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Unmissable French Cities for Your Itinerary
Heading to France and wondering which are the best cities in France to include in your itinerary? From iconic World Heritage Sites rich with architecture and culture to Provencal gems and lesser-visited regional capitals, France has them all.
Regardless of the season, whether you’re a solo traveler, a couple, or a family with kids, each city in France has its own unique charm and je ne sais quoi leaving you wishing you could stay longer.
We’ve spent months road-tripping France and visiting its eclectic cities and towns along the way, and have put together a list of the best cities in France to visit that we know you’ll fall in love with.
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Beautiful Cities France: 20 of the Best Cities to Visit in France
It may be dubbed the ‘City of Lights’, but this is definitely an understatement! Paris has a rich tapestry of art, culture, architecture, and food to explore. No wonder the French capital is one of the world’s most popular destinations.
Apart from the obvious must-do attractions of the Eiffel Tower, Montmartre, the Louvre Museum, and Notre Dame, Paris is a city of narrow alleys, secret corners, and delightful spots to discover. The best way to do this is lose the map and wander!
Start heading east from the Eiffel Tower on the Left Bank, or Rive Gauche, of the Seine and you’ll hit all the top spots as you go. Although called the Left Bank, it is actually the southern side of the river, an area known for its cultural history and the writers, artists, and philosophers who lived there. In fact, it’s where they say that Paris learned to think.
If you prefer somewhere a bit more off the beaten path, explore the Canal Saint Martin area, which is a little less touristy and a bit more authentic. It will give you an idea of what it feels like to live in Paris.
- Capturing the classic Eiffel Tower image from Place du Trocadero at dawn.
- Catching the sunset from Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Paris, commonly known as Sacré-Coeur, with the entire city laid at your feet.
- Seeing Paris lit up from the Seine as you take an evening cruise on board a classic Bateaux Parisiens pleasure boat.
Known as the bridge between North Africa and Europe, the port city of Marseille is a multicultural place with many influences shaping its unique character and charm.
From ancient historical buildings to modern touches, Marseille has it all. It’s suitable for all types of tourists and travelers, with corners of the city to surprise and delight you.
As you explore Marseille on foot, you will be welcomed by the ambiance of the street, from the Instagrammable vibrant street art Cours Julien neighborhood, the busy and historic street of Canebière in the old quarter, and the splendid ocean views along La Corniche Kennedy.
This city is home to the locals favorite drink of pastis, a famous anise-flavored liqueur, which you must try when in town. There is a traditional ritual to drinking pastis: first, the pastis is served in a glass; next, fresh water is added and the mix becomes milky and pearlescent; finally, add a couple of ice cubes and enjoy!
- Visiting the Vieux-Port or Old Port, Marseille’s lively hub, watched over by Notre Dame de la Garde.
- Hiking in the Calanques National Park with your swimsuit for a dip in the gorgeous clear turquoise waters.
- Enjoying bouillabaisse, a traditional Provençal fish soup that originates from Marseille.
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Located in the center-north of France, Orléans is a historic French city and the capital of the Centre-Val de Loire department. Set on the banks of the Loire River, the city falls within the area of the Loire Valley classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Orléans is famous for two things in particular: the magnificent châteaux of the Loire Valley and the heroic deeds of Joan of Arc, a 19-year-old peasant girl who lifted the siege of Orléans in 1429, only to be captured and burnt at the stake by the English.
Despite suffering damage during World War II, the historic center, known as the Bourgogne Quarter, remains almost completely intact with exceptional half-timbered Renaissance buildings and rich cultural heritage.
- Walking in Joan’s footsteps, from the Cathedrale Sainte-Croix d’Orléans where she attended mass, to Maison de Jeanne d’Arc where she lived, and which is now a museum about her life.
- Visiting the impressive châteaux surrounding Orléans, including the Château of Chamerolles, the Château of Gien and the Château of Meung-sur-Loire.
