This venerable spa town became fashionable with the rich and famous after Napoleon III took a shine to it in the 1860s.
At this time it was dubbed the “Reine des Villes d’Eaux”, “Queen of the Water Towns”. Mountains were moved by Napoleon III’s decree, and in a matter of years there were pavilions, hotels, a casino, a glorious riverside park and lavish homes for the Emperor and Empress.
Those flamboyant buildings are still in place, and now most of the palatial hotels have turned into apartments.
The spring waters that first attracted the upper crust are also still piped into opulent grand halls for you to fill your cup.
Lets explore the best things to do in Vichy:
1. Parc des Sources
The oldest park in Vichy was first plotted in 1730 and intended as a place for spa visitors to take restorative walks in the middle of the resort.
When Napoleon III came in the 1860s he ordered the Grand Casino, while the marvellous Vichy Opera House, was added next-door in 1903. But just as it was for Vichy’s industrialists and aristocrats in the 19th century, this park is all about gentle ambles in the shade.
There are gorgeous Belle Époque covered galleries, pergolas, chestnut and plane trees and elegant old pavilions for a break.
2. Hall des Sources
In the north of the park is a cultured metal and glass pavilion where all of Vichy’s six drinkable springs can be tasted and bottled.
In this elegant but eerie place you may feel you’re rubbing shoulders with the ghosts of Victorian magnates.
The springs all run from their taps at different temperatures: Grille and Chomel emerge at over 40°C and you might be put off by the strong sulphuric smell.
There’s clear information about the temperature and mineral content of each spring, and you can even see the actual sources of the Grille and Chomel springs, which are encased in glass.
3. Opéra de Vichy
Built for the Grand Casino at the turn of the century, Vichy’s stunning opera house is the only one in France to have an Art Nouveau design.
The interiors were crafted by a team of masters in painting, metalwork, fabrics and glassmaking.
Tickets for operas, plays and ballet performances are great value and you shouldn’t miss out on the chance to see a show in this astonishing hall.
If there’s nothing that takes your fancy you can book a tour with a group and browse the small museum presenting the venue’s archives.
4. Parks on the Allier
Vichy’s riverside is perfectly in tune with the town’s healthy, active image: In the 1860s Napoleon III commissioned the Napoleon and Kennedy (renamed) Parks, generous swathes of greenery either side of the Pont Bellerive on the right bank of the river.
The opposite side of the Allier has little more than waterfront mansions hidden by woodland, so as you stroll by the Allier it may be hard to believe you’re even in a town as there’s such an abundance of nature.
The parks are lovely in any season, but in summer everything’s in bloom and there are beaches and activities on the river.
5. Source des Célestins
Available in the Hall des Sources, but also in this separate pavilion, the most famous of Vichy’s springs is also a brand of bottled water exported to more than 40 countries.
But here in the town it’s free, and you need only bring your own vessel to fill up.
The water comes out at 17.3°C and has been taken as a drinking cure for hundreds of years.
In true Vichy style, taking these waters feels like a solemn occasion, with the spring is set in an elegant 19th-century neoclassical pavilion close to the river.
6. Musée des Arts d’Afrique et d’Asie
In the 1920s the “Maison du Missionnaire” was set up to accommodate missionaries who had come for long-term spa treatments in Vichy.
They would often bring with them precious items they had gathered in far-off corners of the world.
Over time the house’s collection turned into a museum, and after donations there are now more than 4,000 objects, mostly from former French colonies Africa and Asia but also Oceania and South America.
You can study coins, pieces of furniture, musical instruments and much more, in the lavish setting of a turn-of-the-century palace in the thermal quarter.
7. Église Saint-Blaise
This church has 17th-century origins, but was given an Art Deco facelift in the early-1930s at a time when Vichy was the height of fashion.
On the outside you can admire the relatively stern tower and dome, made with moulded grey concrete.
If you appreciate Art Deco architecture this will be a treat, but it barely hints at the interior, which is a riot of colour.
The painted columns, ceiling mosaics and stained glass are from 1933 and were the workshops of the Mauméjean brothers.
In the old chapel next door is the “black Madonna” statue, carved from walnut and brought out for a mass on the steps of the Grand Casino on August 15.
