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16 Best Cities in France

Written by Lisa Alexander
Jun 30, 2020

The best cities of France offer endless attractions: superb museums, awe-inspiring cathedrals, charming neighborhoods, fabulous gourmet restaurants, bustling cafés, enticing boutiques, and beautiful gardens. Travelers could spend an entire week to only scratch the surface in Paris, Nice, Lyon, or Bordeaux, but all the cities on this list are worthy of visiting for a few days.

Paris is considered by many to be the most elegant and refined city in the world. Tourists should spend at least three days in Paris, but it's recommended to stay longer to truly get a feel for the place and enjoy a more leisurely pace.

Each city of France is distinctive, reflecting the heritage of the local region. The sunny French Riviera city of Nice reveals an Italian flair, while Strasbourg in the east of France has German-influenced cuisine, and Lille in northern France features the Flemish architecture of neighboring Belgium.

French cities are well designed to receive visitors, with plenty of tourist services. Travelers can rely on efficient public transportation, as well as an extensive choice of hotels and other accommodations. Pinpoint the top places to visit with our list of the best cities in France.

1. Paris

The Eiffel Tower and The Seine at sunrise

Brimming with history and romance, Paris has a special magic that is discovered by wandering its riverside pathways, medieval cobblestone streets, and graceful tree-lined boulevards. Amazing cultural attractions inspire even the most jaded world travelers. The Louvre Museum dazzles visitors with its astounding assortment of masterpieces, and the Eiffel Tower delivers truly breathtaking views.

Besides top-rated museums and historic churches, hidden surprises are found throughout Paris, allowing travelers to discover the French "joie de vivre." For instance, you might stop to relax on a park bench in a fountain-adorned square; treat yourself to decadent desserts at fancy pastry boutiques; or listen to street musicians perform on a Seine River bridge.

In charming corners of the city, like Montmartre and the Latin Quarter, tourists can join in the scene as locals chat with friends at sidewalk cafés and cozy bistros. Neighborhood shops and outdoor markets are also among the best places to visit in Paris, to sample a slice of authentic Parisian life.

Fine-dining restaurants and designer boutiques provide a taste of Paris refinement, as do the ballet, opera, and classical music performances at the opulent Palais Garnier opera house.

But the elegance of Paris is equally accessible simply by taking strolls through the city's formal gardens and along the Grands Boulevards, including the Avenue des Champs-Élysées, the Avenue Montaigne, and the Boulevard Haussmann.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Paris: Best Areas & Hotels

2. Nice

Promenade des Anglais in Nice

Nice offers the best of both worlds: art collections on par with those of Paris plus the sunshine and stunning scenery of the French Riviera. A chic seaside resort town, Nice has lured vacationers since the 1820s. The picturesque city is nestled at the foothills of the Maritime Alps on the Baie des Anges, a wide bay with serene azure waters.

The most delightful aspects of Nice are the Promenade des Anglais, the legendary pedestrian avenue that follows the curve of the bay, and the Vieille Ville (Old Town), which has an Italian influence. This atmospheric maze of cobblestone streets and alleyways is packed with historic monuments including the 17th-century Baroque cathedral.

Other top attractions in Nice include an abundance of art museums and gardens. Beginning in the 1880s and through the 20th century, artists have been drawn to the natural beauty of Nice. Henri Matisse, Marc Chagall, and Raoul Dufy, among others, were inspired by the sublime seaside scenery. Some of their paintings are on display in the Musée Matisse, the Musée National Marc Chagall, and the Musée des Beaux-Arts.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Nice: Best Areas & Hotels

3. Lyon

Lyon

Nestled along the banks of two rivers, Lyon has plenty of attractions but is most famous for its food. Lyon is considered France's capital of gastronomy. Culinary enthusiasts flock to this historic city for a taste of authentic French cuisine. Visitors can experience local dining at one of the city's many "bouchons," cozy brasserie/bistro restaurants that serve traditional Lyonnais fare.

As one of the largest cities in France, Lyon has a buzzing urban ambience. However, the UNESCO-listed Vieux-Lyon (Old Town) has retained the old-world charm of centuries past. The narrow cobblestone streets and covered alleyways are a delight to explore, with discoveries of enticing culinary boutiques and cute cafés adding to the adventure.

