What to See In and Around Dijon, France, If You Only Have a Few Days
You may not rank spices by their importance, but they do in Dijon. Local guides will tell you that while salt and pepper take the gold and silver medals, mustard is proudly in the position for bronze. That’s not only for the seed's well-loved flavor, but also for the its medicinal properties, which can do everything from opening the airwaves to elevating the mood.
You could describe Dijon's effect on visitors in the same way. The skies here are often bright blue—and the city is a good mood travel experience if there ever was one.
Just an hour and a half east of Paris via high-speed train, Dijon hosts a hit parade of classic French architectural styles, its museums hold priceless wonders, and (since you’re in the heart of Burgundy's vineyards) in the old part of town, you’re never more than a block from a store that stocks local wines.
The city’s geographic position also makes it a wonderful jumping-off point for other delights including (yes) wine tastings, and Dijon mustard tastings in the place that invented the famous condiment.
We've got a perfect itinerary for a perfect few days of exploring and eating in and around Dijon.
Pictured above: a sculpture of a man harvesting mustard at the Hôtel Chambellan, a Gothic mansion at 34 rue des Forges (free to enter)
Start in mid-morning. Head first to the Tourist Office (opens Mon–Sat at 9:30am and Sun at 10am), an easy 10-min. walk from the Dijon train station, to purchase its surprisingly engaging self-guided audio walking tour (€10; it will supply you with headphones and a listening device).
The office won't be hard to find: It's inside the former Palace of the Dukes of Burgundy (pictured above), now the city hall, the monumental structure at the heart of the city.
Why such a grand palace in a secondary city? The Dukes of Burgundy were a big deal. Hundreds of years ago, they made Dijon the headquarters of their empire, and their holdings were vast, especially in the 15th century when their duchy stretched all the way through the Lowlands in today's Belgium and the Netherlands. Though that line of dukes fizzled out—Charles the Bold apparently wasn't Charles the Virile; he had the misfortune of producing only one child, and a daughter at that—when the French Kings took over Dijon, they made it a capital for what was then considered their frontier territories. The blood princes known as the Condés got control, building much of the castle you'll see today and engaging the architect (Jules Hardouin-Mansart) who made his name designing the palace of Versailles.
Dijon didn't become a backwater until after the French Revolution, when centuries of royal patronage became a liability. But unlike in other places in France, mob damage (to churches, palaces, and manor houses) during the uprising was relatively light here. The city also largely escaped harm during the Napoleonic Wars and World War II, so today, it's one of the best places in Europe to see authentic medieval and Renaissance-era architecture.
One of the first stops on the audio tour is Notre-Dame de Dijon, or more specifically, a rather amorphous bump on the 13th-century church's side (on Rue de la Chouette)—head here early in the day to avoid crowds. The bump was once a gargoyle of an owl, but because of the claim that rubbing it with the left hand grants wishes, it has been manhandled into blob-ishness over the centuries. (Rumor has it the owl is far more effective than birthday candles.)
Don't neglect the gargoyles on the front of the church, either. Sadly, those are not from the 13th century—but the reason why they're younger is pretty wild. According to local lore, several centuries ago a money lender came to the church to wed, but before he could take his vows, he was struck and killed by a gargoyle that fell off the facade of the building. The gargoyle, in turned out, depicted an avaricious money-lender. In retaliation, the deceased usurer's colleagues destroyed most of the other gargoyles, and the church had little ornamentation left until town leaders commissioned new gargoyles in the 19th century.
Diagonally across from the owl bump, you'll see the Maison Milliere, named for its original owner Guillaume Milliere, the merchant who built it in 1483. It's a classic half-timber building (an architectural style that is so named because its support timbers are visible and create a pattern with surrounding plaster, bricks, or stone). As with many buildings of that era, the first floor held a shop, with living space for a family upstairs.
This one became famous when it was chosen as one of the primary locations for Gerard Depardieu's film version of Cyrano de Bergerac (1990), but it's just one of many such well-preserved medieval structures you'll see around Dijon.
