Deciding which are the best cities to visit in France is not an easy task. This country is packed with incredibly interesting places to visit.
From large, international metropolis with art galleries and museums where to get lost for hours to charming coastal towns perfect for a summer getaway (and not only); from wine cities to savor the best of French food and wine to archeological and historical gems – France really has it all and it is no wonder that millions of tourists flock there every year.
Curious to discover which are the best cities to visit in the country, and what to see and do in each of them? Continue reading, but mind you – my selection is by no means exhaustive!
The 11 Best Cities To Visit In France
When you mention the best cities to visit in France, you just can’t skip its gorgeous capital on the banks of the Seine River. The city is so vast, there are so many things to do that some visitors never even make it out of it to explore the rest of the country.
A gorgeous mix of large boulevards and narrow alleys; modern state of the art buildings and beautiful antique palaces; fantastic restaurants, small cafés and bakeries that sell the most delicious bread and cakes, Paris also has small art galleries and endless shopping opportunities.
Thought to be one of the most romantic cities in the world along with others such as Rome, Buenos Aires, New York, Lisbon and Cape Town, Paris is also a fantastic destination for solo travelers and families with children.
Not far from Eiffel Tower, from the Arc de Triomphe, built in 1806 to commemorate the many battles of Napoleon, and via the Champs Elysées, the most famous street in Paris you can go all the way to Place de la Concorde, one of the most famous squares in town.
Head to Montmarte, the most famous art district in Paris, for narrow streets, small cafés, art galleries and souvenir shops, and while there go to the Sacre Coeur, one of the most famous churches in town with marble structure and dazzling golden interiors are dazzling – check out this guided tour here.
Another must see is the massive Louvre, easily one of the best collections of art you can think of. It’s where pieces such as Michelangelo’s Dying Slave, the Greek Venus of Milo and Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa are housed. Musee d’Orsay is another excellent art gallery.
Other must-sees in Paris are the Moulin Rouge, which opened for the first time in 1889 and is known for its windmill and for being the birthplace of the “can-can” dance; the Pantheon, which was originally a church but it’s been turned into a mausoleum during the time of the French Revolution – it’s where Voltaire, Victor Hugo and Marie Curie are buried; the Père Lachaise Cemetery, where you can spot the tomb of famous French singer Edith Piaf, Door’s lead singer Jim Morrison, and Irish author Oscar Wilde.
Finally, when in Paris you should definitely plan a day trip to Versailles, a huge palace famous for its Hall of Mirrors and which was built to be a hunting lodge in the 17th century upon orders of Louis XIII, but which during the reign of Louis XIV was extended beyond its lodge form. To make the most of it, join a guided tour. You can book it here.
Make sure to read my posts:
- 33 Incredible Places To Visit In Paris
- The Best Paris Travel Tips
- The Best Museums In Paris
- A Week In Paris Itinerary: What To See And Do
- A Wonderful Itinerary For 5 Days In Paris
- A Fantastic Itinerary To See Paris In 4 Days
- Paris In 3 Days: A Great Itinerary To Make The Most Of It
- A Fabulous Itinerary For 2 Days In Paris
- The Perfect Itinerary To See Paris In A Day
- 15 Amazing Day Trips From Paris
- 27 Cool Things To Do In Montmartre, Paris
- Seven Smart Ways To Get Versailles Tickets And Skip The Line
- How To Avoid The Most Common Paris Scams
- How To Get From Charles De Gaulle Airport CDG To Paris
The capital of French wine and one of the best cities if you are a lover of good food and wine, Bordeaux is located in the region of Aquitane. Contrary to Paris, this is a much smaller city where, however, you will find plenty to keep yourself busy.
When in Bordeaux, make it a point to visit Place de la Bourse, a beautiful square surrounded by elegant 18th century buildings, where you will also find Le Miroir d’Eau, a series of fountains that, spraying water, create a wall that looks like mirror and where the image of the square is reflected. Behind the square, Saint-Pierre Quarter is the nicest part of the historic center of Bordeaux, which is UNESCO enlisted since 2007.
For birds-eye views of the city, walk up the 299 steps to the top of Pey-Berland Tower. The Gothic bell tower built next to Cathédrale Saint-André. To catch some local action, walk along the banks of the Garonne, where you will also find art galleries and nice cafés.