Because of its rich cultural heritage and commercial importance, Lyon is often called France's "second city." The Musée des Beaux Arts ranks only behind the Louvre in terms of its exceptional fine arts collection. An astounding assortment of European paintings, including masterpieces by Delacroix, Rubens, and Véronèse, grace the museum walls, while other galleries display Egyptian antiquities and ancient Roman coins.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Lyon: Best Areas & Hotels

4. Bordeaux

Bordeaux Cathedral

UNESCO has designated the entire historic center of Bordeaux as a World Heritage Site because of its rich cultural heritage and abundance of architectural treasures. This elegant city has over 300 classified monuments, with a majestic twin-towered cathedral at its heart.

A port town since the ancient Roman era, Bordeaux reached its zenith during the Age of Enlightenment of the 18th century. During that prosperous period, urban planning flourished, with an abundance of Neoclassical buildings, which gives the city a cohesive look.

The Place de la Bourse reveals the city's role as a center of commerce, while the influence of humanism is seen in Le Grand-Théâtre (opera house). Designed by architect Victor Louis and inaugurated in 1780, this marvelous colonnaded building is considered one of the most sumptuous 18th-century theaters in the world. The lavish interior features glittering chandeliers and a staircase modeled after the one at the Palais Garnier.

The Opéra National de Bordeaux performs (opera, ballet, and music concerts) at Le Grand-Théâtre throughout the year. Attending a performance at Le Grand-Théâtre is one of the most enjoyable things to do while visiting Bordeaux. Tourists may visit the auditorium of the theater year-round (outside of performance hours, in the afternoon) except during the summer season.

Culture hounds will also appreciate the free music concerts at the Place Pey-Berland and the Bordeaux International Organ Festival held at the cathedral during the summertime. For those interested in bargain hunting and shopping for vintage finds, the place to visit is Les Puces de Saint-Michel (flea market) on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays at the Place Saint-Michel.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Bordeaux: Best Areas & Hotels

5. Marseille

Vieux Port in Marseille

Travelers visit Marseille to soak up the vibrant energy and exotic ambience of this authentic working seaport. Steeped in history, Marseille (also spelled Marseilles) is the oldest city in France, with a heritage that dates back 2,600 years. In terms of population, Marseille is the second largest French metropolis.

Marseille is an important cruise port, thanks to its wide harbor and prime situation on the Mediterranean. However, Marseille remains off-the-beaten tourist path compared to the nearby postcard-perfect destinations of Provence, such as the fishing village of Cassis and the quintessential Provençal town of Aix-en-Provence.

The waterfront best reveals the city's cosmopolitan vibes. Many restaurants at the Vieux Port (Old Port) serve excellent seafood dishes, including the local specialty of bouillabaisse, made with ingredients from the local fish market. The Vieux Port also affords spectacular views of the sea and the hilltop Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde, the most iconic landmark in Marseille.

The city's multicultural character can be discovered in Le Panier (the Old Town), which has many Algerian and Middle Eastern restaurants, along with outdoor cafés, trendy clothing shops, and artisan boutiques. This historic quarter features steep narrow streets, quiet squares, and the pastel-painted shuttered houses typical of southern France. Tourists will enjoy wandering around to admire the Old Town's beauty and atmosphere.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Marseilles

6. Lille

Grand Place in Lille

This charming city in northern France is the historic capital of Flanders and is still the most important urban metropolis of the French Flanders region. This area of France shares a cultural heritage with neighboring Belgium. The city's architecture and hearty cuisine reveal the Flemish influence.

One of the main attractions in Lille is the Grand Place (Place du Général de Gaulle), a favorite gathering place for locals and a sensational showcase of Flemish Baroque architecture that impresses tourists. Also not-to-be-missed is the Palais Beaux-Arts, an exceptional fine arts collection housed in a beautiful 19th-century building.

A 40-minute train ride from Lille, the Musée Louvre-Lens is worthy of an excursion. This ultra-modern exhibition space displays rotating exhibits of artwork on loan from the Louvre Museum in Paris. Shuttle buses run from the train station in Lens to the Louvre-Lens Museum.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Lille

7. Aix-en-Provence

Charming, old street in Aix-en-Provence

Aix-en-Provence is emblematic of southern France's culture. With its colorful open-air markets and joyful sidewalk cafés, this alluring town gives tourists a chance to experience the sunny lifestyle of Provence.

Visitors enjoy ambling along the cobblestone streets of the Old Town (Vieil Aix) and stopping to admire fountains in peaceful squares. The city's liveliest avenue, the broad tree-lined Cours Mirabeau, invites visitors to take a leisurely stroll and then relax at one of the avenue's restaurants or outdoor cafés.

