Historic Tour of Reims (With Maps!)

Historic Walking Tour Of Reims
CC BY-SA 2.0 / Carole Raddato

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Most people come to Reims lured by its bubbles. Known as the de facto capital of the Champagne Region, Reims boasts majestic champagne houses and vast expanses of vineyards, preparing the next batch for renowned brands like Moet and Chandon, Veuve Clicquot, or Perrier Jouet.

But beyond the fizz, Reims holds a profound historical significance. Many might not know that this town has witnessed numerous pivotal moments in French history. It bore immense damage during WWI and later, in WWII, was the stage for the peace treaty’s signing that concluded the war. While I have a penchant for champagne, it’s essential to pause and recognize the town’s historical depth. As we wander its streets, you’ll discover landmarks that harken back even to ancient times.

In our self guided Historic Walking Tour of Reims, we’ll navigate chronologically through its history. Yet, feel free to customize your journey. Whether you’re fascinated by the Roman era in Reims or the events of WWII, there’s something here for every history enthusiast—even if you’re someone who can’t distinguish between Chardonnay and Munier grapes. Let’s embark on this adventure!

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Porte de Mars (3rd Century AD)

Porte De Mars
CC BY-SA 2.0 / Carole Raddato

Durocortorum, the oppidum the Gallic Remes tribe built in the early 1st century AD, grew to become Reims. The Remes’ good fortune was due to the fact that they didn’t join the Gallic rebellion during the Gallic War, but took side with the Roman Empire. In return for their support, the Romans made Durocortorum a federated city and awarded it its independence. It also became the capital of the Gallia Belgica, one of the three provinces the Romans created in Gaul after the conquest. A thick stone wall encompassed the city during the 3rd century barbarian invasions.

The Porte de Mars, is an ancient triumphal arch built in the third century AD, and stands as a testament to when the Romans introduced major roads to Reims. Named after a temple of Mars that stood nearby, this majestic arch stretched 13 meters in height and 32 meters in length, proudly bearing the title of the widest arch of the Roman era. Initially, other buildings accompanied the arch, but come 1817, they were cleared away, revealing the solitary structure we see today.

Location: Porte Mars, Place de la République, Reims, France
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Cryptoporticus (3rd Century AD)

Reims Cryptoporticus
CC BY-SA 4.0 / ADT Marne

The Cryptoporticus in Reims is an ancient underground gallery or passageway, dating back to the third century AD. Constructed by the Romans, this structure originally supported the forum, which was the central public space in the city. It consists of three parallel vaulted galleries and was used for various purposes over time, including storage. Located near the city’s cathedral, the Cryptoporticus offers a fascinating glimpse into the ancient history of Reims and the architectural practices of the Roman era. Today, it stands as one of the city’s important archaeological sites and a testament to its Roman heritage.

Location: Cryptoportique, Place du Forum, Reims, France
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Cathédrale Notre-Dame (12th Century AD)

Cathedrale Notre Dame Reims
CC BY-SA 4.0 / Tontonflingueur

Nestled at the heart of Reims, the Cathédrale Notre-Dame stands as an emblematic beacon, its majestic towers marking the city’s skyline. Recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is undeniably among France’s most exceptional cathedrals and a crowning jewel of Gothic artistry.

Clovis, Frankish king was baptized by Remi, bishop of Reims on Christmas Day 498 in a baptistery which was a little to the of where north of the Notre-Dame Cathedral of Reims stands, on the ruins of the old Roman baths.

In 816 took place the first royal coronation in Reims, the one of Louis the Pious, son of Charlemagne. The ceremony which lasted generally five hours used to take place in Notre-Dame Cathedral, as long ago as the Cathedral was built. It was followed by the coronation banquet in the Tau palace and a pilgrimage to the tomb of the bishop Remi, in the Basilica which bears his name. The most memorable coronation remains the one of the Dauphin Charles VII being lead into Reims by Joan of Arc on the 17th of July 1429 after the raising of the siege of Orleans. The city became for 10 centuries onward – until 1825 – the place of coronation of all the kings of France – with the exception of the Protestant Henri IV. In total, 33 kings got crowned in Reims, the last one being Charles X in 1825.

The cathedral you see was constructed in the 13th century, this architectural wonder is distinguished by its exquisite façade that evokes the intricacy of lace. Over 2,000 statues enrich its form, a testament to the meticulous craftsmanship of the era. Dominating the cathedral’s west front are three elaborately sculpted doorways, crowned by a radiant rose window. Directly above, the renowned Gallery of Kings stretches, its statues residing in artful niches. The central doorway’s detailed reliefs narrate the Virgin Mary’s life. A whimsical touch to the façade is the delightful ‘Sourire de Reims’ or the Smiling Angel statue. Stepping inside, visitors are enveloped in a grand expanse, a harmonious blend of reverence and light. This ethereal glow emanates from numerous stained-glass windows, punctuating the cathedral’s vast nave. Modern stained-glass artworks by luminaries such as Marc Chagall and Imi Knoebel enhance the cathedral’s historical charm.

Location: Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Reims, Notre Dame de Reims, Place du Cardinal Luçon, Reims, France | Hours: 7:30am until 7:30pm | Price: €8 | Website
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The Basilica Of St-Remi (12th Century AD)

Reims Basilica Saint Remi
CC BY-SA 4.0 / Aimelaime

The third among Reims’ quartet of UNESCO heritage sites, this ancient abbey takes us on a journey to the 11th century. It was erected on the grounds of a former chapel, the final resting place of Saint Remigius. This notable Bishop of Reims is celebrated for baptizing King Clovis, a transformative moment in French Christian history. Pope Leo IX consecrated this abbey in 1049.

