14 Of The Best Cities In France To Visit (That Aren’t Paris)

Nice coastline

You’ll never hear me say that the city of Paris isn’t worth a visit. But, let’s be honest, it tends to steal the spotlight from the other bagilliondy, equally gorgeous cities in France. I grew up only a couple hours from Paris in Belgium. And, while I have certainly been to any number of French destinations, I’ve recently found myself yearning for a comprehensive road trip of the country. Because I realized that, while I’d seen so much there, I’d actually still seen so little. So, I reached out to my fellow bloggers. And asked them for all the best cities in France to visit… that aren’t Paris. Here’s what they came up with…


Best Cities in France That Aren’t Paris

1. Annecy, the “Venice of the French Alps” & One of the Best Cities In France

Annecy is one of the best cities in France. It’s been called the Venice of the French Alps with its scenic landscapes of the mountains, narrow cobblestone streets, and restaurant-lined quays along its canals. 

It’s the perfect destination for any season, whether in the winter with the snow-capped mountains, spring with the lush florals, autumn with the colorful foliage, or summer with the beach-side attractions. The top three recommended activities to do would be to bike around Lake Annecy, walk through the romantic Pont des Amours, and discover the picturesque passageways of the historic city center. 

Keep in mind that, since Annecy is a much smaller town than cities like Paris, most people are likely not to speak English. Being aware of different travel tips for tourists in France can truly make a trip to this charming town more enjoyable. 

Finally, whilst you are in Annecy, it’s also recommended to try Savoie specialties such as tartiflette—a baked dish of sliced potatoes, bacon bits, onions, and Reblochon Cheese—as well as Fondue Savoyarde—a delicious selection of local cheeses melted together in a pot and eaten with bread.

Colorful buildings on a canal in Annecy, France

Contribution by: Marielle of Offbeat Escapades.

2. Go Off-The-Beaten-Path In Bordeaux… & Then Get Some Wine

The thing with Bordeaux is that everyone knows the name—yes, at least from the labels on some truly delish wine—but actually very few visitors get to know what Bordeaux’s charm really is about. The city is located in the southwest of France along the river Gironde.

Here, Bordeaux’s about 250,000 inhabitants can stroll or jog, or just enjoy an aperitif at one of the many bars on the river’s west bank. Also, the Atlantic ocean is only 45 kilometers from the city. Hence, from early spring till late autumn, Bordeaux deems like a posh coastal resort where the summer never ends, with a dash of a rough seaport.

Whether you stroll between beautiful fin de siècle houses along the main shopping street Rue Sainte-Catherine or if you enjoy a Pastis on the Place de la Bourse, you’ll get wrapped in the epitome of French savoir vivre.

My off-the-beaten-path-tip, however, is the Saint Michel quarter with its colorful mix of students, bohemians, and North African influence. Here, you’ll still find some cute small épiceries, hence, French-Arabic mom and pop shops, artisan specialty stores, as well as the bustling market Marché Fermier Saint Michel.

Getting hungry? At the covered market Marché des Capucins, you’ll stock up on the most exquisite cheeses and other produce. If you’re lucky to get a table at the fish bistro, you can sample the freshest fish and crabs and mussels right on the spot. And with it, of course, a glass of white Bordeaux.

Colorful graffiti in Bordeaux, one of the best cities in France to visit

Contribution by: Renata of Bye Myself.

3. Catch Some Culture In Carcassonne, One Of The Best Cities In France

Carcassonne is one of the best cities in France to visit. You’ll find the most ancient history and preserved culture here, outside of Paris.

Carcassonne boasts a massive castle, surrounded by fortified wall that was once a medieval stronghold. Inside the ancient fortress walls, you’ll find a preserved church—the Basilica of Saints Nazarius and Celsus—with free entry, and an old schoolhouse. All through the cobblestone streets, you’ll find restaurants and shops. While modern food and wares are sold everywhere, the structures look exactly as they did hundreds of years ago. Don’t forget to order a turkey leg to munch on as you travel back in time. 

The most impressive sight in Carcassonne is Chateau Comtal. Get in line early to tour this impressive home with exhibits that tell the history of the walled La Cité de Carcassonne. When you exit the chateau, I recommend walking along the top of the ramparts around the inside wall of the city. You’ll love the old-timey feel and amazing views from the turrets. 

Carcassonne is 6 ½ hours via train from Paris, or 8 hours via car. It’s actually more conveniently accessed from Barcelona, which is only 3 ½ hours by car. So, plan your perfect day in Carcassonne with this Barcelona Itinerary.

Castle in Carcassonne, France

Contribution by: Jamie of Fly By The Seat Of Our Pants.

