Halfway between Lyon and Avignon, Valence lies in a plain in the Middle Rhône Valley on the edge of the “pre-Alps”. The city is sometimes dubbed “La Porte du Midi de la France” (The gateway to the south of France), and you’ll sense Mediterranean influences creeping into the architecture and streetscapes in Valence. You’ll have enough on your hands for a weekend break, especially if you include the town of Romans, Valence’s close neighbour on the Isère right before it feeds into the Rhône.
You can find out about life in the western spurs of the Alps at the Musée de Valence, or head off on the banks of the Rhône and Isère for bike rides and drives through vineyards, woodland and pastoral villages.
Lets explore the best things to do in Valence:
1. Musée de Valence
Starting with prehistory, this superb museum deals with life in the Middle Rhône Valley in the course of 4,000 years.
There are more than 20,000 items in the collection, with interesting pieces from almost every stage of Valence’s evolution.
From Roman times there are altars on which bulls would have been sacrificed and a room full of mosaics.
For something really strange there’s a taxidermied goat kid with two heads in the natural history section.
The fine arts galleries meanwhile have paintings by Camille Corot, Hyacinthe Rigaud and the Dutch Golden Age artist Gerard van Honthorst.
2. Maison des Têtes
An exceptionally ornate building to grab your attention on Grande Rue, Maison des Têtes was completed in 1532 and gets its name from the many sculpted heads adorning its facade.
These figurative images symbolise the winds, fortune, time, law, theology and medicine.
While above the corridor that conducts you from the street to the interior courtyard are busts representing the Roman emperors.
Give yourself some time to admire the detail, and then nip inside for a small exhibition about Valence’s history.
3. Parc Jouvet
Unfurling on a slope next to the river, Parc Jouvet opened in 1905 and is named in honour of the man whose donation made it possible for the city to buy this land.
At the top of the park is a platform where you can lean against the balustrade and ponder the lovely vistas of the cliffs on the opposite bank of the Rhône.
On warmer summer days you could retreat to the park for a picnic under one of the 700 trees, some of which, like the bald cypress and Indian lilac aren’t often found in this part of the world.
4. Peynet Bandstand
On the Champ de Mars next to the park is a little sight that made a big contribution to French popular culture in the 20th century.
This 19th-century bandstand inspired the illustrator Raymond Pennet to create his two Amoureux (Lovers) characters in 1942. They became an overnight success and even appeared on French stamps in 1982. Today the dolls based on these characters are extremely collectible, and there are several Peynet museums across France, as well as two as far afield as Japan,. The bandstand dates to 1890, and is the art nouveau style with pretty wrought iron arches and railings.
5. Centre du Patrimoine Arménien
In the Valence University’s former law faculty is an institution preserving and showcasing Armenia’s rich culture.
If you’re wondering why this should be in Valence, this neighbourhood in the middle of today’s pedestrian centre was settled by a large Armenian population in the early-20th century.
There’s a lot of multimedia at the museum, including filmed accounts given by men, women and children about the 1915-17 genocide.
Less poignant are the many interesting historical overlaps between France and Armenia, like Leo V, the 14th-century King of Armenia who lost his throne in the Middle East and died in France to be buried at Saint-Denis alongside French royalty.
6. Valence Cathedral
Work on what is now the oldest monument in Valence started in the 1000s.
But like many religious buildings in France the Cathedral of Saint-Apollinaire was partially destroyed during the Wars of Religion by the Huguenots in the 1500s.
In the decades that followed, the building was totally restored according to its original Romanesque appearance and still has a lot of enthralling clues pointing to its antiquity.
One is the unusual polygonal apse and ambulatory, which resembles the famous Romanesque churches of Auvergne to the west.
As you look around you may notice that many of the stones have Roman inscriptions as they were recycled from ancient buildings around the town.
7. Place des Clercs
On a square like this, in the middle of Vieux Valence’s tangle of ancient, ravine-like streets, you’ll be aware that you’re on your way to the south of France.
The houses enclosing the square are painted in pastel colours with terracotta roofs and the outdoor restaurant tables are shaded by plane trees.
Being next to the cathedral, this is also one of the oldest location in Valence, that was first laid out in the 400s and was for a long time a venue for public acts of justice.
