Did you know that Vichy (France) is a UNESCO world heritage due to its thermal springs? (Eleven famous spa towns in seven countries, were added to the World Heritage List in July 2021 as the Great Spa Towns of Europe.) Did you know that the (gingham) fabric I am always writing about and sharing in my Frenchie Finds is called Vichy print? That both Vichyssoise and Vichy carrot come from here?
And that most of the famous brasseries in Paris were opened by Auvergnians (or Auvergnats), the region where Vichy is located? Well, I do! And I am here to share. My mother-in-law has lived here for close to 20 years and I have been to this town just 4 hours by car or 3-hour train ride (there are 24 trains a day from Gare de Bercy!) away from Paris many, many times.
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You might have some vague recollection of something less than stellar when it comes to French history during WWII? Yeah, it’s not pretty. During the Second World War, France was divided in 2. Everything north of Vichy was occupied by the Germans. Everything south was Free France and the Vichy government, run by Petain, was the capital.
They had to work closely with the Germans (also known as collaborating) in order to remain free and some of the things they did weren’t pretty. (If you want to get real insight into what France was like at this time I HIGHLY recommend the series, “Un Village Français/A French Village”).
Decades later the page has turned and Vichy continues to be celebrated for what it has always been a spa town and a great one at that. Historically the French came here (with a doctor’s prescription for an annual or biannual cure) even internationally people flew in for a week of pampering and drinking the mineral waters from various sources.
Vichy, France is a beautiful town located on the east banks of the Allier River, it is the second largest town in the Auvergne region, and it is most prominently known for being a spa town. The waters in Vichy are thought to be healing for a wide variety of ailments from arthritis to depression and every condition in between.
In fact, physicians in France write prescriptions for healing treatments at these spas and they have for centuries. I will cover the spa’s in more detail below, but they aren’t the only thing to see and do in Vichy. Keep reading to learn more about what you should add to your Vichy itinerary.
Vichy is a great spot for a weekend escapade (or an aggressive day trip) from Paris. It is a walkable city so you don't need a car. All of the highlights I am about to share are within close proximity of each other. So let's get started!
Pre-Napolean III History
During ancient times, Vichy's water was revered by Romans and the Celts, resulting in it becoming a popular bathing site. Gallo-Roman Vichy was already a spa town in 5 BC but remained hidden until the 17th century when the Marquise de Sévigné talked about the benefits of the Vichy waters in Louis XIV’s courts, making it a ‘must-have’ for all the court ladies.
In the late 18th century, Louis XV’s daughters visited Vichy, but were displeased by the marshes and the mud, and convinced Louis XVI to create great bathhouses in the town. He then sent architects to the town to create a lounge room and spacious baths and cabins for their use. While the town faced some downtime during the Revolution, the Second Empire brought a fresh wave of development with it.
Parc Napoleon III (Napoleon III Park)
When you visit Vichy you take a step back into Napoleon III's era. It was modeled as the “Little Paris” of France with urban principles in mind for optimum enjoyment – taking strolls through lush parks and boulevards connected by covered promenades to grand bath complexes. Adorned even further with luxurious villas, hotels, a casino, and an opera theatre.
Napoleon III had a huge impact on Vichy (they even have an annual Napoleon III Festival) and the Parc Napoleon is a 130-hectare (321 acres) park (created in 1861) beside the River Allier. Napoleon III had the park filled with rare and exotic trees. Today the park is filled with more than 30,000 trees around beautifully landscaped walking and cycling trails. The paths are wide and shaded, pets are welcome on a leash, and the park is open daily along the Boulevard des États-Unis.
From the Parc Napoleon when you cross the bridge, le Pont de Bellerive, the road becomes Boulevard Kennedy and the park becomes Parc Kennedy (which was completed in 1867. Not that Kennedy, but his grandfather!
If you want to read the full history of the parks, find it here. The bottom line is that both these parks are fantastic spots for a petite promenade no matter what the season and I love sitting on one of the many benches to people-watch.
Mansions & Chalets of Vichy
Vichy was a playground for the aristocracy and the ultra-rich, especially after Napoleon III became a regular visitor in the 1860s. Having a home in Vichy was seen as a status symbol and for the next hundred years, wealthy aristocrats and their architects built elaborate mansions according to their whims and the architectural style of the moment.
You can take a guided tour of the mansions in Vichy if you are interested, and if you just want to see some of the most elaborate mansions in Vichy take a stroll down Boulevard des Etats-Unis. These homes were built for Napoleon III and his family and close companions.
