If you have only been to Paris, you're missing a lot of France. France is large and diverse so no matter what you enjoy, you will find it there someplace. You have only to look. Here are some places to explore and I'll keep adding new ones.
25.06.1996 - 22.06.2017
Many people are looking for places off the beaten tourist path in France. Since France is such a popular tourist destination, you can't entirely escape tourists, but you can find places that don't host tourist groups on large buses and you can find places that are visited mostly by French tourists who are enjoying other beautiful parts of their country. If you've seen Paris and are curious about the rest of France, here are some ideas. So far, I've listed the Loire Valley, Brittany, Provence, Occitanie (formerly called Languedoc-Roussillon), and the eastern part of Grand Est (formerly called Alsace). I'll add more regions as time permits. If you have a request for a particular region or town, leave a comment or email me and I'll try to get it done quickly. There are a lot of useful links. If you right-click on a link and choose "to open in a new tab," when you're finished with that web site, close it and you will be right back here where you started.
Loire and the Loire-Atlantique
A first suggestion is to follow the Loire bike path, very picturesque and while not really off the beaten path since it is the Loire Valley, if you are on a bicycle path, you are not going to see hordes of tourists; bicycling is hard work. This is no small bike path. It extends 800 kilometers and goes across Centre and the Pays de la Loire regions. You can take organized tours or do it yourself. You can start at any point along the route, and you can even take the train with your bicycle to the starting point of your choice. You can rent bicycles and electric-assisted bicycles at various places. You'll find all the information you need on their web site. Loire by Bicycle web site
If you are willing to go someplace where not a lot of English is spoken, look at the western Loire area. It is called Pays-de-la Loire and is part of the region called the Pays de la Loire. While the Loire-Atlantique has some interesting châteaux, they are not the famous châteaux that attract large tour groups. Those are in the region named Centre-Val de la Loire. Most of the tour groups you’ll meet in the Loire-Atlantique are French. The site tours are generally in French but will have an audio or booklet guide in English. There are larger cities like Angers, Saumur and Nantes with châteaux and cathedrals that also have interesting galleries and museums. We enjoy the countryside and recently rented a gite (vacation cottage) in the Brière Regional Nature Park and spent our time visiting the park and surrounding Plus Beaux Villages and the nearby seashore. We didn’t meet a lot of people who spoke English, but we did meet a lot of very friendly and helpful people and the area is beautiful. Loire-Atlantique Tourist Information
Provence, the France of legend
When we travel in early spring or late fall, we like the south of France where you are "almost" guaranteed warm weather. It can get pretty cold in winter except right on the shore and summers can be terribly hot so shoulder season is great. I must admit I love Provence any time of year though. So many people visit Nice and the Riviera and think they've seen southern France. There is a completely different southern France just north of the Riviera and we prefer it. You won't see the crowds and you will see lovely perched villages, country markets and very friendly French people who want you to enjoy your visit.
Provence is noted for tourists, but you can escape the most touristed spots and find lovely places with few or no tourists. Obviously, the easiest way to do this is to travel out of high season so if you can go any time except July and August, do so. The weather will be better then too. The famous names have the most crowds so avoid Cannes and St. Tropez. We usually fly into Nice and get our car and leave immediately. We stay in a country inn up the hill near Tourrettes-sur-Loup where it is very quiet and there are fabulous views. It is in the country so easy to get in and out in the morning and evening and visit small towns and spectacular mountains and gorges in the area. If we stay in the city of Nice for a few days, we turn in the car and use public transportation which is very inexpensive in Provence. Provence Tourist Information
Another way to escape the crowds is to head to western Provence. We love the area near Avignon which is the western border of Provence. When you cross the river at Avignon, you are in Occitanie (formerly Languedoc-Roussillon). Avignon is a great place to visit although you will have lots of company there. Just outside the city it is Provençal paradise. We rented a cottage outside Mollégès for a month in 2014 and loved it. We visited Arles several times, Saint-Remy-de-Provence several times, Le Baux de Provence, Tarascon, the Camargue and then spent the rest of our time visiting tiny villages, many perched on hillsides or mountain tops. We shopped in local markets and attended local churches, generally moved in for a month. We also drove over the river to visit the Pont-du-Gard and Uzés just across the border into Occitanie (formerly Languedoc-Roussillon). Many of these are famous places and have lots of tourists but we always returned to our little farmhouse out in the country where it was very quiet and peaceful at night.
