Get ready to fall in love with Angouleme, a hidden gem in rural France! If you’re a fan of art, history, and architecture, then Angouleme should right at the top of your travel bucket list.
Located in the heart of Charente, Angouleme is filled with fascinating attractions that reflect its colourful past.
From medieval castles and contemporary museums to historic ramparts and cartoon wall art, it really does have it all.
Not to mention all the restaurants you’ll find as you wander through the cobbled streets of the old town on top of the hill.
I’ve rounded up the top must-visit attractions in Angouleme that will hopefully help you fall in love with the town as much as I have.
But before you print off your itinerary and head out for the day, let’s take a minute to hear about the history and the story behind the development of the town.
Table of Contents
Angouleme, the tale of two towns
Angoulême is divided into two parts: the Haute-Ville (upper town), referred to by the locals as ‘le plateau’, and the Bassse-Ville (lower town).
The Haute-Ville sits high on its imposing limestone ramparts offering stunning views of the surrounding countryside.
The old town is a maze of narrow, winding cobbled streets and alleyways, lined with boutiques, restaurants, and cafes. It’s also home to the imposing Château d’Angoulême, a medieval fortress now known as Hôtel de Ville.
Down below, the Basse-Ville is a bustling hub of commercial and industrial activity along the riverfront. The Basse-Ville is connected to the Haute-Ville by a series of steep staircases which makes it easy to explore both parts of the town.
I love wandering through the streets of Angouleme as it’s like visiting a bygone era. It feels like it hasn’t changed much throughout the years and there’s an easy charm to it. Listen hard and you can almost hear the knights on horseback riding over the cobbles.
A potted history of Angouleme
Angouleme can trace its history back to the Iron Age and was once home to the Gallo-Roman settlement of Iculisma. It was attacked and seized in the 500s by Visigoth invaders and again by both the Normans and Vikings.
But its history really comes into its own in 1200 when Isabella of Angoulême married King John of England in Bordeaux.
In 1202 she became Countess of Angoulême in her own right playing a big role in the relationship between England and France, which was often tenuous.
Her mother-in-law, through her marriage to King John, was Eleanor of Aquitaine. Eleanor married Henry II in 1154 after divorcing Louis VII of France. She was mother to Richard Coeur-de-Lion (the Lion Heart), also one of the ruling Counts of Angoulême.
In 1360 things changed as the Plantagenets took control of the town only to be seized by Charles V in 1373. In the early 1500s, the town received the status of Duchy but it suffered heavily during the Wars of Religion.
1844 saw the last line of the Dukes of Angoulême pass away.
Where to stay in Angouleme
The French Dispatch and the Wes Anderson influence
Angouleme was the chosen filming location for the 2018 Wes Anderson movie The French Dispatch.
Can you imagine how much fun it was to see Angouleme turned into a film set?
Some big names were part of the movie including Owen Wilson, Bill Murray and Tilda Swinton.
Apparently, the movie had one of the largest budgets ever known for a foreign film in France. And the Charente, where I live, received investment of around 8 million from this project.
We’d only been living in France for 18 months when we found out about the filming. And as Angouleme is only a 30-minute drive for us we couldn’t resist the chance to see Hollywood come to town.
I was so surprised that there weren’t more people flooding the streets. There was very little security and we were able to watch the filming of some of the scenes. It was beyond fascinating.
What really surprised me was the speed with which they moved from one location to another. All the props and set stuff was broken down and moved almost at the speed of light.
As to why Wes Anderson chose Angouleme for his fictional French town of Ennui-sur-Blasé, I would imagine budget came into it.
Plus, Angouleme is nowhere near as busy as places like Paris or Bordeaux. This would have definitely made filming and moving around a lot easier.
The Ramparts in Angouleme
Angouleme has an enviable position overlooking the Charente with a bird’s eye view of the surrounding countryside. This was a strategic move when the first city walls were built in Roman times around the 3rd or 4th century.
It gave those in the town advanced warning of enemies approaching.
It’s this panoramic view of upper and lower Angouleme that has given it the nickname of ‘balcony of the southwest’.
The early ramparts were made of stone and were designed to protect the city from invaders. Over time, the ramparts were modified and rebuilt, as the city’s strategic importance grew.
During the Middle Ages, Angoulême became a key centre of power in the region. The ramparts were fortified with towers and other defensive structures to protect the city from attacks.
In the 16th century, the town was at the centre of the French Wars of Religion. The ramparts were further fortified during this time, with the addition of new walls and towers.
Skip forward to the 19th century and the need for fortification was much less and many of the walls and towers were dismantled.
The town started to grow down the hillside which is where the upper and lower layers come into play.
As you walk along the ramparts the countryside is laid out before you. If you close your eyes you can imagine how it must have felt to watch your enemies approaching as you prepared for battle.
My favourite place to get a good selfie is Statue Carnot (find it on Maps). A statue of President Sadi Carnot, who served as the President of the French Republic from 1887 until his assassination in 1894.
You can see the Charente River and the picturesque Pont Victor Hugo, a historic bridge that spans the river and connects the city’s two banks.
The perfect backdrop for a quick Instagram story.