Boulevard des États Unis
The Boulevard des États Unis translates to United States Boulevard in English and is worth taking a stroll down so that you can see all of the amazing architecture here. As the town prepared for the arrival of Napoleon III the architects really prided themselves on outdoing one another with intricate designs.
The chalets built for Napoleon III and Eugenie (his wife) begin at 101 and the architecture is a mixture of Swiss and American colonial. Eugenie’s chalet (105) is easily recognizable by the gilded E on the door.
Opera de Vichy
The original Opera House in Vichy was located in the back of the casino commissioned by Napoleon III in 1863, like those he had visited in German spa towns. The casino and opera were built quickly and opened in July of 1865, but within two years the casino was hosting more than 2,000 visitors per day and needed to be expanded.
The new opera house, the one that you see today, had its inaugural performance in June 1901. The theater is decorated in the Art Nouveau style in shades of gold and ivory, and it was and still is one of the most unique theaters in all of France.
There are performances at the theater throughout the year that you can attend and take in the beauty of the design. If there isn’t a performance scheduled during your visit you can take a guided tour of the entire theater. These tours can be scheduled through the tourist information office.
Les Bords de l’Allier
The Les Bords de l’Allier is a promenade along the banks of the Allier river, where you can find beaches, playgrounds, and beach bars along the banks.
There is plenty of shaded seating, the water is refreshing and while not really deep enough for a swim it’s perfect for cooling off or letting the kids splash in the water.
There are bars, restaurants, and cafes to stop in for a drink, light bite, or meal. You can watch the sailboats or row a boat.
Prior to 1842, the Pavillion Sevigne was a private residence, but its new owners transformed it into a luxury hotel. In order to attract more upscale clientele they claimed that Madame de Sévigné, an author known for the witty letters she wrote to her daughter, stayed in the hotel when she came to Vichy for treatments in the 17th century. This has never been proven with certainty, but it did increase the hotel’s patronage, and when it was renamed in the early 20th century it became the “Hôtel Sévigné.”
During World War I the hotel was transformed into a makeshift hospital, and in World War II it was requisitioned for the temporary residence of Albert Lebrun, the President of France, and later the private residence of Marshal Phillipe Petain. Several high-level cabinet meetings and functions were held here, including a meeting with the German ambassador.
Note: On our last trip in the fall of 2022, the hotel was closed, it has been resold and not re-opened (as of yet.)
The “Source” of Vichy's Success
Pun on the word intended! The real treasure of Vichy its sources and spas. It's the primary reason for the visits of hundreds of thousands of French people as well as curists from all over Europe.
Beneath the picturesque town lies nine springs, each playing an important role in the region. From Célestins Spring which is bottled for sale.
The Dome and Lys Springs which are used to prepare thermal muds – these precious waters are meticulously cared for. The Antoine and Bousange are used for shower and bath treatments. The four sources of Vichy healing waters are used by curists: Chomel, Grande Grille, and Hôpital, although the Source de l'Hôpital within the Parc des Sources requires a medical prescription. [Note on our last visit to Vichy in the fall of 2022 the Source de l'Hôpital was closed.]
The Lucas' is used to make some of the most luxurious cosmetics produced right in Vichy.
Nothing is wasted. Even the salts produced by these sources are used to make the delectable pastilles!
Parc des Sources
The Parc des Sources was commissioned by Napoleon I in 1799 after his mother came to Vichy with one of her sons for a cure. She loved the spa and the city but felt there was a lack of green space for walking around.
Today the Parc de Sources is a gorgeous park filled with chestnut and plane trees. There are covered galleries, pergolas, and beautiful old pavilions where visitors can sit in the shade.
Halle des Sources
At the north end of the park, you will find the Source de Vichy in the Halle des Sources, a pavilion built in 1903 where the public has access to mineral water from 5 different sources. Note that some of these waters are available by prescription only, so certain sections require a keycard to enter. Source Celestins is one of the taps open to the public and you can fill your own bottle for free or purchase a paper cup from a vending machine for a few cents.
Vichy Celestins Spa
You can’t take a trip to Vichy and not experience the reason that the town became famous in the first place! Vichy’s Celestins Spa is the largest spa in Vichy, as a matter of fact, it’s the largest spa in Europe. The spa offers half-day access with the option to schedule treatments if you are just looking for a few hours of pampering, as well as longer stays complete with a prescription for a Vichy mineral water drinking cure that can last for several days or weeks.