Some of our favorite places in Provence are: (in alphabetical order)
Abbey of Montmajour and Daudet's Mill (an easy day trip from Arles)
Aigues-Mortes, Tower of Constance, walking the ramparts, great souvenir shopping
Aix-en-Provence, a large, vibrant city
Arles from Roman ruins to Van Gogh, it’s fascinating, great for souvenir shopping too
Avignon on the Rhone River with the Palace of Popes in a beautiful city
Gourdon, a perched village with the Village of Bories just below it
Grassewith threes perfume factories and a wonderful flower market
Le Barben, chateau and zoo
Les Baux de Provence, spectacular perched village but never visit in high season!
Martigues and its canals decked with flowers
Pont du Gard Roman Aqueduct, a must-see in Provence
Roussillon and the adjoining ochre quarries, absolutely amazing color
Senanque Abbey and its fields of lavender
St. Paul de Vence, gorgeous perched village with the Maeght Foundation
St. Remy-de-Provence, fun market and a Van Gogh Walk
The Camargue with wild bulls and horses and wonderful nature/bird walks
Tourrettes-sur-Loup, a charming and quaint perched village above Nice
Vence with a quaint Old Town area
Villages of Lourmarin, Bonnieux, Fontaine-de-Vaucluse . . .
Brittany, Celtic France
Visit Bretagne (Brittany). If you get as far as Mont St. Michel, cross the river into Brittany and see Celtic France. There is a wild seacoast, lighthouses, excellent seafood, grey stone houses with bright red geraniums in the windows. The churches have a Parish Close or enclosed courtyard filled with statuary. If the church is closed and you show up to look at it, someone will come running from a nearby house with a key and let you in. More often than not they won’t speak English but they know what you want and will help you.
Almost the westernmost point in France is at Pointe du Raz. There is parking and a walk out to the point where you can view the lighthouse. Often there are wild waves crashing against the rocks. The actual westernmost point in France is Pointe de Corsen, just to the north of Pointe du Raz. Then there is Pointe du Grouin which is a wildlife sanctuary across the bay from Mont St. Michel where you'll find well-marked walks along the shore and flora and fauna are identified on large signs with pictures for those who don’t speak French. If you enjoy nature and the shore, these are places you are sure to enjoy. These are in the Breton region called Finistère which translates as Land’s End. It is all ocean to the west.
Don't miss the Forest of Broceliande in Paimpont. Merlin the Magician from King Arthur was buried in the Forest of Broceliande and Château de Comper is supposedly where Sir Lancelot was raised. There is a Center of Arthurian Legend in the castle which is open to the public. This is very popular with kids from tiny to teens.
There are plenty of festivals featuring local music and the wonderful native costumes including incredible lace headdresses on the women. Brittany is a wild and wonderful land well worth visiting for a completely different French experience and there are several lovely large cities like Quimper and St. Malo.
The seacoast is wild and wonderful; the Arthurian connection fascinating and there are marvelous castles to be explored. One particularly good castle is the Château de Fougères. It is huge, beautiful, has lots of activities and is set in a charming town. Château de Fougères web site There is another nice château in Josselin and there are the famous alignments of Carnac, all in Brittany. There are not many Plus Beaux Villages in Brittany but the ones listed are gorgeous, especially in summer and autumn. My favorite was Rochefort-en-Terre covered in bright red geraniums.
Brittany is the Northwest region of France and includes the districts Côtes-d'Armor, Finistère, Ille-et-Vilaine and the Morbihan.
