Planning a trip to France? Looking for top cities to visit (that aren’t Paris!) Here are 10 of the best cities in France- and why you should plan a trip to see them.
I get it- trying to figure out WHERE to visit in France can feel completely overwhelming.
The short answer is that wherever you go, you’ll enjoy something there. But, to help you plan your French adventure a little better, we’ve put together this list of the best cities in France (outside of Paris!) for a weekend visit or even longer. If you’d like more information about the different regions in France, check out these France road trip ideas (and points of interest to see)
Map of the top 10 cities to visit in France (plus Paris)
Here’s a map of the top 10 cities in France mentioned in this article, so you can find them easily and start planning your France trips.
Don’t forget, if you’re touring France you can add several of these cities together to make an epic French road trip and, if you’re looking for a bit of history, here are 7 of the best historical places in France.
So, now you know WHERE they are- let’s talk about why you should add these cities to your France itinerary. Of course, there are many (MANY!) more towns and cities to explore- these are just 10 of our favourites.
Nice- one of the top 10 cities to visit in France outside of Paris
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Nice is one of the most popular cities in France. The city that some time ago was the home of artists like Matisse and Chagall is now one of the most touristic cities of the Côte d’Azur.
For its art, beaches and the beautiful mountains that surround the city, there’s a reason Nice is considered one of the best places to live in France– it’s a perfect fit for everyone looking to escape from the routine of a big city.
When is the best time to visit Nice?
If you want to visit Nice at its best, don’t go during the summer season, from June to September. As with every place in France in high season, prices will rise and the city will be crowded. For that reason, a great month to visit Nice is May. You’ll have good weather, fewer people and more competitive prices. Nice is also one of the best European cities to visit in winter, so consider that as an option.
Ok, it’s a famous city in France. But what is there to DO?
Some of the highlights of Nice include:
- Colline du Château: this is an amazing spot for seeing the sunset in Nice.
- Promenade Des Anglais: one of the most famous places in town! A seven kilometres walk next to the beach is always a good idea.
- Marché Aux Fleurs Cours Saleya: the local market opens from Tuesday to Saturday from 6 to 13:30 and it’s a great spot to discover the local cuisine.
- Le Vieux Nice: the Old Nice is what the locals call the old town. In this small part of the city, you’ll find some of the most iconic buildings like the Nice Cathedral, the Church of Gesù and the Opera House.
How long should you spend visiting Nice?
Nice is a great destination for a weekend getaway, it’s a small city and you can get to know the main spots in two or three days.
It’s also a great base for a trip to Menton for the lemon festival or other places down the French Riviera.
TOP TIP- if you’re heading down to Nice in a car or motorhome, make sure you add crossing the Millau Bridge into your French road trip itinerary. It’s expensive (especially in a motorhome) but everyone should drive across that at least once! 🙂
Colmar- one of the most beautiful cities in France
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One of the best places to visit in France is Colmar, a gem of a destination in the beautiful French Alsace. In Colmar, France you have a picturesque and quaint city known for its delicious Alsatian cuisine, half-timber houses and wonderful wine.
What’s so special about Colmar?
When you’re visiting Colmar, you’ll notice how the culture is different from the rest of France. In the Alsace region, spoken dialect is different and many aspects of the language and culture reflect both German and French influences. The region has switched hands throughout history and was an autonomous collection of fortified cities for centuries. The food scene mirrors the best of German and French cooking with hearty German-style dishes prepared to a French standard.
Why is Colmar one of the most famous cities in France?
Colmar is also famous for the colourful half-timber houses and medieval city centre. Walking around Colmar feels like you’ve you been transported back in time or stepped into a classic fairy tale story. One of the best spots in the city to feel this is La Petite Venise, a stretch of beautiful homes along Colmar’s canals. You can even book a gondola ride through the waterway for the full experience.
The entire region is famous for their vineyards and any trip to Colmar requires a good wine tasting. Many of the wine houses will offer you a free and informal tasting when you enter their shops in Colmar or you can schedule a formal wine tasting in locations around the city. Colmar is a perfect place from which to explore nearby villages and smaller wine route destinations in the southern Alsace.
