Besançon Travel Guide: The French City You’ve Never Heard Of

August 30, 2020

View of Besançon from the Citadel

Besançon, France features rolling hills, a winding river, white stone buildings, and an impressive 17th-century fort. The city is known as the Capital of Time for its contributions to watchmaking, and offers related museums and historic sites. It also has a pretty hard-to-pronounce name (it’s buh-zahn-sahn, by the way).

If you haven’t heard of Besançon, you’re not alone. I hadn’t heard of it either, until I was living in nearby Dijon, France, where I taught English at the local university. Even my roommates hadn’t heard of it, and they’d been living in the area for a couple years.

During my year in Dijon, I got to be relatively familiar with Besançon. I actually liked it so much that I went three times!

Despite being one of the loveliest cities in France, Besançon remains under the radar for most travelers. I think more people should know about it, so here’s my travel guide to Besançon—it includes recommendations for things to do, where to eat, and where to stay. Stay till the end for a free, interactive map!

Note: I’m not encouraging international travel at this time. This post is meant to be saved for later, or be some inspiration for people living nearby, who have never visited. 

Fast Facts About Besançon

  • The population is around 120,000; it’s small enough to visit in a day, but large enough to spend more time there.
  • Victor Hugo (French writer best known for Les Misérables) and the Lumière brothers (inventors of film projection) were born in Besançon.
  • The city is part of the Franche-Comté region and is known for its cheese.
  • Besançon is home to a UNESCO World Heritage Site—a citadel from the 17th century.
  • The EuroVelo 6 route (long-distance bike route) from the Atlantic to the Black Sea runs through the city.
  • The city’s watchmaking industry formally began after the French Revolution, as the government no longer wanted to rely on England and Switzerland for imports. Besançon was chosen as a production center for its proximity to Switzerland.
  • The weather is relatively mild, though summers do get hot and winters get cold. There’s very little snowfall.

Getting to Besançon 

You can catch a direct train from many French cities, including Paris (2.5 hours), Lyon (2.5 hours), and Dijon (1 hour).

Keep in mind that the station you choose should be Besançon Viotte, NOT Besançon Franche-Comté TGV. The TGV station is still 15km (9 miles) away from the actual city. The Besançon Viotte station is actually in the city.

The price of tickets can fluctuate quite a bit, and depend on your age. If you’re under 26, you’ll usually be able to get a better deal. If you’re under 27, consider purchasing a Carte Avantage Jeune/youth discount card, which is 50 euros for one year. The card allows you to save at least 30% on TGV tickets (TGVs are high-speed trains, which tend to be faster and more expensive than TERs, which are regional trains). It usually pays for itself in a few rides, and is a great way to save money if you’re spending a decent amount of time in France.

If you’re flying, the closest airport is in Dole (DLE), which is under an hour way by car. Other airports that are just a couple hours away are: Basel-Mulhouse-Freiburg Airport (BSL), Geneva Airport (GVA) and Lyon Aiport (LYS).

Getting Around Besançon 

Typical house in Besançon

Besançon is a small city and is pretty walkable. I never had to take the tram or bus, and just walked everywhere.

If you need to take public transport though, you can find the routes on Google. Tickets cost 1,40 euros and are valid for an hour with transfers. They can be purchased at tram stops with cash or card. Bus tickets can also be purchased at tram stops, and on board. If you want other tickets beyond the single ride (like the 24h pass or packet of 10), then buy tickets at a tram stop. You can also purchase them in Ginko stores (the company running the transport is called Ginko).

Things to Do in Besançon

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1. Catch the stunning views atop the Citadelle 

Citadelle de BesançonCitadelle de Besançon fort wallsView from the Citadelle de Besançon in the fall

Besançon’s crown jewel is its 17th-century fort towering above the city. La Citadelle de Besançon is actually a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and not only offers beautiful views of the surrounding landscapes, but also houses two small museums and a zoo.

The best-known museum is the Museum of Resistance and Deportation, dedicated to the resistance efforts in World War II. The Citadelle was actually captured by the Germans during the war, and 100 resistance soldiers were executed there. American soldiers eventually liberated the Citadelle, and it later became a site for German prisoners of war.

