France is a country so varied it caused former president Charles de Gaulles to exclaim, “How can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese?”. Besides being a cheese lover’s paradise, France has got a lot going for it. From historic port cities and medieval fortresses to jet-setting vibes and picturesque Old Towns, there is something to satisfy every type of traveler. Get inspired for your next voyage by taking a look at these top 10 cities in France.
1. The oldest city in France: Marseille
Being France’s second-largest city, Marseille’s reputation is much more gritty than that of its world-famous capital. For the longest time, Marseille was a place that tourists shied away from. In the past 10 years, however, a drive to rejuvenate the city through regeneration projects has encouraged more visitors to admire this diversely beautiful city on the French Riviera.
A journey to the city’s iconic Le Vieux-Port is a good start to any Marseille visit. If you stroll down the dock in the morning (between 08.00 – 11.00) you’ll come across the lively fish market where the wares come straight off the boat.
For some of the best seaside vistas, walk along La Corniche, a lavish seaside promenade. You may feel a tinge of envy as you pass by the luxury villas which line the walkway.
One of the islands you’ll spot on your walk is If, home to the famous Chateau d’If which was featured in the novel and subsequent movie adaptations of The Count of Monte Cristo. Catch a boat to the island and hike to it’s highest plateaus to take in the stunning views it offers of the Marseille coast while learning about the rich history of its former prison.
When you’re back down at sea-level, don’t miss the stunning MuCEM – Museum of Civilizations of Europe and the Mediterranean. This is not only an architecturally gorgeous building, but it also houses one of the most extensive collections of Mediterranean art and culture anywhere in the world.
To get a taste of the trendiest part of Marseille, head to Cours Julien (only a ten-minute walk from Le Vieux-Port) and enjoy the street art, cool independent shops, music venues, and bars that give the neighborhood its vibrant atmosphere.
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Like any proud port city, Marseille is known for its seafood. The most famous Marseille dish is Bouillabaisse, a traditional fish stew. According to local connoisseurs, there are lots of ‘fake’ Bouillabaisse soups around. Anything below €50 is considered an ordinary fish soup, so get ready to dig deep into your wallet if you want to taste the real thing.
If fish isn’t your thing, or you’d rather spend less of your dimes on dinner, there are plenty of alternatives. The city’s Spanish, Italian, and North African influences make for a rich cuisine selection. Head to the ‘belly of Marseille‘, the Noailles neighborhood, to get a taste of Marseille’s diverse flavors.
2. The city for wine lovers: Bordeaux
One of the things you’ll find out when in Bordeaux is that there are so many ways to learn about wine. You could, for example, take a wine walking tour, visit a wine museum, or sample wine on a yacht. But if none of those things float your boat, there’s still plenty to discover in one of the most historic cities in France.
A good start is taking a stroll along Les quais de Bordeaux on the left bank of the Garonne. Feast your eyes on the lawns, parks, gardens, and numerous historic buildings that line the quay.
Make a stop at the Miroir d’Eau, a spectacular pool that, as the name suggests, creates a mirror effect. It’s made especially impressive by the 18th-century facades surrounding it. This is the most-photographed site in Bordeaux, so make sure you and your fully-charged phone are ready for a long selfie-sesh.
Top of the list for wine aficionados when in Bordeaux should be La Cité du Vin. This museum, which opened in 2016, teaches you all about the history of wine while taking you on an immersive self-guided tour. With topics ranging from ‘humans and alcohol’ to the natural conditions that make for the perfect wine, you’ll find there is so much more to learn about wine than you ever thought possible.
There’s ten hours worth of audiovisual material to get through, so there’s a good chance you’ll be dying to get your hands on a glass of wine right after. The good news is the tour ends with a tasting at the Belvédère.
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Don’t forget to sample the local flavors while you’re in Bordeaux. The Bordelais are traditionally big meat lovers as well as wine enthusiasts, so naturally one of Bordeaux’s most famous dishes combines those two ingredients beautifully. Bordelaise sauce is made with red wine, shallots, butter (bien sûr!), and sauce demi-glace. It is traditionally served with grilled beef or steak.
