Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes is France’s alpine region, bordering Switzerland and Italy on its eastern border, and includes the northern part of the French Alps. Named for the former Auvergne region, the wide Rhône River, and the French Alps mountains, it’s a region renowned for its diverse landscapes and stunning natural beauty, including some of France’s most iconic mountainous sights. Western Europe’s highest mountain, Mont Blanc, is located on the border with Italy. It is home to the Chaîne des Puys, a chain of dormant volcanic peaks; as well as the breathtaking views of Chamonix ski resort.
France’s third-largest city Lyon is here, a centre of culture, historic architecture, and fine gastronomy. In the mountains near Switzerland, the city of Annecy is famed for its old town charm, crystal clear alpine lake and mountain paragliding. Meanwhile, Grenoble is overlooked by its amazing mountain fortress and bubble-shaped cable cars. Wine lovers flock to the Beaujolais region just north of Lyon, whilst some of France’s best winter warming dishes are served here, such as the cheesy winter favourite raclette, and blanquette de veau.
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Cities in Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes
Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes is one of the largest metropolitan regions in France. Third largest by area and second largest by population (after Île-de-France), there is a huge diversity of cities and towns throughout the region. The people in this part of France live in UNESCO-listed old towns, Alpine resorts, gorgeous lakeside cities, mountain metropolises, and even cities adjacent to volcanic domes.
Magnificent, gastronomic, historic – Lyon is one of France’s national treasures, a city of medieval quarters, Roman ruins, celebrated Michelin-star restaurants and modern trams trundling down its streets. At the confluence of the Rhône and Saône rivers, the city of Lyon is France’s third largest city (metropolitan). The old town is known as The Historic Site of Lyon, a large part of the city designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. With its colourful, warmly painted buildings, winding alleyways, and alluring cafes, Lyon’s old town is a wonderful place to get lost, and a photographer’s dream. It is particularly known for its traboules, covered passages that traverse buildings and link streets. Combined with turning staircases, Italian galleries, and serene gardens, the old town has a character all of its own.
One of Lyon’s most impressive buildings is the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière, built between 1872 and 1884. It is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, who is said to have saved the city from bubonic plague in 1643. For fans of older architecture, the Cathédrale Saint-Jean-Baptiste is a Gothic marvel, completed in 1480. The Hôtel-Dieu de Lyon is a grand building that served as one of France’s largest hospitals from 1454 to 2010.
Lyon is full of historical sites, and Le Théâtre Antique de Fourvière is one of most endearing, a Roman amphitheatre over 2000 years old, which is open to the public. For cinema fans, the Musée Lumière is the best place to learn more about the story of the Lumière brothers, who projected the world’s first movie in 1895.
The picturesque mountain city of Annecy is also nicknamed ‘Venice of the Alps’, and ‘Pearl of the French Alps’, because of its wonderful old town and reflective canals, its grand alpine lake, and it’s rugged mountain backdrop. The capital of the Haute-Savoie department, Annecy is located just 35km (22 miles) from Geneva in Switzerland.
Annecy’s signature attraction is Le Lac d’Annecy, a mountain lake filled with clear mountain spring water, often considered one of Europe’s cleanest lakes. The city is built right alongside the lake, offering amazing reflective views of the mountains beyond, as well as the chance to go swimming, stand up paddle boarding, sailing and more. Taking the mountain pass around the lake and into the mountains, there is a centre for paragliding above Lake Annecy. Soaring above the city and the waters below, it must be one of France’s all time best views! When you’re finished, try a sip of génépi herbal liqueur from the nearby restaurant.
The old town of Annecy is a mostly pedestrian area that follows the Thiou river. Views from the Pont Perrière are jaw-droppingly charming, with colourful facades, sun umbrellas and sparkling waters set alongside each other. The most iconic structure is the Palais de l’Île, a castle and prison that resembles a ship cutting through the water. Stone tunnels, narrow alleyways and sculptural fountains complete the medieval atmosphere. Other sights inside the Château d’Annecy, a castle built from the 12th to 16th century.
The largest metropolitan area in the French Alps, Grenoble is surrounded by stunning snowy mountain peaks. The city is instantly recognisable for its red terracotta rooftops, set against the confluence of the Drac and Isère rivers. Calling itself ‘the capital of the Alps’, Grenoble is today known as a major science, research and technology hub, industries which involve an estimated 20% of the population. It is also a city of amazing art, with le Musée de Grenoble housing priceless artworks that range from Rubens to Rodin to Warhol. The Musée archéologique Saint-Laurent (Grenoble Archaeological Museum) is another wonderful museum that centres around a 6th century Gallo-Roman church.
