As the top tourist destination in the world, France offers a plethora of gorgeous towns and village to visit. No matter which region of the country you plan to spend time in, you'll find an abundance of lovely towns and villages that will take your breath away with their natural beauty and quaint town centres. France's most well-known towns and villages are busy year round as tourists flock to discover their charms for themselves, but venture off the tourist track a little and you may find your own hidden delight.
I've chosen five special places to visit in France that are off the beaten path. They may not be as well known to Australians as some other French towns and villages but I'd return to each of them in a heartbeat.
I’ve previously written about Yvoire and although I have only visited the town once (and very briefly at that), I still rate it as one of the prettiest places I have visited in France.
There’s no doubt that my arrival by paddle steamer from Geneva may have had something to do with my instant affection for the town. First impressions do count and as soon as the boat had pulled into the dock, I could see this was one very special place.
Classified as one of France’s most beautiful villages and nicknamed ‘The French Flower Village’, it was clear to see that the residents take great pride in their town. On my summer visit, an abundance of colourful flowers spilled out of the window boxes of the medieval buildings that line Yvoire’s streets and tourists licked ice creams as they meandered amongst the boutiques and art galleries.
I would have loved to have had the time to sip a coffee at one of the lakeside cafes whilst watching Lake Geneva lap at the shores. It wasn’t to be – but one day I will.
Why I love Yvoire
Flowers, flowers, flowers – need I say more?! And of course, the pretty stone buildings and lakeside location are an added bonus.
Location: 27 km NE of Geneva, 580 km SE of Paris
It was quite by chance that I stumbled across the seaside resort of Cabourg in Normandy. After a day of sightseeing in Bayeux we were headed back to our accommodation in Honfleur when the hunger pains set in and a stop was called for. Taking the next exit off the motorway, we found ourselves in the town of Cabourg on a busy Sunday night and we instantly nominated it as a place we’d happily return to.
Situated on the Norman coast of the English Channel, the town is a popular summer destination for both Parisians and the English. The narrow main street is lined with all manner of cafés, restaurants and shops, but all with a down-to-earth ‘beachy’ feel. There’s a casino, the Belle Epoque Grand Hotel, and plenty of other attractions nearby but it’s the four kilometre-long, wide, sandy beach that attracts the summer crowds.
Why I love Cabourg
A town with a real buzz to it yet with a relaxed atmosphere, there is lots to do for all ages.
Location: 218 km NW of Paris
Widely regarded as one of France’s most beautiful villages, and classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a visit to St.-Guilhem-le-Desert was one I was looking forward to very much.
Famous for its 11th Century Abbey of Gellone around which the town is built, a tidier and more beautiful hamlet you’ll be hard pressed to visit. Wandering the narrow, winding alleyways lined with medieval houses, it struck me that this was one place where the pride of the residents could not be doubted.
After browsing the boutiques, ice creameries and creperies, we strolled down to the River Verdus where canoeing and rafting are popular.
At the heart of the village, alongside the Abbey church, is the town square, Place de la Liberte, dominated by a massive plane tree. After strolling the town’s lovely streets and admiring the centuries-old beauty, it was the perfect place to sit and watch the world go by and dream about living in such paradise.
Why I love St-Guilhem-le-Desert
The flower-decked, honey-coloured buildings and narrow streets make this a picture-perfect village.
Location: 45 km NW of Montpellier, 730 km S of Paris
Regarded as Burgundy’s most authentic medieval village, Brancion is small in size but it oozes charm. Built on a hilltop overlooking beautiful vine-clad slopes, a picturesque winding road leads you to the town which you enter via the Castle’s archway.
A tour of the castle, which is believed to date back to the 5th Century, gives you a glimpse of what life was like in years gone by whilst a climb up the tower rewards you with stunning views of both the village and the lush countryside below.
From the castle, a cobblestone street leads you through the village, past the 15th Century covered market and medieval houses to the tiny Romanesque Church of St. Pierre. The church may look unremarkable from the outside but step inside and you’ll find magnificent 14th Century frescoes.
Why I love Brancion
A quaint village that allows you to step back in time with great views to boot!
Location: 378 km SE of Paris
If you’re visiting the famous Cite de Carcassonne in France’s south, it’s worth the time to take a side trip to Mirepoix, about 48 kilometres away.
Medieval, half-timbered houses are the feature of Mirepoix. Built around the town square, the houses are supported by wooden pillars which create a covered arcade and just walking along the arcades you can almost imagine yourself back in medieval times. Many of the towns houses feature carved sculptures, the most ornate being the Maison des Consuls (now a hotel), which is decorated with nearly 150 carved heads.
On the south side of the town square you’ll find the 19th Century market, built of wrought iron, whilst the Cathedral of St. Maurice dates back to the 1300’s. For a modern take on Mirepoix, browse the myriad shops surrounding the square or dine on local specialities at a café underneath the medieval arcade.
Why I love Mirepoix
The lovely colourful half-timbered houses built around the town square transport you back to medieval times.
Location: 90 km SE of Toulouse, 768 km S of Paris
Have you visited any of my special places in France that are off the beaten path? Perhaps you have your own special place in France to share in the comments below.
Planning a visit to France? My other articles about France might be useful.