France offers some surprising city break destinations, but the good things often come in small packages. Gillian Thornton examines some remarkably tempting options.
From Paris to Nice and Lyon to Marseille, France has vibrant city break destinations to rival anywhere in Europe. But with so many big hitters to choose from, it’s easy to overlook some of the smaller but equally rewarding towns, which are packed with their own architectural, historical, and cultural gems.
Welcome to Remarkable Cities, a consortium of 19 cities from The Hexagon and beyond, working together to take travelers off the well-trodden tourist track with their unique combination of slow-tourism, French charm and authenticity Is. Some have a unique architectural heritage, others a rich culture or history. Some are famous for their local gastronomic traditions, others for their green spaces or waterfront excursions. They all tick more than one box.
Here are seven of my personal favorites, along with a complete list to help you decide which ones tick your own boxes for a break that’s high on atmosphere but low on crowds.
1. Charleville-Sedan, Ardennes
Many travelers traveling across the Channel from Britain miss out on these twin gems tucked away in the north-east corner of the Meuse Valley in the Ardennes. I’ll never forget my first sight of the magnificent Ducal Square in Charleville, with its red bricks, ocher stone, and blue slate roofs under a similar arcade. Commissioned in 1606 by the Italian prince Charles de Gonzag, it was designed in the Italian Baroque style, a twin of the Place des Vosges in Paris. Discover the colorful life of local poet Arthur Rimbaud through the Rimbaud Museum and street art murals that showcase his words. By the river in Sedan, Europe’s largest fortified chateau is a stunner, with towering towers and tall ramparts running through it. Explore with an audio guide, watch one of the daily equestrian shows within the castle grounds, and perhaps stay within the castle walls at the 4* Htel du Château Fort.
2. Besançon, Montagnes do Juras
One of my favorite riverside towns is the more stylish, multi-colored stonework Besançon, which sits on the banks of the Doubs River in eastern France’s verdant Franche-Comté region.
Stroll along the quayside, through streets and squares, under the beautiful façades of light blue and cream stone townhouses. Take the time to enjoy Besançon’s many scenic spots that make it the greenest city in France.
You can’t miss the massive sited citadel that dominates the city. Designed by Louis XIV’s military architect, Vauban, it is now home to a very dynamic Resistance and Exile Museum, as well as a small conservation park and a natural history museum. Enjoy impressive panoramic views of both the city and the river from the ramparts.
Visit Victor Hugo’s birthplace; absorb the artwork at the newly refurbished Museum of Fine Arts; And to see how Besançon became the watchmaking capital of France, visit the Museum of Time inside the magnificent Granvale Palace.
3. Auxerre, Burgundy
With colorful half-timbered houses, the conservation area in the historic center of Auxerre is a relaxing place to browse boutiques and maybe stop over a glass or two of famous local wines.
The 15th-century belfry and ornate astronomical clock will be restored to its full medieval glory later this year. The lunar and solar hands move at different rates, but you can hold them together if you are passing midnight on a new moon or full moon in the afternoon. Take in the panorama of Saint-Germain Abbey from the banks of Yonne, then go inside to discover 16 centuries of history, including some of the oldest frescoes in France. The adjacent Saint-tienne Cathedral is famous for its stained-glass windows and sculpted façade. Explore the city’s ‘Green Corridor’ by renting a bike and following the old railway line, and maybe cycling along the Nivernaise Canal.
Find out ten more reasons to visit Auxerre.
4. Moulins, Auvergne
Situated on the banks of the Allier River, Moulins boasts a remarkable built heritage that includes the Castle of the Bourbon Dukes, who was king of France from the coronation of Henry IV in 1589 until the death by guillotine of Louis XVI in 1793.
Explore the stone streets of the historic center lined with half-timbered houses; Head to the top of Jacquemart Tower for 360° views; And visit Notre-Dame Cathedral, where Bourbons are immortalized in stained glass. Don’t miss the opulent Grand Café, a jewel of Art Nouveau style, and the Maison des Palettes d’Or which has been producing chocolate charms for more than a century. Whether you love fashion, needlework, or just a nostalgic look back at the past, take a tour of the National Center for Stage Costume and Sceneography. The only one in the world, it includes costumes and sets from the Opéra de Paris and the Comédie française.
5. Périgaux, Dordogne Valley
Whichever way you look at it, Périgaux packs a mighty punch with its extraordinary cathedral, archaeological remains, and fascinating maze of medieval streets. Divided by the River Isle, which is a tributary of the Dordogne, this small town of 30,000 people is set in stunning countryside that is easily accessible by foot, bike or car.