While you're wandering around town, be sure to look up so you can catch a glimpse of the city's most distinctive hallmark: its polychromic roof tiles.
Set atop buildings from the 17th century and earlier, these glazed terracotta tiles were both sturdy and a mark of prestige for the building owner. Usually green, gold, or red, these rectangular tiles were set in diamond shapes, often in counterpoint to gold chevrons (series of inverted Vs) on black backgrounds. Pictured here is the Hôtel de Vogüé, a 1610 manor house with a handsome courtyard that's open to the public (at 5 rue Lamonnoye).
At this point, you could tour the Musée des Beaux Arts, but since it's worthy of several hours of exploration, I'd suggest ducking instead into Musée Rude, a bite-sized museum (at 8 rue Vaillant) and leaving the bigger one for after lunch, when you'll have more time.
Dedicated to artist and local son François Rude, this decommissioned church is filled with plaster casts of his most famous works, many of them massive. The one pictured above was created for Paris' Arc de Triomphe and called Departure of the Volunteers 1792, also known as The Marseillaise. The model for the war goddess in the center was Rude's wife (which I find a tad bit scary). Like all of Dijon's city-owned museums, the Rude is free to enter.
Dijon's innovations in getting drinkable water to the city, its historic churches (like St. Michel, pictured above), and its manor houses will fill the rest of your morning's walk.
You'll also be in an area of antique shops and boutiques, so some retail therapy may be in order. And if you want a mustard tasting, do it at Maille (32 Rue de la Liberté) which isn't a stop on the audio guide's walk, but will be along your path. It was founded in 1845 and still has pumps you can use to fill earthenware jars with the condiment. It's a somewhat touristy exercise, but kids enjoy it.
Dijon has many good options for lunch, so stop at whatever looks good. Make sure to order one of the regional specialties, which are delicious and usually prepared with care—and a lot of local wine. These include oeufs en meurette (pictured), a dish consisting of shirred (baked) eggs, served in red wine sauce; the red wine-based beef stew known as boeuf Bourguignon; or coq au vin (chicken cooked in wine).
Gingerbread is another local treat, as are snails cooked in bouillon and served in their shells with a garlic and butter sauce. But those aren't as good as they used to be for a very sad reason: France no longer produces its own snails. It has long imported them from the Ukraine, but the terrible war there disrupted that supply chain.
We can thank Burgundy's dukes for Dijon's superb Musée des Beaux Arts. Not only is it housed in a section of their former palace, but it it also displays the collection they put together to encourage arts education in their duchy.
The museum opened in 1799, making it one of the first such public institutions to open in France—or the world, for that matter. In 2021, it completed a decade-long renovation, but even before that revamp, this museum was a treasure, and among the very most important art institutes in France. It holds important works by Titian, Veronese, Breughel (the Elder), Monet, Manet, Braque and other big names of European art. Don't neglect the ornate tombs of Philip the Brave, John the Fearless, and Margaret of Bavaria (pictured above).
Since this is a city-run museum, admission is complimentary. Most of the works are described by wall text in both French and English, though sometimes the translations can be giggle-inducing (for some reason, many of the portraits are listed as being a "so-called portrait").
Your final stop of the day is a different type of museum—one that might also serve as a bridge to dinner.
The shiny Cité Internationale de la Gastronomie et du Vin (International City of Gastronomy and Wine) opened in May 2022 with the ambitious mandate of examining and explaining French cuisine in its entirety—its history, the science and art behind food and wine, its quirks, and its top practitioners. The 15-acre, €247 million ultra-interactive attraction includes an exhibition space dedicated to pastry, with videos and statues to help visitors understand the science behind the baking process (including a massive cake you can walk into); a photography exhibition that looks at what foods French leaders served during particularly fraught political meals; a decommissioned church that's now a temple of wine with exhibits, videos, and texts about Burgundy's famous vintages; a shiny new cooking school; and a wine cellar that has machines to dispense tastings of 250 different wines (out of the 3,000 you can buy here).
