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Ah, La France. It’s a country that travelers around the world really enjoy visiting, full of beautiful bustling cities and so much history behind every single destination. Some beautiful cities in France like Paris or Nice have achieved international stardom, but a lot of wonderful French cities get overlooked and it’s not until you really explore these places that you get to appreciate them for what they have.
For this piece, we asked some top travelers about their favorite, underrated French cities to visit, great places for sightseeing, a relaxing getaway, or as a base to explore the countryside on day trips.
You’ve already been to Paris, Lyon, and Strasbourg. Where to next?
Suggested by Elisa | France Bucket List
Dole is a picturesque city in the region of Bourgogne-Franche-Comté, in Eastern France. Bordered by the river Doubs, Dole is the perfect destination for a relaxing getaway or one of the must-stops of a road trip through the Jura.
Dole was the capital of Franche-Comté until King Louis XIV conquered the region in the 17th century and its historical center is still witness of the city’s glorious past: the Collegiale, the cobbled streets, and the mansions are beautiful and well preserved. Dole also has two museums, one of them dedicated to Louis Pasteur – the scientist who discovered the penicillin – who was born in Dole.
The most picturesque part of the city is the Quartier des Tanneurs, by the canals, which was once occupied by the tanneries. It is also a great place to have dinner with a good choice of restaurants lined along the canals.
During your visit, you can also explore Dole’s surroundings by boat or bicycle. Don’t miss the picturesque village of Rochefort-sur-Nenon, or the magnificent Forest of Chaux, with its centenary trees, as well as the interesting remains of ovens and forges.
When it comes to picturesque, underrated French cities to visit, Dole is always a grateful surprise.
Suggested by Norbert | France Bucket List
Vannes is a beautiful walled city located in the region of Brittany, in Western France. The city boasts a beautiful medieval architecture of half-timbered houses and mansions and a stroll around the old town is like a step back in time.
Located in the Gulf of Morbihan, the city is blessed with a wonderful climate and it is a great base for boat excursions to the Islands of Moines and Artz or more cultural side trips like a visit to the archaeological site of Carnac.
Vannes’ historic center has a beautiful cathedral and two interesting museums: the Château Gaillard, a 15th-century mansion house, accommodates the museum of archaeology and history while La Cohue, a 13th-century covered market that hosted the Breton Parliament from 1675-89, is now the museum of fine arts. The Vannes Ramparts walkway and gardens surrounding the old town are also interesting to explore.
Outside the walls, there’s the marina which is also great for an afternoon stroll or a harbor-side lunch to get a taste of Brittany’s gastronomy.
If you are looking for historical cities far from the crowds, don’t miss this attractive, yet underrated French city during your next trip to western France.
Suggested by Chris | Explore Now or Never
Just two hours by train from Paris —and not far from the Loire Valley— in southwestern France, Poitiers is recognized as a World Heritage spot. It’s located on the Way of Saint Jacques, the most popular pilgrimage route. Up until a decade ago, throughout the ages, in fact, visitors came to Poitiers mostly to admire its beautiful Notre-Dame Cathedral, an incredible 10th-century Romanesque masterpiece. Its colorful frescoes are truly something special.
But today, it’s the nearby Futuroscope theme park, with its dancing robots and virtual rides, that draws the crowds. However, even if you’re not a thrill-seeker, Poitiers makes an excellent off-the-beaten spot to visit in France. I lived there for a year in college, in fact, during my year as an exchange student from Santa Barbara, California.
When I visited again more than 30 years later, I found it only somewhat changed. It was still free of tourists and it’s still full of beautiful Romanesque art (visit the 12th century Saint Peter’s Cathedral and Baptistere Saint-Jean while you’re here.) Parc de Blossac, with its wide boulevards, vibrant flower gardens, and walking path to the river has never looked more lovely. For those looking to discover authentic France, Poitiers makes an ideal getaway.
Suggested by Sheree | Winging the World
Albi may not be the most well-known city in France but it is surely one of the most beautiful. Located in the Occitanie region, around an hour by train from Toulouse, this small city is easily accessible for a weekend getaway.
When it comes to things to do in Albi, there is plenty on the list. This picturesque city is most famous for the Sainte-Cécile Cathedral which is the largest brick-built cathedral in the world. The bell tower alone is 78 meters high and really needs to be seen to be believed!
There are three main walking trails around the city that showcase all of the finest viewpoints. Look out for the beautiful Pont Vieux Bridge and make sure you don’t miss the Place Savène, a postcard-perfect square tucked out of sight.
Whilst all of the sights in Albi are reason enough to visit, it is the warm and relaxed vibe of the city which makes it so unforgettable. The pace of life is slow here which makes it the perfect place to escape for a few days. When it comes to watching the world go by, there is perhaps no place better than Albi.
Suggested by Kerri | Beer and Croissants
Narbonne, a city built on ancient Roman ruins has so much to offer a visitor to France, and yet, it remains unknown to many.
Located in the deep south of France, in between the French Riviera and the Spanish border, it is closeby the Canal du Midi and under an hour away from the more famous walled city of Carcassonne.
There are so many things to do in Narbonne, that first-time visitors should spend at least 24 hours here. If you have extra time, consider taking day trips to nearby small towns and beaches liked Gruissan or Le Franqui.