The most striking aspect of Grenoble is its alpine location in the Chartreuse Mountains. Overlooking the city is the Bastille Fort, a 19th century fortress on top of the Bastille hill that offers incredible views of the city below. At 476 metres (1561 feet) high, it is possible to walk to the top, starting in the Jardin des Dauphins and takes 45 minutes to an hour up the winding paths. But for many people, taking the cable car is a much better option, and luckily Les Bulles (The Bubbles) reaches the top in just 4 minutes! In the middle of the city is Parc Paul Mistral, a huge green park of 67 acres, which is a great place to take a break from the busy city.
About 50km north of Grenoble is Chambéry, a cute mountain town known for its lively feeling and incredible mountain backdrop. It is the capital of the Savoy department, and from the 13th to 16th centuries was the seat of the powerful Counts of Savoy. They ruled from the Château des Ducs de Savoie, an 11th century square keep castle which is free to access for visitors today.
Chambéry is known for its charming Vieille Ville (old town), a labyrinth of tall houses, covered galleries (in particular Rue Basse du Château), statues, fountains, and quiet courtyards. It’s a great place to wander, take pictures, and stop at a local cafe. One of the city’s most iconic sights is the Fontaine des Éléphants, a public fountain adorned with four huge elephant sculptures, with their heads pointing in four different directions. The statue on top honours Benoît de Boigne, a general who campaigned in India. Other attractions include the Chambéry Cathedral, the museum at the Hôtel de Cordon, and watersports, swimming and cycling at the nearby Lac du Bourget.
Saint-Étienne is a city in the midst of a transformation. It grew from a medieval village to an arms manufacturing centre around the 16th century, also producing ribbons, mining coal, and constructing bicycles. Its mines are now closed, but Saint-Étienne has reminders of its industrial past. Le Musée d’Art et d’Industrie is a great collection of the city’s art and industrial design. Another interesting museum is Le Musée de la Mine, set up in the last coal mine of the city.
Today, Saint-Étienne is reinventing itself as a centre of art and design, and was awarded the status of UNESCO Creative City of Design in 2010, a title given to cities that place creativity at the forefront of their future urban development. The Cité du Design is built on the former arms factory, and is a hub dedicated towards creative exhibitions, teaching and training. The Musée d’Art Moderne (MAMC) is a museum of mostly 20th century art (and some ancient art), with over 19,000 works. Out and about in the city, Place Jean-Jaurès is a great public square to sit down and enjoy a coffee, and its historic centre is a picturesque area to wander around. One of the most celebrated buildings just outside Saint-Étienne is the concrete Saint-Pierre in nearby Firminy, famed architect Le Corbusier’s last work.
Skiing, Hiking and Outdoor Adventure in the French Alps
Many visitors to Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes come for skiing, hiking and adventures in the Alps and the regions other mountain areas. Top of the list is the iconic Mont Blanc and the ski resorts and sensational views of Chamonix. However, Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes has much more to offer, from dramatic gorges, dormant volcanoes, Vanoise National Park’s unique wildlife, the glacial waters of Lake Bourget, and the rugged peaks of the Bauges mountain range.
The most famous and spectacular mountain of the Alps is Mont Blanc. Shared with neighbouring Italy, Mont Blanc is the highest mountain in western Europe and the Alps, and the second highest in Europe after Russia’s Mount Elbrus. Since it was first summited in 1786 by Michel-Gabriel Paccard and Jacques Balmat, it has excited mountaineers every since. Besides climbing, Mont Blanc is also popular for skiing and other winter sports.
The main jumping off point for adventures around Mont Blanc is Chamonix-Mont-Blanc, about 1 hour 15 minutes drive east from Annecy. Chamonix, a former territory of the house of Savoy, is today a base for winter sports, even hosting the very first Winter Olympics in 1924.
A delightfully charming commune with wonderful views of the mountain, the best views can be enjoyed from l’Aiguille du Midi, a stunning viewing platform and cafe located at the top of the mountain of the same name. The 20 minute cable car ride is the highest vertical ascent cable car in the world, starting in Chamonix at 1,035 metres (3,396 feet) and rising to 3,842 metres (12,605 feet). Once there, the skywalk called Step Into The Void is a dizzing experience, especially with its glass walls and floor!
Another popular way to admire the views is the Tramway de Mont Blanc, a tram which runs through the Chamonix valley. Chamonix even has its own winter theme park, the Parc de Loisirs de Chamonix, well known for its 1,300 metre (4,265 feet) luge rollercoaster track.
