1. The oldest city in France: Marseille
As France’s second-largest city, Marseille’s reputation is much more gritty than its world-famous capital. In the past decade, however, an effort to rejuvenate Marseille encouraged more visitors to admire this diversely beautiful city on the French Riviera – one of the many reasons it tops our list of the best 10 cities in France.
What to do
A journey to the city’s iconic Le Vieux-Port is a good start to any Marseille visit. If you stroll down the dock in the morning (between 08.00 – 11.00) you’ll experience the lively fish market where the wares come straight off the boat.
To get a taste of the trendiest part of Marseille, head to Cours Julien, a ten-minute walk from Le Vieux-Port. Enjoy the street art, cool independent shops, music venues, and bars that give the neighborhood its vibrant atmosphere.
For some of the best seaside vistas, walk along La Corniche, a lavish seaside promenade. You may feel a tinge of envy as you pass by the luxury villas lining the walkway.
One of the islands you’ll spot is the famous Chateau d’If, featured in the novel and subsequent movie adaptations of The Count of Monte Cristo. Catch a boat to the island and hike to its highest plateaus to take in stunning views of the Marseille coast while learning about the rich history of its former prison.
When you’re back down at sea level, don’t miss the fascinating MuCEM – Museum of Civilizations of Europe and the Mediterranean. This is not only a gorgeous building, but it offers one of the most extensive collections of Mediterranean art and culture anywhere in the world.
What to eat
Like any proud port city, Marseille is known for its seafood. The most famous Marseille dish is bouillabaisse, a traditional fish stew. According to local connoisseurs, there are lots of ‘fake’ bouillabaisse soups around. Anything below €50 is considered an ordinary fish soup, so get ready to dig deep into your wallet if you want to taste the real thing.
If fish isn’t your thing, or you’d rather spend less of your dimes on dinner, there are plenty of alternatives. Spanish, Italian, and North African influences make for a rich cuisine selection. Head to the “Belly of Marseille” in the Noailles neighborhood to get a taste of Marseille’s diverse flavors.
2. The city for wine lovers: Bordeaux
Do you consider yourself an amateur sommelier? Or are you a casual sipper? Perfect for all levels of wine experience, Bordeaux has a multitude of ways to learn about wine. You could take a wine walking tour, visit a wine museum, or sample wine on a yacht. But if you want to leave the wine behind, there’s still plenty of history to discover in one of the best cities in France.
What to do
At the top of the list for wine aficionados when in Bordeaux should be La Cité du Vin. This museum, which opened in 2016, teaches you all about the history of wine while taking you on an immersive self-guided tour. There’s ten hours’ worth of audiovisual material to browse, so there’s a good chance you’ll be dying to get your hands on a glass of wine right after. The good news is the tour ends with a tasting at the Belvédère.
Whether you are here for the wine or not, take a stroll along Les quais de Bordeaux on the left bank of the Garonne. Feast your eyes on the lawns, parks, gardens, and numerous historic buildings that line the quay.
Make a stop at the Miroir d’Eau, a spectacular pool that, as the name suggests, creates a mirror effect. The 18th-century facades surrounding it make this scene especially impressive. This is the most-photographed site in Bordeaux, so make sure you and your fully-charged phone are ready for a long selfie-sesh.
What to eat
Don’t forget to sample the local flavors while you’re in Bordeaux. The Bordelais are traditionally big meat lovers as well as wine enthusiasts, so one of Bordeaux’s most famous dishes combines those two ingredients naturally. Bordelaise sauce is made with red wine, shallots, butter (bien sûr!), and sauce demi-glace. It is traditionally served with grilled beef or steak.
For sweet-toothed travelers (and vegetarians), canelés are the way to go. These small pastries are baked with vanilla, rum, and cane sugar. A good canelé is distinguished by its darker color and distinct scent of rum and vanilla. A true canelé is crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside. To be sure you get the real deal, go to one of the boutiques of La Toque Cuivree.
3. The city off the beaten track: Caen
Not to be confused with crowd-favorite Cannes, Caen is a small but delightful city in Normandy. Caen was founded by William the Conqueror in the 11th century, who left a significant imprint on the architecture;; many of these structures are still standing today. It has a large and vibrant student population and a rich history, making it more than deserving of a place in the top 10 cities in France.
