15 Best Things to Do in Vienne (France)

On the left bank of the Rhône, south of Lyon, is a city overflowing with Roman history.

That’s not an overstatement either, as even the parks in Vienne are scattered with thrilling little fragments from the ancient city of “Vienna”, be it Roman paving, walls, milestones or columns.

But top of the bill is the Temple of August and Livia, dating from the 1st-century BC and standing at the heart of Vienne, completely intact like any other building.

Get some context at the Gallo-Roman Museum, which itself is in a big archaeological site, and survey the landscape from atop the Pipet, a vertiginous hill in the middle of the city.

Lets explore the best things to do in Vienne:

1. Temple of Augustus and Livia

Temple of Augustus and Livia

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Temple of Augustus and Livia

Along with the Maison Carrée in Nîmes, this stunning 1st-century BC temple is one of the two best examples of a Roman edifice of this kind in France.

You can observe it from a railing in the centre of Vienne, on Place du Palais Charles de Gaulle, where Roman Vienna’s forum used to be.

The columns, entablature and capitals are all in fine condition considering their age.

They were all preserved because the temple became a church around the 6th century and the portico was bricked up.

It remained like this until the 19th century when it became a listed monument and the restoration project began in 1852.

2. Vienne Cathedral

Vienne Cathedral

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Vienne Cathedral

A French National Monument, Vienne Cathedral is not strictly a cathedral as the archdiocese of Vienne was abolished at the start of the 1800s.

What you see today is mostly romanesque and gothic from between the 12th and 14th centuries, but with some later additions after the building was damaged by the Huguenots in the French Wars of Religion.

The western facade, facing the Rhône, is a treasure and the three expertly-carved portal arches managed to survive the damage.

The right portal shows prophets and angels, the left one is dedicated to the Virgin, while the centre has images you may recognise from the Old and New Testaments.

3. Roman Theatre

Roman Theatre

Source: flickr

Roman Theatre

Despite being one of Roman Gaul’s biggest theatres, Vienne’s theatre remained hidden from antiquity to 1908. It was built around 40 AD and back then would have been able to seat some 13,000 spectators, making it the second largest in Gaul after the one in Autun.

The theatre was restored in the 1920s and 30s and remains a performance venue, with seating for 8,000 people on 46 tiers.

There’s loads going on in summer, and you won’t find a more memorable place to watch a concert.

4. Musée Gallo-Romain de Saint-Romain-en-Gal

Musée Gallo-Romain de Saint-Romain-en-Gal

Source: flickr

Musée Gallo-Romain de Saint-Romain-en-Gal

On the right bank of the Rhône is the Saint-Romain-en-Gal Archaeological Site.

During the days of Ancient Vienna this was an enormous commercial and residential district of warehouses, villas and workshops.

For anyone enamoured of ancient history it’s a bit of a playground.

There are two bathing complexes, one of which was for wrestlers, and the Roman road looks as good as new.

There’s an interior exhibition at the site, with immensely detailed  mosaics that you can marvel at from first-floor galleries.

The museum combines real artefacts found on the site with reconstructions to give you a sense of how they fitted into life in Vienna.

5. Roman Circus

Roman Circus

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Roman Circus

Going past on Boulevard Fernand-Point you may not pay this 20-metre stone monument a second glance.

But this obelisk on this quiet residential road is a very rare vestige of Vienne’s Roman Circus, where chariot races would have taken place.

Dated to the 1st century, the “Pyramide de Vienne” would have been on the spina, the median line in the track, and these were often decorated with stone monuments.

The pyramid was rediscovered in 1852 when the former circus was excavated and has been a French “monument historique” since the day it was found.

6. Abbaye de Saint-André-le-Bas

Abbaye de Saint-André-le-Bas

Source: flickr

Abbaye de Saint-André-le-Bas

Founded in the 500s, not a great deal is known about this abbey apart from that it was the chapel for the palace of the Kings of Burgundy in the 900s.

The abbey would have come under Benedictine control later that century, when a lot of the architecture that we can admire was completed.

The bell-tower and flying buttresses date to the 1200s, while the radiating chapels are 13th century.

The 12th-century cloister is a wonder, and is the only complete romanesque cloister in Rhône-Alpes.

The capitals have mostly foliate patterns, but if you look carefully you can identify Samson fighting the lion and other bible episodes.

7. Musée Archéologique Saint-Pierre

Musée Archéologique Saint-Pierre

Source: flickr

Musée Archéologique Saint-Pierre

This abbey has hosted an interesting lapidary museum since 1872 and presents a mishmash of stone monuments from different eras.

As you go in you’ll be greeted by a bust of the archaeologist Pierre Schneyder who donated a lot of these artefacts to the city at the start of the 1800s.

There are sarcophagi, funerary altars, a frieze from the theatre, the head of statue of Augustus, a beautiful 1st century mosaic and an amazing marble sculpture of a greyhound that indicates the degree of naturalism that artists were achieving in Vienna in Roman times.

8. Jardin Archéologique de Cybèle

Jardin Archéologique de Cybèle

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Jardin Archéologique de Cybèle

Between the Temple of Augustus and Livia and the Theatre is a public garden that is littered with fragments of Ancient Vienna.

There’s a large wall, various terraces and the foundation of several houses.

