French holidays are a serious matter. A thought shared by the country’s 90 million annual visitors and 68 million residents – 80 per cent of whom choose to holiday on home turf – France has long considered itself a holiday hot shot. And why shouldn’t it? After all, France hasn’t just perfected the ability to juggle its opulence (found in the plush palaces) with its twee (the Disneyesque villages of Colmar and Riquewihr), but has crafted a culture that still makes Francophiles weak at the knees. So, it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise to learn that the country’s cities remain one of the biggest pulls. From the Roman rues of Arles that ooze old-world opulence to the sizzling hedonism and glistening turquoise seas found in the Mediterranean cities of St Tropez, it’s no wonder they take first place in almost every beauty contest they enter. Read on to discover the most beautiful cities in France…
Paris isn’t just one of the most beautiful cities in France, it is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. This is a city that needs no introduction, a place that has inspired the likes of Hemingway and Balzac with its alluring arrondissements filled with whimsical Haussmann houses, cloud-piercing spires and brasserie-lined boulevards. Yet it’s what lies beyond its clichés that makes Paris such a powerhouse. Swap the Jardin des Tuileries for the cliffs, lakes and waterfalls of Parc des Buttes-Chaumont (the natural alternative to the city’s myriad manicured parks); the Sacre-Coeur for the gilded chandeliers and frescoed ceilings of Palais Garnier; and Montmartre for the leafy hilltop suburb of Butte-aux-Cailles, which is awash with colourful street art.
Don’t just take our word about Arles, take UNESCO’s. A World Heritage site since 1981, it’s not difficult to see why the United Nations were so eager to protect this historic city’s good looks. Centred around Roman ruins and medieval monuments that seamlessly blend into the modern-day city, this sun-baked steppingstone to the Camargue has long been considered one of the most beautiful cities in France. In fact, Vincent Van Gogh dedicated almost 200 paintings to the compact city. But what Arles lacks in size, it more than makes up for in beauty. Saunter across cobbled alleys lined with colourful facades and sloping roofs to Les Arènes (the city’s mostly intact Roman colosseum), stop for a lunch in the lively Place du Forum, and watch the city come to life at its world-renowned Saturday market.
Some cities were born to be glamorous, others have had glamour thrust upon them. St Tropez fits into the latter category. A humble fishing village until Brigitte Bardot burst on to its scene, the city has sizzled with hedonism, glamour and superyachts ever since. While its dreamy Pampelonne and Tahiti Plage beaches regularly host the world’s rich and famous, it’s the city’s ochre lanes leading to La Ponche that best recall the city’s good old days. Lined with small shops, quaint cafés and old ladies in housecoats sweeping their front steps, it is also the best spot to admire the city’s 18th-century Baroque church, watch the masts of shiny super yachts bobbing in the distance and catch sounds of clinking wine glasses accompanied by French gossip.
To become one of the most beautiful cities in France, you need a dollop of architectural gems (medieval and modern if possible), a slice of culture and a generous helping of food that can’t really be replicated anywhere else in the world. Lyon has them all. Commandeering the confluence of the Rhône and Saône, Lyon isn’t short of a river view. Wander along its river trail with a local historian, who will lead you from the city’s Presqu’île (think Lyon’s mini-Manhattan) to the cobblestone streets and traboules (secret covered passageways) of Vieux Lyon. Treat yourself to a sugar hit with a handful of marron glacé (iced chestnuts) before setting your sights on the hilltop Fourvière Basilica. With views stretching over to Europe’s highest point, Mont Blanc, it is the perfect spot to enjoy some platters of cochonnaille de porc (cold meats) and a salade Lyonnaise.
Bordeaux is always ready for its close up. From the flower-filled parks and umbrella-filled cafés that congregate round the city’s swoon-worthy World Heritage centre to its cobbled Rue Notre Dame, which brims with bohemian boutiques and antiques galleries, Bordeaux is the epitome of a mini-Parisian paradise. Although it’s wine that has put Bordeaux on the map, it’s the 18th-century riverside and fairy tale bâtiments (like the Grosse Cloche and quaint eateries down secret side streets) that has kept it one of the country’s most spirited and striking cities.
If a holiday to France brings with it ideas of Beauty and the Beast’s Belle bursting through a pair of shutters, singing about her poor provincial life, Annecy is your place. Yet Annecy is anything but a poor provincial town. The jewel of the Haute-Savoie, Annecy (a town, not a city – we know) occupies the tip of the turquoise lake of the same name. With its Alpine setting, tapestry of canals and pretty Vieille Ville (Old Town) filled with apricot-coloured bakeries, boutiques and restaurants, it’s no wonder the town has earned its reputation as the ‘Alpine Venice’. Said to have the cleanest waters in Europe, spend your days swimming in the lake, wandering medieval streets to castles that inspired Sleeping Beauty’s and sinking your teeth into creamy Savoie cheeses.