14 French cities you'd never thought to visit (but really should)
France summer booking guide Beach Villa Culture Food Activity Cruise Paris hardly needs an introduction, but to make the most of it, you do need an excellent guide. Our experts tell you all you need to know here, including tips on the best attractions, hotels, bars, restaurants and shops. Other gems most travellers will be well acquainted with include Marseilles, Nice, and if we allow it to be French for these purposes, Monaco. But there are plenty of lesser-known cities in France well worth at least a weekend of your time. 1. Lyon Best for: food Lyon is less than five hours from London by train Credit: GETTY "It has never been easier to get to France’s capital of gastronomy," explains Mary Lussiana. "Eurostar’s launch of a direct service from St Pancras back in 2015 means a travel time of just four hours 41 minutes from London to Lyon. A gourmet slant is inevitable in a weekend itinerary, with the healthy sprinkling of Michelin-starred restaurants and streets packed with the traditional Lyonnaise bouchons, their red-and-white checked tabletops groaning with dishes of offal, Quennelles de brochet and unctuous St Marcellin cheeses. Culture is also high on the list, with the Musée des Confluences offering not only a new landmark for Lyon, but also a thrilling insight into mankind’s story. It sits at the meeting point of the Rhône and Saône rivers, crowning the ambitious project to regenerate the city’s previously derelict docklands. "Old Lyon, a Unesco World Heritage Site, lies between the hills of Fourvière and Croix-Rousse, its narrow streets punctuated with characteristic passageways that were used by the silk merchants to transport their products when the city echoed with the clacking of hundreds of thousands of looms. Today, though, a new chapter is in the making, with Lyon gleaming from renovations and urban remodelling." The best hotels in Lyon 2. Montpellier Best for: style and spirit The most seductive city in the French south Credit: GETTY "Montpellier is, at any time, the most seductive city in the French south – elegant, cultured and tolerant, with Mediterranean blood coursing through its veins and dynamism to spare," says Anthony Peregrine. "Lacking industry, the place has majored on brains and bravura. World-class architects are forever turning up to add showpieces. The trams – designed latterly by Christian Lacroix as moving tableaux – have been called the sexiest in the world. It takes a startling city to make trams sexy. "In autumn, the light will likely still be unfiltered, the sun warm enough for sitting out on the Comédie, France’s most graceful central square (pack a cardigan all the same). Behind, the medieval squeeze of the old town scurries with a sense of conspiracy in which everyone can join. Before rise some of the country’s more enviable contemporary developments. And, beyond them, the sea is a 50-minute cycle ride." The best hotels in Montpellier 3. Toulouse Best for: rugby fans and aviation enthusiasts Toulouse Credit: GETTY Fred Mawer writes: "Though overshadowed by Toulon of late, the Stade Toulousain remains the absolute reference in French rugby union, with more French championship wins than anyone else. Excitement generated at the Ernest Wallon stadium surges through the town, culminating in the bars of pint-sized Place St Pierre. Meanwhile, the city's famous talent for planes and space are celebrated, first, at the brilliant Cité-de-l'Espace theme-park-cum-museum (cite-espace.com). It was joined in 2014 by a new aeronautic museum, Aeroscopia (www.musee-aeroscopia.fr). This just leaves all the rest of Toulouse to discover, from the pink-brick streets struggling to contain southern life to the St Sernin basilica, Europe's mightiest Romanesque church. A drink by the River Garonne, or on the vast Place-du-Capitole, a cassoulet chez Emile on Place-St-Georges, and the conversion's complete." The best hotels in Toulouse 4. Strasbourg Best for: fairytale setting "Half-timbered Medieval houses straight out of the Brothers Grimm coexist with elegant French-style mansions and townhouses" Credit: Â©Vlastimil estk - stock.adobe.com "Together with Brussels, Strasbourg has become a byword for European Union bureaucracy," says