France has plenty of picturesque villages and charming towns that have that certain je ne sais quoi, but the larger urban areas also have an aesthetic appeal. Not only do they contain fabulous art, architecture, shopping and cuisine, they are gorgeous to look at and be immersed in too. Perhaps after a little French food and wine, everything looks magnifique. With so many to choose from, here are our picks for the 13 most beautiful cities in France.
You knew it had to make the list, so let’s just get this one over with right off the top. France’s capital city on the Seine is considered one of the most romantic cities in the world. With famous landmarks, marvelous museums, manicured parks and history on every corner, there’s so much to gawk at in the City of Lights. Merci to the urban planning of Baron Haussmann in the 19th century for the grand boulevards and distinctive architectural allure on both the left and right banks. Day or night, in every season, Paris is definitely one of the most beautiful cities in France and beyond.
Most of us know of this city because of its famous bridge in that nursery song, but there’s more to Avignon than its pont that spans half-way across the Rhône. As a former center of papal power, the pretty city is brimming with ornate art and architecture dating back 800 years. It’s medieval fortress and papal palace are particularly impressive. Stroll around the cobbled streets and soak in the historical and natural wonders of Avignon.
Grenoble is mostly known as a center for science and technology, but it is also blessed with astounding natural beauty. Embraced by the mountains of the Parc Naturel Régional de Chartreuse and the Parc Naturel Régional du Vercors, the city is set on the bank of the River Isère and boasts many scenic vistas. This “capital of the Alps” in southastern France hosted the 1968 Winter Olympic Games. Its cobbled streets, open-air markets, chi-chi cafés and ooh-la-la boulangeries add to its charm.
Nîmes is a modern metropolis today, but remnants of its former Roman glory remain. Most notable is the perfectly-preserved amphitheatre and the 2000 year old temple, Maison Carré – perhaps the best remaining temple of the Roman Empire. For a modern infusion, the Carré d’Art is a spectacular glass and chrome museum of contemporary art that you can’t miss. The city is situated in the south of France between the Mediterranean Sea and the Cévennes mountains. We all owe thanks to the hardy textile that hails from the city of Nîmes – denim.
Lyon is the third largest city in central France, a rather sophisticated urban center nestled in the Rhône-Alpes region. It boasts plenty of architectural gems in the original medieval city (Vieux Lyon), which has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. One of its claims to fame is being the birthplace of cinema, as the Lumière brothers developed their cinematographe here. Not only is Lyon one of the most beautiful cities in France, it is one of the tastiest as well. It is renowned for its superb gastronomic flair.
Located just 90 km from Paris, Chartres is most known for its stunning 13th century cathedral with both Gothic and Roman spires towering above it. The arresting blue hue of its stained glass windows is a sight to see. The relics inside have made Chartres a popular pilgrimage destination for centuries, but there is plenty for the non-religious visitor to see and do here too. You’ll be charmed by the medieval half-timbered houses, old-world bridges, curio shops, craft workshops and restaurants along the picturesque streets of this ancient town.
Nicknamed La perle d’Aquitaine (The Pearl of Aquitaine), and La Belle Endormie (Sleeping Beauty), Bordeaux is most famous for its regional wine. However, the impressive neoclassical architecture within the city makes it the largest urban UNESCO World Heritage Site anywhere. Its attractive parks, gardens, museums, galleries, cathedrals and monuments make this one of the most beautiful cities in France – before or after you drink the wine.
Strasbourg offers a different feel and taste of France. It’s the capital of the Alsace region, and therefore has a unique blend of French and German elements. Meandering laneways and canal pathways are lined with half-timbered dwellings like something out of a medieval fairytale. Pop by some quirky winstubs (Alsatian taverns) and gawk at the gorgeous Gothic cathedral. As a vibrant student hub, scenic Strasbourg is a surprisingly fun city to visit.
Aix-en-Province, called Aix for short, is a chic city in the south of France known for its thermal hot springs. There are good reasons why Province has such a glowing reputation around the world. Grand boulevards, pristine gardens and elegant public squares beckon one to stroll or sit a while. Ornate 17th and 18th century mansions line the streets and there are over 1000 sculpted fountains around the town. Wander the Cours Mirabeau and Quartier Mazarin for the ultimate in Aixois cafés, boulangeries and boutiques. There’s an rich artistic heritage in this birthplace of Paul Cézanne.
This pleasant city in southwestern France is enviably set between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. The decorative terracotta buildings take on a peachy-pinkish hue, giving it the nickname Ville Rose (pink city). The fourth largest city in France, Toulouse is often overlooked by tourists, but that’s a plus. This makes it a less crowded and authentic place to visit than some of the more touristic centers. Stroll within the atmospheric old quarter, poke around the vibrant covered markets and relax along the banks of the River Garonne in this elegant city.
Cannes is world famous for its annual International Film Festival in May, but it’s one of the most beautiful cities in France at any time of year. Promenade along La Boulevard de Croisette while checking out the glitzy hotels and and mega-yachts twinkling in the Mediterranean. Stop in an (overpriced) cafe and watch the beautiful people go by. There’s more to the city than all this glamor, however. Enjoy the Vieux Port along harbor and the old quarter, Le Suquet. The covered market of Marché Forville is a paradise for gourmands and curio shoppers. There are many lovely towns along the sun-drenched French Riviera, but count the Côte d’Azur’s Cannes among the most beautiful cities in France.
Annency, in the Northern French Alps, is a feast for the eyes and palate. Known as the Venice of Savoie, this medieval town is set around the impossibly turquoise Lac d’Aannecy and surrounded by scenic saw-toothed mountains. The Vieille Ville (old town) charms with its warren of lanes, passages and arcaded shops. The turreted chateau, floral-flanked houses and pastel buildings give the town a fairytale quality. Don’t miss the picturesque Palais de L’isle in the midst of the Thiou canal.
The Mediterranean city of Marseille is the second largest metropolis in France, and the largest commercial port in the country. Its list of historical and cultural sites include the basilica Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde, the Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée, Fort Saint-Nicolas, Fort Saint-Jean and the Castle of If, of Count of Monte Cristo fame. Marseille has pleasant pedestrian zones and quaint shopping areas, including an exotic French-African quarter. While some dismiss it as a busy, bustling port town, the city was named the European Capital of Culture last year.