An enchanting medieval city, Bourges was the capital of the historic Province of Berry and a center of trade in the 15th and 16th centuries.
The old town is replete with luxurious mansions built for merchants, side-by-side with top-heavy half-timbered houses.
The cathedral is an absolute wonder and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, looking like no other church in the world.
Bourges is also the place to get to know Jacques Cœur, a merchant who traveled far and wide and worked his way into the court of King Charles VII. And if that isn’t enough you can break out into the pastoral Marais where thousands of little garden plots are navigated by a lattice of water channels.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Bourges:
1. Bourges Cathedral
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Bourges Cathedral is extraordinary on many levels.
The first thing that might catch your eye is the lack of a transept, as there’s no break between the nave and choir.
This departure from the norm is only made possible by the rows of flying buttresses that run the length of the nave and choir.
On the inside, there’s a unique double aisle that seamlessly becomes a double ambulatory.
At this eastern side of the church, nearly all of the stained glass you’ll see is original, remarkably surviving from the 1215 and conveying bible scenes like Christ’s parables, the Passion, the Apocalypse, and Last Judgement.
2. Cathedral Tower and Crypt
These parts of the cathedral merit another listing because, while you have to pay to see them you won’t regret the small charge.
If you’re coming in summer it’s best to do this part early because the queues can belong.
Climbing the Tour de Buerre (Butter Tower) is no mean feat as there are 400 steps, but there’s a panorama of Bourges to reward you at the top.
The name comes from the means used to fund this 16th-century tower, as people would pay to be able to break their fast and eat butter during Lent.
In the crypt, you’ll be in the vestiges of the cathedral’s 11th-century predecessor and can find the tomb of the Duke Jean de Berry who was responsible for Bourges’ boom years in the 1300s.
3. Old Town
In 1487 there was a great fire in Bourges that destroyed a third of the city and stunted its development as it lost its annual fairs to Troyes and Lyon.
But it also gives us a very unified old town, with diamond-pattern timber houses, packed close together on streets like Rue Bourbonnoux, and a host of stone-built Renaissance mansions.
All you need are your own two feet and a sense of wonder and you’ll find exciting landmarks like the house where the famous merchant Jacques Cœur was born in 1395. There are also some fantastic merchants’ houses from earlier in the 1400s that survived the fire and are either attractions on their own terms or host the city’s museums.
4. Palais Jacques-Cœur
In the middle of the 15th-century the wealthy merchant and treasurer to King Charles VII, Jacques Cœur commissioned this breathtaking Gothic residence.
The Palais Jacques-Cœur came sometime before the Loire Valley’s exuberant Renaissance châteaux, but its carvings lack none of their elegance and richness.
Like its first owner, who opened trade between France and the Levant, the palace has lots of stories to tell: As you move from the galleried courtyard to the spiral staircases, steam rooms, private apartments, servants’ areas, and treasure room, video presentations with fill you in about the architecture, decoration and the people who lived here.
5. Jardin de l’Archevêché
Next to the cathedral, these gardens were laid in the 1730s for the Archbishop of Bourges, eventually becoming the park for the town hall.
In a familiar French style, there are boxwood topiaries trimmed to sharp points, lime trees in the shape of globes as well as formal lawns and flowerbeds hemmed by paths.
You’ll also always have a privileged view of the cathedral’s awesome flying buttresses as you take your turn in these gardens.
There’s a cafe in the park, kids can hit the playground and you can stop at the romantic Belle Époque bandstand for a closer look.
6. Marais de Bourges
Just a few minutes from the Old Town is an enclave of reclaimed marshland encompassing 135 hectares.
In ancient times this boggy countryside slowed Julius Caesar’s advance in his conquest of Gaul in 52BC. But from around the 8th century, the marshes were brought under human control, and come the 17th-century they were drained and crisscrossed by a web of water channels.
Now the Marais is an outdoor escape for walkers and cyclists, not to mention urban gardening as the Marais is divided into almost 1,500 allotments that used to keep the whole city stocked with fruits and vegetables.
The channels abound with fish and waterfowl, and there isn’t a prettier place to be on warm June day when the gardens are in flower.
7. Musée du Berry
Hôtel Cujas is yet another of Bourges’ fine old houses with a museum inside.
This Flamboyant Gothic mansion was conceived for a Florentine merchant in 1515 and is named for Jacques Cujas, a 16th-century legal expert who was a tenant for the last few years of his life.
