Grab your walking shoes and get ready to explore the 10 most picturesque and culturally interesting cities to visit in France.
There’s a good reason why France remains the most visited country in the world. In fact, there are thousands of great reasons to soak up all that joie de vivre. From fairy tale castles and white sandy beaches to alpine ski resorts and, of course, rolling vineyards, the country boasts numerous beautiful places to visit. But if you’re looking for a busier slice of French culture, then you might want to head to one of the many picturesque cities. And to give you some inspiration, here are our 10 favorite cities to visit in France that offer something for everyone.
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1. Marseille: the bustling ancient port
What better place to begin than down on the beautiful Mediterranean coast in the eclectic port of Marseille. Dating back to 600BC, this is officially the oldest city in France. In fact, its colorful past has helped to make it what it is today. You will even discover hints of the city’s life as an Ancient Greek port if you look hard enough. Despite its checkered reputation, Marseille has enjoyed something of a cultural renaissance over recent decades. And these days, it’s definitely one of the most interesting cities to visit in France.
Many visitors to Marseille will head straight for the Old Port (Vieux Port), which is located right in the heart of the city. Here, you will find a decent number of seafood restaurants that serve freshly caught treasures from the Mediterranean. Just a stone’s throw away, the old neighborhood of Le Panier is a great place to while away a few hours. You will find plenty of cafés and boutiques to explore along the narrow streets; all the while soaking up the atmosphere of old Marseille. Meanwhile, the rugged coastline of the Parc national des Calanques, to the south of the city, is well worth a day trip.
2. Bordeaux: France’s wine capital
If wine is your tipple of choice, then a visit to France’s wine capital should definitely top your bucket list. The elegant and sophisticated city of Bordeaux is famous for its chic shopping, exquisite wines, and gourmet cuisine. It also boasts numerous historical monuments that are best explored on foot. Must-see landmarks include the Place de la Bourse square with its playful ‘Miroir d’Eau’ (water mirror), the medieval Cathédrale Saint-André, and the Porte Cailhau former town gate (pictured).
Shopaholics will no doubt enjoy perusing Bordeaux’s main shopping street, Rue Saint-Catherine. Those looking to kick back and relax, however, can do so in the 10-hectare Jardin Public (public garden). Of course, you can’t visit Bordeaux without touring some of the prestigious chateaux and smaller wineries surrounding the city. After all, these produce some of the best – and most expensive – wines in the world; from reds like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot to white varieties such as Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc. Château Lafite-Rothschild and Château Latour are just two of the many options on offer if you love a good vintage.
3. Rouen: a living museum on the Seine
Few cities in France fizz with quite as much history as Rouen. As one of the most important cities in medieval Europe, it has a tempestuous past. In fact, it is the site of Joan of Arc’s untimely end. Much of this history can still be seen in the city today; making it a living, breathing museum on the banks of the Seine. And while it’s not quite as influential on the European stage as it once was, modern-day Rouen is still one of the best cities to visit in France.
The cityscape of the vibrant Norman capital is dominated by the colossal Rouen Cathedral, which dates back to 1030 and soars to a height of 151 meters. In fact, the cathedral is so mesmerizingly beautiful that it even inspired famous impressionist, Claude Monet, to paint it more than 30 times! Away from the cathedral, you’ll find a lively student city with plenty to explore. Be sure to check out the recently rejuvenated riverside and its many bars, cafés, and gardens which reconnect the city with the Seine.
4. Biarritz: rugby and rugged coasts
If you’re looking for somewhere with an altogether different vibe, then you’ll find it in the resort city of Biarritz. Located in the Basque Country, Biarritz came to prominence as the coastal getaway of choice for Napoleon and his Spanish-born wife, Eugénie. The French upper classes soon followed, bringing art deco villas and bestowing a somewhat glitzy reputation on the city. Following years of subsequent decline, Biarritz has definitely rediscovered its stride. It mixes French glamour with Basque grit, creating a memorable destination on the breathtaking Atlantic coast.
These days, Biarritz offers a pleasant and laid-back vibe that helps to entice the many visitors that flock there each summer. The Atlantic waves have also made this a haven for surfers from France and beyond; providing great entertainment from the beach bars. Back on dry land, this part of France loves its rugby, and the local team, Biarritz Olympique, enjoys a decent following. As you might expect from a Basque city on the sea, Biarritz also has a blossoming food scene, and you won’t want to miss the seafood.
5. Lyon: the ‘Gastronomic Capital of the World’
In the country that invented haute cuisine, it’s Lyon that enjoys the moniker of ‘Gastronomic Capital of the World’. Indeed, there are more restaurants per head in this picturesque hilly city than any other in France! In fact, the country’s third-largest city is home to a whopping 21 Michelin-starred restaurants. This includes the two-star Auberge du Pont de Collonges, which is helmed by chef Paul Bocuse, the so-called “god of French cuisine”.