The second museum is called Musée Comtois, and is dedicated to life in the Franche-Comté region. It’s basically a cultural exposition of the region, including cuisine, climate, religion, and regional specialties (dairy, metalworking, and puppets).

In the zoo, around 70% of the species are part of international protection programs, including crowned lemurs and Asian lions. Of course, zoos can be controversial, especially for those invested in animal rights. There was actually a recent petition circulating to get rid of the Besançon Zoo entirely, as an Asian lion bred in captivity died at only 5 years old (life expectancy in the wild is 15-20 years).

I personally feel that zoos fall into an ethical gray zone. Many zoos are largely for profit, others are dedicated to conservation and education, and some animals within the same zoo may be happier or more miserable than others. Based on my research, the Besançon Zoo is probably one of the better zoos, as it’s a member of the European Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which has ample ethical guidelines for its members. But that said, even “better” zoos aren’t always able to provide for all animals in a natural way. For instance, big cats like lions and tigers can often be seen pacing (an unnatural behavior) due to lack of stimulation.

I actually visited for the first time not even knowing there was a zoo, and went back with a friend not really thinking about the ethics of zoos. I’m not in a good place to tell you whether or not you should go, especially since the Citadelle is also a historic site with other important features, like the Museum of Resistance. It’s up to you to decide whether visiting is right for you.

If you do decide to go, tickets cost around 9-11 euros for adults and students, and less for children and those with disabilities. The Citadelle can be reached on foot, by the Ginko Citadelle bus, or by car (parking is just under 1 euro/hour). Accessing the Citadelle can be difficult because of a large incline to the main entrance, so if that’s an issue due to limited mobility, call ahead to get assistance.

If you still want great views, but don’t want to visit the Citadelle, try the Fort de Chaudanne, and 18th-century fort. The fort itself is closed, but you can still hike or drive to the walls. It takes around an hour to get there on foot from the city center. I didn’t get a chance to go, but others have said it’s worth visiting. Just bring good walking shoes, or maybe even hiking boots!

2. Visit the Museum of Time (Musée du Temps)

Museum of Time Besançon

I mentioned earlier that Besançon is known as the Capital of Time, and there’s no better way to learn about the city’s history of watchmaking than the Museum of Time.

I never had the chance to go inside since all my trips to Besançon were short, but this museum was recommended to me by my Airbnb host. The museum houses 1500 watches, grandfather clocks, pendulums, and other watch specimens. You’ll find artifacts from the 16th-19th century related to the watchmaking industry, including engravings, tools, machines, and minerals.

Tickets are 8 euros for adults, but entry is free the first Sunday of each month, and during special night programming. If you pay for a ticket, you can also visit the Museum of Fine Arts and Archaeology and Victor Hugo’s Birthplace (mentioned later) for free. All three museums are in the city center, so it’s an easy walk.

3. Go hiking/trail running

Trail des Forts de BesançonTrail des Forts de Besançon

Besançon is home to countless trails, and it even has an annual trail race in May, called the Trail des Forts (it’s a cute play on words, as “fort” can mean a physical fort like the Citadelle, but also the adjective “strong” in French).

If you’re a trail runner, I highly recommend the Trail des Forts. There are distances ranging from 10km to 53km (6.2mi to 32.9mi), and there are also shorter races for kids. You get to explore the surrounding trails and be part of a fun event. See my Trail des Forts race review for more details.

If you’re not a runner, no worries! You can still walk these trails. I mentioned earlier that the Fort de Chaudanne is a popular hike, but you can also try some of the longer Trail des Forts courses, like the 19km (11.8mi). Keep in mind that these courses go through the Citadelle from the back, which you won’t be able to do on your own. You can easily find an alternative route around though, and also feel free to modify any other parts of the courses. Visorando has other popular hikes with maps and detailed instructions (it’s all in French, but you can translate the page if needed).