Chaîne des Puys
Located separate from the Alps and east of Lyon are the amazing Chaîne des Puys volcanoes. Stretching out over 40km (25 miles), there are dozens of volcanic craters (puys) that have been dormant over 6000 years, the highest of which is the 1,465 metre (4,806 feet) Puy de Dôme. The volcanoes were designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for their exceptional example of continental break-up.
The Chaîne des Puys are open to visitors through the wider national Park, the Parc Naturel Régional des Volcans d’Auvergne. The region is filled with outdoor activities, from hiking, walking, mountain biking, horse riding, swimming, and even hot air ballooning! The best jumping off point is the city of Clermont-Ferrand, located in the heart of the region, and known for its amazing black lava stone cathedral. Nearby is Vulcania, a volcano-themed amusement park.
Mont Aiguille, which translates to ‘needle mountain’, is a mesa located about an hour’s drive south of Grenoble. Famed for its striking shape and flat top, the 2,085 metre (6,841 feet) mountain is popular with technical climbers. Experienced hikers also enjoy hiking it’s 18km (11.2 mile) perimeter to enjoy the views.
Gorges de l’Ardèche
Known as the European Grand Canyon, the Gorges de l’Ardèche stretches over 30km (18 miles) between the commune of Vallon-Pont-d’Arc and Saint-Martin-d’Ardèche. At some points reaching heights of 300 metres (980 feet), the limestone cliffs of the gorge protect an unspoiled and protected natural phenomenon. The gorge is a popular spot for kayaking and canoeing, and is a popular tourist attraction. It is also home to some unique rock formations such as the Pont d’Arc, a natural limestone rock bridge created by millions of years of natural erosion. The Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave, a site of incredibly well preserved rock art, is also located in the gorge.
The Caves of Aven d’Orgnac
Not far from the Gorges de l’Ardèche is another cave structure of particular note, Aven d’Orgnac. Descending 120 metres (393 feet) underground, the caves are filled with incredible stalagmites and stagaltites, with concretions that look like blossoming towers of stone. One of the biggest attractions in the area, it is worth visiting for nature enthusiasts.
Vanoise National Park
Designated as France’s first ever national park in 1963, Vanoise National Park is an important wildlife reserve and mountain range that contains the dramatic Vanoise Massif. Its highest point is the Grand Casse, which reaches up to a snow-capped summit of 3,885 metres (12,746 feet). The national park is a protected area for Alpine ibex (bouquetin), which is the emblematic animal of the area, as well as populations of chamois (a species of goat-antelope), grey wolves, alpine marmots, Eurasian lynx, golden eagles, bearded vultures, and many more. While the focus is on environmental protection, the area is also open to visitors to enjoy hiking and wildlife spotting, with strict rules against anything that may upset the ecological balance, such as littering, vehicles, and dogs.
Interesting Sights in Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes
Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes is certainly known for its spectacular mountains, lakes, landscapes and natural formations, but it also has some very interesting man-made sights to see in the region.
Grotte Chauvet 2
The Chauvet Cave, also known as Grotte Chauvet-Pont d’Arc, is one of the most significant prehistoric rock art sites every discovered. Located on a limestone cliff in the Gorges de l’Ardeche, the caves contain wonderfully preserved cave paintings that date back to 27,000-26,000 BP (before present), with other artworks dating to 32,000-30,000 BP. The paintings depict in detail animals of the era, such as horses, rhinos, mammoths, cave lions, leopards, and others; natural elements such as volcanoes are also thought to be depicted. Since its discovery in 1994, the cave has been sealed to the public, as similar sites such as the Lascaux Caves have had problems with humidity and mould since tourists were introduced.
To allow people to see the Chauvet Cave, a replica called Grotte Chauvet 2 was constructed near the original. The facility has recreated the morphology of the caves, as well as the artworks themselves. It also features an exhibition space with information about Paleolithic peoples, interactive screens for kids, and a restaurant. While it seems strange to admire a replica of an artwork, it is understandable in order to preserve the integrity of the original.
Ferninand Cheval’s Le Palais Idéal
One of the region’s most unusual curiosities is Le Palais Idéal, a home-made castle and Naïve artwork created by postman Ferdinand Cheval (1836-1924). An amateur at building, the palace is a wild mishmash of styles that seem reminiscent of La Sagrada Família, the temples of Angkor, or Brighton Pavilion, with swirling designs, animal recreations, spiral staircases, pebbles, shells, and secret grottoes. Cheval started work on his palace in the late nineteenth century, after tripping up on a rock with a curious shape (which is now part of the palace). Over a period of 33 years, he amassed pebbles and stones as a building material, with cement, lime and mortar to hold it all together. When Cheval died, he was buried in his own custom-built mausoleum of his own design, in the Hauterives cemetary. Le Palais Idéal is located about an hour’s drive south of Lyon.
