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Beyond Paris: The Best Places to Visit in France

by Stacy D

When one thinks of France, Paris is often the first city that comes to mind. However, there are endless things to do in France, with the country’s cities brimming with culture, history, and charm. From the sun-soaked Mediterranean coast to the lush landscapes of the Loire Valley, here are the top French cities to visit outside of Paris.

Lyon: The Gastronomic Capital

Lyon is a major student city in France
Lyon is a major student city in France

The third-largest city in France, Lyon often finds itself in the shadow of its more notable counterpart, Paris. However, this French city, nestled between the Rhône and Saône rivers, is a haven for those with a passion for gastronomy. One of the best places to visit in France, Lyon is renowned for its thriving culinary scene, boasting a multitude of Michelin-starred restaurants and cosy bouchons, traditional Lyonnaise eateries. With a history spanning two millennia, Lyon proudly showcases its rich heritage through its well-preserved architecture and historical sites. The city’s Old Town, recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site, transports you back in time with its tapered streets and secret passageways known as traboules.

 Highlights:

  • Les Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse: An indoor market named after the legendary chef, offering a variety of gourmet foods.
  • Musée des Beaux-Arts: One of the largest fine art museums in France, housed in a former Benedictine convent.
  • Indulge in iconic dishes like coq au vin, quenelles, and the city’s acclaimed praline tarts.

Bordeaux: The Wine Lover’s Paradise

Bordeaux is a famous wine region
Bordeaux is a famous wine region

When it comes to city breaks, France has something for everyone, and Bordeaux is a prime example. Situated in the southwestern region of the country, the bustling port city is celebrated for its wine production. The vineyards in this area cover an impressive 300,000 acres and produce exceptional wines that attract connoisseurs from far and wide. As you explore the city, take the time to appreciate the stunning Gothic architecture of the Saint-André Cathedral and the Basilica of Saint Michael. For those interested in wine, a visit to La Cité du Vin is a must, where you can immerse yourself in the history, culture, and art of this beloved beverage. Alternatively, art enthusiasts can visit the Musée des Beaux-Arts, which houses a vast collection of European art spanning various periods.

 Highlights:

  • Place de la Bourse: Admire the grandiose 18th-century architecture reflected in the Water Mirror.
  • Attend a wine-tasting tour in the nearby vineyards of Médoc, Saint-Émilion, or Graves
  • Garonne River Cruises: Enjoy a scenic boat tour through the heart of the Bordeaux wine region.

Nice: The Jewel of the French Riviera

French Riviera exude exclusivity
French Riviera exudes exclusivity

Certain areas of France consistently draw in tourists, and Nice, the capital of the French Riviera, is undoubtedly one of them. Sun-seekers and enthusiasts of art and history find great pleasure in this luxurious area famous for its crystal-clear waters, sophisticated promenades, and lively markets. Arguably one of the best cities in France to explore, Nice showcases a distinctive fusion of French and Italian influences, which can be seen in its culinary delights, architectural marvels, and rich cultural heritage. Bike along the Promenade des Anglais, a scenic seafront boulevard that stretches for miles along the Mediterranean. Watch an opera, ballet, and classical music performance at Nice Opera House or head to Castle Hill (Colline du Château) for panoramic views.

Highlights:

  • Old Town (Vieux Nice): Explore its narrow streets filled with colourful buildings, quaint cafes, and bustling markets.
  • Marc Chagall National Museum: Home to the largest public collection of Chagall’s works.
  • Mont Boron: A hilltop park with hiking trails and spectacular views over Nice and the Mediterranean.

Strasbourg: A Blend of French and German Cultures

Strasbourg is a mix of two cultures
Strasbourg is a mixture of two cultures

When looking for places to visit in France, consider including Strasbourg, the capital of the Alsace region. Positioned on the France-Germany border, this city is a melting pot of cultures. The heart of Strasbourg is Grande Île, a UNESCO World Heritage site that shows a historic district filled with appealing, pedestrian-friendly streets lined with shops. Make sure to explore La Petite France, known for its beautiful half-timbered houses and scenic canals, during your visit. Learn about Alsatian Cuisine by savouring gastronomic treats like flammekueche (tarte flambée), a thin, crispy flatbread topped with crème fraîche, onions, and bacon.

Highlights:

  • Strasbourg Cathedral: A Gothic masterpiece with a stunning astronomical clock.
  • European Institutions: Visit the European Parliament and the Council of Europe.
  • The Strasbourg Christmas Market: One of the oldest and most prominent in Europe, held annually from late November to December.

Marseille: A Mediterranean Metropolis

Marseille is a Mediterranean dream
Marseille is a Mediterranean dream

The oldest and one of the biggest cities in France, Marseille is a bustling port with a rich maritime history. With a history spanning over 2,600 years, it’s a captivating destination that showcases its historical significance through its numerous historical sites. The Old Port, known as Vieux-Port, serves as the city’s historic centre, bustling with boats, bustling markets, and an abundance of seafood restaurants. For a breathtaking view of the city and the sea, make sure to visit the Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde, situated atop a hill. Additionally, a boat trip to the Calanques National Park is highly recommended, where you can marvel at the magnificent limestone cliffs and fjords with their transparent turquoise waters. 

Highlights:

  • Le Panier District: The oldest neighbourhood in Marseille, known for its vibrant murals and artisan shops.
  • MuCEM (Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations): Offers insights into the Mediterranean’s cultural history, housed in a striking modern building next to the Fort Saint-Jean.
  • Local delicacies: Try the celebrated Bouillabaisse, a traditional fish stew made with an assortment of fish, shellfish, and aromatic herbs.