Lee Marshall. "But there’s a lot more to the capital of France’s Alsace region than pen-pushing Eurocrats. Long a free city within the Holy Roman Empire, Strasbourg would later alternate periods of French and German rule. This has given the ancient centre of the modern city a unique cross-border appeal, with half-timbered Medieval houses straight out of the Brothers Grimm coexisting with elegant French-style mansions and townhouses. It also means that this is an easy place for visitors to fit into – beneath its veneer of Alsatian folksiness, Strasbourg is suavely international and multi-lingual." The best hotels in Strasbourg 5. Bordeaux Best for: wine and elegance Cité-du-Vin Credit: ANAKA "Stroll the most graceful streets in France, eat well, drink better and then have the liveliest possible time in a city lately in touch with its Latin side," says Anthony Peregrine. "It is no hazard that, following its 2007 classification as a World Heritage Site, Bordeaux in 2015 bagged the title of Europe's Best Destination - against opposition from many of the continent's finest cities. In the past, the place was indeed full of good taste and tradition. “The very essence of elegance,” concluded HM Queen last time she visited Bordeaux. The centre had a grandiose 18th-century harmony unmatched in Europe. It seemed quite possible that the French Revolution never made it this far. "Poor people looked rich and rich people didn’t look at all. But the city felt haughty and aloof. It had also grown shabby round the edges. No longer. Bordeaux has had the renovators in with a vengeance. Most recently, the city has welcomed the riverside Cité-du-Vin, a wine centre-cum-museum-cum-gallery without equal in Europe. It dusts off the wine world, and gives it a playful sheen for the 21st-century. Then again, Bordeaux was already getting up to speed-restoring noble façades, installing trams and reclaiming from dereliction the vast swathe of riverbank. There are few more graceful urban sights in France than the miroir-d'eau reflecting the splendid Palais-de-la-Bourse." The best hotels in Bordeaux 6. Nantes Best for: riverside fun Machines-de-l'Ile Credit: GETTY "Long rated as one of France's best places to live, the capital of the western Loire has changed from provincial town to buzzing, and relentlessly fun, city," says Kathy Arnold. "Nowhere is that more apparent than on the Île de Nantes, a three-mile-long island in the Loire. Here, at the Machines-de-l'Ile, you may ride a 40-foot diesel-driven elephant or bestride a giant jellyfish on Europe's most delirious roundabout. "Some buildings are new, such as the dramatic Palais de Justice; many are historic, including warehouses converted into cafés and artists' studios. There are parks, gardens – and some of the quirkiest art installations I have seen. Nantes is also known for its art de vivre, and is home to one of France's top symphony orchestras and a fine opera company that performs in the Théâtre Graslin. 7. Clermont-Ferrand Best for: dramatic surroundings Puy de Dome Credit: © Michael David Murphy / Alamy Stock Photo/Michael David Murphy / Alamy Stock Photo "The capital of the Auvergne could scarcely be called one of France’s most famous cities, but there is something of the A-list to the scenery that surrounds it, as the Massif Central spreads its swarthy arms," says Chris Leadbeater. "Revelling in dramatic terrain on the city’s doorstep are Puy de Dome and the Parc Naturel Regional des Volcans d’Auvergne. Use it as a base for exploring one of the loveliest stretches of the Auvergne, which features splendid uplands, lakes, churches, old-fashioned villages, and the startlingly good Vulcania volcano theme park." The Spanish cities you'd never thought to visit (but really should) 8. Lens Best for: art and Great War tours "It's an ex-mining town whose charmlessness is itself charming," says Anthony Peregrine. "Now equipped with the brilliant Louvre-Lens museum (the Louvre’s branch office), and also handy for many Great War sites of particular relevance in this centenrary year of the Battle of the Somme." 