For sweet-toothed travelers (and vegetarians), canelés are the way to go. These small pastries are baked with vanilla, rum, and cane sugar. A good canelé can be recognized by its darker color and distinct scent of rum and vanilla. Texture-wise, a true canelé is crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside. To be sure you get the real deal, go to one of the boutiques of La Toque Cuivree.
3. The city off the beaten track: Caen
Not to be confused with crowd-favorite Cannes, Caen is a small but delightful city in Normandy. It has a large and vibrant student population and a rich history, making it more than deserving of a place in the top 10 cities in France.
The city was founded by William the Conqueror in the 11th century and he left a significant imprint on the city. Several of the buildings built under his rule are still standing strong in this ancient city. Caen’s famous Mémorial de Caen is located on the soil where the Battle for Caen took place during WWII and today, it’s a vast museum exploring the history of Caen and the repercussions of war.
Caen Castle is one of the largest walled fortifications in Europe. This French monument was heavily damaged during WWII but has been restored to its medieval roots.
Inside the castle’s remnants, you’ll find Musée de Normandie, a museum exploring the history of the region, and the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Caen. The latter houses work by some of the greatest French artists of all time, and on sunny days, you can wander through the sculpture garden to admire statues by Auguste Rodin and Antoine Bourdelle.
One of the most popular parts of Caen is the Vaugueux neighborhood. This is the place to be if you’re looking to explore the bars and restaurants of the city. It’s also a charming area, with some of the houses dating back to the Middle Ages.
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The king of cheeses, Camembert, has its roots in Normandy and is a hit with fans of smelly cheese. The best Camembert is seriously funky and melts in your mouth – only for the most adventurous eaters!
4. The gastronomic capital of France: Lyon
Lyon is packed with great things to do. Whether you’re a history buff, foodie, or street-art fan, there’s something for everyone. The historic center is listed as a UNESCO Heritage Site thanks to its significant number of Renaissance buildings, while Roman remnants can also still be found. Bonus fact: Lyon has the largest number of concert halls and theaters per inhabitant than any other city in France.
The supercool Musée des Confluences is a must-see in Lyon. The museum tells the story of mankind and explores the history of life. It doesn’t shy away from asking confrontational questions about the destiny of humanity while showcasing the two million objects in its collections. You’ll walk out with your head buzzing having considered all of life’s big questions.
A visit to Lyon isn’t complete without a walk through the UNESCO-listed Vieux Lyon and Croix Rousse. Check out the cute shops and restaurants that line the streets and remember to look up every once in a while to admire the pretty architecture of the old buildings.
You might find a traboule on your way. Around 40 of these hidden passageways are open to the public, each marked with a small identifying seal. They say if you want to be a true Lyonnais you have to know your traboules, so why not start looking?
For a taste of local Lyonnais life, visit Le Mur des Canuts, one of the largest murals in Europe. It is painted in the trompe-l’oeil (trick the eye) style and depicts life in the Croix-Rousse neighborhood in which it’s located.
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Dubbed ‘the stomach of France’, you can’t really go wrong here if you’re a foodie. One of the reasons Lyon has received this prestigious title is because of Les Halles de Lyon – Paul Bocuse. This large covered market is home to over 48 vendors, ranging from butchers and bakers to chocolatiers and cheesemongers. Mondays are for oysters only, because every self-respecting French market has a day dedicated entirely to oysters.
Oenophiles will need to visit Lyon in November – make sure your trip coincides with Beaujolais Nouveau Day. Every year on the third Thursday of November, the Lyonnais celebrate the release for sale of Beaujolais nouveau – a special red wine made from Gamay grapes. Aside from wine, the festivities boast fireworks, music, and entertainment.
5. The most bicycle-friendly city in France: Strasbourg
Strasbourg was named the most cyclist-friendly city in France by the Federation of Bicycle Users (FUB) themselves. And honestly, what better way to explore a city than by bike? (Especially after all those Tarte flambées and Rieslings you’ll have been sampling).
Strasbourg is located in the Alsace region, which has alternated between French and German control over the centuries. The city is therefore neither French nor German, but truly Alsatian, a mix of the two. This can not only be spotted in the architecture but also tasted in the food, which marries the delicacy of French cuisine with hearty German comfort food.
Take a stroll through the Grande-Île, the historic center of Strasbourg. Together with Neustadt (New Town) this part of the city is recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. In the middle of the Grande-Île, you will find the Strasbourg Cathedral, an impressive masterpiece of Gothic architecture which you can visit for free.
