Cognac is not just an after-dinner drink — it’s a destination.
For a bucolic side of France, try this town as your next getaway.
About a three-hour train ride from Paris, Cognac is an easy side trip from France’s bustling capital — and worth a few days spent exploring the area.
Located on the country’s western coast, just north of Bordeaux, it’s a great location to enjoy wine, seafood, and of course, the town’s namesake brandy, Cognac.
Vinearyds in the Cognac region.
The distilled spirit made from grapes is aged in barrels for several years, sometimes even decades. You can visit the spots where these brandies are made, and each has a unique story and setting, from former castles to riverfront warehouses. Like Champagne, brandy has to be made in particular region to be able to be called Cognac.
Lucky for visitors, the town is pedestrian friendly. Start your day by strolling through the curving cobblestone streets of old town. Seek out the Public Garden, an English-style garden with fountains and wooden footbridges on a large swath of property that joins the Town Hall and the Museum of Art and History.
If you walk to the intersection of Rue Aristide Briand and Angoulême, two main pedestrian streets, you’ll see Saint-Léger Church, a former Benedictine priory. Construction on the church began in the 1100s, and continued for several hundred years, so it incorporates both Romanesque and Gothic architecture, and impressive stained-glass windows.
Produce at the Marche Couvert in Cognac, France.
If it’s a nice day, stop by the Marche Couvert, a farmer’s market at Place D’Armes; or Le Gourmet Charentais, a gourmet shop with local products, to grab food for a picnic lunch. For dessert, buy some chocolates made with Cognac from Chocolaterie Letuffe (chocolaterie-letuffe.fr) before checking out some of the brandy houses.
A good one to start with is Chateau de Cognac (chateauroyaldecognac.com), a castle built during the 10th century and the birthplace of King Francois I in 1494. It was purchased in the late 1700s to be used as a cellar, so the tour is a mixture of a French history lesson and a primer in cognac production. To achieve different finishes, some of the brandy here is aged oak barrels in dry cellars to get a spicier taste, while other barrels are stored behind thick castle walls in and wet and humid conditions from the Charente river, and develop nutty, mushroom flavors. There are also hidden storage rooms beneath the castle. The Chateau produces Otard, popular in Europe, and also D’Ussé, a brand that’s partly-owned by Jay-Z and sold in the U.S. Tours of the Chateau start at about $ 13.
A five-minute walk from the Chateau is Hennessy, the largest Cognac producer. The tour here starts with a quick boat ride along the Charente river to the barrel warehouses, where high-tech multimedia displays explain how the spirit is made. Tours and tastings (lesvisites.hennessy.com) start at about $ 21.
The Chateau de Cognac, a castle built during the 10th century where Cognac is now being aged.
For dinner, take a 10-minute walk across the Charente river via a bridge and head to Poulpette. The menu at this small, sleek spot changes daily (about $ 30 for three courses) based on what’s seasonal.
For an after-dinner drink, walk three blocks to Bar Luciole (bar-luciole.com), a new addition. The industrial-yet-cozy space has creative cocktails like a walnut sour, and a buttered Kir Royale, with liqueur and champagne (both $ 10).
On another day, take a scenic drive through rolling vineyards to Jarnac, a commune about 15 minutes east of Cognac. Chateau de Courvoisier (courvoisier.com, tours and tastings start at $ 14), is an 1800s riverside mansion that houses Courvoisier’s headquarters, as well as a museum that’s a must-see for Napoleon buffs — he favored the brand before it even moved from Cognac to Jarnac and made sure his artillery companies had a ration of it during the Napoleonic Wars. The museum has several Napoleon artifacts on display, including a trench coat and some of his iconic hats.
Cognac barrels at Hennessy.
After the tour, drive another 10 minutes east to L’Essille Hotel Restaurant (hotel-restaurant-essille.com) for a three-course lunch in a sun-filled room for $ 23. A quick walk away is the Bassac Abbey (abbaye-de-bassac.fr), a 1,000-year-old abbey with gardens.
After, head back to Cognac and relax at one of the outdoor cafes that line the main roundabout in town, or shop at nearby stores, like the candy-focused Jeff De Bruges (jeff-de-bruges.com), or Ambre Concept Store (ambreconceptstore.com), which has home décor items and gifts.
To cap off your trip with a traditional French dinner, head to La Maison (restaurant-lamaison-cognac.fr), which serves a changing menu of the country’s classics like pork with mustard sauce and swordfish cooked with olive and lemon.
The Charente river outside of the Chateau de Courvoisier in Jarnac, France.
If you go…
Getting there: Fly into Paris. From the Paris Montparnasse train station, the ride to Cognac takes about three hours with one train change. If you’re renting a car, consider taking the train directly to Angoulême, a commune nearby, which doesn’t require a train change. Train fares start at about $ 18.
Getting around: Cognac is walkable, but if you want to explore the countryside nearby, you’ll need to rent a car.
Stay: Hôtel François Premier (hotelfrancoispremier.fr) is located on the main roundabout in Cognac. Bar Louise on site is a good spot for a drink. Rates start at about $ 170 a night.
Book ahead: Schedules at Cognac houses can vary, so it’s important to call ahead or reserve online.