France is one of the most beautiful countries in Europe with many beautiful destinations to discover and explore. Many of them often get overlooked due to the more popular destinations like Paris, Nice and Toulouse. So for those looking to explore the hidden gems in France off-the-beaten path, here are 15 towns to add to your France itinerary.
By Emma Verhaeghe
Strasbourg is, without doubt, one of the most impressive cities in France and is a perfect hidden gem in France off-the-beaten path for you to explore. Lying on the border of France and Germany the city has been part of both countries during its history. This is also the reason why you’ll see French as well as German influences in Strasbourg. It’s a must to visit the older French neighbourhood as well as the slightly newer German neighbourhood!
Strasbourg is generally known for two things. First, the city is home to the European Parliament. You can find this impressive building where most major European decisions are taken right outside the city centre! Second, Strasbourg can be considered the Capital of Christmas. In this historic city, you’ll find one of the largest Christmas markets in Europe! During the month of December, all streets are magnificently decorated and every corner of the city centre has been transformed into a Christmas paradise. You can stroll around the different stands, take a look at local crafts and taste delicious French comfort food. Thus, it’s definitely worth considering visiting Strasbourg in December!
Besides its Christmas market and the European parliament, other wonderful gems to visit in Strasbourg you cannot miss include its marvellous cathedral which dates back to the 15th century and its very charming neighbourhood Petite France. In Petite France, you’ll find the most cosy restaurants and wonderful views conveyed by its canals. No wonder this is the most photographed region of Strasbourg!
The beautiful city of Metz is located in the Northeast of France, near the borders of Germany and Luxembourg and is one of the pretty hidden gems in France off-the-beaten path. On a visit you will have the chance to explore many lovely places in that town: Picturesque gardens, a historic old town, the many delicious French restaurants and noble boutiques are just a few of the top things to see on any trip to Metz.
This charming town is settled directly on the marvelous Moselle River, where bridges connect to the island of Saulcy, a charming area with many buildings from the 18th century. On warm summer days, people love to stroll along the riverbanks, having a picnic or taking a romantic boat ride on the beautiful river.
The main attraction and an absolute must-visit is the Metz Cathedral – Saint-Étienne – one of the most beautiful and largest Gothic church buildings in France. Also interesting is the Opéra-Théatre de Metz Métropole (Opera House), which is one the oldest opera house in Europe.
Another highlight is the Place Saint-Jacques, which is well known by locals and tourists for its many lovely cafés and restaurants whose terraces are popular in summer.
All in all, Metz is truly amazing and with lots of historic charm and plenty of wonderful attractions for sure one of the best places to visit in France!
Barfleur is a beautiful small village in the north of France, easily reachable by public transport from Cherbourg. It make a beautiful stop on your hidden gems in France off-the-beaten path trip. Located on the tip of the Normandy region, Barfleur is best known locally for the wild mussels grown in the waters here, called Blonde de Barfleur. They are renowned all over France for their quality and are often cooked with calvados, another culinary delight of Normandy. You can taste the Blonde de Barfleur mussels at any of the fish restaurants in the village, when in season. Whilst most of the mussels come from farms these days, in Barfleur they are still wild.
Barfleur is not a touristy destination, which makes it a perfect place to visit if you are not a fan of the crowds. The beaches around Barfleur are wild and beautiful, easily accessible by foot on the Normandy Coastal Path which connects Mont-St-Michel to Cherbourg. Just a few miles outside of Barfleur you can visit the Gatteville lighthouse, which is the third tallest of its kind in the world.
The village of Barfleur is quiet but very pretty, with stone houses decorated with lavender pots on the windowsills. In the harbor, you can observe the local fishermen working on their boats after they have returned with their daily catch.
Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer is the capital of Camargue, undisputedly one of mainland France’s most incredible, natural regions. It should definitely make it on your hidden gems in France off-the-beaten path itinerary. The town itself comes alive in the summer with its sandy beaches and seafood restaurants and ice cream parlors around almost every corner. In Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, be sure to climb up the town’s church tower for a panoramic view and eat fresh, affordable seafood at La Cabane Aux Coquillages.
Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer makes a great base to explore some of the greatest things to do in Camargue. Situated just outside the town is where you will find pink salt flats, flamingos and other bird species, and the fortified walls of Aigues-Mortes.
The two salt flats in Camargue can be found in Aigues-Mortes and Salin-de-Giraud. Today, the sites are still used to produce salt but it’s only possible to visit them during certain times of the year. In Aigues-Mortes, you can visit the flats via walking, biking, or taking their petit train. Salin-de-Giraud is further from Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer than Aigues-Mortes is, but is less visited by tourists.
