While most tourists associate visiting France with sightseeing in Paris, the country has much more to offer than its romantic capital. One of the particularities of the French territory is its numerous small towns: there are no less than 36,000! Each of them is anchored in the architecture and traditions of its region, thus contributing to its unique charm.
At Best of France, we do not want you to miss out on these little gems. That is why we prepared a curated list of charming small towns worth a visit during your French getaway.
Colmar, Grand Est
Located in Alsace, the region bordering Germany, the charm of Colmar lies in its unique architecture and streets reflecting both French and German influences. Its traditional half-timbered framed houses come in a variety of colours, hence creating a picture-perfect background for souvenir photos. The town is beautifully decorated with flowers, especially geraniums. You can admire them on the balconies and all along the shores of the Lauch river. This dedication to flower displays led Colmar to earn the national distinction of "Ville Fleurie"(Flowering City).
Tourists can enjoy wandering around the pedestrian streets of the historical center, in particular Rue de la Poissonnerie and Quartier des Tanneurs. Other options include visiting the Unterlinden Art Gallery or embarking on a boat tour around the canal in the neighbourhood known as the "Little Venice."
Although the best way to discover Colmar is probably by foot, a miniature tourist train also offers sightseeing of the most iconic places of the old town in about 35 minutes. An excellent option for families with kids or travellers with limited mobility.
Coming to Colmar: Take the high-speed train between Paris and Colmar, running numerous times a day. The average duration of the trip is between 2 and 3 hours.
If you are looking for someplace atypical, look no further than the village of Rocamadour! Home to only a few hundred inhabitants, it is literally built onto and around a stone cliff, thus offering spectacular views over the Alzou canyon. Its chapel is a major pilgrimage destination as it features the statue of the Black Madonna, believed to be responsible for miracles.
The unusual nature of the location involves walking around narrow paved streets, sometimes turning into staircases. If you are not into medieval architecture or are travelling with kids, you can still enjoy a visit to the Rocher des Aigles, an ornithological park featuring many species and live shows. Another must-see attraction for animal lovers is the Forêt des Singes, a sanctuary for Barbary macaques roaming freely inside the park. There is something for everyone in Rocamadour!
Although the village might seem isolated and peaceful, it is an extremely popular tourist destination. We recommend avoiding the months of July and August if you want to stay away from the crowds and fully enjoy the charm of the breathtaking scenery.
Coming to Rocamadour: Take the high-speed train between Paris and Bordeaux. The average duration of the trip is 2 hours. Once in Bordeaux, rent a car and drive East for approximately 2h30.
How to resist the charm of the fortress town of Concarneau? This unique small town is located in one of the most beautiful bays in Brittany. Stop in one of the restaurants lined up in its cobbled side streets and try regional recipes like the iconic crêpes!
The main street, Rue Vauban, leads to a perfect spot up a tower offering views of the fishing port. Concarneau is indeed a major hub for fishers, with more than 200 boats lined up in the port and a traditional fish market every morning.
If you are more on the adventurous side, the fine sandy beaches and the marina close by are great options for water sports. Visiting with kids? Stop at the Marine Museum, the oldest marine station still in operation in the world. Various exhibitions enable parents and kids alike to discover the extraordinary biodiversity of the ocean. Concarneau is such a great place for tourists that it holds a prestigious label recognizing the quality of its facilities, housing options, and entertainment.
Coming to Concarneau: Take the high-speed train between Paris and Brest. The average duration of the trip is around 4 hours. Once in Brest, rent a car and drive South. You will reach Concarneau in about an hour while enjoying the beautiful scenery along the way.
A typical provencal village. This is the perfect definition for Bormes-les-Mimosas, a lovely destination located only a few kilometres inland from the Côte d'Azur. "Les Mimosas" was added to the name in 1968 to highlight the profusion of plants and flowers - especially mimosas - in the village.
The most interesting part for tourists is probably the medieval village up the hill, featuring provencal houses with characteristic pink and ochre tiles. Take a moment at the castle to enjoy spectacular views of the Mediterranean coast and the Hyères Islands on the horizon. Another interesting landmark around Bormes-les-Mimosas is the Fort the Brégançon, the official summer residence for French presidents. Located on the seafront in a peninsula, it sometimes opens to the public for guided tours.
