Hidden gems in France: A guide to the Eastern France Doubs and Jura region in Bourgogne-Franche-Comté.

 In Europe, France, Go exploring

Rows of vineyards surrounding picturesque villages inspiring the likes of Gustav Courbet and Victor Hugo. Eastern France sure knows how to put on a show! This guide will help you uncover the hidden gems in France you never knew you were missing out on. We delve into the Doubs and Jura region in Bourgogne Franche-Comté: copious amounts of yellow wine, an arduous tale of salt and endless waterfalls await!

Looking at a map of Europe, it is hard to miss the colossal hexagon that is France. The country is carved up into 101 different regions (departments), each with their culinary specialities and cultural heritage sites. The repertoire of tourist attractions in France is seemingly endless, yet according to official statistics almost 50% of all tourism centres around Paris. Granted, the city is unparalleled when it comes to culture but there is SO MUCH MORE to France than Paris.

In this guide we head east, halfway down the right side of France in the direction of Switzerland Bourgogne- Franche-Comté where we focus on the Doubs and Jura region. Karst megaliths jutting from forested hills, split open by rogue waterfalls that feed the swell of the Doubs and Loue river, the scenery almost make you feel like you are somewhere in the middle of the Dolomites.

Waterfall in the French Jura Mountains
Explore one of the many waterfalls

Why visit the Doubs and Jura region in Eastern France?

The question is very valid. In all honesty, aside from the Alsace region – which is the undisputed Christmas Capital of France: Flammküchen, vin chaud and hundreds of twinkling lights are sure to make even the Grinch change his mind about Christmas – I knew nothing about Eastern France.

After an exquisite week chasing fall in France throughout this region, experiencing the unbridled hospitality of locals and getting a first taste of the lesser-known wines from Jura, I can confidently claim that my bucketlist needs readjusting.

If you are looking for some unique places to visit in France, where the art of slow tourism and slow food is skilfully mastered, Bourgogne Franche-Comte is worth looking into. It has 8 out of the 41 Unesco world heritage sites in France and offers some of the most scenic hikes in France. Pack a sturdy backpack, a solid pair of walking boots and your driver’s licence, it is time for a roadtrip through some of the best kept hidden gems in France.

Planning a last-minute trip? Here are some useful resources:

If you do not want to have different accomodations each night, use Besançon as your base to explore the Doubs region! Here is a selection of accomodations for each budget.

  • Ibis Downtown Besançon: A no nonsense 3-star hotel located 5 minute walk from Besançon city centre.
  • €€ Les Fontenottes: A B&B with a local character in a charming mansion. Breakfast is made up of delicious local products and included in the price. 15 Minute walk from Besançon city centre.
  • €€€ Hotel Le Sauvage: A former convent rebuilt into a cozy upscale hotel complete with a spa and sweeping views over the city. 10 Minute walk from Besançon city centre.
Village in Eastern France - Dole
The village of Dole

Things to do in the Doubs and Jura Region

From a culinary and cultural standpoint, the region is distinctly French, yet the architecture and landscape betray the vicinity of Switzerland: Wooden chalet style houses, pear-shaped clock towers and fluffy brown cows grazing lazily, golden bells around their neck echoing through the mountains.

Exploring the prettiest villages in Eastern France, hiking some of the most scenic hikes in France and finding hidden gems the French don’t even know about are but a few things this region has to offer!

Explore the quaintest villages in France

Besançon (Doubs Region)

Besançon citadelle
Citadel of Besançon

With a 116.000 inhabitants Besançon is in fact a small size city and not so much a village. Yet it has that distinct village like feel to it: Narrow little streets that end in small squares lined with houses behind which inner courtyards connected through beautiful outside wooden staircases and opulent gardens lie hidden from prying eyes.

The city is nestled in a valley surrounded by both karst monoliths – upon which sit forts that have protected Besançon since the Roman times. Fully encircled by the river Doubs, the city of Besançon has been pretty much impenetrable since the Romans set their eye on it, remnants of whom can still be found in the current day city.

Besançon museum of time
The Museum of Time from above

Things to do in Besançon

We start by clambering up direction the Besançon citadel, a steady 15-minute walk from the city centre, huffing and puffing we reach the top and witness the best views over the city! Next we learn about the age old tradition of clock making in the Museum of Time and catch a glimpse of a modern interpretation of this UNESCO classified tradition from the award winning clock maker Utinam.

