France’s continental lifestyle is seriously seductive. Its cities offer a tempting array of historic and iconic sites, along with art, sumptuous cuisine and all things chic. So much so that the World Tourism Organisation has proclaimed France as the world’s most visited country – the nation welcomed over 80 million tourists in 2015.
And then there’s the atmosphere: Wherever you go in France, there’s nothing quite like soaking up the scene on a café terrace; savouring freshly-baked croissants with coffee or a tipple of strong Pernod while the locals chat.
So which French city will bring you the most joie de vivre on your next city break? In no particular order, we’ve picked out ten of our French favourites to help you decide:
Romantic strolls by the Seine, Notre Dame Cathedral, the iconic Eiffel Tower, the bleach-white Sacré Coeur and Montmartre’s street artists. These are but a few of the iconic experiences that are part-and-parcel of your classic city break in France’s capital.
Beside the sights, Paris exudes romance at every turn and this, along with some of the best cuisine in the world, chic boutiques and outstanding cultural sites, makes it a mecca for the finer things in life. You will find a fascinating cultural mix within its patchwork of arrondissements (districts) and the resulting communities, each with their own characters, reflect a unique charm that is quintessentially Paris.
Airport: Paris Charles de Gaulle is 16 miles, and Paris Orly 12 miles, from the city centre.
Bordeaux has shed a somewhat languid image to emerge as ‘La Belle Bordeaux’, now a dynamic and vibrant city. Newly pedestrianised boulevards, meticulously restored neoclassical architecture, plentiful museums and a new public transport system help make it a hugely exciting city to visit.
Historically, Bordeaux is hard to beat: Half the city is UNESCO listed, making it the biggest urban World Heritage site in the world. To add to the interest, prestigious global architects have recently designed striking new buildings – La Cité du Vin, the Herzog & de Meuron stadium and the Jacques Bosc Bridge to name but a few.
Thanks to a party-loving student population and 5.5 million annual visitors, Bordeaux rarely sleeps. Expect trendy clubs, bars and coffee shops, along with exceptional dining and fine wines from the surrounding vineyards.
Airport: Bordeaux Mérignac Airport is 6 miles from the city centre.
Roll up for rugby plus aeronautical excitement all in one trip -Toulouse is home to the best rugby union and plane engineering and space expertise in France. Don’t miss a visit to the brilliant Cité-de-l’Espace and Aeroscopia, the exciting new aeronautic museum. Then there’s the rest of Toulouse to discover…
A medieval town with a sizeable student population, Toulouse’s streets are artistic and energetic. The tiered octagonal tower of the 11th-century St Sernin Basilica with its angular pink brickwork is the biggest Romanesque church in France.
The contemporary art gallery, housed in a converted abattoir, contains fabulously light, airy rooms, making both the art and the building well worth a visit.
Airport: Toulouse Blagnac Airport is 5.5 miles from the city centre.
When on the French Riviera, don’t miss luxurious Cannes. The city exudes glamour, wealth and hedonism, with its luxury sports cars and celebrities lining the streets.
In May, the Cannes Film Festival is a chance to rub shoulders with the stars and take in the atmosphere. For an up-market stroll, head for the star-studded La Croisette promenade, lined with its haute-couture boutiques and dominated by the majestic Carlton Hotel, the legendary backdrop to Grace Kelly in ‘To Catch a Thief’.
For less glitz, there’s always the quaint old quarter of Le Suquet. Wander around its beautiful bay and harbour or explore the sprinkling of picturesque islands just offshore.
Airport: Aéroport Nice Côte d’Azur is 17 miles from Cannes city centre.
Perched on the banks of the Rhine in Alsace, Strasbourg came under French rule as recently as 1918 and it retains a characteristic German charm. The German quarter with its historic streets and squares is lined with elegant 19th-century mansions built by Emperor Wilhelm II.
Strasbourg is heaven for exploring on foot. So put on comfortable walking shoes for a stroll around the cobble-stoned cathedral square with its buskers, then on to the half-timbered houses and wrought iron signs of Rue des Frères. And don’t miss the maze of interesting, tiny streets in the La Petite France district.
