In southern Burgundy, Chalon-sur-Saône is a charming riverside town in the heart of the Côte Chalonnaise wine region. If you have a soft spot for fine wine, you can enrich your journey with an unforgettable and educational tour of the vineyards and caves.
Meanwhile, in the 19th century, Chalon-sur-Saône brought to the world Vivant Denon, the godfather of the modern museum, and Nicéphore Niépce, who took the first photographs. Both are remembered by their own museums. The town was also once a bustling inland river port, but trading ships have been replaced by pleasure boats on the Saône and upper Central Canal.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Saône-sur-Sarn:
1. Musée Nicéphore-Niépce
A place of pilgrimage for amateur and professional photographers, Musée Nicéphore-Niépce is an innovator in photography.
Nicéphore Niépce was born in Chalons and is believed to be the first photograph taken in 1826 or 1827, viewed from the window of Le Gras. The museum delves into the life and work of Niépce and holds several of his inventions, including his velocipede, an early bicycle.
But the main focus is photography, with a collection of over 1,500 cameras and 3 million photographs from the 19th and 20th centuries developed through a series of processes.
2. Musée Vivant-Denon
The Art and History Museum in Chalon-sur-Saône is named in honor of Vivant Denon, director of the Louvre during the Napoleonic period, a pioneer in the fields of archaeology, art history, Egyptology and museology.
The museum has a room dedicated to this man, documenting his career and showing some of the prints he made.
You can also delve into the local history of Chalon, especially the Gallo-Roman period, represented by a set of six bronzes and a gemstone collection.
Then there is the fine art collection, in which Italian Baroque painting takes center stage, including works by Luca Giordano, Bernardo Strozzi and Corrado Giaquinto.
3. Salon Cathedral
It can be said that the cathedral of the town is a potted history of religious art in the Burgundy region.
The building has a long and complex past and a hodgepodge of buildings.
The neo-Gothic facade and two new towers date back to the 1800s, but some elements of the interior date back to the 1000s.
Burgundy-Romanesque design can be seen in the more modest chapels decorated with medieval and Renaissance art like the stunning frescoes of the 1400s.
In the sanctuary you can admire the wonderful tapestries woven in Brussels in 1510.
4. Côte Chalonnaise wines
Chalon is located on the Route des Grands Vins in Burgundy, and the Côte Chalonnaise stretches from the south of the Côte d’Or, starting with the Malange vineyards that have just been inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
The area is located on the elevated west bank of the Saône River and undulates approximately 25 kilometers from north to south.
There are 44 wine villages in this idyllic landscape where winemakers mainly grow Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes and ferment the wines in large oak barrels.
The wines of this region of Burgundy have a unique characteristic: As a very general rule of thumb, reds are intense and have a gourmet side, while whites carry the exotic flavors you usually associate with southern French wines.
5. Chemin de l’Orbandale
The tourist office has drawn a walking trail around the old center of Chalong.
There are 30 sites in total, and you can download a pdf from the website or pick up a flyer with a description of each site from the office.
Whether it’s a Renaissance half-timbered house in the district of St. Vincent, or a view of the town and cathedral on the Pont Saint-Laurent, there is something interesting to see at every turn you turn.
Discoveries continue on the island of Saint-Laurent, which is guarded by the 15th-century Tour du Doyenné, a beautiful bell tower made of brick and topped with white limestone.
6. Ancien Hôpital Saint-Laurent
Also on the island of Saint Laurent is the town’s old hospital, which was established in 1530 during the reign of Francis I and whose patients included Victor Hugo.
As a historic hospital, there is a clear religious seam running through the church, chapel, living quarters and parish of the Sisters of St. Marte.
As with similar establishments across France, one of the most fascinating parts is the 18th century pharmacy.
This has antique vials and clay pots in wooden cabinets.
Get an up-close look at strange ingredients used as medicines in the past, as well as shocking instruments from the 1500s to the 1900s.
7. St. Vincent Square
This is the socially charming square in front of the cathedral that dominates.
St. Vincent Square is almost entirely filled with restaurant and bar terraces, with four-storey timber-framed houses on three sides.
These Renaissance buildings are very irregular, with cantilevered upper floors almost overhanging the square.