While on the trails, be sure to bring a bag for trash, and leave nothing behind (including food waste). On these trails, it would definitely be helpful to have good hiking boots, and maybe even hiking poles. If you’re pretty agile though, good athletic shoes should be enough.

Need some hiking gear recs? I use these boots and these poles (keep in mind that poles are usually not allowed in carry-ons). Decathlon is also a fantastic and affordable sporting goods store in France, but the Besançon location is 30 minutes away via public transport. I also always want to encourage buying secondhand if possible, and from local shops.

4. Browse an antique shop

L'ocass a petit prix bric a brac - Besançon antique shop

There’s a fun antique shop called L’occas à p’tit prix bric à brac (loose translation: cheap secondhand knickknacks). If you’re looking for furniture, dishware, baskets, and other household items, take a gander at the store’s selection.

Just keep in mind that the store has pretty narrow aisles, so try not to bring any bulky bags with you. You may also have to pay in cash (I don’t quite remember), so be prepared!

5. Check out the Astronomical Clock (L’horloge astronomique)

Astronomical Clock BesançonAstronomical Clock Besançon

The Astronomical Clock is an official historic monument built in the late 1850s by Auguste-Lucien Vérité. The massive clock is incredibly intricate and is made up of 30,000 pieces. It lets you know the time, date, season, zodiac sign, solar eclipses, moon phase, and other data. The top of the clock features scenes from the Bible, via figures that move around each hour.

Tickets cost 4 euros, but entry is free for those under 18 and European residents between 18-25 (includes French visa holders).

6. Visit the birthplace of Victor Hugo

If you’re a Les Misérables fan, you might want to check out la Maison natale de Victor Hugo. In his brief childhood home, there are multimedia displays dedicated to Victor Hugo’s life and work.

People have somewhat mixed reviews of the place, given that it’s a small collection and doesn’t feature many personal objects. Visitors also say that you should understand at least English or French to fully appreciate the exhibits. If you really like Victor Hugo and his work, it might be worth a visit though.

Entry is normally 2,50 euros, but is free on Sundays and holidays. As mentioned, you also get free entry with a ticket from the Musée du Temps (Museum of Time) or the Musée des beaux-arts et d’archéologie (Museum of Fine Arts and Archaeology). Those tickets cost 8 euros, and give you free entry to all three museums.

7. Stroll along the riverfront

Besançon riverfront

The Doubs River loops around Besançon, creating a horseshoe-shaped city center protected by the surrounding hills. The riverfront is a pleasant place for a walk or picnic, or even a meal at a restaurant.

If you want a quieter and greener space, check out Parc Micaud. It’s towards the Citadelle side of the city, and offers lots of shade, plus a playground for kids.

8. Buy regional specialties at the covered market

It seems like every French city has a covered market, and Besançon is no different. Visit the marché couvert des beaux-arts for fresh produce, meat/seafood, cheese, and wine.

People who love cheese might want to try comté, a regional specialty that is said to taste nutty and earthy while having a creamy texture (I’m not a big cheese person—gasp!—so I can’t really comment personally on this). The cheese is often melted for fondue when younger, and more aged versions are eaten plain or used in cooking.

Even if you don’t need to buy any food, the covered market is certainly worth a stroll around, just for the ambiance. It’s open Tuesday to Saturday from 7am-7pm, and 8am-1pm on Sunday.

Where to Eat in Besançon (Vegan/Vegetarian)

Ost Cafe Besançon
Öst Café

Since I eat mostly plant-based, I don’t have any recommendations for traditional restaurants. I’d check out the ones along the riverfront though, as they’re likely to have lovely outdoor seating.

If you also like vegan/vegetarian cuisine, I loved these two restaurants:

Gloria mea fides—A vegan cafe made with local ingredients. Because of their local sourcing, the menu can change rather frequently. I had an incredible classic veggie burger with crisp fries, but that seems to no longer be on the menu. Still, I’d recommend this spot for a cozy meal on the way to the Citadel. You can get a full meal for around 12 euros.

