Charles de Gaulle had some interesting things to say about his home country. One of the most famous is the lament, “How can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese?”
It’s not just the cheese that makes France unique. It’s the wine, art, ancient ruins and famous places that make up the country.
But if you really want to see everything France has to offer, then you also need to visit its small towns.
We think of big cities and small towns as competing for attention from both tourists and locals. It’s the old rivalry between the shining urban city and the humble small town.
In France, small towns not only compete with Paris, Lyon, Marseille and Nice… they outshine these famous counterparts.
Whether you’re going to France to live or to enjoy it as part of a longer trip around Europe, visit this country’s small towns to see that anything Paris can do, they can do better.
How to Travel Around France
France is more than the stereotypes we take from movies about Paris or books by Victor Hugo.
Nicknamed “The Hexagon” because of its almost geometric shape, the whole nation is a sophisticated network of distinct neighborhoods.
If you’re flying to France, the journey will likely start in Paris’s Charles de Gaulle (CDG), the nation’s major international airport. But it’s surprisingly easy to travel from Paris to towns and neighborhoods all around The Hexagon.
The national transit system is efficient and economical, allowing locals and visitors alike to discover these places. Some of the destinations on this list even offer free transportation to make sure everyone has access to local points of interest.
Keep reading to find out why France is the world’s number one tourist destination.
See the Real France with These 9 Small Towns
Now that you’ve decided to step outside of France’s large cities, where you go depends on your interests.
There are countless reasons to visit France, so we’ll start with three of the most popular. Are you here to learn French, to see architecture and history or to experience France’s blends with other European cultures?
The following categories are lists of towns with French language schools, towns with the most historic ambiance and towns that mix France with other parts of Europe.
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The Best Small Towns in France with French Language Schools
Come for the language… Stay for the history, food and scenery.
These small towns offer plenty of ways to spend your time when you’re not in class.
If you’re learning French, it’s ideal to get out of the big city for true immersion. In small towns, fewer people tend to speak English. Why not spend your language trip or college semester in one of these timeless places?
The French Riviera is more than just the main strip in Nice. Enjoy a city that’s off the beaten path from the usual stampede. But it’s close enough that many rich and famous people use it as a quiet oasis. The Antibes harbor is crowded with private yachts as opposed to cruise ship terminals.
Antibes is more of a place to retire in style than to go backpacking during your gap year. But that’s not to say that youth travel isn’t equally welcome. Antibes offers something for all travelers, hence its quiet popularity and effortless style.
The history of human settlement in this region goes back to pre-Roman times. Markets, artwork and history walks are the main draw here, and you can take French lessons while you explore the area.
Centre International D’Antibes (International Center of Antibes) offers the same variety of courses, activities and accommodation packages as any big chain school. The school has programs for various needs and age groups.
It’s a proper university setting, complete with vintage stone buildings and extensive gardens.
Seasonal camps are offered in other nearby beach resorts that are just as obscure and beautiful. Centre International D’Antibes has partnerships with other French schools in equally charming small towns around France.
Gordes rises from ancient forests and stone houses winding up a hillside. At the top of this hill is a medieval castle, church and monastery that date back to the 12th century.
There are several national parks in this storybook setting, some that preserve natural wonders and others that contain ancient signs of human settlement and rare species of plants and animals.
The Luberon Nature Park surrounds Gordes on every side and is maintained in part by UNESCO. It functions as a biosphere reserve for rare and endangered flora and fauna and as a nature preserve.
When you grow tired of the wine and scenery (as if that would ever happen), you can go for a hike through a lush, untouched forest.
Authentic farming and traditional art are the main industries in small towns like Gordes in this region. These businesses draw tourists and preserve the regional environment.
If you’re interested in living in France for an extended period of time or are learning French for professional purposes, check out the unique Franci Discendum language school.
Not only does the school integrate tours of the local region with their lessons, but they also schedule classes around art and music festivals so you won’t miss anything.
This charming town is already on the map for notable tourist attractions, like Da Vinci’s house and a romantic network of canals.
Visitors come to see medieval castles, Renaissance art and the Loire River. As if UNESCO didn’t have enough to do, even the river itself has its own World Heritage designation.
Despite its relatively small size, Amboise has been the site of many pivotal moments in European history. French kings lived here for the entire medieval period, from the 15th to 19th century, and many of their palaces and residences are currently museums.
Le Château Royale (the Royal Castle) is the most prominent of these museums and is the center of most visitor activity in the area. The list of former residents is a veritable “who’s who” of European history.
There’s a Eurocentres Language School in town if you’re here to take French while you experience the open-air museum also known as Amboise.
The school offers French language courses for adults and teenagers. It also hosts French language certification tests. There’s even an entire program specifically for gap year language students.
The staff and students organize a variety of day trips and tours to nearby points of interest. The school is located in the vibrant downtown center and shares a quiet, tree-lined courtyard with several historic buildings and charming shops and cafes.
The Best Small Towns in France with Historic Sites
There are signs of human settlement in France that date back to the dawn of time, well before the ruins of Rome or even the ancient ruins of Carthage.
These cities retain some of the best preserved and most authentic vestiges of ancient history. You’ll also see authentic arts and crafts that would otherwise be lost in the mists of time.
Like many other towns in this part of France, Cazenac has been inhabited since the Bronze Age and has hosted many historic people and events. It was incorporated with the neighboring city of Beynac in 1821, so look on your map for Beynac-et-Cazenac (Beynac and Cazenac).
The scenery is what sets this small town apart from others on this list. The castle and fortifications cast a dramatic shadow against a pale cliff next to the Dordogne River.
The Château de Beynac (Castle of Beynac) has been placed in an elevated position that looks south over the river.