Strasbourg is the official seat of the European Parliament, and you can visit the impressive and modern cylindrical structure the parliament is housed in with a guided tour.
The city is home to many museums, such as the exquisite Musée d’Art Moderne et Contemporain, but if you have to choose, make sure to put the Musée Alsacien at the top of your list. In fascinating detail, the museum brings to life the Alsace of old.
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You can’t leave Strasbourg without having been to at least one Winstub. These are family-owned restaurants specializing in wine. Here you’ll get the truest of true Alsatian cuisine.
A particularly tasty local treat is tarte flambée, or flammkuchen, which is a little like a pizza but made with a thin flatbread-like crust. One of the best places in town for tarte flambée is La Binchstub.
6. The coolest city in France: Lille
With 248 inhabitants per bar, an average population age of 34, and 60.2% of residents made up of singles, Lille is easily the coolest city in France. It sits on the border with Belgium, and Flemish influences remain both in the architecture and the food.
To start off your trip to Lille with a bird’s-eye view of the city, head to the Belfry of Lille. This 104-meter high tower offers stunning 360° views of Lille.
One of the buildings you’ll spot when you’re up there is La Vieille Bourse (the old stock exchange). This impressive bâtiment has a courtyard you can walk into to find booksellers selling a large range of second-hand books.
Only a short walk from the Bourse you’ll find the Palais des Beaux-Arts. This is one of the largest art museums in France and, like most things in Lille, it is surprisingly cheap. A € 7 ticket gets you in with an audio guide included. The collection is stunning and includes a great mix of masterpieces in different art forms.
Since you’re in the coolest city in France, so you have to check out the cultural heart of this place. Lille is home to some of the most cutting-edge cultural centers of France, so make sure to scroll through the listings of Lille3000 to find out which concerts, festivals, or other events are happening in the city during your visit. All that’s left is to do is to sample some French culture with a biere in hand.
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Lille might not be as famous for its cuisine as Lyon or Bordeaux, but there’s still plenty to satisfy a hearty eater. Lille’s number one local specialty is Le Welsh: brown bread, soaked in beer, topped with slices of pink ham, drenched in lots of melted cheese and flavored with mustard, then baked until golden. It’s best served with a giant side of fries and salad. Now doesn’t that sound delicious?
7. The pinkest city in France: Toulouse
This city might share its name with the orange-furred kitten in the brilliant Aristocats movie (and Ariana Grande’s pet), but that’s not all it’s got going for it. The city is dubbed the Pink City because of the terracotta brick that is used in many of its buildings, giving it a romantic pink-hued vibe. Besides that, Toulouse is packed with lots of history, art, and culture, so there’s plenty to do on a city trip.
Toulouse is the largest center for aerospace in all of Europe, so a visit to the city wouldn’t be complete without some space exploration. The Cité de l’Espace is an interactive science museum focused on space – a must, especially if you’re visiting with children. L’Envol des Pionniers is an interactive aeronautics exhibition exploring the history of French long-haul flights. Combine a visit to both to get a look at the pivotal role Toulouse has played in space exploration!
The most important landmark in Toulouse is probably the Basilica of Saint Sernin, an architecturally stunning building best visited with a guided tour to take in its rich history.
Only a short walk from the basilica you’ll find the Place du Capitole. This busy square is situated in the historic heart of Toulouse and filled with markets, shops, and restaurants. Surrounding the square are impressive historical monuments built in the emblematic rose-colored terracotta brick.
Art lovers can also satisfy their creative desires in Toulouse. The Musée des Augustins is a must-do (its collection spans multiple centuries) and you could easily spend a day marveling at the beautiful canvases adorning the walls. The Bemberg Foundation is a major art gallery housed in the Hôtel d’Assézat, a Renaissance-era hôtel particulier built in the 16th century. It’s one of the most important private art collections in Europe and houses works by Masters such as Titian, Rodin, Monet, and Picasso.
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The Saucisse de Toulouse or Toulouse sausage is the star of the Toulousian kitchen. It features in many dishes from the region but is also very tasty when eaten on its own.
