Reims has a compact central and historic area, mainly around the cathedral which dominates the whole city. The attractions in this area, the Cathedral of Notre-Dame itself, the Museum of Fine Arts, the Palais du Tau and the Hotel Le Vergeur Museum are all clustered together within strolling distance. To the north, the Musée de la Reddition (Museum of Surrender) is the place where Germany unconditionally surrendered to General Eisenhower in 1945. To the south of the center of the city, you'll find the excellent Automobile Museum and the fabulous Basilique and Museum Saint-Remi.
And that is before you try any of the prestigious Champagne houses with their intriguing Gallo-Roman cellars and their delicious tastings at the end of your tour.
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The cathedral of Notre-Dame dominates the city, a magnet since the middle ages, enclosed by a series of wide boulevards. Begun in 1211, the cathedral that you see is a magnificent late Gothic building, following Chartres cathedral in style. Look out for the 13th-century sculptures on the west front as you go in, telling stories -- some biblical and some decidedly secular. Once inside, you’re drawn into a long high nave with the sun shining through the famous rose windows on the west walls, creating jewel-like colors and shapes that dance on the stone-flagged floors and soaring pillars. Look out for some of the designs; in the south transept you’ll see Champagne makers.
The cathedral has a prominent place in French history. In 1429 Joan of Arc, whose statue you’ll see inside, got the Dauphin crowned here as Charles VII at a time when England and her allies were threatening the very sovereignty of the country. Since then, 26 kings of France have been crowned here.
One other major attraction is the fantastic Marc Chagall windows in the east chapel.
The cathedral suffered badly during World War I, with much of its magnificence restored with help from the Rockefeller Foundation.
Admission is free.
The Palais du Tau
The Palais du Tau is right next to the cathedral, as fitting the residence of the former bishops of Reims. Once inside, you walk through a series of fascinating rooms, giving you an idea of how richly the church housed its major leaders. There are some glorious tapestries with astonishing details of hunts and processions, beasts, and men. The treasury is worth a visit for items like a 12th-century coronation chalice, reliquaries, and jeweled boxes.
In 1824, completely contrary to France’s Republic, there was an attempt to bring back the monarchy in the figure of Charles X who was baptized here in purple regalia, a pretty telling gesture that the ancient regime thought it was about to return. However, it came to nothing and France has remained firmly Republican ever since this brief flirtation with monarchy.
Fine Arts Museum
Go west out of the cathedral to get to the Fine Arts Museum, housed in the old 18th-century Abbaye St-Denis. The Museum covers most of Europe’s major artistic movements from the 16th to the 20th centuries. Look out for 15th and 16th-century religious paintings on rough linen, 27 works by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, a couple of splendid Paul Gauguin still lifes, and 16th-century German portraits.
Most of France’s early kings and Remi himself, (the priest who anointed the kings of France), are buried in the 11th-century Basilique St-Remi, the oldest building in Reims. This was originally a Benedictine abbey and it is spacious with Romanesque features and chapels.
Admission is free
The museum along with the basilica is the reason most people take the 15-minute walk from the cathedral here. The wonderful abbey buildings house the Museum which has a delightful mix of objects.
It’s divided into four sections starting with the history of the abbey and a Renaissance tapestry of Saint Remi’s life. Then you move through the abbey’s 17th-century refectories and kitchen and the Gallo-Roman section showing the importance of the ancient city of Reims which in a quirky geographical way, was the capital of the imperial province of Belgium. You’ll also see arms and armor and local collections as well as the 12th- to 13th-century chapter house.
Museum of Surrender, Reims
The Museum of Surrender (Musée de la Reddition) is just outside the main central area, very near the Station. Walk via the Porte Mars in the Place de la Republique and you get to rue Franklin-Roosevelt. It was here on May 7th, 1945 at 2.41am in the bleak early hours of the morning, that the Germans under General Jodl surrendered unconditionally to General Eisenhower. It was the end of World War II in Europe. A good film and photographs, press cuttings and models are there as well.
The signing room is exactly as it was, with the battle maps of the Allies still on the wall. It’s not very grand; it’s not very large; but it is incredibly moving.
Reims Champagne Automobile Museum
The Automobile Museum, between the Palais du Tau and the St-Remi has over 230 vehicles, cars and motorcycles housed in a building that was once a factory. Going around the museum takes you through the history of the automobile and includes some cars that were produced in very limited numbers. A Ford T of 1913, an Alba R of 1919, Mercedes, early Daimlers and the S.C.A.R. Torpedo, one of only six of its kind left in the world today. All these and many more gems are on show, gleaming with polish and bright colors, some with the first Michelin inflatable tires from 1905 that could be removed from their narrow rims.
The cars come from the private collection of Philippe Charbonneaux, who designed some of the postwar classics you can see here. There are also models, 5,000 miniatures cars, old posters and lots of pedal cars to keep children amused.
The museum holds all sorts of open days throughout the year and a good program of general events.
Free on the first Sunday of every month