Besancon, Doubs: tourism & sightseeing

Photo of Besancon (Franche-Comte region)

Visit Besancon (Franche-Comte, France)

Besançon is found in the Doubs department, in the Franche-Comté region of eastern France. Wrapped in a loop of the River Doubs, Besançon is set in attractive forested countryside and low lying mountains.

The main appeal of Besancon lies in lots of little features - a Roman arch here, a fountain there, a handful of churches here and a brace of fortified towers there etc. rather than in any particular monument. These together makes Besançon quite an interesting and rewarding town to explore and are also the reason that Besançon has been classified as both a protected Historic French town and as a French Town of Art and History.

Besancon also maintains a good standard of living, is a University Centre of great renown, has excellent transport links, and is a modern and vibrant centre of international relations and cultural encounters (such as the 'Festival of classical music' and the annual 'Festival du Jazz').

Exploring Besancon

Start your visit to Besancon at the 'Battant' bridge, a mighty work of the Romans with five arches - the middle arch reaches thirteen meters. The bridge was built along the road that connected Italy with the Province of the Rhine and with Vesontio.

Besancon from the old bridge

Besancon Musée de Beaux Art

Take the Grand Rue to the Place de la Revolution where you can visit the Besancon Musée de Beaux Arts, which has a distinctive collection of paintings from the 15th to the 20th centuries, with some extraordinary works.

These include the Intoxication of Noah by Giovanni Bellini (1430-1516); the Nymph to the Source by L. Cranach the Elder (1472-1553); The Lament on Christ by Agnolo Bronzino (1502-1572), the Cannibals by Francisco Goya (1746-1828), and Le Café by Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947) and the Head and Foot of a child by Rubens (1577-1640).

More recent works include 'Sleeping Woman' by Henri Matisse (1869-1954) and the Eternal Spring by August Rodin (1840-1917).

Palaces, Besancon Cathedral and architecture

Besançon has many palaces, built around the sixteenth century. Among them stands out the Granvelle Palace (first half of 16th century) with a Renaissance façade; the entrance is a massive arch between two pillars, adorned with many decorations (angels, flowers and dolphins) and an elegant arcade inside the courtyard.

Another structure of great importance is the Cathedral of Besançon, above all for the interior that is a work of great architectural and artistic value. Dedicated to St. John the Evangelist, the cathedral has a nave and two impressive aisles (26 meters in height). Dating from the beginning of the thirteenth century but it was rebuilt after a fire in 1237. Especially finely painted is the apse of the Saint Suaire with some paintings by Charles Vanloo, Charles Notoire and the 'Death of Sapphira and Ananias' by Tintoretto.

Inside Besancon cathedral

Next to the cathedral is the famous “Astronomique Horloge” (1860), indicating not only the hours but also the seasons, tides and movements of the planets (you can also visit the nearby “Museum of Time”). With a myriad of dials (57 apparently) and 30 000 parts it is one of the 'great clocks of the world' and is also a listed National Monument in France.

Among the other architectural curiosities there is also the famous Citadel fortified by Vauban, an imposing structure with three surrounding walls and some wells that reach a depth of one hundred meters deep with a width of about four meters.

For the best views across Besancon make the (steep) climb up to the Citadelle (see information box below).

After the Citadel, another exceptional artefact is the Porte Noire, a triumphal arch once called the Gate of Mars and then later the 'Porta Nigra' (Black Gate). The arch has a height ranging from 12 to 36 meters and was built as a monument commemorating the battles fought in Gaul by the Romans and their allies, the Sequani - some scenes of the battles can be seen in the reliefs on the arch.

Besancon also has an impressive collection of museums - ranging from the Museum of Natural History to the Museum of the Resistance and Deportation, with several others in between to cater for all tastes.

Besancon Citadel

The Citadel of Besançon, a UNESCO World Heritage site and Historic Monument of France, is one of the top tourist destinations in the Franche-Comté region, with more than a quarter million visitors annually. The Citadel, among the largest and finest military fortifications in Europe, was designed and built by Sébastien de Vauban between 1668 and 1711. The fortress crowns Mount Saint-Étienne, 350 feet above the old city at the buckle of the river Doubs, and has magnificent vistas of Besançon and environs.

Beyond touring the fortifications and walking its ramparts, several attractions stand within its walls. These include:

- the Natural History Museum and zoo (with popular Siberian tigers), an insectarium (the largest of its kind in France), an aquarium with native fish species, vivariums, a noctarium, a climatorium, and botanical and children's gardens ;

- the Musée Comtois, on three floors, which holds numerous fascinating cultural exhibits about the the daily lives of the region's people from the 18th to early 20th centuries - including a puppet theatre;

- Space Vauban - a permanent exhibit about the history of the architect and the fortifications ;

- The Museum of Resistance and Deportation with 20 rooms of exhibits, photographs, documents, and art displays related to the French Resistance and the thousands of citizens deported to concentration camps in World War II. (This museum is joined to a Resource and Education Center that holds a public library and historical archive, available by appointment).

The Citadel also holds shops, bookstores, and cafés. Note: Three other fortifications overlook Besançon on nearby hills, including Fort Griffon designed by Jean Griffoni in 1595 and expanded by Vauban, which was certified by UNESCO with the Citadel, and is worth a visit. More information (in English) is available at :

The Museum of Comtois Houses (Musée des maisons comtois) is fascinating outdoor museum of regional architecture with a dozen historical homes and additional out buildings, set in a beautiful rural setting. The site includes a boutique, café, and charming restaurant open May through August. The museum is located in Nancray, only 20 minutes (16 km) northeast of Besançon by car (take N57 to D464). It makes a wonderful afternoon visit on a sunny day. Basic information and directions in English are available at:

comment added by F.Charvet

Attractions near Besancon

The region around Besançon offers interesting natural excursions on the Doubs river, to the source of the Loue river, or in the forest 'de la Joux'. Nearby the chateau at Moncley, north-west of the town, merits a detour.

Local cuisine

In these landscapes around Besancon find time to pause and enjoy the local dishes, especially the cheeses, such as the 'Comté', a cheese typical of the Jura and the 'Concoillette' (a kind of cream cheese to eat with bread, potatoes and vegetables). Try also the popular tartiflette and the 'Mont d'Or chaud', and, among the desserts, you can taste the typical Galette of Besançon.

See related article: the history of Besancon

You can find more local travel ideas in the Doubs guide and the Franche-Comte guide.

See also:

Map of Besancon and places nearby

Visit near Besancon with France This Way reviews

... or see ALL recommended places to visit in Doubs

Tourist classifications

Besancon has received the following tourist classifications: ; historical protected town centre' (secteur sauvegardé); listed town of Art and History ;

Address: Besançon, Franche-Comte, 25000, France || GPS: latitude 47.25, longitude 6.02

Plan your visit to Besancon, Doubs

Sightseeing & tourist attractions to visit nearby

Market days in Besancon, France

Regular market(s) are held in Besancon each Wednesday & Tuesday & Thursday all day & Sunday & Saturday & Friday. (Markets are held in the morning unless stated.)

The French version of this page is at Besancon (Francais)