- Samping the delicious Tarte Tatin, a delicious caramelized apple pie native to the region. It’s even better with a dollop of Chantilly cream!
Dijon is the capital city of the historical Burgundy region in eastern France, one of the country’s principal wine-making areas. A compact and beautiful city, Dijon is full of half-timbered medieval houses and stunning Renaissance architecture.
Famous for its traditional mustard, vineyard tours, and fall produce and gastronomic fair, Dijon boasts an array of architectural styles ranging from Gothic to Art Deco. The renowned 1787 Musée des Beaux-Arts is housed in the impressive Palace of the Dukes and holds a vast collection of paintings, sculptures, crafts, and antiquities.
To ensure you see everything follow the self-guided walking tour known as the Owl Trail or Parcours de la Chouette, which covers 22 of the major landmarks of the city. When you see the owl sculpture, pet it with your left hand because it’s supposed to bring you luck!
- Trying the superb Burgundy wine produced in this region at local caves, and buying it for a fraction of the prices at home.
- Visiting the Chateau de Rochepot, a classic Burgundian castle, restored and embellished in the 19th century.
- Wandering Les Halles market to tempt your tastebuds in foodie heaven.
Honfleur, on the south bank of the Seine opposite Le Havre in Normandy, boasts an impossibly picturesque harbor, charming streets perfect for meandering, and several historical monuments.
Honfleur’s old port or Vieux Bassin, with tall and narrow half-timbered buildings lining the quay and colorful boats bobbing in the water, is the heart of the city and is as Insta-worthy as any French destination.
A short walk from the port are several must-see landmarks, including the Lavoir rue de la Foulerie Museum, 15th century Église Sainte Catherine Catholic Church, and 17th century greniers à sel or salt halls.
- Enjoying a delicious lunch at one of the charming restaurants alongside the harbor.
- Sampling a glass of Normandy cider or Calvados, the local apple brandy, at one of the many bars in town.
- Hopping across the magnificent Pont de Normandie bridge to visit Le Havre, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is considered an outstanding example of modernist architecture.
One of our favorite cities in the South of France, Aix-en-Provence is serene and atmospheric, with every quaint street you encounter lined with charming cafés and restaurants.
You’ll be captivated by the leafy boulevards and public squares, home to elegant 17th and 18th century buildings. There are fountains everywhere, leading to Aix being known as the ‘City of a Thousand Fountains’.
Experience some of the best products, including light and airy madeleines, from the open-air Provencal markets, stroll down the lively Cours Mirabeau, a wide pedestrian thoroughfare where locals promenade, or go and see the Saint-Savior Cathedral, a Romanesque-Gothic church that dates back to the 5th century.
For art lovers, there’s the Tapestry Museum or Atelier de Cézanne to get a first-hand experience of the space Paul Cézanne occupied while creating his masterpieces.
- Sampling callisons, a mix of almonds and candied melon with orange blossom fragrance, a bit like marzipan and the specialty of Aix.
- Visiting the Granet Museum, one of the finest in France, to see works from the 14th to the 20th century by some of the world’s most famous artists.
- Wandering Aix’s car-free historic center, getting lost, and discovering all the best secret spots!
One of the most visited cities in France, the vibrant wine city of Bordeaux celebrates its rich history and regional gastronomy with Roman, medieval, and contemporary architecture coexisting in harmony.
Take a leisurely stroll through the historic city center and marvel at the famous Miroir d’Eau (Water Mirror) on the Place de la Bourse, one of the most photographed spots in the city. For a slightly older attraction, visit the 35-meter-high Porte Cailhau, built in 1494 as the main entrance to the city.
Other must-sees among the 350 historical buildings and monuments in this beautiful French city include the Basilica of St. Michael, renowned for its towering spire, La Flèche, which dominates the building at 114 meters high, and the Gothic Cathédrale Saint-André de Bordeaux.
