The Roman Ruins of Vienne, France

The Romans ruins in Vienne are everywhere. It’s remarkable that the town is not better known as they really make this town an exceptional place to visit. There are still more remains being discovered in Vienne. In 2017 work was halted near the town hall on an underground car park due to evidence of considerable remains and in the same year Roman ruins of an entire extra neighborhood was found just on the other side of the river in Saint-Colombe.

The Temple of Augustus and Livia

Nestled in the center of the medieval town is a site that is most unexpected to the wandering tourist: The temple of Augustus and Livia. This temple was constructed in dedication of the first Roman emperor, Augustus and his wife, Livia. Augustus took power when his great uncle, Julius Caesar, was assassinated in 44 BC (Caesar had named him his adoptive son and heir in his will). The temple was built in 10 BC and still stands today in impressive condition. Despite having parts rebuilt at times, it has survived many conflicts and ways of being used. After the Roman Empire fell, the temple became a church up until the French revolution. In 1792 the church then became “the temple of reason” then following that, was the commercial court. It was then made into a museum and then changed again to become the library of Vienne until 1852. Only after 28 years of careful restoration was the temple able to regain its boldness of standing and character that we can see today.

The temple has a few bars in front of it and nowadays it’s a pleasant spot to enjoy a coffee or a beer with plenty of shade and an area for children to run around. There’s also a superb bookshop here and a great little wine vendor.

Things to do in Vienne

Aside from taking in and learning about the Roman ruins in Vienne, the town itself is a nice size with plenty of shops, bars and restaurants to keep you busy for a few hours. If you have the energy, the best thing to do is to start off with a walk up to the chapel on the Mont Pipet as it is the best place to see the whole of Vienne, with the Rhône River and the Pilat national park beyond. You probably saw this as you entered the town (whether by river or road) – there is a statue of the Virgin Mary built next to it high above the town center. Once there, the viewing point towers over the Théatre Anthique, built in about 50 AD and able at the time to hold up to 12,000 spectators. It is not easy to find your way up to the Mont Pipet for this view, so do take note of the quickest way up there, please be aware it is a steep climb (about 15 mins walk for most people):

Pass through the Roman ruins and to the top of the steps in the Jardins de Cybèle, you will see a road in front of you going uphill, called ‘Montée de St Marcel’. Walk up there for about 300m (ignoring signs for the Théatre Antique) and on your left you will see a narrow path with steps called the ‘Chemin des Amoreux’. Follow these steps to the top and then turn left and left again opposite the cemetery towards the Belvédère du Pipet. You will pass under an archway and the view is then straight ahead.

Vienne Cathedral

As with the Temple of Augustus & Livie, Vienne Cathedral seems to suddenly appear as you turn a corner. Depending on the direction you approach it, chances are you didn’t see it far in advance, despite its magnificent size. This medieval Roman Catholic building, now a basilica, was constructed from 1130 onwards and is dedicated to Saint Maurice. It’s famous for being the place where the decision to dissolve the Knights Templar was taken during the Council of Vienne in 1312. This decision was a result of pressure from King Phillip IV on Pope Clement I and not by the democratic process that had been intended. In return for suppressing the Templars, Phillip IV agreed to fund a new crusade (which never happened by the way). If you like churches you should also check out the church and abbey of Saint-André-le-Bas, Place de Jeux de Paume. They have exhibits here and a beautiful complete Roman Cloisters (the only one in the region).

Shops & Restaurants

Most of the shops are located in the triangle between the train station, the Cathedral and the Place Saint-Louis. Be aware that like many towns in France, there will be very little open on Sundays and Mondays. Walking up from the Rhône River past the tourist office towards the train station along the Cours Brillier you will notice many bars and restaurants. These all have welcoming large terraces with plenty of shade from the trees, however, the traffic can be quite busy so it’s not especially relaxing if you find yourself on outer tables. If you are looking for something more calm and rewarding but still central, we can recommend the Le Bistrot de Jean Baptiste (9 Rue Molière) which is in a nearby backstreet or Le Cloître (2 Rue des Cloîtres – to the right of the Cathedral if you are at top of steps in front with your back facing the Rhône).

