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Updated August 13, 2021
(Published September 25, 2019)
France is the most visited country in the world, and it’s not surprising that most people planning a French city break head straight for Paris. But when short city stays become a more realistic holiday option again, don’t limit yourself to the capital – there are plenty of choices for a city break in France where you can get your fix of French food and culture. Try one of these.
Mixing Riviera glamour with the more down-to-earth atmosphere found in a major city, Nice is one of the highlights of France’s Mediterranean coast.
Join the chilled-out crowd strolling along the beach club-studded Promenade des Anglais that hugs Nice’s beachfront. Then, dive into the maze of streets that make up the old town, Vieux Nice, full of ochre Italian-style townhouses and narrow alleyways that lead to the colourful food market in Cours Saleya. For fabulous views of the city’s terracotta rooftops, walk (or take the lift) up to the park at Colline du Chateau.
France’s cosmopolitan second city keeps its scruffy charm despite being cleaned up for its 2013 stint as the European Capital of Culture. With a spruced-up Vieux Port and new museums brightening up the old docks area, the city is more vibrant than ever.
Check out the trendy bars and cafés in the Saint-Victor quarter, along with the cool Cours Julien district and the atmospheric narrow lanes of the Marseille’s oldest area, Le Panier. Or, to take advantage of its seaside location, hop on a bus to one of the many city beaches, or go swimming or boating in the pretty coves within the Calanques National Park.
There’s a richness in Toulouse that pervades the south-western city, from its signature cassoulet dish of duck and haricot beans to its rose-coloured architecture. Its warmth and laid-back atmosphere make it an appealing French city break, especially when you add superior museums including the Fondation Bemberg and Les Abattoirs.
Influence from its Spanish neighbours mean lively tapas bars dot the city, especially in the Quartier des Carmes, and don’t miss the chance to taste the fantastic food displayed temptingly in the Victor Hugo market.
Even Paris acknowledges that Lyon really is the gastronomic capital of France. This elegant city in the Rhône Valley, where both the rivers Rhône and Saône flow through, has a rich culinary tradition that takes in everything from Michelin-starred restaurants to family-run places known as bouchons.
Lose yourself in the UNESCO-listed medieval lanes of the old town before taking the funicular to Fourvière Hill to see the impressive Notre-Dame de Fourvière and the oldest ancient Roman theatre in France.
The capital of French Flanders – and northern France’s largest city – is very easy to reach from the UK, which might be why it’s often overlooked.
To go with its upbeat university-town vibe, Lille has elegant Flemish architecture and an attractive old town of cobbled lanes filled with excellent restaurants and shops. In summertime, watch the tango sessions held in the beautiful 17th-century former stock exchange in Grand Place or, go in winter for the glittering Christmas market. Then, hop on the metro to the suburb of Roubaix, home to La Piscine, an enchanting museum set in an old Art Deco swimming baths.
France’s wine capital has a winning combination of a buzzing UNESCO-listed city centre, the River Garonne with a quayside life of its own and plenty of places to try some of the finest wines in the country. See for yourself in Bordeaux’s bars and restaurants squeezed into the “Golden Triangle” formed by streets Cours Georges Clemenceau, Cours de l’Intendance and Allées de Tourny.
To learn more about the city’s famed export, take the tram to the shiny Cité du Vin museum – this audacious creation shaped like a giant flowing wine goblet is a captivating celebration of wine from all over the world.
Montpellier manages to keep its mellow Mediterranean feel despite being one of the most dynamic cities in France. Maybe it’s all that sunshine that the Occitanie region gets.
Home to one of France’s oldest universities, Montpellier combines a beautifully preserved medieval centre with some audacious new architecture, a constantly evolving restaurant scene and huge green spaces. Combine beach with the city by taking the tram or bus to one of the sandy beaches that are 30 minutes away by public transport.
Strasbourg’s prettiness is practically off the scale. Its old town, Petite France, is crammed with beautiful half-timbered houses swamped in bright flowers, usually with a river or canal flowing past.
As the city has been passed from France to Germany several times during its history, there’s a delicious blending of the two cuisines along with its uniquely Alsatian take on the hearty food of eastern France. Make time to visit the cathedral, which features an astronomical clock and a rooftop viewing platform with views as far as the Black Forest.
It’s no longer part of Brittany, but there’s still a strong Breton streak to Nantes, which you’ll notice in its crêperies and seafood restaurants.
The city on the Loire and Erdre rivers has a habit of reinventing and reinvigorating itself, its latest incarnation being an arty place full of fun quirks befitting of Jules Verne’s birthplace. Head down to the transformed waterfront to see Les Machines de l’Ile, a fantastic collection of giant steampunk-style mechanical animals, the star of which is a huge elephant you can ride. You can also discover the city’s long history at the 15th-century castle of the dukes of Brittany before taking a lazy boat cruise on the Loire.
Sunny, easy-going Nîmes is the place for a short French city break where you can soak up superb culture and history tinged with a sultry Spanish flavour.
Its Roman amphitheatre and temple are some of the best preserved in France, and there’s more if you take the bus out to the towering Roman-built Pont du Gard. Visit in the summer and you can have a refreshing swim in the Gard River. Back in the city centre, wander through its pedestrianised city centre which throngs with tapas bars, restaurants, and excellent shops and delis.
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