- Visiting La Cité du Vin, a modern museum dedicated to wine. Whether you’re a wine expert or simply enjoy drinking it, the museum has something for everyone.
- Climbing to the top of La Flèche for breathtaking views of the Garonne River and Bordeaux’s skyline.
- Be wowed at the Bassins des Lumières, the largest digital arts center in the world that holds immersive digital exhibitions.
Off-the-beaten-path Nantes is often overlooked as a destination, but this historically important port city that grew rich on the back of the slave trade is now a lively and innovative town with lots to experience, and some superb seafood restaurants.
Must-see attractions in Nantes are the Castle of the Dukes of Brittany, or Château des Ducs de Bretagne, where you can find out about the history of the city, the beautiful Gothic Cathédrale Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul, and the verdant Botanical Gardens.
One of the best-loved places to visit is Ile de Nantes, an urban island in the Loire River, which was an industrial wasteland and is now where the enormous Machines de L’île are made.
You’ll find the instantly recognizable steampunk elephant strutting slowly around, carrying squealing children on its back, and carousels and machinery that you can control yourself. Visit the fascinating workshop where you are able to glimpse the technicians constructing new creations for shipping across the world.
- Visiting one of the vineyards outside the city to enjoy a tour and tasting of Muscadet, the wine of Nantes.
- Exploring the magical Musee Jules Verne (he of Around the World in 180 Days fame) whose birthplace was Nantes, is especially good fun with kids!
- Filling up on traditional Nantes crêpe, either savoury de ble noir (buckwheat) or the absolutely divine beurre salé (salted caramel).
Biarritz, an elegant coastal town located on the Basque coast in southwestern France, has been a favored resort since the 1800s when European royalty began visiting.
Today, it is also a major surfing destination, boasting long sandy beaches like downtown Grande Plage, and surf schools, as well as plenty of hip bars and restaurants and designer stores.
One of the town’s most iconic landmarks is the Rocher de la Vierge, a rocky outcrop crowned with a statue of the Virgin Mary. Accessible via a footbridge, it provides stunning panoramic views of the Bay of Biscay and is a symbol of Biarritz’s beauty.
- Enjoy the ocean view along with a cocktail from the rooftop bar of the Biarritz Aquarium.
- Take a surf discovery class and catch some waves on the long sandy beach of Cote des Basques.
- Shopping for local specialties like espadrilles and Basque textiles from the French department store Galeries Lafayette.
Located on the Côte d’Azur, Nice exudes Mediterranean charm and will captivate you with its bustling city life, old-world charm and lively street culture. Nice’s seemingly perpetual sunshine make it a wonderful option for a winter sun holiday.
As the capital of the French Riviera, Nice perfectly embodies the art of stylish living. From the blue hues of the Mediterranean to the unique light that can only be found here, everything about Nice is an experience.
The old town of Nice, with its narrow streets, yellow and ochre facades, craftsmen’s shops, and lively squares, is the heart of the city. The Cours Saleya market is a must-visit spot, whether you’re buying flowers or food.
From the top of the beautiful Colline du Château, you can enjoy a remarkable view of the aptly named Bay of Angels, or Baie des Anges, the old town, and the port, from sunrise to sunset.
- Taking a day trip to the microstate of Monaco and visiting the capital city of Monte Carlo, once home to Grace Kelly.
- Visiting the picturesque village of Eze for its world-famous view of the sea from its hilltop.
- Sampling Nice’s cuisine including salade niçoise which originated in the city; pissaladière, a pizza-style focaccia stuffed with onions, olives and anchovies and Provencal roasted and stuffed vegetables called petits farcis.
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Ajaccio, the capital of the French island of Corsica, is a port city situated on the western coast of the rugged island.
The city holds a significant place in history as it was the birthplace of French Emperor Napoléon Bonaparte in 1769. Today, his ancestral home, Maison Bonaparte, has been transformed into a museum showcasing family heirlooms.