What to do
Caen’s famous Mémorial de Caen is located on the soil where the Battle for Caen took place during WWII. Today, it’s a vast museum exploring the history of Caen and the repercussions of war.
Château de Caen is one of the largest walled fortifications in Europe. This French monument was heavily damaged during WWII but has been restored to its medieval glory.
Inside the castle’s remnants, you’ll find Musée de Normandie, a museum exploring the history of the region, as well as the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Caen. The latter houses work by some of the greatest French artists of all time, and on sunny days, you can wander through the sculpture garden to admire statues by Auguste Rodin and Antoine Bourdelle.
One of the most popular parts of Caen is the Vaugueux neighborhood. This is the place to be if you’re looking to explore the bars and restaurants of the city. It’s also a charming area, with some of the houses dating back to the Middle Ages.
What to eat
The king of cheeses, camembert has its roots in Normandy and is a hit with fans of pungent cheese. The best camembert is seriously funky and melts in your mouth – only for the most adventurous eaters!
4. The gastronomic capital of France: Lyon
Lyon is packed with great things to do, and it’s no wonder why this foodie-friendly treasure ranks as one of the 10 best cities in France. Whether you’re a history buff, food-lover, or street art fan, there’s something for everyone.
The historic center is listed as a UNESCO Heritage Site thanks to its significant number of Renaissance buildings, while Roman remnants can also still be found. Bonus fact: Lyon has the largest number of concert halls and theaters per inhabitant than any other city in France.
What to do
The supercool Musée des Confluences is a must-see in Lyon. The museum tells the story of mankind and explores the history of life. It doesn’t shy away from asking confrontational questions about the destiny of humanity while showcasing the two million objects in its collections.
A visit to Lyon isn’t complete without a walk through the UNESCO-listed Vieux Lyon and Croix Rousse. Check out the cute shops and restaurants that line the streets and remember to look up every once in a while to admire the pretty architecture of the old buildings.
You might even find a traboule on your way. Around 40 of these hidden passageways are open to the public, each marked with a small identifying seal. They say if you want to be a true Lyonnais you have to know your traboules, so why not start looking?
For a taste of local Lyonnais life, visit Le Mur des Canuts, one of the largest murals in Europe. It is painted in the trompe-l’oeil (trick the eye) style and depicts life in the Croix-Rousse neighborhood in which it’s located.
What to eat
Dubbed ‘the stomach of France’, you can’t really go wrong here if you’re a fan of food. One of the reasons Lyon has received this prestigious title is because of Les Halles de Lyon – Paul Bocuse. This large covered market is home to over 48 vendors, ranging from butchers and bakers to chocolatiers and cheesemongers. Mondays are for oysters only, because every self-respecting French market has a day dedicated entirely to oysters.
Oenophiles need to visit Lyon in November to make sure your trip coincides with Beaujolais Nouveau Day. Every year on the third Thursday of November, the Lyonnais celebrate the release of Beaujolais nouveau – a special red wine made from Gamay grapes. Aside from wine, the festivities boast fireworks, music, and entertainment.
5. The most bicycle-friendly city in France: Strasbourg
Strasbourg was named the most cyclist-friendly city in France by the Federation of Bicycle Users (FUB) themselves. And honestly, there’s no better way to explore one of the best cities in France than by bike – especially after all those tarte flambées and rieslings you’ll have been sampling.
Strasbourg is located in the Alsace region, which alternated between French and German control over the centuries. The city is, therefore, neither French nor German, but truly Alsatian, a mix of the two. This cross-cultural mixture is found in the architecture but also in the food, which marries the delicacy of French cuisine with hearty German comfort food.
What to do
Take a stroll through the Grande-Île, the historic center of Strasbourg. Together with Neustadt (New Town) this part of the city is recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. In the middle of the Grande-Île, you will find the Strasbourg Cathedral, an impressive masterpiece of Gothic architecture, which you can visit for free.
Strasbourg is the official seat of the European Parliament, and you can visit the impressive and modern cylindrical structure with a guided tour.
