It must be hard being a small town in a country that’s home to one of the most iconic cities in the world. But while Paris gets all the attention (and most of the tourists), clever travelers — both French and foreign — plan excursions to some of the country’s lesser-known destinations, many of them small towns.
In these quaint French spots, travelers exchange the bustle of the city for wide-open beaches, mountain trails, medieval castles, and sprawling vineyards. From the French-German border to the Mediterranean coast to the mountainous intersection of France, Italy, and Switzerland, these small towns and villages (home to less than 15,000 people) are where you’ll want to go when you’re craving a slower pace and warm French hospitality.
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Sandwiched between Marseille and Toulon in southern France lies the tiny town of Cassis, which often gets overlooked for other glitzier coastal destinations (here’s looking at you, Saint-Tropez). But what some people miss is a beautiful fishing port that’s lined with steep, limestone cliffs and carpeted with pebbly beaches. The town itself showcases a palette of pastel-colored buildings and a great selection of sidewalk cafes that are ideal for people-watching.
Sitting on the French side of the French-Spanish border, Saint-Jean-de-Luz has a distinct Basque feel. Fishing boats line the harbor while the beach scene attracts surfers who come to play in the breaks at Plage de Lafitenia and Belharra.
Sitting just south of Colmar near the French-German border, Eguisheim is a medieval village that’s home to half-timbered houses, narrow streets, and castles that date back to the Middle Ages. If Eguisheim’s historic architecture and buildings aren’t enough to lure you for a visit, the Alsace Wine Route, which the destination is part of, might.
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With a name that’s oh-so-French, Vogüé is situated right on the Ardèche river near the beautiful Parque Natural Regional de los Montes de Ardecha. The village is as picturesque as it gets, with cobblestone streets, a medieval castle, and limestone cliffs that seem to shoot straight out of the water. (Bonus: If you happen to visit during the fall, you might catch the harvesting of chestnuts, a popular product in the region.)
Île de Porquerolles
From the city of Toulon, you can hop on a ferry that drops you off in Porquerolles, the largest of the three Hyères Islands (Îles d’Hyères). The beaches in Porquerolles are unbelievably smooth, the snorkeling superb, and the views stunning — the island is located just off the French Riviera.
Built into a rocky outcropping that’s part of the Alpilles mountain chain, the setting of Les Baux-de-Provence is rugged and wildly impressive. It takes just a few days to discover fields brimming with lavender (usually mid-June to mid-July) and the Carrières de Lumières, a former quarry that now features works of art projected onto the underground cave walls and accompanied with music.
Arcachon is set inside the protected Arcachon Bay, not far from the wine-rich city of Bordeaux. And while the sea is one of the town’s main draws (it’s also known for its oysters), you’ll find a natural sand dune, beautiful 19th-century villas, and a beachfront promenade full of walkers and bikers, too.
Outside Grenoble, near the border of Italy and Switzerland, is the beautiful mountain town of Villard-de-Lans. In the winter, people come to ski the snowy slopes, while the summer offers plentiful hiking and the area’s finest fare (don’t miss a visit to the twice-weekly farmers market).
This tiny town, located right on the French-German border, made a name for itself when a French TV show named it the “most beloved” village in France according to a local poll. Inside the town limits, you’ll find historic timber houses, nearby vineyards, and a feel that showcases the best of France and Germany.
Unlike many of the small towns on this list, chances are you’ve heard of Chamonix (or Chamonix-Mont-Blanc), a town that’s known for having some of the best skiing in Europe and a location at the base of Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in the Alps. The town is situated near the junction of France, Switzerland, and Italy, making day trips to other European countries a breeze.