In a nutshell: Lyon's smaller neighbour is an intriguing city in its own right.
Don't miss: The Musée d'Art Moderne, The Mine Museum, Loire river gorges
A visit to Saint-Etienne can be a glorious case of “two French cities for the price of one”. True, it is the capital of the Loire department – even though, confusingly, the famous river in question does not run through it. But it is dwarfed by its close compatriot – the much larger Lyon, which sits some 35 miles to the north-east. These two near-neighbours are connected by speedy road and rail links – which means time in one can easily double up into a day in the other. A win-win situation during an event like the Rugby World Cup.
Not that you should regard “St Stephen” as just a side-dish to Lyon and its fabulous food scene. It may be smaller, but Saint-Etienne is more than capable of holding the visitor's attention. Indeed, it is a fascinating dot on the French map – a city slowly shedding its industrial skin to become something shinier and more modern. Until the Seventies, it was a coal-mining zone. Now, after significant investment, it is trying to be a “design capital”.
What does that mean? In effect, loads of 21st century arty stuff – much of which can be enjoyed by those only popping in for the weekend. Its Musée d'Art Moderne has one of the best such collections in France, with works by the likes of Picasso and Monet. The Museum of Art and Industry dissects two strands of the city's story, with a host of multi-media exhibits (and lots of chatter about bicycles, of which Saint-Etienne has long been a production hub). And the Mine Museum takes things underground, back into the dirt and the darkness, remembering a way of life that ceased in 1973, when the last pit shut down.
Not that – if they aren't your thing – you need to worry too much about Saint-Etienne's yesterdays and tomorrows. There is plenty to entertain you in the present. As with any French city worth its gourmet salt, you can dine well – whether that be at the mid-range restaurants on Rue Pierre Termier and Rue Antoine Durafour, or at some of the flashier possibilities around the edge of the main Place Jean Jaures. There are options for drinks as well, with bars galore laced along Rue Georges Dupré, and Rue des Martyrs de Vingré.
It would be a stretch to describe Saint-Etienne as a city of rugby champions, but if time allows, there is a charm to catching the local side in action. Club Athletique de Saint-Etienne Loire Sud Rugby (or CASE, to save breath) are currently in Federale 1 (the highest level of the French amateur game). Their Stade Etivalliere holds 3,000 spectators.
And what of the Loire – which is promised in the name of the surrounding department, but is nowhere to be seen in town (the river in the city is the Furan). You do not have to go far to find it. It flows south some six miles to the west – and in especially picturesque fashion where its currents provide the backdrop to the Gorges de la Loire Nature Reserve.
Content supplied by the Telegraph’s travel expert Chris Leadbetter