I’m going to preface this post by clarifying that I don’t dislike Paris. I’m as big of a sucker for the Champs-Elysées and Montmartre as anyone. I’ve had the good fortune of studying and working in this beautiful city, in addition to visiting a handful of times, and I haven’t gotten sick of it yet.
But while I wish I could claim credit for the revelation that sometimes it’s a good idea to stray from a country’s most popular city for a more authentic experience of a place, I know I’m far from the first to take note of that. (I will not argue, however, if you’d like to give me all the cred.)
As Audrey Hepburn once said, “Paris is always a good idea.” Let’s be honest, though: France is always a good idea, whether the City of Lights is on the itinerary or not. Keep scrolling to see ten French cities other than Paris that just might warrant a spot on your wanderlist.
Lille: Lille is a city in northern France with a huge student population and a beautiful city center filled with historic, cobbled streets and impressive architecture. As an added bonus, it can be easily reached from several major cities: by train, you can get there from London in an hour and a half, from Paris in an hour and from Brussels in just thirty minutes. Don’t leave without tucking into a healthy serving of Welsh, a regional specialty inspired by Welsh Rarebit. It’ll be the cheesiest food-venture of your life. (Read more about the French dish and its inspiration here.)
Strasbourg: In 1988, Strasbourg’s Grand Île district was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site; the very first time the prestigious distinction was given to an entire city center. And once you see it, you’ll understand why. The medieval houses and shop fronts adorned with brightly-colored shutters and exposed timber beams look like a scene straight out of a fairy tale, and the unique details you’ll find on each building make it hard to walk anywhere without stopping a dozen times for closer examination.
I was lucky enough to visit Strasbourg in December when their storied Christmas markets were underway. The very first Christmas market in Europe took place in Strasbourg in 1570, and fortunately for us, the tradition is alive and well today, with over 300 stalls to enjoy while sipping on some mulled wine and enjoying a pastry (or three).
For an equally beautiful Alsatian village but on a smaller scale, visit nearby Colmar.
Belfort: I spent eight months in Belfort teaching English, and while I would venture to say that it’s a better city to live in than to visit, it does have some major advantages. On a geographical level, it’s right by the Swiss and German borders, making it easy to combine your stay with time in other great cities like Basel and Freiburg. It’s also just south of Alsace, so getting there to/from Strasbourg and Colmar is easy, too.
Belfort is home to several great annual events: Les Eurockéenes is one of Europe’s largest music festivals, the Foire aux Livres is a giant book sale taking place over the course of three weeks and boasting 250,000+ new and used books, and Belflorissimo is a flower market that brightens the banks of the Savoreuse River for several days each May. The city is also surrounded by lush, green countryside, perfect for hiking, biking, swimming and more.
Dijon: The capital city of Burgundy is perfect for wine lovers. Sadly, the popular spicy mustard that received its name from the city is no longer produced locally, but don’t let that keep you away; you can still taste a variety of authentic Burgundy mustard (made with mustard seeds actually grown in Burgundy) at family-run shop Edmond Fallot (16 Rue de la Chouette). Speaking of chouettes, or owls, they serve as the icon of the city. You can take a self-guided tour of the main sights by following the owl plates in the ground.
Dijon’s picturesque city center, largely undamaged during World War II, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2015. Base yourself here for a few days to explore the surrounding vineyards and eat your way through Les Halles, the city’s indoor marketplace. While I wasn’t personally a fan of regional specialty jambon persillé, there were plenty of other stalls to keep my tastebuds busy.
Lyon: Lyon is situated in France’s Rhône-Alpes region. Be on the lookout for the city’s traboules: networks of covered, mostly hidden passageways (often opening up into picturesque courtyards) that cut through apartment buildings and sometimes entire city blocks. For something extra special, time your trip to coincide with the city’s annual festival of lights, La Fête des Lumières. Lyon is known as being a foodie city, so be sure to try some of the city’s gastronomical mainstays while you’re there; my favorite is la salade lyonnaise, made with frisée, lardons (tiny strips of crispy bacon), and a poached egg. C’est parfait.
Grenoble: When the time came for me to study abroad, I had two options if I wanted to go to France: Paris and Grenoble. Having never heard of Grenoble before (and, let’s be honest, having watched Amélie several times) I had my heart set on Paris, and I was heartbroken when it turned out I didn’t have enough language credits to go directly there. I decided to pair a spring semester in Grenoble with a summer semester in Paris. In the end, I fell absolutely in love with Grenoble and felt relieved that I had been “forced” to go there first. I was – and still am – so thankful for my time there. Once I moved to Paris, I found myself missing Grenoble daily. (An experience that may have inspired this post…)
I know I’m biased, and I don’t expect the average person to forge the same emotional connection with the city that I developed during my time there, but I can’t say enough positive things about Grenoble! The city’s efficient tram and bus system makes it an easy place to get around, and it’s pretty as hell to boot. Walking around the city center, I always felt like I was standing at the bottom of a bowl: Grenoble itself is very flat, with three picturesque mountain ranges (Vercors, Belledonne and Chartreuse) rising up around it on all sides. Those mountains, by the way, are the French Alps – you may have heard of them? – making the city the perfect place to base yourself if you fancy some skiing, snowshoeing or other wintery outdoor activity. (Unsurprisingly, Grenoble hosted the Winter Olympics in 1968.)
