When most people think of France, their minds tend to focus on Paris, home to the iconic Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, many famous artists and writers of past and present, gorgeous architecture, and incredible food. But while Paris is a must-see, France is so much more than that one city. From the northern coasts of Normandy, to the eastern border of the Alps, to southern spots such as Cannes and Saint Tropez, and all the valleys and regions in between, France, in its entirety, is a feast for all the senses.
Trying to limit the best small towns in France to a brief list leaves out so many others, so think of these spots not just as places to see, but as places that will inspire you to explore other villages. Although you’re less likely to find people who speak English in some of these very small towns, that’s part of the adventure. Here are some must-see small towns in France for your next trip.
1. Honfleur, Normandy
With a population of just over 7,000 people, Honfleur is a small port town in the Normandy region of France, where the Seine River meets the ocean. The narrow alleys are lined with shops and restaurants, many of which sit right on the water, overlooking the port of Vieux Bassin. Honfleur is also home to many art museums, including The Eugène Boudin Museum for artist Eugène Boudin, who was a mentor to Claude Monet and played a major role in the impressionist movement. There’s a stunning church to visit, too: The Church of St. Catherine is a wonder to see as both a tourist attraction and a place of religious devotion.
Although you could make Honfleur a day trip, a long weekend is ideal to make sure you don’t miss a thing.
2. Châtel, Haute-Savoie
If you’re looking for an even smaller small town, consider Châtel, a tiny spot nestled in the Alps. As of January 2018, the population was just over 1,200. And with an area of just 12.43 square miles, you can walk from one end of the town to the other in no time. Right in the middle of the valley of La Chapelle-d’Abondance — abondance translating to "abundance" in English — Châtel is less of a town and more of a village. While it’s known for being a ski resort during the winter months, the village offers other outdoor activities in the spring and summer, including paragliding, biking, hiking, summer bobsled runs, fishing, and rock climbing.
It's worth checking out even if you’re not an outdoorsy type. Sitting on a small terrace and enjoying a glass of wine in the middle of the Alps is something you’ll cherish for the rest of your life.
If you’re looking to make a weekend out of your trip, visit Annecy, a small town less than two hours away. Annecy is often called the Venice of France, because canals weave in and out of the city.
3. Dinard, Bretagne
With barely over 10,000 people as of January 2018, the town of Dinard on the northern coast of Bretagne is an exquisite getaway from the larger and more populated Saint-Malo across the Rance River. (Saint-Malo is definitely worth a visit, too.)
Because the Rance River flows into the English Channel, Dinard has been called the “most British resort” in France. It sits right on the water, giving visitors the opportunity to sunbathe or enjoy a wide array of water sports, including snorkeling and sailing. Once you’ve had your fill of the beach, you can rent a bike and take in all the architecture of the seaside town, some of which dates back hundreds and hundreds of years — if not longer.
4. Saint-Émilion, Nouvelle-Aquitaine
Saint-Émilion, a town of less than 2,000 people in southwestern France, is where Bordeaux, Saintonge, and Périgord all converge. It's essentially in wine country, so it's ideal for some wine tasting.
It’s also the perfect place for those who put history and architecture above all else. Due to the fact that the village dates back to prehistoric times, the town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The streets are filled with ruins from medieval times, and Romanesque churches that will make anyone stop and gasp at their beauty.
5. Le Mont-Saint-Michel, Normandy
With a population of just 30 as of 2018, Mont-Saint-Michel may not look like much — but it’s worth a visit, even if only for an afternoon. A quiet town that turns into an island during high tides, it belonged to the Gallo-Roman culture until 460 C.E., and was eventually invaded by the Franks, who took it over. Around 966 C.E., it came under French control. Since then, the “mountain” has been a comfortable place for everyone from French kings to dukes of Normandy. American writer Ernest Hemingway even stayed there in 1944 while covering WWII.
Marked by winding, narrow streets, the town is home to the world-famous Abbey of the Mont-Saint-Michel, as well as shops, restaurants, and even hotels. It’s an ideal getaway for the person who really wants to get away and disappear into medieval architecture.
6. Cassis, Provence-Alpes-Côte-d’Azur
When it comes to visiting the south of France, there are so many options that it’s hard to narrow down where you want to go. But if you're looking for a small coastal town that's less popular than, say, Nice, Cassis is your best option. With just over 7,000 residents and a location not too far from Marseille, Cassis is a laid-back beach town with bright-colored buildings along narrow passageways. Finding delicious French cuisine is easy here, as long as it’s not dinner hour, when you’re likely to run into some lines.
If you have some time, hike up to Cap Canaille, the highest point in the town. Bring some snacks, wine, and a camera, and enjoy the killer views of the sea and town below.
7. Vézelay, Bourgogne-Franche-Comté
About halfway between Paris and Lyon, you’ll find Vézlay, a city that, like Saint-Émilion, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The reason? A woman named Mary Magdalene. Although some of what is said about the relics of Mary Magdalene being kept within Vézelay is up for debate, that hasn’t stopped believers from flocking to the small town, which has a population of 423. But even before the abbey was reformed in 1037 to provide a proper home for the Magdalene relics, the town itself already had proof that a human settlement existed in Vézelay sometime around 2300 to 2200 B.C. Vézelay also offers plenty of quaint little shops and restaurants, as well as a museum and medieval architecture.
Main photo by DaLiu/Shutterstock.