Located on France’s eastern border, the Rhône-Alpes is named after the Rhône river and the Alps mountain range, and is made up of the following departments, clockwise from the north-west: Loire, Rhône, Ain, Haute-Savoie, Savoie, Isère, Drôme and Ardèche.
This region is probably best known for its ski resorts, however, particularly in Savoie and Haute-Savoie, which draw more British skiers and snowboarders than anywhere else, and attract many prospective second-home owners.
But there’s more to the Rhône-Alpes than winter sports, and it is an area of dramatic contrasts, from its breathtaking mountains, including France’s highest, Mont Blanc, and its lakes, river valleys and rolling lavender fields, to its renowned thermal baths and the economic, gastronomic and cultural hotspot of Lyon, France’s second city. Add to this the vineyards producing world-famous wines such as Beaujolais, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and many beautiful towns and villages, and it’s easy to understand what makes this area so attractive, both to tourists and property hunters.
SavoieWhile Savoie is primarily known for its world-famous ski resorts, its capital, Chambéry, with a high student population, is a lively, bustling city with a vibrant café culture, plenty of monuments and fountains, and several important museums.
Savoie boasts no fewer than sixty ski resorts. Three of the best known can be found in Les Trois Vallées, the largest ski area in the world, and they are Courchevel, Meribel,and Val Thorens.
At 1850m, Courchevel is the highest resort, and it’s also the smartest and most expensive, with a wide choice of ski and snowboard schools and plenty of gentle, beginner slopes. Meribel is the party resort, with live music, comedy and clubbing until the early hours, while Val Thorens is purpose-built, with easy access to the slopes and a vibrant après-ski scene.
Formerly known as Espace Killy, Val d’Isère-Tignes is a hugely popular skiing area and, together with Les Trois Vallées, ranked as the highest-rated in France, due to its variety of runs, reliability of snow, gastronomy and après-ski. Val d’Isère is ideal for intermediate skiers, with a more varied terrain than other world-class resorts, several ski schools and some quieter outposts. With a village altitude of 2,100m and highpoint of 3,455m, neighbouring Tignes is open for skiing for up to ten months of the year, and both resorts combined offer 300km of pistes.
- Chambéry, with its historic centre dating from the 15th century, its Museum of Fine Arts, its castle and Gothic cathedral
- The Vanoise National Park, an extensive protected and very dramatic area which welcomes around 360,000 visitors each year
- Six thermal bath towns, of which the elegant Aix-les-Bains is the third largest in France, with an archaeological museum and many beautiful belle époque buildings
- St Martin de Belleville, one of the quietest but prettiest ski resorts
- Bonneval-sur-Arc, with an altitude of 1835 m, is listed as one of Frances most beautiful villages, largely for its mountain setting and stone houses with wooden balconies
The eastern part of the Haute-Savoie department is ‘high Alps’ country’, and includes Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in France. The lakeside city of Annecy, its capital, is one of the most popular cities in the Alps, teeming with historic buildings and bridges crossing the river Thiou, at 3.5km one of the shortest rivers in Europe.
Lake Annecy attracts a great many visitors, who enjoy its beaches, its boats and water taxis, and of course its stunning backdrop.
The department is principally known for its winter sports, however, with some fifty ski resorts, including Chamonix, Megève, Morzine, La Clusaz and Saint-Gervais. There are also over forty cross country skiing areas. In the summer the department lends itself to mountaineering, hiking, biking, horse-riding and water sports.
Gastronomy here is based on cheese and potatoes dishes, such as Tartiflette, Raclette and Fondue. Among the cheeses produced here are Abondance, Reblochon, Tomme de Savoie, Tomme des Bauges and Sérac.