For first-time visitors especially, it’s a must to climb to the top of the Bastille, the prominent fortification overlooking the city. You can reach the top by riding in Les Bulles (a set of cable cars) or by throwing on your sneakers and climbing the relatively steep trail yourself. If you walk, you can easily combine it with a visit to the Musée Dauphinois, as you’ll pass right by it on your way. After getting to the top (and getting that heart rate up a bit), you can enjoy panoramic views over the city, the Isère River, and the awe-inspiring mountain ranges surrounding the city. On a clear day, you’ll even catch a glimpse of Mont Blanc!
Back in the city center, my favorite go-to spot for a delicious meal was always a tartine and a tarte au citron from Pain et Cie (1 bis Rue Lafayette). At the risk of writing 10x more for Grenoble than the other cities on this list, I’ll stop now. Feel free to get in touch if you’d like more specific recommendations!
Toulouse: Located in southwestern France, Toulouse is nicknamed la ville rose (the pink city) for its abundance of pink-hued terra cotta buildings. Take a walk along the Garonne river, relax a while at the peaceful Jardin des Plantes, and sample some cassoulet: a stew made with white beans, duck, saucisse de Toulouse and herbs. For a fun day trip, hop on the train to nearby Carcassonne, a medieval fortified city that’s been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Nîmes: You might find yourself wondering if you’ve actually ended up in Italy when you arrive in this beautiful Southern French city. Les Arènes, an almost impossibly well-preserved Roman amphitheater, still holds annual bull fighting festivals. Nearby you’ll find La Maison Carré, a first century Roman temple reminiscent of the Pantheon. After a walk down the uber-picturesque Quai de la Fontaine (have your camera ready) you’ll come upon the Jardin de la Fontaine, where you’ll find the Temple of Diane and the Tour Magne, a tower you can climb for unbeatable views of the city and its surrounds. You may have guessed it by now, but Nîmes boasts the best collection of Roman ruins in all of France. Ruins aside, the city’s old town is completely charming. After ruin-hopping, grab a seat at a café on the Place de Marché and enjoy the Mediterranean haze of this underrated beauty.
Marseille: I don’t usually expect beautiful city views as I exit from train stations, but Marseille proved me wrong on this point. Upon exiting the Gare de Marseille Saint-Charles, you’ll find yourself atop a large platform offering sweeping views over the city’s downtown, with the dramatic Notre-Dame de la Garde church perched in the distance atop the highest natural point in the city (a must-see not only for the church’s unique beauty but also for the amazing views from its hilltop location). Visit the Vieux Port (Old Harbor) and the impressive Palais Longchamps (which houses the city’s Museum of Natural History in its west wing and the Museum of Fine Arts in its east wing), or try your luck at getting tickets to see beloved football team Olympique de Marseille play a match at the Stade Velodrome.
The village of Cassis is a beautiful day trip, and the coastline between the two is a famed destination in itself: le Parc National des Calanques, or the Calanque National Park, features a series of imposing, rocky bluffs rising up from the sparkly blue waters of the Mediterranean and providing a series of beautiful hiking paths and secluded beaches, some of which can only be reached by boat.
Nice: Situated in the French Riviera on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, it’s hard to not fall in love with Nice. Climb the Colline du Château for a view of the uber-picturesque Vieille Ville (Old Town) from above, or snag a spot along the Promenade des Anglais to enjoy the dreamy blue water of the Bay of Angels. Just be warned that despite its beauty, the beach scene in Nice is not the best for sunbathing; instead of soft sand, the beaches are made up of small stones. (I once spent the night on this beach with two friends. At the time, we thought we were being money smart and super adventurous. In reality it was just very uncomfortable and pretty eerie!) That’s okay, though, because you’ll be too busy exploring the city and its surrounds to be bummed about uncomfy beaches, Nice being the perfect jump-off point for countless side trips, from Eze to Saint-Paul-de-Vence to Monaco and more. And did I mention that Nice is one of the main ports to catch a ferry to Corsica…? Looks like you’ve got some decisions to make. Ponder it all over a dish of the renowned ice cream at Fennochio on Place Rosetti. With close to 100 flavors, which day trips to take won’t be the only tough decision you’re faced with in Nice.
While I’ve been lucky enough to spend a lot of time in France, there’s still so much I want to see that I haven’t been able to yet – the Loire Valley, Bordeaux and Annecy to name a few! What’s your dream destination in France?
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