Besançon, France: Coffee, Cheese, and Victor Hugo
January 1, 1970
by Kasey Kaiser
The not so big, entirely beautiful Besançon.
You’re in France. You have one extra day and want to go somewhere a little off the beaten path. I assure you, this city is worth your time. France is all about the castles and huge variety of architecture (and let’s be real, the wine and cheese). Besançon has all of these things and some other quirky sites to see. The city is hidden inside several tree-covered hills, which gives you the mystical feeling of being in another world. If you are driving into town, you will pass under a section of the old Citadel, adding to the feeling of entering into another time and place.
Vauban’s Citadelle, even better than a castle
Besançon is home to an amazing UNESCO World Heritage site, La Citadelle. Constructed in the 17th century under the design of Sébastian Le Prestre de Vauban, the Citadelle was a strategic military fortification. Today, it serves as the must-see tourist attraction in Besançon. The journey is half the fun of getting to the site. You certainly have the option to take bus line 27 to the entrance, but the walk up is much more entertaining. This walk takes you through the heart of the city down the Grande Rue, one of two major thoroughfares in Besançon. You continue on Grande Rue and pass Victor Hugo’s childhood home, and the 2nd century “Porte Noire” or black door (which is not actually black). There are several signs reading “accès difficile” (difficult access) directing you on the way up the massive hill past the Cathédrale St. Jean. This direction is quite athletic, but really appeals to those with a sense of adventure.
The Citadel has 3 different museums. My favorite is the Natural History Museum, which is essentially a zoo. I am not kidding. It’s a full blown zoo in the middle of a 17th century fortress. They have all kinds of animals from lemurs and kangaroos to lions and sheep. If you’re lucky, you can catch the guy feeding the monkeys who live in under the drawbridge. Also, you should be aware that they let the peacocks run loose. So while you are sipping coffee at the little café, some friends might turn up. Truly a magical experience.
Last but not least, the view. You have the option to walk on the ramparts and take in the incredible view of Besançon and Le Doubs river. There are usually some colorful kayakers to add to the serenity. Great place to take a selfie, but be sure not to drop your phone in the river, it’s more than 100 meters down.
The entry fee is €10.60, but there are all sorts of discounts for young people, people with disabilities, and families. It is for sure worth the price. The hours change a little during each season, so click here to make sure. Visiting the Citadelle will probably take the most time of your day. I would suggest an early start so you can spend the afternoon inside the city.
Grab a quick bite
Since you still have a lot of touring to do, I suggest my favorite guilty pleasure. Big Ban is a quick way to taste some of the Franche-Comté specialties for cheap. There is nowhere to sit, since it is just a window, but you can take a stroll across the river to Parc Micaud for a seat. There are 2 locations, either Place 8 septembre (on Rue de la République) or right next to the tram stop Battant. You can eat an enormous amount of food for less than 10€. This place is fun because there are always a few locals hanging out next to the window, giving you a chance to practice your French and maybe hear what they are ordering. I recommend the “panini saucisse de morteau et comté.” The saucisse is a classic sausage from the region and comté is the best cheese hands down in the entire country. If you must go for the burger, I recommend the “complet” which has everything on it, but make sure you order the sauce “samourai.” A bit spicy, it gives your lunch a little something extra.
Victor Hugo’s birthplace
This house is conveniently located right on the way to La Citadelle. It is on the Grande Rue, close to la Porte Noire on the right side of the street. If you’re into literature, this is another must-see in Besançon. Victor Hugo was one of the most famous writers in French history. His most famous works include Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. In 1885, his funeral was attended by 2 million people in Paris. Whether you know his work or not, he’s kind of a big deal. The house includes a great little museum with details of his life and accomplishments and a small boutique. On the outside of the building, you can see a nice plaque with a coat of arms and a dedication. At the very least, you can appreciate how much the French love and care about him.
For information on tickets and opening hours, click here. Located at: 140 Grande Rue
A wonderful little café
Once you get tired of all the walking (especially after the Citadel) you should absolutely stop into my favorite café in town, the Café des Félins. The owner is very cool, a little bit hipster, and speaks some English. Six adorable cats run around this café all day, and there are plenty of toys around for you to play with them. The room is full of comfortable sofa’s, tables, and of course all kinds of cat furniture. The best part about this place? It’s not just for the spectacle. This is hands down the best hot chocolate in all of Besançon, along with gorgeous tartines that demonstrate a rather culturally French meal. A tartine is a toasted (or not) baguette with something spread on top of it. Could be Nutella, or jam. In this case, crème fraîche and cheese. Amazing.
This is another one of those places that are great for meeting locals. The place is usually packed with people, so if you are coming with a group, be sure to book online through their website, or give them a call. I’ve always had a great experience at this café, it is a relaxing atmosphere, and a little quirky. Perfect for a rainy afternoon. These mischievous cats are all cleverly named after characters from Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. Again, this city is all about their famous author. You can often find the cats closer to the ceiling than the floor… Be careful, they might jump into your tea. There are only about 15 cafés like this in all of France, so stop in and enjoy.
Located at: 135 Grande Rue
How to get around
Besançon is very walkable, and often with charming views of rooftops, chimneys, or the river Doubs. There is quite a lot of shopping and several restaurants all around the city center. The people are very kind and willing to help you out. If you need to use the tram or bus, go to the Ginko website for timetables and ticket info. Now go and seize the day!