Located less than ten minutes by car or one hour by foot from Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer is the Ornithological Park of Pont de Gau, home to flamingos and other animal and bird species. The park is open daily and you will have to pay an entry fee. Since the park is huge, plan to spend a few hours there. You can explore the park on its walking trails and potentially even witness the feeding of the flamingos.
Other activities to do around Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer include visiting the fortified, colorful city of Aigues-Mortes, going horseback riding, and taking a boat ride down Le Petit Rhône and witnessing more bird species, bulls, and horses.
Cap Ferret is a chic seaside town known for its wild Atlantic beaches, surfing and fresh oysters. Located an hour west from Bordeaux in the southwest of France, it’s where the French like to escape to for a laidback weekend. It’s not to be confused with Cap Ferrat, which is a blinged-out town on the southeast of France, where you will see international jetsetters and mega yachts. Instead in Cap Ferret you are rewarded with a remote oasis and all the luxuries you want at hand, but no crowds.
There are many fun things to do in Cap Ferret. Stop in at the Cap Ferret Market, which sells stylish clothing and housewares and pick out a colorful beach blanket to take with you to the beach. Next, walk the Atlantic coastline and go for a swim in the baine, a large natural pool formed by the waves and tide from the ocean. It’s usually warmer than the Atlantic ocean which runs parallel to it.
After a swim at the beach, stop in at Chez Boulon for fresh oysters and local white wine. Cap Ferret is known as the oyster capital of France, so they are a must try! In the evening, have a picnic by the beach and watch the surfers surf into sunset.
The best way to get to Cap Ferret is by flying or taking the train to Bordeaux and then renting a car for the hour drive west.
Cirque de Gavarnie
One of the most beautiful places in France is undoubtedly the Cirque de Gavarnie and makes a perfect stop on your hidden gems in France off-the-beaten path itinerary.
This breathtaking location is high up in the French Pyrenees mountains. It’s an ampitheatre, with mountains surrounding a natural bowl on three sides. Inside the bowl is a valley, which includes the highest waterfall on mainland France. There’s also a gently flowing river and the most incredible views- especially if you visit on a sunny day.
It’s possible to hike for hours around the area, or you can hire a horse or donkey if you wish. Entry is free to walk up towards the waterfall, although you do need to pay for parking. Don’t worry if you’re motorhoming in France– there’s space for all sizes of vehicles and driving there is fairly easy. It’s better to have your own vehicle as public transport is not frequent.
Top tip- get there as early as you can. In high season it will become very crowded and so many people ruins the atmosphere, so the earlier you can arrive the better. Also, if you have a dog, you can’t walk all the way to the waterfall, but you can hike far enough to get great photos and it’s still about an hour each way.
Palace of Versailles
The Palace of Versailles is spectacularly beautiful and one of France’s top attractions. It has eight million visitors each year making it one of the hidden gems in France off-the-beaten path.
In 1607 Louis XIII began hunting in the area and in 1623, built a small castle to use as a hunting lodge. In 1661, Louis XIV – ‘the sunshine king’- began a reconstruction program The palace was lavishly built and decorated and was used as a royal palace before it became the main residence of the French government. In 1837 Louis-Philippe turned it into a museum ‘dedicated to the glories of France’. On 28 June 1919, the Treaty of Versailles which ended the Great War, was signed in its Hall of Mirrors.
Other highlights include the 60,000 artworks that span five centuries of French history. Galerie des Glaces – the Hall of Mirrors is a huge room decorated with 350 mirrors – in the 17th century, mirrors were as precious as diamonds. Le Grand Perspective is the best view from the palace and can be enjoyed from the middle window in the Hall of Mirrors. Marie Antoinette’s richly decorated bedroom is where 19 royal children have been born. The Grand Chapel is dazzlingly beautiful with a long nave. It was here that Marie Antoinette was married to the Dauphin.
The incredible garden is world-famous and took André le Nôtre 40 years to complete. The main feature in them is the two-kilometer-long narrow lake. Louis XIV had two gondolas and four gondoliers shipped over from Venice for it, but today, there are just rowing boats to hire!
Bayeux is a small Normandy town, old but amazingly well preserved. You will feel you are stepping back hundreds of years as you wander the cobblestone lanes surrounded by medieval half-timbered gems. The River Aure flows along, watched over by leafy trees, adding to the tranquility.
You can zip here by train from Paris in just over two hours, so Bayeux is a perfect getaway from city life. And Bayeux offers amazing sights. Perhaps best known is the Bayeux Tapestry, now included on the UNESCO Memory of the World Register. This artwork is more than 900 years old and is on display in its own museum. The intricate scenes depict events leading up to the Norman conquest of England by William, Duke of Normandy and ending with the Battle of Hastings. At 230 feet long and 20 inches high, the tapestry is the largest and best-preserved work of art in this style from the Middle Ages.
