Grenoble: A Mountain at the End of Every Street

by Stephanie O'Dea  |  Published January 26, 2015

Surrounded on all sides by the dramatic silhouettes of no fewer than three mountain ranges, Grenoble may lie amidst ancient landscapes, but that doesn’t mean it’s stuck in the past. One of France’s leading cities for business and industry, Grenoble – often dubbed the Capital of the Alps – also boasts a whopping student population of over 60,000, meaning great nightlife, a buzzy atmosphere and buckets of joie de vivre.

Grenoble and its cable car. (Photo: Laurent Espitallier via Flickr)

Grenoble and its cable car. (Photo: Laurent Espitallier via Flickr)

Located at the meeting point of two rivers, the Drac and the Isére, Grenoble can answer to any whim. Want to enjoy panoramic views without having to climb a mountain? There’s the cable car. Outdoorsy type? Pick from one of three mountain ranges. History buff? Over 2,000 years to get your teeth into… Art? Galleries. Archaeology? Museums. Lots of them.

Take Yourself on a Tour

When it comes to understanding the city and its colourful past, Grenoble’s Tourism Office have not only made it easy, they’ve made it nigh on unmissable. Stop in for their City Audio Guide, which takes visitors on an expert 1.5 hour tour of the city. By the end of this engrossing tour you’ll be pointing out the original Roman Walls; know exactly where Napoleon marched through the city en route to Paris, and generally be an expert in all things Grenoble. If you prefer a human-led tour, the Tourism Office runs regular visits to the City Centre and Bastille.

Move aside Paris – your Bastille is now nothing more than a Metro station and a big flat square. Not so in Grenoble – this fortress is still very much alive and kicking. And there aren’t many trips to a military fortress that include a trip on something called an Egg Lift. Of course, visitors can see La Bastille under their own steam, but this tour throws in a lot of added bonuses. As a tour attendee you’ll have access to sections of the Bastille not usually open to lone visitors, not to mention a knowledgeable guide to fill you in. La Bastille is the star attraction in Grenoble, founded during the Middle Ages and fortified until 1845, by which point there was little need for such imposing defences. Finish up with a drink on the panoramic terrace – the perfect reward for an afternoon’s military education.

For those in search of an adrenaline rush, consider the Acrobastille. The hill-top fortress of La Bastille is home to much more than a big fort and a military museum – there are also two ziplines for the brave-hearted. Great for families and an unforgettable adventure for kids, you’ll climb the dry moat safely attached via a harness, then plunge into the sky and swoop safely to the ground; think ‘Aerial Adventure Playground.’

Refuelling Stations

Having enjoyed a ride in The Bubbles (the local name for the Egg Lift), explored the city with an Audio Guide and seen La Bastille, it’s time to refuel. If you like a little art with your lunch, DiFérent may fit the bill. Not only can you check out the local artistic talent with DiFérent’s rolling programme of exhibitions, you can expect a fresh and inventive menu, a bustling terrasse, funky interiors and friendly service. Alternatively, join the young and pocket-poor at Chez Mémé Paulette, a homely local favourite serving equally hearty fare. In the cosy glow of lamps and good conversation, expect generous servings and a warming atmosphere. And here’s a challenge: try and count all the chicken-knick-knacks dotted around the place. And don’t feel bad when you can’t.

Culture O’Clock

It was Stendhal who said of Grenoble (his hometown), that there is “a mountain at the end of every street.” He’s not wrong. A stroll around the town is afforded a spectacular mountain backdrop, so when you’re on your way to the elegant Place Victor Hugo or the Museum of Grenoble, don’t forget to take in the view. With its superb modern art collection, visitors can spend the afternoon in fine artistic company at the Museum of Grenoble – Matisse, Warhol, Picasso, Modigliani and countless others are all here, making this one of Grenoble’s cultural highlights. For a more contemporary outlook, Le Magasin is the place to be. Built by Gustave Eiffel of Parisian fame, Le Magasin is a huge warehouse of glass and steel and home to one of the country’s finest centres of contemporary art.

Less art, more history? There’s the Stendhal Museum, the Archaeology Museum, the Museum of Natural History and the lovely Musée Dauphinois, housed in a 17th century convent and showcasing fascinating exhibitions on local history (where else can you discover the Grand History of Skiing?)

After all that art and history it’s time for afternoon coffee. Café de la Table Ronde is tipped as the second oldest coffee shop in France and a true Grenoble institution. Established in 1739, the Café has the air of a timeless classic with its huge mirrors, Art Deco touches and zinc-topped bar. Illustrious patrons have ranged from Sarah Bernhardt to Rousseau, but these days the star attraction is Table Ronde’s famous gratin dauphinois, a traditional medley of thin-cut potatoes, Gruyere cheese and milk, all baked to bubbling perfection.

Sometimes overlooked, stop in to see the Horloge Solaire, the world’s largest reflective sundial. Astronomers from all over the globe have come to study this beautiful work of art, painted in 1673 by the Jesuit Father Bonfa and his students on the walls and ceiling of the Jesuit College. And of course, you can check the time, the month and even the current zodiac sign.

Where to Lay Your Hat

A word on accommodation? While the hotel market is geared chiefly towards the many business and science-y people who travel here (Ibis, Novotel, Mercure are all out in force) there are still a number of spots with a little more zing. Le Grand Hotel is a boutique bolthole with contemporary chops, where cast-iron balcony details are paired with crisp monochrome interiors, and a city-centre location thrown in for good measure. A brand new Grenoble address, located just next door to the Hoche Gardens, Okko Hotel is perfect for the design savvy. With lovely views over the park, Okko is just the right side of quirky and includes a few indulgent perks – like a sauna, cosy Swedish-style lounge and a library complete with Mac computers for guests’ use.

And finally, here’s something everyone should know about Grenoble: once upon a time, residents could pay their rent in walnuts. To this day, Grenoble produces the finest walnuts on the planet, so it would be frankly remiss to leave the city without sampling one of the hundreds of forms these humble nuts take. Walnut cake, perhaps, or the local eaux de noix, a sweet aperitif imbued with woodland flavour.