There is also a fountain with a modern sculpture that contrasts with the history of the square.
Stop on Friday and Sunday mornings to visit the weekly market that originated in the early Middle Ages.
8. Quai des Messageries
Perhaps the loveliest place on the right bank of the Saône is this pier, just west of the Pont Saint Laurent.
A wide walkway runs along the water, surrounded by a row of plane trees that shade the benches below.
From the water you can enjoy uninterrupted views of the Tour du Doyenné, the old hospital and the grassy banks overgrown with flower beds.
The tourist office is at the far end and there are concerts in the summer.
It’s all a far cry from the old days, when it was home to the Docks of the Salon, which transported Côte Chalonnaise wines to all corners of France via inland waterways.
9. Espace Nautique du Grand Chalon
East of the town center is Chalon’s modern aquatic center, and while the pool complex might not seem like the most inspiring day out, this one in Chalon is on a different level: with indoor and outdoor pools, the center comes alive in summer when there’s more when discounted.
Youngsters can go crazy on the wave pool or the Pentagliss slide.
Parents can relax on the outdoor terrace around the pool or on the large grassy area bordering the River Saone.
10. St. Pierre Church
This striking church was built at the turn of the 18th century as a Benedictine church.
The interior still has an Italian-inspired baroque design, but the exterior received a Byzantine Revival makeover in the 1800s.
But what is most striking about the church are the stories of some of the people who were ordained here.
One of them was Anne-Marie Jahouvey, a nun who went on to help free slaves in the South American colony (now French Guiana) after taking her oath in 1807.
Inside there is also a precious pipe organ, made in 1812 by the famous Callinet workshop.
11. Water excursions
Quai des Messageries is also the boarding point for your cruise on the Saône, and there is an extensive excursion menu to choose from.
You might prefer a 90-minute excursion between Saint-Rémy and Crissey, or a 3-hour picnic trip at the mouth of the Grosne in Marnay.
Alternatively, if you want to spend a pleasant day, you can take a lunch or dinner cruise through the Saône-et-Loire countryside.
You’ll float on the banks of rivers with woodlands and fertile pastures, where cormorants, herons and kingfishers nest.
12. Carnaval de Chalon
If you happen to visit the salon in late February or early March, you’ll be in for the Carnival festivities, the biggest and wildest event in the area.
These celebrations are now approaching their centennial and promise a lot of chaos, fun and dancing.
For ten days, there are artistic paper floats and a parade of gôniots bands, a bit like medieval clowns who cause mischief at every opportunity.
There are various free events such as parades, concerts and playgrounds, as well as paid banquets and dances in the evenings.
13. Chalon dans la Rue
Now in its 31st year, Chalon dans la Rue is a street theatre festival that takes place every July in the heart of the old town.
Over 200,000 spectators poured into the town to see over 1,000 performances by over 1,000 artists.
The event lasts for five days, around the third weekend of each month.
Chalon dans la Rue is a highlight of the French cultural calendar, which was celebrated in 2016 by the Minister of Culture, Audrey Azoulay, to celebrate its 30th anniversary.
14. Outdoor sports
In southern Burgundy, old industrial infrastructure such as canals and railways have been repurposed for walking and cycling.
By design, these routes are easy to navigate, with low gradients and easy access to town.
The Tourist Office of Burgundy has established cycle routes between the towns of Chalon, Cluny, Mâcon and Tournus, mainly using canal tow roads so you don’t have to deal with too much road traffic.
If you want to keep it local, the Côte Chalonnaise is as idyllic as it is, with rolling hilly decks, lush vineyards, forests, water meadows and serpentine paths marked with ancient milestones.
15. Local Food
When it comes to food, Saône-et-Loire is quintessentially French.
Right now, snails are usually the appetizer of choice, served with garlic butter and chopped parsley.
The diet is a carnivore’s dream, based on the best produce such as chicken Bresse, for boeuf bourguignon, a staple such as wine and Charolais.
Mâconnais cheese has its own AOC and is made from unpasteurized goat milk, while charolais cheese is made using a similar process, both maturing in the summer for a little over two weeks.
Where to stay: The best hotels in Chalon-sur-Saone, France
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