The Cathedral Notre Dame in the center of town dominates the skyline and dates to 1077. While the outside architecture impresses, the inside is also beautiful. The stained glass and graceful arches create a place of peace.
Bayeux makes a perfect base for touring the nearby D-Day beaches. Omaha Beach at Colleville-sur-Mer is home to the lovely cemetery that’s the final resting place for almost 10,000 American soldiers. Other D-Day beaches can also easily be reached from Bayeux.
To top off reasons to visit Bayeux, the cuisine will delight. The surrounding Normandy countryside hosts farms and meadows filled with cows, so fresh produce and dairy foods are as good as you’ll enjoy anywhere. Cheeses are a specialty. And you can always pick up a fresh baguette, a bottle of wine, and pastries and head out to enjoy a picnic in this lovely Normandy setting.
Kaysersberg is a village located in Haut-Rhin, Alsace and makes a perfect addition to your hidden gems in France off-the-beaten path itinerary. If you were looking for a reason to visit Eastern France, this is it: This tiny village with less than 3000 inhabitants embodies everything Alsace has to offer and more.
You can park your car at the parking lot outside the village and spend the day wandering around the streets, occasionally stopping for a croissant or a bretzel (you’re in Alsace after all!). The colorful timbered houses and the sound of the rushing river that cuts the town in half will make you feel like you’ve entered a fairytale. Once you’ve had enough of wandering around, head through the gates on the Northern side to see the vineyards growing on a slope right next to the village. You can walk around the vines, and most people take this opportunity to hike to Kaysersberg’s beautiful medieval castle.
The best season to visit Kaysersberg is summer or early fall, as this is when the vines will be the most beautiful. Alternatively, if you’re planning on visiting during winter make sure to hit the Kaysersberg Christmas market! Insider tip: try to avoid going on weekends and / or during school holidays. Locals love this village too! Getting there before 11 A.M. will also ensure you get to visit the place without being overwhelmed by tourists.
You can stay in one of the many hotels in Kaysersberg, or you can take a day trip from Colmar, Strasbourg, or any other neighboring city.
by Victoria Heinz
Mont Saint-Michel is one of the most beautiful hidden gems in France off-the-beaten path. Located on an island in the bay of Mont Saint-Michel this impressive fortress is the perfect day-trip destination. You can visit Mont Saint-Michel for free and there are even complimentary shuttle buses taking you there.
The walk is also very beautiful though with incredible views over the bay. It takes around 45 minutes to get there from the mainland with plenty of time to stop for photos. During the summer months, it gets quite hot though so take plenty of water and sunscreen. In Mont Saint-Michel itself, there is plenty to see and do. Visit the iconic abbey and marvel at the historic architecture. There is a small entrance fee but it’s definitely worth it. Mont-Saint Michel might not be very large but there are a lot of quiet side streets and little corners where you can have a picnic or just enjoy the views for a while. To take the best photos of Mont-Saint Michel you should walk along the nearby coastline. This is especially advisable in the early mornings when the light will be perfectly illuminating the island. You can also walk out into the bay during low-tide but watch out for rising tides and always put your own safety first.
by Claudia Tavani, My Adventures Across The World
One hour and 30 minutes north of Paris in the department of Oise, part of the region of Piccardy, Beauvais is known to international travelers for being one of the main budget flights hubs in France. Most people land there and immediately hop on a bus to Paris. Those who decide to remain end up discovering one of the most precious hidden gems in the country, with beautiful churches, pristine surroundings and where time seems to have stopped. Beauvais should definitely make it to your hidden gems in France off-the-beaten path itinerary.
Beauvais main attraction is the magnificent Saint-Pierre Cathedral, a medieval church with the tallest gothic choir in the world – it’s over 48 meters! Believe it or not, however, up until 1573 the tower measured 153 meters and it was the tallest building in the world. Make sure to also pop inside to admire the intricate astronomical clock. The cathedral’s surroundings offer impressive medieval and Roman ruins.
Another place you should not miss is the MuDo – the Musee d’Oise. Aside from being located in a beautiful building, you’ll find paintings by Sisley and Camille Corot, and the marble tomb of painter Charles Fresnoy.
North of the city, Parc Marcel-Dassault is a great place for a stroll. Not far from Beauvais, Gerberoy is a lovely tiny village with half timbered cottages; and at about 45 minutes drive you’ll find the gorgeous castle of Chantilly.
Other things to do in Beauvais include a visit to the boulangerie-patisserie (bakery) called La Byzantine. They make the best cakes and croissants in the region. Make sure to also enjoy dinner at Le Palais D’Antan, with beautiful views of the cathedral: the atmosphere is truly quaint; the menu varies daily depending on what the chef gets his hands on, so you know you’ll be having only the freshest ingredients used to prepare traditional dishes with a contemporary twist.
