7 gorgeous but overlooked towns in France you should visit
Wine, cheese, Atlantic coasts, Mediterranean beaches, Pyrenees hiking and alpine skiing. Is there any box that a trip to France can’t tick?
No wonder France is one of the most popular destinations in the world, with 96 departments (similar to states) on the mainland and five overseas departments to discover. Still, travelers tend to stick to predictable places including Paris, Provence and the Côte d'Azur. But quel dommage, considering all the varied regions — not to mention foods — that visitors can experience.
Next time you find yourself with some free time in France, go beyond the famous cities and typical tourist traps to check out some of the below spots instead.
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Why visit: Visitors who make a beeline to the touristy Île de Ré miss out on its charming neighbor, Île d’Oléron, which is about twice as large and similarly crisscrossed with cycling paths and dotted with no-frills seafood shacks and oyster farms. It’s also fringed with golden beaches lined with towering pines with far more space for everyone to spread out and enjoy.
What to eat: Oysters, oysters and (beaucoup) more oysters. The Marennes-Oléron oysters grown out at sea finish their maturation in the island’s basins and have a delicate, iodized taste that’s celebrated among the finest in all of France. They’re best slurped at rustic oyster huts perched around the island, usually set right along the water, called cabanes (Le Cabane de Batifou and Chez Mamelou are among the local favorites to seek out).
Where to stay: Few chain hotels exist on the island, with the exception of the beachfront Novotel Thalassa Oléron Saint-Trojan (an Accor property) on Île de Oléron’s southeast side. Hotel Île de Lumière is another good and affordable bet behind the dunes, near the fishing port in La Cotinière, offering direct beach access.
How to get there: Fly into the Bordeaux-Mérignac Airport (BOD) and drive roughly 2.5 hours northwest or fly into Paris Charles de Gaulle (CDG) and drive roughly six hours southwest. Alternatively, the train from the Gare de Montparnasse in Paris takes roughly five hours to reach St.-Pierre-d’Oléron.
Why visit: With pristine alpine lakes for swimming and rustic refuges to sleep in along miles of hiking trails in the Aravis mountains, this hideaway village in the Haute-Savoie is popular come summer with anyone who loves the great outdoors. But with 85 ski runs serviced by 49 lifts and one of the biggest vertical drops (more than 4,900 feet) of all French ski resorts, La Clusaz really shines under a blanket of snow during the winter months. Come for three toboggan runs and sledding and a ski area with varied terrain that’s ideal for intermediate skiers and lacks the hordes of more famous resort areas in the French Alps.
What to eat: You can sip the traditional herbal liqueur called génépi made from local flowers of the artemisia plant and fortify yourself for more outdoor fun the following day over hearty helpings of Savoyard fondue made with local Haute Savoie cheese, raclette (slabs of cheese you grill) and the heavy potato dish called tartiflette at warm and inviting spots like La Grolle.
Where to stay: Right on the slopes with an on-site sauna and sleds for the taking, the rustic wood-paneled inn called La Ferme is as cozy as it gets.
How to get there: Drive two hours east from Lyon-Saint Exupéry Airport (LYS), or just over an hour south from Geneva International Airport (GVA) in Switzerland, to reach La Clusaz. The trip takes roughly three hours by train from Lyon’s Part-Dieu train station (there is no direct train connection from Geneva).
Why visit: Far less trammeled and way more laid-back than wine regions in the Loire and Bordeaux, southwest France’s Dordogne dishes up postcard-worthy medieval villages and serious gastronomy at every bend in the rue. Make your home base the spectacularly intact medieval town of Sarlat-la-Canéda (Sarlat, to locals) and spend Wednesdays and Saturdays shopping for local mushrooms, Périgord fruits and nuts (and much more) at the excellent open market the city is famous for. The Dordogne River, one of the cleanest in France, is right nearby when you fancy a swim or some kayaking.
What to eat: Everything. No, seriously. The regional cuisine is legendary for things like foie gras, chestnuts, wild mushrooms, truffles, strawberries, duck and goose dishes and so much more.
Where to stay: There are no points hotels in Sarlat, but plenty of charming inns and chambres d'hôte. Try Plaza Madeleine Hotel & Spa, right at the entrance to Sarlat’s medieval city and with an on-site swimming pool.
How to get there: Drive 5.5 hours (approximately 350 miles) south of Paris-Charles de Gaulle Airport to reach Sarlat-la-Canéda. Alternatively, the town is less than 2.5 hours (130 miles) east of Bordeaux by car, or 2 hours and 45 minutes by train from Bordeaux.
