Are you fed up of reading the same tired destination ideas for France? Do you crave the road less travelled? Check out our top, less touristy and off the beaten track France spots for your next holiday.
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You may not know this about France, but it is the most visited country in the world. Paris, the Alps, Provence, Herault, the Loire Valley, and Brittany attract the lion’s share of tourists and in the summer months these destinations can feel uncomfortably crowded, with traffic jams on every road, over-booked hotels and queues for restaurants.
Away from these places, France is a vast and often sparsely populated country, especially in rural areas. Small towns and villages still enjoy a slower pace of life, where simple pleasures take precedence. Warm ripe tomatoes picked from the vine, fresh morning bread and boules, the ubiquitous French game played in every village square when the evenings are long and sultry.
There are few places where you can get away from tourism altogether, but these are our pick of fantastic France off the beaten track destinations where you can enjoy a more peaceful vacation, away from the hustle and bustle of modern life.
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Aveyron & The Cevennes
The Loire Valley
Aveyron & Lozere
With spectacular natural features including deep gorges and high plateaux, this remote corner in southwest France has lots of sheep and a lot fewer people, making it one of the hidden gems of France.
The Grands Causses are a group of four limestone plateaux which are flat and pretty featureless, but form the ‘walls’ of the deep and dramatic gashes in the landscape which separate them, the most famous of which is the Gorge du Tarn. In these sheltered gorges, away from the blistering heat of the summer, village life is traditional and simple.
To the east of the Grands Causses, you’ll find the raw and wild Cevennes, together they are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and an incredible outdoor playground for walkers and kayakers. The gorge towns and villages of Aveyron and Lozere are French gems but can get busy in the height of summer, so head for the causses or rivers and you’ll find space and solitude.
- Wander the medieval streets of Conques, the town which inspired the opening scene of the fairy tale Beauty and The Beast.
- Hike the Cirque de Navacelles, a stunning natural wonder.
- Kayak the river Tarn and see the best hidden places in France from the water.
- Drive to the peak of Mont Aigoual, for panoramic views from the Alps to the Pyrenees.
- Take the Steam train of the Cevennes to the incredible La Bambouseraie for a shady green day out.
Cote d'Argent, Aquitaine
The finest and longest stretch of sandy beach in France, the Côte d’Argent, begins at the mouth of the Gironde, at Soulac-sur-Mer, and ends in the lively surfer town of Hossegor. With just a handful of houses literally in the sand of the beach, Saint-Girons Plage in the Landes region, is slap bang in the middle of this stunning and unspoilt France coast and a perfect base for exploring the area.
Stay anywhere along this 230km stretch of pristine beach and you’ll quickly learn to slow the pace and enjoy long days on the sand and water with a surf-board (or body-board for those of us whom surfing passed by) or a good book, in true off the beaten path in France style!
This lengthy ribbon of beach is backed by sand dunes, full of vegetation and shrubs which stop the whole lot disappearing into the thousands of acres of forest behind, planted by Napoleon III for his navy. You can walk for miles along the beach, fly a kite or try your hand at land-sailing if lying around gets boring. If you crave the bright lights once in a while, head south to trendy Hossegor or more traditional Capbreton, separated only by a channel of water.
- Ride the waves of the mighty Atlantic – whether you surf, body-board or swim, lose yourself in the feeling of being at one with the ocean and the world.
- Take a bike ride along La Velodyssée, a fabulous (and mainly flat) 1200km long cycle route along the entire French Atlantic coast.
- Feast on fat duck, king of Landaise gastronomy. Try the famous pate de foie gras or duck confit.
- Walk for miles along the beach, without seeing another soul, even in August!
- Take a boat trip through the Courant d’Huchet nature reserve between the lake at Leon to the sea.
Cathar Country, Occitanie
One of the most spectacular secret destinations in France can be found in the western corner of the Mediterranean coast and nestled on the fringes of the stunning Pyrenees mountains. Cathar country loosely covers the area south of Carcassonne to the Spanish border, and refers to followers of a dissident church which flourished in some parts of Europe during medieval times and was particularly popular in the southern half of Occitanie.
To imagine Cathar country is to picture an ancient world in a wild and rugged landscape, littered with castles and caves where monumental battles took place. You wouldn’t be far wrong! Craggy hilltops are home to spectacular fortified castles and picturesque medieval villages, During the Albigensian crusades, when the Cathar church and its followers were wiped out, many castles and other fortified positions served as strongholds for the besieged.