But those spaces are just the beginning, because about half the site is comprised of what's locally called a "gastronomic village" of specialty shops selling food products from across the nation—artisanal cheeses, cured meats and fish, olives and olive oils, chocolates, mustards (see above), cookbooks, and more. The vendors often give out free samples and host tastings, so you could graze your way through dinner here. Or make your stroll among the shops into your appetizer course and finish up your meal at one of the half-dozen restaurants that also occupy spaces here or are set nearby.
Pictured above: Two workers prepare samples at a mustard store in the gastronomic village of the Cité Internationale de la Gastronomie et du Vin
If you're lucky enough to spend a Sunday in Dijon between June and September, make a reservation for the special brunch at Les Halles, the city's splendid Belle Epoque-era covered market.
Every Sunday, one of the town's top chefs use the market's products to create a themed, hour-long meal that's served under that grand canopy, starting at 10am. It sounds as if it might be touristy, I know, but the feast is popular with locals as well as visitors. Leave time before or after the meal to explore this historic and handsome space.
Next you're going to the hospital. Not because the brunch gave you food poisoning, but because the Hôtel Dieu des Hospices Civils de Beaune is one of France's most fascinating historic sites—and proof positive that what's called today "socialized medicine" is far from a recent concept.
This elegant hospital was founded in 1443 by Nicolas Rolin, chancellor to the Duke of Burgundy, and his wife Guigone, with the express purpose of caring for indigent patients. They partnered with the church (nuns were the nurses) to create this institution. Learning about how the Hôtel Dieu was founded and built, the odd treatments that were administered in the Middle Ages, and about the dedication of the sisters who toiled here is not only a potent history lesson, but it's also a moving experience.
Pictured above is one of the infirmaries, set up how it would have looked the year it opened. Surprisingly, patients were treated in this building until the 1980s. The current version of the hospital, which is a financially sound institution because of the vineyards it owns (which were given to it by the King of France and grateful former patients), is now on the outskirts of Beaune.
The hospital is home to some important artworks, foremost among them this triptych by Flemish master Jan Van Eyck. You should expect to spend 2–3 hours touring the Hôtel-Dieu.
When you're ready to move on, you have a number of sights you can take in. Foremost among them is its Romanesque Notre-Dame, which holds important 15th-century tapestries of the life of Mary.
If you're all arted out, visit some of the town's cellars to taste of Burgundy's best. Beaune is also near the famous Côte de Beaune, which grows the world's most coveted and pricey Chardonnays (see the fascinating documentary Sour Grapes about wine fraud to learn more about the cost of these vintages) so you'll find some good white wines here.
I suggest you start at the Marché aux Vins, which is set in the 12th-century Church of Cordeliers. It is a bit touristy, but it has a staff that's fluent in English. Other top cellars in town that host tastings and might be appropriate for intermediate oenophiles include Le Cellier de la Cabiote, or Oenothèque Joseph Drouhin. If you require English-language explanations, book in advance (those are only offered at certain hours).
Mustard tastings are also a big thing here, so if you haven't done one in Dijon, head to La Moutarderie Edmond Fallot, which bills itself as the last family-owned mustard mill in Burgundy. In business since 1840, it now offers factory tours with tastings, including of the brand's limited editions.
Or you can just make like a flâneur and simply wander the streets and 12th to 14th century ramparts of this charming town. There's more than enough to explore for a few hours.
When you're ready, hop the train back to Dijon, or wherever you're going next.
This two-day itinerary should give you a good taste (yes) of Dijon. If you can add an additional day onto your visit, I highly recommend adding on a tour of the city's neighboring vineyards. In fact, I think that activity is so iconic, I devoted a complete gallery to the topic of how best to do that; click here to read it.
And there are many, many other reasons to stay longer or return, from the major food fair the city hosts every November, to Dijon's other fine (and free) museums, historic sites, and architectural marvels.