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Our Top 5 Best Cities in France

By alison - March 26, 2013 (Updated: March 4, 2016)

5 Cities you must visit in France that aren't Paris

We’ve spent many a road trip, exploring our neighbour to the south. While we’ve fallen in love with Paris, and soaked up the sun on the French Riviera, our favourite French destinations aren’t the typical first stops on the tourist trail. Today we share how we fell in love with our top five cities in France, to inspire your own French holiday.

Avignon

A long-weekend road trip to Avignon was our first big holiday, after moving to Belgium, and our first introduction to Provence. It was a hot, late summer weekend, but everything about it was magical. The sun was golden; the stone houses were golden; even the air smelled like the golden summer sun. The days seemed elongated compared to our busy Belgian days. Everything slowed down, including us.

We spent our days exploring different sites around Provence and taking long, wine-soaked lunches in the shade. In the evening, we wandered the nearly deserted streets of Avignon, emptied after the tour buses pulled away for the day. We found small, cozy restaurants, filled with locals, and ate until we could barely waddle back to our hotel. In short, it was the perfect long-weekend getaway.

The Golden city of Avignon

The Golden city of Avignon

Since then, Avignon has come to represent Provence to me. We’ve returned numerous times and hope to return again. We recently featured Avignon in our CheeseWeb Escapes Ezine and wrote in detail about our favourite places to eat, stay, shop and visit in the city. (Sign up for free to gain access to the Ezine archives.)

La Rochelle

Avignon may have been the first city in France we fell in love with, but La Rochelle was the most recent and most surprising for us. In fact, we didn’t choose to go there. We were invited to the wedding of dear friends, who we met in Brussels, in the neighbouring city of Rochefort. After the wedding festivities, Andrew and I decided to spend a day exploring La Rochelle and we’re so glad we did.

We spent the day wandering the streets of this coastal city, on the Bay of Biscay. It was a revelation to be back on the Atlantic Coast (albeit the opposite side from where we grew up). Walking along the Vieux Port, the heart of the city, I looked at Andrew and said, “I could live here.” I probably said it a dozen more times during the afternoon and each time he agreed.

La Rochelle's Vieux Port

La Rochelle’s Vieux Port – Yes, we could live here.

After exploring the old town, and filling our bags with gourmet seafood treats, from La Belle-Iloise, we headed to the opposite side of the harbour. Here, the ancient gives way to the uber-modern, and we found ourselves looking longingly at for-rent signs.

There’s plenty to do in La Rochelle: museums, galleries, an aquarium, shopping. But the truth is we did none of it. We were just too busy falling in love with this city by the sea.

Pau

Speaking of cities we could live in, Pau, in southwest France, is near the top of our list. Like La Rochelle, Pau is a city we discovered by accident. We stopped overnight to visit some family friends and began a relationship with the city and new friends that would eventually lead us to Wales.

If you’ve been following CheeseWeb for a while, you may remember our many visits to La Benjamine. We returned time and again to the hospitality of our friends Dawn and Cedric. We followed them when they moved to Herefordshire and opened the equally stunning Holling Grange Cottages and were able to fall in love with a whole new region.

But back to Pau. It’s a small but character-filled city, perched on a rock, overlooking a stunning valley. There are excellent restaurants, curious little shops and the marvelous Pau Market. Oh, and, of course, there is a castle.

Pau, France

Pau, France: Castle – check. Stunning mountains nearby – check. Gorgeous vineyards – check. Heavenly – check!

Drive a little over an hour from the city and you’re smack in the middle of the Pyrenees, and some of the most stunning mountain scenery anywhere. Drive a little further and you’re on the coast, with a choice of eating foie-gras in Bayonne or tapas in San Sebastian. Surrounding Pau are rolling fields of vineyards producing the sweet, local Jurancon wine (which I’ve been lucky enough to photograph). Yes, we could easily live here too.

St. Emilion

Like La Rochelle, we had a mere taste of what St. Emilion has to offer, but we sure liked what we tasted. With a population of a little over 2000, St. Emilion is not actually a city. It’s barely a village. But it’s a village utterly dedicated to the production and consumption of wonderful wines – in other words, our kind of place.

We stopped in St. Emilion to meet with friends for lunch and were thoroughly enchanted. From the top of the town, it feels as if the vineyards stretch to the ends of the earth. The earliest vines were planted here by the Romans, in the second century. We figure they know a thing or two about winemaking in these parts.

St. Emilion

St. Emilion is picturesque personified (er, village-ified?)
St. Emilion Grand Cru

And we figure they know a little bit about wine too…

St. Emilion dates from prehistoric times and the village is as picturesque as its surroundings. It’s been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site, and wandering through the narrow alleyways, you can see why. A long lunch, paired with the rich local red wines, in a cozy square, under the shade of ancient trees, is the perfect way to pass an afternoon here. That’s exactly what we did. Santé!

Strasbourg

All of our favourite French cities are different, but Strasbourg is probably the most unique of them all. The capital of Alsace, Strasbourg shows its German roots as much as it’s distinctly French culture. We fell in love with Strasbourg on yet another long-weekend road trip; so much so, that it too was featured in an issue of CheeseWeb Escapes.