But beyond its gastronomical treasures, the 2,000-year-old city boasts an incredible mix of UNESCO-listed historical sites to keep visitors occupied. Its Roman roots are visible in the magnificent Le Théâtre Antique de Fourvière, which once seated up to 10,000 spectators. Other sites of interest include the Basilique Notre Dame de Fourvière and the Cathédrale Saint-Jean-Baptiste.
Art lovers will likely enjoy exploring the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon, France’s largest fine art museum after the Louvre in Paris. Located in the heart of the Presqu’île district, the beautiful Place des Jacobins is also one of the most beautiful squares in Lyon.
6. Carcassonne: the frontier fortress
It might look like it’s been lifted from the pages of a fairy tale, but the hilltop fort city of Carcassonne was once an important player in strategic conflicts. In fact, this particular rocky perch was a sought-after foothold in the battles between France and Aragon, to the south. However, these days, you’ll find a postcard-perfect city that is more likely overrun with tourists than marauding forces from across the border.
The Cité Medievale – the official name for the majestic walled fortress that dominates the hilltop – is an enchanting maze of battlements and narrow lanes. Here, you will find a decent mix of restaurants and hotels, as well as the ever-present gift shops. Just make sure to visit off-season to avoid the crowds, or time your trip for the late afternoon. The nearby ‘new’ town is bright and lively, with some nice parks and restaurants where you can recharge after your assault on the hilltop fortress.
7. Nantes: gateway to the Loire Valley
Nantes is undoubtedly one of the best cities to visit in France. Known as a gateway to the beautiful Loire Valley, the city was once one of the country’s most important ports and an influential industrial hub. These days, however, it is more centered on students than shipbuilding. And given its burgeoning cultural scene and close proximity to the picturesque Loire Valley, Nantes definitely retains its allure.
At the heart of the city, you will find the Château des Ducs de Bretagne, a palace-cum-fortress that was the home of the last Duke of Britanny, Francis II. As well as being a popular museum, the château is also home to some beautiful gardens, making it the ideal place to relax for a few hours. Another must-see site is the magical Les Machines de L’île, a menagerie of mechanical animals that delights visitors of all ages. You might even see its famous elephant roaming the Nantes streets; whether you’ve been at the local vineyards or not!
8. Strasbourg: the heart of Europe
If you want to step back in time while diving into a unique blend of cultures, then few cities beat Strasbourg. Situated in the Alsace region, the 2,000-year-old city is one of the most unique places to visit in France. Its proximity to the French-German border has seen it change hands many times over the centuries. This has afforded it a beguiling blend of French and German culture, making it the symbolic heart of western Europe.
The city’s historic center, which sits on an island in the Ill River, is exceptionally beautiful. Black and white, half-timbered houses from the 16th century fill La Petite France (the historic quarter). The Gothic Cathédrale Notre Dame and ornate Kammerzell House are definitely worth a look; as are the city’s numerous museums. You won’t go hungry here, either, with a plethora of Michelin-starred restaurants to choose from. For a more low-key affair, though, you can nibble on Alsace specialties at a local tavern (Winstubs).
9. Nice: sun, sea, and salade niçoise
Stretched along the shores of the sun-kissed Cote d’Azur, Nice should definitely be on your list of beautiful cities to visit in France. That said, it can feel more like Italy in certain places, given that it lies just 15 miles from the border. Although Nice only joined the Republique français in 1860, it is still very much a French city today. Its heady mix of culture, leisure, and, of course, cuisine have also helped to attract visitors for centuries.
Nissart life centers on the Promenade des Anglais; the perfect spot to watch the world go by while soaking up the hot Mediterranean sun. If you head inland, though, make sure to check out the Musée Matisse. This is dedicated to the life and work of Henri Matisse who called the city home for 37 years. You’ll also find great eats on the streets of Nice, with the local specialty, salade niçoise, stealing the show every time. Outside the city, you’ll find both Cannes and Saint-Tropez in easy reach, too. The playground of Europe’s wealthy elite is also less than 30 minutes away by train in nearby Monaco.
10. Paris: the romantic ‘City of Lights’
And finally, where else but Paris? When it comes to the enchanting ‘City of Lights’, the nation’s capital really does live up to its romantic reputation. With centuries of rich history, art, and culture waiting to be explored around every corner, Paris is a delight for all the senses. Ticking off the city’s iconic landmarks alone is a mission in itself. Of course, the magnificent Eiffel Tower tops many a Parisian bucket list. However, don’t miss the Palace of Versailles, the Sacré-Cœur Basilica, or the Louvre.
If you live to shop, then you’ll be in heaven when you browse the seemingly endless array of designer stores along the Champs-Elysées or find a treasure or two at one of the city’s many sprawling markets. If food is your passion, though, then the gastronomic city boasts 114 Michelin-starred restaurants to choose from. Of course, you could simply just soak up a slice of Parisian life along the tranquil banks of Canal St. Martin or hop on a boat cruise along the famous River Seine.