Follow this Épernay in Champagne guide for a glorious visit at any time of the year. The small town is considered the capital of champagne rather than its big sister Reims.
Épernay is a charming small town, 28 kms (17 miles) south of Reims. It’s in the Marne department of Champagne-Ardenne and is the heart of a wine-growing region covering 35,000 hectares of wines. It’s easy to get to and makes a perfect short break. I went in December for Les Habits de Lumière weekend. It was cold, sparkling and beautiful.
Major Attractions in Épernay Guide
You’ll find the websites of each attraction at the end of the article.
Avenue de Champagne
Épernay life revolves around the Avenue de Champagne that runs through the middle of the town.
This wide long boulevard is lined with the names of the great and the good: Moët et Chandon (founded in 1743), Perrier-Jouët, Pol Roger, Mercier, de Castellane and other champagne houses less well known to foreign visitors like de Venoge and Boizel. You’re walking over 110 kilometres of underground cellars, where the champagne is kept at a constant 9-12°C degrees.
The elegant châteaux were once both home and cellar to the original owners. Grand and gracious, their façades look out onto courtyards protected by cast-iron railings and gates while the lucky inhabitants kept their gardens at the back.
It’s used for every big occasion in Epernay. In December it’s at the heart of the Habits de Lumière festival; in January it saw the cars driving from Reims at the 2023 Monte Carlo Rally to Monaco.
Moët et Chandon Guided Tour
Moët et Chandon is arguably the best known name. A guided visit to Moët et Chandon starts in the former drawing rooms. Then with an English-speaking guide you descend into the brick-lined cellars underneath. Dimly lit, the cellars engender a feeling of reverence, bordering on awe. Not surprising really; you’re looking at millions of euros worth of bubbly made according to age-old methods. The dusty bottles are stacked in racks with deliberately bewildering numbers and letters at the top of each stack. Only the cellar master and his assistants know what they mean. And this is just the showcase. Most of the houses, particularly Moët et Chandon, have far larger production sites outside Épernay.
It makes you appreciate the glasses you savour upstairs even more.
Château Perrier Houses a Top Museum
I hadn’t expected the Champagne Wine and Regional Archaeology Museum to be so surprising. No bubbly served here for a start. But such considerations aside, it gives you a wonderful snapshot of the region’s prehistory and more recent history in a delightfully easy way.
The museum is full of the kinds of models I love. Strange skeletons for those who are into osteology; pots and shards for the archaeologists. I spent time with the Romans. Did you know that Roman roads often had three tracks? One elevated for those Roman armies to march from city to city, and one each side for the horses and carts of the plebs.
The champagne production section is just as interesting with oddities, and quirky information on the process itself. Again the section is full of models and pictures to keep your interest and there’s a sniffing table where you can try to identify different scents.
The only one I got right was walnuts (see below!)
You can also go down to the cellars but we were off to try another glass of bubbly.
Birds’ Eye View from a Helium Balloon
The Épernay helium balloon is tethered just outside the Avenue de Champagne. Ascend slowly up to 150 metres high for a view of the surrounding vineyards and villages. And, naturally, it’s done with a glass of champagne. It only takes off in good weather, so check before you go.
Markets in Épernay
If you like markets (and who doesn’t?), visit the covered Saint-Thibault market which has a good selection of stalls; open Wednesday and Saturday 8am-noon. On Tuesday and Saturday there’s a fabric and textile market in rue de la Poste. On Wednesday there’s a general market on la place Fada N’Gourma; Sunday morning try the food market on Auban-Moët Square.
There’s a flea market on the third Sunday of each month in Saint-Thibault.
Return to the ’70s
Vintage cars and vans are something of a universal passion in France. In fact, so popular are they that companies have sprung up all over giving tours in the sedate old ladies. My vintage tour company took us in a 70’s minibus out of Épernay and up and down small gravel tracks to a vineyard with a panoramic view. The back of the van was set up like a bar and a bottle of champagne produced. ‘Who wants to try this?’ asked the driver-guide, waving a sharp small sword. Up stepped one of our party to do the honours of beheading the bottle.
It’s actually quite easy (or at least looks quite easy). The bottle and the top with the cork have to be cold. You line up the bottle so the join of the two parts of the bottle is facing upwards. Take the sabre in your hand; hold out the bottle and hit the end of the cork firmly. Et voilà! The cork flies off and into the vines to be retrieved as a souvenir.
I’m not sure if this is a ‘Don’t try this at home trick’. I haven’t summoned up the courage or bought a bottle of cheap champagne yet to try the trick. But I will.
Pressoria – A Sensory Visit
Pressoria, just outside Épernay in Aÿ-Champagne, bills itself as ‘A Sensory Journey to the Heart of Champagne’. Which is a pretty bold claim. But Pressoria delivers and in such a way that you can take the family as well.
There are rooms showing you the growth of the vines and the changing seasons in the vineyards; there’s a room for sniffing scents to try to identify them (I managed walnuts but not much else); there are rocks to touch to give you an idea of the subsoil.
You can blend your own champagne and you end in a room surrounded by a screen with images of bubbles and music – all very artistic which everyone loved (except for me).
And of course there’s a tasting at the end.
