Forget Paris. There’s a world outside the French capital to be found in the food, history, and architecture in the rest of l’Hexagone. From the stunning coastline to sleepy cities which feel like stepping back in time, there’s a reason that France is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world! Here are 10+ underrated cities in France you simply must visit before everyone else does!
Dominated by the imposing papal palace (seven successive popes ruled the Catholic Church from the city in the 14th-century) in the very heart of the city and best-known for the half-completed bridge spanning the city’s river, Avignon is located in Provence. Highlights of the city include wandering around the historic streets and delving into the historical area of the city in the form of Roman ruins.
Still walled and impressive from far away, Avignon is also home to a selection of secret and art-filled museums, as well as a thriving foodie scene. A visit to Avignon can easily be combined with trips to the nearby cities of Marseille, Aix-en-Provence, and Nimes, as well as hidden gems such as Châteauneuf-du-Pâpe and Les Baux de Provence.
La Rochelle, Nouvelle-Aquitaine
Located on the Western coast of France, the pretty as a postcard city of La Rochelle is a former fishing community turned chic resort town. Characterised by its fortified port and plethora of quaint yachts and boats, some of the best things to do in La Rochelle include exploring the medieval towers still standing in the city, enjoying plenty of sea-inspired cuisine, and visiting the beach!
As the capital of the Languedoc area in South West France, Montpellier is often overlooked in favour of its more famous neighbours in Provence. However, should you opt to visit Montpellier, you’ll find it an excellent starting point for exploring the Languedoc region, the area of France where more wine is produced than in Chile, South Africa, and Bordeaux put together on an annual basis.
Read more: A solo adventure in the South of France!
If your type of holiday is the kind where you chill out and sip on wine, then Ruch is the town for you. After all, while the charm of the place lies in its postcard-perfect views and architecture, the town is best visited in the late summer when you can relax with family or friends in tow.
For fans of seafood, Cancale will likely need no introduction. Best-known for its abundance of seafood, specifically wild flat oysters, Cancale has been inhabited since the Middle Palaeolithic period. Situated seaside, today the city makes most of its money from tourism.
Aside from a fantastic foodie scene, other highlights of Cancale include the breathtaking Pointe du Groin (this place of outstanding natural beauty is best-scene at sunset) and a pretty historic harbour. It’s also worth noting that the city is a great place to base yourself if you’re looking to explore the rest of the Northern French coastline; Saint-Malo, Dinan, and even Mont Saint Michel are not too far away!
Read more: How to spend three perfect days in Brittany.
Not far from the azure blue mediterranean sea, the underrated French city of Toulouse is worthy of any Occitanie bucket list. Once the capital city of the Visigothic Kingdom, today the city is home to two designated UNESCO world heritage sites; the Canal du Midi and the largest remaining Romanesque building in Europe, the Basilica of Saint Sernin.
Located in Normandy and often forgotten in favour of Normandy’s most famous attraction, that of Mont Saint Michel, Rouen is a beautiful destination to add to any French itinerary. Rumoured to be the place where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake, and the site of one of the most beautiful cathedrals in France, the city of Rouen is home to oodles of timber-framed houses, as well as several museums.
Although you could easily see the attractions of Rouen as a day trip from Paris, if you truly want to get a feel for this underrated French city, then you’ll want to base yourself there over a long weekend. And thanks to its status as the capital city of Normandy, Rouen is home to a hotel for every budget; from the backpacker to the luxury escapist, there’s something for everyone!
When it comes to Troyes, a picturesque city in the Aube department, 16th-century architecture is abundant and coffee shops can be found around every corner. Located along the River Seine and situated around 150 km from the French capital city of Paris, Troyes has been inhabited since antiquity.
Highlights of the city include admiring art at one of the city’s many museums, as well as venturing out to explore the many vineyards in the area. After all, Troyes is situated in the very heart of the Champagne region of France!
Once one of the most important cities in Roman Gaul, today the tiny city of Vienne is not to be confused with the French way of saying ‘Vienna’ (the capital city of Austria). In a rather confusing turn of events, the French city was actually known as ‘Vienna’ during the Roman period, while the Austrian capital was known as Vindobona.