The Musée du Berry inside used to be at the Palais Jacques-Cœur, but moved here in 1891. In the course of almost 200 years, it has amassed a riveting assortment of mosaics, ceramics, and statues.
Some excavated in the city, like the 220 Gallo-Roman Steles from Ancient Bourges, while there are also finds from Ancient Egypt, including a mummy from the 4th century BC.
8. Musée Estève
This museum for the 20th-century artist, Maurice Estève could hardly have a nobler home.
The building is the Hôtel des Échevins (House of the Aldermen), a Gothic mansion with ornate stonework on its tower.
Over three floors connected by the tower’s spiral staircase, the museum has the largest single collection of art by Estève, whose career lasted eight decades and took him from surrealism to abstraction via a figurative period.
In the softly lit Galerie Lejuge, you can see his sensational collages, watercolors, and drawings, which are rotated every few months to keep them conserved.
9. Les Nuits Lumière
In the evening from June to September, the town’s most beautiful Gothic and Renaissance landmarks are lit with magnificent projections.
At the Cathedral, Jardin de l’Archevêché and Hôtel des Échevins Palais these ethereal images are combined with music, and part of a walk that literally sheds new light on Bourges and its past.
The climax though is the Palais Jacques-Cœur, where you can go into the courtyard to get to know more about this merchant, his voyage to the Middle East and time in the service of the King.
10. Hôtel Lallemant
In Bourges, you won’t tire of seeing the city’s old mansions because each is as beautiful as the last.
Hôtel Lallemant is one you can lose hours gazing at because of its external decorative sculptures, which are as sharp as ever and include quirky characters, pilasters, capitals, scrolls, columns and all sorts more.
The house is a masterpiece of the French Renaissance and was built at the turn of the 16th century for a family of merchants that had originated in Germany.
Hôtel Lallemant is also built on the Gallo-Roman wall, which causes a divide between the upper and lower courtyards.
Call in for a small museum on decorative arts, which has a few rooms of miniature toys and antique furniture.
11. Promenade des Remparts
In the 4th century Avaricum (Gallo-Roman Bourges) became the capital of the Aquitaine Premièr province, and so controlled a massive tract of southwestern France.
At that time the city erected a new system of walls, gates, and towers to defend itself in what is now Bourges’ upper town.
With some help from the tourist office, you can walk the elliptical course of these defenses.
The Gallo-Roman parts are still visible throughout Bourges’ streetscape in the lowest sections of medieval dwellings, walls, and towers.
12. Jardin des Prés-Michaux
Just north of the center, on the left bank of the Yèvre just after it leaves the Marais is a calming Art Deco garden landscaped in the 1920s.
Come here to wander by an amazing array of plant sculptures: The are linden hedges, arches made from trimmed yews and all kinds of strange topiaries dotted here and there.
In between are geometric lawns edged flowerbeds next to long, straight promenades.
Art Deco-style Sculptures, fountains, stone reliefs and wisteria-draped pergolas make this a sophisticated place to idle away an hour or so.
13. Lac du Val d’Auron
A man-made body of water a mere two kilometers south of the old town, the Lac du Val d’Auron is awash with activity in summer.
There’s carp fishing, sailing, and canoeing on the lake, which has meadow and woodland on its southern shores and more of Bourges’ outskirts the further north you go.
It’s not all about watersports though, as there’s an equestrian center on the western shore while just east of the lake is the 18-hole municipal golf course, with a nine-hole pitch & putt and a driving range.
14. Printemps de Bourges
Live music fans owe it to themselves to check out this festival that happens over five days in April.
Printemps de Bourges has a format that has been copied in many places, as for these few days 13 stages at different locations around the town host some 200 artists.
It’s a week of fun and youthful energy, when some 200,000 people, mostly students, and 20-somethings, pour into the city.
For the industry, the festival is a major A&R event, and a chance to scout up-and-coming talent, especially at the fringe Les Découvertes du Printemps de Bourges shows for unsigned acts.
15. Route Jacques Cœur
You’ve seen his birthplace and the resplendent mansion that he built, but there’s even more heritage in the Bourges area relating to the city’s famous son.
Jacques Cœur was a pretty interesting character and you can find other places relevant to him on a designated route that was set up as long ago as 1954. There are 16 sites on the itinerary, taking in towns in the region like Sancerre, also beloved for its wine, and Mehun Sur Yèvre, which has the awe-inspiring ruins of a castle where Charles VII died in 1461.