Most people visiting France stop at the capital city, Paris. Without wanting to shock anyone, I must inform the masses that there’s more to this stunning country than the City of Lights.
The French soul, and France’s history, are captured best by small towns in France. Many of the best small towns in France, you likely haven’t heard of but are unforgettable.
1. Lège-Cap-Ferret – Nouvelle-Aquitaine
No train travel through France would be complete without visiting the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region of southwest France. Try Lège-Cap-Ferret. And no, this town is not devoted to providing headgear to domesticated weasels, although I’m sure they too travel around France.
The town of Lège situated above the Cap Ferret headland is the biggest town on this list of best small towns in France; even so, the population is only just over 8,000. This beautiful resort town sits on the Atlantic coast, enjoying gorgeous weather for most of the year, and is the perfect seaside escape.
The emphasis placed on relaxing is huge. If relaxing on the beach or by the pool, enjoying pleasant walks along leafy roads, or sipping coffee at a quiet cafe or patio with a good book is your thing, Lège has you covered.
The headland hosts activities to keep more active visitors occupied too. There’s Cap Ferret Lighthouse, 258 steps tall, with a gift shop, the Île aux Oiseaux (Isle of Birds) nature reserve with its famous “houses on stilts,” not to mention over 30 miles of bike paths.
There are plenty of opportunities along the coastline for canoeing, kayaking, and surfing, Cap Ferret being something of a secret haven for French surfers. The seafood here is fantastic; everything is served hours after being caught.
As a resort town, there are tons of options for accommodation, ranging from campgrounds to waterfront hotels to book, and a growing real estate market.
See Related: Best Day Trips from Strasbourg
2. Alise-Saint-Reine – Burgundy
Alise-Ste-Reine is a village with fewer than 600 souls in the Burgundy region of eastern France. This small town in France was once a big town, (historians speculate a population of 80,000) over a millennium ago, when it was called Alésia, and served as the main city for the Mandubii tribe of Gauls before it was sacked by Roman troops led by Julius Ceaser.
The Battle of Alésia, a defining moment in France’s history, broke the back of Gallic resistance to Roman imperialism and allowed the Romans to have free reign of Gaul.
The monument to Vercingetorix, leader of the defeated Gauls, is an imposing memorial to the Gallic cause and is considered a symbol of French nationalism.
To further scratch that history itch, there are the Gallo-Roman Ruins, the most intact remains of Alésia to explore up close, and the stunning Interpretation Centre, which explores the discoveries made by archeologists, paints pictures of life in Alésia, and recounts the siege of the city.
Nestled amongst rolling, wooded hills and serene, green fields Alise-Ste-Reine is a peaceful vacation destination for any history buff interested in Roman and Gallic history, and anyone who wants a taste of true French countryside.
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3. Bazas – Nouvelle-Aquitaine
Bazas is a prime choice for anyone interested in south of France travel. An ancient market town of 4,000 that has been settled for over a millennium, the town is home to the Gothic masterpiece, the Bazas Cathedral, first laid down in the 13th century, and visible from just about anywhere in town.
The Cathedral, largely rebuilt in the 18th century, has been the seat of the Bishop of Bazas and an important stop for Catholic pilgrims traveling the Way of St. James to Santiago de Compostela in Spain.
Hiking and biking the leafy woodland trails surrounding Bazas’ rolling fields is highly recommended especially because of the stellar weather.
Bazas is also home to Adventures Sud Gironde, a brilliant outdoor adventure complex with paintballing, laser tag, mini-golf, and a treetop assault course to get the blood flowing!
Bazas is a great food destination and home to over 20 beautiful restaurants for indoor and alfresco dining, serving produces sourced from neighboring farms.
Bazas is famous for its locally produced beef and dairy products from their namesake breed of cows, not to mention fabulous white wines from three local vineyards.
There are several hotels in Bazas, with moderately priced rooms. If you’re looking for an unforgettable stay, investigate Château Saint Vincent.
There is also a booming luxury real estate market in Bazas, if you’re researching nice small towns in France to live in.
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4. Conques – Occitanie
The most famous landmark is the Abbey Church of Sainte-Foy, which has served as a stop for pilgrims traveling to Santiago de Compostela for centuries.