Narbonne is built around a town square where parts of the old Roman road can be seen. The city is overflowing with historical monuments including the impressive Cathedral of Saint-Just et Saint-Pasteur which sits alongside the Archbishop’s Palace.
Consider buying the Pass Monumentale Narbonne to gain entry into these buildings along with many others like the Palais Neuf (art museum) and L’Horreum (Romantunnels)
The Canal de la Robine runs through Narbonne, creating a wonderful atmosphere all around it with tree-lined promenades brimming with restaurants and cafes.
Don’t forget to look in the small cobbled laneways for great restaurants where the locals like to eat. For a fun vibe as well as great food, head to the Les Halles permanent market.
If you are looking to spend some time in a town that is quintessentially French, but without the crowds, Narbonne is one of France’s best-kept secrets.
Suggested by Nadine | Le Long Weekend
An hour north of Bordeaux, you’ll find a city steeped in history. One with its own distinct appeal that combines typical Charentaise architecture with surprising additions in other styles. That city is called Saintes and it’s a true hidden gem in the South West of France.
The stunning old town is a delight to explore, situated to one side of the Charente, and it’s brimming with upmarket boutiques and inviting eateries. The pedestrian-only streets are rarely packed, even in the height of summer.
On the other side of the river, you’ll find the Roman Arc de Germanicus in its relocated position near the entrance of the public gardens. Once you’ve taken a leisurely stroll through the perfectly manicured lawns and perhaps paused for a coffee in the garden cafe, hire an electric boat and cruise down the river for a unique vantage point of the city. Make sure you also pay a visit to the Gallo-Roman amphitheater and pop inside the Basilica of Saint Eutropius to take a tour of the haunting crypt.
If you love music, visit in the summer when Saintes puts on its annual festivals – the whole family is catered for with a range of cultural events held throughout the city.
Suggested by Lily | Imperfect Idealist
Besançon is located near the Swiss border in the Bourgogne-Franche-Comté region. The city is only an hour from Dijon by direct train and about 2.5 hours from Paris and Lyon. With a population of 120,000, Besançon is highly walkable but be prepared for some hills in the city and surrounding nature.
There are many things to do in Besançon, but the city’s crown jewel is a 17th-century fort called la Citadelle. This UNESCO World Heritage site offers sweeping views of the city and hillside. It also houses museums on local history and culture, and a zoo with 70% protected species.
The city is also known as the Capital of Time for its watchmaking industry, and a popular attraction is the Musée du Temps (Museum of Time). There, you can view countless watches, grandfather clocks, pendulums, and other specimens to learn more about the industry.
Similarly, you might also visit the 30,000-piece Astronomical Clock. Built in the late 1850s by Auguste-Lucien Vérité, the massive clock tracks solar eclipses, zodiac signs, moon phases, and other data.
If you like hiking, you also can’t forget the trails around the city! Two popular hikes go up to the Fort de Chaudanne and the Chapelle des Buis, offering scenic viewpoints of the city and nature. If you want something less strenuous, a simple walk along the riverfront is also pleasant, and you can stop at the marché couvert des beaux-arts (covered market) for some local food.
Suggested by Larch | The Silver Nomad
Sitting on the banks of the Loire River in the north-west of France is the pretty city of Saumur. With a medieval old town to explore and plenty to see and do it is the perfect place to spend a few days relaxing.
The fairytale Chateau of Saumur sits above the town with its conical towers. Originally it was built as a fortress to defend against invaders but was added to in the 14th century to become the more romantic chateau we see today. On the first floor is the Museum of Decorative Arts with tapestries, furniture, paintings, and ceramics from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.
Saumur’s historic old town still has the original half-timbered buildings from the 15th and 16th centuries with criss-cross designs on the front of the facades. There are winding lanes and alleyways with boutiques and curios shops to explore and plenty of squares if you want to stop for a bite to eat. Don’t miss the weekly markets for fresh produce every day apart from Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
I first saw Saumur from the river where I was kayaking and found it enchanting, there is a peaceful elegance about it.
The area around Saumur is famous for its vineyards and a visit to one of them is a must for wine lovers.
Metz (Grand Est)
Suggested by Mei | Travel with Mei and Kerstin
Located in the Grand-Est Region, Metz is a lesser-known French city with a touch of German culture.
From Paris, you can reach Metz by TGV in only one and a half hours. Most people who travel to Metz from Paris visit the Centre Pompidou-Metz. You certainly know the modern and contemporary art museum Pompidou in Paris? Well, the one in Metz opened in 2010 and is definitely as interesting for art lovers as the one in the French capital.
But Metz has much more to offer than modern art. Its rich history which dates back to over 3,000 years ago can be seen in the city’s architecture, urban planning, local language, and even food! In fact, Metz is very close to the German border and was even part of the German Empire, the German Second Reich, and also the Third Reich.
So unlike in other parts of France, and similar to Strasbourg, gastronomic restaurants in Metz usually serve food with French quality and German quantity! May it be in the gorgeous Brasserie Arts et Métiers, just steps away from the city’s train station, or in the restaurants around the Place St Jacques or Place St Louis. So if you’re a food lover like us, you should definitely visit Metz!
Since a huge part of the city center is now turned into a pedestrian zone, shopping in Metz is also like heaven!
So there you have it, our selection of underrated French cities to visit before they get too popular. Where to next?