8. Hippodrome de Bellerive
It’s only fitting that a 19th-century spa resort that catered to the world’s royalty and nobility should have a racecourse.
The Hippodrome has held races on the left bank of the Allier since 1875. There are regular meets here from May to September: Earlier in the season you can catch hurdling races, and then there’s harness racing until around July when the flat gallop events are ushered in.
A lot of the races are run in the evening, and you can make a night of it as the grandstand has two restaurants.
9. Vichy’s Palaces
There’s a tour for the sumptuous hotels and apartment buildings fashioned when Vichy was on the map for movers and shakers from around the world.
The eclecticism in fashion when Napoleon III was here gave these palaces an odd variety of styles.
But what unites them all is the no-expense-spared sense of grandeur.
The Hôtel du Parc, has a darker history than most as it housed the offices of France’s wartime Vichy Regime.
Chief of Stare Marshal Pétain’s private apartment was on the third floor.
Opposite the opera house is the Mannerist revival Hôtel des Ambassadeurs, which was one of Vichy’s most distinguished hotels in the late-1800s, finally closing in 1989.
10. Boulevard des États Unis
Facing the riverside park, this thoroughfare is well worth taking on foot to gawp at its exuberant architecture.
As the town prepared for Napoleon III’s arrival in 1862 architects tried to out-do each other with increasingly outlandish designs.
The Imperial Chalets built for Napoleon III and Eugénie begin at no.
101 and are a mix of the Swiss and American colonial.
One looks like it belongs on a plantation in the deep south.
They were intended to hark back to Napeolon III’s childhood, which was spent in exile in Arenenberg in Switzerland.
You can easily identify Eugénie’s chalet at no.
105 for the gilded “E” on its door.
11. Spa Treatments
Words like hydrotherapy and balneology may seem like they come from a bygone age, but a lot of tourists still come to Vichy for the salubrious properties of its waters.
There are centres catering to all budgets, and generally a course of treatment will last for at least two weeks.
The springs are claimed to help a whole host of complaints, from digestive disorders to arthritis.
If you’d rather not embark on long courses of hydrotherapy or drinking these pungent waters, you can book à la carte baths and massages at the neo-Moorish Centre Thermal des Domes.
12. Pavillon Sévigné
Vichy had been frequented by French aristocrats long before the resort was overhauled by Napoleon III. And one of its pre-eminent guests in the 17th century was the letter-writer Madame de Sévigné, who came in the 1670s to treat arthritis in her hands.
The mansion is by the river and when Vichy was at its peak it was converted into a luxury hotel.
In the war Marshal Pétain used this mansion as his summer home, preferring the Hôtel du Parc in the winter months.
13. Golf Sporting Club de Vichy
In keeping with Vichy’s historic noble standing, the town also boasts an 18-hole golf course.
This opened to the public in 1908, putting it among the oldest courses in France.
It has a lovely setting on the left bank of the Allier and is open seven days a week.
Despite being a club the course welcomes non-members and naturally the green fees are more reasonable on weekdays or during the off-season from October to March.
As it’s practically in the town the course doesn’t have many long holes, but will test your approach play and short game with its elevated greens and bunkers.
At Vichy the regional parks of the Massif Central are a comfortable day trip.
The nearest is Livradois-Forez, about 15 kilometres to the south and a giant swathe of upland forest and farmland.
Stop by Châteldon, which like Vichy is also feted for mineral water that is sold across France.
The prettiest spot in this sleepy medieval village is Place Jean Jaurès with its ring of half-timbered houses, one with a beautiful wooden gallery on the top floor.
Sections of the old ramparts are defiantly intact, including the lovely 14th-century belfry, which topped a gate to the village in medieval times.
15. Food and Drink
Empress Eugénie was said to have been fond of Vichy Pastilles, which are a hard candy made with mineral salts from the town’s spring waters and flavoured with aniseed, mint and lemon.
They come in cute vintage tins and would make for a kitschy but cute gift to take home with you.
The mineral waters also go into Vichyssoise, a leek, potato and chicken soup that is traditionally served cold.
For this dish to be completely authentic you’re supposed to use Vichy Célestins water!