This industrial city in east-central France is not on many tourists’ maps. Saint-Etienne, which has been a hotbed of mining and manufacturing for most of its time, is now reinventing itself as an arts centre: Manufacture-Plaine-Achille is an entire area transformed from a former factory into a creative industry.
You can delve into Saint-Étienne’s coal mining history at the Musée de la Mine, while football fans can pay homage to one of Europe’s greatest clubs, AS Saint-Étienne, at the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard. Fresh air and nature are also within easy reach of the Pilat Regional Park, with its mountain peaks and lush forests, which you can access directly from the city’s southern suburbs.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Saint-Etienne:
1. Museum of Art and Industry
There’s no quicker way to learn about the city’s culture and history than wandering through this museum for a few hours.
Among the industrial exhibits is the large gallery on bicycle manufacturing, which started on a large scale in Saint-Etienne in the 1800s.
You will see the technical evolution of the bike with the help of some antique prototypes.
Over the centuries, the city has also been known for its weapons manufacturing, with 350 guns to view, including over 3,000, the largest outside of Paris.
There is also a huge space for the textile industry in Saint-Etienne, which is famous for its webbing and showcases the skills and machinery required for the industry.
2. Mine Museum
Arguably France’s premier mining attraction, the acclaimed Musée de la Mine preserves Saint-Etienne’s last mine, which closed in 1973. You can enter the reconstruction of the tunnel and see what a miner’s day was like in the 20th century, and the history of coal mining is presented in the form of modern museology.
However, if you like industrial machinery, you will be happy with the survival rate of mining machinery and outbuildings.
There are huge steel head frames, compressor rooms, maintenance workshops for mining locomotives and a large washroom that can accommodate hundreds of miners at once.
3. Musée des Verts
AS Saint-Étienne (ASSE) is a football team with a strict pedigree: Les Verts were always in the top half of Ligue 1, and in the 60s and 70s they were the team to beat, winning in 18 years 9 league titles, just missed out on the UEFA Champions League in 1976. This remarkable history is told at the 42,000-seat Stade Geoffroy-Guichard.
In these stylish galleries, you can browse trophies, profiles of ASSE legends of the 1970s, and get the inside scoop on the 1976 final at Hampden Park, after which the team finished runners-up at the Champs Elysees Welcomed by heroes on the street.
For a little surprise on your child’s trip, you can come to this state-of-the-art planetarium.
What makes this show a step above the usual stargazing shows is its vast astronomical database charting over 100,000 stars and even small objects in the solar system.
With its simulators, the planetarium can project high-resolution images of what the universe looks like from anywhere in the Milky Way, such as Saturn’s rings.
These shows are now also combined with 3D movies to ensure any budding astronomer has an unforgettable day.
5. Musée du Vieux Saint-Étienne
In the fine townhouse of the Hôtel de Villeneuve (its own historic monument) there is a museum that recalls how Saint-Étienne became and explains its sudden industrial frenzy in the 19th century.
There’s a historic charter from 1258, which first recorded the town’s name, and an extensive collection of carved ancient sandstone gems.
Maps, engravings and sketches will give you an idea of how the city has developed over time.
But perhaps the most intriguing part is the trove of original comics by 19th-century cartoonist Étienne Carjat, who depicted contemporary celebrities like Alexandre Dumas in a playful and soulful style.
6. City of Design
Manufacture-Plaine-Achille is designated for the entire quarter of Saint-Etienne’s thriving creative industries.
In 2017, it will be the new home of the famous national theatre centre Comédie de Saint-Étienne.
The community is represented by the Cité du Design, which opened in 2009 in a former arms factory in Saint-Étienne, on Rue Javelin Pagnon.
The architecture of the three restored buildings is worth seeing, especially the ultra-modern La Platine, which is covered in thousands of triangles, some opaque, some transparent, and some even contain photovoltaic cells.
Go inside to peruse the temporary design exhibition and see the greenhouses of the future.
7. Place Jean-Jaurès
When Saint-Etienne began to flourish in the 1800s, this square became the administrative and commercial heart of the city.
This is the site of the modern cathedral of Saint-Etienne, which was consecrated in the 1920s.
