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 in special bistros with menus arranged around this velvety wine.
You don’t need to be a connoisseur to want to learn more about Beaujolais, and with caves, vineyards and wine tour companies on hand, you can become a seasoned person in a few days! The town itself is centered on the Rue Nationale, with its fine Renaissance townhouses and small passages that lead you into beautiful courtyards. Nearby are charming villages of golden stone, and Lyon, just 25 minutes south, cannot be overlooked.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Villefranche-sur-Saône:
Beaujolais is known for being unusually light and delicate, so much so that it is often served chilled like a white wine.
From Lyon, Villefranche-sur-Saône is the first large town in the Beaujolais region.
Here, bottles sell for less than prices around the crus-du-Beaujolais villages of Fleurie and Brouilly, a scenic short drive north.
How you discover this fabled wine is your choice: you can taste it in the caves of the city and buy it there, or drink it at the “Bistrots Beaujolais” bistros whose menus complement Beaujolais wines.
Alternatively, head to the steep countryside and see the terroir for yourself, with young Richard Rottiers and Beaujolais stalwart Jean-Paul Brun, among others Meet the grape growers.
2. Marché Couvert de Villefranche
In an area that takes food very seriously, the covered market is a big attraction.
If you need proof that this is the best place to buy your groceries, it’s pretty much packed with locals on weekend mornings who know the quality as soon as they see it.
Most of the products are from this region, and the sellers are more than happy to give you buying and cooking tips.
Even if you’re just sightseeing, it’s worth coming to appreciate the beauty and aroma of high-quality meats, cheeses, fruit and charcuterie.
Completed in 1933, this Art Deco building features a ground-floor gallery with a bar, giving you a bird’s-eye view of the rows of stalls below.
3. Paul Deini Museum
In the city center, this museum is about the arts and artists of the Rhone-Alpes region.
There is a group of paintings from 1863 to the present that conveys the changing trends of art in the region and how it fits into national and international fashions.
As for the museum’s name, Paolo Deini was a businessman and art collector whose donations helped build the attraction.
There are now about 450 works, first radiating around the Barbizon school, then you’ll move to Fauvism through Jean Puy, Symbolism through Auguste Morisot, and a Cubism and other modern movements represented by Albert Gleizes.
4. Country Street
As you make your way down the town’s main shopping street, your eyes will be drawn to the ochre or stone houses along the way.
Some of them date back to the 1400s, and the most outstanding examples are marked with plaques.
There are also passages “traboules” that summon you from the streets into secret Renaissance courtyards like La Galerie de Bois.
The best part is the block between the junction of Rue Paul-Bert and Rue du Faucon.
But there are some lovely houses to see. 407 (Maison de l’Italien), no. 761 (The former town hall of the Maison de la Tourelle and Villefranche built in the mid-1600s in 816.
5. Collégiale Notre-Dame-des-Marais
Although the church’s first stone was laid in the 1100s, work continued until the 1500s.
So there is a variety of constructions, from the Romanesque bases of the towers and the barrel vaults of the nave to the Gothic ribbed vaults of the transepts and nave.
The main façade is one of the finishing touches, in the flamboyant Gothic style of the 1500s.
The wars of religion and the French Revolution of the 16th century were not kind to the church, stripping it of its decoration.
But this wonderful 19th-century pipe organ is worth your time: it was built by the famous Callinet company and has 2,300 pipes.
Hidden behind the church is a charming little pedestrian plaza with cafés and fountains.
Although the building is new, it is designed to blend in with the surrounding older buildings.
So there is a passage downstairs in the pastel-colored apartments, with various shops nestled in arcades.
Next to the church at the entrance of the Rue Nationale square, there is a plaque commemorating the acquisition of the charter of Villefranche in 1260. Above are tile murals of Pierre II of Bourbon and Anne of Beauger, in the style of the iconic 15th century Moulin Rouge triptych.
7. Ancien Hôtel-Dieu
Next door to the tourist office is the old hospital of Villefranche, which dates back to the 17th century and was not in use until 1982. It is now a listed building, and after its decommissioning, its ornate decorations have been preserved.
You can write your name for a guided tour at the tourist office.
The reception hall and courtyard are beautiful, but the most striking is the painted chapel, designed in 1682 in the Italian Baroque style.