As golden hours starts setting in we drive up to Fort Bregille to catch the second best view over the city, which happens to be on the opposite side of the river. The sun sets behind the citadel indicating it is high time to head into town and explore. By the time we walk across the Victor Hugo Square, named after its most famous inhabitant, the sun is shedding off the last light of the day and street lanterns take over to illuminate our path.

Time ran out on us, but we are told there is a walk to be done to spot the prettiest fountains of the city. If you do have some spare time march yourself to the local tourist office and pick up a map to go on a treasure hunt for the cities fountains.

Practical details for visiting Besançon
  • Sunset Spots: Citadel of Besançon (1.3 km from the city centre) or Fort Bregille (4 km from the city centre
  • Outdoor activities: Check out espacestrail to get a feel of the multitude of outdoor activities on offer in the neighbouring hills and rivers surrounding Besançon.
  • Walk with a guide:  Learn everything about the city through a 2h private walking tour
  • How long to stay: One day to explore the city and one additional day to partake in the outdoor activities on offer.

Ornans (Doubs Region)

Ornans France
Downtown Ornans

Built on the banks of the Loue river, pastel colored wooden houses and remnants of former thriving industries (mills and tanneries) still line the river banks today. The village of Ornans is a true hidden hem of France! The birthplace of the French painter Gustav Courbet is small in size – a mere 4000 inhabitants – but packs a lot of personality.

Things to do in Ornans

The enormous 16th century Saint Lawrence church with its typical “Comtoise belfry” (four S-shaped sides), towers over the little village, sadly it is closed when we visit. On the Gustav Courbet square stands a statue created by the painter himself. It depicts a young boy, who originally was naked however due to public outrage was later piously covered up with a loincloth. Opposite the statue lies the Gustav Courbet Museum, which can be visited daily except Tuesday.

That however is not the most interesting part of the square. Here and there you will find lines marked on walls, next to which numbers are scribbled. These refer to the height of the water during the yearly floods, the last one dating back to 2021. To this day, each year this part of the town is flooded by excess water from the Loue river.

Practical details for visiting Ornans
  • How to get there: Besançon to Ornans – 25 km (28 min car ride)
  • Gustav Courbet Museum entrance fee: €6
  • How long to stay: The village is small so half a day is sufficient

Arbois (Jura Region)

Arbois surrounded by vineyards

From Gustav Courbet we move on the another illustrious Frenchman, this time in the realm of science. It is time to discover a little about Louis Pasteur and where he grew up, in the village of Arbois.

Things to do in Arbois

Before delving nose deep into the life and work of Louis Pasteur, we decide to head out of town to one of the many (many!) vineyards. Arbois is a lesser known place for wine tourism in France yet still manages to produce 3,720,000 litres of wine a year or roughly 1091 litres per inhabitant.

We visit the Domain de la Pinte one of the regions sustainable wineries and learn about what goes into cultivating wines sustainably and how it alters the taste slightly. Our visit coincides with autumn which has turned the leaves of the surrounding vineyards into a bright sea or orange. The grapes have long been harvested! Visit and tastings are available upon request.

Arbois might be a bit off the beaten track in France but Louis Pasteur is most certainly not. Learn all about his life, his scientific achievements and how he not only was a scientist but also an artist. The visit to his house took around 1 hour. If you can, try and get a local guide to share their knowledge as it brings both the house and Mr. Pasteur to life.

Practical details for visiting Arbois
  • How to get there: Besançon to Ornans – 47 km (50 min car ride)
  • Louis Pasteur Museum entrance fee: €6.8
  • How long to stay: One day (if you plan on a wine tasting)

Poligny (Jura Region)

La Maison Du Comté
Discovering the secrets of cheese making in La Maison Du Comté

Located at the foot of the Jura mountains, surrounded by vineyards and limestone cliffs lies the picture perfect little village of Poligny. The village has got to be one of the most beautiful places in France to live, yet only 4000 people call it home.

Things to do in Poligny

The reason we stop in Poligny is to visit the La Maison du Comté (the home of the Comté cheese), an interactive museum that showcases the origins of one of the jewels of the Bourgogne – Franche- Comté region, the Comté cheese. Initially I was sceptical, as generally I prefer a museum dedicated to art and culture and not, well cheese.

