In the heart of the vineyards of Burgundy, the capital, Dijon, is a haven for foodies as well as wine lovers. But beyond the culinary delights, you’ll find history galore – from the Palace of the Dukes and States of Burgundy to the gothic cathedral, built in the 14th century, which marks the centre of this striking French city.
The historical city of Dijon is perfect for those who like to meander on foot. Follow the brass owls to stumble on 18th-century palaces, gothic architecture, thriving marketstalls and delicious gingerbread. Then head into the countryside for a mouthwatering glimpse into the region’s famous wine and mustard-making prowess. Here are the top things to do on your next trip to Dijon.
Located in the eastern wing of the Palace of the Dukes and States of Burgundy, this is one of the oldest museums in France. Since opening to the public in 1799, the museum has amassed more than 130,000 works. There are masterpieces spanning ancient times, through the Middle Ages and Renaissance, to the modern day. Entry is completely free, while guided tours are available for a small fee. Open every day except Tuesday, it is also fully accessible to visitors with reduced mobility.
Dedicated to the persecuted martyr, Saint Benignus of Dijon, this cathedral is a Gothic marvel that hurtles visitors back to the 13th century, when it was built. The relatively conservative façade gives little hint of the building’s hidden flourishes inside. This includes a snazzy polychrome roof, a marble sculpted doorway – above it sits an imposing 18th-century organ – and teardrop pendant lamps hanging from the ceiling.
Follow the owl trail to the Jardin Botanique de l’Arquebuse
Dijon’s owl trails are the perfect way to navigate around the city on foot, as small brass owls (known as “chouettes” in French) are embedded into the pavements to point the way. Grab a map from the tourist office for exact locations – the serene botanic gardens is one of them. Kids will love the animal sculptures and duck pond, while adults may be interested to learn about the medicinal plants that the gardens specialise in. Here you can also find the Natural History Museum.
West of the city centre, a 10-minute drive away, or just under an hour on foot, you’ll find Kir Lake, named after the former mayor of the city who oversaw the artificial lake’s completion in 1964. A stroll around the water’s edge is a fine way to spend an easygoing couple of hours. If you’re looking to up the tempo, you can rent bikes or boats, while there are also exercise stations alongside the kids’ play areas. Alternatively, try out the nine-hole disc golf course, which is a smart and fun use of the green spaces.
The delicious gingerbread produced by this family business, founded in 1796, is famed for the methodical way in which it is made. Wheat flour and honey form the dough, which is then left to stand for a minimum of two weeks. It’s at this point that the dough is introduced to egg yolk, baking powder and the blend of spices that infuse it with the same time-honoured taste it would have had more than 200 years ago. Just as impressive are the vintage shops dotted around the city.
The echoing din that reverberates under Gustave Eiffel’s iron roof gives away the excitement that Dijon residents have for their lively food market. Make no mistake, sourcing the finest produce is serious business in Burgundy, and the best way to get involved is to turn up with a rumbling stomach. Whether it’s pungent cheese, juicy seasonal fruits, or a slab of jambon persillé (parsley ham), don’t be shy in asking the vendors for a taste.
A scenic half-hour drive south of Dijon towards the village of Vosne-Romanée is where you’ll find this prestigious Burgundy vineyard. Sign up for a tour and you’ll be greeted by welcoming sommelier Yoan, who will educate you on the process of winemaking from vine to bottle. He’ll outline the four grape varieties used here, including chardonnay and pinot noir, and – of course – offer you a taste, pouring directly from the 228-litre (50g) barrels.
It goes without saying that any visitor to Dijon should come away with new insight into the humble mustard seed. The Edmond Fallot shop, on Rue de la Chouette in central Dijon, stocks every mustard product you’ve ever thought about, and plenty that you haven’t. There’s even a mustard bar where you can fill your own jar. For the full experience, head to the workshop in Beaune, which features a museum-style tour and a free tasting.
Bikers assemble! If you’ve ever dreamt of sharing a racetrack with racing legends like Carl Fogarty, Steve Baker, and Giacomo Agostini, then make sure you – and your motorbike – are in Dijon in mid-September. More than 1,300 bikes, vintage and new, are on display alongside 300 exhibitors at the 3.8km (2.4mi) Circuit de Dijon-Prenois. Outside the annual two-day parade, the track can be privately hired throughout the year for personal driving courses.
Dijon is not a tall city, with the 46m (150ft) Philippe le Bon tower one of its few high-rises; at the heart of the Palace of the Dukes of Burgundy, it’s the best you’ll find in the city. Access is as tricky as one might expect for a 15th-century building, including more than 300 steps on a spiral staircase. The good news is, the ticket price includes a tour guide who will stop at several points to offer historical information (and a welcome breather).
Alex Locker contributed additional reporting to this article.
These recommendations were updated on May 25, 2021 to keep your travel plans fresh.