The city is home to many museums, such as the exquisite Musée d’Art Moderne et Contemporain, but if you have to choose, make sure to put the Musée Alsacien at the top of your list. The museum brings to life the Alsace of old in fascinating detail.
What to eat
You can’t leave Strasbourg without going to at least one winstub. These are family-owned restaurants specializing in wine. Here you’ll get the truest of true Alsatian cuisine.
A particularly tasty local treat is tarte flambée, or flammkuchen, which is a little like a pizza but made with a thin flatbread-like crust. One of the best places in town for tarte flambée is La Binchstub.
6. The coolest city in France: Lille
With 248 inhabitants per bar, an average population age of 34, and 60.2% of residents made up of singles, Lille is easily the coolest city in France. It sits on the border with Belgium, and Flemish influences remain both in the architecture and the food. Make a friend, grab a drink, and chill at a cafe with beautiful Lille as your backdrop and you won’t question why Lille ranks on our list of top 10 cities in France.
What to do
To start off your visit to Lille with a bird’s-eye view of the city, head to the Belfry of Lille. This 104-meter high tower offers stunning 360° views of Lille.
One of the buildings you’ll spot when you’re up there is La Vieille Bourse (the old stock exchange). This impressive bâtiment has a courtyard you can walk into to find booksellers selling a large range of second-hand books.
Only a short walk from the Bourse you’ll find the Palais des Beaux-Arts. This is one of the largest art museums in France and, like most things in Lille, it is surprisingly cheap. A € 7 ticket gets you in with an audio guide included. The collection is stunning and includes a great mix of masterpieces in different art forms.
Since you’re in the coolest city in France, so you have to check out the cultural heart of this place. Lille is home to some of the most cutting-edge cultural centers of France, so make sure to scroll through the listings of Lille3000 to find out which concerts, festivals, or other events are happening in the city during your visit. All that’s left is to do is to sample some French culture with a biere in hand.
What to eat
Lille might not be as famous for its cuisine as Lyon or Bordeaux, but there’s still plenty to satisfy a hearty eater. Lille’s top local specialty is Le Welsh: brown bread, soaked in beer, topped with slices of pink ham, drenched in lots of melted cheese, seasoned with mustard, then baked until golden. It’s best served with a giant side of fries and salad. Now doesn’t that sound delicious?
7. The pinkest city in France: Toulouse
This city might share its name with the orange-furred kitten in the brilliant Aristocats movie (and Ariana Grande’s pet), but that’s not all it’s got going for it. This city is dubbed the Pink City because of the terracotta brick used in many of its buildings, giving it a romantic pink hue. Besides that, Toulouse is packed with lots of history, art, and culture, a perfect combination for a city trip. Keep your rose-colored glasses intact as you tick Toulouse off your list of top10 cities in France.
What to do
Toulouse is the largest center for aerospace in all of Europe, so a visit to the city wouldn’t be complete without some space exploration. The Cité de l’Espace is an interactive science museum focused on space – a must, especially if you’re visiting with children. L’Envol des Pionniers is an interactive aeronautics exhibition exploring the history of French long-haul flights. Combine a visit to both to get a look at the pivotal role Toulouse has played in space exploration!
The most important landmark in Toulouse is probably the Basilica of Saint Sernin, an architecturally stunning building best visited with a guided tour to take in its rich history.
Only a short walk from the basilica you’ll find the Place du Capitole. This busy square is situated in the historic heart of Toulouse and filled with markets, shops, and restaurants. Surrounding the square are impressive historical monuments built in emblematic rose-colored terracotta brick.
Art lovers can also satisfy their creative desires in Toulouse. The Musée des Augustins is a must-do; its collection spans multiple centuries and you could easily spend a day marveling at the beautiful canvases adorning the walls.
The Bemberg Foundation is a major art gallery housed in the Hôtel d’Assézat, a Renaissance-era hôtel particulier built in the 16th century. It’s one of the most important private art collections in Europe and houses works by Masters such as Titian, Rodin, Monet, and Picasso.
