You can guess from the name that this town is in the Champagne region. The Champagne Route puts the world of champagne makers at your fingertips, one of which is right here in town: Joseph Perrier offers tours of the chalk caves and the opportunity to try and buy some of its exceptional cuvées.
As the capital of the Marne, Chalons has several other strings and has a rich religious heritage, including two UNESCO-listed churches, and a museum with stunning Romanesque sculptures. The town’s canals, almost like Venice, are magical on summer nights, while the National Circus Centre adds a touch of whimsy with special events in June and December.
Let’s discover the best things to do in Chalons-en-Champagne:
1. Chalon Cathedral
Originally consecrated by Pope Eugene III, the Romanesque cathedral burned down in 1230 and was replaced by lush Gothic architecture.
There are traces of that ancient church on some panels in the basement, the carved baptistery and the glorious stained glass windows.
In the 17th century, Louis XIV praised Chalon Cathedral as “the most beautiful church in the kingdom”. Its ethereal atmosphere is enhanced by the third floor, a long gallery of windows close to the ceiling, bathing the nave with soft light.
As you walk around, check out the old tombstones with inscriptions, many of which are listed as Historic Monuments.
There’s a lot of art to ponder here, but one of them is a 15th-century painting imagining the Pope’s dedication to the cathedral three centuries ago.
2. Collégiale Notre-Dame-en-Vaux
This magnificent Romanesque church, part of the Châlons-en-Champagne World Heritage Site, dates back to the 12th century and is a gathering place for pilgrims on the way to Santiago de Compostela.
They called for worship of the Holy Umbilical Cord (really) until the relic was destroyed in the 18th century because it attracted too much superstition.
Some of the stained glass here is spectacular, especially the 16th century windows, which relate to the life of St James, the life of the Virgin and scenes of the Passion.
3. Notre-Dame-en-Vaux Cloister Museum
Attached to the church is a small museum showing the excavations of the original Romanesque cloister in the 1960s.
These statuary columns and capitals are the height of 12th century craftsmanship and have been lost after the cloister was demolished in the 1760s.
There are 55 columns adorned with standing figure sculptures.
The value of these columns lies not only in their finesse, but also because they were made in the transition between Romanesque and Gothic, with elements of both styles.
There is also some more religious art worth seeing, such as the 16th-century polychrome Pieta (Mary holding the body of Christ).
You can reach the 600km Champagne Trail within minutes of town.
For lovers, this is a trip of a lifetime, as the Champagne region is home to many small producers as well as the most famous brands.
So you can chat with small producers about rare champagnes you won’t find in supermarkets while visiting large champagne houses with hundreds of kilometers of underground caves.
With over 15,000 growers in all, the selection of bistros (wine-focused bistros), B&Bs, and wineries is almost dizzying.
5. Cave Joseph Perrier
Joseph Perrier Châlons has his own old champagne house, starting from the left bank of the Marne, with 3 km of underground caves.
The chalk tunnel dates back more than 2,000 years and is optimized for secondary fermentation (that’s why champagne sparkles); the tunnel has a stable temperature of 11°C, is well ventilated, and is fitted with a skylight.
Not only that, the botanical garden above ground also acts as a natural climate and humidity regulator.
Stop by the Tourist Office to sign up for your next tour and get a chance to taste and buy this vaunted champagne at the source.
6. Canal cruise
In a town that bills itself as La Venise Pétillante (Sparkling Venice), you have to leave by boat along the calm canals.
These waterways pass through the historic centre of the town, passing through the church of Notre-Dame-en-Vaux, the Château du Marché and the old abbey of Saint Mary, which is now the seat of the provincial government.
The canal allows you to clearly see Champagne-style buildings, old stone embankments, greenery and bridges.
If your French is up to par, your captain will also give you a professional run commentary with fun trivia and some secrets about the town.
7. Les Jards
Another nickname for Châlons is Ville Jardin (Garden Town), and that’s because of the large green belt in the center of the town.
It consists of three parks, the small garden, the large garden and the Jardin des Anglais.
All three are medieval heritage but redesigned when the bishop’s property was confiscated in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Starting from the east, the Petit Jard is a landscaped park surrounding the Château du Marché with a botanical garden.