Place Jean-Jaurès is the most walkable part of the city center and a favorite meeting place for locals, with fountains, lawns, tree-lined paths, statues, and if you prefer, there are plenty of cafes and restaurants on either side An aperitif or meal to linger on in the summer.
A cherished landmark on Place Jean-Jaurès is the lovely 19th-century bandstand, which brings a touch of Belle Époque splendor to the square.
8. Museum of Modern Art
The Museum of Modern Art, located in the same complex as the Mining Museum, is a huge cube hall with 24 large galleries.
More than half of these are temporary exhibitions lasting no more than a few months and showcasing works by the likes of Anthony Gormley, Mario Cifano and Gilbert & George.
The permanent collection covers a range of modern art movements from Abstract Expressionism to Minimalism.
Works by Fernand Léger, Pablo Picasso and Claude Monet can be viewed here.
A working town that expanded in the 1800s, Saint-Etienne isn’t full of historic buildings, but there are some striking fragments everywhere.
One of them is the Grand’Église, the only Gothic building in Saint-Etienne and the largest church in the city until the cathedral was built in the 20th century.
This 14th-century building has rustic walls made of sandstone, and its design echoes the Forez region of this part of France.
Spend a minute or two inside and see the pipe organ installed in 1922, as well as a gorgeous colorful sculpture of Christ’s funeral.
10. Place Boivin
Just in front of the Grand’Église is a small square around a green area where the city’s northern defensive wall was built in the 1400s.
Built in 1547 and protected as a French “Historic Monument”, the four-storey La Maison François I er shows what Saint-Etienne used to be. Take a moment to study the facade, half-timbered on one side and stone medallions on the other, a hallmark of Renaissance architecture in the area.
11. People’s Square
The cornerstone of everyday life in Saint-Etienne is this large square in the city center.
Trams whizz by from here, and if you want to stop for a coffee, cafés and restaurants have sidewalk terraces on all sides of the square.
Tour de Droguerie also has some history here, an old pharmacy with a round stone tower built in the 1500s, one of the oldest secular buildings left in Saint-Etienne.
12. Crêt de la Perdrix
While Saint-Etienne is still an industrial town, it is reassuring to be just moments from the city’s borders, where there is unfettered nature.
Located at the eastern foothills of Massif Central, Pilat Regional Park offers breathtaking scenery with scenic drive, walking and biking trails.
If you want to go on a wonderful hike, head to Crêt de la Perdrix, the highest point in the park at 1,430 meters.
This crooked peak is a difficult but achievable climb and offers stunning views of the Jasserie, a huge natural amphitheater that seems to unfold forever.
13. Gouffre d’Enfer Dam
A few kilometers from Saint-Etienne to the park is a huge dam, built in the 1860s to supply the city with water and prevent the Florentine River from overflowing.
The dam soon got another addition at Pas-du-Riot, as it was more of an exploration site than a critical infrastructure.
The rugged location is spectacular and you can see the sides of the canyon being cut away to make room for the dam.
There is a path that winds along the rock face to the foot of the structure, and then you can take the stairs to the top for a breathtaking view.
There is also a year-round “via ferrata”, a cable car for children and adults across the dam wall.
14. St. Pierre, Firmini
This peculiar church designed by the epoch-making Swiss architect Le Corbusier is worth a visit.
It was one of his last projects, even six years after his death in 1970, using plans he developed in the 1950s.
The white concrete building has an odd pyramid-shaped profile and is 33 meters high.
Work was not completed until 2006, and now the building is not actually an ordained church, but more like a shrine to Le Corbusier.
The best part here is the altar, where cleverly positioned windows on the opposite wall project the Orion constellation.
15. Local Food
Wander the streets of Saint-Etienne and you might be drawn to the aroma of fried “bugnes”.
These are doughnut-style fritters made with butter, flour, milk and yeast, dusted with sugar and flavored with vanilla and orange zest.
Potatoes are an important ingredient in the Loire and are used in dishes such as canola, ground into a batter and fried like a pancake, or slow-cooked in a “barboton”, a stew of lamb and carrots.
Finally, Sarasson is a versatile cheese product that goes with just about anything and can be eaten as a vegetable dip, spread on bread or served with sautéed or boiled potatoes.
Where to Stay: Best Hotels in Saint-Etienne, France
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