The small town of Chambéry is not one that attracts as many visitors as some of its neighbors in the French Alps. While most tourists make their way to nearby Annecy, Chambéry which is only 30 miles (50km) away, is more likely to be considered a hidden gem.
Located in the Savoie department of France, Chambéry is famous for being the former capital of the Duchy of Savoy. The city is less than an hour away from Geneva and the Swiss and Italian borders.
With the Alps mountains all around and Lac du Bourget (lake) nearby, it is a favorite among nature lovers. There are plenty of hiking trails nearby in the summer and ski resorts in the winter. In addition, with a university nearby, it is a lively city with lots going on and plenty to do for any type of traveler.
It’s well-known for its historic old town and its medieval castle. The city is home to several classical buildings, monuments, and museums. So let’s see what is there to see in Chambéry, shall we? Allons-y!
History of Chambéry
In the Middle Ages, Chambéry became an important center of political power. The Dukes of Savoy, who controlled the region, established their court in Chambéry and made it their capital. Savoy was a designation created by the Holy Roman Empire, and the House of Savoie still exists today.
The Duchy became an independent part of the Holy Roman Empire and the city retains that rich Savoyard culture today. The town’s strategic location at the crossroads of important trade routes helped to make it a prosperous and influential center of power.
The area remained in disputed for centuries, with the Kingdom of France threatening it on several occasions. (This is the reason nearby Grenoble was so heavily fortified, due to its proximity to the Duchy of Savoy).
The duchy covered much of this area of the Alps until Napoleon Bonaparte decided to annex Savoie in 1792 on his way to conquer Italy. After several wars and back and forth, the Duke of Savoie Victor-Emmanuel II conceded Savoie to the French in 1860 in exchange for another prize: becoming King of Italy.
Things to do in Chambéry
1. Château du ducs du Savoie
The city is dominated by the imposing Château du ducs du Savoie that sits high above the Old town. The House of Savoie was a royal dynasty and independent country dating back to 1003AD.
This magnificent fortified castle was built as a sign of their power and wealth, in the capital of their duchy.
Today, the Château du ducs du Savoie is still a working castle, housing a small museum as well as the city’s police prefecture. The museum in the castle contains artifacts from the city’s history as well as a collection of coins that are reputed to be among the oldest legal tender in the world.
2. Fontaine des éléphants
A few hundred meters from Chambéry castle is a large monument known as the Elephant fountain. It is not dedicated to a royal or a nobleman, but an adventurer who made his fortune in India and paid for the monument to be erected in Chambéry in his honor.
Benoit de Boigne was the son of local shopkeepers, who went to India where he found himself training and fighting in the service of the Maharashtrian King who ruled over the Maratha Empire in the late 18th century.
Given the title Jaghirdar in India, he later received the title of Count by the King of Sardinia and thus was called General Count de Boigne. When he returned to France, he was given the French Legion of Honor, and he spent the last few years of his life donating significant sums of money to the city of Chambéry.
At his death, Benoît de Boigne donated a fortune of around 500keur (in 19th century currency) to Chambéry. Paying for everything from hospital beds, homes for the poor, church restorations, local colleges, and old age homes, he established several permanent trust funds for the city’s future.
The elephant fountain was constructed in his honor in the 1830s, a few years after his death. With a statue of him at the top, the fountain presents is in the form of the cross of Savoy. Four elephants made of cast iron face outward blowing water through their trunks, to represent his time in India.
3. Musée des Beaux-Arts
Located directly across from the impressive Palais de Justice of Chambery is the Musée des Beaux-Arts (Fine arts museum).
Given its Italian and Savoyard influences, the collections feature classical Italian paintings from the 14th to 18th centuries.
Given the influence of the renaissance, many of the paintings are about religious events. Flemmish and Northern European influences are also evident among the paintings.
Entry to the museum is around €6/adult during the busy season when temporary exhibitions are on, and €3/adult during the off-period.
5. Rue Basse du Château
Rue Basse du Château, meaning “Lower Road of the castle”, is the oldest road in Chambéry. The street dates back to the 14th century and is a few meters away from the front of the Château du ducs du Savoie.
This narrow street is the heart of the historic Old town of Chambéry. Today there is a hotel lining the street, along with several other shops and businesses. If you are looking for that perfect instagram photo of Chambéry, this is where it is at.
4. Cathédrale Saint-François-de-Sales
The Roman Catholic Chambéry Cathedral was actually built in the 16th century as a Franciscan chapel.
Interestingly, the site it was built on was swampland, and 30,000 poles were needed to support the structure. Like other impressive cathedrals in France, it became the main cathedral of the city in 1779.
6. Place Saint-Léger
One of the historic arteries of the Chambéry, Place Saint-Léger used to have a river running through it.
Since much of this area was previously too marshy for construction, the canal was filled in and the river Albanne redirected.
Today it is line with shops and restaurants, and a wonderful place to spend a few hours watching the locals and window-shopping.
7. Museum of Charmettes – House of Jean-Jacques Rousseau
One of France’s greatest philosophers, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, is honored with a museum in the house he lived in for a few years.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau was actually born in Geneva, Switzerland, but would go on to become one of the most famous writers to influence the French Revolution. He lived in Chambéry with his mistress, who was 13 years his senior.
Several of his works included Les Charmettes, which was held to be responsible for his love of nature and the simple country life.
He died in 1778, 11 years before the French Revolution, but his words and beliefs about education, religion, and social contract theory would greatly influenced the revolutionaries of his time. He was considered a national hero in the Panthéon in Paris.
With much of the property preserved, Les Charmettes is a beautiful country home along with a large garden featuring many medicinal plant species. Entry to the museum is free.
8. Try the cheese and wine
Pair them with some classic French wines from Savoy, as well as its famous sausages at one of the many savoyard restaurants around town to get the full Chambéry experience. You can read more about Alpine foods and drinks here.
How to get to Chambéry?
Chambéry is easily accessible by high-speed TGV train which takes around 3 hours from Paris or 1.5 hours from Lyon. If you prefer to drive, it is around 355 miles (570 km) from Paris. There is also a small airport in Chambéry, with flights from across Europe.
How many days should you spend?
I recommend spending at least one night in Chambéry, as the town has an active restaurant and night scene due to the university in town. It is also close enough to Aix-les-Bains and Annecy for a day trip.
Where should you stay?
I would recommend staying in the center so that you can walk to all the sights of the city.
If you enjoyed that article, you may like to read more about traveling around the region of Auvergne-Rhône-Alps. A bientôt!