Richard the Lionheart temporarily called the castle home during the 12th century. The castle, its grounds and the surrounding village have been undergoing extensive renovations since the 1960s, and more work is planned to restore the site to its former medieval glory. It’s essentially a museum now and open to visitors almost every day of the year.
For those who want a real taste of old time adventure, the Causses du Quercy Regional Natural Park is only a short walk from the city.
The park is known for its extensive rivers and natural cave system. You can also see more than 140 designated geosites, where you’ll find fossils, Bronze Age artifacts and unique rock formations.
Dunkirk is an ideal destination for those more interested in recent history.
Located next to the Belgian border and just across the channel from England, it’s famous for its role in pivotal battles during World War II. Today it’s noted for its winter music festivals and stark but scenic landscape.
The film “Dunkirk” was released in 2017 and depicts a famous evacuation of Allied soldiers that took place in 1940. You can tour the many set locations as part of your trip as a film tourist. (Movie tourism is a niche interest that has gone mainstream in France.)
Modern perks like free public transportation and a variety of family friendly activities make this an easy place to explore. There’s even a free bus from the nearby terminal on the Belgian side of the border. There’s much more to see than just museums and vintage military installations.
Visit the seaside market that crosses the French and Belgian border or go sea kayaking in the nearby Les Dunes de Flandre (The Dunes of Flanders) Nature Preserve.
The picture on the UNESCO World Heritage website wasn’t an artist’s rendition or a movie set. That’s how Carcassonne actually looks!
Recorded history begins in 135 BC, when the region was part of the Roman Empire, and continues for the next millennium as if it was written by George R. R. Martin.
The historic record here includes Visigoths, Iberians, Romans, crusaders, popes and the French royal family. Plus, Carcassonne has an honored place in the modern wine country and clothing industry. An extensive restoration project resulted in the impressive fortified central medieval cité (city) that still survives today, along with artifacts from virtually every other time period.
Carcassonne is not only ancient but remarkably well-preserved, which is the main reason behind its important historical designation. Four extensive parks surround the city on three sides, deepening the historic ambiance and making the small town a popular draw for outdoor activities.
The medieval city center and extensive fortifications look over the horizon. They’re impressive examples of early engineering prowess and look virtually the same as when Charlemagne looked at them during his Crusade.
The Best Small Towns in France That Mix France with Europe
While you’re getting to know France, you can get acquainted with some of her neighbors, too. You might take ground transportation to France through one of these charming border towns, anyway.
These unique hamlets along the French border include elements of German, Swiss or Spanish culture. The result is a compelling blend of cuisine, architecture, history and fashion.
This town near the German border has two claims to fame. And we aren’t even counting the stellar location on the edge of the Ballons des Vosges (Balloons of the Vosges) Regional Natural Park right next to the Rhine River.
First, Riquewihr escaped most of the damage inflicted on nearby cities during World War II. As a result, it retains some of the region’s best authentic medieval and Victorian architecture.
The ambiance of this town is a mixture of French and German, which makes sense due to its proximity to the German border. The relationship between these two countries is apparent in the winding cobblestone streets and gingerbread-like houses complete with wooden gables.
The second claim to fame is Riquewihr’s inclusion as part of the Alsatian Wine Route, a popular highway for foodies and oenophiles alike. Tourism brochures say this town is “The Gem of the Alsace Wine Route.”
While you’re in Riquewihr, visit the 16th-century winemaker’s house, the thieves’ tower (formerly a prison) and the last surviving medieval gate, the Dolder.
Some of Fabrezan’s most notable conflicts were between the ruling class and the local citizens, as opposed to warring military factions. Most of the famous historic buildings in town date back to the 12th- and 16th-century periods of civil unrest.
The proximity of the Mediterranean Sea only adds to the tranquil atmosphere, and the environment takes its influences from both Spain and France.
It’s exactly the setting you would expect for early medieval architecture and unique food. Everything you love about both French and Spanish cuisine can be found here, with an extra helping of seafood on the side.
Castles on hilltops are a trend here, with several less than 30 km away from the city center.
Fontfroide (Cold Fountain) Abbey is one of the more famous attractions. The complex network of churches, chapels and other buildings date from the 12th century and includes architecture from every era since. Don’t miss the renowned rose gardens or wine tasting in their cellar.
Everyone talks about the Swiss Alps, but the nearby French Alps are just as magnificent. They’re what make Morsine so incredible.
Also spelled Morzine, this scenic village of snowy peaks is near the Swiss border. It blends everything you love about both countries.
It’s a veritable winter wonderland complete with ski hills and snowshoe trails. Skiing is a form of transportation here, and there’s a sophisticated network of trails designed to help you explore the city and surrounding area.
But this region is equally as entertaining in summer. Visitors can enjoy lush golf courses, biking trails and cable car rides. Several lifts stay open during the summer to accommodate hikers, nature enthusiasts and other adventurers.
Morsine’s roots are more blue collar than other villages on this list. The farms and mines that eventually grew into ski resorts and bike paths have retained their traditional market days and chalet-style homes. Morsine is famous for its distinct wooden homes, which are popular rentals among visitors.
You don’t have to look far outside the gates of Paris to find the “real France.”
The small towns of the French countryside have just as much to offer as their big city counterparts. In fact, many would say they have even more to offer when it comes to authentic French culture, language, cuisine and historic attractions.
No matter where you start, it’s easy to find your favorite small town in France.
Kristy Ambrose has been writing professionally since 2010. She dabbles in various genres, including everything from short blog posts to serialized novels. Her inspiration comes from gamers, beachcombers, foodies and fellow travelers. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from the University of Victoria.
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