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Dijon: Grand designs in Burgundy's cool capital

As the city undergoes a major transformation, David Atkinson wanders its revitalised streets

Place Darcy has been symbolic of Dijon of late: a work in progress. But, as part of "Le Grand Dijon", the master plan to revitalise the city by its ambitious mayor, François Rebsamen, Dijon's sleek new trams are now gliding across the historic city centre.

"Dijon has really come alive with revived public spaces and new pedestrianised streets," says tour guide Sherry Thevenot of Bourgogne Authentique. "It still has the classical sites, but a new sense of vibrancy pervades."

Place Darcy is a transport hub and a suitable starting point to explore this much-overlooked French city with great aspirations. Start by heading straight under the Porte Guillaume, Dijon's Arc de Triomphe, and head east along Rue de la Liberté. This street, which is essentially the dividing line between medieval Dijon to the north and the classical city of the 17th and 18th centuries to the south, is the next to be pedestrianised.

On the right, as you walk towards the Place de la Libération, is Maille (00 33 3 8030 4102; maille.com), Dijon's celebrated mustard shop, with free tastings of its hand-pumped spicy condiment. Cross over and walk past the Galeries Lafayette to Place François Rude, home to the chocolate-heaven Pâtisserie Carbillet (00 33 3 8030 3882; chocolat-carbillet.com) on the corner of Rue des Forges.

Heading north, take Rue Odebert to loop around the covered market, Les Halles, the design for which one of Dijon's best-known sons, Gustave Eiffel, was famously shunned by local officials. Eiffel left and went to build a tower in Paris instead. Time your visit for Tuesday, Friday or Saturday to buy from local producers direct. The restaurants around the outside also ply local fare – try D'Zenvies (00 33 3 80 50 09 26; dzenvies.com) for the "I Love Dijon" set menu of ham terrine, beef bourguignon and panna cotta at €18 (£14.50).

Back along Rue des Forges, skirt the fringe of Place Notre Dame, with its impressive 13th-century church, and turn right into Rue de la Chouette, home to Dijon's lucky-charm owl. (Touch it and make a wish.) The cobbled street leads past the townhouse of Hôtel de Vogüé into Rue Jeannin. This area was formerly the antique-selling district of Dijon, but today it's better known for its tucked-away little salons de thé, such as La Rose de Vergy (rosedevergy.com), the best place to buy pain d'épices, a spiced loaf, and Le 2 bis Epicerie Gourmande (00 33 3 8067 8422; open 10am-1pm and 3-8pm Mon-Fri, 10am-8pm Sat) one of Dijon's chic new café-delis.

Turn right on to Rue Lamonnoye and head south, passing the Grand Théàtre on your right, en route to Place St Michel. The square is home to one of the three most important churches in Dijon, with its distinctive combination of a Baroque interior and a Renaissance façade. Often missed, just before the church, is the entrance to the Musée Rude (Rue Vaillant; 00 33 3 8074 5270), dedicated to the 18th-century sculptor born in Dijon; it opens, however, only between June and September.

Walk back along Rue Rameau to Dijon's historical cornerstone, the Palais des Ducs et des Etats de Bourgogne. But, before visiting, it's time for a breather. Head across the road to Place de la Libération and pull up a chair at Café Gourmand (00 33 3 80 36 87 51). The area was designed as a royal square in the 17th century to reflect Dijon's sense of prestige. Only 15 years ago it was a car park, but the Grand Dijon project has revived its regal glory, and today it is filled with dancing fountains, buzzing cafés and free concerts in the vibrant heart of the city.

Now you're ready to do justice to the Palais and the adjacent Musée des Beaux-Arts (mba.dijon.fr), with its array of treasures. The building will remain open throughout the ongoing redevelopment, with the first phase, a new courtyard restaurant, to be completed by 2013. Work to split the collection into three sections, reflecting different periods of French art history, is due for 2016.

Having spanned the centuries of French art from medieval to modern, you'll probably need a sit-down. Walk through the museum to the back entrance on Rue des Forges, and head north along Rue de la Préfecture to Place de la République. Pick up the tram, buying a ticket for €1.20 (£1) from one of the trackside machines.

Hop off the tram back at Place Darcy for a stroll in the adjoining park or pop into L'Edito (brasserie-ledito.fr/dijon), the trendy printing press-themed café that has become the meeting place for in-the-know Dijonnais. As the trams glide by, it's a great vantage spot from which to observe how stately Dijon is reinventing itself as the coolest place between Paris and Lyon.

Fresh cuts

The newly opened Dijon tram (letram-dijon.fr) has transformed transport around the city. Place de la République, where the tram's twin lines converge, is blossoming as a new inner-city hub, with a slew of new cafés and restaurants opening along Rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau and around the square. Try Bistrot République (16 Place de la République; 00 33 3 8060 8645; bistrot-republique.com).

Maison Millière (10 Rue de la Chouette; 00 33 3 8030 9999; maison-milliere.fr), a cosy café in the historic quarter, opens Dijon's latest chic salon de thé this autumn in a historic townhouse, Hôtel Chambellan, on Rue des Forges.

Travel essentials

Getting there

David Atkinson travelled with Railbookers (020-3327 2439; railbookers.com), which offers a twonight package in Dijon from £315 per person, including return Eurostar travel from London St Pancras via Paris, and accommodation with breakfast at the Sofitel La Cloche.

Staying there

Hotel Sofitel La Cloche, 14 Place Darcy, Dijon (00 33 3 80 30 12 32; hotel-lacloche.com). Doubles from €152 (£122), including breakfast.

Go guided

More information

Dijon Tourist Office (visitdijon.com). Burgundy Tourism (bourgognetourisme.com)