North of Lyon, Villefranche-sur-Saône is the southern capital of the Beaujolais wine region. Beaujolais means a lot to the town, and you can dine at special bistros with menus arranged around this velvety wine.
You don’t need to be a connoisseur to want to know more about Beaujolais, and there are caves, vineyards and wine tour companies on hand to turn you into a sophisticate in a couple of days! The town itself is centred on Rue Nationale, which has fine Renaissance townhouses and little passageways drawing you into beautiful courtyards. Nearby are villages built with a bewitching golden stone, and Lyon, only 25 minutes to the south can never be ignored.
Lets explore the best things to do in Villefranche-sur-Saône:
1. Beaujolais Wine
Beaujolais is known for being uncommonly light and delicate, to the point where it usually comes chilled like white wine.
Travelling from Lyon, Villefranche-sur-Saône is the first large town in the Beaujolais region.
Around here, bottles sell for less than around the crus-du-Beaujolais villages like Fleurie and Brouilly, a short, scenic drive to the north.
It’s your choice how you discover this fabled wine: You can taste it at caves in town and make purchases there, or quaff it at “Bistrots Beaujolais”, which are bistros with menus that complementing Beaujolais wines.
Or you can set off into the steep countryside to see the terroir for yourself, meeting vignerons like the young Richard Rottiers and Beaujolais stalwart Jean-Paul Brun.
2. Marché Couvert de Villefranche
In a region that takes food very seriously the covered market is one of the big attractions.
And if you need proof that this is the best place to do your grocery shopping, on weekend mornings it is almost packed with locals who know quality when they see it.
Much of the produce comes from the region, and the sellers are only too happy to give you buying and cooking tips.
And even if you’re just sightseeing it’s worth coming just to appreciate the sights and fragrance of high-quality meat, cheese, fruit and charcuterie.
This Art Deco building was completed in 1933, and has a gallery on the first floor with a bar, giving you a bird’s eye view of the rows of stalls below.
3. Musée Paul-Dini
In the middle of town, this museum is all about art and artists in the Rhône-Alpes region.
There’s an ensemble of paintings dating from 1863 to the present day, communicating the changing trends in the region’s art and how it tallied with national and international fashion.
As for the museum’s name, Paul Dini is a businessman and art collector, whose donations helped found the attraction.
There are now some 450 works, the earliest radiating around the Barbizon school, before you move on to Fauvism via Jean Puy, Symbolism through Auguste Morisot and modern movements like Cubism represented by Albert Gleizes.
4. Rue Nationale
As you make your way along the town’s main shopping street your gaze will be drawn to the old ochre or stone houses on the route.
Some of these go back as far as the 1400s, and the most illustrious examples are labelled with plaques.
There are also passageways “traboules” beckoning you off the street and into secret renaissance courtyards like La Galerie de Bois.
The best part is the block between the junctions with Rue Paul-Bert and Rue du Faucon.
But there are lovely houses to be seen at no. 407 (Maison de l’Italien), no. 761 (Maison de la Tourelle and Villefranche’s former town hall built in the mid-1600s at 816.
5. Collégiale Notre-Dame-des-Marais
Although the first stone of this church was laid in the 1100s, work continued through to the 1500s.
So there’s a whole spectrum of architecture, from the Romanesque base of the tower and barrel vault in the nave to the Gothic ribbed vaults in the transept and nave.
The main facade was one of the final touches and is in the Flamboyant Gothic style from the 1500s.
The Wars of Religion in the 16th century and the French Revolution weren’t kind to the church, stripping it of its decoration.
But the marvellous 19th century organ is worth your time: This was built by the acclaimed Callinet company and has 2,300 pipes.
6. Places des Marais
Hidden behind the church is a charming little pedestrian square with a cafe and fountain.
Although the architecture is new it has been designed to blend with the older building around.
So there’s a passageway beneath the pastel-coloured apartment buildings and the various shops nestle in arcades.
Next to the church at the entrance to the square on Rue Nationale there’s a plaque commemorating the award of Villefranche’s charter in 1260. Above it are tile murals of Pierre II of Bourbon and Anne of Beaujeu in the style of the iconic 15th-century Moulins Triptych.
7. Ancien Hôtel-Dieu
Right next door to the tourist office is Villefranche’s old hospital, which dates to the 17th century and was in service until as recently as 1982. It’s now a listed building, and after being decommissioned its sumptuous decoration was preserved.
You can put your name down for a guided visit at the tourist office.
