The most visited country in the world, France is an undisputed jewel of Europe, home to centuries of history, culture, fine cuisine, music, fashion and unforgettable natural wonders. While its capital Paris is renowned the world over, the small towns of France have their own beauty and charm that will surely satisfy any visitor. From stunning hillside views, majestic examples of human architecture and an abundance of the best of local French cuisine, France’s small towns offer everyone a unique and beautiful experience of France. This article takes a look at the ten small towns in France to visit for a memorable summer vacation.
Well known for the Bayeux Tapestry, an embroidered medieval cloth from 1066, Bayeux is a beautiful town in the famous Normandy region. Due to its geographical location, during the Second World War, it was among the first French cities liberated by the Allied forces in 1944, and today offers its inhabitants and visitors a mixture of ancient and modern history. Tourists will marvel at Bayeux Cathedral (consecrated in 1077), which dominates the local skyline while a visit to the Jardin Botanique de Bayeux (a 3-hectare botanical space) created in the 1860s gives any passer-by an atmospheric serene. On the way there, a stop at the military cemetery in Bayeux will provide a moving experience for everyone, with nearly 5,000 burials. The cemetery poignantly honors the memory of all those who lost the cruelty of war.
Elected like France “favorite village” in the television program Favorite village of the French, Hunspach is a pretty little town in the Alsace region, near the country’s border with Germany. Famous for its wooden houses lined with flower boxes, this village may have a population of just 632 but is filled with picturesque postcard images. Mix leisurely strolls through its main streets, friendly locals and an excellent selection of tavernas and restaurants, and any stay in Hunspach is sure to be the highlight of a road trip through France.
Just a 30 minute drive from France’s second largest city, Marseille, Cassis is a small coastal town on the famous French Riviera. Although often overlooked by other similar destinations like Saint-Tropez and Nice, Cassis offers the same beauty with a noticeably quieter atmosphere. A beautiful fishing port surrounded by pebble beaches and steep limestone cliffs, the views in Cassis are second to none. Add to that beautifully colored buildings, a great selection of restaurants and cafes and, of course, the warm Mediterranean sunshine, Cassis is the perfect place to enjoy the South of France in a less crowded centre. And of course, no visitor will want to miss a glass of the famous Cassis wine!
Another small village near the German border, when visiting Eguisheim tourists will experience a vivid taste of medieval history. Filled with narrow cobbled streets, wooden houses and stone buildings, all with roots in the Middle Ages, Eguisheim is a most fascinating pit stop for those in the Grand Est region. The town is also famous for being a stage on the famous Alsace Wine Route, a long road of about 170 kilometers which crosses the main wine vineyards of the region. But when they’re not marveling at medieval history or savoring premium wine, visitors can also take advantage of an assortment of hiking and biking trails around the town, which include sights such as Château Hagueneck and Pflixbourg.
The Baux de Provence
Located in the Alpilles of southern France, Les Baux-de-Provence has often been called one of the most beautiful villages in the country. It sees more than a million visitors go through it each year, even if the permanent population is just under 400 inhabitants! But it’s not hard to see why so many flock to this common; Stunning fields filled with lavender are a staple of the summer months, while several vineyards and olive oil producers call the town home. Les Baux-de-Provence is definitely the place to be for some of the best local French cuisine delights. Meanwhile, art lovers will surely enjoy the Carrières de Lumières, a former quarry that now houses a variety of works of art projected onto the walls of underground caves! Add some beautiful French music in the background and it’s a truly fantastic experience.
The site of the first Winter Olympics, Chamonix (or Chamonix Mont Blanc), is famous for having one of the best ski areas in Europe. Located immediately north of Mont Blanc, the highest peak in the Alps, the town of Chamonix is also a stone’s throw from the Italian and Swiss borders, making day trips to these countries one of the most popular excursions. Non-skiing visitors, however, will be able to take in all the alpine beauty of the area, especially with a cable car ride. Take a ride to the top of the Aiguille du Midi at nearly 4,000 meters above sea level for views of the mountains and valleys that will create incredible memories and photos!
Located on the banks of the Ardèche, Vogue has barely 1,100 inhabitants, but its small size is deceptive. A quaint village that features a medieval castle, wooden buildings, cobbled streets and, of course, charming little cafes and bars, Vogue lives up to its fashionable name! Surrounded by exquisite limestone cliffs that seem to rise out of the water, the town is also next to the Parque Natural Regional de Los Montes de Ardeche. A beautiful nature reserve with hiking trails, rolling pastures and on-site accommodation, a stay in this small French village will not disappoint.
Island of Porquerolles
The largest of the four Hyères islands off the coast of southern France, the island of Porquerolles, is a short ferry ride from the city of Toulon. Stunning views, clear waters, sandy beaches and warm sunshine make it a very popular destination for visitors to the French Riviera. Host to an annual summer jazz festival, much of the island is part of Port-Cros National Park, which provides protection for the French state from overdevelopment. Some 500 acres of vineyards exist on the island, which was first planted in 1912, allowing visitors to once again taste the famous southern French wine in a beautiful setting.
An hour’s drive from the city of Bordeaux, Arcachon is located inside the basin of the same name on the Atlantic Ocean. Its mild climate has long been sought after by people with lung ailments, and the sandy beaches and ocean breezes make it a most enjoyable excursion. Arcachon is also known for its local oysters, which make for great seafood in the town’s main square. While enjoying this excellent cuisine, any tourist can also relax and admire the view of attractive 19th century buildings and villas, a seaside promenade and an assortment of local artists and artisans. A glass of Bordeaux wine is sure to top off any visit to this charming coastal town.
One of France’s most popular seaside resorts, Biarritz, is centered on the Bay of Biscay, just 35km from the Spanish border. Once a small fishing port, Biarritz became a popular summer retreat after Emperor Napoleon III built a lavish villa (Hotel du Palais) there in the 1850s. Biarritz was a hotspot for European royalty throughout throughout the 19th and 20th centuries and up to the present day, while gradually becoming a place of exciting nightlife, cuisine and art. Casinos, world-class surfing beaches and an array of museums celebrating local history, Biarritz is a true vacation wonder. Warm sunshine, breathtaking ocean views and a sea of culture will surround any visitor who comes to the shores of Biarritz, no matter how long they stay.
France is one of the most culturally rich nations in Europe, matched only by geographic vastness and natural wonders. Although its main cities continue to attract the majority of visitors, a trip through the country’s smaller towns reveals a charming side to French society and history that can be easily overlooked in large urban centers.