Grenoble, capital of the French Alps and famous winter playground, has lots to offer all year round. So sneak off the slopes for a second and see what this fantastic town has in store
Getting to Grenoble is easy, with excellent flight connections and the benefit of the SNCF (TGV) rapid French rail system, so a long weekend or short break is really viable. And as it's one of the sunniest places in France, with an annual appearance of more than 2,000 hours by the great yellow orb, you are pretty much guaranteed a blue-sky experience.
Saint-Geoirs airport is about 45km northwest and Lyon-Saint Exupery airport is about 100km in the same direction. Both have excellent bus transfer services so you can be at Grenoble station in about one hour at a very reasonable price. Rail travel from London gets you to the same venue in around seven and a half hours.
Wherever you stand in the city, you can’t escape the views of majestic mountain peaks that poke their heads above the rooftops or at the end of the long straight boulevards. I can’t think of anywhere else that absolutely rubber stamps your location in such a magnificent way. Go to the top of the Bastille by way of the cable car system, Les Bulles, and you’ll get an even greater impression of the city and the mountains that envelop it. At a height of 498m above sea-level, you’ll see the old town, Notre Dame with its terracotta roofs, the flat expanse of the city and the confluence of the Rivers Isère and Drac.
There is plenty of mid to high-end accommodation in Grenoble, with a choice of cheaper accommodation on the outer edges of the town. Contemporary and traditional hotels can be found in the centre of town close to good bus or tram connections. The Hôtel Mercure Grenoble Centre is well located on boulevard Marechal-Joffre, with spacious rooms and a great restaurant, Le Magnolia, which serves traditional Dauphinoise food along with an excellent selection of wines.
Exploring the narrow streets of the old town is very rewarding on foot or on a hired bicycle. Most of the centre is pedestrianised, with only the odd baker’s van or errant moped to steer clear of. You’ll find narrow alleyways at the end of which are beautiful courtyards complete with wooden staircases and galleries. Some of these, like 10 rue Chenoise, double as street theatre venues during the summer months. Even though they are thoroughfares to people’s homes, residents are proud to show off their heritage, so don’t be shy! Number 2 Rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau is the house where the famous philosopher stayed in 1768 and number 14 is the birthplace of Henri Beyle (Stendhal), the author of The Red and the Black and considered to be one of the most important 19th-century romantic writers.
Go through any arcade or come to the end of any street and you’ll find decorative gardens and imposing civic squares as well as Gothic churches with stunning interiors. The 13th-century church of Saint-Andre provides a welcome shelter in the hotter months, with its high vaulted cool interior. The Café de la Table Ronde is next door, a meeting place for Rousseau and Stendhal and a favourite watering hole of the much-loved Belgian songwriter Jacques Brel. If the tables are full then just around the corner is place Grenette, which is lined with pavement cafes like Le Sporting Café. This is the main pedestrian area and a great place to people watch!
Boutique-style shops and other independent outlets abound here, with bigger stores located in Grand Place in the direction of Echirolles. The covered 19th-century food market of Halle Sainte-Claire sells locally produced food including extensive ranges of cheese, meats and fruit and vegetables. Stall holders seem to literally spill out onto the pavement of place Sainte-Claire to sell their wares.
The cathedral of Notre Dame is Grenoble’s main place of worship and the attached former bishop’s palace is now the Musée De L'Ancien Eveché. Beneath the museum is an amazing crypt containing the remains of the city's Roman walls and a recently discovered 4th-century baptistry. This really is worth a visit.
One of my favourite spots is on the Right Bank of the Isère or the Italian Quarter, where continuing restoration work is going on to this once important glove-making area. If you are feeling fit you can climb the steps that wind their way up from the Lion fountain to the Musée Dauphinois, a local history museum housed in a former 17th-century convent and ideal for children. Alternatively, take Les Bulles to the Bastille and walk down to it. You can quench your thirst at Le Restaurant du Téléphérique, which is situated next to the cable car station. Panoramic views over Grenoble and the mountains await you, which you can enjoy from inside or outside on the terrace.
Grenoble has a good selection of museums, with the main Museum of Grenoble located in place de Lavalette, a beautiful sculpture park. This modern building exhibits art from all periods but the modern collection is a treat, with works by Matisse, Chagall and Picasso. While you’re here you can take a break in the museum’s café where you’ll find a very child-friendly environment.
Once you’ve finished your excursions, follow the example of the people of the Dauphinoise region who, after a hard day in the mountains and high pastures, tucked into hearty energy-giving food such as tartiflette, fondue and raclette. These still form the staple diet of the region, along with pasta based dishes influenced by the close proximity of Italy.
So try out La Chasse-Spleen (6 place de Lavalette), opposite the Museum of Grenoble. On the menu is seasonal Dauphinoise cuisine and specialties include locally produced roasted walnuts with salad and chartreuse cheeses such as Saint-Marcellin. Don’t forget, too, to sample the local yellow-coloured Chartreuse liqueur. I went for the green mint version - big mistake!