The reception hall and courtyard are lovely, but the highlight has to the painted chapel, designed in an Italian Baroque style in 1682.
8. Maison du Patroimonie
At Villefranche’s heritage building there a huge archive of documents and artefacts, including a library of 300,000 photographs.
These are presented in short term exhibitions dealing with specific themes, from major events in the town’s past to the ins and outs of daily life over the centuries.
During the summer season in 2016 for example there was Métamorphose d’Une Ville, an exhibition contrasting scenes around the town from the early 20th century with the same places in the present day.
9. Musée Claude Bernard
The respected physiologist Claude Bernard was born just outside Villefranche in the village of Saint-Julien.
He made a raft of important discoveries, mostly using vivisection.
And he also helped establish some of the norms of experimentation, like using blind experimentation to ensure objectivity.
Bernard was the son of a winemaker, and the farmhouse where he was born in 1813 is the ideal introduction to his life and achievements.
On the first floor are winemaking tools and you’ll learn about his social life, his friendship with Flaubert and some of his philosophical musings.
And upstairs you’ll get into the meat of his scientific work and advances made in alcoholic fermentation and the glycogenic function of the liver.
10. Fête des Conscrits
On the last weekend in January there’s a celebration in Villefranche that only happens around Beaujolais.
The Fête des Conscrits harks back to the days of conscription, and re-enacts the customs of men who were about to leave town for the army.
So on the Friday evening there’s a torchlight parade, and then on Saturday the men take cockades and bouquets of flowers to the town’s elderly citizens.
Later, on the Sunday morning there’s a big parade of men in tuxedos, carrying bouquets and with top hats trimmed with a ribbon.
This ribbon is colour-coded to signify the conscript’s age: Green for 20, yellow for 30, orange for 40, red for 50, blue for 60, violet for 70, plum for 80 and then a tricolour if they’re older!
West and south of Villefranche is a region known as the Pays des Pierres Dorées “Golden Stone Country”. This comes from the limestone used in the buildings, which is given a golden tone by its iron oxide Oingt may be the prettiest of all the villages in southern Beaujolais and is hardly ten minutes away by car, looking out over the hilly vineyards.
For such a small place there’s almost a day’s worth of things to see, like the museums for the medieval keep and barrel-making, and dedicated to cars, wine and agriculture.
You’ll also want to mill around for a while browsing the village shops in rustic stone houses, and basking in the countryside views.
Minutes south of Villefranche is another of those towns in golden stone.
Anse is replete with beautiful old châteaux because it was a vital route between Lyon and Mâcon to the north.
There are five to see in all, and one of them, the Château des Tours, is open to the public.
This is an old-school fortress from the 1200s and is the appropriate home for a small cache of artefacts unearthed around the town.
There are also chunks of the Gallo-Roman walls still showing, along with one of the defensive towers from this period.
13. Musée Henri Malartre
Anyone with an affinity for cars needs to make a note of this museum in Rochetaillée-sur-Saône on the way to Lyon.
Henri Malartre was born at the start of the 20th century and was in the business of scrapping cars.
But in his career he came across many models that he felt were too good to destroy and these cars were the basis for this fleet of cars dating from 1890 to the present day.
There are also 50 motorcycles from 1904 to 1964, all presented in the wonderful setting of the Château de Rochetaillée-sur-Saône.
Cars to look out for include the 2CV prototype from 1936, Édith Piaf’s Packard and Charles de Gaulle’s Hispano-Suiza.
The second largest city in France is 20 minutes down the road.
Lyon is one gigantic World Heritage Site, and is a multi-faceted destination that will delight different people in different ways.
There’s ancient history to uncover at Fourvière, the site of a mind-blowing ancient theatre as well as the postcard-worthy Basilica of Notre-Dame.
The old centre seems to go on for miles, and each quarter has its own character.
Take the dozens of traboules, secret Renaissance passages leading from old silk weaving workshops to the banks of the Saône.
And you can never forget the food at France’s culinary capital and the home of the legendary chef Paul Bocuse.
Many of the preparations that people consider typically French originate or have been perfected in this region.
This heritage comes from its location at Europe’ trading crossroads, gaining ideas and ingredients from all directions.
There are currently five three Michelin-starred chefs based in Rhone-Alpes.
But you’re probably just in search of a good, reasonably-priced meal, so try coq au vin, pot au feu (slow-cooked beef stew) or andouillettes (pork offal sausages). For something to take home there’s the bouchon Beaujolais (Beaujolais cork), a delicate sweet made with praline and hazelnuts coated with an almond paste and designed to look like a cork.