The most famous of these came much later, when the smuggler and folk hero Louis Mandrin was executed on this spot in 1755. Today the only big public gatherings are for the food market on Saturdays!
8. Parc Jean-Perdrix
Your motive for heading off to Valence’s eastern outskirts is to witness a monumental piece of award-winning urban art.
The Château d’Eau here is made up of two titanic helical structures measuring 52 and 57 metres and was installed in 1969. The work is often listed as one of the country’s best public sculptures and is protected as a piece of 20th-century heritage.
The park around it is the largest in the city and a quiet location for a gentle amble, with cedar groves and a pond with water lilies and ducks.
9. La Maison Mauresque
Here’s a building that highlights the 19th-century obsession with all things oriental.
La Maison Mauresque (Moorish House), was commissioned by the industrialist Charles Ferlin in the 1850s.
You’ll only be able to see the facade, but it merits a detour on Rue Gaston Rey.
The architect used moulded cement to achieve a remarkable trompe l’oeil effect on the exterior walls, with a lot less hassle than if he had carved the motifs from the stone by hand.
So in that sense it’s a classic example of how historic design was re-evaluated in the 19th century with modern building methods.
10. International Shoe Museum
A short trip to Romans-sur-Isère and you can drop by this museum that honours footwear like no other, in a town long respected for its leather and shoemaking trades.
The venue is beautiful, on the site of the Convent of the Visitation in lovely gardens, and the attraction is more engrossing than it might sound.
In what used to be nuns’ cells is a large hoard of footwear that goes back to 2,000 BC and numbers several thousand.
You can see a musketeers boot and a medieval crakow shoe with its long, pointy toes.
There are also pieces gathered from across the globe, like a boot worn by a Chinese woman with bound feet.
11. Collégiale Saint-Barnard
Classified as a French Historic Monument in 1840, this church was founded in 838 by its namesake Saint Barnard on the right bank of the Isère in Romans.
A lot of what you see now is from the 12th century, and like the cathedral in Valence the building needed to be reconstructed at the start of the 17th century.
Much of the nave remained undamaged, and the Romanesque capitals here make up an exceptional piece of medieval art.
A 12th-century tour will lead you into the Chapelle du Saint Sacrement (Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament), in which there are 15th-century frescos and eight tapestries woven in 1555.
12. Local Delicacies
It may sound odd, but for a true taste of Valence, you should order ravioli at a restaurant.
Here these square pasta pockets are filled with a mixture of eggs, parsley, fromage blanc and Comté cheese.
The Suisse is a well-known Valence speciality that goes back more than 200 years.
After Pope Pius VI died in this city in 1799 a local baker confected a shortbread man in the in the uniform of the Vatican’s Swiss Guard.
In the summer you can also go behind the scenes at the oldest bakery in Romans/Bourg de Péage to see how they make the local “pogne” brioche, flavoured with orange blossom water.
13. Maisons Troglodytes
The village of Châteauneuf-sur-Isère is less than ten kilometres north of Valence and is couched in the wooded hills on the left bank of the Isère.
In the Bel Air quarter at the base of the Colline de Molasse are some 100 dwellings that have been burrowed from the malleable limestone.
These cavities are from different periods, but the oldest go all the way back to antiquity.
Some are on private property, but most are easy to get to from the top of the village and are good fun to pore over.
14. Véloroute Voie Verte Vallée de l’Isère
The V63 cycle route has been specially conceived for families, and follows the tortuous course of the Isère River around the town of Romans.
As it’s level with the water children will have no problem coasting along this route, and almost half of the 42 kilometres comprises Voies Vertes (Greenways) that are restricted only to non-motorised traffic.
The route crosses the Isère four times, most impressively on the 11th-century Pont Vieux bridge in Romans.
Take the road less travelled through an energising landscape of low-lying mountains to this town, around half an hour from Valence.
Crest sits directly on the entrance to the Drôme department’s pre-Alps, which gave it a lot of strategic importance long before even the Romans.
A monument to this status rears above the town: the Tour de Crest is 52 metres in height, putting it among the tallest medieval keeps in Europe.
It’s the last vestige of what was a huge castle that was torn down by Cardinal Richelieu in the 17th century, when the tower became a symbol of repression as an infamous prison.