Packed with contrasting landscapes, Rhône-Alpes is a collection of low and high mountains, plains and river valleys. To the west, the region includes the foothills of the Massif Central with the Forez Plain and the Vivarais district. Its center is marked by the Saône and Rhône river axis that waters the plains of the Bresse, Dombes and Valentinois areas. To the east, along the Swiss and Italian borders, lies a stunning array of mountains, lakes and steep valleys: Lakes Annecy and Le Bourget, the Rhône and Isère river valleys and the Alps combine to make the region a haven for winter sports enthusiasts and tourists. Today, 5.65 million people call Rhône-Alpes home.

The majestic Alps

Mention the French Alps and the mighty Mont-Blanc comes to mind: at 15,765 feet it is the highest peak in Europe. But to skiers, the region means winter sports and resort facilities that can satisfy the most demanding athletes. Indeed, Chamonix, located at the foot of the Mont-Blanc, was the venue for the first Winter Olympics in 1924, followed by Grenoble in 1968 and Albertville in 1992. Bordered to the north by Lake Geneva (Lac Léman in French), the old province of Savoie includes a fringe of alpine peaks–Chablais, Giffre, Bornes and Aravis. The rest of Savoie is made up of the Tarentaise, Maurienne and Oisans districts, each lying in a steep river valley (the Isère, Arc and Romanche rivers, respectively), and alpine peaks such as Mont-Blanc of course, but also Aiguilles-Rouges and Beaufortain. Numerous ski resorts rated “three-flakes” dot the area: Mégève, Les Contamines, Les Arcs, Aix-les-Bains, Val Thorens, Tignes (the first resort to open every September), Val d’Isére and Courchevel, to name a few. Savoie is also the site of the Vanoise Nature Park, France’s first national park (established in 1963) and is a land of lakes. In addition to Lake Geneva (half of which is owned by France) there is Lac d’Annecy, whose deep blue waters reflect the snow-capped peaks and the city of Annecy in an exquisite alpine landscape. The 19th-century poet Lamartine, remembering his lost love, sang of Lac du Bourget’s cool waters.

South of Savoie lies the old province of Dauphiné, whose mountain ranges include Belledonne, the Grandes Rousses, and the Ecrins-Pelvous. The Grande Chartreuse limestone massif is blanketed with pine forests and was St. Bruno’s chosen site in 1084 for a monastery of contemplative monks. Grenoble, Dauphiné’s capital, is built on the banks of the Isère River and is known to have a mountain at the end of every street. Birthplace of the 19th-century writer Stendhal, the city has retained several architectural reminders of the Renaissance period. South of Grenoble, the National Park of the Vercors promotes a wide array of leisure activities: hiking, skiing, rock-climbing and spelunking.

Across the Rhône from Vivarais, the city of Valence has given its name to the area of Valentinois. There, the warmth of the sun, the quality of the light, the olive groves, the lavender fields and the red-tile-roofed villages combine to conjure up a provençal atmosphere long before one reaches the official limit south of Montélimar. Indeed, the scenic town of Nyons is famous for its 18th- and 19th-century olive oil mills.

Two rivers run through it.

Upon arriving in Lyon, visitors should climb to the top of the hill called Fourvière that overlooks the town just as the Romans did two centuries ago when they created Lugdunum. From this viewpoint, it is easy to see the appeal of France’s second largest city: the confluence of the Saône and Rhône rivers, architecture that reflects the city’s prosperity during the Roman and Renaissance eras and a view of the foothills of the Dauphiné mountains. The heart of the city lies in the “Presqu’île” district in the fork of the Saône and Rhône, but the old part of town is located on the western bank of the Saône. Once the town’s center, it counts 300 Renaissance mansions and the famous traboules, covered passages linking buildings that, unfortunately for tourists, are still private properties. The northern area of Croix-Rousse is the traditional district of canuts (silk workers), although the Musée des Tissus (Textile Museum) and its prestigious collection of fabrics is located in the Presqu’île. In the Gerland district, Halle Garnier is a covered market built in 1914 that now hosts cultural events and trade shows. Sheltering close to 200,000 square feet without interior supports, it is an outstanding example of modern architecture.

Lyon's northern neighbors, Beaujolais and Bresse.

To the north of Lyon, the Saône River separates two very different areas: Beaujolais on the western bank and Bresse to the east. Beaujolais is of course wine country (see our chapter on Rhône-Alpes gastronomy). The main city is Villefranche-sur-Saône, built on the site of an 1140 fortress belonging to the Lords of Beaujeu who gave their name to the area. The main street is rich in 15th- to 18th-century houses with very narrow facades, the result of a tax once levied on the width of residences.