If you’re more of a dessert lover, you should get a taste of le fénétra, a cake from Toulouse made of almonds and candied lemon.
8. The city of yachts: Nice
Located on the French Riviera, surrounded by mountains and the beautiful turquoise sea, Nice is the perfect seaside destination for sunseekers. Nice has a gorgeous Old Town and hip nightlife scene, and the city is also a good starting point for exploring the region’s mountainous surroundings and gorgeous seaside vistas. Nice’s great location makes it one of the top 10 cities in France for a summer getaway.
Start your day in Nice with a hillside walk up to the castle. It’s a steep climb up the 213 steps, but the incredible views make it more than worth it (or you could just take the elevator up).
The Musée National Marc Chagall is a small-but-impressive museum that lovers of colorful, surrealist paintings shouldn’t miss out on. In the evenings you can occasionally enjoy a performance here in the small concert hall while admiring the stained-glass windows made by none other than Chagall himself. If you can’t get enough of iconic French painters, you’ll do well to visit Musée Matisse next. The 17th-century villa Matisse lived in until his death has been turned into a museum. It has a large collection of the painter’s works and grants an intimate look at the painter’s inner life.
To get away from the busy streets of Nice and take in some of the most impressive views in the region, take a trip to Eze. This is a hilltop medieval village perched 1,400 feet above sea level. Eze is only 12 kilometers away from Nice so it’s an easy bus ride.
Once you’ve spent some time getting lost in the winding medieval streets, take the Nietzsche path down to the train station. The philosopher who gave the path its name lived in the area in the 1880s and took this path from the seaside to the village frequently. Take your time walking down the trail and make sure to stop occasionally to admire the breathtaking views of the Mediterranean.
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A typical Nicoise snack is the pissaladière, a sort of pizza covered with caramelized onions. Perfect in combination with a glass of cold white wine and stunning seaside vistas.
9. The medieval city: Carcassonne
Famous for Cité de Carcassone, its medieval fortress, and for being another one of France’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the charming city of Carcassonne is packed with French monuments and is the perfect destination for a short stay.
First on your list should be a visit to Cité de Carcassonne, the largest Citadel in Europe. Inside the Citadel, make sure to visit the Basilique St.Nazaire and be blown away by its beauty. The central stained glass window of the choir is one of the oldest windows in France.
For the best views of the city, head to St. Vincent’s Church (Église Saint-Vincent de Carcassonne). Psst… access is free! The tower can only be reached by climbing the stairs, so be prepared for a proper workout.
An absolute must when in Carcassonne is a boat trip on the Canal du Midi, which offers delightful waterside views of the city.
Located just a short bus ride away from Carcassonne is the Lac de la Cavayère, a picture-perfect lake that’s great for a stroll and a picnic on a warm day. A full loop around the lake takes approximately one hour.
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Open every day except on Sundays, Carcassonne’s food market is the perfect place to find locally produced ingredients and freshly made food.
10. The most elegant city in France: Paris
A list of the top 10 cities in France wouldn’t be complete without the most loved and hated city in France to finish it off.
According to famous French writer Honoré de Balzac: “Whoever does not visit Paris regularly will never really be elegant.” Opinions on this topic differ widely both within and outside of France. The capital is seen by some as dirty, loud, and unfriendly, with Parisians stereotyped as always being in a hurry. Interestingly, Paris’ mayor Anne Hidalgo has plans to create a ’15-minute city’ in which all amenities for living, working, supplying, caring, learning, and entertainment have to be located within a 15-minute radius for all Parisians.
Whether this means being able to more elegantly ride the metro without cramming yourself into the armpit of a fellow city-dweller remains to be seen. Undisputedly, Paris is a lively city and a must-visit for all romantics, fashionistas, art historians, and foodies.
Attempting to provide a comprehensive list of must-visit places in Paris would be like trying to see the whole collection of the Louvre in one hour: impossible! Just like when you visit the Louvre, make sure to spend some time thinking about the highlights you don’t want to miss before throwing out the itinerary and getting lost in Paris’ beautiful streets.
Make sure to look up every once in awhile, as you can spot the Eiffel Tower in many parts of the city. Gustave Eiffel’s iconic tower quietly observes the City of Light’s hustle and bustle, exuding an air of contentedness and pride at being the symbol of this opulent city.