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A travellers guide to Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes

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Introduction to the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes

For many of us who live outside France, if you hear the name “Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes” you probably think of picturesque Lake Annecy, the majestic French Alps, and of course, the gateway to Provence, but there’s a lot more than that…

This super-sized southeastern region of France has much to offer its visitors, if you know what you’re looking for!

Our guide breaks it all down for you, so you can get on with booking the trip of a lifetime to one of the country’s most spectacular destinations.

So, let’s go, or as they say in France, Allons-y!

How to get to the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region

By road: 

If you’re hiring a car, be sure to invest in a reliable GPS, or ensure you have enough data for a cellular phone app for Google Maps, as navigating French roads can be confusing.

There are two major routes from Paris to reach the heart of the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes; Lyon:

  1. The quickest route is to follow the A6 out of central Paris and around the western edge of Orly airport, and then straight down to Lyon, usually taking around 5 hours.
  2. For a more leisurely journey, you can start on the A6, turn off onto the A77 before Chaintreaux, which becomes the N7 just outside Sermoise-sur-Loire and changes again near Vendranges to the N82, before finally becoming the A89 as you turn east towards Lyon. This route usually takes approximately 6-hours, but avoids tolls.

By Train:

If you enjoy travelling by train, then you’re going to love this trip. At around 2-and-a-quarter-hours from Paris Gare de Lyon, these TGV journeys are spectacular as they rocket through rolling fields, through the Parc naturel regional du Morvan, and along beautiful river views of the Seine, Yvonne, Saône and Rhône.

If you’re coming from the UK just get a Eurostar from Paddington to Paris Gare du Nord, and then the Metro to Paris Gare de Lyon.

There are two major Lyon stations; Lyon Part-Dieu and Lyon Perrache. Other stations in the region are Valence, Clermont-Ferrand, Lyon-Saint-Exupéry, Mâcon-Loché and Torcy Le Creusot all reached by the super efficient and comfortable TGV.

By Air:

Speed of the essence? Not a problem, there are 6-7 flights per day from Charles de Gaulle (CDG) airport in Paris direct to Lyon (LYS); flights take a little over one hour.

Coming from the UK? At the time of writing both British Airways and Easyjet fly to Lyon. There are direct daily flights from Heathrow (LHR) and Gatwick (LGW) airports, with some less regular flights from Luton (LTN) direct to Lyon, taking approximately 1 hr 35 mins.

Connecting flights are also available from most major US and European airports.

Getting around in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes

Public transport links are excellent in this region, with all the major cities having both metro (subway/underground) and tram/bus services that will get you where you want to go with a minimum of effort.

For example, in Lyon, there are 4 Metro lines (A, pink, B, blue, C, orange, and D, green), 7 Tramways (purple), 2 Funiculaire (lime green) and 3 Bus lines (grey). It’s worth checking each city’s website for their specific transport map, or for a downloadable app for your phone.

As with public transport in other parts of France, there can be delays, or strikes, but the good news is that strikes are not surprises. Check the local transport office before you set off, or online. If there are any scheduled strikes, they will have advance information.

If you’d rather drive, there are any car hire companies (Europcar, Thrifty, Budget, Sixt, Hertz, etc) at all major airports (Lyon, Dijon, Chamonix, Grenoble, etc), and many larger railway stations (Lyon, Dijon, Chamonix, Grenoble, etc). Taxis and private hire, like Uber, are also available and offer reliable services with knowledgeable local drivers – always a significant source of information!

And as we mentioned above, French trains (SNCF) are fast, clean and above all fairly efficient with most trains being punctual. SNCF is also very keenly priced compared to the UK. For example a train from Lyon to Clermont Ferrand costs around €15 today.

How big is the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes?

Covering almost 70,000 km2, this region borders five other regions of France: Bourgogne-Franche-Comté, Centre-Val de Loire, Nouvelle-Aquitaine, Occitanie, Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azure, as well as two European country borders: Italy and Switzerland.

Departments of the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes

Like the rest of France, this region is the sum of many smaller (actually sometimes really big) departments. The region’s new name, ‘Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes’, was adopted in 2014 in a national scheme to lower regional administrative costs by amalgamating smaller regions in to larger ‘Super’ regions.  

Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes consists of 12 departments, similar to UK & US counties, they are: Ain, Allier, Ardèche, Cantal, Drôme, Haute-Loire, Haute-Savoie, Isère, Loire, Puy-de-Dôme, Rhône and Savoie. 

Cities of the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes

The region has five metropolitan centres; Lyon, the region’s prefecture and largest city, Grenoble, Saint-Étienne, Clermont-Ferrand, and Chambéry, all with their own personalities and distinctive styles for you to explore.

History of the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes

Auvergne

Named after one of the most powerful Gallic tribes in ancient Gaul, the Arverni.

If you’ve ever read the French comic, Asterix, then you’ll have encountered a famous Arverni (a resident of the region), Vercingetorix, captured by the Roman army and taken back to Rome.

