Isère by guest writer Fiona Quinn
How much do you know about Isère? I would guess it’s less than Provence or the Dordogne. But it’s an impressive part of the country so I hope this call to visit Isère will get you planning a trip. Summer or winter, Isère is a year-round destination.
If you do know about Isère it will be for its mountains and ski resorts (Alpe d’Huez and les Deux Alpes are world famous). But it’s also a summer playground where the natural parks offer a get-away-from-it-all experience. And it’s also the part of France where some of the world’s toughest cycle races have been won – and lost – on its precipitous mountain passes.
Isère has great cities, pretty medieval villages and spa towns. It’s the place to hike or cycle, swim in the clean waters of mountain lakes and explore the wildlife. Even in the height of summer, there’s space for everyone.
Discover more from the Isère Tourism website.
Isère – A Short Introduction
Isère is the second largest département in the Auvergne-Rhônes-Alpes region. Named after the Isère river, it’s part of the historic province of Dauphiné which consisted of Isère, the Drôme and Hautes-Alpes until it was acquired by the King of France in 1349. It extends from the banks of the River Rhône to the summits of the French Alps and takes in the historic cities of Grenoble and Vienne.
Isère also includes four mountain ranges that make up its spectacular natural parks of Belledonne, Chartreuse, Vercors and Écrins.
Isère’s mountains are one of the big draws, appealing to lovers of the great outdoors.
In winter, snow-sports take priority. With a range of 23 ski resorts, Isère is France’s third largest ski region after Savoie and Haute-Savoie.
But come summer, when the snows have melted, a vast open-air landscape reveals itself with intense blue lakes and alpine meadows covered in flowers. Cities, towns and villages offer festivals which range from those celebrating the rich terrain and the food to sporting events that showcase the magnificent landscape.
Sports in Isère
The extensive mountain scenery makes Isère a perfect place to stretch your legs – either hiking or trail running. If you’re really keen on the pastoral life, hike between the mountain refuges that dot the landscape.
Or take to the waters; Isère’s lakes and rivers make for great sailing, white water rafting and canyoning.
And don’t forget winter and its snow-sports.
Cycling in Isère
Isère attracts cyclists of all abilities and types with a network of routes that cover more than 1,000 kms/621 miles. The famous Tour de France cycle race showcases some of France’s toughest climbs, and thousands of amateur cyclists flock to the winding mountain passes to test out the thigh-busting routes, like the legendary Alpe d’Huez climb with its 21 hairpin bends. The less ambitious can hire hydro-electric bikes.
The 2020 Tour de France in Isère
The 2020 Tour de France passed through Isère on three consecutive days, starting with a rest day on September 14th, 2020. On September 15th, the Tour crossed the Chartreuse via the Col de Porte, which first featured in the 1927 race. It went towards Grenoble via the Revel in the Belledonne massif, and reached the Vercors via the climb up to Saint-Nizier-du-Moucherotte. The Tour finished after a descent to 1,023 m/3,356 ft at Villard-de-Lans which has hosted the tour 12 times. On September 16th, the race started in Grenoble before taking the section to Méribel in Savoie.
Visit Isère but which part?
The northern borders of Isère, surrounded by parts of Greater Lyon, follow the Rhône river. Here the land is flatter with steep slopes along the Rhône valley where vineyards flourish.
Central Isère, Grenoble and parts of north eastern Isère encompass the Chartreuse and Belledonne mountains and regional parks.
Southern Isère is the more mountainous region. The southeast part of Isère, which neighbours Savoie, lies within the French Alps. The Oisans area covers parts of the massifs of Taillefer, Grandes Rousses, Arves and Écrins with the Ecrins National Park furthest south.
Isère’s southwestern border is the Drôme, where the Vercors massif mountains feature heavily with their dramatic, undulating steep cliffs and valleys. This part is particularly popular with cyclists.
Isère’s Major Cities and Towns
Grenoble, popularly known as the ‘Capital of the Alps’ is the capital of Isère. Its position is fantastic, between the Drac and Isère rivers and surrounded on either side by the mountain regions of Chartreuse to the northeast and Vercors to the southwest.
A famous university city, and the cultural heart of Isère, Grenoble attracts high-tech industries. It all makes for a lively city, with bars and restaurants filling the maze of streets where medieval and modern buildings mix happily.
The old town is fascinating with museums ranging from the Musée de Grenoble which has one of the best art collections in France to the Musée de la Résistance et de la Déportation de l’Isère, telling the story of one of the major centres of the Resistance in France during World War II.
The standout attraction is the 18th-century fortress of La Bastille with its spectacular, panoramic views of the surrounding mountains. Getting there is equally as exciting. Take the téléphérique cable car from the centre of the city where spherical gondolas – called ‘Les Bulles’ or bubbles – whisk you up the 263 m/826 ft to La Bastille.