Visiting Bormes-les-Mimosas is particularly recommended in February, as it is the season where mimosas are in flower. On the last weekend of February, a Flower festival attracts thousands of people. It features a parade of decorated floats perfuming the whole village in a festive atmosphere.
Coming to Bormes-les-Mimosas: Take the high-speed train between Paris and Toulon. The average duration of the trip is 4 hours. If you rent a car, a popular road trip in the region is to follow the Route-du-Mimosa, a 115-kilometre trip that starts from Bormes-les-Mimosas and follows a scenic route along the coast.
When you arrive in Vézelay, also known as the "eternal hill," you will be amazed by your surroundings. Renaissance houses and cobbled streets are perfectly preserved in this small village located in the heart of Burgundian vineyards.
The destination owes its reputation to its basilica, a masterpiece of Romanesque art. When faced with this monument, it comes as no surprise that it is listed as a World Heritage site by UNESCO. Pilgrims from all over Europe have been coming for the past 1,000 years to worship the relics of Saint Madeleine resting in the basilica. Vézelay is also the starting point of one of the four pilgrimage routes leading to Santiago de Compostela.
A place in Vézelay particularly worth a stop? The gardens surrounding the basilica. They offer unforgettable views of green plains, vineyards, and the mountains of Morvan.
Coming to Vézelay: Take the high-speed train between Paris and Dijon. The trip only lasts 1.5 hours. Dijon is known as a miniature of Paris, mainly because they both share the same architecture. On top of being a hub for gastronomy, it can also be the starting point for a road trip covering the Burgundian vineyards and stopping by Vézelay.
If you plan to enjoy a beach vacation while staying away from resorts and clubs, look no further than Sète! This Mediterranean town with direct access to beautiful beaches combines traditions, gastronomy, and a sunny climate.
The most iconic landmark of Sète is the Etang de Thau. It is the largest pond in the region, covering a surface of no less than 70 km²! Oysters and mussels are grown there following ancestral techniques. Sète is definitely the place to be if you are a gourmet appreciating seafood. Try traditional recipes such as the Tielle Sétoise, a pie filled with pulp, garlic, and parsley, or simply order a combo of mussels and french fries.
When coming to Sète, there are some places to put on your bucket list. First, take a walk along the canals. In August, the famous jousts tradition takes place: two opponents standing each on a boat, armed with a lance and a wooden shield, must bring each other into the water. This festive event will delight adults and children alike. Second, Mount Saint-Clair, dominating the city from the top of its 183 meters, offers a spectacular panorama of Sète and its surroundings. You can access it by walking or public transportation. Finally, stop at the Théâtre de la Mer. This military fortress near the entrance to the harbour has been converted into a venue for musical events. Enjoying a live performance while staring at the sea, what's not to like about that?
Coming to Sète: Take the high-speed train between Paris and Montpellier. The average duration of the trip is 3 hours. Then, another train brings you to Sète in about 15 minutes. The train station is conveniently located in the city center, no need for a car!
Less than two hours from Paris, it is in Normandy that you will find the small town of Gerberoy. Although it is home to only 100 inhabitants, it gained notoriety when obtaining the distinction of "most beautiful villages of France."
History could have been less beautiful for Gerberoy: its strategic situation at the border between the former kingdoms of France and England made it the place of many conflicts and led to its destruction on numerous occasions. From this period, only remains one of the walls of the castle.
It was not until the beginning of the 20th century that the painter Henri le Sidaner fell in love with the beauty of the place and became involved in its restoration. He created remarkable Italian gardens on the castle's ruins and gave a place of choice to flowers. In spring and summer, flowers abound. Climbing roses decorate the facades of half-timbered and brick houses, thus giving Gerberoy its nickname of "the city of roses."
Coming to Gerberoy: If you are in Paris, the easiest option is to rent a car and drive directly to Gerberoy. The trip only lasts about 1h30. You can then continue your road trip along the Northern Coast and maybe stop by Honfleur or Concarneau!