Not all of Strasbourg is old. Among its newer attractions is the fabulous Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art. You can also drink great beer at the two breweries on Rue des Frères, or bob along the River L’iIl on a guided boat trip.
Airport: Strasbourg International Airport is located in Entzheim, 6.2 miles southwest of Strasbourg.
Sometimes over-shadowed by popular Marseille or Nice, Montpelier is nevertheless regarded by many as one of France’s most desirable cities.
The city’s population swelled in the 1960s as many people left independent Algeria to settle here, making it one of southern France’s most multicultural cities. This, along with students accounting for a third of the population, makes Montpelier seem eternally young.
Amble along the famous Comédie, France’s biggest pedestrian square and enjoy the Latin style of daily life. For a rest, pull up a chair at one of the many café or restaurant terraces and you’ll soon be living the life in grand, Mediterranean style.
Airport: Montpellier–Méditerranée Airport is 7 miles from the city centre.
Perhaps not an obvious choice, but Nantes is highly likely to surprise and delight you.
The famous Machines-de-l’Ile is an incredible piece of art and mechanical design which affords great views of Nantes as you ride a massive 40-foot diesel-driven elephant – you can’t get much more unique than that!
Famed for its art de vivre, Nantes is home to one of France’s top symphony orchestras plus a prestigious opera company performing in the Théâtre Graslin. The Folles Journées music festival takes place here at the beginning of February.
Nantes is a treat for all the senses. Drink at Hangar à Bananes, a former banana warehouse and eat at La Cigale, a brasserie of such art deco excess that it needs to be set to operatic music by Offenbach. You’ll also witness sensational street sculpture and street theatre all over town.
Airport: Nantes Atlantique Airport is 7.5 miles from the city centre.
The Côte d’Azur’s city of Nice conjures up images of well-dressed crowds and year-round sunshine.
Built within the beautiful Bay of Angels, Nice offers a unique atmosphere and stark contrasts: appreciate the open space and modernity of the Promenade des Anglais; wander through the narrow, ochre-tinted streets of the Old Town; and negotiate the city centre with its sleek trams whizzing down Avenue Jean Médecin, the main shopping street.
Don’t miss the new Promenade du Paillon with its 30 acres of lush, green parkland stretching from the city centre to the beach. The park, with its rentable bicycles and electric cars, is part of the green agenda of the city’s forward-thinking mayor, Christian Estrosi, who intends to make Nice “the Green City of the Mediterranean”.
Airport: Nice-Côte d’Azur Airport is just 4.5 miles from the city centre.
France’s hidden gem is often regarded as one of the most stunning cities in all of Europe, Aix could make you feel like you are in the heart of Paris’ left-bank. Take in the sights and sounds as you stroll down its leafy boulevards and witness pretty fountains, majestic statues, squares and 17th and 18th century mansions. When you’re feet complain, stop at the Cours Mirabeau to sip an espresso as you sit at polished pavement terraces and watch the world go by.
A past centre for Renaissance art and letters, Aix-en-Provence is cultivated, aristocratic and cosmopolitan and is home to around 40,000 university students. Famous past students include artists Paul Cézanne and novelist Émile Zola who were friends at Collège Bourbon.
The vibrant café culture, busy market, stylish shopping and July’s spectacular International Opera Festival all help make this Provence city one not to be missed.
Airport: Marseille Provence Airport is 16.5 miles from Aix city centre.
Lyon boasts a wonderfully relaxed city centre with a myriad of Michelin-starred restaurants and lively local bistros or bouchons where you can savour fine Lyonnaise cuisine while rubbing shoulders with the locals.
The old Renaissance centre of Lyon is a must see, as are the recently renovated riverside areas of town which showcase modern landscape designs as well as arty promenades alongside the confluence of the rivers Rhône and Saône. Lyon also hosts some outstanding museums and a buzzing nightlife with trendy clubbing and bars, thanks to a big university student population.
Airport: Lyon-Saint Exupéry (LYS) Airport is 15 miles from the city centre.