Worth checking out is the new Champollion museum in Vif near Grenoble. It’s one of the major events of 2021. Set in the Champollion family home, it’s dedicated to the 19th-century quest and obsession with Egypt.
The river Rhône runs through the historic city of Vienne linking it to Lyon to the north and down to the south of France.
Vienne was a major Roman city, the vital port for wine and other goods. Roman monuments are scattered all around the city from the Temple of Augustus and Livia built by Emperor Claudius (a smaller version of Nîmes famous Maison Carré) to the Roman theatre, the garden of Cybele, remnants of ramparts and aqueducts.
The Pyramid is the only part left of the old Roman circus which once throbbed to the shouts of the charioteers and gladiators. Now the streets throb to the sound of the Jazz à Vienne Festival, held most years in the first two weeks of July, with some performances held in the 1st-century Roman Theatre.
From Vienne to…Voiron
To the east of Vienne, between Lyon and Grenoble, the Pays Voironnais surrounds the town of Voiron. The sparkling 6 km/3.7 mile long Lake Paladru is one of Isère’s great lakes and the fifth largest natural lake in France. You can swim in the turquoise-clear mountain waters, hire a sailboat, rowing boat, kayak, paddleboard or idle away a few hours waiting for fish. Walk or cycle along the 7 km/4.3 mile greenway that runs along its shores, connecting the beaches and villages from Paladru to Charavines.
In Voiron one of the main attractions is the Chartreuse Cellars where Chartreuse liqueur is manufactured. Guided tours in French or English show you the equipment and stills of the longest liqueur cellar in the world. The tour finishes, of course, with a sip or two of the green-coloured alcoholic beverage.
Isère’s Historic Villages
The medieval village of Crémieu sits in the far north-west of Isère and 40 kms/25 miles due east of Lyon. Surrounded by 14th-century ramparts and defensive towers, the streets of this town with half-timbered houses come alive on Wednesdays with a weekly market held in its 15th-century marketplace.
If you’re visiting in September, take in Crémieu for its spectacular Medieval Festival.
Saint-Antoine-l’Abbaye, 62kms/38 miles west of Grenoble, is one of France’s Most Beautiful Villages. Once a staging post on the pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela, the village is dominated by the all-important abbey church.
The building dates from the 13th to the 15th centuries, its entrance is a grand Gothic portal. It’s huge: 62 m/203 ft long with 17 chapels running off the main nave and altar.
Its fame lay in its possession of the relics of the 3rd century St Anthony of Egypt. He was the first monk and hermit in the history of Christianity, giving his name to the now defunct Antonine order of monks whose purpose was to look after the sick.
A little further south and on the other side of the Isère river, Pont-en-Royans sits at the gateway to the Vercors Natural Park. Centuries-old houses seem suspended on a ledge of rock over the Bourne river.
The Parks of Isère
For many, the parks of Isère are the main reason to visit summer and winter.
Four mountain ranges of Isère make up the spectacular natural parks. Oisans is part of Ecrins Park in Oisans, which was created in 1973 as the first of the nine National Parks in France. The three other are Regional Natural Parks: Belledonne, Chartreuse and Vercors.
There’s fabulous skiing in all of these parks with resorts running from the world-famous to small village resorts. Summer brings hikers, cyclists, bird watchers, horse riders; the lakes offer swimming and water sports.
Read more about Isère’s parks, mountains and ski resorts here.
The Lakes of Isère
South of Grenoble between the Vercors and Ecrins, the vast 20 km/12.4 mile Lake Monteynard was created in 1961 when the hydroelectric dam was built. Renowned for its lengthy Himalayan suspension bridges (220m and 180m long) that span high above the Drac and Ebron rivers, it’s a popular spot for hikers (without a fear for heights) as well as kite surfers.
If you want a more leisurely visit, take the boat trip along the length of the lake on the La Mira boat.
Nearby in Matheysine Lake Laffrey is the 8th biggest natural lake in France. At 900 m/2.953 ft above sea level, its cool temperatures and glistening blue mountain waters make it a perfect place for windsurfing and dinghy sailing.
The Food of Isère
Alpine influences are dominant in the hearty flavours of Isèrois produce.
All French mountain regions are famous for their cheeses, and Isère is no exception.
Two famous cheeses are produced here. Saint-Marcellin is a fairly small flat round soft cheese, becoming softer as it matures. It’s especially good served warm with bread or crackers. Le Bleu du Vercors-Sassenage is a mild blue cheese that can be used in quiches or served with salad. It goes well with light red wines such as Chatillon en Diois.
