There are some French destinations which make obvious city breaks, but in the summer, tourists rush to the major hotspots and in the south, the heat can be oppressive. Here’s our guide to which French cities offer the best breaks during high season.
Marseille is generally loved or loathed in equal measure by locals and tourists alike. It’s a city that isn’t entirely easy to appreciate – at first glance it seems untamed, sprawling, and congested. But that is changing. President Macron is in the process of buying a property to be closer to his favourite football team, Olympique de Marseille, and with huge amounts of European funding, the mayor is slowly rebuilding the city with new transport links, state of the art offices and new housing developments.
Marseille is a city at the confluence of France and Africa. France’s colonial links with Northern Africa, and Marseille in particular, go back centuries, meaning that it’s a great place to experience North African cuisine. Culturally speaking, it also has the new Mucem museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations, and its alleys and streets are a great place to photograph interesting graffiti. All of this is watched over by Marseille’s age-old basilica (Notre Dame de la Garde) whose Virgin Mary is at the highest point in the city and surveys the town from on high. Marseille offers the chance to explore the sublime coastline along the Mediterranean, too, for a fraction of the price of other resorts in Europe.
Ever since royal families across Europe began arriving for holidays at the beginning of the 19th century, Biarritz has had a reputation for being glamorous. Today, you can still expect to find chic vacationers enjoying its beaches. This is also one of the key places in the region where people come to learn to surf on the long sandy beaches and windswept coastlines. Biarritz is known for the Rocher de la Vierge too, a famous rock out to sea with an ornate statue of the Virgin Mary on top.
Nancy is France’s 20th largest city and yet it’s one of the least well-known to tourists. If you’re looking for a summer break away from the crowds, Nancy has a lot going for it. Firstly, Alsace is the least-visited French region, so it’s a great place to get away from France’s summer crowds. Secondly, Nancy is an architectural delight. It has three UNESCO-listed heritage sites – three main squares designed by King Stanislas of Poland who remodelled the town in the 18th century when he was in exile from his own country. King Stanislas made a big splash in Nancy; as well as connecting the medieval parts of the city with the more modern areas, he founded a school, brought Rum Baba to the French (allegedly) and his daughter became Queen of France through her marriage to King Louis XV.
The city of Lille only became French in 1667 after it had first been Flemish, Spanish and Burgundian (ancient Germanic tribe), meaning that it has lots of different influences. Lille is France’s 10th largest city and, with 36% of the population under 25, this is a lively student town. Walk the cobbled streets of the Old Town or sample some of the city’s varied cultural offerings (it was European Capital of Culture in 2004), such as the Palais des Beaux-Arts.
Lyon is a major jewel in France’s food crown but is highly underrated as a city break. Lyon’s Old Town is UNESCO-listed as a prime heritage site and the city has recently undergone huge regeneration, particularly by the disused docks. The latest cultural addition, the Musée des Confluences is a science and anthropology museum situated where the two rivers, the Rhône and Saône meet. But it’s the food that people come here for. Legendary chef Paul Bocuse‘s main restaurant is in Lyon and there are many other Michelin-starred delights in town. Lyon is also the home of French culinary favourites Coq au Vin, Lyonnaise potatoes and sausages of every kind imaginable, including tripe.
Nîmes is perhaps the most Roman of all French towns. It was a major outpost for the Romans, who settled here when they built roads between Spain and Italy. Much of the original Roman architecture remains intact and it is what gives the town its lifeblood and tourist income: locals even play pétanque among the remains of ancient baths and temples. It is, however, the Roman arena which is the showcase. Built in AD70, it seats 20,000 people and, astonishingly, it was remodelled in 1863 to host bullfights, which still take place today. In summer, head to Pont du Gard, one of the oldest Roman aqueducts, which is a truly breathtaking place to go wild swimming.
Strasbourg is the capital of France’s easterly region and sits on the border between France and Germany. And the region has its own distinct culture. The border here has vacillated between Germany and France over the past century and locals in this region have changed nationality several times without even moving house! It’s this inspired mix of German and French influences in just one city that makes it so unique. Wander the streets, which are filled with medieval wooden German houses alongside French villas and imagine you’re a character straight out of a fairy story. The summers can get warm here, but the nearby Vosges Mountains provide some respite.
It might seem like an obvious choice to include Bordeaux on a list of French city breaks, but if you love your wine or just want to find out a little more, then this really is the city break for you. The city’s Wine Museum, Cité du Vin, explains everything you need to know about the craft. Many international chefs have their Michelin-starred restaurants here too, including Gordon Ramsay’s two-starred Le Pressoir d’Argent at the Intercontinental. Bordeaux is also undeniably beautiful – it’s the largest urban UNESCO-listed area in the world. A port city, it’s easy to reach the beach, or head to the nearby Landes de Gascogne Natural Park on the coast for some waterside fun.
Aix-en-Provence couldn’t be more different to its sister, Marseille, just 30 minutes away. On the ‘A-list’ of must-see southern French cities (it forms a trio with Avignon and Arles), it’s a small place with a cut-glass reputation. Aix-en-Provence is affectionately referred to as the 21st arrondissement of Paris, and this shows in its first-class boutiques, restaurants and chocolate shops. Aix-en-Provence is particularly popular for its culture: from June to September, there are numerous festivals taking place around the city. You’ll find opera on the streets, busking at every corner, literature festivals, ballet performances and art in the parks.
There are lots of places to commemorate both World Wars in France, due to the amount of fighting that took place on its land. Lens is an old working-class town which is a perfect base from which to visit many of the monuments commemorating the hundreds of thousands of people who died in battle nearby, particularly at the Battle of the Somme in summer 1916. For instance, it’s only 9km from Lens to the Canadian War Memorial. Back in the city, the Louvre-Lens Museum holds temporary exhibitions of the Louvre’s artwork from Paris, allowing more people to see its collection.
Montpellier is a chic city, but perhaps not one of the first that comes to mind when you think of French mini-breaks. It’s only 10km away from the Mediterranean, making it the perfect city to combine with beach trips. There are old squares, good food and a lively cultural scene. What’s not to love?