Annecy- one of the prettiest cities in France
If you’re heading anywhere near the French Alps, someone will tell you to visit Annecy. And they’re right.
This small but gorgeous city sits on the banks of Lake Annecy and is surrounded by stunning mountain views.
Also, don’t fly your drone over the lake unless you’re prepared to lose it- a random gust of wind knocked our drone out of the sky and it fell into the lake. It was very sad- you can watch the video here and learn other mistakes not to make at Annecy!
Highlights of Annecy
Some of the best things to do in Annecy include:
- Watching the sunrise over Lake Annecy
- Watersports or a boat trip on the lake
- Paragliding- those views looks amazing!
- Explore Annecy old town (and its canals!)
Biarritz- one of the top seaside cities in France
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Biarritz is one of the most beautiful and relaxed beach town in the south-west of France. Built right on the Atlantic Ocean, Biarritz was once a hub for pirates and corsairs but has now become a ritzy destination where tourists and locals go to surf, relax at a spa, enjoy the sunny summers by the beach and taste the amazing Basque cuisine!
Ok, so it’s a famous city, but why should I visit?
The city centre is quite small and can easily be visited on foot. One of the best things to do is to walk from the Côte des Basques to the north end lighthouse via the main beach. From there, you can catch an incredible sunset over the ocean.
Surfing is also fantastic here, as is the beautiful beach. It’s a mecca for surfers so the vibe is mostly chill. If you’re in a van, it can be hard to wild camp here, so expect to need a campsite.
When is the best time to visit Biarritz?
The best time to visit is September or October- the sea has warmed up but the crowds are gone for the summer. (Here are some more great places to visit in Europe in October.)
Biarritz is only 15 min from Bayonne where most national trains stop, but can also easily be reached by road. There is a lot of parking in the city but on weekends, and mostly during the summer months, Biarritz tends to get crowded and the free parking spaces are hard to find. An early visit is usually necessary to find a good parking spot.
Biarritz is a gorgeous place for a weekend but also the perfect town to base yourself to discover the French side of the Basque country. From the city, it is easy to take day trips along the coast or into the countryside and the Pyrenees.
Toulouse- one of the top cities in France
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If you want to discover more about French culture, a trip to Toulouse is perfect.
Located in South West France, Toulouse is one of the most beautiful cities in France and yet so underrated! Nicknamed the Pink City (“La Ville Rose”), it has many beautiful pink buildings!
How to visit Toulouse
Toulouse is easily accessible by train or plane. If you want to drive and discover more of France, the best way is to park in a free car park at one of the metro stations. You can then take public transport from there. The city centre is quite small and compact which makes it easily navigable- except for big vehicles like motorhomes!
It might be a top city but what is there to do?
It’s worth spending a weekend here as you will find many things to do in Toulouse and it offers good nightlife.
You can start your visit with the capitole, the central square. From there you can walk up to La Daurade and enjoy a picnic on the banks of the River Garonne. The views of the city and river are beautiful! It’s a good place to enjoy a stroll as well. You can do a loop from La Daurade through St Pierre and up to St Cyprien.
If you like shopping, St Georges and Carmes districts will be your paradise! Finally, if you want to experience some typical french food, head to either Esquirol or Rue du Taur. There are many restaurants and bars serving Cassoulet, crepes and duck confit!
When is the best time to visit Toulouse?
Toulouse is situated in the South of France which means that it can get quite hot during summer so the best time to go would be May, June or September. You should get very nice and pleasant weather and avoid the worst of the crowds.
Cannes- the famous French city of Glamour!
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Cannes is often referred to as ‘The city of glamour’ and is one of the most memorable cities to visit in France. Not just for the International Film Festival, which sees world-known stars walk the red carpets of Cannes every year in May, but for the beauty of the place.
When is the best time to visit Cannes?
