It’s a funny old place, France. Despite being one of the world’s most popular holiday destinations, some 95% of France remains largely off the international tourist map. Granted, this is likely because the most visited parts – Paris, the Alps, the Loire châteaux, the French Riviera, the Dordogne– are enough to captivate most travellers. But there are dozens more towns and cities in France, big and small, just waiting to be discovered.
- Train travel in France: A guide to SNCF
- Getting around France from Paris, by train
- From London to Paris and beyond, by Eurostar
We asked Andrew Rossiter, founding editor of About-France.com, to reveal some of the best, under-the-radar French towns and cities that you need to visit on your next France holiday.
He was quick to note, however, that these five places are just the small tip of the iceberg: France has an amazingly rich and diverse historic heritage, and its range of different natural environments is unequalled by any other country in Europe. All we can add is – Bon voyage!
Located in south-central France, tiny Brioude, with a population of less than 8,000, is one of the country’s most attractive and interesting small towns. Packed with art and history, the old town grew up around the imposing 12th-century Basilica Saint-Julien, which stands on the site where the Roman centurion Julian was martyred. This beautiful basilica is one of France’s larger Romanesque churches, and boasts incredibly well-preserved Byzantine-style medieval frescoes and decorative stonework, as well as a unique 16th-century pebble-mosaic floor that is the largest in France.
In summer, the streets and small squares surrounding the basilica come alive with bustling cafés, restaurants and art and craft shops – particularly every other July when Brioude hosts France’s premier watercolour event, the Biennale de l’Aquarelle. On the strength of its ever-growing artistic reputation, in 2018, the town inaugurated a new arts centre in the renovated medieval Deanery that hosts a different exhibition by a major 20th-century artist each summer. With its historic centre, galleries and lace-making museum, Brioude is one of those places we’d prefer to keep to ourselves – but we know the word will inevitably get out.
For anyone visiting Strasbourg or the German side of the upper Rhine valley, Colmar is most definitely worth a detour. Located 50 miles south of Strasbourg, this historic city lies at the edge of the Alsace wine area and has a very different feel to most other French cities.
In summer, stroll through the Little Venice neighbourhood, where brightly-coloured half-timbered houses in the Alsatian style line the quays beside the river Lauch. Here, as in much of the old town, there are craft shops and stalls, bars selling local beers, and Winstubs with local wine and traditional Alsace cuisine. Little Venice gets even prettier on December nights, when it sparkles with lights as the picturesque location of Colmar’s great Christmas Market, one of France’s biggest and best.
Colmar was the birthplace of Frederic Bartholdi, who designed New York’s Statue of Liberty, and the Bartholdi museum is one of several in town. However, Colmar’s most impressive museum is the Unterlinden Museum, which has a major collection of art and artefacts from the Middle Ages to modern times, and is one of the best in France.
Saint Germain-en-Laye, Paris region
This is an incredible tip to discover provincial France almost without leaving Paris. Located at the western end of the RER A metro, Saint-Germain-en-Laye is just 30 minutes from the Champs Elysées by direct train, and a fantastic day trip from the capital.
The classic French country town was the birthplace of King Louis XIV; emerge from the RER station to be greeted by the fine Renaissance chateau that was once the royal residence and is now France’s National Archaeology Museum. Just across the road is the old centre of Saint Germain, where narrow pedestrian streets are flanked by buildings constructed in the local white stone. Here you’ll find bustling markets on Tuesday, Friday and Sunday mornings, as well as a museum dedicated to the composer Claude Debussy, who was also born here.
Make sure you save some time to explore the château’s extensive grounds, which run along a ridge overlooking the Seine. From the esplanade of the classic French 17th-century gardens, you’ll enjoy incredible views back onto Paris.
Two and a half hours from Paris by train, Bayeux in Normandy is another of those places that exemplify small-town France at its best. With 14,000 inhabitants, this historic town has oodles of charm and plenty to interest the passing visitor – including the almost 950-year-old Bayeux Tapestry that’s protected in its own dedicated museum, and a beautiful 11th-century cathedral with fine Norman arches and a vaulted apse. Stroll the historic streets lined with ancient half-timbered houses typical of Normandy to the nearby town museum and art gallery with their fascinating collections of local history and art.
Bayeux’s other great attraction is that it is the centre for the Normandy Beaches. In addition to the town’s Battle of Normandy museum, Bayeux is the departure point for guided tours of the 1944 Normandy D-Day landing beaches. We definitely recommend starting your tour here rather than in Paris, as you’ll get a guide with plenty of local experience.
Annecy, French Alps
It’s not a big city nor is it a ski resort, which is perhaps why Annecy is less well-known than many other Alpine destinations, such as Chamonix and Courchevel. But Annecy has plenty to offer visitors in both summer and winter.
Former capital of the Dukes of Savoy, the picturesque town is known as the Venice of the Alps due to its watery location between Lake Annecy, the river Thiou and the Canal du Vassé. Annecy castle towers over the stone and slate roofs of the historic centre, which is home to a number of museums and art galleries. Follow the network of narrow, pedestrianised streets to the quays beside the river Thiou, which throng with cafés and restaurants offering local specialities such as fondue Savoyarde and raclette.
In summer, take a boat onto Lake Annecy to admire the spectacular Alpine scenery that surrounds the town. In winter, Annecy is a fantastic base to discover local ski slopes – the attractive family resort of La Clusaz is just 31km to the east – and hotels and restaurants in Annecy are substantially cheaper than equivalents in the ski resorts.
Andrew Rossiter has lived and worked in France ever since graduating from the University of Edinburgh with an MA (Hons) in French. For many years he lectured at the University of Besançon, where he set up a degree course in applied modern languages and tourism. In 2003, he founded About-France.com, a website dedicated to original, high-quality thematic travel and tourism information about France.