A half day spa pass at Vichy Celestins will get you access to a thermal pool, steam room, relaxation room, a cold foot bath, sauna, and an iced tea bar. Additional treatments can be scheduled onsite at the spa.
Source des Célestins
Spring water from the Source des Celestins is available at the Hall des Sources, but you can also get it here. The water source is housed in an atrium built on a natural terrace overlooking the Allier in the fortified Bourbonnais style architecture of the 15th century.
The water here is naturally carbonated and comes out of the source at 63 degrees so it is labeled as a cold water source. You can get water here for free as long as you bring your own cup. The water here is used to treat liver, kidney, and stomach ailments and it is bottled and sold around the world with more than 40,000 bottles sold every year.
Great Thermal Establishment
One thing you will notice while walking near the Parc des Source is the beautiful neo-Moorish dome which houses the Thermes des Dômes in the Centre Thermal des Dômes. The Callou thermal baths are 2 steps away and 1/2 a block from my mother-in-law. It was considered a “first-class” spa facility as opposed to the Source Lardy below which was a “third-class” facility.
The Lardy source is dormant/closed but still worth a visit. It was built in 1901, closed in 1965 and has been a part of the Pole University since 2001. There is a little park, Hardy that you can walk through from the Source des Celestins up the hill to the Lardy source.
Once you have visited, stop in for a coffee at the Cocoon Coffee Shop (111 Rue Maréchal Lyautey) for the best coffee in Vichy. They are across the street from the Alliance Française school and speak excellent English.
Kiosque & Shopping Arcade
At one of the ends of the Parc des Source, you will find the Kiosque. This kiosk was built by the architect Charles Lecœur in 1902 and is used today for festivities and outdoor concerts. Next to this beautiful bandstand is the horseshoe-shaped shopping arcade with a few restaurants, a beautiful flower shop, and the Vichy Mon Amour store.
Vichy has 8 passages that connected the retail district with the spa district. These days they are pretty derelict, they have not been well taken care of. The best-looking one is the Passage Goboin which was built in 1888 where a former hotel garden stood. The area with the passages and shops is called the Quatre-Chemins (« 4 ways ») district and the mostly pedestrian streets are full of cafés, restaurants, and shops.
If you really want to hunt them all down, you can photos of all 8 in Wikimedia.
Don’t let the rather plain concrete facade of this 1931-built art deco church keep you from venturing inside. This church is actually two churches built in one. The first church is a 17th-century church of the same name that needed to be expanded, and the expansion was accomplished by building the new church over the original church. Of note on the exterior is the bell tower, which was built in 1956 with its unusual shape and large clock face.
Inside of the church, you will find beautiful stained glass windows, some featuring scenes from the Bible including the Nativity, and others designed in the art deco style with geometric shapes and embossed with iron. There are also mosaics and frescoes of some of France’s most famous churches. At the rear of the church, in the 17th-century built chapel, you will find Vierge Noire, the black Madonna, that was carved from walnut. People travel from all over France, and even the world, to see the black Madonna.
Architecture: Walking the Streets of Vichy
Take time to walk around, be a flâneur (someone who walks around not doing anything in particular). The architecture in Vichy is beautiful.
The older part of Vichy is pre-19th Century (there are a few half-timbered buildings with facades but very is left of the medieval period), but most of the downtown area was built at the turn of the 19th century and includes multiple styles: Neo-Venetian, Flemish, Gothic, Classical and Art nouveau.
Mr. Misadventures and I do this all the time. We have been to Vichy so many times that we tend to not have an agenda and wander around to discover new corners on each trip.
Food in Vichy
I am happy to report that the food scene is growing. When we first started going to Vichy it wasn't that great. There are a few “institutions” on the restaurant scene and we have been to them all, but these days we are seeing a lot more options. The region of Auvergne has a rich culinary culture.
There are amazing cheeses like Bleu d'Auvergne, Saint Nectaire, Cantal, Salers, and Fourme d'Ambert to name a few of the most famous. Pork is the main meat in the region, although there are tons and tons of cows that are used for dairy but also for melt-watering beef dishes with Charolais beef from Allier and Salers beef from Cantal.
The local lentils from Puy are world-renowned and if you have never tried l'aligot (mashed potatoes that are more cheese than potatoes you are truly missing out!
Let's talk food.
