France's top 9 destinations that are not Paris

Can you guess where this building is? Hint: it's our number one in this top.
Can you guess where this building is? Hint: it's our number one in this top.   -  Copyright  PHILIPPE MERLE / AFP
By Julie Gaubert

When you think about Paris, France’s capital of love, lights and arts, the sweet sound of the accordion from the movie ‘Amelie’ might start playing in your mind.

But when you add 30 million annual tourists to the city’s 2,2 million inhabitants, you get a sense of how the city got so busy.

So, as the saying goes, make like a tree and leave.

These nine French cities are worthy competitors to Paris, while also being cheaper, less crowded and easier to navigate.

9. Strasbourg

Just a few kilometres from the German border, Strasbourg is a very popular international destination, hosting major European political institutions and one of the biggest Christmas markets.

Its majestic cathedral is the most visited in France, after Notre-Dame de Paris. A real symbol of the city, it was built in 1220 and remains one of the finest examples of Gothic architecture. The Grande-île, where it is located, makes it the historic centre of Strasbourg.

After strolling around its narrow streets, treat yourself to a well-deserved sauerkraut (cabbage and sausages) and Alsatian beer break for a typical experience in the heart of the Alsace region.

Plan your trip.

Strasbourg's cathedral lit up in August, 2020.PATRICK HERTZOG/AFP

8. Arles

Close to the Mediterranean sea, Arles is home to one of the world’s most famous photography festivals.

It’s the city with the most Roman monuments… after Rome. No wonder Vincent Van Gogh fell in love with its endless landscapes of sandy beaches and salt ponds in the Camargue National Park.

Find out more.

7. Annecy

Bordered by a lake at the foot of the Semnoz mountains, Annecy enjoys an exceptional geographical location. A real postcard, the city is a succession of charming half-timbered houses and views of the Bauges and Aravis ‘massifs’ (mountains) that surround it.

In summer, a dip in the lake is highly recommended, whereas in winter, long walks along the water will give you a taste of the tranquillity of the place.

If you come with your other half, don't forget to kiss him or her over the Pont des Amours - rumour has it you will be bound for life.

Fall in love.

Old town of Annecy, in the Savoie region.PATRICE COPPEE / AFP

6. Basque Country

Surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean and its vigorous waves, the Basque Country stretches between France and Spain.

Here, you won’t find a village without a wall for ‘pelota’ (a tennis-like sport), nor a hill without a hiking trail or a golf course.

Sea lovers will also be happy with the miles of beaches for surfing and scuba diving.

Pack your swimsuit now.

Biarritz, one of the many city in the Basque country.GAIZKA IROZ / AFP

5. Brittany

A popular holiday destination with the French, Brittany's a land of contrasts that offers a real patchwork of places to discover.

It has fishing ports and farms, tourist sites and mysterious places, woods and forests, stories and legends, museums and leisure parks.

You can easily explore the region on foot via one of the many hiking trails, such as the GR 34 which runs along the coast for nearly 2,000 km.

But most of all, Brittany is the place to go if you’re a foodie. Oysters, cider, crepes alongside folk dancing are surely the ingredients of a trip to remember.

Discover more here.

The port of Saint-Malo, Brittany.DAMIEN MEYER / AFP

4. Corsica

Ideal for a quiet vacation in a hybrid Italian French culture, Corsica is an island that can be divided into two. Bastia is the main city in the north and Ajaccio the main one in the south.

Its humble nickname is the Island of Beauty, which gives you a sense of the pride locals take in their home.

Depending on the type of holiday you’re craving, you can either lie back in the sunshine on its sandy beaches with crystal water at your feet. Or hike and climb up dramatical needle-like mountain tops like the col de Bavella.

Prepare your adventure.

3. Nantes

2013 European Green Capital, Nantes stands out for its commitment to protecting the environment.

You can enjoy the protected routes and greenways on the banks of the Loire river to cycle around, then visit the medieval castle of Britanny’s Dukes. Or get splashed by the mechanical elephant inspired by Jules Verne’s books.

Don’t hesitate to take the ferry to the old fishing village of Trentemoult, where intertwined streets are brightened up by the colourful facades of houses, paving the way to the river where there is a ‘guinguette’ (open-air café) atmosphere.

Find your way here.

The mechanical elephant in Nantes.FRANK PERRY / AFP

2. Marseille

Marseille has so much to offer and leaves a mark on every visitor. A port city with a rich past, it is the oldest city in France. From Les Goudes to L’Estaque, it faces the Mediterranean sea, shimmering under the sunlight. But beware of the mistral wind, which can blow up to 1OO kilometres per hour.

It was the European Capital of Culture in 2013, and offers a wide variety of theatres, concert halls and museums, starting with the MuCEM.

You can also have a walk in the Calanques National Park, but don’t forget to bring your sunscreen and water with you as temperatures can reach 35 degrees Celsius in summer.

Get ready here.

1. Lyon

We have reserved the top spot for the former capital of France. The major city until 297 when Paris took the title, the ancient capital has preserved a remarkable architectural heritage.

No wonder the districts of Vieux Lyon, the Fourvière hill, the Presqu'île and the slopes of Croix-Rousse are listed as World Heritage.

You can take the tramway to glide above the Rhône river, which gives a cruising atmosphere to your journeys, but it’s by foot that you will climb the 567 stairs up to Notre-Dame-de-Fourvière cathedral.

Here you’ll be treated to a full panorama of the city, stretching from the Tête d’Or park to the contemporary Confluences district.

A must in Lyon? Wandering through the ‘traboules’ (secret covered passageways) then eating in a ‘bouchon’ by the Saône river, a traditional restaurant that serves red wine and charcuterie.

Start exploring.

COVID-19 advice

Please note that there are currently travel restrictions in place due to COVID-19. Depending on which country you visit, hotels, restaurants and other tourist attractions may be closed. Always check government advice before making any bookings.