Valence: Discovering the city known as the ‘door to the south of France’

Visit Valence in the beautiful Drôme dept. in the center of France. From a charming old town to a newer center, we cover what to see, what to eat and drink, and more.
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The city of Valence in central France may not be as popular with the tourists as the Spanish one, but it is certainly one that attracts a lot of attention by French locals.

As the French expression goes: “à Valence le Midi commence” (meaning “at Valence the southern half begins“), with the nickname of “the door to the South of France”.

It is located on the edge of Provence in the Drôme department of Auvergne-Rhône-Alps. If you like forests and mountains nearby, you will enjoy Valence.

The city is famous for being an idyllic spot in between Lyon and Marseille dating back to days of the Romans.

With the Alps, Mount Ventoux, and Gorges de l’Ardèche all within a couple of hours, there is plenty of hiking, skiing, and nature sports available. In addition, by itself, it is a quaint city with lots to offer for visitors.

Artwork graffiti on the ground in Old Valence

A charming city, Valence situated at a central location on the direct high-speed train and highway line between Paris, Lyon, and Marseille. It dates back to Roman times 121 BC, when Lyon was the Roman capital and Marseille an important port city.

To control trade flows between the two Roman cities, a road was built with crossroads along the way for protection. With its growing importance, Valence gained the status of Roman colony. In fact, its name means “strength” in Latin.

Today it’s central location still plays a key role. With direct TGV train access, it is a town that is quite popular with Parisians hoping to leave Paris but still commute in occasionally. With the allure of nature nearby and a lower cost of living, as well as its pleasant temperate climate throughout the year, it has a population today of over 65,000.

Often an overlooked destination or as stop on the way to the south of France or to the ski resorts in the French Alps, Valence has plenty to do right on its doorstep. It is a city well worth a visit, especially in the springtime and fall seasons. With nearby attractions like Grotte Chauvet, Grotte Cheronche, and Pont-en-Royans, you can easily spend a few days on holiday in the town.

It is a lovely blend of historic and modern France. The old center was easy to navigate on foot and the new center had a lot to offer in terms of shopping. So let’s take a look at what to see in Valence, shall we? Allons-y!

Best things to do

1. Maison des têtes 

Maison des têtes, meaning “house of heads” is located in the heart of the old town of Valence and dates back to the 16th century. A former hotel particulier (private home), it was completed in 1532 in a gothic style faces looking out at the viewer.

Maison des têtes 

With flourishes of renaissance architecture, this remarkable building has the sculptures to symbolize the winds, Fortune , Time, and Theology, while the corridor is adorned with busts of Roman emperors.

While it may seem unusual, but there are similar buildings in nearby Viviers, as well as other French cities of Colmar, Béziers, and Metz. There was also one in Toulon which was unfortunately destroyed.

It was confiscated during the French revolution, and later declared a historic monument. Today you can visit it as the Service municipal Valence Ville d’Art et d’Histoire. There is a permanent exhibition inside which tells the story of Valence’s evolution (from the city of Valentia during medieval times to the present day).

2. Parc Jouvet

Stretching 7 hectares with the Rhône on one side and the Valence town center on the other, Parc Jouvet is a gorgeous park much loved by the locals.

Parc Jouvet

Dating back to the 19th century, there are several small gardens inside the park, with running streams, a large playground, a rose garden, a mini-train and more.

It is named after Théodore Jouvet, a Bordeaux wine merchant, who made made a large donation to the city to allow for the acquisition of the land on which the park sits today.

3. Peynet Bandstand

At the upper level of Parc Jouvet is the Peynet Bandstand. It was built in 1862, and is one of the emblems of the city.

Peynet Bandstand

Listed as a historic monument, you will see many a bridal couple come here to take their wedding photos.

The Peynet bandstand became famous due to a cartoon artist named Raymond Peynet, who in 1942, painted a solo violinist playing for one single spectator, sitting on the bench of the bandstand. It became the story of the “Peynet Lovers”, and a legend was born.

4. Place des Clercs

The old town center of Valence is a pedestrianized-zone with a large public square at one end called the Place des Clercs. Brimming with bars and restaurants terraces, it also includes the Saint-Apollinaire cathedral which is the oldest monument in the city.

Place des Clercs
Place des Clercs

The public square dates back to the 5th century, when religious clerics lived in the area.

It was also the place where the famous French smuggler Louis Mandrin was executed in the 18th century. Today, it is a wonderful place to have lunch or dinner and watch the locals go by.

5. Eat at Maison Pic

The small town of Valence is not where you may expect to find a 3 Michelin star restaurant. Run by Anne-Sophie Pic, one of the top French chefs in the world, Maison Pic has a menu to behold.

Born and raised in Valence where Maison Pic is located, Anne-Sophie Pic had cooking in her blood. She is the daughter of famed French chef Jacques Pic, and was forced to take over the family restaurant when her father suddenly passed away when she was only 23 years old.

