In France there is so much more than Paris! Unfortunately, many travelers coming to France don’t have much time to venture out of Paris, but we do hope that you will have a chance, at least once in your life, to discover the amazing treasures that can be found in French provinces. Each French Region has its own history, food, traditions, architectural style and natural wonders. As it can be hard to decide where to go, we have selected for you the top 10 destinations you must not miss next time you come to France, starting from the closest to Paris to the farthest.
Called the “Wonder of the West” Mont Saint Michel is a medieval village and a Gothic style abbey perched on a rocky island near the Normandy coast. Built between the 11th and the 16th century, it was a place for pilgrimages and one of the most important sites of Medieval civilization. The village and the Abbey have conserved it’s authenticity and the bay has remained intact for centuries. It became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979 because of the combination of the natural site and the architecture.
If you have the chance to stay overnight at Mont Saint-Michel, you will surely have an unforgettable experience. Indeed, the place is quite busy during day time, as thousands of tourists come every day for day tours. At night, the town become quiet again and you can enjoy it for yourself. Seeing the sunrise at Mont Saint-Michel is also an incredible experience. If you want to know more about Mont Saint-Michel, click here to read our related article.
Transportation : It takes around 3 hours from Paris to reach Mont Saint-Michel by public transportations (TGV from Paris Montparnasse to Rennes or Dol de Bretagne, then a coach to Mont Saint-Michel).
Less famous than Château de Versailles, the Loire valley châteaux are all unique and deserve a visit. In total there are hundreds of Châteaux stretching over a hundred kilometers along the Loire river, and more than 50 of them are open to visitors. The most famous ones are : Amboise, Chambord, Azay le Rideau, Chenonceau, Cheverny, Chinon, and Le Clos Lucé.
Why are there so many castles in the Loire Valley? It is mainly because the French Royal court was established there during the French Renaissance (15th and 16th Century) and the Loire region was chosen because of it’s strategic location. As a result, many French aristocrats had their Châteaux in the region. Later on, when the French King decided to establish their royal court closer to Paris (Fontainebleau, then Louvre and then Versailles), the Loire valley became a less attractive location aristocrats. Not many new castles were built after the 16th century and most of the existing ones did not change their appearance, which explains why they are mostly well preserved in their original forms.
Transportation: Unfortunately for most of the castles, there is no direct public transportations. The closest city is Tours (1h15 from Paris, 20 to 30 euros train ticket), from there you can take a taxi to the castles.
Strasbourg is at the crossroads between southern/Latin Europe and Northern/Germanic Europe, which is why the city's atmosphere and architecture is more similar to Germany than any other city in France. The historical city center of Strasbourg, called the “Petite France” is characterized by it’s canal system and its old Germanic style, half-timbered houses, that make you feel like you are in a fairytale. The best time to visit the city of course is December, as the city hosts the biggest Christmas Market in France.
Transportation: 2 hours of Train from Paris (departures from Gare de l’Est), 50 to 100 euros.
2 hours : that’s the time you need to reach Bordeaux from Paris through High Speed Train, and the city is really worth a visit! The old city center is inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list since 2007, for the beauty and uniqueness of it’s architecture. Indeed, the city center is the perfect example of the classical French architectural art of the 18th century. Most the old buildings have been renovated in recent years and spotlighted by new architectural gems such as the famous “Miroir d’eau”, the largest reflecting pool in the world which stands in front of the 18th century Place de la Bourse.
Moreover, the city is also the capital of the most famous wine region in the world. As a result, it’s the perfect base to explore the surrounding Chateaux and Vineyards. If you want to know all about wine, the newly opened “Cité du Vin” (Wine Museum) is a great location to visit. It’s also important to add that Southern French food is one of the greatest of France: Confit de Canard, Salade de Gésiers, Foie Gras… your stomach will thoroughly enjoy it all!
Transportation : 2 hours of Train from Paris (departures from Gare Montparnasse), 50 to 100 euros.
When you see photos of Dune du Pilat, you might feel like this place is located somewhere near the Sahara, but it’s actually one hour from Bordeaux! 3 kilometers long, 600 meters wide, 100 meter high, this sand dune is the highest in Europe. To make the climb to the top easier, there is a wooden staircase to help you out.
From the top of the dune you can enjoy an amazing view on the Atlantic Ocean and Arcachon Bay.
Transportation: Train from Bordeaux to Arcachon (40 minutes) around 12 euros and Bus n°1 to “Dune du Pilat” (30 minutes).
Who said Mont Blanc is in Italy? Well, the massif lies along the French-Italian border but… the summit is in French territory ! (French people are always a bit jingoist!). Its name translates to “White Mountain” and it’s the highest mountain in Europe (4,810 meters high). Climbing to the top is only for experienced hikers, but you can easily reach the Aiguille du Midi (a peak of Mount Blanc Massif) by cable car from the city of Chamonix, to enjoy a panoramic view on the Massif.
Transportation: reaching Mont Blanc is not that easy. The closest city is Chamonix, and from Paris to Chamonix, it takes around 5 hours by train (with two transfers).
There are plenty of beautiful cities in Southern France, like Arles, Avignon or Aix-en-Provence. If you have spare time, you should visit all of them, but if you have a limited stay in France, Nimes is a good option. Indeed, it’s the city in France which has the most important preserved Roman buildings. The city used to be a major political center of the Roman Empire: as a result, you can still admire one of the biggest Roman amphitheaters (Arena of Nîmes) which has a capacity of 25 000 spectators.
30 minutes away from the city stands the magnificent “Pont du Gard”, the highest Roman aqueduct bridge. The 50 kilometers long aqueduct was built to bring water to the Roman city of Nîmes. It was added on the UNESCO’s list of World Heritage in 1985.
Transportation: 3 hours train from Paris (Gare de Lyon) for around 80 euros.
The lavender fields of Provence recently have become a quite popular photo location for tourists. However it’s not that easy to see the lavender fields: first of all, the blooming season is quite short (from mid-June to early August) and most lavender fields are not accessible by public transportation (it's highly recommended to rent a car). But when you finally get to see the lavender fields rippling in the blazing sun, you won’t regret your journey.
Most of the villages of the region also organize Lavender festivals to celebrate the harvest, which is a good occasion to discover local culture.
Transportation: car drive from Aix en Provence (Plateau de Valensole) or Avignon (Luberon).
25 kilometers long and 700 meters deep, the Verdon river Gorge is he most famous canyon in Europe. It’s the perfect place to spend a sunny day. One of the ways to discover it is to walk along the line of limestone cliffs and enjoy the view on the gorgeous turquoise water that flows through the gorge. Another way to enjoy it is to rent a boat or a kayak and to paddle on the river.
Transportation: Verdon canyon can only be accessed by car from French Riviera or Aix en Provence. The closest city is Moustiers-Sainte-Marie.
The Calanques is one of the most favorite natural wonders for French people, but is not well known amongst foreigners. The word Calanques means “inlet”: indeed the Calanques are rocky inlets that have been formed in the limestone cliffs. The rocky cliffs and bays stretch along the Mediterranean coast, between Marseille and the village of Cassis. The zone is a National Park and some of the bays are closed in Summer because of fire hazards. There are several ways to explore the Calanques, either by boat tours from the harbour of Marseille or Cassis or by hiking excursions. There are plenty of fishing towns to discover as well, and great beaches for swimming.
Transportation: Boat or Hike from the town Marseille or Cassis.
Words by Vincent Sacau
Photographs by O'bon Paris Team