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The 10 best city breaks in France

Posted on June 20, 2023 by Gillian Thornton
Strasbourg Alsace France

Think about a French city break and most will think of Paris. But France boasts many other cities worthy of a weekend break.

From Lille to Strasbourg, La Rochelle to Lyon, France is full of cities to capture your heart. There is so much more to France than just lounging by the pool, with towns full of exciting cuisines and historical museums to fill your day. 

Here are ten of the best France city breaks to help inspire your next adventure…

 Buildings lit up against the clear nighttime sky in the main square of Lille.

1. A city break in Lille

This historic textile town is now a vibrant cultural centre, with the city winning European Capital of Culture in 2004.

Enjoy the elegant heritage buildings around the Grand Place and the outstanding Fine Arts Museum

Then browse the designer boutiques and soak up the city’s café culture, events programme and buzzing lifestyle.

How to get to Lille: Take the Eurostar. It takes just over an hour to get to Lille from London, so it’s perfect for a weekend getaway.

Scenic green river and architectural view of the Strasbourg Barrage Vauban, a great French city break

2. Strasbourg city breaks

Capital of the Alsace region, this stylish French city on the River Rhine is home to the European Parliament and Council of Europe.

Cruise the canals for a tranquil view of Strasbourg’s half-timbered Petite France district, its covered bridges and the 17th century Vauban Dam. 

How to get to Strasbourg: Hop on the Eurostar and arrive in Paris. Then board the TGV to Strasbourg. The whole trip takes about 5 hours.

Sunset view of Chartres Cathedral surrounded by french houses

3. A city break to Chartres

Northern gateway to the Loire Valley and just an hour from Paris by high-speed train, Chartres is renowned for the rich colours of its cathedral windows.

Take a trip to the nearby Stained Glass Museum to see reproductions at eye level, and maybe book a Pilgrim’s Tour of the cathedral by candlelight. 

Visit before January 2024 to witness the Chartres en Lumières free light festival, where at dusk more than 20 heritage sites in the historic city centre are illuminated.  

How to get to Chartres: Take the Eurostar from London to Paris. Once in Paris, take a local train to Chartres. The journey takes about 5 hours altogether.   

Blissful view of the Chain and Saint Nicholas Towers and Sur Les Murs Medieval cobbled streets with tourists walking in La Rochelle.

4. La Rochelle city breaks

Jewel of the French Atlantic Coast, La Rochelle’s Vieux Port is bordered by photogenic twin towers.

Take a city break to La Rochelle for romantic quayside strolls. Watch the world go by, visit the aquarium and explore the Maritime Museum where the exhibits are housed on three ships.

Finish a morning of discovery in the picturesque arcades, an excellent spot for a delicious seafood lunch. 

Looking to relax? Take a trip to Ile de Ré to unwind on a sandy beach. This beautiful island is just an hours drive from La Rochelle

How to get to La Rochelle: You can fly direct to La Rochelle from London Stansted in just over 90 minutes, or you can take the Eurostar to Paris. From there, you can catch a train to La Rochelle, which will take around 7 hours.

Attractive view of Majestic St Jean Cathedral surrounded by traditional French houses in Lyon

5. A Lyon city break

UNESCO-listed for 2,000 years of urban history, a French city break to Lyon delivers on every level. With its Belle Epoque mansions and charming squares, it’s the ideal destination for a romantic city break

Take a trip to the vibrant ambiance of the modern Confluence district, where the Rhône and Saône rivers unite, perfect for an afternoon stroll. 

Explore the lively Sunday morning markets and discover the multitude of museums Lyon has to offer, including the Lumière brothers’ tribute to their pioneering contributions to the world of cinema.

6. A city break to Bordeaux

Found on the Garonne River at the heart of the French vineyards, Bordeaux is an elegant and historic river port with a real contemporary buzz.

Tour the interactive Musée du Vin (Museum of Wine), and watch the changing patterns of light in the Water Mirror – the world’s largest reflecting pool!  

If shopping is more your cup of tea, browse the boutiques and stop off at the wine bars of Rue Sainte-Catherine and the Triangle district.