Steeped in French history, the Auvergne has played host to many historical personalities and noted historical events the Hundred Years War, King Philip II, Catherine de Medici, Louis XIV, right down to Vichy being the headquarters of the French State during World War II.

Rhône-Alpes

Named for the River Rhône and the Alps mountains, the region is best known for its upmarket ski season, with majestic Mont Blanc towering into the near horizon from Chamonix, and of course for Lake Annecy.

Inhabited since prehistoric times, with the Gauls being the first documented inhabitants, it was the Gauls who founded the first settlements at Lyon as they began trading with the outside world.

Lyon is the capital city of the region, and the second-largest metropolitan area in France, after Paris. The region also boasts the sixth-largest economy of any European region and is home to many beautiful sights: the rivers Saône and Ardèche, The Massif Central mountain range, as well as being just a quick hop over the border to Italy or Switzerland.

Culture in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes: 

If ‘culture’ is your thing, then the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region has a lot to offer. 
With many treasures for you to discover, like Romanesque art and buildings, check out the Abbey of Saint-Austremoine in Issoire, or Notre-Dame-de-Mailhat in Lamontgie, both of which have stunning masonry and gilt-work. 

The Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes also contains at least 22 of France’s ‘Most Beautiful Villages’ for you to explore, like Balazuc in Ardèche, or Charroux in Allier; there are also some of France’s most outstanding chateaux plus eight UNESCO sites including the stilt settlements at Lac du Bourget, Lyon city, the Roman basilica of Notre-Dame du Port in Clermont-Ferrand and the Geo-Parks at Monts d’Ardèche, Chablais and the Massif des Bauges.


What’s the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes weather like?

Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes has a varied climate. Known as one of the warmest regions in France, if you’re travelling in summer, it’s a good idea to pack plenty of sunscreen and a wide-brimmed hat. The average summer temperature is 20˚C, with lows of 15˚C and a possibility of reaching 28˚C plus in July.


Equally, if you’re visiting in winter, then be sure to pack your thermals and some warm gloves. It gets quite cold being so mountainous. The average winter temperature is 6.5˚C, with a low of 1˚C and a possibility of dropping to 0.3˚C in January.

Why you should visit the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region

Between taking in the majesty of Mont-Blanc, aka the ‘roof of Europe’, and its incredible cable car ride from Chamonix to Le Plan de l’Aiguille in 10-minutes, or the Ardéche and Drôme areas that can feel a lot like Provence to the sweeping plains of the Auvergne with its dormant volcanoes, there’s a landscape for everyone.

Best time to visit the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes:

Depending on your chosen activity, there’s a lot to do in every season; for those who love swimming and mountain hiking, the summer months of June – August are perfect. If skiing is your passion, then come to Chamonix for Dec-Feb for the best snow, and from March – early May for budget-friendly passable powder and the summer for a bit of ‘Sound of music’ style frolicking on the snowless mountain tops. 

If you’re serious about wines, then see first hand the grape harvest, usually around September in this region for Beaujolais, and the famous ‘Straw wines’ from Drome like Hermitage vin de Paille.

For gastronomy, there’s a lot to see and do, including the Fête du Reblochon et de l’Artisanat in Haute-Savoie in August, Fête de la Gastronomie in September, the Lyon Street Food Festival in Lyon in October or the Foire de la Châtaigne in Auvergne, Foire Internationale et gastronomique de Dijon in November to name but a few!


Then there’s the abundance of festivals that take place in the ​​Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, starting with well-known music festival ‘Jazz a Vienne’, ‘The Lyon Festival of Lights’ just before Christmas and plenty of museums with temporary and permanent exhibits, like the Roger Quilliot Art Museum in Clermont-Ferrand and its exhibit on fine art from the Middle Ages to 20th century. 

Five ‘Must-See’ Cities in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes:

Here are the highlights to note:

  • Lyon: listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Lyon is home to French gastronomy and the traditional bouchon or French bistrot, and more beauty than is fair to the rest of France. There are several museums to check out, Musée des Beaux arts, Musée du Cinéma, and the Gallo-Roman Museum. Plus some stunning rivers, the Rhône and Saône that flow through the city, and the ever present middle ages churches. And lovely parks like Parc de la Tete D’Or and the Lyon Botanical Gardens for some all important ‘apres petit dejeuner’ snoozing.
  • Chamonix: gateway to the Alps, and at the bottom of Mont-Blanc. Usually known for its ski access to the mountains, there are year-round cable cars for you to explore the peaks, or ride the Aiguille du Midi to the top and look out across Pointe Helbronner and the glacial fields towards the Italian border. 
  • Annecy: giving its name to the lake that stretches out before it, Annecy is a charming city with a watery heart. Lake Annecy, which makes this city famous, is the start of the Thiou river, and is one of the cleanest rivers in Europe. It’s the third largest lake in France after Lake Geneva, Bourget and Serre Poncon, it is extremely popular for swimming and watersports, a definite go-to spot in summer!
  • Chambéry: an alpine town with a medieval history, and the impressive ‘Château des Ducs de Savoie’, which was once home to the Dukes of Savoy. Built on stilts to cope with the wet ground, this city is magical to explore; history, art, and nature all in one stunningly beautiful city location!
  • Valence: in the regions south east, Valence is home to the incredible Apollinaire Cathedral that dates from the first millennia. The Valence museum also has archaeological exhibits from the area, whilst nearby Parc Jouvet offers spectacular views across the Rhône river.