Finally, when in Bordeaux make it a point to go wine tasting. From the newly built Cité du Vin (an exhibit center entirely dedicated to wine) to the many wine bars and the unmissable wine tours, Bordeaux is packed with places where you can sit, relax and savor the best wines of France.
For more things to do in Bordeaux, head to this post by The Crowded Planet.
Located between the Rhone and Saone rivers, close to the Alps and to the Mediterranean, Lyon is the third largest city in France. It was founded by the Romans in 43 BC – signs of its past are still well visible in town – and since then held a strategic position in the routes followed by merchants. Other than the well kept Roman ruins, scattered around town you will find some beautiful renaissance buildings. There also are plenty of excellent restaurants to enjoy local cuisine – make sure to visit a bouchon for a great meal.
If there is one place you shouldn’t be missing when in Lyon, that’s its cathedral. This gothic church was built between the 12th and the 15 century. It’s been kept so well overtime that the 1300s stained-glass windows – which were removed and kept safe during WWII bombings – are still original.
Vieux Lyon is one of the largest renaissance quarters on the continent. It dates back to between the 15th and the 17th century, a time when the city was an important center for the production of silk, and rich merchants established themselves in the city, building their gorgeous mansions there. The traboules are one of the highlights of this part of town – they are passageways that were built during renaissance to give direct access to the Saone river; they run beneath buildings!
Another must see is the Ancient Theater of Fourvière, on the left bank of the Saone River. This Roman amphitheater could hold up to 10000 spectators in its heyday. Unfortunately, only the middle and lower terraces are now visible. Finally, make sure to explore Fourvière Basilica, a church located on the Fourvière hill, in an area where several Roman sites were discovered in the 19th century. You can see it before or after visiting the Ancient Theater.
Marseille is the second largest and the oldest city in France (it was founded 2600 years ago), and one of the most interesting places to visit in the country.
Though there are many beautiful monuments and interesting museums, it is the Old Port (Vieux Port) and the calanques that really steal the show there.
The Vieux Port is where you should go in search of seafood restaurants, to ride the Ferris wheel and to admire the best sunset in town. From the Old Port, you will be able to head to other attractions in town, such as Notre Dame de la Garde Basilica, located on top of a hill that overlooks the Mediterranean sea and the city – views from there are impressive.
Easily accessible from the Vieux Port, Le Panier is Marseille’s Old Town, a lovely, colorful and well preserved neighborhood where it is pleasant to walk around, sit at a café or browse one of the many small shops. Head to Palais Longchamp to visit the Museum of Art, the oldest museum in town.
Finally, when in Marseille make it a point to go on a boat ride to visit Calanques National Park. You will get impressive views, visit some gorgeous beaches and enjoy the fresh marine breeze. If boats aren’t your thing, you can even bike there or rent a kayak to go from cove to cove – book your tour here.
This lovely coastal town located on the Côte d’Azur is where you will find some of the nicest pebble beaches in France as well as the famous 7 km long Promenade des Anglais. Built in the 1820s, this is where the Nice Carnival and any other parade in town takes place. It’s where local families take their children for a walk, and where you will spot people running or riding their bike, or walking their dog.
The Old Town (Vieille Ville) is a series of narrow alleys, colorful buildings, independent small shops and fantastic small restaurants. It’s a lovely part of town to go for a walk, and it will remind you of Italy – after all, Nice was part of Italy until the Treaty of Turin in 1860. When in the Old Town, make sure to pop inside Cours Saleya Market, a beautiful fresh produce and flower market that runs every day of the week but on Mondays, where in its place you’ll find a flea market.
A short distance from Nice, Cap-Ferrat is a famous luxury destination in the French Riviera and one of the best places to visit in France, where you will be able to spot some incredible mansions dating back to the beginning of the 20th century.
You can visit Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild and walk along the coastal trail to admire the beautiful coastline – it’s the best way to get to the nicest beaches in the area, perfect to enjoy some sunbathing and a nice dip in the sea during the summer. Some beaches are public, others are private and you can rent loungers and umbrellas for extra comfort.
I visited Aix-en-Provence for the first time in July 2003 (forever ago, I know) and fell in love with it instantly. Located in the gorgeous region of Provence, this smaller town is quintessentially French – southern French, indeed. You will find plenty of nice small shops, cafés, and a fabulously quaint and relaxing atmosphere.