The architectural marvel, as we see it today, is a blend of the original structure and subsequent additions spanning from the 12th to the 19th centuries. It stands as Northern France’s grandest Romanesque church. The abbey’s exterior and interior weave together a tapestry of diverse architectural styles. Once inside, visitors are greeted by a grand aisle, an elongated spectacle stretching almost 400 feet, yet maintaining a width of just 85 feet. This harmonious blend of scale and proportion leaves a lasting impression.

Location: Basilique Saint-Remi, Rue Saint-Julien, Reims, France
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Palace of Tau (12th Century AD)

Palais Du Tau Et Cathédrale
CC BY-SA 3.0 / Ludovic Péron

Right next to Notre Dame de Reims stands the Palace of Tau. Its name, derived from its T-shape reminiscent of the Greek letter “tau”, signifies its historical importance. Traditionally, this bishop’s palace served as the residence for the kings of France before their coronation events in the adjacent cathedral. Here, in the palace’s grand rooms, they would dress and ready themselves for the elaborate coronation ceremonies.

Today, the palace has transformed into a captivating museum, housing a collection of artefacts related to the cathedral and the numerous coronations it witnessed. Moreover, it showcases treasures that narrate the rich history of the champagne region.

Entry to the exhibit costs 8€ for adults. Impressively, those under 18 and individuals with disabilities (along with one accompanying person) can enjoy free admission—a commendable inclusion.

Location: Palais du Tau, Place du Cardinal Luçon, Reims, France | Website
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Musee-Hotel Le Vergeur (16th Century AD)

Musée-hôtel Le Vergeur
CC BY-SA 3.0 / Johan Bakker

Just a stone’s throw away from the Roman cryptoporticus rests a remarkable 16th-century edifice. This house, with foundations dating back to the 13th century, once belonged to the affluent merchant, Nicolas Le Vergeur. Later, it became the residence of Hugues Krafft, a fervent collector. After his passing, Krafft bequeathed his residence and its extensive collection to the Association of the Friends of Old Reims.

Visually, the building itself is a treat for architecture enthusiasts. It showcases fascinating historical design elements, from its imposing indoor fireplace to its half-timbered external framework. Its gardens, meticulously maintained, further enhance its allure, making a visit to this place deeply rewarding even before stepping inside.

The interior, however, elevates the experience to another level. Visitors are presented with a treasure trove of artifacts. Notable among them are the original sketches by the famed artist Albrecht Durer and an exquisite collection of Meissen porcelain. The house-museum also showcases a diverse array of art pieces, interwoven with gothic furnishings, ensuring that visitors are engrossed for hours, exploring and absorbing its rich history and artistic splendor.

Location: Musée-Hôtel Le Vergeur, Place du Forum, Reims, France | Hours: Tuesday - Sunday. Hours are from 10am until 12 noon and 2pm until 6pm. | Price: €5.50 | Website
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Musée de la Reddition (20th Century AD)

Musée De La Reddition -World War II Museum
CC BY-SA 4.0 / G.Garitan

Next on our journey is a seemingly ordinary educational structure, presently recognized as Lycee Roosevelt. However, its past resonates with historical significance. In 1945, it bore the title ‘le College Moderne et Technique de Reims’, and against all expectations, it played an integral role in global history. On the dawn of May 7th, 1945, within a room on its second floor, the pivotal treaty ending World War II was inked.

During this period, this edifice served as the base for SHAEF – the Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Force, under the leadership of General Eisenhower. Following Adolf Hitler’s demise on April 30, leadership transitioned to Admiral Karl Donitz. Accompanying Generaloberst Alfred Jodl, the Wehrmacht’s commander, Donitz witnessed the historic treaty’s signing, culminating the war.

Today, adjacent to the school is the Musée de la Reddition, a humble museum. It invites visitors to explore myriad war artifacts and step into the treaty room, preserved in its original state post-signing. Our experience here was brief yet profoundly memorable.

The museum charges a nominal fee of 5€ for entry. Concessions are available for young visitors below 18 and seniors over 65. Echoing the Palace of Tau’s inclusivity, persons with disabilities and their companion are granted free admission.

Location: Musée de la Reddition, Rue du Président Franklin Roosevelt, Reims, France | Hours: Every day from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Closed on Tuesdays | Price: €5.50 | Website
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Carnegie Library of Reims (20th Century AD)

Reims CarnegieLibrary
CC BY-SA 4.0 / Ludvig14

Our walking tour culminates near the heart of the city, in proximity to the cathedral and bustling city center. Throughout our journey today, we’ve traced how Reims bore the brunt of the destruction during WWI. In the aftermath of the war, Andrew Carnegie, the esteemed American industrialist and philanthropist, set up the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. This initiative targeted three “front line” European cities that were particularly ravaged by the war, offering them the means to construct new, or revamp existing, libraries. France’s chosen “front line” city was none other than Reims, and by 1927, the city showcased a splendid new library.

The Carnegie Library of Reims, designed in the striking Art Deco style, is certainly worth a leisurely walk-by, or better yet, a venture inside if time permits. Its architecture is a testament to the resilience of humanity and our ability to rise from the ashes of calamity.

While entrance to the library is complimentary, those keen on an in-depth experience can opt for guided tours at a nominal fee.

Location: Bibliothèque Carnegie, Place Carnegie, Reims, France
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