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The best cities to visit in France (that aren’t Paris)

Marketplace discos and former Roman strongholds are just the beginning of what these French cities have to offer

Anna Richards
Written by Anna Richards
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I won’t sit here and say Paris isn’t worth your time (and you wouldn’t believe me if I did), but going to France and only visiting Paris is like eating one dish throughout your holiday. My favourite French cities are those you can easily explore on foot (even though Paris’s double-decker trains still get me childishly excited). By leaving the capital, you’ll discover former Roman strongholds, marketplace discos and culinary specialties that are as vivid on the plate as they are on your tastebuds. And hey, many of the mainline trains are double-decker too! 

Anna Richards is a travel writer based in Lyon, France. 
At Time Out, all of our travel guides are written by local writers who know their cities inside out. For more about how we curate, see our editorial guidelines and check out our latest travel guides written by local experts.

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The best cities to visit in France

1. Lyon

Let me start by stating my bias: Lyon is my home, and there are 101 reasons I chose to live in this city. The garnet-red wine. The food, of course. Although the ‘culinary capital’ reputation comes from meat-heavy traditional restaurants known as bouchons, Lyon’s fusion restaurants steal the limelight, like Franco-Lebanese Ayla and South American-Japanese Poissonchat. Then there’s the city’s unpretentious beauty: the way the light dances off the gilded domes of the Hôtel de Ville before setting behind Fourvière Basilica, and the pavement creations of Lyon’s mosaic Banksy, Ememem

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2. Brest

Brest is an example of not judging a book by its cover. Without mincing my words, it’s not pretty – heavy bombing during WW2 means it now wears a concrete shell. Scratch the surface, though, and it’s all colour. Linographs and homemade cosmetics of art gallery-cum-boutique Les Ovnis, Cornish (or rather Breton) cream teas at L’Échappé Belle and folk music at Irish-Breton pub Tir Na N’Og shape the soul of Brest. A ferry (seasonal, Apr–Sept) runs across to the wildly beautiful Crozon Peninsula, where the granite cliffs and gorse-strewn moors look kicked and punched by every storm roaring across the Atlantic.

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3. Nancy

When I first visited Nancy, I crushed hard – the jaw-dropping, drool-inducing kind of crush you’d get as a teenager – because it’s so gorgeous. Leaving the station, you’re instantly confronted by the elaborately painted walls of Art Nouveau Brasserie Excelsior. Art Nouveau, not so nouveau, was the predecessor of Art Deco, less geometric and more floral, with an excess of shrubbery. The joy is in the details here: the sculpted doorways, window frames and stained glass ceilings on what would otherwise be perfectly ordinary buildings.

4. Narbonne

Narbonne is one of the most historical places in France, evidenced by the Roman ruins sprouting around high street shops. The Gothic cathedral, Saint-Just et Saint-Pasteur, was never fully completed, but that’s what makes it so appealing: the unfinished parts let the abundant Languedoc sunlight through in torch-like beams. Les Halles, the covered market, has cassoulets larger than cauldrons, spiny sea urchins and heaps of mussels. Particularly novel are the ‘nocturnes’ (evening events) sometimes held here – imagine an 80s disco in a market. 

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5. Lille

Everything except the weather is warming in Lille. Culinary specialities come in fiery colours, like le Welsh, made from bread, mustard, beer, ham and mandarine-coloured ‘Cheddar’. Then there are the red brick Flemish buildings and the numerous city breweries (follow the neon lights into Brique House). Beer may be what the city is known for, but Le Presentoir has a wine selection extensive enough to firmly orientate your tastebuds back to France. Around the island citadel (now a NATO base), a park of epic proportions has resident sheep and sheepdogs.

6. Chinon

A town, rather than a city, Chinon packs a punch above its size. In the heart of the Loire, it’s to be expected that a château would be its crowning glory, so the fortress, first built in the tenth century, is a surprise. Perched above the town, it’s the glacé cherry above houses little darker than royal icing, built in the region’s signature limestone, tuffeau. Wine shops and wine bars abound, and there are some delightfully musty second-hand book shops, like Librairie Lacoste, to potter around.

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7. Avignon

The historic capital of the Popes, Avignon’s fortified city centre doesn’t look Catholic, rather pulled from the pages of Arabian Nights. The old rampart walls date from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Inside is a veritable oasis, all tree-lined squares and old water wheels. Perhaps the most surprising thing is the city’s coffee scene – in Avignon, the oat milk flat white (something of a holy grail in France) is everywhere. Try Le Saint Chocolat for the best. Visit in July when the Avignon Festival, France’s answer to the Edinburgh Fringe, is in full swing.

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