If you’re looking for a dream destination then France may well be the place for you. From stunning stretches of coastline to snow-capped peaks. And somewhere between, sea, land, and city, there’s a French adventure for everyone to enjoy. So whether you’re looking for the glittering lights of a big city or a quiet retreat away from the hustle and bustle of busy modern life, here are 21 breathtakingly beautiful places to visit in France!
French Capital City of Paris
Of course, no trip to l’Hexagon would be complete without a visit to the French capital, Paris. Best-known as the place where you’ll find incredible macarons and as being home to the iconic Eiffel Tower, you could spend days, weeks, or even months and years uncovering Paris’ many layers.
After all, it’s here you can discover Haussmannian architecture, uncover the story of France in the city’s many museums, and discover the secrets of Montmartre, Le Marais, and Canal Saint Martin. Other districts in Paris worth visiting include Île de la Cité and the Latin Quarter.
Ancient Roman Port City of Narbonne
Once inhabited by the Romans, this off the beaten track French city used to be situated by the sea. However, over the past two millennia, sea and sand have built up to such an extent that Narbonne now lies some 15 km away from the nearest coastline. Today, instead of sandy beaches, head here and you can expect to find plenty of cobbled lanes, architecture dating back to the middle ages, and one of the best traditional food markets in France.
Abbey of Mont Saint Michel
If you’re looking for one of the most beautiful places in France, then you simply must head to the conically shaped island that is Mont Saint Michel. Inhabited since time immemorial and cut off from the rest of France twice a day by the rising tides, today the isle is home to a Gothic abbey and is worthy of a trip on any voyage through Normandy. Characterised by its striking architecture, highlights of this island include its thousand-year-old abbey and countless meandering lanes.
Fairytale Castle of Chantilly
Best seen at sunrise or sunset when the town’s picturesque château is reflected along the water’s edge, Chantilly lies just half an hour by train from Paris’ Gare du Nord station. Elsewhere in the French commune, there’s the hamlet which inspired Marie Antoinette’s ‘Hameau de la Reine’ at Versailles, as well as the largest art collection in France after the Louvre in the form of Musée Condé.
A glittering expanse of coastline which is also known as the ‘Cote d’Azur,’ the French Riviera is synonymous with all the glitz and glam of the Mediterranean. Comprising of a long stretch of French coastline including Cassis (or Toulon depending on who you ask) all the way to Saint-Tropez, head here if you want to experience the best beaches France has to offer. Elsewhere in the area, there are plenty of restaurants serving sea-inspired menus, as well as oodles of Roman history to discover.
Châteaux of the Loire Valley
If you’re looking for the best castles in France, particularly of the Renaissance variety, then you simply must head to the Loire Valley, an area South of Paris which is populated by countless châteaux. Some highlights of the area include a Da Vinci designed Château (Château de Chambord), as well as the Mansion which inspired Marlinspike Hall in the Tintin novels (Château de Cheverney).
Walled city of Saint-Malo
The walled city of Saint-Malo is synonymous with pirates and independence. Indeed, the city’s motto during the 16th-century was “not French, not Breton, but Malouin.” Founded as early as the 1st-century AD by the Gauls, today the walled city is filled with fascinating architecture, several beaches, and plenty of museums.
If you’re a fan of historical fiction, then you simply must read ‘All the Light We Cannot See‘ by Antony Doerr. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 2015, this beautifully written book is set between Paris and Saint-Malo during the height of WWII.
City of Water, Evian-Les-Bains
Home to the iconic Evian water, Evian-Les-Bains is a beautiful resort town on the fringes of Lake Geneva. Situated just across the water from the Swiss city of Lausanne (an easy day trip can be taken between the two European towns via ferry), Evian is the kind of place which is a little off the beaten track and not frequented as much by international tourist.
Lying in the Alps, highlights of this French city include visiting the thermal baths and sampling Evian water directly from the source. After all, it’s said that there are minerals in the water which disappear shortly after the water has left the ground, meaning that they won’t be present in the bottled water you can purchase from any supermarket.
Cassis & Calanques de Cassis
Now a designated National Park, the Calanques de Cassis is a stunning stretch of limestone inlets and beaches which are unique to this part of the world. Perfect for those who enjoy hiking and exploring secluded beaches, should you wish to go walking here, you’ll need to visit in the spring or summer- the Calanques are often closed in the summer due to the risk of forest fire.
The nearby picturesque city of Cassis was once a Roman port city and has since become a go-to destination for those who love sea-inspired cuisine. For a narrative about Provence, you won’t want to put down, check out ‘A Year in Provence‘ by Peter Mayle. Just be warned- you’ll want to book a flight to the region ASAP after reading this!
Wine Routes of Bordeaux
While the city of Bordeaux is a beautiful French settlement that’s full of stunning architecture, it’s the rich red wines which really draw the crowds to this iconic region. The wine routes of Bordeaux form one of the best wine regions in all of Europe and must-sample vin varieties from the area include St. Estephe, Pauillac, St. Julien, and St. Emilion.
Châteaux of Occitanie
On the border with Spain, highlights of the Occitanie region include lots of oyster farms, the ‘Secret French Riviera’ (plenty of beaches, coastal walks and stunning seascapes), as well as plenty of Roman history. And when you visit, the ambience is that while, yes, the Languedoc is touristic among the French, it is ‘less full’ than nearby neighbour Provence.