Best of all are the two large perpendicular archways that would have opened onto the forum, still conveying the grandeur of the city in Roman times.

At the top of these ruins the friezes are in good condition with plant motifs, masks and mythological figures sculpted from the soft limestone.

9. Jardin du 8 Mai 1945

Jardin du 8 mai 1945

Source: flickr

Jardin du 8 mai 1945

Next-door to Vienne’s tourist office is a public park on what used to be a vineyard owned by the Abbaye de Saint-Pierre, which is also just a few steps away.

It was named to commemorate the Allied victory in the Second World War.

But as we’re in Vienne you can be sure that there are some Ancient Roman vestiges waiting to surprise you.

There’s a 4th century milestone, erected during the reign of Emperor Constantine, as well as a large section of the Roman road that once ran towards the warehouses on the quays by the river.

10. Pipet

Mont Pipet

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Mont Pipet

From the right bank of the Rhône you’ll be impressed by the sight of the Chapelle Notre Dame de la Salette and the statue of the Virgin beside it towering above the rest of Vienne.

They sit atop Mont Pipet, the highest point of the city.

In Roman times this would have been a sacred area with temples overlooking the forum, and you can still see the retaining wall that supported the platforms for these structures.

Scramble up for photos of the Rhône and the Vienne countryside.

The statue of the Virgin is on a tall plinth, dates to the 1850s and hewn from black Volvic stone.

11. Musée des Beaux-Arts et d’Archéologie

Musée des Beaux-Arts et d'Archéologie

Source: flickr

Musée des Beaux-Arts et d’Archéologie

If your enthusiasm for Roman Vienna remains undimmed then you’ll find more of what you need at this former 19th century granary.

On the first floor are three rooms with display cases full of Roman weapons and tools, medieval ceramics and one of the largest assemblies of French faience in the region.

There’s also a small collection of French paintimg from the 1500s to the 1900s.

Your eye will be drawn first of all to the Roman life-sized bronze of Pacatianus, a 3rd Century usurper from Vienne who would be killed by his own men in 248.

12. Vienne Market

Vienne Market

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Vienne Market

On Saturdays the second-largest outdoor market in France sets up right in Vienne.

Laid out side-by-side the stalls would stretch for six kilometres, and there are hundreds of local producers, street vendors and other hawkers vying for your business.

If you’re in the city in August or September then this is the time to get yourself some Triomphe de Vienne pears.

These have exceptionally juicy flesh, and are golden yellow when ripe, with small bumps on the skin.

In late-summer most local restaurants will have a pear dessert on the menu, and at any time of year you can buy some fantastic pear jam in Vienne.

13. Parc Naturel Régional du Pilat

Parc Naturel Régional du Pilat

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Parc Naturel Régional du Pilat

The northeastern limit of the Pilat regional park is on the right bank of the Rhône, just across from Vienne.

The Pilat is a range in the foothills of the Massif Central, spread out over 700 square kilometres and laced with some 1,500 kilometres of walking trails.

Three “Grande Randonnées” pass through: The GR7, GR 42 and GR65, in addition to ten smaller paths.

One beauty spot you can drive to is the Crêt de l’Œillon, a peak at 1,370 metres and crowned with a titanic television mask.

Tour de France historians may know that the peloton has crested this summit four times, in 1956, 1985, 1986 and 1995. From here you’ll have an widescreen view of the Alps in the east and the unusual rock formation, Les Tres Dents in the park.

14. Lyon

Lyon

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Lyon

At the confluence of the Rhône and the Saône, France’s third city is close enough for a day out.

If you’re a food-lover, Lyon is France’s culinary capital, adored for its bouchons, welcoming traditional restaurants dishing up Gallic classics like pot-au-feu, andouillettes, foie gras and coq au vin.

And if Vienne’s ancient architecture has inspired you Lyon also has a stunning Roman theatre and an exceptional Gallo-Roman museum next door.

And you can’t leave without seeing the neoclassical townhouses on the the Presqu’île, or the  traboules, neat renaissance passageways that silk porters would use to get from workshops to the banks of the Saône.

15. Jazz à Vienne

Jazz à Vienne

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Jazz à Vienne

Pay a visit to Vienne in June and July to catch the Jazz à Vienne festival, which has been going since 1981. In its time the festival has booked big-hitters like Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, Chuck Berry and Sonny Rollins.

An added incentive is that concerts take place in the phenomenal setting of the Roman theatre on the slopes of the Pipet, and with sumptuous vistas of Vienne from the upper tiers.

Another venue during the festival is among the ruins in the Jardin Archéologique de Cybèle.

Where to stay: Best Hotels in Vienne, France
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15 Best Things to Do in Vienne (France):

  • Temple of Augustus and Livia
  • Vienne Cathedral
  • Roman Theatre
  • Musée Gallo-Romain de Saint-Romain-en-Gal
  • Roman Circus
  • Abbaye de Saint-André-le-Bas
  • Musée Archéologique Saint-Pierre
  • Jardin Archéologique de Cybèle
  • Jardin du 8 Mai 1945
  • Pipet
  • Musée des Beaux-Arts et d'Archéologie
  • Vienne Market
  • Parc Naturel Régional du Pilat
  • Lyon
  • Jazz à Vienne