French City Break: Reims

French City Break: Reims

The capital of bubbly is also a treasure trove of UNESCO monuments, history, Art Deco architecture, cuisine and outstanding places to stay. In short, the perfect destination for a weekend outside Paris.

For most of us, our introduction to the city of Reims comes with a pop and a sparkling cascade of bubbles. Home of the world’s most famous makers of the world’s most celebratory wine, “à Reims France” graces the labels of every bottle of Veuve Clicquot, Taittinger, Ruinart, Mumm, Pommery and dozens more.
Just 80 miles northeast of Paris, and a 40-minute train ride from Paris’ Gare de l’Est station, Reims is an easy, richly rewarding side trip from the French capital and the perfect destination for anyone interested in champagne. Home to world-famous champagne houses, you could easily spend a week here, touring, tasting and discovering the history and the making of this endlessly intriguing wine.

But the discovery of Reims only begins with the bubbles. The most populous city in the Champagne region and the 12th largest city in France, Reims is deeply entwined with French history. One of the largest cities of the Roman Empire, its biggest claim to fame began in the 4th century, fittingly with a celebration: the baptism of Clovis I, France’s first Christian king. Clovis spent most of his youth battling barbarians, but in 493 he married the Christian princess Clothilde, who persuaded him to convert. Entry into the faith, conferred by Saint-Remigius (aka Saint-Remi), Bishop of Reims, on Christmas Day 498, had serious repercussions for the history of France, starting with a fragile unification and ending with the spread of Christianity throughout Gaul and beyond. Clovis’ status as the West’s first Catholic sovereign (alongside a heaven-sent dove’s delivery of the sacred oil used to anoint Clovis and every French king thereafter) helped cinch Reims’ title as the coronation city and cemented the divine right to rule. Thirty-three kings held their coronations at the 13th-century Notre-Dame de Reims, a Gothic masterpiece built on the site of Clovis’ baptism, including Charles VII, who was crowned there in 1429 by Joan of Arc.

Relax on a terrace in Reims by the cathedral © Cyrille Beudot – Office de Tourisme du Grand Reims

Historic roots

Carved high on the cathedral’s central portal sits Clovis, bare-chested in a baptismal, receiving unction from Saint-Remi, his missing arms a sad vestige of the 1,000 days of German shelling endured by Reims during the First World War. The shelling exploded the cathedral’s stained glass windows, severed the head of its municipal symbol, the famous smiling angel, and ignited a blaze so hot that molten lead poured from the mouths of its gargoyles.

By the end of the conflict, 80% of the cathedral and the city had been destroyed, with only 1,800 of Reims’ previous 120,000 inhabitants remaining. Many of those who didn’t flee the city survived thanks to a particularity of Reims. As the Germans approached, residents took refuge in Reims’ crayères, deep underground caverns hewn from the porous chalk substrata that served in the 10th century as quarries for building the city. This vast, intersecting system had been appropriated in the 18th century by Reims’ burgeoning champagne houses, providing the perfect darkness, coolness and humidity to store millions of champagne bottles. The towering caverns also offered excellent shelter from the Germans’ incessant shelling, as it persisted month after month and year after year. “The caves became underground cities, with markets, schools, hospitals and even a post office,” said Vincent Firullo, my guide to the cellars of Veuve Clicquot. Besides thousands of souls, he said, “the champagne houses hid 50m bottles of champagne from the Germans behind false walls”.

At Veuve Clicquot and dozens of Reims’ houses, the crayères still serve as storage, and several of the major houses offer underground tours. At Veuve Clicquot, visitors get a fascinating history of the house and a full sensory experience, as they descend into the darkened silence, feel the cool humidity, smell an aromatic display of the three major grape varieties used in champagne, and taste a special cuvée aged for six years.

The crayères, along with Champagne’s hillsides and champagne houses, were recognised by UNESCO in 2015, which cited Reims” “functional town planning, prestigious architecture and underground heritage”. Reims is home to two more UNESCO-designated sites. Next to the cathedral, the former archbishop’s residence the Palais du Tau (closed for renovation until 2025) once housed the French princes and the dove-delivered oil-pre-coronation, and now exhibits an opulent collection of religious objects, important medieval statuary and tapestries.