Beauvais is so close to the French capital that it’s a great place for day trips from Paris, but spending a couple of days there will reward you with its atmosphere that is a million miles away from that of the big city.
by Lauren Allen
Colmar is without a doubt one of the most picture-perfect locations in France and makes one of the most beautiful hidden gems in France off-the-beaten path! This incredibly colourful town has a lot to answer for. Situated close to the German border in the North-East of the country, Colmar has seen a large influx of travellers in recent years.
When you look at photos of the town online, it really isn’t hard to see why. The bright rows of buildings look like something straight out of a fairytale. As such, one of the best things to do in Colmar is to go for a wander! Photography enthusiasts will be in their element as they snap photos of the bold facades and unique charm.
Once your done walking the streets, it’s time to take to the canals! Jumping in a boat for a cruise around Little Venice is a must. On a sunny day, this calming activity is truly stunning and really shouldn’t be missed. It gives you the opportunity to see Colmar from a whole other perspective.
Next up, head out for some great food at one of the towns most loved restaurants. Bistrot des Lavandieres is a fab option offering visitors the chance to dine alfresco. They serve up a variety of delicious dishes (including duck) and cater to several dietary requirements.
Lastly, Colmar is a sucker for a celebration. Throughout the year during events such as Easter and Christmas, the whole town gets a makeover. Due to this, visiting Colmar at these times is even more magical! Make sure you pop this French gem right at the top of your bucket list…
by Elisa from France Bucket List
The medieval Cité de Carcassonne is one of the most beautiful places to visit in France. This UNESCO World Heritage site is located in the French region of Occitanie, Southern France, not far from top cities like Bordeaux or Toulouse.
The Cité de Carcassonne consists of a medieval castle and houses surrounded by 3km of walls. It is a fairytale place to visit, perfect for a weekend getaway or a more extended trip in Southern France.
The walled town is famous for being one of the last Cathar strongholds against the crusaders. Catharism was a religion that flourished in the Languedoc region in the 12th and 13th centuries considered, and it was considered a heresy by the Catholics.
In Carcassonne, you can visit the castle and the small museum inside containing some Cathar artifacts. The castle’s entrance ticket also gives access to the ramparts, and walking along the ramparts is Carcassonne’s main highlight.
There’s also the Basilique Saint Nazaire, in gothic style, and some shops offering regional products and souvenirs for tourists.
During your visit to Carcassonne, don’t miss to get a taste of the regional food. Carcassonne is primarily known for the bouillabaisse, and you will find many restaurants, inside and outside the walls, proposing this delicious dish.
by Elisa from World in Paris
The picturesque town of Giverny is one of the best day trips from Paris and is one of the perfect hidden gems in France off-the-beaten path. Giverny is located in the French region of Normandy, Northern France, and it is world-known for being Claude Monet’s latest home.
Monet moved from Paris to Giverny when he was already a famous painter, looking for a more picturesque environment for painting. Here, he built magnificent gardens with a pond, a Japanese bridge, and some beautiful trees. Monet’s garden and the pond with the water lilies are Giverny’s main highlights, where he painted some of his latest masterworks.
Monet’s house and gardens in Giverny are open from early spring to late fall. The gardens are always beautiful to see, but if you want to see the water lilies, you need to visit in the summer, from June to early August.
The painter’s house is also interesting to visit, and it gives a glimpse of his private life. The different rooms and halls and bright and colorful, and you can also visit Monet’s studio, built next to the house in a former granary. He painted in the studio when it was too cold outside and met his friends and clients.
It is possible to visit Giverny on a day trip from Paris by train plus shuttle bus or with a guided tour.
by by Anuradha from Country Hopping Couple
Cassis is a stunning coastal town sandwiched between the French Riviera cities Marseille and Toulon. Cassis is famous for their white cliffs, azure waters and two of the natural monuments – Cape Canaille and Calanques.
Cassis is only a stone’s throw away from Marseille, second largest city in France. If you are relying on public transport, you can either take the bus or boat to Cassis, both of which offer lovely views of the coast and mountains.
If you enjoy hiking, be sure to hike Cap Canille, the highest maritime cliff in Europe. There are various hiking tours available too. Yet another gem is Calanques National Park, undoubtedly, one of the best place in French Riviera. There are various marked trails, but the routes can be a little challenging due to uneven cliffs. DO NOTE, Calanques and Cap Canille are not accessible during the summer months due to the chance of forest fire. Best time to hike is between March to May when the weather is pleasant and is suitable for hiking.
Alternatively, if hiking is not your thing, you can take boat cruise to explore the Calanques, or walk around the pretty Cassis town. Or hike a kayak and paddle through the turquoise waters enjoying the limestone cliffs. With plethora of things to do in and around Cassis, it is, without any doubt, an irresistible holiday destination in French Riviera.
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