This city of art and history in the province of Aisne in Picardy has deep and obscure roots, dating back to ancient Gaul. Soissons peaked during the Frankish period and was where Clovis defeated the Romans to become the capital of the Frankish kingdom, and later Charlemagne’s sister became abbot.
If your dream holiday is to discover historic sites and admire forgotten stonework handcrafted hundreds of years ago, the decaying abbey and castle of Soissons are just up your street. After wars, revolutions and religious upheavals, these chapels, cloisters and crypts are in various states of restoration, but have all been preserved as exhibition spaces or monuments.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Soissons:
1. Soissons Cathedral
From the western portal you will notice that the cathedral, built in the 1100s, looks a lot like Notre Dame in Paris.
This is no coincidence, as the plans for the south tower were based entirely on the capital’s famous cathedral (with exact dimensions), and although a matching plan for the north tower was drawn up, work was never done.
The interior of the nave has been admired for its symmetrical purity, and if you continue to the choir you will see the stained glass windows of the 13th century.
In the northern transept there are paintings by Rubens and Philippe Champagne, while the southern transept is distinctive as it culminates in the apse.
2. Saint Jean de Vigne Abbey
When the cathedral needed restoration in the 1800s, many of the stones came from this former monastery around the corner.
The monastery of the Augustinian Cannon was suppressed and abandoned during the Revolution, but more than 200 years later, there is still plenty of gorgeous Gothic architecture to fall in love with.
The two towers above the west gate are soaring and decorated with tracery and minarets.
You can go around to the other side and find the large and small cloisters and the beautifully carved windows that lead to the dining hall.
3. Arsenal of the Abbey of Saint Jean de Vigne
When the monastery was suppressed in the 1790s, some outbuildings were repurposed as military premises, and an arsenal was later built here in 1878. Today, the slender magazine that once stored 36,600 kilograms of gunpowder is a cultural center of the city.
The restored interior is a space for temporary exhibitions and concerts in this extraordinary setting during the summer months.
There is also a handy interpretive centre about the monastery, with exhibits about the site’s architecture in the former husband’s residence.
4. St. Leger Abbey
In this 12th-century abbey there is another lofty religious building named in honor of the 7th-century Bishop of Orton, whose mother retired to Notre-Dame in Soissons.
Almost all the buildings here are from the heyday of the French Gothic period, dating from the 1200s to the 1300s.
The window decorations and vaults of the north corridor of the cloister are exquisite, and they are the official “Historical Monuments” of France. Be sure to visit the chapel and crypt, as well as the city museum, which we’ll cover next.
5. Musée Municipal de Soissons
Soissons’ city museum has many fascinating pieces of local history and archaeology, as well as an art gallery.
The museum moved to the Abbey of Saint-Léger in the 1930s, but many of its collections were assembled earlier in the 1850s when it was established at the Town Hall.
As we have seen, Soissons has a rich and fascinating story to tell, and this museum showcases ancient finds from the Aisne Valley.
You can set your sights on architectural fragments, Gallo-Roman marble, ceramics, glassware, jewelry, and maps and illustrations showing changes in the city.
6. Attractions around Soissons
Soissons was a medieval treasure, but it was torn up in the First World War.
The most important houses and monuments were restored, while much of the city was rebuilt in a fresh Art Deco style, as seen in the bold geometric shapes of many of the façades and the whimsical patterns carved into the stone.
For an older history, there is the magnificent Town Hall, which was originally the palace of the Governor (the king’s representative) in the 1770s.
Meanwhile, the Pavillon de l’Arquebuse is a lovely little pavilion dating from 1626, designed in the Louis XIII style.
7. The Crypt of the Monastery of St. Meda
Our last abbey in Soissons, on the surface, has the least architectural remains.
The story of this Benedictine monastery begins in the 500s and tells of many stories of destruction and reconstruction: the monastery was razed by the Normans, then by the Huguenots in the wars of religion in the 16th century, and finally was razed to the ground in the revolution.
What’s left after that is the basement, but it’s worth a look, probably as old as the 9th century.
This is an exciting structure to explore, with dark arched passages leading you to the funeral home with niches and tomb remnants lining the walls.