Conques is for walkers, with its narrow and steeply rising and descending cobbled streets. In fact, walking or biking may be your only option, as the streets are too narrow for most traffic!
This is of little matter as you’ll want to savor every step taking in the splendid old buildings (some nearly 1,000 years old) and romantic, forested hilltops surrounding the fairytale town.
Speaking of fairytales, Conques was the primary inspiration for Belle’s hometown in Disney’s 2017 adaptation of Beauty and the Beast.
Conques is a quiet and lazy town, ideal for those seeking tranquility, while the surrounding hills and valleys are perfect for serious hikers and afford breathtaking views of the town and countryside.
There are few hotels throughout Conques as spellbinding as Hotel Sainte Foy, which features a covered terrace, wrapped in grapevines over a century old, still harvested to this day.
For fine dining experiences, Conques is home to the Hervé Busset Michelin-star restaurant.
5. Saint Émilion – Nouvelle-Aquitaine
If you enjoy French wines, then Saint Émilion should come high on your list of small French towns to visit – VERY high. Over 130 huge vineyards (or “chateaux”) in and around Saint Émilion can be visited and toured by appointment. Just passing through? Saint Émilion’s tourist board actually publishes a daily “Chateaux of the Day“, showcasing Saint Émilion’s vineyards open to the public on any given day.
Saint Émilion produces mainly red wine, with a small range of still or sparkling whites or rosés to quaff to your heart’s content. Saint Émilion is also known for well-preserved medieval structures, none more impressive than the underground Monolithic Church, dug deep into a rockface in the town center.
Visits in spring through fall are the best as the weather is balmy and conducive for growing wine grapes. In late July, catch the Saint Émilion Jazz Festival, and if you’re visiting in October, enjoy the Montgolfiades de Saint-Emilion; a wonderful hot-air balloon festival that soars over Saint Émilion’s vineyards.
Accommodation in Saint Émilion is mainly bed & breakfasts with a few luxurious hotels in the town center. If you want to feel like you own your own vineyard, book a room at the Château Hôtel Grand Barrail.
Just over a mile from the town center, this grand old chateau, surrounded by vineyards hosts palatial rooms, a spa, and a highly recommended restaurant.
Being a big wine town, you can bet your bottom Euro there’s amazing food in Saint Émilion. For one of the last words in haute cuisine, book a table at Logis de la Cadène. In business since 1848, this Michelin-star restaurant serves a mixture of classic French cuisine, whilst pushing the boundaries of gastronomic genius.
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6. Flavigny-sur-Ozerain – Bourgogne-Franche-Comté
The teeny-tiny village of Flavigny-sur-Ozerain, in France’s Bourgogne-Franche-Comté region, has a population of less than 400 and is officially one of the “Les Plus Beaux Villages de France“ (the most beautiful villages of France); unsurprising that it’s the shooting location of the romantic movie Chocolat.
In the postcard-perfect Ozerain Valley, Flavigny is surrounded by rolling, green farmland with picturesque wooded areas providing heavenly hiking and biking.
The first thing you’ll notice in Flavigny-sur-Ozerain is the sturdy and imposing town gate, part of a series of surviving fortifications initially built to keep the Vikings out, then the English out, and then the French (it’s a whole thing)!
Flavigny is an ancient town, complete with super narrow streets, framed by well-preserved medieval and renaissance-era houses. Consequently, you’re better off ditching the car and absorbing the place on foot or bike.
Need a unique gift idea? Try antiquing and boutique locally-made woolen products, the local vineyard, and an operational blacksmith.
Famously, Flavigny is home to Flavigny Abbey, now the factory and sole producer of Les Anis de Flavigny – the classic Anis flavored bonbon, loved and exported all over the world, its recipe unchanged since the 16th century.
Every summer Flavigny hosts the Musicales en Auxois Festival of Baroque Music drawing crowds that dwarf the population.
When dining out in Flavigny, your choices are sadly limited to 3 restaurants. Accommodation consists only of guesthouses and short-term rentals.
