When first walking into Troyes, you’re likely to see a puff of clouds shaping into ‘Once upon a time…’ above the storybook town. One look at the alluring, old capital of the Champagne region and you’ll wonder why you’ve never heard such a place existed. Come for a day, stay for a week, and let yourself be thrown back in time as you navigate one of France’s most charming medieval towns.
It’s a dream destination for any fan of history, art, and architecture with multi-coloured half-timbered houses and art-filled Gothic churches filling its compact center.
What was once the brilliant capital of the counts of Champagne is still flaunting its golden age of prosperity, mansions turning into elegant hotels and ornately carved wooden beams spotted throughout town.
Getting lost in the maze of narrow streets and hidden passages is akin to waking up in a dream where the Three Musketeers could come out at any moment, swords clashing.
Some streets have kept their names since the Middle Ages, this one meaning “Street of the Nuts Market”.
Dock into courtyards to see some of the city’s most beautiful buildings, such as the one hosting the Museum of tools and craft.
Nearby, the Hôtel de Vauluisant is another striking sight and holds a collection of treasures from the Renaissance era.
Make sure you look for the narrow Ruelle des Chats, Troyes’s most famous street so named because a cat could jump across it from one roof to another.
It’s the definition of ‘cute’ and will have you stretch your neck at awkward angles to get a few good shots.
Sometimes the most photo-worthy shots are at eye-level though, so pay attention to the numerous wooden beams and window shutters as they hide some pretty special work of art themselves.
Undoubtedly touristy, you’ll find a few charming restaurants along the tiny street, from the Haute French cuisine to the casual bistro.
Guinea fowl with foie gras sauce and mashed potatoes
Fromage blanc (fresh cheese) with red fruit coulis
A dangling Pinocchio must have been the most modern thing around.
There usually isn’t a lot of greenery in such a compact medieval center, but the few you’ll see will be that much more stunning.
For a bit of breathing space, head to the splendid Church of the Madeleine and enter the gardens through a gate to the right of the main door.
The Garden of the Innocents owes its name to the cemetery for abandoned children that stood here in the 18th century. It’s a serene spot in the middle of the city worth a little tour.
Inside the church, the city’s oldest, you’ll want to stop and admire the flamboyant Gothic style. Its renowned jubé (a screen separating the altar from the body of the church) is a marvel of delicate stone lacework.
Back outside, the colorful and commercial Rue Général de Gaulle lets you imagine the shops and trading practices from way back…
…with a few modern shopkeepers using adorable renditions of old signs.
Despite its diminutive size, the center hides a good amount of quaint plazas bordered by quiet cafes and shops.
The short Rue Champeaux packs a punch in terms of architecture and you’ll likely walk with your gaze up to capture all the exquisite angles.
The street ends in the lively Place Alexandre Israël, filled to the brim day and night, an ideal stop to fill your belly and take in the gorgeous scenery.
An excellent wine bar on the south side, Tout Simplement has a great menu of salads and light fare but it’s the tartare you’ll want of which they have numerous renditions. I tried mine lightly fried for the first time and absolutely loved it!
Keep on going north pass the Town Hall…
…and you’ll soon reach another of Troyes’ famous churches: La Basilique Saint-Urbain.
It’s the brightest church I’ve seen and the light pouring in from the many windows is nothing short of inspiring.
Make sure you walk all the way to the back to see the church’s most famous inhabitant – the Virgin of the Grapes.
This masterpiece of Renaissance sculpture dates from the 16th-century and is a lovely, smiling virgin holding her son and a bunch of grapes. Yes, remember we’re in the Champagne region…
One of Troyes’ chicest hotels is La Maison de Rhodes occupying a quaint, half-timbered building from the 12th century. The traditional exterior hides pretty well the lavish interiors which include upscale suites, a medieval garden with an outdoor pool and a sundeck.
A few minutes walk and you’ll find the city’s most famous church, the cathedral of Saint Pierre et Saint Paul.
Remarkable both for its size and its extraordinary stained-glass windows, the cathedral is a marvelous example of Gothic architecture.
Step into the courtyard to access the episcopal mansion across, and get a big surprise when you realize that…
…you’ve just found the city’s Museum of Modern Art!
There’s a small but exceptional collection of modern art from 1850 to 1960, including works by Cézanne, Degas, Gauguin, Matisse, Modigliani, Picasso, and Vuillard. Make sure to also check out the sculpture garden at the back.
There are many more museums and churches to see depending how long you’ll be there but two days give you a good amount of time to feel the medieval magic, get a good dose of culture and do some shopping in the center’s many adorable shops.
You might also wonder where’s all the bubbly and wine as it’s not as prominent as in Reims for sure. Champagne has a lower profile in Troyes and there are no cellars in the city itself but plenty of places to enjoy a glass or two. One of the best spots to sample the local production is at Aux Crieurs de Vins, a popular wine bar and bottle shop that also serves some delicious daily specials for lunch or dinner.
You’ll leave Troyes with a full camera, a few more bragging rights for having visited such a prized secret destination, and a newfound love for half-timber buildings.