Le Grande Marche
The Le Grande Marche is The Great Market of Vichy, and it is a huge covered market larger than a city block where you can find vendors of all types including shoe repair. This is the place to look for fresh produce, both prepared foods, and foods that are ready to be cooked at home. More than 65 agricultural producers of Vichy sell their products here, and the Great Market is open six days a week. Do not miss the opportunity to walk through this amazing market, and be sure to go hungry!
Mr. Misadventures and I shop almost daily here whenever we are visiting Vichy.
Candy & Confections in Vichy
Visit Aux Marocains, a chocolate factory, and confectionery shop located on Rue Georges Clemenceau. The Les Marocains Boutique was built under the reign of Napoleon III in 1866 and is listed as a historical monument in Vichy. Here you will find a variety of chocolates, nougatines, marzipan, candied nuts, and pralines.
You can buy Vichy pastilles all over town, but to buy from one of the original shops head to Maison Moinet on Rue Source de l'Hôpital. Pastilles are made with mineral salts extracted from the waters of Vichy. They are supposed to be excellent for digestive health, and they are tasty too! The most popular flavors are anise, mint, and lemon. My mother-in-law always brings some to us when she visits!
A Few More Activities
Even though I have been to Vichy more than a dozen times, I have not done everything. There are a few things that just aren't my cup of tea or I haven't got to yet. I still want to list them here in case they are of interest to you.
Musée des Arts d’Afrique et d’Asie
The Musée des Arts d’Afrique et d’Asie is the Museum of African and Asian Arts was first opened in the 1920s as the Maison du Missionaire, is a place for missionaries to stay while they were receiving long-term spa treatments in Vichy. These missionaries would also bring interesting artifacts and items with them from their travels.
The missionaries would come from the French colonies in Africa, and Asia, as well as South America, and Oceania. Over time the collection at the house grew and the building was transformed into a museum with more than 4000 artifacts. Today you can find coins, furniture, musical instruments, leather works, sculptures, and paintings.
Hippodrome de Bellerive
The Hippodrome de Bellerive, a horse track is located just across the river from the town of Vichy in Bellerive. The horse track is open each year from May to September and is an exciting way to spend some of your time in Vichy. You can bet on your favored horse to win, and maybe even earn a little extra vacation spending money!
Centre Omnisports de Vichy
If you are looking to burn off a little energy while visiting Vichy, stop by the Centre Omnisports de Vichy. Just five minutes from downtown Vichy, here you will find a place to cycle, play tennis or volleyball, go for a run, or kayak down their man-made river. There is also a restaurant and playground on site.
Golf Sporting Clubs de Vichy
Do you enjoy playing golf? Then you might enjoy playing eighteen holes on one of the oldest golf courses in France. The Golf de Vichy course was designed by Arnaud Massey, and the inaugural round was on May 1, 1908. Don’t know how to play but want to learn? There is also a golf school available here. In addition to the golf course, there is a men's and women’s locker room, a driving range, a putting green, and a restaurant. You do need to make advanced reservations to play a round of golf here, but visitors are heartily welcomed!
Staying in Vichy
When it comes to visiting Vichy, the one thing I did not look forward to is the hotel stay. I’ve stayed in every hotel in the center and they have some updating to do (said in my best Ricky to Lucy voice). But on our trip in October 2021 for the first time, we stayed in an Airbnb and we were pleasantly surprised.
More than that, actually, our restored “apartment” in a former palace hotel was absolutely adorable, brand spanking new, and retro-modern.
For our trip in the fall of 2022, we stayed in another Airbnb close to the town hall and it was super convenient for everything.
Say what you want about Airbnb, they do instill a sense of competition, and with renewed visibility that UNESCO moniker brings I hope the hotels in the area update themselves toute suite!
You may be wondering if Vichy is worth visiting, and we certainly think so. Vichy may be famous for its healing waters and spa treatments, but it has a lot more to offer as well. There are quaint shops, and cafes on quiet cobblestone streets just waiting for you to explore the treasures inside.
Speaking of cafes and restaurants, make sure you try a Vichy staple while you are there: Vichyssoise, a leek, potato, and sometimes chicken soup that is made with water from Vichy’s springs and served cold.
Many Vichy visitors compare the city to Paris, without all of the hustle and bustle. Vichy is a calm and quiet town with amazing architecture and a rich history. Quite literally a rich history, seeing as how its first visitors were the wealthy aristocracy from all over Europe. Don’t let that deter you though, there is nothing pretentious about today’s Vichy, and visitors of all kinds are welcomed with open arms.
How about you? Have you been to Vichy France? Do you want to visit? Do tell!
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