built with Portland stone, shipped over from the County of Dorset.
14. Days Out
Everything listed here is an effortless drive in under 30 minutes from Soissons, but if you’re willing to go the extra mile there’s tons to see and do within an hour’s radius of the city.
You can make Reims in under 45 minutes, which is a city where almost every French king was crowned but also Champagne-central.
Think Taittinger, Veuve-Clicquot, Mumm and Ruinart; they’re all here for tours and samples.
Northeast is Aisne’s capital, Laon, which has a Gothic cathedral that can rival any in Northern France for wow factor.
Just over half an hour to the west is refined Compiègne, where Napoleon and Napoleon III would hold court in absurd splendour.
15. Food Culture
The Soissons bean has been grown in these parts since at least the 1700s.
This white kidney-shaped pulse has such a lasting relationship with the city that there’s even a Bean Festival at the end of September with a Clovis-themed parade, gourmand markets and at least 100 sideshows to catch.
The bean itself is so versatile that it can be used in desserts or dropped into an aperitif like an olive.
But the most conventional way to enjoy is in slow-cooked cassoulet-style stews, often billed “soissoulais” on local menus.