21 European cities you never thought to visit – but definitely should 9. Nîmes Best for: Roman history Pont du Gard Credit: GETTY "The Romans settled in Nîmes, France, when they were building the road between Rome and Spain," explains Janette Griffiths. "Their legacy includes a 20,000-seat arena, the spectacular Pont du Gard aqueduct, and the remains of baths and temples dotted through the Jardins de La Fontaine, where today the Nîmois play petanque. "Be sure to also visit Les Halles, the central food market, for specialities such as brandade de morue (a purée of salt cod and olive oil) or delicious crunchy green picholine olives." 10. Lille Best for: architecture and easy access Give Paris a miss in favour of Lille Credit: GETTY Helen Pickles writes: "The charm of this city is that, despite being the largest in northern France, it doesn’t behave like a grand French city – all icy hauteur and spike-heeled arrogance. Possibly this agreeableness is because the Lillois feel no need to impress. Who would when the heart of your city is such a pleasing cat’s cradle of streets? Paved with stone and lined with steeply gabled houses, handsome in brick and golden sandstone, its 17th- and 18th-century buildings – now elegant shops – hint at its Flemish roots. The city only became French when Louis X1V captured it in 1667." Lille, as the first stop on French soil for Eurostar trains, is also one of the easiest French cities to reach from the UK, with travel times from as little as 88 minutes. The best hotels in Lille 11. Toulon Best for: beaches and seafood Toulon Credit: GETTY "A break in France's main Med naval port, saltily salacious HQ to Jacques Tar? Certainly," says Anthony Peregrine. "The place has cleaned up, and is now fit for decent people. The Mourillon district has beaches to rival any on the French Med, with a full range of bistros and other sand-side necessities. Further on, a craggier coast develops creeks where restaurants slot in among the shacks of ramshackle fishing outposts. The French will never tell you that Toulon can be like this because, outside Toulon, no-one knows." The 10 best unsung spots on the French Riviera 12. Reims Best for: bubbles and medieval history Reims the capital of France’s Champagne region Credit: GETTY "The capital of France’s Champagne region is largely known for the bottles of sparkling joie de vivre that are born in the vineyards which frame it," says Chris Leadbeater. "But beyond that Reims is one of France’s most intriguing small urban pockets, a place of culinary flair, rich medieval history and exotic Art Deco architecture – the latter a result of the city’s reconstruction after the First World War. It is also decidedly accessible, an hour’s train ride to the north-east of Paris." Best of the rest Tours, "a polymath of a city, with classical art and artisan crafts; high-class gastronomy and rustic local food; historical botanical gardens and high-fashion department stores," according to Lindsey McWhinnie; and Nancy, "known for its Art Nouveau quarter, the rum baba and good King Stanislas Leszczynski, the deposed Polish king who gave the city its gorgeously frilly architectural centrepiece in the 18th century," says Natasha Edwards. Nancy Credit: GETTY Tour operators offering city breaks in France Brittany Ferries (brittany-ferries.co.uk/holidays) offers hotel breaks packaged with its ferry travel. Cresta Holidays (crestaholidays.co.uk) offers city break packages, to Paris and southern France cities. Eurostar (eurostar.com) Train-plus-hotel packages (often cheaper booking elements separately) to Eurostar destinations and other French cities. French Expressions (expressionsholidays.co.uk) offers an excellent selection of luxury hotels across France. French Travel Service (f-t-s.co.uk) Tailor-made rail/hotel packages to many French cities, with accommodation to suit all budgets. Great Escapes (greatescapes.co.uk) Short breaks to places under three hours' drive from a Channel port. Kirker Holidays (kirkerholidays.com) Single- and multi-centre breaks to much of France, using a big choice of top hotels, as well as some three-star gems. Free concierge service available for restaurant bookings and concert tickets, and museum passes included in Paris breaks. Sawday's (sawdays.co.uk) is a great resource for chambres d'hôtes (b & bs). For private city apartments, homeaway.co.uk and airbnb.co.uk have thousands of options - pay close heed to reviews from previous guests.