As well as being a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Cathedral of Saint-Front is the one-time, only cathedral in France with five Byzantine cupolas, reminiscent of St. Mark’s in Venice. And I love the Gallo-Roman Museum of Vesuna, a glass-side building with the sweeping site of a Roman villa right in the middle of the modern city. For an unforgettable view over the roof tiles, the towers, and those extraordinary cupolas, head to the top of the Mataguerre tower. And for Périgord’s full color and fragrance, head to the market, which is spread across four squares in the city center every Wednesday and Saturday.
6. Dax, Aquitaine
A bath, a ball and an ox are the three major objects that line this historic thermal spa town on the southern edge of the Landes forest.
The practice of thermal cures is believed to date back to Roman times when a general on his way to war said goodbye to his crippled dog on the banks of the Adour. When he returned, he was amazed and delighted to see his dog revived from the mud of the river. Today about 2.5m liters of hot water flows through the fountain where the old Roman thermal baths stood.
Meanwhile, the ball in question is oval, Dax being a passionate rugby town. And the bull? Head to City Bullring to witness the thrilling performance of Course Landaise, an ancient sport in which skilled professionals dodge and leap over small athletic bulls that leave the arena unaffected. All the fun of bullring without any of the bloodshed.
7. Pezenas, Occitania
Inland from the Mediterranean resort of Cap d’Agde, Pézenas has 39 historical monuments but just 8,000 residents. And thanks to an iconic French actor and playwright born 400 years ago this year, the city is also famous for the performing arts.
The seat of the Montmorency family (the governors of Languedoc) since the 13th century, the Pezzanes hosted five annual trade fairs and today the honey-colored stone narrow streets are decorated with elegant houses, hidden courtyards and Italianate loggias.
In 1650, he invited Jean-Baptiste Poquelin – known as Molire – to entertain the Languedoc officials with his troupe of players. You can find out more about his five-year stay on a guided tour from the Tourist Office. Don’t be surprised if you bump into a costumed character, especially during the arts festival that takes place every year in July.
Perform throughout the year at the city’s historic theater or perhaps at the 250-seat Illustre Theatre, home of a professional acting company.
Other Notable Cities
Calais, Hautes de France
Take in the panoramic views from the Town Hall Tower and Rodins Burger in the gardens below. Visit the Lace and Fashion Museum and ride the impressive Calais Dragon.
Le Havre, Normandy
Listed by UNESCO for post-World War II architecture, which includes St. Joseph’s Church. The Muma Contemporary Art Museum houses an outstanding Impressionist collection.
Home of enamelling, both traditional and contemporary, with a citadel listed by UNESCO as one of the key sites by the 17th-century military engineer Vauban. www.longwy-tourisme.com
The seat of the Duke of Lorraine, which houses the grand 18th-century palace known as ‘Le Petit Versailles’. home of baccarat crystals, fine embroidery and baba au rahum,
The gateway to the Vosges Forests, Saint-Die boasts contemporary art and architecture, including the Liberty Tower, Le Corbusier’s Usine Verte, and an excellent street art trail.
Enjoy its wealth of half-timbered buildings with brightly colored façades, cathedrals, museums of both fine and contemporary art, the Instrument Museum, and a vibrant restaurant scene.
It is the largest fully fortified city in Europe and offers panoramic views from the city walls. Visit its historic center, the Museum of Fine Arts, and the colorful shutters and façade.
Medieval homes in this beautiful town of 7,000 people sit next to an 18th-century mansion, its bell tower, the abbey church, and the bustling Saturday market. www.destinationvalsdesaintonge.com
Figek, Lott Valley
Discover 27 historical monuments in a city of 10,000 people. Visit the birthplace and museum of the champion who deciphered Egyptian hieroglyphs. https://www.tourism-figeac.com/lot-valley
This inhabited city of ancient Gascony was enriched by the production of blue dye from vod. Gallo-Roman origin; church; Art and photography exhibitions.
Visit the fortress, troglodyte abbey and fine town house in this historic town in the Garde department, once a stopover between Italy and Spain on the Via Domitia.
Saint-Pierre de la Martinique
On an island famous for its beautiful beaches, this is a city rich in history, but almost completely rebuilt after the 1902 volcanic eruption. www.martinique.org
Get more knowledge www.france.fr/en
from France Today magazine
Lead photo credit: Pézenas, Occitanie © Sites and Cités remarquables de France