Cheese is one of the staples in French Cuisine. For the region of Franché-Comte the cheese of choice is the Comté, it is ubiquitous in Franche-Comté: used an ingredient to many regional dishes, served as the perfect accompaniment to some Yellow Jura wine or proudly adorning the cheese plate that is eaten before dessert. The museum turns out to be super fun! We tread through the halls sniffing smells, identifying odd textures through holes in the wall and exerting momentous strength while (failing) to pick up a cheese wheel.

Practical details for visiting Poligny
  • How to get there: Besançon to Poligny – 57 km (55 min car ride)
  • La Maison du Comté museum entrance fee: €10,5
  • How long to stay: Half a day

Dole (Jura Region)

Village in Eastern France - Dole
The village of Dole

With a population of 27.000 Dole is close is size to Besançon, yet it is still considered one of the hidden gems in France. The city in Eastern France has an extraordinary amount of churches and cloisters, the pinnacle of which is the UNESCO classified Notre-Dame collegiate church of Dole.

Things to do in Dole

The best way to get a feel of the city – from the ground – is to following the little silver circles imprinted with a cat that have been strategically placed around the city.  These little circles form a 4 kilometre walking route taking you to see the house where Louis Pasteur was born, the Collegiate church and 35 other historically important buildings in Dole.

The symbol of the perched cat was not chosen at random, it refers to the children’s book called Les Contes du Chat Perché (Tales of the perched cat) by the famous French novelist Marcel Aymé who went to school in Dole and wove elements of the city of Dole into his famous story.

For sunset we climbed the 500+ stairs of the collegiate church that make up the bell tower, and are rewarded with impressive views over the city. The spider web blueprint upon which this old city was built and the interesting phenomenon of chapels construct within inner courtyards – the spires of which are just barely visible from the street – unfold in front of us.

Practical details for visiting Dole
  • How to get there: Besançon to Dole – 52 km (51 min car ride)
  • Notre Dame Collegiate Church entrance fee: Free
  • The Perched Cat Walking Route: 4 km long, pick up the map at the tourist office of Dole
  • How long to stay: One day

Workout with some of the best hiking in France

The Jura mountains contain some of the most underrated places in France to go hiking! This translates into beautiful nature with only a handful of people around. The region is known for its rolling hills, which offer the perfect playground for both novice and advanced hikers.

Hikes around Besançon

Besançon citadelle
Citadel of Besançon

Beginners hikes
Looking for walks inside the city, try one of the three well-marked routes that range from 2.5 to 4.6 km. If you want to get outside the city to stretch your legs, Komoot has a range of 20 hikes to choose from

Intermediate and advanced hikes
Want to conquer one of the 7 hills around Besançon on a day hike or multiple day hike? If you speak French, the Grandes Heures app is a great resource created by locals with intimate knowledge of the region. If not, no worries there are plenty of hiking routes available on Espaces Trail with varying degrees of difficulties.

Hikes around the Belvedere des quatre lacs

Belvedere des quatre lacs
The views from the viewpoint right off the parking

Looking for some of the most scenic hiking trails in France? Than consider driving to the four lakes, where the Jura region shares a border with Switzerland it will treat you to landscapes that are vaguely reminiscent of the Dolomites in Italy.

Sadly we ran out of time during out stay, and were unable to do this hike. Instead we opted to take in the view from the viewing platform (Belvedere des Quatre Lacs) which is right off the parking lot mentioned below. If you have 30 minutes to spare, walk 500 meters from the “Belvederes des Quatre Lacs” to the “Belvedere des trois lacs” (viewing platform of the three lakes) to get a better viewpoint of the lakes.

In essence you hike around the 4 lakes in a loop, getting lost is virtually impossible (good news for the directionally challenged travellers like myself). There are a few varieties (add-ons) you can take making the hike longer or shorter depending on what strikes your fancy. The terrain for the hikes is categorised as moderate, the views epic making it one of the best hiking trails in France for the occasional hiker (i.e. me and most likely the majority of active travellers).