The best starting point to explore Aix-en-Provence is Vieil Aix, the Old Town – it’s a series of nice squares, fountains, cobbled streets and also where you will find Cours Mirabeau, the best known avenue in town.
If you fancy visiting a museum, head to the Musée Granet – the art collection is incredible with a display that ranges from the 14th century to contemporary times. Aix is also home to Paul Cézanne art studio (the Atelier de Cézanne). If you are a fan, head to the Terrain des Peintres, where the painter enjoyed painting.
This gorgeous small town in Alsace, close to the German border is packed with history and traditions, for the half-timbered houses and famous for its Christmas market – one of the best Christmas Markets in Europe.
Strasbourg Gothic Cathedral certainly remains an impressive sight. If you are visiting in the spring, make sure to head to the lovely Parc de l’Orangerie. Other sights include the district of La Petite France, packed with canals and half-timbered houses, and the European Parliament building.
Finally, you may want to use Strasbourg as a base to explore the wine routes of Alsace. You can book your wine tour here.
This is definitely one of the best cities to visit in France, with lots to see and do. The historic center is UNESCO-listed and packed to the brim with grandeur.
The main must see is the Cathédrale Saint-Bénigne, a beautiful church built in Burgundian Gothic style. The Musée des Beaux-Arts is a great museum not only for its impressive art collection but also because it is housed in the Palais des Ducs, where the Dukes of Burgundy lived in the Middle Ages.
Les Halles is the best place to go to shop for Dijon’s most famous culinary invention – Dijon style mustard. The most famous shops in town are Maison Maille, which first opened in 1747, and and Edmund Fallot, which was inaugurated in 1840. Needless to say, Dijon is a great place to appreciate French cuisine!
Finally, Dijon is a great starting point to explore the wine region of Burgundy. You can book your wine tasting tour here.
Known as La Ville Rose (Pink City in French) thanks to the red-brick buildings, Toulouse is one of the youngest and – by all means – best cities in France. Despite being a fairly large city, it enjoys an easy going atmosphere. Located in the southwest of the country, the city enjoys mild weather year round – and so you will find it packed with outdoor cafés.
The main sight in town is the Basilique Saint-Sernin, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The church was build in the 11th century in Romanesque style and to be located along the pilgrimage route of Saint James to Santiago de Compostela. Another unmissable church is the Couvent des Jacobins.
The main square, Place du Capitole, is simply impressive. Finally, you may want to check out the Japanese Garden.
I love Annecy! This small city located in the French Alps is also known as “the pearl of French Alps” or “Venice of the Alps” because of the many canals that cross the city. It’s a popular summer destination as it provides for a nice respite from the heat of nearby places, and an easy day trip from Geneva, across the border in Switzerland. The Château d’Annecy is a must see!
The capital of Brittany, Nantes deserves to be mentioned among the best cities to visit in France. The main attractions are all located in the Quartier Bouffay, where you will find the lively Place du Bouffay, the Cathedrale Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul and the stunning Château des Ducs de Bretagne, where you will also find the history museum (Musée d’Histoire de Nantes), a great place to learn about the 1598 Edict of Nantes signed by King Henry IV.
Practical Tips To Plan Your Trip To France
When to visit France
Nice and Marseille are among the best cities to visit in France in the spring and summer months, when you can enjoy the coast. Others, like Bordeaux, are perfect in the late summer and in the very early autumn, during or right after the harvest, or in the spring, when the vineyards are at their greenest. Paris is the ultimate romantic destination in the fall.
How to get to the best cities to visit in France
Traveling to the best cities to visit in France is as easy as it gets. International airports are scattered around the country, and most cities are well connected to the rest of Europe and North America via Air France flights.
How to move around France
Public transportation in France works perfectly so you have not a thing to worry about! You can take advantage of high speed trains to move around the country and, for longer distances, you can also fly – Air France connects all the main cities in the country.
For shorter trips ie around the Côte d’Azur, Marseille and Bordeaux, I recommend renting a car so that you get to enjoy the pleasures of a road trip and can stop wherever you wish to take in the fabulous views.
Other useful information
As always, I suggest getting a good travel insurance. Get yours here.
Check out my post “Why You Need A Good Travel Insurance.”
For more readings about France and more detailed information on what to see and do and how to move around the cities you intend to visit, you can visit the website of Air France.
Legal Disclaimer: This post was written in cooperation with Air France. As always, the views expressed remain my own.