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Why go now?
To discover one of the most fascinating cities in France, tucked away in the Lorraine region of north-eastern France. And 12 May sees the opening of Europe's latest cultural attraction, the Centre Pompidou-Metz (1), the first foray into the provinces by the French capital's main modern art museum (00 33 3 87 15 39 39; centrepompidou-metz.fr). As well as offering some fine examples of modern art, it will entice visitors to discover a charming riverside city with attractions that include one of the finest cathedrals in France.
The best approach is by rail, with the easiest connections at Paris. Eurostar (08705 186 186; eurostar.com) will get you to the French capital in around two hours 20 minutes. From the arrivals platforms at Gare du Nord you can walk to Gare de l'Est in around 10 minutes. Spend a bit of time appreciating this glorious station before you board a TGV service to Metz, taking around 90 minutes to the handsome early 20th-century station (2). Return tickets are available from £99, and can be booked through Rail Europe (0844 848 4070; raileurope.co.uk). By air, fly to Paris Charles de Gaulle airport, from which there are some direct (and many more connecting) trains to Metz station. Or take a ferry to Calais or Dunkirk and drive south.
Get your bearings
Metz sits at the confluence of the Moselle and Seille rivers; the old city centre occupies a triangle of land between the two. Running west to east below the central area is Avenue Joffre, which marks the boundary of the New Town or "Imperial Quarter", a district largely constructed by the Germans who annexed the city after the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, and occupied it until the end of the First World War.
To the south-east is the Centre Pompidou-Metz (1), and beyond it the Amphitheatre district, now destined for redevelopment, with complexes of shops and apartments to be built along the banks of the river Seille.
The city's main tourist office (3) is located at 2 Place d'Armes (00 33 3 87 55 53 76; tourisme.mairie-metz.fr). It opens 9am-7pm Monday-Saturday, 10am-5pm on Sundays (until 3pm from October to March).
The best accommodation in Metz is at the four-star Hotel La Citadelle (4), configured from the city's restored 16th-century citadel. Located at 5 Avenue Ney (00 33 3 87 17 17 17; citadelle-metz.com), the hotel's attractions include its Michelin-starred restaurant, Le Magasin aux Vivres. Double rooms are available from €187.90, with an extra €22 per person for breakfast.
The Hôtel de la Cathédrale (5) is a smart and friendly establishment in an unbeatable location beside the cathedral at 25 Place de Chambre (00 33 3 87 75 00 02; hotelcathedrale-metz.fr). Rooms start at €58, and the buffet breakfast is an extra €11. The Hôtel Foch (6) at 8 Avenue Foch on Place Mondon (00 33 3 87 74 40 75; foch-hotel.com), provides good-value accommodation in a location that is both classy and convenient. Rooms are available from €36.70; breakfast is an additional €6.50.
Take a hike
Begin your exploration of Metz at the Porte des Allemands (7), an impressive fortification that was one of 18 gates in the city's medieval walls. Head south along the river and turn inland to the 12th-century church of Saint-Maximin (8), which has stained-glass windows designed in the 1960s by Jean Cocteau. Then pass the Hotel du Burtaigne, an early 16th-century family house in the Place des Charrons (9), before reaching Place St Louis (10). This long, cobbled strip is lined on one side with arcades once occupied by money-lenders; now they house a selection of shops and cafes.
Turn down Rue de la Tête d'Or, marked by three heads mounted on the wall, then go right along Rue Taison as far as the Musées de la Cour d'Or (11) at 2 rue du Haut Poirier (00 33 3 87 20 13 20; musees.ca2m.com). In the basement of the museum are the remains of the city's Roman baths; exhibits include Roman and medieval artefacts, and an art gallery. The museum opens 9am-5pm Monday, and Wednesday-Friday; 10am-5pm at weekends; admission €4.60. From here, head west, crossing to the island. One end is dominated by the protestant new temple (12); next to it is the oldest functioning theatre (13) in France. From here, head back across the river towards the cathedral (14) – or, if you have the energy, follow the lovely rampart walk back to your starting point at the Porte des Allemands.