What to See outside Épernay
It’s all about Champagne
Champagne is associated with the venerable Benedictine monk Dom Pierre Pérignon. This jovial figure (well his statue looks jovial) was the cellar master at the monastery in Hautvillers. He didn’t invent champagne, but in the 1670s was a key figure in the development of the wine.
Today Moët et Chandon produces Dom Pérignon, a sought after vintage champagne. This stipulates that all the grapes used are harvested in the same year; it’s only produced in good years and it is usually released after 8 to 10 years.
The pretty village of Hautvillers is 6 kms north of Épernay. Small enough to wander around, it’s a good idea to book an English-speaking guide at the tourist office. It may be known today for one thing – champagne production – but once Hautvillers was a thriving little centre full of different shops. Wrought-iron signs hanging from the walls depicting the profession of the owner, vital to a population that couldn’t read or write.
There’s a good view over the UNESCO World Heritage site vineyards that surround the village from the lower road. Keep walking to a cobbled, steep alley leading up to the Monastery and Abbey. You can only see the monastery from the outside, but you can go into the church where Dom Pierre Pérignon is buried.
And a visit to Don Pierre Pérignon’s statue is a must. People come from all over the world to look at this and pay their own particular respects. There’s always a bottle of champagne by his feet and the glass he’s holding is usually full.
More Villages around Épernay
Épernay is located in the vineyards of the three surrounding areas: Montagne de Reims, Côte de Blancs and Vallée de la Marne and there are plenty of villages and vineyards to visit. Check out the Route du champagne at the local tourist office or go online here. The different routes are easy to follow and you can stop and taste at anywhere which has the Acceuil (Welcome) sign outside. Try the smaller vineyards for some real revelations (and less expensive bottles).
Where to Stay
Jean Moët 4-star hotel is right beside the Avenue de Champagne. Rooms are different sized, ranging from the smaller attic rooms to larger rooms; bathrooms are spacious and there’s a view from most rooms of the splendid Épernay Town Hall. From €145 in the low season and €175 in the high season.
We ate at the restaurant but didn’t stay at the top 5-star Royal Champagne Hotel. 47 beautiful huge rooms look out over the vineyards below. Needless to stay this is expensive, from around €560 per night in low season for the cheapest suite to around €900 in the high season. But this is Champagne and this is a superb hotel so if you have the means, go for it! It’s owned by an American couple from Boston who fell in love with France years ago on cycling trips. So it’s something of a labour of love for them.
The Best Western Le Relais du Vigneron is in Vertus, 16 km south of Épernay. Bollinger, Duval-Leroy, Moët & Chandon, Piper-Heidsieck, Roederer, and Taittinger all have vineyards near the village which is one of the highest rated Premier Cru villages of Champagne. It’s a delightful hotel which has been totally renovated. It now has large modern rooms in different buildings in the middle of the village. Good-sized bathrooms, bar and restaurant and friendly and welcoming English-speaking staff. Some rooms have small kitchenettes if you want to cater for yourself.
Where to Eat
Épernay has a lot of good restaurants. Locals drink champagne throughout the meal, so ask for advice if you’re not sure what to order.
La Table Kobus. Centrally located, this was one of the best restaurants I have been to for some time. It’s a pleasant room with a brasserie vibe and excellent waiters with style. The menu is kept to 3 or 4 choices, ranging from truffled foie gras terrine with Reims ham and artichoke chutney on the starters to fish including scallops and cod. Meat dishes include black angus beef, Iberique pork and roast veal. Menus from €27 to €53.
Le P’tit Champenois is part of the Hotel Jean Moët. There’s an entrance from the hotel into the charming restaurant which is heavy on beef or try the chicken supreme. 2-course menu is €27; 3 courses €32.
Le Domaine de Vincine. In central Épernay this small family-run restaurant is bright and cheerful. The small menu changes every 3 weeks and offers simple dishes using local and regional ingredients. It’s best for lunch.
Le Bellevue Restaurant in the Royal Champagne Hotel. The restaurant is lavish with crystal chandeliers and luxury furniture and a view over the surrounding vineyards. Dishes are sophisticated; wine list is superb. There’s a lunch time menu at €45; otherwise starters hover around €25 and main dishes from €33 to €75 (for lobster).
La Cave à Champagne is a pretty restaurant. In the centre of Épernay, it has an impressive Champagne list (as you’d expect). Expect good, rustic regional dishes which are not for the faint-hearted and are good value. There’s a menu at €25.
Le Théatre Restaurant is one of the town’s oldest brasseries, housed in a classical building with a delightful décor. Again the chef concentrates on traditional local dishes. Menus €27 to €50.
Château d’Étoges. This impressive château is just outside Épernay. It’s a hotel and spa and offers good value breaks. There are 2 restaurants, a casual bistro and the more serious Orangerie. Menus from €58 to €78.
When to visit
Épernay is an all-year round destination. Undoubtedly it is at its best from Spring to late Autumn, but it has a very special event in December which I urge you to try to attend. Les Habits de Lumière takes place over the second weekend. I went last year; it was enormous fun.
This year Les Habits de Lumière in Épernay runs from Dec 8-10, 2023.
Épernay Tourist Information
Moët et Chandon Tour
Champagne Wine and Regional Archaeology Museum
Épernay Helium Balloon Ride
More to see and do in Champagne
Champagne Houses to visit in Reims
Voltaire, his lover and the Château de Cirey in Champagne