These are the two most popular hikes:

  • Easy Hike: 4 Lakes Tour (10,9km) Download the hike info (path description, pictures) and GPX coordinates)
  • Intermediate Hike: 4 Lakes and Pic de l’Aigle Loop (15km). Download the hike info (path description, pictures) and GPX coordinates

We opted for a free parking right next to the view point of the four lakes. The above mentioned hikes pass by this lookout point so you can easily start your hike from this parking lot.

Hike to some of the most majestic natural attractions in France: Waterfalls!

Cascade des Tufs Jura Region
Cascade de Tufs Jura Region

When I think of hiking in France, waterfalls are not the first thing to spring to mind. Yet if there is one thing you will find aplenty in the Jura Region it is just that. As you are truly exploring off the beaten path France, you can expect the waterfalls to be relatively calm all year long (especially in comparison with trails in the French Alps which is THE hotspot for walking holidays in France).

We visited two waterfalls near Salins-les- Bains with hiking trails around them:

  • Cascade des Tufs: Easy hike 3,7 km (map), Moderate hike 8km (map)
  • Source du Lison: Moderate hike 5km (map), Difficult hike 14,2 km (map)

Uncover a couple of real hidden gems in France even the French don’t know about

To say there are a lot of heritages sites in France is a vast understatement. Visiting all of them would most likely take you a lifetime, or three. The Jura region has its fair share of heritage sites, the coolest are linked to the production of salt which personally was not something I thought France was famous for!

Salt was a widely used commodity and important ingredient for preserving food dating back to Roman times.  This white gold was used to pay Roman soldiers and steadily grew in importance in the subsequent decades. The ubiquity of salt led the French Government to impose the gabelle  (salt tax) in the 14th century which lasted all the way up the 1946. The region of Franche-Comté has a large number of salt springs which were a key driver for the economic growth of the region accounting for half the income of the region.

Saline Royale d’Arc-et-Senans

Saline Royale d'Arc-et-Senans
Saline Royale d'Arc-et-Senans

Perhaps the biggest surprise and “wow” moment during our trip came when we walked into the Saline Royale d’Arc-et-Senans, a monumental feat of 18th century industrial architecture that received UNESCO world heritage status in 1982 yet somehow never quite became one of the must see tourist places in France.

The Saline Royale was built as a place to manufacture salt. Yet it was more than a ‘simple’ factory, the idea was to create standalone city that could house 3000 inhabitants, never reaching that potential at the height of power it filled but a mere 10% of this capacity. Shut down in 1895 due to a lawsuite and inefficiency the Saline Royale became an orphanage; war camp, derelict building and finally a museum and exposition area. In winter the unheated former salt storage barn houses an ice skating rink and Christmas market.

This complex semi-circular factory was designed by Claude Nicolas Ledoux. Thought he is said to have been the official architect of Louis the 15th and one of the most prolific architects of his time, little is left over from his impressive oeuvre which was mainly based out of Paris. With the rigorous 19th century rebuild of Paris undertaken by Haussman, much of his work made way for a newer version of Paris. buildings are left standing as Haussman came along and completely restructured 19th century Paris

Practical details for visiting the Saline Royale d’Arc-et-Senans
  • How to get there: Besançon to Saline Royale – 34 km (40 min car ride)
  • Museum entrance fee: €12,5
  • How long to stay: A visit will take up to 2 hours

Grande Salines in Salins-les-bains

Grande Salines in Salins-Les-Bains
Grande Salines in Salins-Les-Bains

While the Saline Royale d’Arc-et-Senans is worth a visit from an architectural point of view, to really get an understanding of how salt was produced one of the best places to go in France is the Grande Salines in Salins-les-Bains. Our guide passionately explains how salt was mined from water, delves into the harsh conditions in which workers had to work and the reason for the downfall of the salt mines.

We take a peak underground in one of the only underground galleries in Europe dedicated to the production of salt and set eyes on a massive wooden water pump that to this day is still used for the (very limited) production of salt. This salt is sold in small amounts or used to produce salted caramel candy (delicious) that can be bought at the reception.

Practical details for visiting the Grande Salines
  • How to get there: Besançon to Salins Les Bains – 42 km (47 min car ride)
  • Museum entrance fee: €8
  • How long to stay: The museum visit is one hour

Château de Cléron

chateau-de-cleron in Eastern France
Château de Cléron

Autumn in France is epitomised by the Château de Cléron in early November. In one of the many bends of the Loue river, surrounded by beautiful gardens and a little waterfall lies a proper castle, turrets and all – Much more picturesque than any of the castles in Belgium.

