Article written by Elisa - Travel Writer & Local in France
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Article written by Elisa - Travel Writer & Local in France
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. Still, many 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 cities in France to visit, great underrated places in France for sightseeing, or a relaxing getaway.
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 one of the must-stops of any road trip through the Jura and also the perfect destination for a relaxing getaway.
Dole was the capital of Franche-Comté until King Louis XIV conquered the region in the 17th century. Its historical center is still a witness to this 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 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 one of the most beautiful walled cities in France. Located in the Gulf of Morbihan, in the region of Bretagne, the city is blessed with a wonderful climate protected from the winds, and it is an excellent base to explore the neighboring islands or for cultural side trips.
A stroll around Vannes’ Old Town is like a step back in time: the city boasts a lovely Gothic cathedral and beautiful medieval architecture of half-timbered houses. There are also two museums worth visiting: 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.
Outside the walls, the marina is always bustling with life, and it is a great place 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 — Poitiers is recognized as a World Heritage spot. It’s located on the Via Turonensis, one of the most popular pilgrimage routes to Saint-Jacques since medieval times.
Up until a decade ago, visitors mostly visited Poitiers 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.
Even if you’re not a thrill-seeker, Poitiers is still one of the loveliest underrated places to visit in France. I lived there during my year as an exchange student from Santa Barbara, California, and things have barely changed since I saw it for the first time 30 years ago.
Poitiers is still free of tourists, and it’s still full of Romanesque art. While you are here, visit the 12th-century Saint Peter’s Cathedral and Baptistère Saint-Jean. The 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, undiscovered 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!
Three main walking trails around the city 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 making 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, between the French Riviera and the Spanish border, it is not far from the Canal du Midi and under an hour away from the more famous walled city of Carcassonne.
Narbonne is one of the best underrated French cities for a cultural getaway. There are so many things to do in Narbonne that first-time visitors should spend at least two days here.
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 with tree-lined promenades brimming with restaurants and cafés. Don’t forget to look in the small cobbled laneways for great restaurants where the locals like to eat. For a fun vibe and 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, Saintes is a city steeped in history, one with its own distinct appeal that combines typical Charentaise architecture with surprising additions in other styles.
The stunning Old Town, situated to one side of the Charente River, is a delight to explore, 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 café, 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.
Besançon is one of the best underrated French cities for a cultural visit. There are many things to do in Besançon, but the city’s crown jewel is a 17th-century Citadel. This UNESCO World Heritage site offers sweeping views of the city and hillside, and it 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 northwest of France is the pretty city of Saumur. With a medieval Old Town to explore and plenty to see and do, and surrounding vineyards, Saumur is one of the best underrated cities in France to spend a few days relaxing.
The fairytale Chateau of Saumur sits above the town with its conical towers. Originally built as a fortress to defend against invaders, it was added to in the 14th century to become one of the best Loire Valley Castles to visit. 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.
Metz (Grand Est)
Suggested by Mei | Travel with Mei and Kerstin
Metz is a lesser-known French city with a touch of German culture. Part of the Grand-Est Region, in northeast France, it is possible to reach Metz by TGV train in only one hour and a half.
Most people who travel to Metz from Paris visit the Centre Pompidou-Metz, a satellite museum of the famous art museum in Paris. But Metz has much more to offer than modern art: its rich history can be seen in the city’s architecture, urban planning, the local language, and even food.
Metz is also one of the best underrated places in France for food lovers. The city is very close to the German border and was even part of the German Empire, the Second Reich, and 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!
The city is super charming and the perfect place to discover everything about Basque culture and history. Explore the Musée Basque in the Petit Bayonne district, and walk around the traditional houses, the medieval buildings, and the Gothic Cathedral in Grand Bayonne.
Bayonne is also the French capital of chocolate and an excellent place to taste traditional Basque cuisine, from the local jambon de Bayonne or the poulet à la Basquaise to the delicious macarons from the neighboring town of Saint-Jean-de-Luz.
Lastly, Bayonne is also an excellent base to explore other beautiful places in the Basque Country on day trips, like Biarritz, Saint-Jean-de-Luz, Espelette, and San Sebastian, beyond the Spanish border.
So there you have it, our selection of underrated French cities to visit before they get too popular. Where to next?