Everything about Strasbourg, and indeed Alsace in general, is distinct: the food, the wines, the architecture and it couldn’t have been more inviting. How could I not fall utterly in love with a city that boasts an all cheese restaurant?

Strasbourg

Strasbourg – Half German, half French, all wonderful.

UNESCO gave Strasbourg’s Grand Ile the nod, as well, and wandering through the timber-framed buildings, you can understand why. But Strasburg isn’t one of those too-quaint cities which feel preserved under glass. It’s a bustling, living city, filled with people who are proud to be there. We were pretty happy to be there too.

France is a huge country, filled with unique and vibrant cities with distinct cultures and traditions. So far, we’ve fallen in love with these five cities, but we’re sure there are more just waiting to be discovered. We hope we’ve tempted you to travel to some of the lesser-known cities of France. Do you have a favourite French city? Tell us about it in the comments below.

Love castles, palaces, and ruins like in this article? Us too! Don’t miss the full listing of Castles we’ve visited in Europe and beyond.

5 Cities you must visit in France that aren't Paris

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Alison

Alison

Big Cheese at CheeseWeb
Alison Cornford-Matheson is a Canadian freelance writer and travel photographer and the founder of Cheeseweb.eu. She is the author of The Foodie Guide to Brussels: Local Tips for Restaurants, Shops, Hotels, and Activities. Alison landed in Belgium in 2005 and, over the years, has become passionate about slow and sustainable travel, in Europe and beyond. She loves to discover hidden gems - be they museums, shops, restaurants, castles, gardens or landscapes, and share them through her words and photos. She has visited 45 countries and is currently slow travelling through North America in an RV, with her husband, Andrew, and two well-travelled cats. You can also follow her work on Google+
Alison
Cheese + Goats = My personal heaven. We discover an oasis in the cheese desert. https://t.co/Os8U86UEiX - 3 hours ago

12 comments

  1. Comment by Annie

    Annie March 26, 2013 at 11:40

    We looove Strasbourg! It definitely deserves it’s spot in the top five! I’m excited to check out these other cities..

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison

      Alison March 26, 2013 at 11:45

      We do too Annie! We’re sorry it took us so long to get there and we hope to go back again soon!

  2. Comment by Amy

    Amy March 26, 2013 at 14:17

    A very good list! I agree that La Rochelle is very livable. Now I’ve just got to get to Pau and the Pyrenees…

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison March 26, 2013 at 14:46

      Thanks for being the catalyst for us finally discovering La Rochelle! And yes, you guys would love Paul and the mountains.

  3. Comment by Tom Miller

    Tom Miller March 27, 2013 at 07:26

    La Rochelle is splendid especially with the lovely port. I would love to see myself strolling along the streets and riding the boats. Great List!

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison

      Alison March 27, 2013 at 15:14

      We wholeheartedly agree Tom!

  4. Comment by Dominique

    Dominique March 27, 2013 at 23:38

    If you’re looking for a bit more to explore I would recommend a stroll along “Les Vaches Noires” between Houlgate and Villiers sur mer (start in Houlgate) The beach and cliffs are packed with fossils. Houlgate also has a unique architecture.

    Le Tréport is also a beautiful place to stop. This is a good area for oysters , fruits de mer and lobster.

    In fact , the best thing you can do is take the E40 (A16 in france) and follow it down the coast spending a single night in a few of the bigger villages along the coast between Le Crotoy and Cabourg.

    http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Falaises_des_Vaches_Noires
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J2lek0PHPZM

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison

      Alison March 28, 2013 at 09:06

      Sounds lovely! We always enjoy coastal areas.

  5. Comment by Dominique

    Dominique March 28, 2013 at 07:02

    Something unrelated to this but at the same time very related to travelling in general…

    I for one am waiting impatiently for the general availability of driverless cars. I will be one of the first to buy one of those things. Technology wise those things are 99% ready to go. We are now in the “Politics” phase of this technology.

    Being able to step in my ugly, slow, comfortable vehicle at midnight , go to sleep on the bed in the back, and wake up anywhere between the Alps and Denmark the next morning would be paradise.

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison

      Alison March 28, 2013 at 09:07

      We actually both enjoy road-trips (Andrew loves to drive and I like to navigate) but I’d be up for someone inventing teleportation so I don’t have to deal with airline travel… I think your dream will come true before mine though 🙂

  6. Comment by CATHY

    CATHY March 28, 2013 at 10:59

    Hi Alison
    I SO ENJOY your blog and all of your beautiful photos as I am missing my beloved Brussels and travels through Europe. But enjoying living and exploring Asia! It is a bit more of an adventure traveling through Asia – which you will soon see! Cheers – Cathy (new blog name same blog: thextrasuitcase.com) Happy Travels!

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison

      Alison March 28, 2013 at 11:08

      Hi Cathy! We miss you in Belgium too! We’re very excited to explore Asia. It’s a short trip but hopefully it’s just the beginning!

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