Arguably, the best way to explore any new city or town is by walking. It may be slower than public transportation, but you definitely get to see more, and you never know what might be waiting for you around the next corner.
Dijon, France is a great city to explore on foot. As with most European cities, the most interesting parts of Dijon are packed within an easily walkable radius. But Dijon also offers a few unique walking tours that we haven’t experienced anywhere else.
We started our exploration of Dijon with the Palace of the Dukes of Burgundy, (Palais des ducs de Bourgogne). The duchy of Burgundy was originally established around 880 AD, after the kingdom of Burgundy was reorganized into duchies and counties.
At its earliest incarnation, this building was merely a fortress. Philip the Bold, first Duke Valois rebuilt the fortress and turned it into a palace between 1364-1404.
The oldest parts of the palace date back to the 14th-15th century, but most of what you see today dates from the 17th and 18th centuries, when the governors of Burgundy expanded the old palace. The west wing of the palace now houses city hall offices, while the east wing is home to the Musée des Beaux Arts.
Address: 1 Place de la Libération, 21000 Dijon, France
Note that the Tourist Information Office is also located in the palace. Here you can arrange for a guided walking tour, or get a map to follow a self-guided walk through the streets of Dijon. We did both.
I’ll start with the guided walking tour. There are numerous themed tours to choose from, but we chose the Saveurs et Piquant, or Flavours and Spices tour.
The Flavours and Spices Walking Tour
Our guided tour started at the Palace of the Dukes of Burgundy. From there, we walked down rue des Forges, one of the oldest streets in Dijon. It’s lined with quaint shops, bakeries and restaurants. Some of the buildings date back to the 14th-15th centuries.
I mean, look at these old buildings and how they twist, lean and bend:
This is the Hotel Chambellan, located at 34, 36 rue des Forges. Henri Chambellan was a clothier and Vicount mayor of Dijon from 1490 to 1493. He gained the title of Counsellor to the Chamber of Accounts in 1500.
The mansion was decorated in Flamboyant Gothic style, with an emphasis on ornate decorative detailing.
Check out the impressive spiral staircase:
The detailing around the window is also beautiful:
No tour called “Flavours and Spices” can be complete without a few stops along the way to sample some local specialties. Mustard, of course, was the first thing to sample:
The Maille mustard company was founded in 1747, and this shop has been here since 1845! The number of flavour combinations they make is really mind-boggling. We had a lot of tasters inside. (Like, a lot). And we bought enough mustard here that a customs officer questioned why we were bringing so much mustard back to Canada.
Incidentally, there used to be a mustard museum in Dijon, but it closed down some years ago. And, we learned on this tour, that the mustard seeds used in France are actually grown in Canada! In 2009, Unilever, which owned and operated many mustard factories in Europe, closed the manufacturing plant in Dijon. It’s now made and packed in the nearby town of Chevigny-Saint-Sauveur.
The walking tour also brought us to the Church of Notre-Dame of Dijon. Construction on this Roman Catholic church started in 1230! Note all of the gargoyles on the facade. But these are actually dummy gargoyles – they don’t transport water.
A better shot of some of the gargoyles. There are 51 gargoyles on the western side alone. While these are dummy gargoyles, there are others on the building that do act as drain spouts.
These are not the original gargoyles, however. The originals were removed in 1240, after one of the figures apparently fell off the facade, killing a man who was about to get married. These gargoyles were made in 1880-1882, during restoration of the church.
This is known as a jacquemart, or automated bell-striker. They indicate the time by striking a bell on the hour. This automaton came from Belgium, after Duke Philippe II of Burgundy looted the town of Kortrijk in 1382.
We will visit Notre Dame again in a little while.
The tour also included a visit to a shop called Mulot & Petitjean, which sells pain d’epice, a special kind of gingerbread. Barnabé Boittier opened his gingerbread shop in 1805. He moved the shop to 6 boulevard de l’Ouest in Dijon in 1912, where the gingerbread is still made today.
This walking tour took about 2 hours, including the stops at the mustard shop and gingerbread shop.
The Owl’s Trail
The Owl’s Trail is a self-guided walking tour with an accompanying guide booklet you can purchase at the tourist information office. The walking trail has 22 numbered stages, which you can cover in the space of about an hour. But how do you know what path to follow?
The sidewalks are marked with these handy bronze plaques! But why an owl, you may ask? The owl is one of the city’s symbols, and unofficial talisman. You’ll see why in a bit!
I won’t go through all 22 stops on the walking tour, but I will give a few of the highlights along the route.
Our first stop was at the Jardin Darcy. This was Dijon’s first public garden, dating from 1880.
The garden is named after Henri Darcy, the engineer who built a reservoir here to bring water to Dijon from Val Suzon.
Stop number 5 was the covered market. Market days are every Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday. The building is on the site of an old convent cloister of the Jacobines.
The market usually extends to the outside as well. You can buy everything from purses, shoes and toiletries, to delicious locally made foodstuffs and market fresh goods:
The Place Francois Rude is the main square, and is stop number 6. It gets its name from a famous local sculptor. The square is relatively young, as it was only built in 1904 after several houses were destroyed in order to create it.
This is what the square looks like on a market day. (Note the bronze owl plaque at the bottom of the photo!)
And this is what it looks like on a non-market day. The statue in the center of the fountain represents a winemaker stomping grapes in a tank. Here you’ll find many great shops, cafes and restaurants to discover:
This takes us to numbers 8 and 9 on the walk, which is back to the Church of Notre-Dame of Dijon.
Number 8 marks the church itself. But number 9 takes you to the symbol of Dijon, and the reason for the owl image on the bronze plaques. Meet the Owl of Notre Dame de Dijon, also known as the Magic Owl:
Although the church dates to the 13th Century, the owl wasn’t carved until sometime in the 16th Century. No one seems to know why it was carved here, on the unassuming north wall. The owl is located on Rue de la Chouette (Owl Street). He doesn’t look like much now. That’s partly because vandals damaged the owl in 2001.
The other reason for it’s appearance today is that people rub the owl for luck. Rumour has it, if you touch the owl with your left hand while making a wish, your wish will come true.
Stop number 10 takes you to the Maison Milliere. Guillaume Milliere, a local merchant, built the home in 1483, with his shop on the ground floor and living quarters on the second floor. The cat and owl decorations on the roof date from the 20th century.
Next up is Number 12 on the Owl’s Trail. This marker actually covers several buildings at once – the Place du Theatre, the Eglise St. Etienne, and, finally, the Eglise St. Michel. This is the immense and impressive Eglise St. Michel:
The earliest mention of the Saint-Michel church goes back as far as 889. The original church was most likely a modest wooden building. Construction on this church began in 1497, with consecration in 1529.
The church exhibits architectural elements of both gothic and Italian Renaissance styles. The interior is just as impressive as the exterior:
This brings us to number 14 on the Owl’s Trail, and the last building I’ll mention, so as not to spoil all the highlights of your own walking tour. This is Tour de Bar, or the Town Hall.
Philip the Bold built this in a medieval dungeon style, starting in 1365. It got it’s name from Rene d’Anjou, Duke of Bar and Lorraine. He was also the king of Hungary, Jerusalem and Aragon, which included Sicily, Corsica and Majorca. He was a prisoner in the tower from 1431 to 1436, due to a dispute over his succession to the title of the duchy of Lorraine.
Over all, a walking tour is a great way to really get a good feel for Dijon. There’s a lot to explore here in a condensed, walkable radius. But you can also miss a lot of interesting details without a little helpful guidance along the way!