If you’re a cheese fan and want to discover more, check out the 87 routes across the region devoted to the Vélo et Fromages (bike and cheese) concept connecting farms and cheese dairies. There are two cycling itineraries in the Vercors.
The region is also famous for its big Murçon sausages, which have a slight aniseed flavour.
The area is France’s top producer of walnuts. The highly prized nuts are added to products like chocolate and brioche, beers and ravioles.
Ravioles have been a speciality of the region for centuries. These little square-shaped pasta are stuffed with cheese and parsley.
Gratin Dauphinois – creamy oven-baked potatoes – is probably one of France’s and the region’s best-known dishes, believed to date back to 1788.
Top Restaurants in Isère
While not as famous as its neighbour Lyon for gastronomy, the region has several acclaimed restaurants, including La Pyramide in Vienne, a Michelin-starred restaurant where famous chefs including Paul Bocuse trained.
Other Michelin-starred establishments in the area, specialising in refined Isérois cuisine, include Le Domaine de Clairefontaine in Chonas l’Amballan, about 10 km/6miles from Vienne, and La Table d’Uriage in a grand spa hotel 20 km/12 miles from Grenoble. And for top dining book at the 2-star Maison Aribert in Uriage les Bains which also has 5 very chic rooms in its boutique style hotel.
And as for Drinks…
Sitting on the terrace of a mountain restaurant with a Rhône Valley wine in hand makes for a perfect day in Isère. Alongside lesser-known appellations such as Château Grillet, Balmes Dauphinoises, and Côteaux du Grésivaudan, some of the region’s best-known wines include Condrieu and Côte-Rôtie, a fragrant red wine.
Côte-Rôtie vines grow on the right bank of the Rhône just south of Vienne where steep hillside vineyards bask in long hours of sunshine.
Better known outside the region is the green-coloured Chartreuse liqueur. Made by Carthusian monks to a centuries-old recipe devised and kept in the Chartreuse Monastery, this sweet drink is infused with a secret combination of 130 mountain herbs, plants and flowers.
The rise in popularity of craft breweries has brought at least twenty brewers to the region. Among these are the Brasserie du Dauphiné producing award-winning Blonde des Alpes beer; the Goodwin Brewery, making British-style craft ales, and Biere du Vercors, producing a certified organic mountain beer as well as lemonade and whisky.
The Domaine des Hautes Glaces manufactures a number of organic alpine whiskies, including Vulson White Rhino Rye, and is one of only a handful of distilleries that both grows and malts its own cereals.
In their iconic metal bottles, the popular syrups from Teisseire found throughout French supermarkets are produced in Isère at Crolles.
How to get to Isère
Grenoble Alpes Isère (GNB) serves Grenoble and many of Isère’s 23 ski resorts in less than two hours, with the smaller resorts of Villard de Lans, Corrençon, Chamrousse, Les 7 Laux, as well as Oisans and Belledonne, closer still to the airport. By opting for a resort with short transfers, savvy skiers can squeeze in extra time on the slopes.
Actibus “Navette Grenoble Aéroport” connects the airport with Grenoble bus/train station. Schedules coincide with flight arrivals and departures. The journey takes 45 minutes. Tickets must be bought in advance.
In winter, several direct shuttle services leave from the terminal taking skiers to the resorts of Alpe d’Huez, Les Deux Alpes and Chamrousse (Sat only), as well as stops in Grenoble city centre, Bourg d’Oisans and Rochetaillee to connect to other resorts in the area. Lyon Saint-Exupery(LYS) serves northwest Isère and the city of Vienne, and offers more flights to the region than Grenoble.
From the UK, Eurostar trains connect via Paris to Grenoble. Paris to Grenoble trains take about 4 hours.
Other nearby stations include Saint-Marcel-Lès-Valence, Lyon Saint-Exupéry (50 minutes from Grenoble) and Lyon Part-Dieu (1hr 15mins).
Travelling to Isère by car takes between 8 and 10 hours from Calais and around 5 hours 15 minutes from Paris.
In ski resorts, there are plenty of car parks where you can leave your car for the week. The average cost is around €45-70 a week.
Eurotunnel Le Shuttle operates up to 4 shuttles per hour to France taking just 35 minutes between Folkestone and Calais. All chunnel ticket prices include your car and up to 9 passengers.
Check out the ferry possibilities here.
More about the 7 great mountain ranges of France.
About guest writer, Fiona Quinn
Fiona Quinn is a francophile travel writer and editor. She’s lived in France on and off during the past 30 years, including as a student in Paris, ski saisonnaire in Savoie and Haute Savoie, and a home-owner in sunflower-filled Charente.
Check out her website.