8. Maison du Patroimonie
In the heritage buildings of Villefranche there is a huge archive of documents and artifacts, including a library with 300,000 photographs.
These are presented in short-term exhibitions that deal with specific topics, from major events in the town’s past to the ins and outs of everyday life over the centuries.
For example, in the summer of 2016 there was the Métamorphose d’Une Ville exhibition, which contrasted the scene around town in the early 20th century with the same place today.
9. Claude Bernard Museum
The esteemed physiologist Claude Bernard was born in the village of Saint-Julien on the outskirts of Villefranche.
He made many important discoveries, mainly using vivisection.
He also helped establish some experimental norms, such as the use of blind experiments to ensure objectivity.
Bernard was the son of a winemaker, and the farmhouse in which he was born in 1813 is the perfect place to introduce his life and achievements.
On the first floor is the brewing tool and you will learn about his social life, his friendship with Flaubert and some of his philosophical reflections.
Upstairs, you’ll get an in-depth look at his scientific work and progress on alcohol fermentation and liver glycogen function.
10. Fête des Concrits
On the last weekend of January, the festivities at Villefranche take place only near Beaujolais.
Fête des Concrits recalls the days of conscription and re-enacts the customs of those who were about to leave town to join the army.
So there’s a torchlight parade on Friday night, and then on Saturday, the men bring badges and bouquets of flowers to the town’s elders.
Later, on Sunday mornings, there was a large group of men in tuxedos, bouquets in their hands, and hats with ribbons on their heads.
This ribbon is color-coded to indicate the age of the applicant: green for 20, yellow for 30, orange for 40, red for 50, blue for 60, purple for 70, plum for 80, or three if older color!
To the west and south of Villefranche is an area known as the Pays des Pierres Dorées “Land of the Stones”. This comes from the limestone used in the building, which iron oxide gives it its golden hue. Oingt is probably the prettiest of all the villages in the south of Beaujolais, just a 10-minute drive from the hills vineyards.
For such a small place, it’s almost a day’s worth of things to see, such as the medieval castle and barrel-making museum, as well as museums dedicated to cars, wine and agriculture.
You’ll also want to browse the village shops in the rustic stone houses and enjoy the countryside views.
A few minutes south of Villefranche is another golden stone town.
Anse is full of beautiful old castles, as it is an important route to the north between Lyon and Macon.
There are five in total to visit, one of which is the Château des Tours, which is open to the public.
This is an old fort built in the 1200s, suitable for storing the few artifacts from the town.
There are also large pieces of Gallo-Roman walls, and one of the defensive towers of this period.
13. Henry Marat Museum
Anyone interested in cars needs to make a note of this museum in Rochete-Telle-sur-Saône on their way to Lyon.
Henri Malartre was born in the early 20th century in the car scrap business.
But over the course of his career he has come across many models that he believes are too good to be destroyed, and these cars are the basis of the fleet from 1890 to the present day.
There are also 50 motorcycles from 1904 to 1964, all on display in the wonderful setting of the Rochette-sur-Saône castle.
Cars to watch include the 1936 2CV prototype, Édith Piaf’s Packard and Charles de Gaulle’s Hispano-Suiza.
The second largest city in France is 20 minutes away.
Lyon is a huge World Heritage site, a multifaceted destination that will please different people in different ways.
Fourvière is full of ancient history, home to a stunning ancient theatre and the postcard-like Basilica of Notre-Dame.
The old center appears to stretch for miles, and each area has its own character.
Dozens of small trains leading from the old silk weaving workshops to the banks of the Saône, secret passages of the Renaissance.
You’ll never forget the culinary capital of France and the home of legendary chef Paul Bocuse.
Many of the preparations, usually French, are believed to have originated or been perfected in the region.
This tradition comes from its location at the crossroads of European trade, getting ideas and ingredients from all directions.
There are currently five Michelin three-star chefs in the Rhône-Alpes.
But you’re probably just looking for a quality meal at an affordable price, so try coq au vin, pot au feu (slow-cooked beef stew) or andouillettes (pig innards sausage). The take-home item was the bouchon Beaujolais (Beaujolais cork), a delicate sweet made of pralines and hazelnuts coated with almond paste that looks like a cork.
Where to stay: The best hotels in Villefranche-sur-Saone, France
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