Art lovers appreciate Aix-en-Provence for its top-notch museums. The Musée Granet displays a superb collection of fine arts, including paintings from the 14th century through the modern period.

Those interested in the work of Paul Cézanne can visit his art studio (the Atelier de Cézanne), as well as the park (Terrain des Peintres) where he painted en plein air (in the open air). There is also a self-guided walking tour of the places that Cézanne frequented - the Tourist Office in Aix-en-Provence provides brochures.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Aix-en-Provence

8. Rouen

Barthélémy square, Rouen, France

Rouen is a captivating medieval city in Normandy distinguished by its exquisite Gothic churches and quaint half-timbered houses. A cluster of winding medieval streets center around the magnificent Cathédrale Notre-Dame. This impressive 13th-century structure features soaring twin towers and an elaborately sculpted facade, which Claude Monet depicted in a celebrated series of paintings.

Another claim to fame is the town's association with Joan of Arc. Visitors can see where the Maid of Orléans was put on trial (in the dungeon of a 13th-century tower now known as the Tour Jeanne d'Arc), as well as the precise spot (Place du Vieux Marché) where she was martyred. As a tribute to France's famous saint, a contemporary church (the Eglise Jeanne d'Arc) stands at the location where Joan of Arc was executed.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Rouen

9. Amiens

Cathedrale Notre-Dame

Amiens has all the essentials of a cultured French city: a glorious Gothic cathedral, bustling cafés, and interesting museums, plus a few surprise attractions. The city's main treasure is the UNESCO-listed Cathédrale Notre-Dame, the largest Gothic cathedral in France. However, there is plenty to explore beyond the cathedral.

One of France's top fine-arts museums is found in Amiens, the Musée de Picardie, which displays masterpieces of painting and sculpture in a stately Second Empire building. Tourists should also be sure to spend time exploring the Quartier Saint-Leu, a medieval quarter and trendy neighborhood, with many restaurants, cafés, art galleries, and boutiques.

Unique tourist attractions abound in Amiens: the Maison Jules Verne, devoted to the novelist Jules Verne, and the Cirque Jules Verne, a venue for circus shows and a circus school. An especially unusual place is Les Hortillonnages, 300 hectares of canals and swampy islands where marshland gardens grow fruits and vegetables for the local markets.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Amiens

10. Toulouse

Pont Neuf in Toulouse

Toulouse offers the charm of southwest France, complete with balmy weather, sun-drenched outdoor cafés, and hearty cuisine. Although Toulouse is one of the largest metropolitan areas of France with an important commercial sector, the city still has a laid-back feel.

The architecture of Toulouse sets it apart from other towns in southern France. Distinctive red-brick buildings have earned the city its nickname "The Pink City" ("La Ville Rose"). In the mornings and late afternoons, gentle light makes the buildings appear rose-toned in hue.

Toulouse boasts two remarkable churches: the UNESCO-listed Basilique Saint-Sernin, a Romanesque church (dating to the 11th century) that was on the Way of Saint James route to Santiago de Compostela; and the Couvent des Jacobins, which has a breathtaking high-vaulted church and a peaceful cloister featuring colonnaded arcades. Both of these medieval pilgrimage churches were constructed from the red bricks of Toulouse.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Toulouse

11. Montpellier

Place de la Comedie in Montpellier

Relatively undiscovered by tourists, Montpellier in the Languedoc region has so much to offer visitors. The atmospheric historic center, known as L'Écusson, is full of trendy cafés and restaurants hidden within its labyrinth of medieval cobblestone streets.

A prestigious art collection, including many masterpieces of European painting by the Old Masters, hang from the walls of the Musée Fabre. There are also several gorgeous public parks that are well designed for leisure.

Montpellier is a happening multicultural city with a large university student population, which gives the city an energetic and youthful vibe. A new fleet of designer street cars outdo the Paris Métro with artwork by couturier Christian Lacroix.

Exuding a fashionable sensibility, Montpellier features graceful tree-lined boulevards, spacious public squares, and 19th-century Haussmann buildings that are reminiscent of Paris. The Place de la Comédie exemplifies the stylish culture of Montpellier, with its grand Opéra Comédie (Opera House) and lively sidewalk cafés.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Montpellier

12. Dijon

View over rooftops in Dijon

Dijon feels like a small town but has the cultural importance of France's larger cities. Within the UNESCO-listed historic center, an abundance of architectural treasures reveal the city's aristocratic heritage.