Nantes: A City of Art and History

Nantes is home to castles and vineyards
Nantes is home to castles and vineyards

The capital of Brittany, Nantes is one of the cities in France that is often overlooked by tourists despite its many attractions. Situated in the western part of the country, it stands out as a green city with an abundance of parks, gardens, and scenic riverfronts that offer the perfect setting for relaxation and outdoor activities. Poised on the Loire River, just 30 miles away from the Atlantic Ocean, it has a fascinating industrial past. However, it’s now recognised for its creative spirit. One of the most intriguing sights in Nantes is Les Machines de l’île, an extraordinary artistic project that showcases giant mechanical animals, including a rideable elephant. For those seeking tranquillity amidst the urban hustle, Île de Versailles provides a serene Japanese garden on an island in the Erdre River, presenting a peaceful escape within the city. 

Highlights:

  • Château des Ducs de Bretagne: A mediaeval castle that houses a history museum.
  • Wine Region: Sample wines from the nearby Muscadet vineyards, known for their crisp, refreshing white wines.
  • Try traditional delicacies like beurre blanc, a butter sauce commonly served with fish, and the illustrious gâteau nantais, a round rum cake.

Toulouse: The Pink City

Toulouse is France’s fourth-largest metropolis
Toulouse is France’s fourth-largest metropolis

Your France trip would not be truly fulfilling without including a stop in Toulouse. Known as “La Ville Rose” or the Pink City, Toulouse boasts unique terracotta brick buildings that give it a charming and picturesque appearance. One of the best places in south of France, the city is not only visually appealing but also home to a thriving aerospace industry, numerous historical landmarks, and a vibrant atmosphere that captivates visitors. Walk, bike, or boat along the scenic Canal du Midi, a UNESCO World Heritage site.  Admire the Basilica of Saint-Sernin, one of Europe’s largest Romanesque churches and another UNESCO World Heritage site. Get a glimpse into Toulouse’s nightlife by heading to Rue Gabriel Péri, a street lined with bars, pubs, and cafes.

Highlights:

  • Visit Capitole de Toulouse: The city’s grand town hall and theatre.
  • Cité de l’Espace: An interactive museum dedicated to space exploration.
  • Try the Foie Gras: a delicacy of the region, often served as a luxurious appetiser.

French Riviera: The Glitzy Region

Monaco is a hot spot destination for celebrities
Monaco is a hot spot destination for celebrities

We couldn’t make this list and not include the most popular places in south of France. The enticement of the French Riviera or Côte d’Azur lies in its ability to captivate visitors with its luxurious offerings and dreamy landscapes. One of the most glamorous regions in the world, it stretches along the Mediterranean coastline and oozes luxury. Here you’ll find Monaco, known for its opulent lifestyle, grand casinos, and the annual Formula 1 Grand Prix, Cannes, well known for its film festival, luxurious hotels, high-end shopping on La Croisette, and the glitzy Saint-Tropez, a playground for the rich and famous, with luxury yachts and exclusive nightclubs. Whether you are a lover of art, a connoisseur of fine dining, or simply seeking a taste of the high life, this region has something to offer everyone. However, be aware, it’s a pricey destination.

Highlights:

  • Michelin-Starred Restaurants: Indulge in gourmet dining at some of the world’s finest restaurants, such as Le Louis XV in Monaco.
  • Verdon Gorge: Known as the “Grand Canyon of Europe,” perfect for hiking, kayaking, and rock climbing.
  • Provençal cuisine: Enjoy dishes like bouillabaisse, ratatouille, and salade niçoise, paired with local wines.

French Alps: An Outdoor Person’s Dream

Stunning views of the French Alps
Stunning views of the French Alps

For those seeking an outdoor getaway immersed in the beauty of nature, a visit to the French Alps is highly recommended. This breathtaking mountain range, located in southeastern France, is esteemed for its world-class ski resorts that attract winter sports enthusiasts from around the world. However, the allure of the French Alps extends beyond the winter season. During the summer months, when the temperature cools down, it becomes an ideal destination for hiking and leisurely walks amidst lovely surroundings. The landscape of the region boasts snow-capped peaks, lush valleys, and pristine lakes, creating a truly majestic experience for nature lovers.

Highlights:

  • Chamonix-Mont-Blanc: Known as the birthplace of alpine skiing, it offers challenging slopes and breathtaking views of Mont Blanc.
  • Paragliding: Experience the thrill of soaring above the alpine landscape in popular spots like Annecy and Chamonix.
  • The French Alps are dotted with quaint villages and towns that offer a glimpse into traditional alpine life.

Annecy: The Venice of the Alps

Annecy is known as the "Venice of the Alps
Annecy is known as the “Venice of the Alps

Referred to as the “Venice of the Alps,” Annecy, with its pastel-coloured buildings and cobblestone streets, is a picturesque town with character. Renowned for its stunning natural landscapes, it’s a haven for those who appreciate the beauty of the outdoors. Go skiing in the French Alps, as the nearby mountains provide a breathtaking backdrop. Visit the Old Town, a maze of pebbled streets and winding canals, reminiscent of Venice. A visit to Annecy would not be complete without trying some of the region’s delectable dishes, such as fondue, raclette, and tartiflette, all made with locally sourced cheeses like Reblochon and Tomme de Savoie.

Highlights:

  • Lake Annecy: Known as one of the cleanest lakes in Europe, it offers lucid waters perfect for swimming, boating, and paddleboarding.
  • Palais de l’Isle: An iconic 12th-century castle-turned-museum that sits in the middle of the Thiou River and is one of the most photographed landmarks in Annecy.
  • Annual Annecy International Animated Film Festival: One of the most prestigious animation festivals in the world, attracting filmmakers and enthusiasts from around the globe.

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