12 Charming French Towns That Should Be on Your Radar for Summer 2018
Because Paris isn't the only place in France with that certain je ne sais quoi...
The Alsace region, on the Eastern edge of the country, has seesawed between French and German control for centuries. Its capital, Strasbourg, is an intriguing blend of both influences—as reflected in its architecture, culture, and cuisine. Grand Île, its UNESCO-listed central island, surrounded by the Ill River and the Faux-Rempart Canal, is home to the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Strasbourg, with its Gothic edifice and animated astronomical clock. Don’t leave without experiencing a winstub (a tavern serving traditional Alsatian eats, including the do-not-miss tarte flambee).
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The French Riviera isn’t lacking in hotspots, but nowhere sizzles quite like Saint-Tropez. This hedonistic haven—made iconic by sex symbol Brigitte Bardot—has attracted international jetsetters and glitterati since the 1960s. In the decades to follow, its clothing-optional beaches, upscale resorts (Pan Deï Palais and Hôtel de Paris Saint-Tropez are top picks), ritzy yachts, and lively nightclubs have become a playground for the rich and famous. If you’re looking for Champagne-fueled fun and fabulous celeb spotting, Saint-Tropez is for you.
Situated at the confluence of the Rhône and Saône rivers, Lyon is renowned for its Renaissance architecture, Roman amphitheaters, Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière, fascinating museums, film history (the city is recognized as the birthplace of cinema), and culinary excellence. In 1935, French food critic Curnonsky named it “the world capital of gastronomy.” Savor Lyonnais specialties such as andouillette (tripe sausage) and coq au vin at a bouchon. Movie buffs should make a beeline to the Institut Lumière, which pays deference to motion pictures.
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Antibes is a sun-drenched seaside resort immortalized in the artwork of Pablo Picasso and Claude Monet, and novelist Graham Greene. Greene, the brilliant and elusive 20th-century British author, who lived in a modest one-bedroom apartment in Antibes for 24 years, called it “the only town on the Côte d’Azur that had not lost its soul.” There’s no denying that tourism has changed this coastal gem—for better or worse, depending on who you ask—however its lingering laid-back appeal, attractive old town, and Mediterranean beaches are reminders that Antibes is, and will always be, something special.
Marseille may not be as lavish as Cannes or Saint-Tropez, but France’s second largest city has tons to offer in the way of maritime heritage. First established as a commercial trading post by the Greeks in 600 B.C., today Vieux Port is the cultural epicenter of Marseille. Surrounding its boat-lined harbor is a mix of waterfront bistros, seafood restaurants, bars, and chic hotels. The ancient Le Panier and hip Cours Julien neighborhoods are also worth checking out.
Nestled at the foot of Mont Blanc, the highest summit in the Alps, Chamonix has been seducing intrepid travelers with its steep slopes, extreme conditions, snow-capped splendor, and gripping panoramas since 1741. While more closely associated with skiing (Chamonix hosted the first Winter Olympics in 1924), in the summer, it transforms into a high-altitude paradise of hiking, mountain biking, rafting, and paragliding.
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This former Gallic-Roman settlement turned vibrant university town is known for its friendly atmosphere, medieval quarter, and large student population. The heart of its historic center is the pedestrian Place Plumereau, ringed by half-timbered houses, towers, quaint cafés, pubs, and cobbled lanes. Tours also touts marvelous museums such as the Musée des Beaux-Arts, which displays works by Degas and Rembrandt, superb public parks, botanical gardens, and thriving markets. Another selling point is its proximity to the vineyards and castles of the Loire Valley.
You’ll definitely want to commit these essential French phrases to memory before you go.
Perhaps you’ve heard of the Avignon, but here’s something you probably don’t know about this Provençal city: Seven successive popes resided in this scenic enclave (rather than Rome) from 1309 to 1376. And it remained under papal rule until 1791 when it became part of France. The palatial Palais des Papes is a magnificent memento of its pontifical past. Nearby is the beautiful hilltop park, Rocher des Doms, and the Avignon Cathedral. Hungry? Take a break from sightseeing to sample olive oil, tapenades, honey, nougat, and artisan chocolates.
Versailles, the de facto capital of the Kingdom of France for over a 100 years, continues to impress with its wealth and opulence. Nothing compares to witnessing the sheer majesty and grandeur of the Château de Versailles and its impeccably manicured royal gardens in person. A day-trip is totally doable given that it’s a quick 45-minute train from Paris.
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Cannes conjures up images of A-listers in ball gowns strutting their stuff on the red carpet. While its international film festival may have put it on the map (at least for us mere mortals), there’s more to this posh playground. Shop ’til you drop at the upmarket boutiques along Rue d’Antibes and Promenade de la Croisette. Gawk at the mega yachts, lounge under a striped umbrella, test your luck at the iconic Casino Croisette, and stay in style at Hôtel Barrière Le Majestic Cannes and InterContinental Carlton.
The capital of France’s incomparable wine region, Bordeaux is as delicious as it is dynamic. A modern transport system, large-scale restoration efforts, and bold new buildings—notably the 42,000-seat stadium and decanter-shaped La Cité du Vin, a museum dedicated to all things vino—have awakened “Belle au Bois Dormant” (Sleeping Beauty) and it’s better than ever. Chow down on local delicacies like oysters, lamb, and truffles at well-heeled eateries. Visit the galleries and antique shops in Chartrons, the old wine merchants’ quarter. And spend your evening bar hopping in the St Pierre district.
Nice is distinguished by its sunny skies, dramatic seascapes, and pebble-clad coastline. Head inland to explore the narrow corridors, Baroque churches, and open-air markets of Vieux Nice. Feast on salade niçoise and socca (chickpea pancakes). Take in progressive works at the Museum of Contemporary and Modern Art (MAMAC) and colorful masterpieces at Musée Matisse. Bonus: Getting to Nice is a breeze, whether by train or plane. No wonder, it made our list of the most popular travel destinations in Western Europe.