- Annecy, and its beautiful lake, said to be the cleanest in Europe
- Chamonix-Mont-Blanc, the most expensive town in the department, due largely to the excellent skiing and the breathtaking views over Mont-Blanc
- the Olympic town of Albertville and neighbouring medieval village Conflans
- the three renowned thermal bath towns of Evian-les-Bains, Saint-Gervais-les-Bains and Thonon-les-Bains
- the picturesque villages of Talloires, Menthon Saint Bernard and Veyrier du Lac on the edges of Lake Annecy
- the beautiful alpine villages of Yvoire and Abondance
In the north-west Rhône-Alpes, the Rhône department is one of the least visited in the region, despite its principal city being Lyon, widely considered one of France’s most interesting cities. Its 15th century cathedral is listed as a French National Monument, and its Fine Art Museum has one of the largest collections of art after the Louvre.
Lyon is also considered France’s gastronomic capital, being a hub for high quality regional produce. With almost 2000 eateries, the city boasts one of the highest concentrations of restaurants per capita in France. Around fifteen of them are Michelin-starred, but more accessible are its ‘bouchons‘, or family-run bistros, which are unique to Lyon and serve home-made, traditional dishes.
Specialities include quenelles, typically a mixture of creamed fish, a variety of sausages and desserts such as bugnes, a type of donut, and the Coussin de Lyon coloured sweets. Beaujolais wines are also produced in Rhône.
- Lyon, and its historic centre around the Presqu’ile de Lyon, a UNESCO World Heritage site, its rich cultural traditions and its gastronomy
- Trevoux, an elegant little town set on the Saone river
- the pretty villages of Bagnols, Oingt and Theize, set in the Beaujolais countryside
- the charming village of Anse, with its Gallo-Roman heritage
- the monastery at Eveux, an example of modern architecture designed by Le Corbusier
- the Monts du Lyonnais, offering tranquil countryside ideal for fishing, hunting, cycling and hiking
IsèreIsère, with the alpine city of Grenoble as its capital, has around twenty ski resorts, some of which are situated in the Ecrins National Park, a protected area visited by some 850,000 people a year, with mountains and glaciers popular with climbers and hikers.
For skiing enthusiasts the Deux Alpes and the Alpe d’Huez are two of the oldest and most popular resorts, while the climb to the Alpe d’Huez, with its 21 hairpin bends, regularly features on the Tour de France, and provides a gruelling summer challenge for around a thousand cyclists every year.
The Grenoble walnut is celebrated here, and used in many dishes, with walnut oil and even walnut wine available. The Gratin Dauphinois is also a speciality of the region, combining potatoes with cream, milk and Gruyere cheese. Saint Marcellin cheese and Chartreuse liqueur are also produced here.
- Grenoble, Capital of the Alps, with a large student population, a contemporary art museum and its famous cable-car offering views across the city and surrounding mountains
- the many ski resorts, of which the most famous are: Alpe d’Huez, Chamrousse, Les Deux Alpes, Villard-de-Lans, Les Sept Laux and Autrans
- Vienne, a major centre of the Roman empire, with archaeological monuments, museums and culture
- the village of Pont-en-Royans, with its ancient houses suspended over the river
- the medieval town of Cremieu, with its cloisters, Benedictine priory and castle
- famous for its cheese, Saint Marcellin is located at the heart of the mountains and offers stunning landscapes, natural sites and easy access to the slopes
ArdècheThe Ardèche is one of France’s most loved tourist destinations, both by the French and foreign holidaymakers. It is characterised by unspoilt nature and wonderful scenery, with river gorges, waterfalls, mountains and caves, and offers a large choice of activities, including rock climbing, canoeing and kayaking.
Its capital, Privas, is the smallest prefecture in France, with just 10,000 residents, but has pretty architectural features, such as a 15th century bridge and tower. The streets are lined with chestnut trees, and there are festivals every October. Chestnuts provide a distinct local gastronomy, including the sweet crème de marrons and savoury cousina, or chestnut soup.
Vineyards include Saint-Péray, Bourg-Saint-Andéol and Côtes du Vivarais.