Lunch on the run
The imposing building on Place Jean Paul II was designed to be the Bishop's Palace. Never completed, it is now the covered market (15), whose stalls open 8am-6pm Monday-Saturday. Inside, order a bowl of vegetable or fruit soup from Soupe A Soups (00 336 08 31 11 04), or a tasty platter of local meats and cheeses from Chez Mauricette (00 33 3 87 36 37 69) next door. An alternative is the very popular Cafe Rubis, under the arcades on Place St Louis (10) (00 33 3 87 17 31 17), which serves a small choice of lunch specials from €8.50.
Metz's extensive pedestrianised city centre is ideal for shopping. The main thoroughfares are Rue Serpenoise and Rue des Clercs, at the bottom of which is the department store Galeries Lafayette (16). It opens 9.30am-7.30pm Monday-Friday, until 8pm on Saturdays.
Take a ride
At the weekend, much of Metz heads for the Plan d'Eau, an expanse of water that looks like a lake but is, in fact, a bulge in the Moselle river. During the summer season cruise boats (00 33 3 87 76 10 24; lelorraine.com) leave from the Quai de Frégates (17), providing panoramic views of the city.
Soak up the early evening sun at one of the many bars on Place de Chambre (18): Les Trappistes at number 20 and Strapontin at number 17 are both popular meeting places. Or, if you prefer to be seen at the hottest venue in town, order a beer or a glass of wine at Pop White on Place Saint-Jacques (19).
The Restaurant Maire (20) on 1 rue du Pont des Morts (00 33 3 87 32 43 12; restaurant-maire.com) is an excellent choice in terms of both food and location. The menu features plenty of local produce, with the three-course Menu Rabelais providing excellent value at €37. Ask for a table by the window and enjoy the views over the river to the cathedral. For a delicious but more modestly priced meal, try Chez Gregoire on Place Saint-Jacques (19) (00 33 387 74 86 75).
Sunday morning: go to church
Metz cathedral (14) is – at least until the Pompidou moves in – the most-visited site in Lorraine; open 8am-6pm daily. From outside, the building's yellow stone dominates the skyline. Inside, daylight seeps in through some 6,500 square metres of stained glass, more than in any other church in France.
The cathedral is an amalgamation of two churches, once separated by a narrow street. To see the dividing line, look at the pillars on either side of the crucifix on the left-hand side of the nave.
Out to brunch
The best option is the Brasserie ABC (21) at 2 place du General de Gaulle (00 33 3 87 66 67 11). Open from 6.30am, it offers orange juice, coffee and croissant for €2.50. No hot food is available until 11.45am, but the manager will be happy to serve cheese or cold meats to anyone wanting a more hearty start to the day.
Write a postcard
While you are in the Place de Gaulle, look at the pink sandstone building to your right, which is the main Post Office (22). This and the surrounding buildings are important landmarks of the Imperial Quarter, built in the early 20th century by the Germans who occupied Metz at that time. Opposite is the railway station (2) with its ornate carvings and the balcony, built in case the emperor should take the train into town and want to greet his subjects. To the right, the ornate water tower was used to provide water for the steam trains.
The city's architectural and cultural highlight is the Centre Pompidou-Metz (1) (00 33 3 87 15 39 39; centrepompidou-metz. fr), open from 12 May. Designed by Shigeru Ban and Jean de Gastines, it is a dramatic addition to the skyline with its undulating white roof. There are three main galleries, which will house temporary exhibitions; the Centre will have no permanent collection.
The opening exhibition, Masterpieces?, will feature work by artists including Matisse, Man Ray and Louise Bourgeois. The Centre Pompidou-Metz will open Monday and Wednesday 11am-6pm, Thursday and Friday 11am-8pm, Saturdays 10am-8pm and Sundays 10am-6pm, admission €7.
Take a view
The view of the cathedral from the top-floor gallery of the Pompidou (1) is breathtaking. For the reverse view, you'll have to await the completion of the renovations on the cathedral's Mutte tower, from where you can get a bird's-eye view of the city.
A walk in the park
Behind the Pompidou Centre (1), the Parc de la Seille is an attractive area with cycle tracks and a footpath along the river. Thousands of trees, shrubs and water plants provide shelter for a wealth of birds, and at the far end of the park is an indoor swimming pool.
Icing on the cake
Metz has won prizes for its illuminations, so save a little energy for an after-dark stroll. Buildings bathed in light include the Temple Neuf (12), the station (2), and the cathedral (14).