A must-see of the area is the fabulous walled city of Carcassonne, which sets the tone of the era of the crusades, although this is definitely on the tourist trail. Many stop at the old town of Carcassonne and never venture further south, but head into the foothills of the Pyrenees to find the ruins of at least twelve other stunning castles, including the breathtaking Peyrepertuse, the last Cathar stronghold in 1255.
An added bonus of taking a trip south is the liberal sprinkling of wild swimming gorges and thermal waters which have analgesic and decongestant properties, and are a blissful way to cool off at the end of a hot French summer’s day.
- A visit to the Disneyesque La Cite at Carcassonne is obligatory, but we prefer the ville-basse (new town) with it’s vibrant and non-touristy Saturday morning farmers market.
- Swimming in the refreshing clear turquoise waters of the Gorge de Verdoble or the Gorge de Galamus on a hot summers day.
- Visit the charming town of Lagrasse, wander through the narrow streets and be delighted by the 14th century covered market and arts and crafts shops.
- Adrenalin junkies should head for Quillan and kayak the white water of the Aude in spring.
- Enjoy the delicious local Vins de Pays, which can be drunk in the very villages in which it is produced.
One of our favourite French cities, Dijon is a perfect destination and base for wine lovers and foodies alike. Nestled in the heart of historic Burgundy and surrounded by the vineyards of the Cote d’Or, the region is home to over 3,000 independent winemakers, with vines dating back as far as 600AD.
Dijon’s late medieval and Renaissance centre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, laden with half-timbered houses and elegant palatial buildings, to remind you that this city was once home to the Duchy of Burgundy, a major power in Europe. The city centre will pull you in and deliver excellent food, a lively street scene and of course, the famous mustard. Make sure to visit Les Halles market, where the finest of local and regional foods are offered every Tuesday, Friday and Saturday between 6am and 2pm, underneath the glass-ceiling and steel-beamed hall designed by Gustave Eiffel.
Further afield, follow the the Burgundy vineyard trails, la route des vins, and take in some of the most prestigious vineyards of the region. Make sure to visit Beaune, the capital of the Burgundy wine industry. The old centre is particularly renowned for the Hôtel Dieu, a unique medieval hospice and modern day hospital. The building has a sublime Burgundian roof of multicoloured glazed tiles and is one of the largest medieval civic buildings surviving to this day.
- The superb wine produced in this region can be bought at local caves, after a tasting, for a fraction of prices at home.
- Visit the Chateau de Rochepot, a classic Burgundian castle, restored and embellished in the 19th century.
- Despite the fact that most of Dijon’s famous mustard is now made in Canada, this city is still foodie heaven. Wandering Les Halles market will tempt your tastebuds, it’s futile to resist!
- Visit the vast and impressive Palace of the Dukes of Burgundy, where you can learn about the history of the city.
- Head north to the Burgundy Canal, which links the rivers Yonne and Saone, for a spot of gentle cycling or pleasure boating.
Cap d'Ail, Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur
If you’ve always followed the sun but dislike the year round frenzy and crave a more unspoilt south of France, head for Cap d’Ail. The unlikely named ‘garlic cape’ is one of the best offbeat places in France and the Riviera, but without quite the numbers of people that crowd out its slightly more glamorous neighbours.
Bordering the millionaires tiny principality of Monaco, but without the price tag, this south of France hidden gem is home to three fine beaches. Mala beach is the most popular, a sheltered cove reached by steep steps and a narrow footpath. It’s worth the trip down (and back up later), for the inviting turquoise water and dramatic limestone cliffs as a backdrop. Marquet beach is easier to reach on foot and more popular with families, while the naturist Plage Pissarelles is the least busy of the three.
Other than promenading and sunning yourself, Cap d’Ail doesn’t have a whole lot going on, which is part of it’s charm! You’re perfectly positioned to explore the coast and and take a Provence tour, yet one step removed from the crowds of Cannes, St Tropez and Nice.
- Take the 45 minute clifftop walk between Mala and Marquet beaches for dramatic sea views and the shade of the pine trees over the path.
- Nip next door to Monaco to see how the other half live and admire the super-yachts in the harbour.
- Drive the Grande Corniche (D2564), sometimes called the Upper Corniche, one of three cliff roads which pass along the Riviera from Nice to Menton. The Grande Corniche is around 500m above sea level, the views of the Mediterranean coast and southern France are simply spectacular.