And, of course, the region was once home to the Cathars, a people persecuted during the 13th-century due to their rejection of Catholicism. Today, plenty of impressive and fortified châteaux remain from this era remain, all set against the backdrop of the foothills of the Pyrenees. While in the region, of all the most beautiful places to visit in France on this list, Carcassonne may well top them all!
Artists’ Haunt of Aix-en-Provence
Often described as ‘the city of a hundred fountains’ Aix-en-Provence lies in the shadow of the mighty Montagne Sainte Victoire and easy day trips from the city can be taken to the nearby places of La Ciotat, Marseille, mountainside vineyards, and the Mediterranean coastline.
While in Aix itself, you’ll want to explore the many cobbled lanes within the city, sample some local produce (rosé is a Provençal speciality), enjoy the city’s upbeat nightlife and follow in the footsteps of impressionist painter Cezanne (who was born in the city).
Cliffs of Etretat
While England has the Seven Sisters and the White Cliffs of Dover, Normandy has its own answer in the form of the breathtaking chalky cliffs of Etretat. Best visited in the early summer or early autumn when you can make the most of the weather sans the crowds, this is where the French come on holiday to truly relax!
A favourite haunt of impressionist painters (Claude Monet painted the cliffs on countless occasions and aided in transforming Northern Normandy into a tourist hot-spot), nearby there are plenty of stunning coastal walks, as well as picturesque French Châteaux, including the reputedly haunted Château du Tilleul.
The fairytale city of Colmar is cute, quaint, and is characterised by its timber-framed houses and countless waterways slicing their way through the city. Located in the Grand-Est region of Northern France and not far from the borders with Germany and Switzerland, the architecture here is typically a blend of Germanic and French styles.
The city also lies along the Alsatian wine route and is the self-proclaimed ‘capital of Alsatian wine’. During other times of the year, Colmar holds an annual Christmas market which is among one of the best in France, if not all of Europe. A visit to Colmar can easily be combined with a trip to the nearby politically-centred city of Strasbourg.
(Read more: A Guide to the Strasbourg and Colmar Christmas Markets).
Photo: courtesy of Emily Jackson, The Glittering Unknown
Paris of the South, Montpellier
The Southern French city of Montpellier is the historic capital of the Languedoc region and is often referred to as the ‘Paris of the South’ thanks to its abundance of landscaped gardens, many museums, and Haussmannian architecture.
Best visited over the course of a day or two, so as to make the most of all the attractions on offer, highlights of Montpellier include its very own Arc de Triomphe (the Porte de Peyrou), and an extensive old town. On the fringes of the city, one of the most beautiful castles in France, Château de Flaugergues can be visited for a small fee.
Snow-capped French Alps
France is the kind of holiday destination where you can really have it all. In the summer months, the beaches of the South are some of the most beautiful in the European continent, while the shoulder seasons offer some of the best opportunities to visit France’s most vibrant and exciting cities (Nice, Paris, and Lyon to name but a few).
However, if you’re a fan of all things adventure related, then you simply must visit France in the wintertime, specifically the French Alps. Whether you want to go snowshoeing, or skiing, there’s plenty of resorts and mountainside hotels to stay in.
Magical and medieval, of all the beautiful places to visit in France, Dinan truly is a must-see destination. Located in mythical Brittany, an area of France that’s often likened to the UK’s Cornwall, a visit to Dinan can easily be combined with a trip to the nearby walled city of Saint-Malo.
Complete with fortifications dating back to the middle ages and an incredibly steep high street which hasn’t changed in centuries, while in Dinan make sure to sample a local specialty- the Kouignn-Amann (a butter/ sugar/ pastry concoction that tastes pretty much like biting into heaven).
Port City of Marseille
As the second largest city in France, Marseille is a busy working port city which was first founded by the Romans some two millennia ago. Today, Marseille is a must-visit city on any trip to Provence and highlights of the destination include Notre Dame de la Garde (a hill-top basilica with incredible panoramic views) and the old port of Marseille (which still functions as a fishing harbour to this day).
Lavender Fields of Provence
The unmistakable sweet scent of lavender can be found in abundance should you opt to visit the lavender fields of Provence in the early summer months. Best seen at sunrise or sunset so as to make the most of the purple hues against a golden sky, some of the best places to see lavender in Provence include l’Abbey Senaque, as well as various destinations in Sault.
Underrated City of Metz
Of all the beautiful places to visit in France contained within this article, the Grand-Est city of Metz is probably the least expected. However, should you opt to visit this vastly underrated French city, you can expect to find plenty of culture to discover, as well as Germanic architecture, and one of the highest cathedrals in France. A visit to Metz can easily be combined with a trip to the nearby (seriously, it’s only half an hour away!) Grand Duchy of Luxembourg.
Timber-Framed Houses of Rouen
Rumoured to be the place where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake (or was she?), today the medieval city of Rouen is the capital of the Normandy region of France and is as close to stepping back in time to the Middle Ages as it’s possible to get when it comes to France! After all, the clock tower in the town centre is one of the oldest and most beautiful in Europe, while there are also countless museums detailing the history of the city.
Complete with an old town that’s filled with cobbled lanes and timber-framed houses, Rouen is also home to one of the most beautiful gothic buildings in Europe, Rouen Cathedral. Once inside the impressive cathedral, you can expect to find the final resting place of Richard the Lionheart as well as countless other historical figures.