Dijon is provincial France with big-city pretentions. It has traditionally suffered something of an image problem: stuffy, serious and trading on its past as the 15th-century seat of the Dukes of Burgundy. But a wind of change is blowing across Burgundy and le Grand Dijon, as the masterplan of the local mayor, François Rebsamen, aims to drag Dijon into the 21st century.
The city, located between Paris and Lyon, still looks like a work in progress, with the cornerstone projects of its redeveloped infrastructure and public spaces not due to be complete until autumn 2012, but go now for a preview of the transformation while Dijon remains a well-kept secret.
For a weekend break, Dijon is an easy escape. Smooth rail connections from London via Paris take under five hours. Humberside-based Eastern Airways (easternairways.com) launches a new thrice-weekly summer service, from Southampton to the expanded Dijon Bourgogne Airport, from 6 June.
Cars are increasingly banned from the city centre under the auspices of the Grand Dijon project. Instead, the free-to-use Divia shuttle bus service (divia.fr) now connects the major sites, more streets are being pedestrianised, a bicycle-hire scheme has taken off, and 12 miles of tramline are currently being laid around the city ready for a September 2012 opening (letram-dijon.fr).
Better still, all the museums are free; tired old squares now buzz with young-upstart restaurants sitting alongside Michelin-starred local heroes such as Stephane Derbord and Jean-Pierre Billoux; and the summer festival season is getting into full swing. There's a theatre festival in May and Dijon's take on the annual Fête de la Musique is on 21 June.
While the Grand Dijon is currently bringing its fair share of chaos to some areas, the central Place de la Libération is comparatively calm. Take a seat on a café terrace among the dancing fountains and sip a kir, white wine (or champagne for a kir royale) with crème de cassis – the blackcurrant-based liquor is a local delicacy. On an early-summer evening, it's the perfect way to mix in with the Dijonnais and soak up the ambience.
The Musée de Beaux Arts (mba.dijon.fr) formerly the Palace of the Dukes of Burgundy, which is Dijon's landmark heritage attraction and will remain open throughout work to update its facilities. Exhibits include The Nativity by Robert Campin and sculptures by François Rude and François Pompon. The first phase of the redevelopment will be complete by 2013 with a new courtyard restaurant.
The Mustard. Dijon is synonymous with the spicy relish and the place for mustard-munching cognoscenti is definitely Maille on Rue de la Liberté (maille.com). The historic shop sells gift sets of mustards and vinegars, and offers free counter tastings of more than 30 blends. Beware the white-wine blend, it'll make your eyes water.
The townhouses. A walking tour, in French and English, of Dijon's townhouses (book at the tourist office) is a great way to peer beyond the heavy wooden gates into frozen-in-time courtyards. Maison Millière (maison-milliere.fr), a cosy café and souvenir shop in a 15th-century townhouse on Rue de la Chouette, opens a new salon de thé this autumn in the Hotel Chambellan, one of the oldest townhouses in Dijon with a carved, Gothic balcony.
The pain d'épices. La Rose de Vergy (rosedevergy.com), at the heart of Dijon's salon de thé quarter, is the best shop for the local spiced bread, which is similar to gingerbread. Freshly baked in the basement, the residents of Dijon eat it toasted with foie gras.
Les Halles. Shop for local goodies at one of the few covered markets left in France. A certain Dijon-born Monsieur Eiffel had his revenge in Paris after Dijon rejected his original plans for the market. Market days are Tuesday, Friday and Saturday, and it is encircled by restaurants, of which Chez Copains (10 rue Quentin) is much admired.
Place de la République
The much-overlooked square to the north of the centre will be the hub intersection of the tram's twin lines from 2012. Work to landscape the area is under way and new cafés are moving into the square and adjoining Rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Among the first of the new wave of openings is Bistrot République (16 Place de la République), which has a retro feel and serves bistro staples.
The old Concorde café has been reinvented as this buzzy, printing press-themed café and has re-established its reputation as a meeting place for the Dijonnais. Located on Place Darcy, it has an all-day menu, there are books and newspapers to browse and free Wi-Fi. Stroll afterwards in Darcy park.
Le 2 Bis Epicerie Gourmande
One of a slew of chic café-delis springing up as the chain stores move out of the historic centre and independent boutiques take over. Grab an espresso and browse the Pop Art-styled displays of Burgundy produce, plus a wine cellar and a selection of artistic cupcakes.
Details: 2b Rue Jeannin
Place Wilson is an area to watch with the opening in June of L'Usine, Dijon's first contemporary arts space. Designed by Shigeru Ban of Centre Pompidou-Metz fame, its ethos is to shake up bourgeois Dijon with provocative art under the guidance of art world enfant terrible Xavier Douroux. The opening exhibition features work by Cindy Sherman among others. Look out for forthcoming installations from the Chinese born, Dijon-adopted, artist Yan Pei-Ming.
Restaurant L'Epicerie & Cie
Place Zola, at the heart of Dijon's thriving studentland, is newly resurgent with cafés and eateries opening up. This rustic restaurant and buvette (a stand-up bar) is one of the best and spills out on to the square on sunny summer lunchtimes. Serves a mix of local favourites (eggs poached in a reduced Burgundy wine sauce, anyone?) and the more standard steak-frites.
How to get there
Railbookers (020-3327 2439; railbookers.com) offers a two-night package, including return standard-class Eurostar travel from London St Pancras International to Dijon, with accommodation at the Sofitel La Cloche Hotel on a B&B basis, from £329 per person. Call for details of third-night-free offers.
uk.franceguide.com; visitdijon.com; bourgogne-tourism.com
Sherry Thevenot, Tour guide (bourgogne-authentique.com)
“At the Musée Rude you’ll see the life-size cast of La Marseillaise, by Dijon-born artist François Rude. The bas-relief adorns the Arc de Triomphe but few know his work is tucked away here. Vive la révolution!”