The standard to uphold was that of her grandfather, Andre Pic, who had initially won the 3 Michelin stars at their family restaurant Maison Pic in 1934.

After initially losing a Michelin star, she gained it back in 2007, becoming only the 4th female to run a 3-starred Michelin restaurant. Having been awarded the French Legion of Honour, she has expanded the family business and is a regular judge on shows like Netflix’s Final table.

Tasting menus at Maison Pic start at €300+ per person and reservations are required.

6. Valence Cathedral

Saint-Apollinaire cathedral, also known as Valence Cathedral is the city’s main church and the current building dates back to the 11th century.

Saint-Apollinaire cathedral, also known as Valence Cathedral

The previous church was dedicated to Saints Cornelius and Cyprian, however in 1095, Pope Urban II rededicated the cathedral to Saint Apollinaris, one of Valence’s sixth century bishops.

Like the other cathedrals around France, the original Saint-Apollinaire cathedral has had many parts of it were destroyed and rebuilt during the Wars of Religion and subsequent revolutions.

7. Try the Raviole du Dauphiné

If you like Italian ravioli, you will like Raviole du Dauphiné. Also known as ravioles de Romans, it is a smaller type of ravioli, made with wheat flour, eggs and water, and a filling of French comté or emmental cheese.

salad with Raviole in Isère
Toasted raviole on a salad

It is very popular in the area around Valence, with the name Dauphiné being the old historic region of France that has since been combined into Auverge-Rhône-Alps.

You will find it served locally in many different ways such as cooked in with a pasta sauce even as a toasted topping on a salad.

8. Maisons Troglodytes

In nearby Châteauneuf-sur-Isère, you can visit the Maisons Troglodytes, which are houses that will built into the soft rock of the surrounding hillside. With the earliest houses dating back to the Roman era, there are about a dozen houses that are still in good condition.

The surrounding forests also incluedes several cavities and small caves that were dug out for the extraction of molasse stones to be used in the construction of buildings in Valence and nearby.

The site is about 8 miles (12km) away and access to walk around the Maisons Troglodytes is free.

9. Eat a Suisse biscuit (pastry)

One of the specialities of Valence is that it is known for a type of biscuit called the Suisse. It is a orange blossom shortbread cookie in the shape of a soldier.

Suisse pastry from Isère

It is not well-known even to French locals from other regions, but it is a favorite amongst children in Valence. The story of the Suisse biscuit pastry dates back to the 18th century when Catholic Pope Pius VI is taken prisoner by then General Napoleon Bonaparte.

Pope Pius VI was held in Valence where he died on August 29, 1799 and was buried in Valence Cathedral. The Suisse biscuit was created to represent his personal protection, for the Suisse bodyguards who protect the pope and the papacy.

You can find the Suisse biscuit in boulangeries (bakery) all over Valence. It is usually eaten as a treat for goûter (meaning “after-school-snack”) and especially served up at Easter.

10. Drink some Chartreuse 

The region of Isère is famous for a strong herbal liquor called chartreuse With an alcohol content between 40-55%, chartreuse is one of those liquors that can be served as an apéritif or a digestif.

bottle of chartreuse

It is said that only 2 monks know the exact recipe combination of Chartreuse, with its 130 herbs, plants, and flowers.

There are two main types of Chartreuse, yellow which is milder, and a stronger green. It is usually served in a tall glass mixed with a fruit juice like lemon or orange. You can also mix it with tonic, or gin, with ice cubes.

You can find chartreuse being served in restaurants all over Valence, or visit the nearby Caves de la Chartreuse for a dégustation (tasting).

11. Have a Pogne in Romans-sur-Isère

About 12 miles (20km) away from Valence is Romans-sur-Isère, which is famous for its Pogne bread.

Pogne from Romans sur Isère

Pogne or Pogne Romans is a type of brioche or sweetbread, that is shaped like a crown. It is made from flour, eggs and butter and flavored with orange blossom.

Dating back to the 14th century, it was also traditionally only made for Easter, like the Suisse biscuit.

Old Valence

How to get to Valence?

Valence is easily accessible by train, with a large train station right in the heart of the city. From Paris, you can take the high-speed TGV train to Lyon or Avignon, before switching to a TER train to Valence.
The closest international airport is in Lyon.

How many days should you spend?

There are a lot of small towns and sights around Valence such as the Grotte ChauvetGrotte de ChorancheTrain de l’ArdècheMontélimarRomans-sur-Isère, etc.

To take advance of your location, I would recommend staying at least 2-3 nights in Valence, so that you can make the most of your visit to this part of central France.

Where should you stay?

I recommend staying near the historic center so that you can walk to all the main sights of Valence:
€€€€ – Hôtel de France


If you enjoyed that article, you may like to read more about traveling around the region of Auvergne-Rhône-Alps. A bientôt!

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