- Visit the charming and typically Provencal hill town of Eze, with its cobbled streets and pretty squares, it will be busy though!
- Take a kayak out from Plage Mala and enjoy the tranquility of the water and a different perspective of one of the most famous coastlines in the world.
Sandwiched and shared between France and Spain, the Pyrenees are softer and more inviting than the Alps, although no less dramatic. Head for the Parc National de Pyrenees for jaw-dropping scenery, high peaks and one of the best non touristy things to do in France – hiking!
Less developed than the Alps, you can hike in the paradise of the Pyrenees for hours in summer without seeing another person. The trails are generally well managed and signed. Some of the classic and best Pyrenees day hikes, such as the Cirque de Gavarnie and Lac de Gaube are child friendly, making this the best part of France to visit if you’re taking a family holiday.
The weather here through June to September is drier, although you’ll miss the perennially snow capped peaks of the Alps providing those ‘wow’ moments. Snow starts to fall above 2,500m in mid-October most years, giving you a long window in which to take a hiking holiday.
Andorra is also worth a visit, for the incredible views of the surrounding 3,000m plus peaks, tax-free shopping and thermal spas, of which there are many!
- Visit in May for the most amazing wild flower displays in the beautiful Pyrenees meadows.
- Take the cable car to the summit of the Pic du Midi de Bigorre, and spend the night in in a mountain room for perfect solitude and incredible star-gazing.
- Drive the Col du Tourmalet road, if you dare!
- Take a trip to the pretty medieval town of Saint-Bertrand de Comminges where Roman ruins have been discovered.
- Visit the simple and atmospheric Cathédrale Sainte-Marie, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Oloron Sainte-Marie.
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 loads of attractions and and some superb seafood restaurants. It’s also well located for exploring the surrounding countryside and coast of the Vendee.
Must-see attractions are the castle of the Dukes of Brittany, where you can find out about the history of the city, the beautiful Gothic cathedral and the verdant botanical gardens. For foodies, freshly made crepes are a must. If it’s fresh seafood straight from the Atlantic you’re craving, head for Marche de Talensac, for fish cooked right off the boat.
One of the best loved attractions is the Ile de Nantes, an urban island in the Loire river, which was an industrial wasteland and is now where the enormous Machines de L’Ile are made. You’ll find the instantly recognisable 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.
- The wine of Nantes, Muscadet, is top of the bill in all the bars and restaurants. Visit one of the vineyards outside the city and enjoy a tour and tasting.
- Cruise the Loire estuary to see the 30 plus impactful riverbank sculptures and art installations as you leave the city and head towards the sea.
- Try a spot of shopping at the gorgeous Passage Pommeraye built in 1843. With its ornate staircase and three floors of statues and gilded galleries, you’ll find plenty of independent boutiques to explore.
- Fill up on traditional crepes, either savoury de ble noir (buckwheat) or the absolutely divine beurre salé (salted caramel).
- Explore the magical Musee Jules Verne, especially good fun with kids!
Cotentin Peninsula, Normandy
Also known as the Cherbourg Peninsula, this jut of land forms part of the northwest coast of France. This land of wilderness is one of the true hidden gems in northern France, with beaches and towns to rival the most dramatic and charming of any found in the country; it is one of our favourite secret France destinations.
Ferry loads of car travellers barrel through every day, on their way to somewhere else more alluring, and miss out on a truly welcoming and peaceful part of France. Instead of heading south, get off the ferry in Cherbourg and take the road east, to the beautiful little town of Barfleur. Stroll the quaint village and quay before sampling the delicious wild mussels harvested here. You’ll find many other villages just like Barfleur on the peninsula, where life moves slowly and is intrinsically linked with the sea, earth and climate.
The countryside here is blessed with rich and fertile soil that supports a thriving agricultural industry, which in turn produces some of the best organic food to be had in France. Delicious cheeses, cider and calvados are famous in this region, with locally harvested oysters and mussels also doing their bit for this expanding industry.
- Visit Mont Saint-Michel, a magnificent island monastery and a two hour drive from Cherbourg.
- See the iconic Bayeux Tapestry, a 68-metre work of art, depicting the 1066 Norman conquest of England.
- Head for the haunting D-Day landing sites of Sainte-Mere-Eglise and Utah Beach.
- Drink lip-smacking home-made local cider at Cidrerie Le Pere Mahieu in Bricquebosq.
- Take a romantic stroll though the lush coastal gardens of Chateau de Nacqueville.