“It’s a special place with a special history that people discover when coming to Grenoble,” was the understatement from Renaud Pras, chef du protocol, Ville de Grenoble, France. There is so much to do that four days in the city were packed with places to visit and sights to see in the Capital of the French Alps. If you’re visiting Paris, a highspeed train can get you to Grenoble in less than four hours.
Arriving in this Alpine village at the base of the French Alps and home to the 1968 Winter Olympics is a place with a long list of things to do. There’s a full-fledged modern aerospace industry city, but the Grenoble it surrounds, the old town with its historic buildings, flourishing sidewalk cafes, and pedestrian-friendly accessibility.
“Bonjour, Bienvenue à Grenoble,” said Cyrille when I climbed into the Uber at the Grenoble Train Station to head to my hotel. Although I was trying to speak French, Grenoble is the second-largest English-speaking region in France, so we spoke in “Frenglish” on our way to Le Patricia, my apartment-hotel base for the five days in the Alpen city. “You will like it here. There is so much to see and do. Wait until you see the Bastille.”
As we meandered through town on the short trip from the station, she said, “Le Téléphérique is so much fun. Are you going to take it up the mountain?”
I said it was on the itinerary; I was excited about riding the famous cable car from the old city across the Isère River and up to the historic fort.
Ville de Grenoble
Grenoble is the entrée to ski resorts, mountain hikes, museums, historic buildings, tourist attractions, and a nicely paced way to holiday, from famous French tacos to a Scottish brewpub to fine continental dining.
There are more tourist-known places in France than the city of Grenoble, but its history, its role in winning World War II, and breathtaking Alpen views from la Bastille make it a primo addition to any bucket list. It’s the largest city in the French Alps and was once the capital of the historical Dauphiné province.
The ancient city is three hours from Gare de Lyon in Paris via TGV trains to the Grenoble train station. It’s an under four-hour train ride. Pay the extra money and go first class. The round-trip upgrade costs only an additional US$50 or so. It’s worth it for the more comfortable seats, extra legroom, and the table. If a trip takes more than an hour, go first class.
Visiting Grenoble is a must for military buffs. Its location on the edge of France near today’s Switzerland, Germany, and Italy made it a place to headquarters fighting troops. Its military history dates to the Middle Ages. Its mountain troops were terrors in World War I, and the French Resistance was centered in the city.
Grenoble is where the French Revolution was planned.
Exploring the City
Arriving mid-afternoon and settling into my apartment hotel just a block off the Rivière Isère, I hit the streets to explore. I wandered between historic “new” old city buildings from the 18th Century with others dating back to the 19th Century and older. There were 20th-century buildings as well.
“Grenoble was a center of la Résistance,” Pras would tell me, in French, on a walking tour coming up the next day. “It was such a problem for Hitler that he ordered the city bombed.”
I’d be told that 30 percent of Grenoble was destroyed in those raids only to be rebuilt after the war.
After walking Quai Créqui along the river, I was ready for a good dinner. On the way to the hotel when we passed L’Adiago, Cyrille told me, “You must try the pizza in Grenoble. We have very good Italian food because of where we are.”
“C’est l’Américaine,” said Paule turning to smile. I returned her greeting. We started chatting and ended up sliding our tables together.
“What have you seen?” asked Paul, said the Québécoise who was taking his wife to see from where his family moved in France to Canada. “We walked around Jardin de Ville but ended up taking a nap. The buildings are so beautiful.”
“It reminds me of Montréal,” said Paule. “Although I probably should say Montréal reminds me of Grenoble since it’s much older here.”
Sitting in between the Rivière Iaère and Le Drac, Grenoble was once a Gallic tribal village. The city has its first references from the first century of the common era. The area was invaded by the Romans, who built battlements in the late 200s—remnants of which are still used in buildings.
By the time of the Holy Roman Empire, the church dominated the city, and the baptistery was built in the 400s. It is one of the oldest surviving ruins of the ancient Christian church.
Picking Which Museum to See
“Tomorrow, we’re going to the Musée de L’Ancien Évêché,” said Paul. “I want to show Paule the baptistery.”
“I’m going to the Bastille tomorrow morning,” I told them. “The museum is on my plate for the next day.”
“We are, too; maybe we’ll see you there,” he said as our pizzas arrived within minutes of each other. We shared, and they were delicious.
“It’s a family recipe they brought from Italy,” our server assured us. Being just a few hours from Italy and a couple of hours from Geneva, there is much influence from the neighboring cultures, particularly in cuisine and shopping.
We pulled out our travel guide and shared notes on places we wanted to see. Paule hoped to visit the Musée de Grenoble and Musée Dauphinois, the art museum, and history and archaeological museum offerings.
Paul and I both had Musée des Troupes Montagne and Musée de la Résistance et le Déportation on our must-see lists. Some art is publicly displayed everywhere, others in each of the 14 museums in the ville.