The essential ‘Must See/Do’ activities in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes

Vieux Lyon; A self-guided walking tour of the heart of old Lyon covers about 2-kilometres of city streets, from Pont Maréchal Juin down to Passerelle Paul Couturier and back.

Aiguille du Midi: The quickest and most spectacular way to see Mont-Blanc is by this cable car ride. Not only the highest cable car in France, but arguably the most dramatic, with views across the Vallée Blanche, Pointe Helbronner, and La Tour Ronde.

Lake Annecy: The cleanest water you’re likely to find anywhere in Europe, lake Annecy is perfect for swimming and watersports, and ice skating in winter.

Grenoble Bastille Cable Car: Affectionately known as Les Bulls, the cable car joins the former fortress, or bastille, to the middle of the city and is a great way to see the city skyline.

Parc Naturel Régional Du Vercors: This protected area of forested mountains in the Rhône-Alpes is spectacular all year, but especially in winter.

Puy-de-Dome Volcano: Visit the volcano, formed over 10,000 years ago, and be sure to make your way to the summit by foot, or on the panoramic train.

La Vieille Ville: Annecy old town is worth exploring properly; alleys packed with brasseries, antiques markets, and history oozing from every cobblestone.

Eating out in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region

As this region is the home of French gastronomy, some simple food guidance is important.

Between the traditional bouchon, where you can sample the real cuisine of the region, like saucisson de Lyon, quenelles of fish or meat, the fondue, raclette and gratin dauphinois potatoes from the more mountainous areas, the region is ‘Un Délice Gastronomique’!

What to eat in the Auvergne:

Known for many delicious foods The Auvergne is home to some of the finest food in France: Aligot (supremely smooth gastronomic mashed potatoes), Puy lentils, Auvergne hotpot, Bourguinonne oxtail (the predecessor to Julia Child’s boeuf-Bourguignon), and sweet treats like galets de la Cère (chocolate-covered almonds) or blackberry caramels. 

What to eat in the Rhône-Alpes:

The cuisine of Rhone Alpes is the very soul of the region: hearty, filling, soul-soothing and classical, you won’t go hungry in this region! Get started with some signature dishes; tartine Savoyarde (way better than a cheese toastie!), Tartiflette with its gratin potatoes and cheese, Fondue Savoyarde or Raclette, both melted cheese heaven, eyebrow-raising Cuisses de Grenouilles for the bold (frog’s legs), or the traditional Savoie sausage best with Diots au Vin Blanc.

Where to eat in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes:

Lyon: Le Musée, 2 Rue des Forces, 69002. Michelin listed authentic bouchon that offers traditional cuisine and hospitality.

Annecy: Conza, 222 Faubourg, Sainte-Claire, 74000. Also Michelin listed for its contemporary and authentic Savoyard cuisine.

Chamonix: La Fine Bouche, 80 Place du Poilu, 74400. One of the most popular restaurants in Chamonix, book ahead for a guaranteed table.

Chambéry: Les Plaisirs Gourmands, 44 Avenue Pierre Lanfrey, 73000. A traditional bistrot that is patronised by locals, and has a good value Menu du jour!

Grenoble: Le Dauphinoix, 11 Rue Bayard, 38000. Fantastic and authentic local cuisine served with genuine hospitality, and is based in the city centre. 

Where you should stay in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region

Accommodation is key when travelling; for a good night’s sleep, and also to help with travel itself. Check out these gems we highly recommend:

Lyon: Le Royale Haussmann, Within a traditional Lyonnais building, this apartment is full of charm, with an airy feel, and a central location.

Annecy: Promenade du Thiou, A great option for families or friends travelling together. Central location and plenty of room for everyone!

Chamonix: Apartment Picasso, Central and only minutes away from the Aiguille du Midi, this one’s great for a younger crowd.

Chambéry: Chabod de Saint Maurice, Stay in style and be wow’d by this historical building. There’s even a private tower!

Grenoble: Timeless memories Contemporary styling in a prime location make this bright apartment a winner!

Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region conclusion

So, get your bags packed and your tickets booked. You now know where you should go and how you’re going to get there! The Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes is a stunning region in France, so get ready for your first trip. It may not be your last!

Nick Garnett
Latest posts by Nick Garnett (see all)

I've been travelling since the 70's and have visited over 30 countries, but, and it's a big but, my heart has always been in the French countryside. So much so that 15 years ago, my wife Charlotte and I bought a little hamlet house in central France and haven't been anywhere since, except for the odd trip to the Polish steppes (don't ask why, it's complicated). FiftyFrance is an expression of our deep and abiding love for France and her people.

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