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The soul of France is found in the small towns. And this country can please even the most seasoned traveler with its kaleidoscope of landscapes, architectural styles, and culinary traditions. You can go to the quaint port towns of the Atlantic coast, the glitzy French Riviera gems, the vineyard cities of the center, ski capitals of the Alps, and the spa resorts next to the dormant volcanoes. Traveling through the French countryside is a bucket list thing to do in its own right, something of a transformative journey through some of the most scenic places on Earth. Here are the most beautiful small towns in France to inspire your next vacation.
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Côte d’Azur at its most authentic, Sanary-sur-Mer is where you should go to feel the charms of the South of France. A quiet fishing town, largely ignored by the mass tourism that Cannes or Saint-Tropez is famous for, Sanary is a pleasure to discover. Harbor boats slowly shake from the gentle Mediterranean waves to the backdrop of historic terracotta buildings. You’re in a French Riviera dream. It’s full of sun, seafood, old churches, and, of course, wine. And you’re not alone in Sanary-sur-Mer fascination, a pioneer of deep-sea diving Jacques-Yves Cousteau had a villa here and so did British writers Aldous Huxley and D. H. Lawrence.
If Gondor from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings would have a European equivalent Briançon is an ideal contender for the comparison. A town-fort surrounded by the Alps, it is officially the highest city in France. Its upper town is a UNESCO World Heritage site thanks to the mighty walls designed by French military engineer Vauban. The town itself is placed inside the protective walls and you have steep narrow streets with pretty colored houses to explore. But Briançon is not only the fortress, the town is one of the important ski centers of the Hautes-Alpes department with access to the Serre Chevalier Ski area shared with Italy. In other words, apart from historic discovery, you have absolutely breathtaking mountain vistas and a wide array of outdoor activities to choose from.
Having long been a favorite place for European royals to holiday, Biarritz is still running strong as one of the most striking towns along the Atlantic coast of France. The stretched-out sandy beaches here are among the best for surfing on the continent. While the abundance of luxury hotels, upscale restaurants, and casinos bow to the spotless reputation of Biarritz among the wealthy and famous, the French Basque country culture and traditions can be found as easily. The titan of American literature Ernest Hemingway enjoyed the ocean charms of the city too, having spent some quality time at local luxury icon Hôtel du Palais. The town is featured in his debut novel The Sun Also Rises.
Remy Martin, Hennessy, Martell, do these names sound familiar? The famed double-distilled spirit that conquered the world has a home and it’s a small town of Cognac in south-western France. Not only it is the only place on the planet where the drink can be produced legally owning to geographical origin laws, but it’s also a typical picturesque French small town with a beautiful Old Town and plenty of things to do. The central place is, of course, given to the production houses of cognac that all have visitor hubs and will be glad to walk you through the process of creating the drink. But you can also visit many fascinating historic attractions like the medieval quarter Vieux Cognac, the Royal Castle, and the scenic Pont Neuf on the Charente river.
Lourdes would be a typical Pyrenean small town with a medieval fortress on top and lovely streets full of colorful historic buildings save for one fact. According to the Catholic canon, in 1858 the local girl Bernadette Soubirous witnessed a vision of the Virgin Mary in one of the grottos near the city. Today Lourdes is among the largest pilgrimage sites in Europe that draws thousands of religious travelers from France and beyond. The water from the springs here is considered healing, the grotto of Massabielle where the apparition took place is treated with veneration, and the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes is one of the most breathtaking church areas in the world. Even if you’re not a Catholic, the town is a must-visit in the French southwest for its fascinating history and proximity to stunning Pyrenees National Park.
Oenophiles and wine lovers alike should put the small French town of Saint-Émilion on their list. Surrounded by the wine hills and boasting UNESCO protection for the centuries-old wine-making traditions, this city offers a romantic medieval atmosphere and variety of tasting experiences of the drink of the Gods. Base yourself here and go on a tour around the many chateaux (wineries) around the city in a dream vacation to the French heartland. Be sure to also visit the town’s landmark, an incredible 12th-century Saint-Émilion Monolithic Church with a 173-foot-high bell tower.
It seems as the wheel of time decided to take a break in Provins. This small UNESCO-protected medieval gem is one of the favorite day trips from Paris. Strolling around its cozy cobbled streets it’s easy to see why, the town is pure joy, an idyllic French destination that is set among the pastoral setting of the Île-de-France region. Here you find majestic medieval walls encircling the historic city core full of stone houses, authentic French restaurants, and relaxing cafes. The centerpiece of the town is César Tower, a former watching outpost open for visits and boasting spectacular views from the top.
As one of the best connoisseurs of the allure of French hedonist pastimes, Hemingway has been to many small towns around the country. Le Grau-du-Roi is the location of his novel The Garden of Eden where the main protagonists enjoy their honeymoon. The town is indeed perfect for a romantic holiday thanks to its amazing long sandy beaches and a unique location between the Meditteranean sea and expansive wetlands of Camargue. The geography gives you a chance to easily explore both the wonderful coast and the numerous étangs (brine lagoons) full of colorful birds. The town itself is a classical French resort with palm trees dotting an elegant promenade and lazy cafe life next to windswept houses. A short drive away from Le Grau-du-Roi is Aigues-Mortes which is among the most impressive small towns in France thanks to its enormous system of medieval walls.
For one of the most cinematic destinations in French look no further than Étretat. This small town jewel of Normandy is among the most picture-perfect places in Europe thanks to the awe-inspiring gigantic white cliffs (called Les Falaises) that pierce majestically into the Atlantic ocean. If you’re into impressionism or art there will certainly be a wow moment when you descend to the beach and see the Falaise d’Aval, a gorgeous arched cliff that was famously featured in the paintings of Claude Monet and Gustave Courbet. Netflix Omar Sy-led series Lupin was also shot here and so was Luc Besson-directed Lucy with Scarlet Johansson. Beauty lives in Étretat and you can easily come here to get a glimpse of natural grandeur.
With a fantastic panorama of multicolored houses competing for space on a hilly terrain next to the Mediterranean coast, Menton is one of the most beautiful small towns in the South of France. Presenting a fascinating blend of French and Italian cultures, it’s a microcosm of its own with a local Mentonasc dialect, a powerful lemon industry, and rich history of being a border town. Tourists come here for extra Instagrammable city views, great beaches, and excellent restaurants. Also, Menton houses two works by famous French Dadaist Jean Cocteau, you can find his decorations in Bastion Museum and in Town Hall’s room for marriages.
Timber houses neighbor fashionable hotels, horse tracks, and casinos in Deauville, one of the best-loved upmarket seaside retreats in France among European high society. Coco Chanel spent time with her lover Boy Capel here, Marcel Proust based his magnum opus In Search of Lost Time on Deauville, Yves Saint Laurent owned a villa in the city. Its English Channel beach is long and contemplative, perfect for walks and outdoor fun. It features iconic beach closets with celebrity names on them, since 1975 Deauville has been a location of the respected American Film Festival. Also, it’s very easy to visit Trouville and Cabourg from here, the other two iconic Côte Fleurie (Flowery Coast) resorts with the luxurious proposition and more Atlantic vistas.