“Some people think that this is graffiti,” Grenoble’s deputy mayor Emmanuel Carroz would tell me later as he pointed to artistic graphics on a store’s pull-down security door. “For us, this is contemporary art, street art.”
Le Téléphérique and Fort de la Bastille
After a light breakfast the following day at Le Patricia, I headed towards the river and Le Téléphérique, the old town Grenoble-Bastille cable car. Also called the “Grenoble Bubbles” because of the spherical cabins, it was first opened in 1934 following the vision of Grenoble Mayor Paul Mistral. More than 700 meters (2,297 feet) long, it rises 266 meters (873 feet) from the old town to the Bastille.
Arriving after a four-minute ride, the 350,000 annual visitors have the history of the Fort de la Bastille, its museum and the Grottes de Mandrin, and a 300-degree view of Grenoble and the Alps.
Their most important role was providing artillery defenses for Grenoble used by the French Mountain Brigade, Des Troupes de la Montagne, fierce special forces honored after World War I with their German nickname, the Blue Devils. The brigade, even though located in neutral French Vichy during the Nazi occupation, became the core of the French Resistance.
It’s worth the two hours of wandering through the old fort and the spectacular Musée Des Troupes de la Montagne. The museum is built into the fort, although it feels as if you’re in a cave. It walks you through the Mountain Troops’ equipment, uniforms, and history. The French Army operates the museum, and the docents are active military personnel.
“We are the original special forces,” said the sergeant at the information desk, who asked that his name not be published. “Unlike most army personnel, we learned to fight covertly, fiercely, and with surprise here in the mountains.”
Riding Téléphérique back to the old city, it was time for lunch. Corrinne and Christophe Pichot, my Ville de Grenoble hosts, told me to try a Grenoble taco. Coming from Phoenix, Arizona, U.S., tacos are mainstay local fare. The idea of a French taco was intriguing.
Finding the Original French Taco
I walked to Le Tacos de Grenoble, where Mounir assured me the French taco had been invented. It’s more like a burrito than a taco, and the tastes of the Alps definitely flavor its filling. Mine was steak, potatoes, onions, and spices. One thing I found in Paris, Mont Saint-Michel, and Versailles eateries … expect les frites, French fries in America (please, don’t call them French fries in Europe). They come with meals in restaurants of all different price ranges.
The 4th Century Baptistery
In the afternoon, I walked back to the old town steeped in the canyon of historic buildings, past multiple sidewalk cafes to step back in time through the gate of Musée de l’Ancien Évéché, in the heart of the old city adjoining Cathédrale de Notre Dame de Grenoble.
The museum is inside le palais, the bishopric palace associated with Notre Dame. First built in the 10th Century, the church used the Bishopric until 1907, when the University of Grenoble moved onto the grounds—modern times led to the most exciting discovery. The palace was renovated for ten years starting in the mid-1980s to accommodate a museum for Dauphinois artists.
The entire lower floors of the museum feature Plexiglas floors where visitors walk over the paths and through the halls of a 2,000-year-old ruin.
The museum features twice-annual temporary exhibitions featuring culture and history from the Grenoble region.
A Scottish Pub in a French Alps Town
That evening, I joined up with Corrine and Christophe, my hosts from the Ville de Grenoble, and Europe Direct Projects Officer, Tanguy Specq, at the Kiltin’ Brew Pub. William, the publican, Scottish brogue and all, brought ale and pilsner to our café tables along with stories.
“My father was a Scot and wanted to be involved in fighting the Germans,” he said. “He came to Grenoble and fought with the resistance. He would run refuges and weapons to and from Switzerland.”
We enjoyed the comfortable evening temperatures, bar food, and conversation about the resistance and how his father ultimately stayed in the Alps, buying a nearby farm where William was raised. Finished with my brew, he showed me the restaurant and gave me another draft to sample. While we chatted, I was leaning against the rough stone wall of the ancient building.
“The Romans built that wall you’re leaning against as part of the village’s defenses,” William said. Startled, I turned and looked more closely at the rough-hewn stones and mud that have stood for two millennia.
Walking back to the hotel from Kiltin’, my feet clicked on the cobblestones and echoed from the buildings on each side of the narrow street. Tomorrow was to be a busy day. The streets were quiet until I hit the plaza at Place Grenette; there, despite the hour, the outdoor cafes were bustling with diners and drinkers.
The Walking Tour
Meeting everyone at Hôtel de Ville de Grenoble, the city hall, it was time for a walking tour with Deputy Mayor Emmanual Cardoz, Pras, Kelly, a translator, and Corrine and Kelly from the International Affairs office.
On the roof of the city hall with its 360-degree view, Deputy Mayor Cardoz pointed out the rings marking the city’s growth from Roman times to the current era. It was easy to see the irregular patterns and intersections in the oldest portions of the city and how it fanned out in a grid as the city grew to 750,000 people in the region.
