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Exquisite as these may be, a huge swathe of hidden France lies in-between, and some of these best places are crying out to be explored.
The following seven cities are among the top destinations for the French (including myself), but less visited by foreign tourists. Yet they’re stunning, and easy to get to, and I’d love you to visit and find out why I'm so passionate about them. This is the time to go, while they're still not on everyone's radar!
Here are seven cities I know and love, but I always notice that French tourists outnumber foreign ones by a long shot. I get it, there are plenty of other places to visit in France, but each of these cities has something special and is worth visiting.
This is a small town and one of my favorite in France, and the perfect place for lovers of art and culture. It is filled with historical sites and covers three very distinct periods.
If you’re a fan of Roman ruins, you’ll be thrilled as you wander through the Arles amphitheater, inspired by Rome’s Colosseum, or Constantine’s baths, the most spectacular in Provence. The Museum of Antiquities houses such spectacular pieces as an entire, restored flat-bottomed boat, once used to ferry stones and coins up the Rhône River, and a magnificent bust of Caesar, believed to be the oldest likeness of him in existence.
If 19th-century art is what you’re after, Arles was the home of Vincent van Gogh for 18 months, and he was prolific while he lived here, painting 187 works of art. Art lovers can follow in his footsteps by using a map available from the tourist office. Don’t be surprised if some spots in Arles look very familiar.
And then there’s the city’s contemporary vibe, with the opening in 2021 of Luma Arles. The ten-story stainless steel building was designed by architect Frank Gehry, and is architecturally surprising.
Inside, it houses photographic exhibitions and showcases modern artists and outside, the gardens and warehouse areas are dotted with eclectic and unexpected sculptures. Fittingly, it sits across the street from France’s only university-level photography school.link
Bayonne is a picturesque city, the capital of one of the most unique corners of France: the Basque country, hidden away in the country’s southwestern corner.
This unique area is a continuation of the Basque region just over the Spanish border: Spain has four Basque provinces and France has three, but there are plenty of social and linguistic similarities.
Basque culture is a major draw here, with everything from Basque dances and singing to sports (Jai Alai and Pelote) to the Basque language, the oldest language still spoken in Europe but with no known roots. When it comes to culture, the Basque History Museum will enlighten you.
This is a land of delicious food (Basque chefs are revered worldwide), of wood-trimmed houses and an eclectic history that includes being ruled by England for 300 years.
Unexpectedly, this city is known as France’s Capital of Chocolate, the first cocoa beans having been brought in by Jews fleeing Spain at the time of the Catholic Inquisition.
Bayonne is also renowned for its air-cured ham, from pigs raised high in the mountains above the coast. Use my Basque itinerary to explore both the coast and the interior.
The buildings are particularly striking, with their deep reds and greens and blues, so typical of the region. The city’s architecture and cobblestones make it a pleasure to wander around.
Many people visit the Loire Valley on day trips from Paris, but please consider spending at least one night if you can to explore a few extra chateaux – Chenonceau Castle is less than half an hour by train.
From the medieval architecture and twisted streets in the Old Town to the half-timbered houses that surround the café-filled Place Plumereau (often called Place Plum’ or Plume), Tours is garlanded with history, a charming town that has acted as France’s capital several times in the past.
An example of this history is the Tours Cathedral, officially the Cathédrale Saint-Gatien, an architectural marvel that dates back to the 12th century and still has its original stained glass windows.
One of my favorite sights in Tours is the Musée du Compagnonnage, dedicated to French crafts guilds that range from wood-carving to metal works. The museum represents the work of the Compagnons du Tour de France, originally journeymen touring France as part of their trades apprenticeship. Examples of their work are exhibited in the museu, with the kind of fine workmanship rarely seen these days.
You know the mustard that carries the name of this French city, but how well do you know the city?
There’s something playful about it. If you like games or following clues, you’ll have fun discovering Dijon by following the Owl’s Trail, bronze arrows embedded in the sidewalks that lead you from one city attraction to the next. It’s a fun way to discover everything from the unique Museum of Burgundian Life to the Tower of Philippe le Bon (and its 316 steps). I had to stop along the way but the magnificent view was worth it!