Château de Murol
While Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes might not have as many châteaux as the Loire Valley, there are some very impressive castles to be found. The Château de Murol near the Chaîne des Puys and the city of Clermont-Ferrand is a 12th century fortification built on an impressive rocky basalt outcrop. The castle commands a panoramic view of the picturesque landscape beyond. The castle has survived sieges during the French Wars of Religion, was a hideout for bandits during revolutionary France, and was listed as a monument historique in 1889. Today, guided tours take visitors through the castle and shows what life was like in a medieval castle.
There are lots of beautiful small towns all around the region, and an example of one of the most beautiful is Yvoire in the banks of Lake Geneva. Nicknamed The Pearl of Lake Geneva, and classified one of the Most Beautiful Villages in France, it is a medieval town that has fortifications that date back to the 14th century. Château Yvoire, on the waterfront, is one of the most photographic sights in the town, and is known for its Cinq Sens garden maze, which visitors can get lost in. One of the most iconic buildings is the 11th century St Pancrace church, with its silver, onion-shaped spire. But despite the history, a lot of the charm of Yvoire is just wandering around the lovely backstreets of medieval houses bursting with flowers.
Eating and Drinking in Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes
Drinks of Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes
The Rhône Valley is the biggest producers of wine in the region. The Rhône is a large region, usually broken down into two sub-regions; Northern Rhône (Rhône septentrional) and Southern Rhône (Rhône méridional). The northern region produces red wines from the syrah grape, and white wine from local grapes such as Roussanne and Marsanne. The southern region is most famous for its Châteauneuf-du-Pape wine.
The small Savoy (Savoie) wine region is located at higher altitudes than the Rhône region, and produces mostly white wines from local grapes such as the Jacquère grape.
Dishes of Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes
The region’s location close to Switzerland, and the heights of the Alps has influenced the cuisine of Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes. Raclette is a local favourite, a dish made by heating a wheel of raclette cheese, and scraping the melted cheese onto a plate of charcuterie and potatoes. Blanquette de veau is another staple, a veal ragout cooked with white wine and crème fraîche. The meat is cooked en blanquette, meaning that the meat is not browned. Tartiflette is another speciality, a pizza-like dish of cream, potato, lardons and reblochon cheese.
Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes is known for its great pork products, such as sausages, ham, and Rillettes. Quenelles are another local speciality, a scoop of creamed fish which is poached. Lyon is considered a gastronomic capital of the world, with the highest number of restaurants per capita, and several Michelin-star restaurants. L’Auberge du Pont de Collonges is one example, former home of the legendary French chef Paul Bocuse.
Cheese of Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes
The region of Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes is one of the most celebrated cheese producing regions in the country, especially with blue cheeses and hard cow’s milk cheeses. The names are some of the most iconic in the country, and can be found in supermarkets nationwide – Reblochon, Cantal, Saint Agur, Raclette, Brin. Reblochon is from the Savoie region, made of unpasteurised cow’s milk, with a soft centre and a white rind, and a nutty taste. It can be enjoyed with a glass of wine, but is perhaps best known as an ingredient in one the region’s signature dishes, tartiflette. Another unpasteurised cow’s milk cheese is Cantal, a hard yellow cheese with a mouldy rind, and a strong taste like nutty cheddar. It is thought to be one of France’s oldest cheese, reported to have been made in ancient Gaul. Le Brin is a creamy, semi-soft cow’s milk cheese with a red-orange rind. Saint Agur, from the Auvergne region, is a creamy blue cheese with distinctive green mould throughout, and a mild yet spicy taste. Another blue cheese is Bleu d’Auvergne, a strong smelling and creamy cheese with a buttery taste.
Desserts of Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes
One of Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes’ most distinctive desserts are the Suisse de Valence, an orange shortbread cookie shaped like a figurine of a Swiss guard. Coffee beans are often used for its eyes, and raisins for its buttons. Found commonly around Christmas are marrons glacés, a dried and candied chestnut that goes well with a warm drink.
Lyon has its own range of delicious sweet treats. In the city, one can expect to find Bugnes de Lyon (Angel wings), a doughnut-like pastry powdered with sugar; and coussin de Lyon, a green marzipan candy with Curacao, and filled with chocolate ganache.