Dropping back down to ground level and entering Parc Paul Mistral, Renaud, and Emmanuel pointed out the exceptionally interesting art through the park and the city.
Le Petit Plaisir is part of a periodic gathering of artists sponsored by the city. This evocation of ancient Greece was sculpted in 1967. It’s one of more than 150 sculptures and statues commissioned by Grenoble and placed throughout the city—making a walking tour of street art a must-do on an itinerary.
Grenoble has a prominent but quiet place in the history of World War II and the Nazi Occupation.
“Monument aux Déportés honors the memory of the thousands of Jews deported from Grenoble and deportation of hundreds of ordinary Grenoblans who protested the action,” said Renaud. An urn with the soil from the Nazi concentration camps is buried at the foot of the monument.
We turned towards the monument honoring the glory of the Blue Devils, the French Mountain Troops from World Wars I and II. The tall statue with a brass soldier in full WWI battle uniform stands overlooking the city. Dedicated in 1936, before the occupation, it was crafted by Édouard Fraisse.
“On Armistice Day (November 11) 1943, several hundred gathered and sang “La Marseillaise” (the French national anthem),” explained Renaud. “They were arrested and deported by the Nazis. They are honored here as well.”
We continued our stroll through the city as Renaud and Emmanuel pointed out street art, monuments, historic sites, memorials, and fountains. We walked about five kilometers (3.4 mi) before settling into La Table du Margaux for lunch.
One learning experience in France is that meals are enjoyed later than in the U.S. Most places do not open for breakfast or coffee until at least 8:00 in the morning. Even the Starbucks close to my hotel didn’t open until 7:30. Lunch is 13:00 or later (France is on a 24-hour clock; 13:00 is 1:00 p.m.), and dinners are typically after 19:00 (7:00 p.m.).
La Musée de la Résistance et Déportation
We parted ways after lunch, and it was time to head for the Musée de la Résistance et Déportation du Isère.
“We were a center of French resistance in World War II,” the docent told me. “The museum honors those volunteer fighters with the displays of their tools and devices.”
A significant portion of the museum is dedicated to the Grenoble deportation when the Nazis rounded up and deported 11,000 Jews and “undesirables” to concentration camps in the east. Visiting the museum is a moving experience.
More Fun and Museums
That night, I joined hosts Corrine, Christophe, and Grenoble events manager Kelly Lombardi-Varesano for one of Tanguy’s hobbies, a trivia game in the basement of a pub off the plaza. The pace, beer, ferocity, and laughter—all in French—were mainly beyond my skill level. Tanguy did rapidly translate for me.
The next day included trips to Musée de Grenoble, the massive art and antiquities museum, and Le Magasin – Centre National d’Art Contemporain, the official museum of modern art in Grenoble. The city has 15 museums.
That last night in Grenoble, Corrinne, Christophe, Kelly, and I met for dinner at Montebello, a brother and sister-owned Italian restaurant and grocery. After an extraordinary dinner and long conversation, it was time to return to Le Patricia and pack for the next leg of my four-week European adventure. Leaving Grenoble after four days left a longing to return soon.
Visitons Les Alpes (Visiting the Alps)
Grenoble is the capital of the Alps, and no visit is complete without at least a day trip into the magnificent mountains that touch Italy, Switzerland, Germany, and Austria.
Hiring a car (car rental) or taking the bus makes heading up into the Alps an option for unique and beautiful scenery. Just an hour from Grenoble, Patrimoine de Chartreuse starts with a museum. It ends with a scenic drive through the Chartreuse Massif and Route de Saint-Laurent-du-Pont, a mountainous scenic drive in a narrow pass between towering mountains and cliffs offering incredible mountain views.
This is the path that brought the Romans to Grenoble. Some portions of the original Roman road still exist and can be hiked. It’s best visited in the summer and fall before meters of snow pile onto the trails. The scenic route passes ancient castle ruins.
Southeast of Grenoble at 1,869 meters (6,132ft) sits Alpe d’Huez, an hour away year-round resort with winter skiing and summer hiking and cycling. It’s best known for being the most challenging stage of the Tour de France with its 21-hairpin-turn Avenue des Jardins. For the less competitive, summer ski lifts take riders and bikes to the summit for the ride down the road.
Just 45 minutes from Grenoble, Chamrousse on the Belledonne massif is the site of all downhill ski events from the 1968 Grenoble Winter Olympics. The resort is open from Fall through Spring for winter sports. Slightly further, an hour-and-a-quarter from Grenoble, is Les Deux Alpes, France’s second oldest ski resort. It’s also a Fall through Spring destination.
Getting to Grenoble
You can fly from the U.S. to Grenoble or nearby and larger, Lyon, France, with plane changes from many U.S. cities via American Airlines, British Airways, or Air France. Flights transfer to London or Paris to make the final connection.
Both major carriers, like American Airlines, Air France, and British Airways, and discount carriers like Ryan Air and EasyJet can get you to Lyon or Grenoble from major European cities.