Champagne arouses the senses: the eyes feast on vines parading up hillsides and vertical processions of tiny, sparkling bubbles; the nose breathes in damp soil and the heavenly bouquet of fermentation; the ears rejoice at the clink of glasses and the barely audible fizz; and the palate tingles with every sip. The imagination and the intellect are engaged as Champagne cellar visits reveal the magical processes – governed by the strictest of rules – that transform the world’s most pampered pinot noir, pinot meunier and chardonnay grapes into this Unesco World Heritage–listed region’s most fabled wines.
Despite the prestige of their vines, the people of Champagne offer a warm, surprisingly easygoing welcome, both in the stylish cities and along the Champagne Routes, which wend their way through villages to family-run cellars and vineyards.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Champagne.
Imagine the extravagance of a French royal coronation. The focal point of such pomposity was Reims’ resplendent Gothic cathedral, begun in 1211 on a site occupied by churches since the 5th century. The interior is a rainbow of stained-glass windows; the finest are the western facade’s great rose window, the north transept's rose window and the vivid Marc Chagall creations (1974) in the central axial chapel. The tourist office rents out audio guides for self-paced tours.
A Unesco World Heritage Site, this lavish former archbishop’s residence, redesigned in neoclassical style between 1671 and 1710, was where French princes stayed before their coronations – and where they threw sumptuous banquets afterwards. Now a museum, it displays truly exceptional statuary, liturgical objects and tapestries from the cathedral, some in the impressive, Gothic-style Salle de Tau (Great Hall). Treasures worth seeking out include the 9th-century talisman of Charlemagne and St Rémi's golden, gem-encrusted chalice, which dates from the 12th century.
Half-timbered houses – some with lurching walls and floors that aren’t quite level – line many streets in the old city, rebuilt after a devastating fire in 1524. The best place for aimless ambling is the area bounded by (clockwise from the north) rue du Général de Gaulle, the Hôtel de Ville, rue Général Saussier and rue de la Pierre. Of special interest are (from southwest to northeast) rue de Vauluisant, rue de la Trinité, rue Champeaux and rue Paillot de Montabert.
Housed in a 16th- to 18th-century bishop’s palace, this place owes its existence to all those crocodile-logo shirts, whose global success allowed Lacoste entrepreneurs Pierre and Denise Lévy to amass this outstanding collection. The highlights here are French paintings (including lots of fauvist works) created between 1850 and 1950, glass (especially the work of local glassmaker and painter Maurice Marinot) and ceramics. There's a remarkable portfolio of works by big-name artists including Degas, Rodin, Matisse, Modigliani, Picasso and Soutine.
Épernay’s handsome av de Champagne fizzes with maisons de champagne (Champagne houses). The boulevard is lined with mansions and neoclassical villas, rebuilt after WWI. Peek through wrought-iron gates at Moët’s private Hôtel Chandon, an early-19th-century pavilion-style residence set in landscaped gardens, which counts Wagner among its famous past guests. The haunted-looking Château Perrier, a red-brick mansion built in 1854 in neo–Louis XIII style, is aptly placed at number 13! It's set to open as a new Champagne museum in 2020.
This museum is so outstanding that it’s worth planning your day around a two-hour tour. Assembled by a family that has been making Champagne since 1872, this extraordinary collection of century-old Champagne-making equipment includes objects so aesthetically ravishing that you’ll want to reach out and touch them. Among the highlights is a massive 16-tonne oak-beam grape press from 1630. The museum can only be visited by tour; these are available in French and English. Call ahead or book online.
Bernard de Clairvaux (1090–1153), nemesis of Abelard and preacher of the Second Crusade, founded this hugely influential Cistercian monastery in 1115. Since Napoléon's time, the complex has served as one of France's highest-security prisons. Several historic abbey buildings are open to the public. Tours take in 12th-century structures, built in the austere Cistercian tradition, but more interesting is the 18th-century Grand Cloître, where you can see collective ‘chicken coop’ cells (from the 1800s) and individual cells (used until 1971).
For the region’s best introduction to the art of growing grapes and the cycles of the seasons, head to the Phare de Verzenay, on a hilltop at the eastern edge of the village. Exactly 101 spiral stairs lead to the top of the lighthouse, constructed as a publicity stunt in 1909, which rewards visitors with unsurpassed 360-degree views of vine, field and forest – and, if you’re lucky, a tiny TGV zipping by in the distance.
All at once imposing and delicate with its filigree stonework, Troyes' cathedral is a stellar example of champenoise Gothic architecture. The flamboyant west façade dates from the mid-1500s, while the 114m-long interior is illuminated by a spectacular series of 180 stained-glass windows (13th to 17th centuries) that shine like jewels when it’s sunny. Also notable is the fantastical B aroque organ (1730s) sporting musical putti (cherubs), and a tiny treasury with enamels from the Meuse Valley.