Five French Towns You Should Visit ASAP

La Rochelle, France

France is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, thanks in large part to the capital city, the City of Lights, La Belle Ville Paris. But as I recently discovered there are many amazing towns and cities sprinkled throughout the country and each are worthy of a visit in their own right. There are so many I fear it would take a lifetime to discover them all, but here are a few of my favorite French towns everyone should explore as soon as possible.

1. La Rochelle – Nestled on the rocky Atlantic Coast of France, La Rochelle has a long tradition as a tourist hotspot and a long history of close ties with North America. Many of the French speaking settlers in both Canada and the United States originally emigrated from the seaside town and vestiges of this familial connection is seen throughout town. But this warm homecoming for North Americans isn’t what makes La Rochelle great, it’s a combination of beautiful scenery, great restaurants and fun activities that make it the perfect stop for anyone visiting France. My favorite activity in La Rochelle is to take a self-guided bike tour using one of the free, community loaner bikes. Available to anyone, the first couple of hours on the bright yellow bikes are completely free and allow visitors the chance to get around town quickly and see sides of the town usually only reserved for locals.

Cahors

2. Cahors – Apparently, according to my French friends, I never mastered the pronunciation of this Southwestern town, but that didn’t dampen my enjoyment as I explored its secret gardens and hidden corners. Cahors’ biggest claim to tourist fame is its fortified Devil’s Bridge, so called because people believed the builder must have entered into a pact with the devil in order to finish this mighty structure. But there’s so much more to Cahors than just a bridge. The one aspect that draws me into any place is that indefinable feeling that you belong and I got that amazing sensation in Cahors. The downtown was bustling, the shops and restaurants lively and everyone just seemed happy. I know, it’s a strange observation, but it’s true. More than a bridge or the impressive medieval buildings, I just loved spending time in this picturesque town. For a special treat, head to the Cahors Malbec tasting room on the Place François-Mitterrand where you can try a variety of the local Cahors Melbec wines and learn more about what makes the region such a tremendous wine producing area.

Angouleme

3. Angouleme  – Angouleme and I got off to a rough start. I got lost driving into the historic core of the fortified city and the narrow, cobblestone roads were nerve wracking. But as soon as I got settled and began walking around town, I understood why everyone loves this city. Angouleme isn’t unlike other French towns in its marriage of ancient and modern, but the residents here do it with a fun twist. The city is known as a learning center for the arts, specifically cinema and cartoon production. You can see hints of this fame walking around when suddenly you’re confronted with building sized murals delicately painted by an expert artist. They add whimsy to the city and give it personality. I was also impressed by the massive collection of truly excellent restaurants, especially the Restaurant le Passe-Muraille on Rue St André. The oeufs cocotte au fromage (basically baked eggs with cheese) I enjoyed as an appetizer is one of the best dishes I’ve ever had. For a nice spot to relax and people watch grab a drink at a shady café in front of the Palais de Justice and enjoy the city at its best.

Albi Cathedral

4. Albi – I could be making this up, but I’m convinced that 1) Albi gets a bad rap and 2) I don’t like that fact at all. Like I said, maybe this is just conjecture but I don’t think many people outside of France have ever actually heard of Albi and that’s a shame. Located in the heart of the incredibly green rolling hills of the Tarn region, Albi is an absolute treasure. I’m a history fan, and I loved learning more about the tragic history of the Cathars, which culminated in and around Albi more than eight hundred years ago. But on the lighter side, Albi was also the birthplace of Toulouse-Lautrec, the famed French artist of the 19th century. The Toulouse-Lautrec museum conveniently located in the heart of Albi has just been renovated and it is a masterpiece of modern design and museum management. I truly enjoyed roaming the galleries admiring the impressive display of Toulouse-Lautrec works.

Avignon

5. Avignon – If you’ve ever taken a French class, no matter how remedial, then no doubt you were forced to sing “Sur le Pont d’Avignon,” “On the Bridge in Avignon.” (Everyone sing along now) Well that’s all I knew about the city before I arrived and while I loved finally seeing the bridge in person, I loved being surprised by the city even more. My first observation was the city’s size, it is much larger than many of the other towns I visited and it was packed with people; a combination of locals, tourists and students. High-end stores, an endless array of cafes and restaurants and truly impressive structures all define Avignon. During the 14th century, Avignon was home to the Papacy and evidence of that long lost wealth and prestige is evident everywhere. If you’re looking for a unique lodging option, then be sure to stay at the L’Ombre du Palais. Run by a very eccentric and incredibly welcoming Italian named Sabine, the B&B is located directly in front of the immense Pope’s palace and enjoys some of the best rooftop views in town.

These are just a few of the towns and cities in France that I think everyone should visit – what are some of your favorites?

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By: Matt Long

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer.Also follow Matt on Twitter, Facebook and

34 Responses

  1. Andi of My Beautiful Adventures

    I could spend a year in Avignon I love it that much!

    Reply
  2. A Montrealer Abroad

    Since I live in Clermont-Ferrand, of course I think everyone should come and visit :-) France is filled with gorgeous cities outside of Paris and yet so little people know about them. I also LOVE the Rhône-Alpes region, especially Annecy. The Loire valley is also filled with cute villages as well, like Tours or Amboise.

    Reply
    • Treasure of Travelers

      I lived in clermont ferrand too. It’s a beautiful city and the area of volcano is amazing!

      Reply
    • Leyla

      Let’s hear it for Annecy, one of the most beautiful and most unknown (to foreigners) cities in France! I live half an hour from Annecy so it’s my ‘local town’ and I never get tired of the arcades, the monthly antiques market, the stunning lakeshore, the delicious food – and the fact that it’s an easy gateway to the Alps.