History enthusiasts can enjoy a self-guided walking tour through the historic centre, transporting you to the 19th century ambiance of Bordeaux. Immerse yourself in the intriguing tales of old factories, shipyards, and distilleries that once thrived in this area

How to get to Bordeaux: Take the Eurostar from London and once in Paris, take a local train to Bordeaux. The journey should take 6 hours. 

Picturesque view of Roman amphitheatre in the old town of Arles

7. Arles city break

The Northern gateway to the Camargue, the largest area of wetland in France, a city break to Arles boasts an outstanding Roman heritage. 

Book a seat in the Roman arena for the famous bull races (don’t worry, no bulls are harmed) and walk in Roman footsteps through the theatre and public baths.

Arles is great for art lovers too. Van Gogh spent his most productive period based in the city, and Picasso donated 57 drawings to the Réattu Fine Arts Museum

How to get to Arles: Take the Eurostar from London to Paris, and then hop on a local train from Paris to Arles. All in all, the journey takes around 8 hours. 

Beautiful French houses of Marseilles, gathered along the sea-front of a harbour filled with moored colourful boats.

8. Marseilles city break

Resist, if you can, the colour and vibrancy of a Marseilles city break.

Visit the bustling fish market on the quayside of the Vieux Port, home of traditional Bouillabaisse fish soup.

Stroll through the diverse ‘village’ districts and soak up the panoramic views from the 19th century hilltop church of Notre Dame de la Garde.

Or if boat trips are something you enjoy, take a trip to the infamous Chateau d’If fortress or along the rugged inlets of the Calanques.

A shuttle bus will also whisk you to nearby Aix-en-Provence, hometown of the post-impressionist painter, Cézanne.

How to get to Marseilles: Hop on the Eurostar from London to Paris, and then take a local train to Marseilles. The trip will take around 7 hours.

Scenic view of the famous stone bridge Rocher Du Basta Cityscape in Biarritz with peaceful sand beaches in the distance.

9. Biarritz city break

The principal resort on the French Basque Coast, elegant Biarritz attracted the Belle Epoque aristocrats of the late 19th century.

Today, Biarritz is one of the best French city breaks with its promenade walk and broad sandy beaches. 

Not forgetting, its casino and museums, aquarium and unique Cité de l’Océan, dedicated to protecting the world’s seas.

How to get to Biarritz: Take the Eurostar from London to Paris and then a local train to Biarritz. It’ll take about 7.5 hours altogether.  

Bright picturesque view of the orange houses in Nice, overlooking the wide blue French Riviera.

10. A city break to Nice

What’s not to like about a Nice city break? There’s culture to suit all tastes in the city’s many museums and galleries, plus cosy cafés and renowned restaurants serving local specialities.

Soak up the atmosphere of the flower market, stroll down the iconic Promenade des Anglais, and take the lift – or cliff path – to look over the broad bay and yacht marina.

How to get to Nice: Hop on the Eurostar from London to Paris, then board a local train to Nice. It takes around 9 hours to get from London to Nice. 

For more travel inspiration, plan your next unforgettable holiday with our guide to some of the best hidden gems in the south of France

France annual weather average by month

When is the best time to visit France for a city break?

If you want to explore, the best time to visit France for a city break is in late spring (April to May). It’s the perfect weather for walking around the city comfortably before the temperatures creep up.

Early autumn offers pleasant temperatures and lighter crowds, perfect for discovering the historic features in Lyon or the self-guided walking tour in Bordeaux. 

Looking for more travel inspiration?

Not sure France is for you? Take a look at city breaks in Italy and our top 10 favourite Spanish city breaks.

Make sure you have travel insurance for your French city break, so you can enjoy your trip with peace of mind.

by Gillian Thornton

A member of the British Guild of Travel Writers, she is an award-winning freelancer and specialist in France. She also writes widely on the UK and Europe, plus a mix of far-flung destinations from Cape Town to Cambodia. Gillian is a regular contributor to France Today, Woman’s Weekly, My Weekly, The People’s Friend and, as well as writing for This England and Platinum magazines.  Look out for her articles on subjects ranging from holidays for the over-50s to ocean and river cruising, walking breaks to heritage days out.  And her favourite place?  ‘Usually where I’ve just been!’