On the Saône’s eastern bank, the Bresse area is located on a plain that is drained by the Ain River. It is a land of fine agricultural products, unique rural architecture and a cultural identity worth discovering. The main city, Bourg-en-Bresse, is a busy town that, in addition to its poultry, has built a reputation for country-style furniture. In one of its suburbs stands a 16th-century monastery that houses magnificent sculptured tombs and cloisters. Nearby, the village of St.-Cyr-sur-Menthon is the site of a huge 15th-century farm that now houses the Musée de la Bresse. Southwest of Bourg-en-Bresse is the vast clay plateau of La Dombes, also dubbed “the land of a thousand lakes”. There, migrating fowl return every year to lakes that are rich in carp and bream, turning the area into a fisherman's and birdwatcher's paradise. Set among lakes and woodlands, the delightful village of Châtillon-sur-Charalonne boasts the remnants of an 11th-century castle that was Bresse’s largest stronghold. There are vestiges of the village’s 14th-century ramparts, a 17th-century covered market and a church that is a rare mix of Romanesque and Gothic architecture. The flower-bedecked city of Villars-les-Dombes is neighbor to the Parc des Oiseaux, a 57-acre bird sanctuary half of which consists of ponds. It is home to 2,000 birds of 400 different species.

The Rhône’s western belt.

Only 36 miles from Lyon, Saint-Etienne rose from rather humble beginnings to industrial preeminence in the 19th century as France’s most dynamic economic region, fueled by the wealth of its coal and steel industries. As those activities faded, specialized textile industries took over and today still produce ribbons and braids. North of Saint-Etienne, the town of Montbrison is built around a volcanic mound and dominated by the imposing belfry of its Gothic church. Built along the Loire River on the Forez Plain, Feurs, whose name comes from the Roman forum, is still an important market town. Roanne, also on the Loire, is an old medieval fortress that has become a modern industrial center. Its notable pottery museum houses a fine collection of earthenware and Italian majolica in an early 18th-century mansion, and the surrounding area has several lovely castles.

South of Forez, the attractive and well-preserved town of Viviers gave its name to Vivarais, a mountainous region bisected by the Ardèche River, which flows from the Cévennes mountains to the Rhône River. The countryside is a patchwork of luxuriant valleys replete with melon fields and peach orchards, interrupted by stony hills whose slopes are blanketed with vineyards. The main tourist draw is Vallon-Pont d’Arc, the starting point for exploring the Gorges de l’Ardèche either by boat or by car along the scenic drive overlooking the canyon. There, the river flows under a 115-foot-high natural arch that is nearly 200 feet wide. Upstream, limestone cliffs in the towns of Labeaume and Ruoms flank the river. Aubenas, Vivarais’ main city, stands in an impressive setting and is home to several historic monuments that are worth a detour, as is the nearby Château de Vogüé, which is still in the hands of the original family and where exhibitions and cultural events about Vivarais are held. Also occupying an unusual site is Privas, a former Protestant city that suffered greatly during the Wars of Religion. Today, its Musée de la Terre Ardéchoise is housed in a former convent and holds exhibits about the area.

The region includes no less than eight départements:

  • Ain (01)
  • Archèche (07)
  • Drôme (26)
  • Isère (38)
  • Loire (42)
  • Rhône (69)
  • Savoie (74)
  • Haute-Savoie (73)

Main cities:

  • Lyon. Since the Middle Ages, the region’s capital has been a major crossroads for trade routes between northern and southern Europe.
  • Saint-Etienne. The city has transformed its former coal mining industry into textile, high-precision mechanics, electronics and food processing activities.
  • Grenoble.The economic and cultural capital of the French Alps is a growing and dynamic city.
  • Valence. Now the first stop on the TGV rail line from Paris to Marseille, this city owes its development to its location in the Rhône Basin.
  • Chambéry. The center of savoyard life, this city became the capital of the Dukes of Savoy in 1232.
  • Annecy. lakeside city also boasts a river and a canal, and (not surprisingly) is called “the Venice of Savoie."
  • Bourg-en-Bresse. Pronounced “Bourk,” the capital of Bresse has blended traditional and modern industries to create a thriving city.
  • Roanne. It is France’s best-known textile center for ready-to-wear garments, hosiery, knitted goods and linens.
  • Villefranche-sur-Saône. This medieval city has become a busy industrial and commercial center and the capital of the Beaujolais vineyards.
  • Vienne. The gateway to the Dauphiné area, the city claims a Roman temple and a spectacular Gothic cathedral.
  • Albertville. This facilities built for the 1992 Winter Olympics have been made into leisure parks.
  • Aubenas. Perched on a rocky spur, this lovely town has a 12th-century castle facing impressive 16th-century houses.
  • Privas. Its magnificent bridge, the Pont Louis XIII, spans the Ouvèze River. It is the administrative capital of Ardèche département.