4. Cross The Channel To Cherbourg & Have Some Camembert

Most of the people who pass by Cherbourg are tourists crossing the England channel, from England to France and the other way around. And they don’t spend too much time exploring this beautiful city. Cherbourg might be small, but it has quite a few tourist attractions. Which, to me, makes it one of the best cities in France to visit.

Cherbourg was actually the first stop of the doomed Titanic sail after leaving Southampton on its first voyage across the Atlantic Ocean. And Cité de la Mer is a maritime museum that celebrates the ship with a fantastic exhibition. You can also visit a submarine there, and see an impressive aquarium.

Another great place to visit in Cherbourg is the Batterie du Role. The fortifications dug into the mountain during the second World War were used as gun storage. The views from up there over the coast are stunning. Inside the citadel, you will find the Liberation Museum, which tells the story of the D Day in Cherbourg.

You will never go hungry in this city either. The streets of the old town are filled with great places to eat in Cherbourg, specializing in the local authentic French cuisine—galettes, salted lamb, Camembert cheese, cider, and calvados. There is even a restaurant thats specializes in cheese only, where you can taste the most delicious fondues, raclettes and tartiflette dishes.

Boats docked in Cherbourg, France

Contribution by: Joanna of The World In My Pocket.

5. Take A Stroll Through Charming Colmar, One Of The Best Cities In France

Colmar is a picture perfect little town in northeastern France, close to the country’s borders with Germany. And it’s filled with medieval, half-timbered houses that have been brightly painted. 

Maison Pfister is one of the oldest and has flower-filled wooden balconies and painted wall murals. Another is the Koïfhaus, the old custom’s house. There are museums to visit, including the Unterlinden Art Museum—with its famous Issenheim altarpiece—and the Bartholdi Sculpture Museum—where you can learn about the sculptor from Colmar who created the Statue of Liberty. There’s an interesting Toy Museum, too.

The indoor market opened in 1855 and, while it’s known for its excellent Christmas market, it’s popular all year round. A central square is surrounded by shops, restaurants, and cafés and perfect for a cup of coffee.

Other parts of town include ‘Little Venice,’ where the river Lauch cuts through, lined by more colorful houses. And the Fishmongers’ District is where all the fishermen once lived.

Colmar is surrounded by vineyards and market gardens, which are really fun to explore by bicycle or Segway. The area is well known for its Crément, Riesling, and Gewurztraminer wines. There are various excursions visiting vineyards and other charming Alsatian villages, and many include wine tasting!  

The German-influenced houses on a canal in Colmar, one of the best cities in France to visit

Contribution by: Chrysoula of Travel Passionate.

6. Explore Lyon’s Traboules & Enjoy The Praline Brioche

Lyon is not as popular as Paris, and people don’t often take the time to visit it, which is a huge mistake. And, while it may not be the capital of France, one of the biggest reasons to visit Lyon is that it is the capital of French gastronomy. Lyon is not just about great food, though. There are plenty of things to do and see there.

Lyon is great city to explore on foot because all the major attractions are close together. The best place to start is the Place Bellecour. This is one of the biggest open squares in Europe. In its centrecis an imposing statue of the Sun King, Louis XIV, which serves as a popular meeting point for the Lyonnais people.

From the Place Bellecour, you can cross the bridge over the Saône to reach the historical area of Old Lyon. This is where you will find the Saint-Jean Cathedral and most of the Traboules. Traboules are Lyon’s secret passageways, linking streets. In the past, they were used as a short cut to transport silk. To find them is easy, just push any large wooden door open. And, if it opens, walk in and follow the passageway!

While you are in Old Lyon, you should try some local specialities, like praline brioche or Cervelle de Canut (soft cheese with garlic and parsley).

After visiting Old Lyon, take the funicular to the top of the hill to visit La Basilique Notre Dame de Fourvière. From here, you will have a splendid panoramic view of Lyon. Go inside the cathedral and take time to explore this impressive Basilica. Uniquely, the Basilica is split into two levels, with a second church underneath.

Close by, there are interesting ruins of a Roman amphitheater, which are also worth exploring. Whilst in Lyon, do not miss out on visiting the beautiful Tête d’Or park. This is the biggest urban park in France… with a free zoo inside.

Cathedral in Lyon, one of the best cities in France to visit

Contribution by: Olivier of Off The Tourist Treadmill.

7. Visit The Revitalized Marseilles, Now One Of The Best Cities In France

France’s Mediterranean coastline is widely known for its glamorous hotspots and jet-set life. Marseille, however, is a bit of an exception to the rule. The oldest city in France has suffered from a shady reputation for far too long and it took years to rebuild its image. Nowadays, Marseille is a must-visit.