At the heart of Dijon are the Cathédrale Saint-Bénigne, a splendid Burgundian Gothic monument, and the Palais des Ducs, which was the residence of the Dukes of Burgundy during the Middle Ages. In the 18th century, the palace was renovated in Neoclassical style; today the building houses the Musée des Beaux-Arts fine arts collection.

The gastronomy of Dijon is renowned by those who appreciate traditional French cuisine. Dijon is famous for the distinct style of mustard that has been produced here for centuries. The old-fashioned boutiques of Maison Maille and Edmund Fallot have been selling gourmet mustards since 1747 and 1840 respectively.

Tourists enjoy visiting Dijon's mustard boutiques along with Les Halles, a culinary market. Another highly regarded gourmet destination is the Mulot & Petitjean boutique, which has specialized in gingerbread cakes since 1796.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Dijon

13. Grenoble

Grenoble at twilight

Just the scenery alone makes Grenoble worthy of a detour, while the city's cultural attractions give travelers a reason to spend a few days here. The snowcapped mountain peaks of the French Alps provide an exhilarating backdrop for the city and beckon visitors to explore the natural regional parks that are less than an hour's drive away.

Nearby nature sites draw many outdoor enthusiasts and sporty types to Grenoble. The Parc Naturel Régional du Vercors is the closest natural regional park (about a 30-minute drive away) to Grenoble. This protected area of Alpine terrain features forests, gorges, hiking trails, and a ski resort for downhill skiing.

Not to be missed is the Vieille Ville of Grenoble, the quaint historic center of the city. An enchanting warren of cobblestone pedestrian streets and lovely old buildings, the Vieille Ville has many shops, restaurants, and cafés, as well as several top-notch museums.

The exceptional Musée de Grenoble displays a collection of antiquities, European paintings, Impressionist masterpieces, and modern art in a sleek, bright exhibition space. An outdoor section of the museum includes a lush, tree-shaded sculpture garden, which features avant-garde 20th-century works.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Grenoble

14. Nantes

Nantes

The medieval capital of the Brittany region, Nantes offers an abundance of cultural attractions. The town's historic quarters are full of old-world charm, even while Nantes has become a modern industrial city.

Within the atmospheric Quartier Bouffay, tourists are awed by the soaring twin-towered Cathedrale Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul and the monumental Château des Ducs de Bretagne. History buffs appreciate visiting Musée d'Histoire de Nantes (housed in the château) and learning about the Edict of Nantes that was signed by King Henry IV at the cathedral in 1598.

The liveliest area of the Quartier Bouffay is around the Place du Bouffay. This public square and the nearby pedestrian cobblestone streets are brimming with shops, restaurants, bistros, and crêperies.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Nantes

15. La Rochelle

Old Port in La Rochelle

La Rochelle has the distinctive character of a historic seafaring town. Imposing weather-worn towers guard the Vieux Port (Old Port), which provides entry to an atmospheric medieval Old Town.

Today, La Rochelle is a lively and walkable city that is a joy to explore. The waterfront of the Vieux Port, lined with bustling restaurants, is a great place to sample authentic local cuisine. Be sure to try the fresh-caught fish.

Fitting of the town's close relationship to the ocean, La Rochelle has a superb aquarium (there's even a tropical-themed café). The exhibitions at the Aquarium La Rochelle display thousands of marine species, from Atlantic stingrays and Mediterranean octopus to Caribbean angelfish.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in La Rochelle

16. Nancy

Neptune Fountain at the Place Stanislas in Nancy

With its impressive public squares and ornate Baroque architecture, Nancy exemplifies the elegance of 18th-century French urban planning. The showplace of Nancy is the Place Stanislaus, a UNESCO World Heritage Site featuring magnificent Neoclassical palaces built between 1752 and 1760.

The Place Stanislaus is found in the Ville Neuve (New Town). Unlike most French cities, Nancy's Ville Neuve rivals the Ville Vieille (medieval Old Town) in terms of grandeur and cultural importance.

Nancy also has excellent museums, including the Musée des Beaux-Arts, which boasts many masterpieces of European paintings, and the Musée de l'Ecole de Nancy, a collection of Art Nouveau ceramics, objects d'art, textiles, jewelry, and furniture. The Musée de l'Ecole de Nancy also has an enchanting garden, bursting with flowers and adorned with fountains.

Accommoation: Where to Stay in Nancy

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