Brittany Tourist Information
Occitanie, formerly Languedoc-Roussillon
(Languedoc-Roussillon has recently been renamed Occitanie so you will see it both ways in guide books for a few years.) The Riviera and Provence get a lot of press and a lot of visitors. It is beautiful and we love it, but it's a little more relaxed and wild in the southwest region of Occitanie (formerly called Languedoc-Roussillon). There are miles of soft sand beaches, wild wonderful mountains, perched villages and even a couple cities if you like excitement. One of our favorite stretches of beach is between Canet-Plage and Saint-Cyprien-Plage. It is a long stretch of soft sand with free parking and a nature preserve, the Village of Fishermen, on the other side of the road. If there is any wind at all, there will be lovely waves and you will be joined by quiet, happy French families and can watch the wind surfers. The nature reserve is an excellent place for bird watching and you may see flamingoes in migration. Occitanie (Languedoc-Roussillon) Tourist Information
For wine and food, you might look farther south in Occitanie. There are tourist hordes in Carcassonne, but about five minutes out of town, they are gone . . . all still back in Carcassonne. Visit Carcassonne on a Sunday morning if you want to see it without tourists (early Sunday morning, i.e. before 11 AM). It is a great sight and I highly recommend it. The rest of Occitanie is reasonably untouristy and gorgeous. There is a bike path along the Canal du Midi that is beautiful and takes you through some charming villages with excellent restaurants. We loved Auberge de L'Arbousier just outside of Homps. Auberge de L'Arbousier web site
There are marvelous restaurants in the area and lots of wine tasting in the Corbières wine region. There's an abbey in St. Hilaire just south of Carcassonne and it is definitely worth a visit. You'll hear the story of how a renegade monk named Dom Perignon stole the recipe for sparkling wine and took it north to Champagne and the rest is history. The local sparkling wine (supposedly the purloined recipe) is Blanquette de Limoux and we love it. The restaurant we loved there was Le Clos Saint-Hilaire and it is unfortunately now closed. Abbey Saint Hilaire web site
You can find good food way off the beaten path. We found Les Calicots in Fabrezen by accident when the restaurant we were looking for in another village was closed. Les Calicots was excellent and the town was cute. Les Calicots Restaurant web site
Then there is Alet-le-Bains. It’s a tiny village on the Aude River that has vestiges of its original Roman wall, lots of beautifully preserved medieval half-timbered houses, a ruined abbey (get the key in the Tourist Office) and a marvelous hotel-restaurant right on the river . . . and a few tourists but not many. The hotel-restaurant is Hotel de L’Evéché and their web site is: Hostellerie de L'Eveche web site
You can visit cities if you like. Narbonne is a large city and has a convenient Tourist Office right in the center. The cathedral and museum are together which is convenient and the market is great fun on market day. Perpignan is a Catalan city with a very Spanish flavor. There is the wonderful Palace of the Kings of Majorca and several other museums to visit. There is also a wonderful canal going through town that is decked with flowers and sculptures. Stop at a café along the canal and enjoy lunch and people-watching.
The town of Limoux (Blanquette de Limoux, a delicious sparkling wine) is a fun visit on market day and there are various wine tasting places there. If you like really small and way off the beaten path, drive over to Camon. The château has been restored and is a private hotel but we wandered the grounds and building freely as there were few people about. You could go on to Mirepoix and Foix to make a day of it. Beautiful drive and interesting towns. Mirepoix is becoming more touristy as the years go by but it’s still fun to visit. There are other places north and east of Carcassonne. We’ve stayed at various places in the area but in rentals rather than hotels so I can’t advise you on where to stay. There is a château in Cavanac that looks like fun and the place in Alet-les-Bains looked interesting too. Chateau-Restaurant de Cavanac web site
That should give you a few places to look at. Check them via web sites, TP Search and Google. Here are some useful web sites:
French Government Tourist Guide
Languedoc-Roussillon web site
Web site for the Ariege region of Occitanie
Pays Cathar web site
Once with our oldest daughter we all bought Cathar Passes and did our very best to see everything on the pass. We didn't make it but we had fun trying and learned a lot of history and saw some magnificent scenery in the process. This may be one of the most dramatic parts of France.