The Grand Jard is a grand esplanade with maroon boulevards and a waterfowl sanctuary along its shores.
Then, the Jardin des Anglais features winding paths, flowing lawns and postcard-like views of the cathedral.
8. Small town whirlwind tour
If time is of the essence, Châlons has posted information boards outside its 19 must-see attractions.
Some are listed here, and many others are worth your attention but cannot enter.
The Arc de Triomphe is one of the royal landmarks, where Marie Antoinette arrived in France in 1771 to marry Louis XVI. By the river, the Porte de Marne is where the old city gate was replaced by an arcade. at the same time.
The Hôtel de Ville on Place Foch is a bold neoclassical building, also built in the 1770s, while some luxurious historic buildings, such as the Vinetz Abbey and the 17th-century Hôtel Dubois de Crance, are now government offices.
9. Église Saint-Alpin
As one of the smaller churches in town, Saint-Alpin is still worth planning, as it is full of fascinating history.
Give yourself some time to check out the adjacent chapel, with its medieval funeral panels, 16th-century stained-glass windows and Renaissance paintings.
There are also numerous sculptures, which flank the nave and adorn the façade in the form of saints and gargoyles.
Like other local churches, this is mainly a fusion of Romanesque and Gothic, but St. Alpin stands out for being untouched since the 1500s.
10. Museum of Fine Arts and Archaeology
The town’s Fine Arts Museum, founded in 1794, is one of the oldest in France.
The institution collected belongings of noble immigrants during the Revolution, as well as artworks from monasteries and churches in the area.
The permanent exhibition has some real treasures, with paintings by Hieronymus Bosch, Courbet and Delacroix, and several sculptures by Auguste Rodin.
The medieval archaeological promenade is also stunning, full of wonderful Limoges enamels and various precious religious sculptures and altarpieces.
11. Basilique Notre-Dame de l’Épine
Another UNESCO-listed church around Chalons is a magnificent Gothic masterpiece, dating from the 15th and 16th centuries.
The building was most likely modeled on the Cathedral of Tours in Lorraine, and the facade is adorned with numerous sculptures.
In fact, you could lose all your time counting the gargoyles (there are 123 in total). There is also a lot inside, there are two statues of the Virgin, the earliest from the 1300s, and a woodcarving of St. James, a reminder that this is also a pilgrimage church.
12. Center d’Interprétation Marne 14-18
During the First World War, Chalon was close to the Western Front and was even occupied for a few days in September 1914. On the site of the Champagne Front in Spuippes, there is an illuminating little museum about the wars in this part of France.
Marne 14-18 uses the testimony of local civilians and soldiers to present a fascinating account of warfare and everyday life.
This is provided along with general information on war preparations, major offensives and life in the Champagne region on the front lines.
There’s also an audio-visual reconstruction that puts you in the middle of the trenches during the raid.
From spring to autumn evenings, you can see the town in a whole new way by boat or on foot.
Metamorph’eau’ses is a sound and light show that started in 2015 in collaboration with the performing arts company Skertzò.
The monuments on the water’s edge are all painted with vivid lights that tell the story of the building.
Every year a new waterside section is chosen to perform: in 2015 it was the Château du Marché, last year it was the Circus Centre, the Petit Jard and the Pont des Mariners.
14. Circus Show
Chalons is the circus capital of France, with the National Centre for Circus Arts.
One is the modern building complex on the banks of the Marne, and the other is the town’s beautiful 12-sided 19th-century arena.
The centre is a highly regarded research and training institution and also contributes to the town’s cultural calendar.
In June, Chalons turns into a giant tent for the FURIES street festival.
Then for the first two weeks of December, students at the center will put on an annual performance, directed by one of the leading figures in the circus world.
Châlons-Plage is not a real beach, but the next best beach, it is like a small resort that takes over the Grand Jard during July and August.
Children and teens will make the most of Châlons-Plage, play touch rugby and football in the big sandpit, ride a pony or explore the side canals of the Marne in a pedal boat or canoe.
Adults can bring a book, park themselves on sun loungers by the water, enjoy the view of the cathedral, or hone their chess skills in a special workshop.
Where to stay: The best hotels in Chalons-en-Champagne, France
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