Cannes can be visited from spring to late autumn – even though if you come here for the full-on sun, you have to do so in summer. Avoid May if you want to stay away from crowds and elevated prices for the Film Festival.
Cannes can be easily visited on a day trip from Nice. It’s only 30 kilometres away and, if you want to do it in true Riviera style, rent a convertible or a scooter! I’d recommend the scooter since you can park it a lot easier. If coming by car, make use of one of the paid parking lots – try Parking Pantiero near the Old Port. There’s a direct train connection between Nice and Cannes too.
Ok, so it’s one of the top cities in France, but what is there to DO?
You definitely shouldn’t miss the Old Town – Le Suquet. Uniquely, it’s located on a hill, so as well as strolling through the old streets of Cannes, and perhaps tracing the oldest buildings, you can also admire views over the modern part of the city.
A waterfront avenue lined with palm trees called Promenade de la Croisette is a 3km long boulevard perfect for a proper Cannes walk, engaging in plenty of Art Nouveau architecture- and people-watching.
On the way, make sure to stop at the Old Harbor (Vieux Port). Like anywhere else on the French Riviera, this is the place to admire the luxury yachts. Here, though, they alternate with smaller, and less fancy, fishing boats.
The newer part of Cannes is equally pleasing. Even here the streets are rather small and winding. This part of town is full of restaurants, cafés and bars and offers a lively vibe.
Strasbourg- a beautiful city in France
Strasbourg is on the French- German border and, like Colmar, has changed hands many times throughout its history. That’s one of the things that gives this beautiful city its charm.
It’s made up of lots of little islands, caused by the river which flows through it. Grande Ile, the largest island is UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Best things to do in Strasbourg
There’s plenty to keep you busy, but some of the best things to do in Strasbourg include:
- Daily show of the astronomical clock at the Notre-Dame de Strasbourg Cathedral. You can also climb partway up the spire and enjoy incredible views of the Rhine River.
- Wander La Petite France- a historical area famous for its cobbled streets and quaint houses. Walk the nearby covered bridges too.
- Visit Place Kleber- the main square of the town
- See the Palais Rohan
When is the best time to visit Strasbourg?
Out of high season is always a good option but, if you possibly can, you need to visit Strasbourg in December. Strasbourg has one of the biggest Christmas markets in Europe and seeing the city at this time of year is just magical. It’s a fantastic mix of French and German influences, so you get the best of both worlds!
Lille- one of the top cities to visit in France
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The pretty city of Lille is a wonderful place to visit in France. The capital of the Hauts-de-France region, there are lots of things to do in Lille from world-class museums and world heritage sites.
When should you visit Lille?
What Lille is best known for, however, is its markets. Home to the largest Christmas market in Northern France, Lille is the place to come during the festive period. The market spans the month of December when over 90 wooden chalets take over Place Rihour selling Christmas gifts and festive food.
But it’s not just Christmas that Lille does well, the city is also home to the largest flea market in Europe. La Grande Braderie de Lille takes place annually on the first weekend of September and attracts more than two million people. This enormous antiques, flea and bric-a-brac street market dates back to medieval times and today attracts more than two million people for the 48-hour event.
What else is there to see in Lille?
Make sure to spend some time touring ‘Vieux Lille’ when you’re here. The ‘old’ part of the city is incredibly pretty, filled with cobbled streets and colourful houses. The buildings painted red and yellow date back to Spanish rule. The best way to explore this part of the city is on a tour with Tradi’Balade who run tours in colourful open-top 2CV tours.
It may be a top city in France, but what about the FOOD?
Once you’ve seen the sights treat yourself to some traditional pastries. The patisserie, Aux Merveilleux de Fred, is home to ‘Les Petits Merveilleux’, roughly translated as “the little marvels”. These cakes consist of a sandwich of two meringues with whipped cream in the middle, which is then covered in more whipped cream and topped with flavours such as chocolate shavings or nuts. There’s usually a long line out the door but the wait is worth it!