Aveyron (a district of the new region called Occitanie) may be one of the hidden wonders of France. It has no sea coast so escapes a lot of tourists.The Dordogne has the most Plus Beaux Villages (Most Beautiful Villages) of France but Aveyron comes very close. Aveyron is mountainous and there are lovely little surprises hidden in the hills. Check the Plus Beaux Villages for Central France-Auvergne at The Most Beautiful Villages of France web site
We make a habit of searching them out and in Aveyron have visited Najac, Conques, Peyre, Belcastel and Brousse-le-Chateau. We spent several days in Brousse-le-Chateau once to take a boat ride under the magnificent Viaduc de Millau. The Viaduc de Millau Official Site and Here's the boat ride web site and it's great fun. Bateliers du Viaduc web site
A good web site for the Aveyron is listed below and the Aveyron is a great vacation combined with a visit of the Dordogne. If you have time, do both. It may be the best vacation you've ever had. Aveyron Tourist web site
Some of our favorite places in Occitanie (formerly Languedoc-Roussillon) are: (in alphabetical order)
Carcassonne, the famous double-walled castle
Castelnou and Eus, two lovely perched villages;
Collioure with colorful fishing boats,
Grotte (cave) de Niaux with cave paintings,
Montolieu, the Village of Books
Narbonne, a vibrant city
Parc de la Prehistoire, a prehistory theme park (fun and educational)
Perpignan, a Catalan city
Puivert with marvelous views from the château on a hill and a museum
Pyrenées Mountains with spectacular scenery and ruined castles
Rennes-le-Chateau if you like a good mystery
Villefranche-de-Conflent with a château and the Little Yellow Train
(Now a part of the region named Grand Est composed of the former Champagne-Ardenne, Lorraine and Alsace)
Alsace, a part of Grand Est, is on the eastern side of France along the German border. It has been passed back and forth between France and Germany for centuries so you can expect many people to speak both French and German . . . and often English too. They enjoy some of the same foods you expect in Germany including my favorite, soft pretzels (called bretzels). We've even seen sandwiches made of these large pretzels.
There is excellent wine in Alsace, tending more to whites than reds although you will find both. There are spectacular mountains with views to match. Strasbourg is the largest city and a good base for your visit. We prefer the smaller wine villages and take day trips but if you are a city person, Strasbourg or Colmar might suit you better. The Christmas Markets in Strasbourg can’t be beat. We like them better than Paris. Strasbourg is magic during the holiday season. Colmar is famous for the Musée d'Unterlinden. The Issenheim Altarpiece is the highlight of the museum. Again, the free audio guide is invaluable. The Issenheim Altarpiece is stunning and very well displayed. There is also enough room to enjoy it and plenty of explanations available. Musée d'Unterlinden web site
In the warmer months you will often see artists perched around the square of many Alsatian villages painting in groups or classes. Alsace is nearly as popular as Provence with artists and rightfully so. It is very colorful and they’ve done a marvelous job of preserving their heritage.
If you visit Obernai, take the time to go up to Mont Sainte-Odile where you’ll find not only magnificent views but a lovely, peaceful monastery that you can visit. There is a hotel and restaurant on the grounds and guided tours. On the grounds is a wonderful sun dial moved from a closed Cistercian Monastery. It tells the time in many places around the world so on a sunny day you can see the time in your own country. Fun . . . There are also excellent hiking trails in the area. Mont Sainte-Odile web site
Another fun trip is the castle at Haut-Koenigsbourg. It is between Selestat and Ribeauville and well worth a detour. It is a restored red sandstone castle on top of a mountain and is open to the public. The views on the way up are amazing but are even better from the top of the castle.
Haut-Koenigsbourg Castle web site
Whatever you do, take the time to visit the tiny wine villages spread across the base of the mountains. Then take a bike ride along the Rhine. Visit a few castles and a monastery or two. There is an amazing amount to do and so much to see. You will find friendly people and good food with wonderful quiet nights made for sleeping. There is excellent hiking and waterfalls, spa towns and colorful villages. A good place to find picturesque villages is the Plus Beaux Villages of France (Most Beautiful Villages of France) web site. Plus Beaux Villages of France web site Filter by Terms of Geographic Area for Alsace-Lorraine for now.
The current listed villages are: Eguisheim, Hunawihr, Hunspach, Mittelbergheim, Riquewihr, Rodemack and Saint-Quirin.
Alsace is a wonderful vacation spot. Here are some of our favorite places: (in alphabetical order)
Andlau, a tiny picturesque wine village
Barr, wine tasting and a very cute village We usually stay here.
Bergheim, another picturesque wine village
Colmar, a vibrant city with an excellent art museum
Eguisheim, one of the prettiest villages
Haut-Konigsberg Castle, high on a mountain with fabulous views
Obernai, a favorite of artists
Ribeauville, picturesque wine village
Riquewihr, very touristy but still a picturesque wine village
Selestat, small city and very busy
Strasbourg, largest city in Alsace with lot to do. The Christmas markets are fabulous.
Turckheim, picturesque wine village
Alsace is a good stopping off point on a trip to Bavaria or the eastern parts of Germany.