      Reply
      • Matt Long

        Sounds great! Added to the list :)

  3. Carolyn

    Love your photos! I’m just back from the Dordogne region in southwestern France, and I really liked the town of Sarlat, which has a great outdoor market on Saturdays: http://wanderlustandlipstick.com/blogs/wanderfood/2012/07/17/wanderfood-wednesday-the-best-market-in-france/ Lots of fun, and lots of delicious things to eat!

    Reply
  4. Nomadic Translator @latinAbroad

    GORGEOUS shots! I haven’t been to France yet…it’s still embarrassing to say. Soon!

    Reply
  5. Natasha von Geldern

    Great post! The only one I’ve been to is Avignon so I’d better get my skates on for next year’s France travel.

    Reply
  6. Kaylin

    I’m moving to Normandy soon for a few months so hopefully I will get a chance to see some of these lovely places while I’m there!

    Reply
  7. Thebestinparis

    Great selection ! As Carolyn mentioned, Sarlat is well worth a visit. I would add Strasbourg to the list ;)

    Reply
  8. Gina

    That’s neat that the bikes are free to rent in La Rochelle. Good to know for when I hopefully get there someday! I’ve only been to Paris and would love to see some of the small towns of France.

    Reply
    • Matt Long

      Oh you should, so many great places to explore.

      Reply
  9. Waegook Tom

    Matt, I friggin’ LOVE this post! The places you’ve described here are exactly the kind of places I love spending time in. Places that aren’t exactly tourist central, but that do have enough sites and things of interest to keep you occupied. The pictures are stunning, too – especially love the one of Albi. I really do need to get myself to France again when I’m back in the UK, considering that it’s right there on my doorstep.

    Although I gotta say, in my 7 years of studying French at school, we were never made to sing, “Sur le Pont d’Avignon” even once – although all the characters in our French text books did live in La Rochelle. “Je m’appelle Magali. J’habite a La Rochelle.”

    p.s. now I’m kinda curious, how DO you say Cahors??

    Reply
    • Matt Long

      Thanks Tom! Every town I visited was like this, not just these five. Can’t wait to share them all. :) And I have no idea how to say Cahors. I thought I knew but no one could understand me. LOL

      Reply
      • Treasure of Travelers

        For the prononciation: Ka-OR
        “a” it’s not the same as english it’s like “Ahh!”
        I don’t know if You will understand what I mean… I hope! ;-)

      • Matt Long

        Naw I understand and I’m pretty sure that’s how I said it. Oh well :) My French isn’t THAT rusty

  10. Diane

    Love the list! Was just in La Rochelle (and Ile de Re) for the first time last weekend and loved it. Beautiful city (and island) and I can’t wait to go back!

    Reply
  11. natalie @ the haute housewife

    I still haven’t been to many of the towns on this list – so I’m bookmarking it for future road/train trips! I know you traveled through the south of France not too long ago, but next time you must stop here in Montpellier! It’s a great, fast-growing city with so much to offer in and around it.

    Reply
  12. Oliver

    I live in Cahors , you give a true and lovely comment . Merci !

    Reply
  13. Annisa

    Spent a year in France – including a 6-month internship in Grenoble – but never set foot in any of the towns you mentioned here, even Avignon *shame on me*
    Hoping to go back to France and will make use of your recommendations :)
    However, I do love Dinan, a small town near St. Malo in Brittany.

    Reply
  14. Travel Magazine - Travelodium

    I really loved Avignon and its surrounds and you can go into any random restaurant and end up with usually great food. The next French town I really want to visit is Carcasonne

    Reply
  15. Caro from Passport and a Toothbrush

    Fantastic! We’re returning to France in a few days, and a couple of these towns will be a daytrip away, looking forward to discovering them! It seems like a year or roadtripping in France wouldn’t be enough, so many gems!

    Reply
  16. Diane

    I run an 18th century chambre d’hotes 20 minutes drive from Cahors and I think this area has a lot of unspoilt medieval towns and villages and very impressive countryside. I love it here!

    Reply
    • Matt Long

      You’re absolutely right, I can’t wait to return and explore more

      Reply
  17. Elena

    Beautiful pictures! I love France but the only two places on your list I have been are Albi and Cahors and was long time ago. I should try to visit the rest; I always wanted to see Avignon ;)

    Reply
  18. Cupcake

    Thanks for the heads up on these towns – I’ve been living in France all of this year and thankfully have another year here. I love Avignon (and can also recommend a lovely B&B right behind the Palais du Papes, along with at least one good restaurant) but haven’t been to the other towns yet. You have inspired me to give them a try!

    Reply
    • Matt Long

      Hmm, I think I stayed at the B&B actually!

      Reply
  19. angela ( angfromthedock )

    i have a thing for french hilltop towns…cordes sur ciel and puycelsi need to be walked though. and they are quite close to albi, which i loved as well. that museum is fabulous.

    my ancestors came from la rochelle in the 1700’s, so i was excited to see it on your list! i have not been yet, but will get there soon:).

    Reply
  20. Bianca @ Day Jaunts

    Thanks for the tips Matt. My husband and I are heading to France in July next year to follow the Tour de France around in a campervan.
    One of the stages ends in Albi so it is definitely on the agenda but I also really like the idea of a free bike tour in La Rochelle.
    So many beautiful places to visit and so little time. I don’t know how I’m going to fit it all in.

    Reply
  21. A Cook Not Mad (Nat)

    J’adore tous les petits villages français!

    Reply

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