Dive into the old town called Le Panier and discover its authentic pastel houses, crumbing steps and lively street art. At the hottest time of day, head to one of the amazing museums that accord well with the city’s multicultural identity: The Museum of the Civilizations of Europe and the Mediterranean (MuCEM) or the Museum of African, Oceanian and Native American Art.

Then, take a stroll along the Vieux Port de Marseille before enjoying a pastis from one of the terraces that line the quays. Stock up on the fragrant Marseille soap before taking a boat tour the Château d’If, a former prison located on an island, or to the Calanques National Park.

Finally, visit the Basilique de Notre-Dame de la Garde and enjoy a mesmerizing sunset over the glistening city before ordering a bowl of savory bouillabaisse Marseillaise.

Bell tower atop hill in Marseilles, France

Contribution by: Sarah of CosmopoliClan.

8. See Ducks & Snails & Mechanical Elephants In Nantes

When people think of all the cities in France, not many non-natives are familiar with Nantes, the sixth largest city in the country. Most people, however, are familiar with Jules Verne, the nineteenth-century science fiction writer, author of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea and Around The World In Eighty Days.

Verne grew up in Nantes and, when the prosperous shipbuilding industry declined, someone had the brilliant idea of turning the old shipyard into a steampunk museum, where visitors can marvel at fantastical machines made out of scrap metal. Highlights are the thirty-six-foot high mechanical elephant who walks around the old dockyard giving children rides, spraying unsuspecting visitors with water, and the three-story Under-The-Sea Carousel.

This same sense of playfulness continues into the botanical garden with its marvelous topiaries, including ducks and snails. More serious visitors can visit the castle (former home of the Duke of Brittany), the beautiful Art Deco shopping centre, or the historic slavery museum. To get around on your visit to Nantes, use the incredibly efficient public transport system, which includes some iconic trams.

Mechanical elephant in Nantes, France

Contribution by: Anne of The Platinum Line.

9. Get All Glammed Up On The French Riviera In Nice, One Of The Best Cities In France

When you’re looking for the best cities in France to visit, you might like to check out Nice. It’s located in the southeast of France between Cannes and Monaco. Only 20 miles from the border of Italy in the French Riviera.

Nice has one of the best pebble beaches, where you can enjoy basking in the sun and cooling off in the water. And it’s full of culture and great food, attracting some five millions tourists each year.

Explore several attractions like Promenade des Anglais, which stretches 4.5 miles from the airport in the west of the city, along the coast to the castle headland in the east. Once at Castle headland, climb the 400 plus stairs to a fantastic viewpoint over the city and beautiful coastline. For those not wishing to climb stairs, you’re in luck with an old elevator to the top.

Another popular spot is the Vieux Nice. This is where the cobblestone streets are lined with an endless amount of shops, delis, bars, and eateries. Very little has changed here since the 1700s here, and Vieux Nice is definitely a highlight for those interested in cultural experiences.

With a mix of sun, sand, and ocean views, Nice is the perfect place to spend a week’s vacation any time of the year.

Nice coastline

Contribution by: Chris of The Aquarius Traveller.

10. Brush Up On Your History In Normandy

Anyone looking to visit the top cities in France cannot ignore Normandy. Nestled in the northwest corner of the country, Normandy is notorious for its role during dramatic moments in history.

Some of these pivotal moments include William the Conqueror launching attacks on Britain, Joan of Arc burning at the stake, and the famed D Day during World War II. While it is important to understand Normandy’s role during multiple battles throughout the years, this French city caters to more than just history buffs.

Start by exploring the world-renown D-Day beaches, boasting a journey back to the past and scenic shoreline explored diligently by European cruises. Afterward, head over to Mont Saint-Michel Abbey—one of the most popular UNESCO World Heritage Site’s surrounded by the sea. This remarkable attraction can be explored through a tour of the abbey and the surrounding village year-round.

Art lovers will love Musée des Beaux-Arts de Rouen which features paintings, drawings, sculptures, and other art from the world’s famed artists. For more art discovery, check out Claude Monet’s House and Garden. As the previous home of the world’s most famous impressionist, you will fall in love with this spectacular home and garden truly brought to life by Monet’s remaining art.

With sweeping coastlines, countless historical sites, and rolling green hills, Normandy is a must-see city in France.

Normandy coast at sunset

Contribution by: Ellie of Ellie’s Travel Tips.