Lyon- a top French city outside of Paris
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Why is Lyon food so famous?
Why is Lyon one of the best cities to visit in France?
When is the best time to visit Lyon?
Pau- one of the cheapest cities in France
Pau is a wonderful French city that, in my opinion, is one of the most underestimated cities in France. Not many people outside of France have heard of Pau, which is a shame because it is truly a stunning city.
Pau is located just 80 km away from the Spanish border and it’s also not far away from Biarritz and a famous hiking route in Gavarnie. You can perfectly well combine a trip to Pau with hiking in Gavarnie or with swimming in Biarritz if you’re visiting in summer. Or you can visit it on 3-day Nouvelle Aquitaine road trip
So why is Pau worth visiting?
Pau is a small city off the beaten path in France; its population is only about 80,000 people. What Pau is most famous for is the beautiful Chateau de Pau or Pau Castle that is also the birthplace of Henry IV of France.
You can enjoy stunning views over the Pyrenees, wander around the pretty streets, visit Pau castle, treat yourself to a delicious lunch in one of the restaurants (try Le Canard Royal or Cotes & Mer), or walk the entire Boulevard des Pyrenees and enjoy the sunset!
You’re also really close to the famous Cirque de Gavarnie– a must-visit destination in the Pyrenees and home to Europe’s second-highest waterfall!
When is the best time to visit Pau?
It gets very warm in summer, so make sure to bring light clothes and comfortable shoes! We recommend spending a day or two maximum here, but you can easily see the highlights in half a day if you want. It can get cold in winter, definitely not one of the warmest places in Europe to visit in February, so anytime from Spring to Autumn works best.
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Oh, go on then. You’ve already discovered 10 incredible cities to enjoy that aren’t Paris but, let’s face it, Paris is an amazing city. There is a reason there are so many movies and books set in France which are based here- it’s magical. Here’s a quick guide on why you should add it to your top France cities to visit.
The city is a series of incredible attractions; bursting with unique experiences & things to do. It’s romantic, but – despite what you may think – in a subtle way; you can easily travel here solo and enjoy yourself.
What are the best things to do in Paris?
Highlights of Paris include:
- climbing the Eiffel Tower, the symbol of the city, a crowded attraction for which you will need to purchase skip the line tickets.
- visiting at least the most important museums such as the Louvre and Orsay.
- climbing Montparnasse Tower – in and of itself, it probably is the ugliest building in the city, but the views from there are stunning, even more so because when you are on it, you don’t get to see it!
- Climb up the Arc de Triomphe, another place for incredible views.
- Areas like Marais and Montmartre are best enjoyed on a walk. The first one is the nicest area of Paris, with a fabulous local feel, lovely small cafés and bars and an incredible atmosphere. Montmartre is Paris artistic heart – that’s where artists such as Van Gogh used to live.
Last but definitely not least, make sure to factor in an extra day for a day trip to the historical palace of Versailles, where the French royal family used to live until the French Revolution in 1789.
You can never stay too long in this city, but in general, 5 days in Paris will keep you busy and you won’t have time to get bored.
TOP TIP: Paris is served by 3 airports – Charles de Gaulle, Orly and Beauvais. The first one is the main airport and well connected to the city by public transportation; Orly is not a bad option, but Beauvais is about an hour north of Paris and a pain to get to unless you have a car.
When is the best time to visit Paris?
Try to avoid the middle of summer. December is magical when everything is decorated for Christmas, but our favourite time to visit Paris is Autumn- when the leaves are changing colour. It’s beautiful against the stone buildings. (Here are some more great ideas for places to visit in Autumn in Europe.)
So there you have it- 10 of the best cities to visit in France, plus Paris. I hope it’s helped narrow down your choices. Let us know where you end up!
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Kat never planned to buy a motorhome. She also never planned to quit her job as an air traffic controller, go touring around Europe in said motorhome, start one of the UK’s largest motorhome travel websites… or get a cocker spaniel.
If you’d like to connect with Kat, send her an email or follow her adventures on social media.