The 16th century Notre-Dame Cathedral, built in the baroque style, is where Napoléon was baptized and is home to paintings by Delacroix and Tintoretto.
- Visiting the local market on Foch Square to find the best local produce like cured meats, regional cheeses, and Corsican wines.
- Enjoying a swim at Terre Sacrée Beach with its small sandy coves and large rocks at the water’s edge.
- Taking a boat trip to the nearby Sanguinaires Islands where you can hike to the lighthouse or swim from one of the island’s many beaches.
The start point of many a French road trip, Lyon is the second largest city in France and is known for its historic center, Le Vieux Lyon.
A UNESCO World Heritage site, the old town features the largest collection of Renaissance buildings in Europe as it stretches across the base of Fourviere Hill and its grand basilica, Notre Dame de Fourvière.
In contrast to the old, Lyon boasts a new museum that may rival the fame of the Guggenheim in Bilbao. The Confluences Museum, located at the point where the Saône and Rhone rivers converge, showcases science and anthropology with a variety of interactive exhibits.
Renowned as the gastronomic capital of France, Lyon boasts an impressive range of excellent restaurants, not only top-of-the-range Michelin-starred establishments but also its numerous traditional bistros offering local specialties like quenelles, a type of filled dumpling, and Lyonnaise potatoes which are par-boiled and then pan fried in butter with onions.
Situated between the vineyards of Beaujolais and Burgundy to the north and Côtes du Rhône to the south, Lyon is also a city where you can enjoy plenty of local wines with your dinner!
- Strolling the medieval streets and iconic traboules, or hidden passageways, and stopping to eat in a traditional restaurant, known as a bouchon.
- Shopping for food at Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse in Presqu’ile, where you can buy local products to take home.
- Visiting the ancient Amphitheater of the Three Gauls at the foot of the hill of La Croix-Rousse, where shows and circus games were hosted in the Roman era.
Located near the border with Germany in the Grand Est region of northeastern France, Colmar is a picturesque town featuring a maze of cobblestone streets and romantic canals surrounded by colorful half-timbered medieval and early Renaissance buildings.
The picturesque central Place de la Cathédrale is home to the Gothic 13th century Eglise Saint-Martin church, and nearby are the distinctive Pfister House with its wraparound wooden balcony and octagonal turret, and the historic Koïfhus that was Colmar’s former customs house.
Other must-sees in this photogenic town include visiting Colmar’s museums: the Unterlinden Museum, famous for its 16th century Isenheim altarpiece; the Toy Museum and the Bartholdi Museum, in the house where local artist Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi, who created the Statue of Liberty, was born.
- Taking a boat trip along the canals of Petit Venice to see Colmar from a different perspective.
- Sampling regional wines like Reisling and Gewürztraminer in cozy winstubs along the Alsace Wine Route.
- Taking that Instagram shot from Quai de Poissoniers, where you’ll find the perfect frame for the row of colorful houses along the canal bank.
Situated in northeastern France, Strasbourg is the official seat of the European Parliament and is located close to the German border, resulting in a unique blend of German and French architecture, cuisine, and culture.
Known as the ‘the crossroads of Europe’, Strasbourg is a spacious and inviting city, from the UNESCO medieval old town on an island in the Île River to the futuristic Strasbourg Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art.
The Gothic Cathédrale Notre-Dame is a prominent landmark and features daily shows from its astronomical clock. You can also climb 332 punishing spiral steps part way up the 142-meter spire to the cathedral’s roof for breathtaking views of the Rhine River.
Strasbourg is also known for its Christmas Market, or Christkindelsmärik, which is considered to be one of the best in Europe. The medieval town dusted with snow, hand-crafted gifts, and lots of delicious French goodies to eat makes Strasbourg an atmospheric winter destination.
