Burgundy -- specifically the subregions of the Côte de Nuits and the Côte de Beaune -- is one of two French wine regions recently awarded UNESCO World Heritage status. The Côte de Nuits and the Côte de Beaune surround the town of Beaune, which is the unofficial wine capital of Burgundy and makes for a perfect wine country base. The small town, surrounded by medieval walls, is just the right size -- big enough to offer a lot of choice in things to do, but small enough to retain its charm and intimacy -- and its cobbled streets and maze of alleys are a picture-perfect setting among the vines. Here are seven things to do in Beaune.1. Sample the best of Burgundy’s cuisine.
Burgundian cuisine is world famous, and some of France’s most renowned culinary exports hail from this region. At nearly every bistro in town, you’ll find beef bourguignon, a hearty stew of beef braised in red wine, and escargots, snails cooked in garlic, butter, and parsley. Other standout local dishes include œufs meurette -- eggs poached in red wine with bacon, onions, and shallots -- and Époisses de Bourgogne, a delightfully stinky, soft cheese. There are dozens of bistros to choose from in and around the town square. The most popular is Ma Cuisine (make reservations early), a small bistro frequented by the who’s who of the area wine industry. The menu is limited but usually includes most traditional dishes, along with a wine list that would make sommeliers weep. As with many restaurants in Beaune, it’s closed on Sundays and Mondays; other days it serves lunch and dinner, with a long hiatus in between.
2. Drink (of course!).
While Beaune is surrounded by thousands of vineyards, you don’t actually have to leave town to taste wine. Caves Patriarche Père et Files and Joseph Drouhin are two reputable domaines (wineries) that offer wine tasting for a fee. A visit to the Marché aux Vins allows you to taste wines from multiple producers in one place -- one gorgeous place, that is. The self-service wine tasting takes place in the ancient cellars of a former Franciscan church. For €12 per person (just over $13 currently), guests receive a tasting glass and access to six bottles in the cellar. Many town wine shops also offer limited tastings. If a guided tour is your thing, head to Sensation Vin, a wine shop that offers comprehensive wine seminars with tastings of four red and four white wines, including the region’s lauded Premier Crus and Grand Crus. Tastings cost €35 per person, but offer an in-depth lesson in Burgundian wine. The shop also sells 12-bottle wine suitcases, should you decide to bring home a few souvenirs.
3. See more on bike.
Beaune is small and easily covered on foot, but if you want to explore a bit outside of town, there’s no better way than by bike. The route of the Grand Crus runs 37 miles from north to south (60 kms), mostly through the vineyards. From Beaune, it’s barely 15 minutes by bike (three miles) south to Pommard, which is known for high-quality red wine. If you’re feeling slightly more ambitious, bike the six miles to Mersault then take your time coming back stopping at domaines in Mersault, Volnay, and Pommard -- just be prepared to speak a bit of French as many winemakers don’t speak English. Also, plan for a long lunch between noon and 2 p.m., when most shops close. Bike rentals start at €18 per day.
4. Taste some mustard.
Wine isn’t Burgundy’s only export. Beaune is only 30 minutes from Dijon -- one look around any grocery store makes this apparent. Famous mustard producer Edmond Fallot has an outpost in town, where €10 guided tours cover a look at mustard production then and now. Even if you don’t take a tour, you can sample to your heart’s content from more than a dozen varieties of mustard such as peppercorn, honey, balsamic, and even curry.
5. Go inside the beautiful Hospices de Beaune.
Built in 1443, the Hospices de Beaune is the most recognizable building in the city, known for its Flemish design including a glazed tile roof, gothic ironwork, exposed frame ceiling, and intricate woodwork. It’s the city’s most popular tourist attraction and the site of a wine festival and auction held every November. Audio guide tours are available from 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. in summer (with reduced hours other times) from €7.50 per person.
6. Discover local, artisanal finds at the farmer's market.
On Wednesday and Saturday mornings, Beaune’s central square comes alive with local farmers and artisans selling everything from whole black truffles and massive farmhouse sausages to dried herbs and natural honey. A plethora of the region’s best food is on display -- pack your picnic here if you’re heading out into the countryside for the day -- along with other souvenirs like hand-stitched linens and homemade soaps. The Saturday market is the much larger of the two, but even on Wednesdays you’ll find at least two dozen vendors.
Bonus: A Few Dos & Don’ts
Don’t bother with a car if you can avoid it. There’s a train station in Beaune, so it’s easy to get there without your own wheels, and you certainly won’t need them in the city -- in fact, it’s hard to find parking within the city walls. Unless you plan to visit neighboring towns, ditch the car and travel by bike, on foot, or via a driver for wine-tastings.
Do practice your French. Again, many wineries are small family operations, owned by third- and fourth-generation winemakers, that aren’t set up to give tours and tastings in English -- so if you don’t speak French you’ll have a hard time. Hotel and restaurant staff in Beaune likely speak enough that you can communicate your order or check into your hotel, but it’s always polite to at least try the local language.
Don’t plan anything between noon and 2 p.m. That’s when practically everything except restaurants shuts down. Ditto for Sundays, and, in some cases, Mondays. Even on weekdays, not much opens before 9 a.m., and most everything is shut tight by 10 p.m. Work-life balance? The French have mastered it.
Do plan to wander. Beaune is a city that begs you to put away the map and explore its winding cobbled streets and alleys. Away from the bustling center, the streets are quiet and locals go about their business, offering you a fleeting glimpse of daily life in Beaune.