Hôtel de Ville, Angouleme
Part of the fortification of the town was the Château d’Angoulême. Built in the 9th century as a fortified castle its job was to protect the city from invaders.
During the Hundred Years’ War between France and England, the castle was a key strategic stronghold. Heavily fortified with new walls and towers it was also used as a base of operations for French soldiers.
One of the remaining medieval towers, Valois tower, is said to be the birthplace of Marguerite de Navarre. Her father, Charles, Count of Angoulême, was a descendant of Charles V and was in line for the French crown. Marguerite herself married Henry II of Navarre by the decree of King Louis XII.
Today, the Château d’Angoulême is known as the Hotel de Ville and serves as the city’s town hall. I’ve seen a few couples posing for photos outside in the gardens after getting married in the town hall.
Its stunning architecture is a focal point in the middle of the town and helps you remember the history of Angouleme.
Just imagine if those walls could talk the stories you might hear.
A veritable feast of history try to squeeze this into your itinerary. It’s located in the grounds of what was once the Bishop’s residence next to the cathedral.
It was originally founded as a natural history museum, which would explain the skull of a Bronze Age woman on display on the ground floor.
Its prized possession is the Casque d’Agris, a ceremonial helmet from 500 BC discovered in a cave in the Charente Basin.
Another highlight is the impressive collection of contemporary art, with works by famous artists like Picasso, Matisse, and Chagall.
The museum also hosts temporary exhibitions throughout the year, so there’s always something new and exciting to see.
For opening times and tickets visit the Angouleme Tourism Website.
Les Halles in Angouleme
Les Halles is the covered market in the upper town of Angouleme built on the site of Le Châtelet a 13th-century fortress which later became a prison.
It was built between 1878 and 1885 by the architect Victor Baltard, who is perhaps best known for designing the famous Les Halles market in Paris. He used this as inspiration as the iron and glass structure in Angoulême is reminiscent of the design of the market in Paris.
During World War II, the market was used as a meeting place for Resistance fighters, who would meet there to plan attacks and swap information.
Now you’ll find great fresh local produce 6 days a week Tues- Sun from 8 am – 1.30 pm.
You’ll find the market near the ramparts on Place de Halles. Find the location on Google Maps.
Cathédrale Saint-Pierre, Angouleme
First built in the 1100s on the authority of Girard II, Bishop of Angoulême it’s a fantastic example of Romanesque architecture.
It underwent several changes over the centuries, with numerous chapels added. However, the most significant transformation occurred in the 19th century, between 1852 and 1875, when visionary architect Paul Abadie teamed up with Bishop Cousson to breathe new life into the cathedral.
Notably, they did away with most of the chapels and rebuilt the bell tower.
The nave has three domes inspired by the Saint-Front de Périgueux cathedral. This type of architecture was new and exciting during the 12th century and was imitated throughout the construction of several churches in Angoulême and Saintonge.
If you get a chance to visit when the collection of Cathedral Tresors (treasures) is open it’s well worth it.
Musée de la Bande Dessinée, Angouleme
Angouleme is the home to the 9th art, the Comic. Art is broken into 9 different categories in France, and the Comic is the last one.
The Musée de la Bande Dessinée (Comic Strip Museum), is a must-visit destination for comic book lovers and enthusiasts. And even if you’re not, it’s still fascinating.
The museum showcases the history and evolution of the comic strip art form including classic comics like Tintin and Asterix to modern graphic novels.
One of the highlights is its collection of original comic book artwork, which includes sketches, drawings, and finished pages from some of the most famous comic book creators in the world.
Every year in January, comic fans from around the world descend on Angouleme for the Comic Strip Festival.
And of course, much of it is hosted right here in the museum.
Street Art in Angouleme
Angouleme is the European capital of cartoons and that is evident through the street art you see literally everywhere in the town.
Strolling around the streets of Angoulême is an urban adventure like no other! Everywhere you turn, you’ll see stunning murals and quirky cartoon drawings tucked away in alleyways and waiting to be discovered.
You’ll find them popping up in windows, on street corners, and even taking over entire buildings – from the walls of houses to the sides of shops.
In 1986 the French government set up an initiative called CitéCréation. The idea was to combine art with urban settings in France. They wanted to turn otherwise uninteresting and mundane streets into living and breathing works of art.
It was through this program that around 30 art installations were commissioned in Angouleme.
One mural that perfectly captures the unique approach to art that makes Angoulême so special is the breathtaking 120-metre La Fille des Ramparts (The Girl at the Ramparts), created by the legendary Max Cabanes.
This piece of art isn’t just a mural – it’s a living, breathing part of the city’s very fabric. The ancient Roman ramparts blend seamlessly into the artwork, blurring the lines between the real and the imagined.
The city itself becomes a canvas for Cabanes’ incredible vision. And the result is a work of art that transcends time, space, and imagination.
My other favourite is Memoires du XXeme Ciel (Memories of the 20th Heaven). Created in 1999 by the renowned artist Bernard Hislaire (also known as Yslaire), it is a scene from Yslaire’s acclaimed graphic novel project of the same name.
The mural depicts a man and a woman kissing, taken from Yslaire’s iconic French Revolution saga, “Sambre”.