- Tasting the local dishes like sauerkraut, finely cut fermented cabbage; delicious and hearty baeckeofe, a potato and meat dish cooked with wine and kougelhopf, brioche stuffed with rum-soaked raisins and covered with whole almonds.
- Exploring the covered bridges and Barrage Vauban of Petite France, where you can cross the river by passing inside the dam.
- Taking a boat tour along Strasbourg’s beautiful canals whilst learning about the history of the city.
The beautiful and historic town of Carcassonne in the Aude department is a must-visit on any French city itinerary.
Immersed in the Occitanie way of life, Carcassonne is a city steeped in history and home to the spectacular UNESCO-listed La Cité, a fortified medieval citadel that dominates the skyline.
While some of the older buildings have an entrance fee, the immense citadel is free to enter, and simply wandering the cobbled streets and squares is a pleasure. However, it can get quite busy during the summer months and feel a little touristy, so it’s best to visit early in the day to avoid the worst of the crowds.
Carcassonne also has an elegant ‘new town’ called Ville Basse, built outside the walls in the 13th century, which is perfect for a leisurely stroll and features a local farmers market on Saturday mornings.
- Enjoying a classic French breakfast of coffee and a croissant at Place Carnot in the center of Ville Basse.
- Taking a walk or bike ride up Chemin des Anglais, which goes behind and around La Cité, to fully appreciate the oldest standing medieval city in Europe.
- Enjoying a bowl of traditional Languedoc cassoulet, a medieval peasant dish made with dried beans, preserved duck, and pork.
Toulouse is known as La Ville Rose, or the Pink City, because of its many buildings constructed with terracotta pink bricks. In the evening, the setting sun gives the cityscape a glorious pinky glow, which just adds to its reputation as one of the most beautiful cities in France.
As the fourth largest city in France, Toulouse feels more intimate than its larger counterparts, such as Paris, Marseille, and Lyon. Situated between the Canal du Midi and the River Garonne in the southwest, Toulouse enjoys an enviable position.
Grand boulevards intersect La Vieux Quartier, or the Old Quarter, providing access to interesting independent shops and a plethora of bars, cafés, and restaurants. Take a leisurely stroll through the cobbled alleys and grand squares, find a cozy spot to relax, and soak up the joie de vivre that Toulouse exudes.
One of the must-see attractions is the majestic Basilique Saint-Sernin, one of the religious icons of the city. A visit to Pont Neuf is also highly recommended, as it provides a romantic sunset view and the bridge is lit up at night.
- Enjoying the rich gastronomic scene at a guinguette, an open-air restaurant with a dance floor.
- Visiting the Sunday morning Saint Aubin Flea Market, one of the oldest flea markets in France, for all your Toulouse souvenirs.
- Hiring a bike and exploring further afield. A pedal down the tree-lined Canal du Midi is perfect if you want a break from the city vibe.
Possibly the most underrated city in France, Lille is a charming and lively place to visit. Proud of its French and Flemish heritage, Lille has a delightful old town and plenty to keep you busy.
Nicknamed the ‘Capital of Flanders’, Lille belongs to the historical region of Romance Flanders. A garrison town, Lille has had an eventful history from the Middle Ages to the French Revolution.
Spend time exploring La Grand Place, also known as Place du Général de Gaulle in honor of the former French leader who was born in Lille. Nearby, the Vieille Bourse, or Old Stock Exchange, features a courtyard made up of 24 identical houses decorated with coats of arms that recall the city’s commercial trading past.
Must-sees include the Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille, housed in a lavish Belle Époque-style building. The museum houses impressive collections of paintings, sculptures, and drawings from antiquity to the 21st century and is one of the largest fine arts museums in France.
- Climbing the Town Hall Belfry for a breathtaking view that spans from the Porte de Paris to the hills of Belgium.
- Enjoying a taste of the Méert waffle, a brioche topped with a Madagascan vanilla pastry, at the gorgeous Méert Pâtisserie.
