Three years ago, I left Orléans for Paris after spending the first 20 years of my life there.
When I go back to visit, it feels like the perfect place to forget about the busy life in the capital, reconnect with myself and nature – and that without even being in the countryside.
Orléans is the capital of the Loiret department in the Centre-Val-de-Loire region, just a couple of hours by car south of Paris.
As an Orléanais (the French term for the inhabitants of Orléans) I am naturally fond of my city, but tourists love it too.
To give you a few tips for visiting the city, I asked Orléanais what, in their eyes, makes the city so special.
Mathilde Edey Gamassou incarnating Joan of Arc during the 2018 Johannique celebrations. Photo: AFP
1. It’s the city of Joan of Arc
Orléans is undeniably dominated by the legacy of Joan of Arc.
Known as “the Maid of Orléans”, Joan of Arc liberated the city from Britain in a legendary and heroic deed that almost 600 years later is still commemorated and celebrated.
If you take a trip to Orléans, you will see her silhouette on the medallions that are dotted along the city streets, on sculptures or even on the boxes of Cotignac, one of the city’s culinary specialities (more on this below).
Each year, the city celebrates its hero during the Fêtes de Jeanne d’Arc (Jean of Arc celebrations), a festival that lasts an entire week (April 29th until May 8th) and includes a medieval fair and many parades.
Every year, girls compete to get play the role of Joan of Arc, a selective process that begins in January.
The final parade on May 8th, the day of the city was liberated, welcomes a “special” guest, generally a political figure (President Emmanuel Macron featured in 2016 before he made official his candidacy to the 2017 presidential elections).
Be aware that Orléanais will tell you that they live in the city of Joan of Arc, but so will Rouennais (inhabitants of Rouen), because she was burnt there.
Former French Culture Minister Franck Riester looking at paintings inside the museum of Orléans. Photo: AFP
2. The Beaux-Arts museum
But what is known as the Johannique celebrations are not the only thing to do in the city, which is known, amongst other things, for its many museums (although Joan of Arc features here too).
If you are a Joan of Arc fan, Marine, 23, suggests you visit the Maison de Jeanne d’Arc (House of Joan of Arc), which she said is “a unique place”. Inside, you will find the “leading documentary collection” on Joan of Arc as stated by the city’s tourism office.
If you are more of the arty type, the Musée des beaux-arts d’Orléans is a must-see, especially as it is located right next to the city's famous Cathedral.
The museum is one of France’s oldest provincial museums and also history student Laura’s favorite.
“What I enjoy the most are the outdoor exhibitions that give us a taste of what we’ll find inside,” she said.
3. The Old Town
The old town is a personal favourite of mine that I recommend to everyone visiting the city for the first time.
It’s also one of the easiest activity to do in Orléans. No need to organise anything or to buy a ticket, just go for a stroll along these streets and alleyways filled with history and admire the Renaissance-style houses along the way.
If you find it too quiet, try the rue de Bourgogne, one of the city’s longest and liveliest streets with plenty of restaurants, cafes, bars and tourists.
The old town spans from the cathedral to the banks of the Loire, both on the list of places I recommend you visit, so you can walk through it on your way from the one to the other.
The Loire river banks in the winter. Photo: AFP
4. The Loire river banks
Since I haven't yet plucked up the courage to experience this myself, France Vélo Tourisme can better explain why it's a “unique” experience:
“You stay closely to France’s last great wild river, with its sandy banks and islands, its vine-covered slopes, its typical towns and villages, its fine food and its unique atmosphere,” they write on their website.
If you don’t feel like biking for 800km, don't worry, you can take a shorter route along the river without leaving the city. Or you can simply go for a walk along the banks and enjoy the nature and sights.
Orléans' Sainte-Croix Cathedral. Photo: AFP
5. The Orléans Sainte-Croix Cathédral
“You just can’t visit Orléans without at least taking a picture of the Cathedral”, said Romain, a 36-year-old English teacher.
It’s true that you can’t really miss it as it is at the heart of the city centre and quite majestic. Built from 1278 to 1329 and rebuilt from 1601 after partial destruction in 1568, the Gothic edifice is as equally beautiful from the outside that it is on the inside.
The cathedral's stained-glass windows also tell the story of (who else) Joan of Arc.
The Hôtel Groslot in Orléans. Photo: AFP
6. L’Hôtel Groslot
If you exit the Cathedral and walk for a minute, you get to the front and that, of the Hotel Groslot, which also houses the town council (which dates all the way back to the French Revolution in 1789).
While in France I went to the Groslot Hotel in Orléans to see the rooms where Francis II died in 1560. It was very surreal to be there. It was once a hunting manor. The portrait of his death is hanging on the wall. The Cathedral where his body was taken is across… #Reign pic.twitter.com/2FRqZZj4Hs
— ReignedUsIn (@ReignedUsIn) April 15, 2019
Its Renaissance style was kept intact and makes the place very unique with coffered ceilings draped with Aubusson tapestries that are so characteristic of the era.
“It may seem a bit too much the first time you walk in but I just love it”, Sacha, a friend of mine, said.
The Joan of Arc statue on the Place du Martroi. Photo: AFP
7. La Place du Martroi
The Place du Martroi is an other unmissable and Manon’s beloved place.
“It’s where me and my friends used to meet when we were in middle school”, recalls the 27-year-old student.
And if the Place du Martroi is a meeting place it is mostly because you can't miss it thanks to the statue of Joan of Arc overhanging the square.
The 165-year-old statue is erected on a block that marks the location of the Porte Bannier, once a city gate. It conceals a trap door leading to a hidden staircase taking you down to the Porte.
8. The Orléans Forest
— Baptiste (@Batyst) November 1, 2017
If you want to escape the city's atmosphere for a bit, try the Forest of Orléans, it's only a 40 minutes drive away and it's well worth a visit.
Erica, 18, called it “the only forest that is not creepy, but it almost looks like it’s a decor for a Disney movie.”
9. The gardens
Though if you don’t feel like going that far away, there a plenty of lovely gardens to visit in Orléans.
— Centre-Val de Loire (@RCValdeLoire) June 8, 2019
The Parc Floral, the Hôtel Groslot’s gardens, the Parc Pasteur or the Jardin des Plantes, are places where you can set up a romantic date, enjoy a nice lunch break or just spend some quality family time.
10. The culinary specialities
After all this walking, why not learn about some tastier aspects of the Orléanais heritage?
The Centre-Val-de-Loire region is not the most famous French region when it comes to culinary specialities but you don’t want to leave Orléans without having tasted a Cotignac . This thick quince jelly that comes in a tiny round box made of spruce bark should not be eaten on toast but rather like a sweet to lick.
— Bob le Centriste ??? (@BobLeCentriste) July 24, 2016
There's also Orléans' vinegar from the locally renowned Martin Pouret house, which makes a delicious mustard (less famous than Dijon mustard, but equally good) based on its vinegar.
For a week-end away, a week-long holiday or just a day off, Orléans may just be the perfect answer.