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.
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.
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.
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.
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?