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7. Étretat – Normandie
Three distinctive and naturally created arches (the Porte d’Avalthe, the Porte d’Amont, and the Manneporte) and a free-standing chalk spire referred to as L’Aiguille (the Needle) have been sources of inspiration for painters, writers, and filmmakers for decades.
Étreat is famous as the last French sighting point of L’Oiseau Blanc (The White Bird), piloted by French war heroes Charles Nungesser and François Coli, a French biplane that disappeared over the Atlantic in what was nearly the first aeronautical crossing of the Atlantic from Paris to New York in 1927. They’re immortalized in Étreat by the Aviator Memorial (sometimes referred to as Monument Nungesser et Coli), a gleaming white dart that points to the skies.
Étreat is great for relaxing days by the beach, surfing, and bracing walks around the fields and cliffs.
For a unique walk, stop by Les Jardins d’Etretat. This wacky garden, drawing inspiration from across the globe, blends futurism with French whimsy, featuring amusing sculptures and an unparalleled view of the town and the cliffs.
For shoppers, Étreat hosts a couple of street markets every week with boutiques for unique gifts. Étreat has amazing restaurants serving fresh seafood caught hours before serving. The wide selection of hotels throughout the town is priced competitively. A note on booking hotels in Étreat: if it looks fancy on the outside, the fee will match.
If Étreat has any downsides, it’s the weather, which can be crummy for a good portion of the year, particularly winter. That said, crummy coastal weather can mean great surfing weather!
8. Saint-Véran – Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur
Tucked away in the French Alps, a stone’s throw from the Italian border, Saint-Véran‘s tiny population of less than 250, swells in the summer and winter months as tourists swarm the village. It also has the 3rd highest altitude of any settlement in Europe!
This beautifully preserved mountain town, part of the Queyras Regional Natural Park, is famous for its woodworking industry. Most of Saint-Véran’s structures are constructed from locally felled pines.
If you’re into serious hiking, mountain biking, mountaineering, and winter sports, Saint-Véran leans further into the more extreme activities. Saint-Véran is home to Parc des Amoureux, an adventure camp, with a treetop ropes course and horseriding.
Despite already being quite high up, the locals in Saint-Véran seem to have an obsession with looking even further upwards, as the town is home to La Maison du Soleil de Saint-Véran (The House of the Sun), a beautiful, wooden space museum focusing on our local star, Sol (sorry, I mean, the Sun), and a solar-powered observatory that can be toured by appointment.
Most hotels and rentable apartments are modeled around steep-roofed ski lodges or chalets and are very reasonably priced for most of the year.
For the be-and-end-all in alpine luxury, check out Hôtel & Spa L’Alta Peyra, home to France’s highest spa. Food is more expensive compared to other French destinations and from fall-spring typically consists of the stodgier sort of fare meant to keep the cold out. That said, there are over 20 highly-regarded restaurants to sample in this tiny town.
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9. Montbazon – Centre-Val de Loire
Montbazon Fortress, well over 1,000 years old, was laid down by Fulk Nerra, a fascinating fellow and as fierce a warrior as he was a brilliant architect. He was responsible for the construction of over 100 castles throughout Europe.
The well-preserved fortress is a fantastic day trip, hosting live reenactments of medieval combat and humdrum life, and opportunities to try your hand at medieval calligraphy and archery.
There are two reasonably-priced guest houses in Montbazon and a bargain 2-star hotel. For less than $200 a night, you can set yourself up in one of two 5-star chateaus; the 19th-century, fairytale castle Domaine de la Tortinière and the 18th-century palace Chateau D’Artigny. Surrounded by beautiful grounds, both have fantastic restaurants and romantic rooms and suites to make any guest feel like royalty.
The fanciness doesn’t end there, as Montbazon is also home to the Michelin star restaurant L’Évidence, serving classic and innovative cuisine made from locally sourced produce and wines.
One of the best hotels to book in Montbazon is Hotel Pic Epeiche.
See Related: Fun & Best Things to Do in Reims, France
10. Èze – Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur
If you thought the French Alps were all snow and ski lifts, think again! Looking down into the French Riviera, the hilltop town of Èze borders the Principality of Monaco. If you love to soak in the rays, Èze is warm and sunny all year.