Markets

Saturday mornings see central Vienne transform into a pedestrian only bustling marketplace. With over 400 stall holders, the market sprawls from the Cours Romestang towards the town hall with little offshoots here and there. In total there are 6km of stalls said to be covered, making it the 2nd largest traditional market of its kind in France. Local produce and specialties are on offer and you can ask to taste most products if you’re not sure. Clothing, electronics, eateries, there’s bound to be something for all the tastes. It’s a superb time to visit Vienne, and the cafés and terraces are always very busy for it. Other than this main market, there are smaller markets other days of the week such as at the Place François Mitterand (Wednesday, Friday and Sunday mornings) and on the Cours Brillier (Tuesday and Thursday mornings).

Parks

The Jardin du 8 Mai is a relaxing little park behind the tourist office where the rare trees, plants and flowers are all named for those that take a special interest. It’s a popular place for families to come and for workers to relax with a book in their lunch break. What’s unique about this park is the section of Roman road that has been exposed in the middle with its huge granite slabs. This road would have supplied the huge warehouses that were built in the first century and which were located along banks of the Rhône here in Vienne.

The Jardins de Cybèle offer a small space of greenery in the heart of Vienne and again allow you sit amongst Roman ruins.

Upcoming events in Vienne

The Gallo-Roman days: 2 & 3rd June 2018
Held within the ruins and grounds of the museum, this event features reenactments and scenes of daily life from 2000 years ago. This year a special visit is planned from the Emperor Hadrien who came to Vienne (at that time, called Vienna) in 121 AD. He is hoping to honor his military officers and legions during an official military ceremony. A great day out for all the family or any Roman enthusiasts. Tickets are 10 € for an adult for 1 day, 6 € for children. They can be purchased at the museum.

The Jazz Festival “Jazz à Vienne”: 28th June until 13th July 2018
World famous musicians (not all Jazz) come here and play in the most impressive of settings. The main stage is in the Théatre Antique, with the spectators sitting on the many levels of the original Roman Amphitheatre. Now, as in Roman times, the acoustics are amazing and the views incredible. Book your tickets early. A useful tip is to bring a pillow as the stone gets very hot under the sun all day and can also get quite uncomfortable after sitting for a while. Other concerts are held amongst the ruins of the Jardins de Cybèle and there are numerous and free concerts which spring up all throughout the town. You don’t need to have bought tickets to hear good music and enjoy a very special vibe that the town has during this festival. Do bear in mind though that parking becomes more difficult and accommodation more expensive and limited.

La Pyramide

When you read about La Pyramide in Vienne, you could be reading about 2 things:

  • An ancient obelisk like structure in a pyramidal shape that was built in the 2nd century AD and was the central point within the barrier that separated the middle of a hippodrome in the roman circus here. The pyramid is the only standing remnant with the area now very residential with some local businesses, and so you have to use some imagination to think how the area must have looked then.
  • The renowned 2*Michelin restaurant, owned and run by Patrick Henriroux, located next to the structure explained above. Since the great Fernand Point made this restaurant famous (being the first in 1933 to gain 3 Michellin stars) the reputation and the quality has continued. As our office is based in Vienne we are lucky enough to have tried it. If you can afford to book a table here, do so, as the tastes, sensations and memory will be worth it. Check out their website to see the menus, which typically range from 69€ to 179€ per person. A good tip otherwise is that they also have a brasserie where you can get lunch menus from as little as 25€. Do reserve in advance though! For more info


Vienne Guided Tours

Depending on your level of interest in Vienne tourism and the roman ruins, we can organize walking tours from just 1 hour to a full day here. An average visitor would find that 2 hours is more than enough to be shown the sites and gain the right amount of insider knowledge. An extra hour is needed to include a return walk up to the amazing vantage point on the Pipet hill above the Roman theatre. The Gallo Roman museum is a 15 minute walk away on the opposite side of the Rhône River and we can point you in the direction to walk there and/or arrange a guided tour around the museum.

Where is Vienne, France?

First, regardless of your nationality, you are forgiven if you’ve found it hard to research this town. Vienne is also the name of a department area in the west of France as well as the French way of spelling Vienna (which, as we’ve already said above, was also what the Romans used to call today’s Vienne). Confusing enough if you are French, let alone a tourist. So to be clear, here we are referring to the town of Vienne, in the department of Isère and on the banks of the Rhône River, just south of Lyon. It is easily accessible by train from Lyon (20 minutes) or by car (it’s next to the A7 motorway) or even easier if you arrive by river cruise ship of course!