Why visit: Bust out your blue-and-white Breton stripes to visit this gorgeous walled port city in Brittany with strong Celtic influences. Enormous tides in and around Saint-Malo, on the English Channel coast in northwest France, retreat to reveal sprawling beaches and make it easy to walk to the 17th-century Fort National at low tide. A visit to the Grand Aquarium is a must if you’re traveling with kids. It’s home to some 10,000 animals, including sharks and rays.
What to eat: Brittany is the place to sip cider and eat crepes, the region’s signature dish, and Saint-Malo’s Crêperie Le Tournesol turns out some amazing ones (as well as galettes — which are similar to crepes but made with buckwheat flour). The region is also known for fresh seafood, like oysters and bouchot mussels and the delicious salt-meadow lamb raised here.
Where to stay: Two Accor properties in town include the Mercure St. Malo Front de Mer Hotel, near Sillon beach, and the Mercure St. Malo Balmoral, a one-minute stroll from the main railway station.
How to get there: Trains from Paris’s Montparnasse station take less than three hours to reach Saint Malo. Driving is another easy way to get here from Paris, which is roughly four hours (255 miles) east.
Why visit: For a less pretentious (not to mention less expensive) South of France experience than you'll find on the Côte d'Azur, head roughly 250 miles west of Nice along the Mediterranean to reach the region of Occitanie and the pleasant and scenic surrounds of Narbonne. In this city that dates to 118 B.C., you can marvel at antiquities unearthed here displayed in the Narbo Via Museum, designed by Fosters+Partners, and stroll along the Canal du Midi or through Les Halles, one of France’s best (and that’s saying a lot) covered markets. When you’re ready to hit the beach, Narbonne’s own beach and nearby Gruissan beckon with wide stretches of golden sand.
What to eat: It’s all about the fruits de mer (seafood) at La Cambuse du Saunier, a rustic little waterfront restaurant set along the salt lagoons in Salin de Gruissan (where you can hit the on-site boutique for sachets of salt to bring home). Platters of whelks, razor clams, oysters and shrimp comprise heaping seafood towers you can nibble on throughout the course of a sunny afternoon.
Where to stay: Stay among the vines in the hills just outside Narbonne’s center at Chateau L’Hospitalet, a gorgeous wine resort and spa where you can jog along dirt trails for sea views. Among the many Accor hotels in Narbonne itself are several budget Ibis properties and the Novotel Narbonne Sud, right near the Narbo Via Museum.
How to get there: Trains run regularly from Paris Gare de Lyon, with the shortest connection taking just over 4.5 hours (driving takes closer to 8 hours). Trains from Toulouse take just over an hour.
Why visit: Deep in the heart of southwest France, the department of Aveyron is so remote as to be mostly off the radars of even some French people — yet it is full of castles and cathedrals, rolling countryside and charming medieval towns. Make the pilgrimage to Laguiole, on the beautiful Aubrac Plateau, to see where the famous eponymous knives (with the bee logo on their spines) are made at local factories, hike trails along a nearby stretch of the famous Camino de Santiago de Compostela and, come winter, ski and snowshoe at the rustic Station de Ski de Laguiole.
What to eat: Juicy cuts of the special French breed of Aubrac cattle, raised in the open air here surrounded by the flowering fields of the plateau, are often the menu specialty. Le Suquet, one of the town’s most exceptional restaurants, is helmed by native son Sébastien Bras.
Where to stay: Surprisingly considering how secluded Laguiole is, there’s the Best Western Le Relais de Laguiole Hotel & Spa, with an indoor heated pool and on-site playground. For something more romantic, opt for one of the 13 suites overlooking the Aubrac plateau at Le Suquet.
How to get there: Since there’s no train station in Laguiole, arriving by car is best. It takes roughly six hours to drive here from Paris.
Why visit: Roughly an hour east of the D-Day beaches in Normandy, the cute little town of Cambremer is the place to base yourself for exploring the pastoral countryside along the 25-mile Route du Cidre. The tourist trail runs through a landscape of wood-timbered estates and apple orchards and winds past scenic Pays d’Auge towns like Beuvron-en-Auge, which is home to a cider festival every October.
What to eat: In addition to sipping Pays d'Auge Cambremer cider, don’t miss the local Calvados liquor (apple and pear brandy) and the region’s fabulous Belle-Mère and Pont-l'Evêque cheeses.
Where to stay: Small inns abound along the Cider Route, like Domaine les Marroniers, which has a three-room gite, or farmhouse, that you can rent with a facade that dates to the 16th century.
How to get there: The train from Paris’s Gare Saint-Lazare takes less than 2.5 hours; it’s roughly the same amount of time to drive.