Öst Café—Located right along the river, this vegetarian cafe has the prettiest setting. I didn’t get a chance to sample a meal here, but I did try their juice and a vegan cookie, which were good. You can also get a main dish and side here for around 12 euros.

Where to Stay in Besançon

Budget: I stayed in this Airbnb twice, which was conveniently next to the train station. It was around 25 euros/night (no minimum stay) and the host was the loveliest older woman⁠—she was so hospitable and sweet to talk with. The accommodation is  basic, but had everything I needed.

You might also consider this private room in the city center (35 euros/night, minimum 2 nights).

Moderate: There’s a private studio Airbnb in the city center (45 euros/night, minimum 2 nights). For those looking for a hotel, ibis Besançon Centre Ville is also conveniently located, and rooms start at 70 euros/night. If you’re coming in the summer, this hotel has air conditioning, which is less common for French apartments/Airbnbs.

Fancy: The Hôtel de Paris (ironic name, right?) is probably the most popular hotel in the city. Rooms start at around 100 euros (though they can be even cheaper in low season), and go up to over 170 euros. The hotel has been around for 150 years, and offers a mix of modern and old-style charm.

Hôtel le Sauvage is another lovely choice, located at the foot of the Citadel in a former convent. Rooms start at 100 euros and go up to 300 euros. The interior is sumptuously decorated, looking almost like a museum in a former palace (you’d never expect this was a convent). You can also enjoy drinks on the scenic outdoor terrace. That said, there is no air conditioning and the road to the hotel is winding and narrow.

Map of Things to Do in Besançon

What to Pack for Trip to France

There are a couple essentials you’ll need for a trip to France, if you’re coming from outside the EU. These links go to Amazon if you’re planning to shop there anyways, but I also want to encourage you to buy from small, local shops, if you can.

  • Universal adapter—I used this one during my one-year stay in France, and when I traveled to the UK. Keep in mind that this doesn’t have USB C charging ports, so you’ll need a USB to USB C cable or adapter if that’s what your phone needs.
  • European SIM card—You can buy SIM cards once in France (I recommend Lycamobile, which is cheap and can be found in many “tabac” or corner shops). But, if you want cell service upon arrival, you’ll need to buy something at home, or at the airport. This SIM card has good reviews, but feel free to shop around as well.

 

I hope you found this guide helpful! If you’ve ever been to Besançon, let me know what your favorite spots are. If you haven’t been, but know of another “hidden gem” city in France, feel free to share too 🙂

Also, while I consider Besançon a “hidden gem” city, I hope you’ll try to find a balance between hidden gems and the more touristy destinations when things are safe. While it may seem counterintuitive to go to a popular place, those cities depend on tourism and are some of the hardest hit by the pandemic. Similarly, lesser-known places may not have to infrastructure to support an influx of tourists. My friend Nina has a thought-provoking post on the problem with hidden gem travel if you want to learn more about traveling responsibly.

I’m in a funny position as a blogger, because writing about a “hidden gem” destination will obviously make it more popular. The alternative would be writing about the already-popular destinations, but I also don’t want to contribute to overtourism. At the end of the day, I think it’s great to visit wherever and write about whatever your heart desires, as long as you’re mindful about it.

Other posts you may like:

Local’s Guide to Dijon, France
Bordeaux, France Itinerary
Stunning Hikes in Grenoble, France

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2 Comments

  • Emma October 2, 2020 at 11:00 am

    Hi Lily, I found your blog while researching about the differences between college in France VS in the United States for an academic project (I am an international student from France in Savannah, GA) I actually am from Besancon and was very surprised to find this article, what a small world! I am glad you enjoyed the city 🙂
    I will definitely stay tuned to hear more about your future adventures!

    • Lily October 2, 2020 at 12:20 pm

      Hi Emma! Thanks so much for leaving a nice comment 🙂 That’s so cool that you’re from Besançon! I absolutely adore the city and would love to spend more time there. I hope you’re enjoying your studies in Georgia, and thanks for reading my blog <3

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    About Me

    I'm Lily, and I run races and go places (& blog about it). I also try to advocate for the planet & its people.
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