Èze has been settled for over 4,000 years by the French, Italians, Greeks, Monacans, and Egyptians. Walt Disney spent much time relaxing in this escapist’s dream.
Èze feels like it was either grown or mined out of the hills and invites exploration of its narrow, winding streets, nooks’n’crannies.
Be warned, if you’re not a fan of walking, Èze is not for you, as many streets and trails surrounding the village are quite steep. Let’s call it slow travel France Provence style. But if you enjoy a stout walk and a picnic try Fort de la Revère.
The most rewarding hike of all is definitely to Jardin Botanique d’Èze, an exotic garden at the top of the town, home to a large number of cacti, succulents, and other arid plants.
Few words can describe the views of the town and Mediterranean from here. “Lifechanging” comes to mind. Alternatively, stroll downhill to find Èze’s small pebbly beach to paddle or swim in the warm, crystal waters of the Med.
Èze’s cuisine is mostly fine dining of the Mediterranean variety, with Spanish, Italian, Greek, and Moroccan influences. If you’re looking for cheaper, lighter bites, Deli’ is the place to be. As well as salads and sandwiches, you’ll find quality French and Italian olive oils, vinegar, and wines for sale (great gift ideas!).
Accommodation can be tricky without a large budget. The average price of a room is $300 a night in one of the few hotels, and considerably more at Cap Estel Hotel, the premier 5-star luxury hotel.
See Related: Best Paris Hotels With Eiffel Tower View
11. Verdelais – Nouvelle-Aquitaine
Verdelais is a quaint farming community in the south of France, primarily producing wheat and wine, and is ideal for secluded getaways within easy reach of larger towns in the region.
Here, the temperate climate of northern Europe, collides with the sub-tropical climate of southern Europe, resulting in an eclectic range of flora. It’s normal to see palm trees juxtaposed with oaks on the same street.
Verdelais has several notable landmarks including Moulin à vent du Mont Cussol an ancient, restored windmill that would have been one of the thousands across France up until less than 50 years ago.
Cussol windmill is close to the town’s most famous landmark, Basilique Notre-Dame de Verdelais, a stunning old church laid down in the 12th century, framed by palm trees.
Across the street in Verdelais cemetery, you’ll find the eternal resting place of the diminutive, syphilitic, bohemian painter and illustrator Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
Accommodation in town is limited to one hotel, with other options at least a mile outside of town. There are also a limited number of short-term rentals in Verdelais, and it’s worth mentioning that there is a growing market for luxury real estate in town.
If you’re looking to eat out, there’s the well-known Le Nord Sud for fine dining. But the more peasant fare of Verdelais shouldn’t be overlooked. The bread baked from the local wheat is like nothing else.
See related: 20 Best Airbnb in Paris
12. Bénouville – Normandie
Last in our list of best small towns in France to visit is Bénouville. Famous for being the first town to be liberated from the Nazis in World War II, the town is a major pilgrimage site for veterans and anyone interested in the Battle of Normandy.
On the night of June 5th/6th, D-Day, Major R. J. Howard and the men of D Company, 2nd Battalion, Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry took off from England in gliders (yes, gliders), with the task of securing the vital Bénouville bridge over the Caen Canal.
Without the bridge, British forces landing on nearby Sword Beach wouldn’t be able to advance to their objectives inland, British airborne forces would be cut off and the entire eastern flank of the Allied landings in jeopardy.
The impossible mission was a success and documented at the nearby Memorial Pegasus museum.
It’s worth visiting the Café Gondrée, (aka Pegasus Bridge Café) the first house/business to be liberated in France. It still serves coffee and croissants to this day, right next to Caen Canal.
Caen Canal, like many French man-made waterways, is exceptionally pretty and allows for great river fishing if you grab a license. For younger kids, take them to Girafou for the day. This covered amusement park is an ideal way to get kids aged 2-12 to drain some energy!
There are 3 hotels in Bénouville, Manoir’ Hastings being the best choice. Unassuming from the outside, the 19th-century hotel has gorgeous rooms, exquisite grounds, and a Michelin star restaurant. It’s also close to the grand old Chateau de Bénouville.
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