This powerful story follows the forbidden romance between an aristocrat and a farm girl and has captured the hearts of readers and art lovers around the world. You can find it here >>>
It also happens to be opposite one of my favourite restaurants, Le Saint André. I’ve never had a dodgy meal there and the ambience inside the restaurant is lovely.
In the summer you can sit outside on the terrace and take in the detail of the mural whilst enjoying your lunch.
In total, there are 83 murals around the city. Download this PDF for the locations.
The Paper Mill Museum in Angouleme
Originally used to grind wheat, many paper mills were adapted from their original use due to the popularity of things such as literature, which saw the demand for paper go up.
A group of Dutch papermakers settled in the area and began producing paper using traditional methods.
By the 19th century, the paper industry had become a significant part of the local economy, and Angouleme had established itself as a major centre for paper production in France.
The mill employed hundreds of people and played a vital role in the local economy for many years.
Unfortunately, in the mid-20th century, the paper mill industry began to decline, and many mills across France were forced to close.
Angouleme’s paper mill managed to survive until the early 1970s when it finally shut down for good.
The paper museum is located on the banks of the Charente on the site of the former Joseph Bardou Le Nil cigarette paper mill. It was opened to the public on November 25, 1988, with exhibitions on industrial stationery through the centuries.
Église Saint-André, Angouleme
The French love their churches and much has been done to preserve and restore them over the years. And Église Saint-André is no exception.
Once again, it was architect Paul Abadie who was involved in the restoration in 1860. It had sustained extensive damage during the Hundred Years’ War and the French Revolution.
One of the most notable features is its impressive Romanesque-style architecture, characterized by its rounded arches, sturdy columns, and intricate carvings.
It also features a stunning 17th-century altarpiece and several beautiful stained-glass windows.
Quite a bit of the original architecture from throughout the centuries can still be seen which gives it a bit of an odd mix of styles.
The naves built at the end of the 15th century, the pulpit, dated 1692, designed by Jacques Rogier, and the furniture from the 17 & 18th centuries are all part of this eclectic mix.
Annual Events held in Angouleme
Angouleme plays host to many events throughout the year but there are three that stand out above the rest.
Circuit des Remparts
Putting the city ramparts to good use, this event is nothing like Formula One. It’s far more exciting.
Held over a couple of days in September one day is set aside for racing. Vintage cars and classic racing cars quite literally, race each other through the town.
It’s an assault on your senses and quite the adrenalin rush if you’re there watching.
Funnily enough, our plumber Cliff is a collector of vintage cars and has raced there several times. It was so much fun to see someone you know taking part.
Originally started in 1939, it took a break during the war years and restarted in 1947. Then due to the strict health and safety laws, it stopped again in 1955.
Luckily a group of motor enthusiasts managed to get it started again in 1978.
Stretching along the city walls for nearly a mile the circuit has twists, right-angle turns, and three hairpin bends that are sure to get your heart racing.
For more details on the event visit the website www.circuitdesremparts.com
Angoulême International Comics Festival
Angoulême is for comics what Cannes is for film.
Back in 1974, just two years after the paper factory shut down, three friends had an idea. They wanted to organize an exhibition to celebrate their love of comic books and bring together like-minded people who shared their passion.
As word got out, the exhibition gained momentum and became a total hit. It grew and evolved each year, transforming into the epic four-day Festival International de la Bande Dessinée d’Angoulême – now the second-largest comic book festival in Europe (after Lucca in Italy) and the third-largest in the world!
Today, this festival is a celebration of all things comic book, with fans and creators from all over the globe descending on Angoulême to join in the fun. 2023 was the 50th anniversary of the exhibition proving the popularity of the humble comic.
Musiques Métisses Festival
Who doesn’t love a good music festival? Luckily for us, France is home to many of them throughout the year.
Originally billed as “Jazz in France” it first started in 1976. Since then it’s developed to include a wide variety of music genres from around the world.
Now the festival stages feature everything from African rhythms to Caribbean beats to electronic music and beyond.
Can you think of anything better than sitting on the banks of the Charente in the summer listening to music?
To find out more about Music Festivals in the Nouvelle Aquitaine read this article
How to get to Angouleme
As well as being an easy town to walk around Angouleme is also easy to get to.
Driving to Angouleme
By car, it’s a two-hour drive from La Rochelle, an hour from Cognac and about two and a half hours from the Dordogne.
There isn’t a great deal of parking in the town centre but as you go past the train station near the Comic Museum is an underground car park on the left. There are always spaces in there and after 1 pm on a weekend, parking is free.
Catching the train to Angouleme
To get to Angouleme by train you can use the TGV or the LGV Atlantique train lines. It’s just 35 minutes from Bordeaux, 90 minutes from Paris and about 2.5 hours from La Rochelle.
The station isn’t huge but you can’t miss it as it has a great big cartoon statue on top of it. Very fitting considering Angouleme’s status as cartoon capital of Europe.
And if you’re flying to Angouleme
The nearest airports would be Poitiers, Limoges, Bordeaux or Bergerac. The Angouleme-Cognac airport is for private charters only.