8. Donjon de Septmonts
Soaring in the heart of a village on the southern outskirts of Soissons is a lost castle, incredibly romantic.
This place was once the residence of the Bishop of Soissons, who was allowed to lapse in the 1300s after the Revolution.
The castle is an oddly asymmetrical structure, seven stories high, with towers and platforms, and it takes you a few minutes to get around.
You can head to the observation deck at the top for more lovely sights around, as well as medieval and renaissance buildings in various states of restoration.
9. Marche Courville
Soissons has always prided itself on its medieval character.
By 1911, the city needed to build a covered market, and the city adopted the metal and glass buildings that were popular at the time.
But there was a twist, as the exterior of the hall had to match the city’s old stone buildings, such as the cathedral on the other side of Piazza Fernand-Marquine.
So looking at the market and its slate roofs and columns, you’d think it’s much older than the 20th century.
Come here on Wednesday and Saturday mornings for fresh farm produce and Picardy’s artisanal fare.
10. Ryze Forest
The N2 will take you to this French National Forest in about 10 minutes from Soissons.
This 130-square-kilometer woodland area is fascinating because it has been virtually untouched since the 1670s.
This is a remnant of a time when much of France was forested and was a favorite hunting ground for King Francis I in the early 16th century. So if you want to break into unspoiled nature, this ancient beech and taiga should do the trick.
The Tourist Office will offer you more than 28 walking routes, one of which leads to the Cave du Diable, a basement built in the 1600s.
11. Cousy Castle
Like Soissons, much of the Aisne was actually razed to the ground in the First World War.
One of the most moving monuments of this disaster is just a few minutes up the road from Soissons, on the ruins of Cousy Castle.
This muscular castle was once the largest in all of France at 55 meters high.
Cousy quickly fell into German hands in 1914, and when they retreated in 1917, they blew it up to prevent it from becoming an Allied base.
The destruction caused an uproar in France, and the site was left as a “monument to barbarism”. While the fortress is gone, you won’t get tired of investigating walls, dungeons, and vaulted passages.
12. Abbaye Notre-Dame de Longpont
If you’re still interested in the medieval ruins of Aisne, the monastery is a short drive south of Soissons at the eastern tip of the Retz Forest.
This Cistercian monastery was another victim of the Revolution, and while its roof is long gone, the remains of the flying buttresses, the Western Portal, and the Western Rose Window are eerie proof of its former glory.
The monastery is a private property and visitors are welcome to visit the monastery’s facilities on summer weekends.
You will visit the large fireplace of the fireplace, the cellars of the monks and the Gothic cloister with an idyllic garden.
13. Soissons Memorial
For historians of the First World War, the Aisne province is full of places that had a major impact on the conflict, especially in recent months.
You can visit the battlefields of Saint Quentin on a guided tour and stop at the cemeteries and memorials of Fère-en-Tardenois, Bony, Belleau and Château-Thierry.
Soissons has its own monument to the 3,887 British soldiers killed around the city during the Spring Offensive from May to August 1918. The monument dates back to 1928 and was built with Portland stone brought from Dorset.
14. Day out
Everything listed here is an easy drive of less than 30 minutes from Soissons, but if you’re willing to walk the extra mile, there’s a lot to see and do within a one-hour radius of the city.
You can do Reims in 45 minutes, the city where almost all French kings have been crowned and the center of Champagne.
Think Taittinger, Veuve-Clicquot, Mumm and Ruinart; they are all here to visit and sample.
To the northeast is Laon, the capital of Aisne, with a Gothic cathedral that rivals any in northern France.
Just over half an hour to the west is exquisite Compiègne, where Napoleon and Napoleon III would hold court in absurd splendor.
15. Food Culture
Soissons have been grown in these areas since at least the 1700s.
The white kidney-shaped pulse has such an enduring relationship to the city that there’s even a Clovis-themed parade at the end of September, a food market and a bean festival with at least 100 vaudeville shows.
The beans themselves are versatile and can be used in desserts or in an aperitif like olives.
But the most traditional way to enjoy it is with a slow-cooked casserole-style stew, often marked “soissoulais” on local menus.
Where to Stay: Best Hotels in Soissons, France
Lowest price guaranteed.