10 Must-See French Attractions Outside of Paris
Wine, Cheese and So Much More
When you think of France, you likely picture Parisian streets lined with book stalls and studded with cafes, accompanied by the sound of a piano accordion. Montmartre, the Champs Elysees, Notre Dame. For most people, France is Paris.
However, while it’s true that Paris is one of the most romantic and mystical cities in Europe, France does not begin and end in the 20 arrondissements of Paris. One of the largest countries in Europe, France has so much more to offer than just the Eiffel Tower. With many distinct regions, the culture, food and traditions vary in every corner of France.
If you look hard enough, you will discover picturesque villages, castles steeped in history, food you have never heard of and even other languages. You could easily spend weeks, if not months, exploring the world that is France-outside-of-Paris, but as time is a luxury most of us cannot afford, picking a highlight from each region is a good place to start.
To narrow it down, here are some of the must-visit France points of interest from the north, south, east and west of the country of wine and cheese.
Mont St Michel, Upper Normandy
A UNESCO World Heritage site, Mont Saint Michel is a tiny island off the coast of Normandy. Crowned with a Benedictine monastery, Mont Saint Michel casts a striking silhouette against the sky. Visitors can follow in the footsteps of pilgrims and walk the causeway out to the island.
The island itself offers sweeping views across the bay and a tangle of steep, narrow streets that house restaurants, hotels and even homes. The main draw though, as it was for the pilgrims years ago, is the abbey of Mont Saint Michel.
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Chateaux of the Loire Valley, Centre-Val de Loire
Once the playground of French royalty, the Loire Valley has a fantastically rich historical legacy, which endures in the form of some of the most beautiful castles in the world. The magnificent Chambord and fairy tale Chenonceau cannot be missed.
Wandering through the hallways, winding staircases and ballrooms, you can catch a glimpse of the extravagant lives of King Louis XIV, King Francis I, Catherine de Medici and others.
If you can, timing your visit during Bastille Day in France makes for a wonderful experience in the Loire Valley.
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The Jura, Franche-Comté
To well and truly escape the crowds, delve into the beautiful but little known east of France. The Jura region, on the border with Switzerland, is packed full of beautiful lakes, forests, waterfalls and great hiking opportunities. Outdoor enthusiasts rejoice – there’s no better spot to go camping and discover a side of France you never knew existed.
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Roman Amphitheaters Arles and Nimes, Provence-Alpes Cotes d’Azur
Forget Rome; some of the most impressive Roman ruins can be found in the south of France. You might recognize the pretty town of Arles from the artwork of Van Gogh — many of the artist’s most famous paintings were completed there.
What Van Gogh never painted though, is the main tourist attraction in the town. Standing proudly in the center of Arles is a two-tiered Roman amphitheater, dating back to 90 AD. A slightly smaller, but equally well-preserved, arena can be found in neighboring Nimes.
You will be enchanted by the history, picture-perfect streets and generous sunshine of both towns. If Roman history is your thing, be sure to check out the nearby aqueduct Pont de Gard as well.
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Calanques National Park, Provence-Alpes Cote d’Azur
The most stunning national park you have never heard of, the calanques near Marseille are absolutely a must-do when it comes to the top things to do in France outside of Paris. The natural beauty of this area is astounding, with the dramatic limestone cliffs contrasting with the dazzling Mediterranean Sea.
A haven for climbers, hikers and sun-seekers, there are many different calanques to choose from, all connected by well-marked trails and easily accessible from both the culturally rich city of Marseille and Cassis.
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Skiing in Chamonix, Rhone-Alpes
In the winter season, when most other towns are deep in hibernation, Chamonix comes alive. The mountains are where you should go if you’re looking for adventurous things to do in France.
Get up close to the spectacular Mont Blanc in one of the oldest ski resorts in France. With unbelievable Alpine panoramas, skiing to suit all levels and a lively bar scene to warm you up in the evening, Chamonix is the place to be in the colder months.
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Festival of Lights, Lyon, Rhone-Alpes
If you haven’t heard of the Festival of Lights, you need to add it to your bucket list right now. The third biggest festival in the world, the Festival of Lights is held in Lyon over four days in early December each year.
The whole city takes part in the celebrations, with tradition dictating that each house place candles outside their windows, adding to the surreal light installations artfully scattered around town. Join millions of other revelers in the beauty and spirit of this event.
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Bordeaux Wine Tasting, Aquitaine
An oenophile’s paradise, Bordeaux is at the heart of one of the most celebrated wine producing regions in the world. Picture sun-soaked vineyards and wine-soaked dinners, where you can wrap your tongue around regional specialties such as Lamproie a la Bordelaise, Confit de Canard and Canelé. Bliss.
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Known as La Ville Rose (the Pink City) France’s fourth largest town should be considered an essential when it comes to France destinations. With a lively student population, a beautifully preserved old quarter and an abundance of parks and picturesque riverside paths, this town sums up all the best France has to offer, minus the tourists that flock to Paris and Nice.
Add to this the fact that Toulouse is also perfectly situated as a jumping off point for hiking in the Pyrenees, and you have an unmissable stop on your French itinerary.
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Alsace Christmas Markets, Alsace
If you are lucky enough to be in France during the Christmas period, be sure to stop by the magical Christmas markets of Strasbourg and surrounding towns. With architecture unique to the region, Alsace is rich in picturesque villages, which become even more romantic under a sprinkling of snow and the lights of Christmas markets.
The fairy tale villages of Colmar, Riquewihr and Eguisheim are among the most popular — Colmar in particular is a magical European Christmas destination.