11. Realize Your Champagne Dreams In Reims, One Of The Best Cities In France

Reims, France is an idyllic little city in Normandy that is an incredible addition to any French itinerary. Reims is one of the two main destinations in the champagne region of France, along with Epernay. The city also played a pivotal role in WWII, and is home to a few different UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

The main draw of Reims is undoubtedly its renowned champagne houses. Popular champagne maisons to visit in Reims include Taittinger, Veuve Clicquot, Champagne Pommery, Ruinart, and Mumm. In Epernay and the other smaller towns in the champagne region, you can explore other champagne houses on a day trip as well. There plenty of other things to do in Reims besides touring champagne houses, however. 

Reims was an important historical site during WWII, as it is the city where German forces signed surrender to the Allies. Musee de la Reddition, the actual building where it took place, is a place that should not be missed. UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including Palais du Tau, St. Remi’s Basilica, and Notre Dame de Reims, only add to Reims’ charm. 

The city is easy to navigate on foot and very pedestrian friendly. If you’re arriving in Paris, Reims is very easy to access, and can take less than an hour with the high speed trains.

Cathedral in Reims

Contribution by: Jade for France Bucket List.

12. Visit France (& Germany!) In Strasbourg

Besides Paris, there are plenty of beautiful cities and towns in France, and Strasbourg is one of the best. Strasbourg is located in eastern France, not far from the border with Germany. It’s a perfect day trip from Heidelberg or Paris (only two hours!). And, as the capital of Alsace and the Grand Est region, it’s filled with amazing museums, a large range of restaurants and hotels, and of course, beautiful architecture.

A visit to Strasbourg wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the gothic cathedral of Notre Dame de Strasbourg, the picturesque neighborhood of La Petite France, the European neighborhood, and the History Museum of Strasbourg. And, when visiting Notre Dame, do not miss climbing to the top of the tower! When the sky is clear, you can see all the way to the Black Forest in Germany.

If visiting France in winter, the Christmas Markets are a must. And Strasbourg has been named the capital of Christmas for good reason. To avoid the crowds, try visiting the markets early on a weekday.

German-influenced buildings in Strasbourg

Contribution by: Fiona of Travelling Thirties.

13. See “La Ville Rose” Of Toulouse, One Of The Best Cities In France

Located in Southwest France, Toulouse is one of  the most beautiful and lively cities in France. It’s nicknamed “La Ville Rose” (the pink city) because most buildings are made with pink stones. You can easily get there by plane or train. 

The first place you should head is the Capitole. It’s the central square in Toulouse city centre. From there, you can reach all the main attractions. The city centre is fairly small, which makes it very easy to explore on foot. Alternatively, you can take the metro.

For beautiful views, walk up to La Daurade and along the banks of the river Garonne. You will discover wonderful views of the river and the bridges. It’s a great place to go in the evening and watch the sunset. For shopping, St. Georges and Carmes will be your paradise. These two historic neighborhoods are home to fantastic local shops. 

Toulouse is also known for its museums. The best ones are Les Augustins and Les Abattoirs. You will have to pay an entry fee, but if you are visiting at the beginning of the month, make sure to go there on the first Sunday when it will be free.

Finally, Toulouse is a city for foodies! Southwest France boasts some of the most authentic food in the country. The local speciality is the cassoulet. You will find it in most local restaurants. For more food options, head to Rue du Taur. It’s full of restaurants and you will find a bit of everything!

Panoramic of Toulouse

Contribution by: Pauline of BeeLoved City.

14. Go Beyond The Palace Walls In Versailles

Versailles is a beautiful French city, well worth a visit for the day or on a weekend getaway. Everybody associates Versailles with Versailles’ Palace, but there are many other interesting things to see and do in Versailles. Which makes it, in my book, one of the best cities in France to visit.

Versailles is located 40 kilometers west of Paris, and is very easy to reach by train from Paris Saint Lazare train station or by RER trains from Paris’ left bank.

There’s beautiful baroque architecture in Versailles, private mansions from the XVII–XVII centuries built for the king’s court and closer staff. The Royal Opera and Notre Dame de Versailles Church, also in Baroque style, are also worth a visit. You may want to spend some time exploring the Versailles Estate, with the Château, the Trianons, and the gardens of Versailles. The Versailles park is always free to visit, and is a wonderful place for a picnic on the grass or a bike ride.

While in Versailles, be sure to try the Paris-Versailles cake by Ore-Ducasse, made of choux pastry, a mix of dry nuts and praline grains. Yum!

Ornate building in Versailles

Contribution by: Elisa of World In Paris.

What Cities In France Do You Love?

Have you been to any of these cities in France? Which ones did you love? Which ones are missing? Comment away or reach out via my Contact form. I’m collecting intel for a possible future road trip itinerary. And your input would mean the world to me!

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