The city of Dijon has a deep history as the capital of the Dukes of Burgundy, who ruled Burgundy for six centuries until it was annexed by France in 1477. Burgundy then was far larger than it is today, stretching from its present boundaries into northeastern France and all the way to the Netherlands.
The ducal palace still stands, and is now home to the town hall, the tourist office and the Museum of Fine Arts, which houses the Dukes’ spectacular tombs.
Dijon is, of course, in the heart of Burgundy so this is a great place to take a masterclass with a sommelier and learn all about the rich-bodied burgundies.
While you’ve often heard the city’s name, have you been here? Not that many foreigners visit, hurried as they are to reach the ski resorts in the surrounding countryside, like La Plagne or Val Cenis. While this is commendable, rushing past means missing a beautiful town.
Grenoble’s setting is impossibly gorgeous, bordered to the west by the Isère River and to the north by the Drac. And while rivers are wonderfully picturesque, Grenoble’s Alpine backdrop will take your breath away.
Ride the “bubbles”, more formally known as the Bastille cable car, and admire the view as you go up. And when you reach the Bastille Fortress at the top, the view will be even better.
Grenoble is home to outstanding museums, including fine arts, a military museum, and the spectacular archeological museum, which tracks 2000 years of Grenoble’s history.
If you’re into fashion or crafts, don’t miss the Gants Lesdiguières shop, where the last glove-maker of Grenoble still cuts each glove by hand.
Nantes in northern France was once the country's largest slave port, a way station between Africa and the New World. Now, the capital of Brittany is acknowledging its history and owning its past.
The 15th century castle of the Dukes of Brittany, once owned by Anne of Brittany, is dedicated to the city’s history, including slavery. The castle is worth visiting for its significance, and at night it glows with a light show!
After your visit, follow the 11 urban panels to the Memorial to the Abolition of Slavery, a public space built along the banks of the Loire and a particularly emotional reminder of slavery.
Walking along the water, don’t be surprised if you hear the trumpeting of an elephant − and then see a giant pachyderm roll by. I say roll because it is a mechanical elephant on wheels, part of an artistic project that has spread across Nantes and beyond − and definitely worth seeing (and riding).
For lunch or dinner, head for La Cigale, an Art Nouveau brasserie filled with mirrors and ceramics that will keep intruding on your meal in the nicest possible way − they’re so beautiful you won’t be able to take your eyes off them.
Often nicknamed “Little Paris”, Nancy’s main attraction is its architecture. Yet in my opinion, it is one of the most underrated cities in France.
Its monumental side is reflected in the enormous Place Stanislas, voted France’s favorite square a few years ago which is, along with two other squares (Place de l’Alliance and Place de la Carrière), protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. They are considered among the most harmonious urban landscapes of the Enlightenment.
Place Stanislas is ringed with cafés and restaurants. When the weather is warm, the square is a hive of activity but if you’d rather walk around, the gilded wrought-iron gates are works of art in themselves.
The other style Nancy is known for is Art Nouveau. The city is the center of an art movement known as the Ecole de Nancy, an art movement of the Belle Epoque created by the proximity of the German border – with many French artists returning to France after its defeat by Prussians in the Franco-Prussian war.
Visit the stunning Villa Majorelle, Nancy’s first entirely Art Nouveau villa, built by all the big name artisans of the era. And don’t miss the museum of the École de Nancy, with everything from furniture to ceramics.
If you’re a true art fan, head back to Place Stanislas and the Museum of Fine Arts: in the basement is an exquisite collection of Daum crystal, with shapes straight out of the Art Nouveau school.
These seven cities are each, in their own way, authentic representations of France, from the mustard and wines of Burgudy to the Gallo-Roman remnants in Arles to the Alps surrounding Grenoble.
And like these seven, there are dozens of large towns or small cities that are simply waiting for you to explore them. Here are some of France's most beautiful cities, in case you haven't visited them all!