Today, vestiges of the past are never too far away, and Vienne boasts one of the most fantastic collections of outdoor Roman attractions that you’re likely to see anywhere in l’Hexagone. Highlights include a Roman theatre where performances still take place, a sprawling outdoor archaeological museum, and a well-preserved temple dedicated to Augustus and Livia.
Read more: A guide to the best things to do in Vienne
The relatively nontouristy town of Narbonne was once a thriving Roman port city. However, over the past two millennia, silt and sand have built up in the River Aude to such an extent that the city now sits some 15 km away from the sea- so don’t pack your bikini in too much of a rush!
Instead, there are small traces of Roman influence throughout the city, as well as plenty of architecture dating back to the middle ages. Quiet, secluded, and off the beaten tourist track, Narbonne is the kind of place where everything is still closed on a Sunday, the traditional covered food market remains thriving, and where everyone knows each other on a first-name basis. Of all the places I visited in Occitanie during a trip through the region, Narbonne was hands-down my favourite destination.
As the capital of Flanders and with a population of over 200,000, Lille has been inhabited for well over four thousand years. Some of the very best things to do in this underrated French city include the book market on Vielle Bourse (which takes place every afternoon) and wandering through the city’s main green spaces, as well as quirky architectural buildings.
Not far from the French border of Luxembourg, Metz is a place which more than deserves its place on this list of underrated cities in France. Located in the Grand-Est region of France, the city is best known for its high vaulted cathedral and wonderful covered market. Other places of interest in the city include the Centre Pompidou-Metz and river walks along the Moselle.
Once upon a time, the city of Nantes (the sixth-largest city in France) was the location from which the Dukes of Brittany ruled their Kingdom. Even today, the Grand Ducal Palace presides over the city and its ramparts can be wandered along for free.
Elsewhere in the city, which also happens to be the birthplace of iconic writer Jules Verne, there are plenty of hidden gems to discover (think offbeat bookshops and secret passageways), while the Machines of the Isle of Nantes has truly marked this Western French destination on the world tourism map.
Read more: The best-kept secrets of Nantes
Earlier this year, I was lucky enough to spend over a week exploring the forgotten corners and nooks and crannies of one of Burgundy’s most underrated cities, that of Dijon. Best-known for being the French home of mustard, I soon discovered that Dijon has so much more to offer than simply its piquant sauce.
After all, after years worth of renovation, the world-famous Musée des Beaux-Arts (Fine Arts Museum) is open to the public once more. Otherwise, some of the best things to do in Dijon include visiting the Church of Notre-Dame of Dijon and seeing the Palace of the Dukes of Burgundy.
Read more: These are the best-kept secrets of Dijon
Though Lyon is one of the largest cities in France, it often misses out on much of the press it deserves in favour of the glittering lights of the Eiffel Tower or the Promenade des Anglais of Nice. As a result, the city founded in Anituity more than certainly deserves its place within the most underrated cities in France.
Located to the South East of France, the city is as much for the foodies as it is for the history buffs. After all, it’s in the maze of the streets of the Vieux Lyon part of the city where you’ll soon discover the ‘Bouchons’; these tiny restaurants serve fantastic food and are a truly authentic way to experience the best of French cuisine.
Though the wine city of Beaune and the mustard city of Dijon are probably the most famous cities that Burgundy (known as Bourgogne in France) has to offer, there’s no shortage of other settlements worth exploring in the area.
Among my favourites is that of Mâcon, a pastel-hued town with a Provençal feel. Lying alongside the River Saône, highlights of Mâcon include a convent turned museum, a wooden house in the heart of town, and the ruins of a once magnificent feel. For an über luxurious experience, you’ll want to book yourself into Panorama 360, which is where I personally stayed when I was in town. Get all the details here.
Read more: A complete guide to the best of Mâcon
If I were to name just one underrated city that you’ve probably never heard of, it would be the stunning (and ever-so-green) city of Besançon. The birthplace of Victor Hugo (the famous author) and the Lumière brothers (pioneers of modern cinema as we know it today), this stunning French settlement is best-known for its Vauban fortifications and medieval gates.
Set across several levels and close to the French border of Switzerland, this hidden gem of France also boasts a history of ‘watchmaking’ and was known in the Roman era as Vesontio. Visit the greenest city in l’Hexagone and you surely won’t be disappointed.
Read more: How to visit the birthplace of Victor Hugo