- Privas, which has a long and interesting history and architectural heritage
- the cathedral city of Viviers, with its extensive old town and a important historical heritage
- the castle town of Aubenas, with a Benedictine convent, surrounded by several characterful villages
- the Gorges de l’Ardèche, a nature reserve comprising 40km of deep gorges, amongst the most beautiful of France
- the Pont d’Arc, the largest natural arch in Europe, standing 66m high
- the Bois de Paiolive, where olive trees are interspersed with fascinating rock formations
- the caves of Chauvet and Saint Marcel d’Ardèche
- the classified ‘most beautiful village’ of Balazuc, on a cliff on the banks of the Ardèche river
The Ain department is the most northerly department in the Rhône-Alpes, and its capital is Bourg-en-Bresse. Home to a part of the regional natural park of Jura, with its mountainous landscapes offering skiing in the Bugey and Gex areas, in the summer this is a popular area for mountain biking, quad biking, hang-gliding, fishing and hunting.
The Dombes plateau has around a thousand ponds, and a wide variety of birds, including ducks, pheasants, cormorants, gulls and herons.
Culinary specialities here include four famous cheeses – Bleu de Bresse, Bleu de Gex, Ramequin and Comté, while chickens of the Bresse area are renowned. Ain also produces famous wines such as Chardonnay, Gamay and Pinot Noir.
- Bourg-en-Bresse, with its fine cathedral, cloisters and monastery, and vibrant cultural scene
- the spa town of Divonne-les-Bains, with an 18th century castle, art deco casino and golf course
- Belley, a town rich in architecture, surrounded by vineyards and hills
- the pretty medieval town of Perouges, with its cobbled streets, is one of France’s most beautiful villages, boasting medieval gates, a fortified church and a 13th century garden
- the Dombes plateau, with lakes, villages, historical monuments and castles
- the music festival of Ambronay, held since 1980 and baroque music from the Middle Ages
- Lake Geneva, accessible via Gex
- the charming town of Oyonnax, with plenty of parks and green areas, located at the foot of the Jura mountain range
LoireNot to be confused with the Loire Valley, Loire is situated in the north-west of the Rhône-Alpes, and has Saint-Etienne, a lively 19th century city, as its capital. The department boasts a wide variety of scenery, from valleys and tree-covered hills, to springs and gorges, lakes and rivers.
- Saint-Etienne, a recognised Town of Art and History and a City of Design, with a planetarium and 3D space simulator, museums and a 20th century cathedral
- the Pays Roannais countryside, with the historic villages of Charlieu and Le-Crozet
- the Monts du Forez hiking route and Plaines du Forez, with villages, priories and castles
- Montbrison, at the foot of the Forez mountains, famous for producing a delicious blue cheese called La Fourme de Montbrison
- the Gorges du Loire, for watersports and other outdoor activities
- the Regional Park of Pilat
- the pretty villages of Pelussin and Malleval, with churches, chapels and castles
- Sainte-Croix-en-Jarez, one of the most beautiful villages of France, where most village houses were once part of a monastery
- the Benedictine abbey at Charlieu
Bordering Provence, the Drôme is best known for its lavender fields and quiet market towns, and for the Vercors Natural Regional Park. Its largest towns include Montelimar, Nyons and Valence, its capital.
Drôme has over 20,000 ha of vineyards, and a famous local drink is Clairette de Die, a sparkling wine. Olive oil and other olive specialities are also produced here, as is nougat.
- Valence, an attractive student city symbolised by a large bandstand, a Romanesque cathedral and narrow, medieval streets
- Montelimar, built on a hill overlooking the Rhône valley, offers interesting architecture but is mostly famous for its nougat
- Nyons, a Provençal town with arcades and squares, famous for its olive oil and olive-related produce
- the medieval town of Crest, surrounded by hills and fields of lavender and sunflowers, with its 11th century tower, once a prison
- the picturesque medieval villages of Le Poet-Laval, La Garde-Adhemar and Mirmande, all of which are listed among the most beautiful villages in France
- the Chateau de Grignan and the Chateau de Suze-la-Rousse
- the extraordinary Palais Idéal at Hauterives, built in the late 19th century by eccentric postman Ferdinand Cheval, and resembling a Hindu or Cambodian temple