We pull up and notice it is closed, Google dutifully informs me that the Castle is in fact privately owned and only the gardens are op to the public, during a select few weeks in summer.

Ever so slightly bummed out we park the car in the parking lot opposite the castle. Following the road that slopes upwards gently will bring you to a low brick wall, from which you have a clear view of the castle. If you feel like a beautiful scenic drive it is worth navigating from Besançon to the Château de Cléron, it is a good pit stop if you are driving to Ornans (12 minutes from Ornans).

Practical details for visiting Château de Cléron
  • How to get there: Besançon to Château de Cléron – 27 km (30 min car ride)
  • Visiting the gardens: Entrance fee €3; in July and August only
Wine from Jura
Vineyards (Source: Unsplash @svenwilhelm)

One thing you do not want to miss:
Wines from Jura

There is no coming to grips with France without coming to grips with French Wine. The country has more than its fair share of starlets: Alsace Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire Valley, Pinot Noir from Burgundy or Merlot from Bordeaux.

Wines from Jura do not tend to make the red carpet when discussing wine tourism in France, unjustly so. The Jura vineyards are small in size 80 kilometres (compared to 300 km in Burgundy) but offer a surprisingly rich variety of different wines.

Jura wines at a glance

There is no coming to grips with France without coming to grips with French Wine. The country has more than its fair share of starlets: Alsace Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire Valley, Pinot Noir from Burgundy or Merlot from Bordeaux.

Wines from Jura do not tend to make the red carpet when discussing wine tourism in France, unjustly so. The Jura vineyards are small in size but offer a surprisingly rich variety of different wines.

  • 7 AOCs: With Arbois wine having received the first French AOC label
  • 5 Grape varieties: Chardonnay, Savagnin, Poulsard, Pinot Noir, Trousseau
  • Specialities of the Jura Region to try:
    1.  Jura Yellow Wine: The wine is an intense yellow color. Left to mature for 6 years under a thin veil of yeast, this wine is full of character. Great to pair with aged Comté cheese
    2. Vin de Paille: This very sweet white wine is almost caramel in color and tastes of candied fruits, marmalade of honey.
    3. Macvin du Jura: This liqueur wine comes in white, red or rosé form and can be drunk as an aperitive or a digestif.
    4. Marc du Jura: An amber colored brandy which is the perfect digestif
Yellow Jura wine
Typical Yellow Wine Source: Alain Doire (Bourgogne Franche-Comte Tourism)

Tasting Wines from Jura :
Where to go and when

Our trip coincided with fall in France, the vineyards no longer held any grapes and the landscape turned into a patchwork of different shades of orange. Absolutely spectacular to see, but if you are here specially for the wine try and head over during spring or early fall.

Wine festivals in the Jura region you do not want to miss

  • Le Biou (Arbois, September): A folkloric festival which goes back many years. A festival that marks the time before the harvest, with a procession of the biou (a carefully crafted centrepiece with nearly 80 kilos of grapes hanging from it).
  • Percée du Vin Jaune (Arbois, February): A folkloric festival dedicated to the typical Yellow wines from the Jura Region. At the festival you can taste wines from 70 regional wine producers and partake in a religious ceremony where a 228 litre cask of white wine is ceremoniously opened and shared amongst participants!

Where to go for a wine tasting

  • Arbois: Domaine de la Pinte
  • Coteaux de La Haute Seille : Château d’Arlay ( Oldest wine château in France)

As far as tourist attractions in France go, Eastern France and the Doubs and Jura region is one of the most authentic and hospitable regions in the country. There are few hidden gems in France that are as well guarded as the Jura region. It is the perfect spot for travellers who love hiking, good wine and generally enjoy a slower paced tourism.

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  • […] France has many starlets when it comes to tourist spots yet somehowBesançon has not made it to the wall of fame. This city in Eastern France is at the epicentre of outdoor activitities, miles of vineyards and some of the country’s most beautiful nature, welcome to the Jura Region. […]

  • […] them with a fair number of fellow tourists. Now if you are looking for a true hidden gem, the Jura Region in Eastern France is so hidden that even many locals have not visited. The region is the epicenter for outdoor […]

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