Located between Nice and Monaco, Èze is a village on the French Riviera famous for its stunning view over the Mediterranean Sea. The town splits into two parts: one constitutes the seafront (Èze-sur-Mer), while the other one, on top of the hill, features the medieval village (Èze Village).
Getting to the top is a challenging route but well worth the effort. Walking the narrow cobblestone streets will reward you with a viewpoint perched 429 meters above the Mediterranean. The panorama is one of the most exceptional on the Riviera, with views extending to the Esterel mountains and the Gulf of Saint Tropez. You will also notice a botanical garden featuring many cactus species, thus adding to the beauty of the place.
Coming to Èze: There are flights connecting Paris and Nice in about 1,5 hours. Then, we recommend a 25-minute breathtaking bus ride from Nice to Èze Village. Once in the village, you can hike downhill to the beach following the Nietzche path, which is more accessible than the other way around. However, if you are up to the challenge of climbing the hill, take the train between Nice and Èze-sur-Mer, which only lasts 10 minutes.
A few kilometres from the border with Spain is Saint-Jean-de-Luz, an authentic Basque town with a rich past. Once an important fishing port, it now established itself as a wellness destination thanks to its two thalassotherapy centers open all year round.
Life is particularly peaceful and relaxed in Saint-Jean-de-Luz. Its sandy beaches make it the perfect holiday destination, although it does get quite busy in summer. The pedestrian streets connecting the ocean to the historic center are filled with colourful houses. You can go shopping in Rue Gambetta, which features many high-quality artisanal products.
The town offers a variety of activities, local gourmet specialties, and impressive heritage. Did you know that Saint-Jean-de-Luz once held the wedding of Louis XIV and Maria Theresa? A square named after Louis XIV still celebrates this luxurious past. Stop at one of its restaurants and have something with hake, a local fish labelled for its quality and freshness. If you have a sweet tooth, try some ice cream at one of the trucks from Maison Lopez, in activity since 1924!
If there is one event not to miss in Saint-Jean-de-Luz, it is the Saint-Jean festivities. Every year at the end of June, locals gather dressed in black and red clothes and take part in various celebrations. Parades, concerts, bonfires, balls, and activities for children are on the agenda.
Coming to Saint-Jean-de-Luz: Take the high-speed train between Paris and Saint-Jean-de-Luz. The trip only lasts about 4 hours. The train station of Saint-Jean-de-Luz is conveniently located right in the city center, with no need for other transportation.
Situated at the estuary of the Seine, Honfleur is the ideal starting point to discover the treasures of Normandy. Its charming fishing port with colourful narrow houses makes it look like Copenhagen. Before the French Revolution, shipowners in Honfleur made their fortune from trading with North America. It was Samuel de Champlain, a French explorer, who headed off from Honfleur to found the Canadian city of Quebec in 1608.
There are many things to do in Honfleur. You can start by visiting the Sainte-Catherine church, a magnificent wooden building with a separate bell tower. This is one of the largest wooden churches in France. For those who love art, it is interesting to know that Claude Monet's mentor Eugène Boudin was born in the town. They would often paint side by side the beautiful landscapes around Honfleur. You can dive into the history of impressionism by visiting the Eugène-Boudin museum.
Visitors with kids can enjoy an afternoon at the NaturoSpace, a zoological museum featuring butterflies and birds in a tropical atmosphere. You can also wander around the public garden, the beach, or the charming streets of the historical center.
Coming to Honfleur: The easiest way to reach Honfleur from Paris is by bus. The company Blablacar offers direct trips in 2h15. Another possibility is renting a car and going for a road trip on the beautiful Normandy coast.
France is home to a fabulous diversity of architecture, traditions and landscapes. These examples are only a few of the numerous charming places that you can encounter in France. During your trip, do not hesitate to stop at a tourism office to ask about the best attractions in the surroundings. Sometimes the most beautiful places are not the most tourist ones.
If you are more impressed by natural landmarks than city trips, you can also check this article. Our blog is the place to learn everything you need to know about France and plan your trip the best way possible!