What to eat
The saucisse de Toulouse or Toulouse sausage is the star of the Toulousian kitchen. It features many dishes from the region but is also very tasty when eaten on its own.
If you’re more of a dessert lover, you should get a taste of le fénétra, a cake from Toulouse made of almonds and candied lemon.
8. The city of yachts: Nice
Located on the French Riviera, surrounded by mountains and the beautiful turquoise sea, Nice is the perfect seaside destination for sunseekers. Nice has a gorgeous Old Town and hip nightlife scene, and the city is also a good starting point for exploring the region’s mountainous area and gorgeous coastal vistas. Nice’s great location makes it one of the best 10 cities in France for a summer getaway.
What to do
Start your day in Nice with a hillside walk up to the Castle of Nice. It’s a steep climb up the 213 steps, but the incredible views make it more than worth it (or you could just take the elevator up).
The Musée National Marc Chagall is a small-but-impressive museum that lovers of colorful, surrealist paintings shouldn’t miss out on. In the evenings you can occasionally enjoy a performance here in the small concert hall while admiring the stained-glass windows made by none other than Chagall himself.
If you can’t get enough of iconic French painters, you’ll do well to visit Musée Matisse next. Once the home of Matisse until his death, the 17th-century villa has been turned into a museum. It has a large collection of the painter’s works and grants an intimate look at the painter’s inner life.
To get away from the busy streets of Nice and take in some of the most impressive views in the region, take a trip to Eze. This is a hilltop medieval village perched 1,400 feet above sea level. Eze is only 12 kilometers away from Nice so it’s an easy bus ride.
Once you’ve spent some time getting lost in the winding medieval streets, take the Nietzsche Path down to the train station. The philosopher who gave the path its name lived in the area in the 1880s and took this path from the seaside to the village frequently. Take your time walking down the trail and make sure to stop occasionally to admire the breathtaking views of the Mediterranean.
What to eat
A typical Nicoise snack is the pissaladière, a sort of pizza covered with caramelized onions. Perfect in combination with a glass of chilled white wine and panoramic views of the sea.
9. The medieval city: Carcassonne
Famous for Cité de Carcassone, its medieval fortress, and as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the charming city of Carcassonne is packed with French monuments and is the perfect destination for a short stay, making this time-worn gem one of the best 10 cities in France.
What to do
First on your list should be a visit to Cité de Carcassonne, the largest citadel in Europe. Inside the citadel, make sure to visit the Basilique St. Nazaire; prepare to be blown away by its beauty. The central stained glass window of the choir is one of the oldest windows in France.
For the best views of the city, head to St. Vincent’s Church (Église Saint-Vincent de Carcassonne). Psst… access is free! The tower can only be reached by climbing the stairs, so be prepared for a proper workout.
An absolute must when in Carcassonne is a boat trip on the Canal du Midi, which offers delightful waterside views of the city.
Located just a short bus ride away from Carcassonne is the Lac de la Cavayère, a picture-perfect lake that’s great for a stroll and a picnic on a warm day. A full loop around the lake takes approximately one hour.
What to eat
Open every day except on Sundays, Carcassonne’s Place Carnot is the perfect place to find local produce, traditional French ingredients and fresh dishes.
10. The most elegant city in France: Paris
A list of the top 10 cities in France wouldn’t be complete without France’s beloved capital city – Paris. According to famous French writer Honoré de Balzac: “Whoever does not visit Paris regularly will never really be elegant.” While Parisians are sometimes typecast as unfriendly to visitors, prepare for your stay in Paris by understanding some subtleties in their culture. Undisputedly, Paris is a lively city and a must-visit for all romantics, fashionistas, art historians, and foodies.
Attempting to provide a comprehensive list of must-visit places in Paris would be like trying to see the whole collection of the Louvre in one hour: impossible! Just like when you visit the Louvre, make sure to spend some time thinking about the highlights you don’t want to miss before throwing out the itinerary and getting lost in Paris’ beautiful streets and parks.
Make sure to look up every once in a while, as you can spot the Eiffel Tower in many parts of the city. Gustave Eiffel’s iconic tower quietly observes the hustle and bustle of the City of Lights, exuding an air of contentedness and pride as the symbol of this opulent city.