© Cyrille Beudot Office de Tourisme du Grand Reims

A 20-minute walk from the cathedral, the beautiful 11th- century Romanesque-Gothic Basilique Saint-Remi houses the saint’s tomb at the centre of the choir. The basilica’s long, dusky interior feels supremely serene and elegant, its only ornamentation being the soaring vaulting, magnificent chandeliers and the remaining 12th-century stained glass windows high above the Gothic choir. Next door, the superb Abbaye Royale museum tells the story of the town from prehistory to the First World War.

Reims is perfect for discovering on foot, but you can also hop on the tramway, which bisects the city from north to south, making stops along the way. Pick up a map of the major sites at Reims Tourism opposite the cathedral, and perhaps schedule a walking tour. Architecture buffs can discover the Art Deco city, which includes the superb Carnegie Library and the Halles du Boulingrin market. Around the Place d’Erlon, the Subé Fountain, topped with a golden Winged Victory, overlooks a pedestrian street with colonnaded galleries, remakes of the colonnades of the medieval artisans’ quarter.

To sample Reims’ specialities, head to Maison Fossier for its famous pink biscuits; Plus de Bulles, near the TGV station, and Trésors de Champagne, a few steps from Les Halles du Boulingrin, to taste and buy champagne; and Boucherie du Forum for the famously delicious, melt-in-your-mouth Reims han. Of course, it’s more fun to try these specialities at one of Reims’ classic brasseries: Boulingrin, across from the market, boasts a classic brasserie interior, and Café du Palais is a lively fifth-generation brasserie.

A royal stay

Reims’ grande-dame hotels are destinations unto themselves and tell the story of the city through their architecture and grounds. The Résidence Eisenhower, a graceful Beaux-Arts-style mansion an easy walk from the cathedral, hosted General Dwight D. Eisenhower for six months in 1945 when Allied forces recaptured Reims. Its eight rooms were meticulously restored and furnished with contemporary pieces that blend perfectly with the elegant period setting. Guests can share a bottle of champagne in the charming library or elegant bar.

On the outskirts of the city across from the Vranken- Pommery champagne house and Veuve Clicquot’s visitors’ centre, Domaine Les Crayères is known worldwide. Set on 17 acres of rolling parkland you hardly know you’re in the city, especially while watching the sunset from your private balcony. Rooms are furnished in a sumptuous classical style, with tall ceilings, soaring windows and opulent marble bathrooms. The château’s dusky bar and two restaurants-one set apart in the garden, the other a Michelin two-star extravaganza – are worth the trip alone.

If you’re looking for something more contemporary in style, consider the Royal Champagne Hotel & Spa, which is ten minutes from Reims by train and 20 minutes by Uber. West- facing rooms offer sweeping views over rolling vineyards and the town of Épernay in the distance. Your private balcony or the hotel’s sprawling terraces are quintessentially romantic for catching a sunset over a glass of champagne (offered on ice in your room), before dinner at the gourmet brasserie or the Michelin-starred dining room.


Reims essentials


About a 40-minute direct TGV train ride from Paris’ Gare de l’Est or Charles de Gaulle airport, or a two-hour drive (95 miles) from Paris.


  • Champagne is a place for celebration, so consider Reims when looking for the perfect spot for a milestone or celebratory event, such as a special birthday or a wedding. You’d be hard pressed to find more beautiful lodgings, dining, grounds and spa experiences anywhere in France than at the Royal Champagne Hotel & Spa or Domaine les Crayères. The Résidence Eisenhower prides itself on showcasing French art de vivre and you’ll feel like you’ve been given the keys to your own private, luxurious mansion.
  • For something smack in the centre of town, Hôtel Caserne Chanzy offers contemporary comforts and stunning views of the cathedral (which is beautifully lit up at night), while the hotel’s new restaurant, La Grande Georgette, is a great place for breakfast, lunch or dinner.


From France Today Magazine

Lead photo credit : © Shutterstock

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American journalist Jennifer Ladonne, a Paris resident since 2004, writes regular features on French heritage, culture, travel, food & wine for France Today magazine, and is the restaurants and hotels reviewer for Fodor's Paris, France and Provence travel guides. Her articles have appeared in CNN Travel, AFAR, The Huffington Post, MSN and Business Insider.

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