- Taking in some classic theater or a contemporary concert at Lille Opera, a historic opera house built in the early 20th century in the neoclassical style.
Montpellier is a city located a few kilometers inland from the Mediterranean Sea coast and was the capital of the historic Languedoc region.
Today, Montpellier is the eighth largest city in France and the capital of the Hérault, a diverse region of craggy mountains, river gorges perfect for wild swimming, and Mediterranean beaches backed by inland lagoons and fertile plains. It is one of our favorite parts of France.
Must-sees are the Gothic Cathédrale Saint-Pierre, built in 1364, which is characterized by its conical towers, the Botanical Gardens, established by Henry IV in 1593, making them the oldest in France, and the terraced Promenade du Peyrou, constructed in the 17th and 18th centuries, which provides a scenic view of the Mediterranean and the city’s refined mansions.
The city’s Antigone district is a modern development where you’ll find the Esplanade de l’Europe, a pathway that encircles the lawns and fountains of Place de l’Europe and Place de Thessalie. The area is home to neoclassical office buildings constructed in the 1990s, Le Polygone shopping mall, and cool bars and restaurants along the Lez River.
- Enjoying a coffee or cold drink at the Place de la Comédie and people-watching to your heart’s content.
- Exploring the extensive collection of paintings and sculptures at the Musée Fabre.
- Visiting the old town, called l’Écusson, on the Petit Train de Montpellier from the Place de la Comédie.
Saint-Malo is undeniably one of the most popular tourist destinations in Brittany, thanks to its rich historical significance and captivating charm.
Known as ‘Corsair City’, Saint-Malo is renowned for its legendary sailors and explorers, including Jacques Cartier, who is credited with the discovery of Canada, and Robert Surcouf, who achieved numerous victories against the English navy. The city’s proud and independent character has been shaped by the accomplishments of these iconic figures.
Despite its small size, the city offers plenty of attractions including Saint-Malo Cathedral, situated in the heart of the old town and an impressive example of Romanesque and Gothic architecture, and La Demeure de Corsaire, an 18th century privateer’s house that has been converted into a museum, offering visitors a fascinating glimpse into the city’s maritime past.
- Strolling along the ramparts of Saint-Malo and observing the historic center, the beach, and the nearby islands from another point of view.
- Sampling two typical Breton street food specialties; sweet crêpes and galettes, which are like a savoury pancake.
- Walking out at low tide to Fort National, a stronghold located on the tiny Rocher de l’Islet.
Annecy is a picturesque Alpine town nestled in the southeast of France, where the Thiou River is fed by the stunning Lake Annecy.
A stop along the epic Route des Grands Alpes, the town is famous for its charming Vieille Ville old town, featuring quaint cobbled streets, quirky markets, delightful pastel-colored houses, and meandering canals, which give Annecy the nickname ‘Venice of the Alps’.
Dominating the city’s skyline is the medieval Château d’Annecy, which was once the residence of the Counts of Geneva. Today, the castle houses a museum showcasing regional artifacts, including beautiful Alpine furniture, religious art, and a fascinating natural history exhibit.
Annecy is also a fantastic place for outdoor activities, with the exceptionally clean Lake Annecy offering a range of water activities such as swimming, paddleboarding, kayaking, and sailing in its crystal clear waters.
The surrounding mountains boast numerous hiking and biking trails, via Ferrata and extreme sports like paragliding, all with breathtaking views of the lake and the Alps.
- Spending a morning at the market in the old town. Tuesdays are best suited for foodies, with Fridays and Sunday mornings boast a broad variety of local goods.
- Marveling at Gorges du Fier, a canyon carved into the rock by the Fier River with a suspended pedestrian bridge that crosses the narrow ravine just above the river.
- Tasting the delicious cheese of the Haute-Savoie region, and Raclette, a local dish based on melted cheese accompanied by cured meats, gherkins, and pickled onions with potatoes cooked in foil.
Best Cities in France Map
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