Top French Cities: Ten Off-the-Beaten Track Cities Worth Exploring

Press release

Even the most well traveled Francophiles haven't explored all the wonderful cities of France. And there is so much more to see and do outside of the capital and major hubs. Here are ten of France's less celebrated cities, and the many adventures to be had among them. You’re sure to find just as much culture, innovation, as well as a bevy of intriguing points of interest you won’t find on the tourist track.


Skip the baguette and head straight for the macarons—not the colorful Parisian ones—but the rich, almond Amiens biscuits, famous since the 16th century. Amiens is a food lover’s city, as well as a city rich in culture with a year-round calendar of family-friendly festivals and events. Two hours north of Paris, Picardy's capital is also where fantasy writer Jules Verne spent the last years of his life. Visit the circus he opened for children's performances in 1889, which still features shows today. Try a local BlueReide, the world's first blue beer, somewhere along the quays in the quirky St-Leu district. There's a Saturday market there, and much of the produce is grown just down river. Rent a boat and row your way through these unique floating gardens, to the local watering hole, or guinguette.
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Clermont-Ferrand, right in the center of France, is a hub for digital arts, short films, jazz, hip-hop, and more. This city, built on volcanic soil, is rich in heritage and bubbling with creativity, with dozens of art galleries, museums, and one-off designer shops. Impressively organized, Clermont-Ferrand offers a variety of color-coded sign-posted tours that let visitors explore the historic center on their own. Many local cheeses will titillate the taste buds (five of which are AOPs), and dairy farmers will suggest wine pairings. And if paragliding off a volcano has always been your dream, then this is the place to do it.
Explore Clermont-Ferrand at a glance
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Grenoble, the capital of the Alps, is a cutting-edge city amidst a healthy mountain culture. It's a lively student town, at the forefront of France's street art and electronic music scenes, with specialized festivals and events. Despite being surrounded by mountains, Grenoble is also very flat, making bike riding through it a breeze. Rent a bike via Métrovélo and explore the visually eclectic neighborhoods, from the luxury villas at the foot of the mountains to the utilitarian constructions built for the Olympics in the 1960s. Get an even better perspective at sunset, from Les Bulles, the cable car ascending to the historic Bastille fortress.
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Le Havre, one of Europe's biggest ports, is visually unique since a large part of it was rebuilt after WWII. Architect Auguste Perret used reinforced concrete to create straight, classic lines, and the Saint-Vincent district is one of the few where you can still explore the city's Gothic past. The pebble beach here is just a short walk from the port and is lined with restaurants, making it the ideal summer spot for a cold local cider and fresh seafood platter. Walk past the impressive cargo ships and endless containers to Le L'Eure neighborhood: a trendy, young hotspot in the former industrial part of town. Don't miss Les Bains des Docks, an aquatic center located in an old warehouse. Go for the spa, but also to admire Jean Nouvel's unique design and modern mosaics.
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Lille is an international hub with Flemish flavor, located at less than 30 minutes from the Belgian border. It's lively, warm and colorful, and students make up one-third of city center residents. Spend an afternoon with artsy, open-minded locals at Le Salon, part of the Maison Folie center, and you could end up swing dancing, or clapping away to a Greek concert. Explore Place aux Oignons in Old Lille, keeping your eyes open for converted weavers’ houses and charming small-town-France details. The Wazemmes Market, open Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays, is bursting with great deals on world goods and local products. For a more refined sensory experience, La Piscine in Roubaix is an Art Deco style swimming pool transformed into a fine and applied arts museum. This precious setting just re-opened in October 2018.
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Metz, a flower-filled city spread out over several islands, has a very medieval feel to it. This capital of Lorraine was part of Germany for nearly 50 years at the turn of the 20th century, and has kept some of its influence, notably with its rich cuisine. The Outre-Seille neighborhood hasn't changed much over the centuries either, and you'll still find quirky antique dealers and traditional artisans working down the narrow side streets. Metz is alive with parks on the banks of the Moselle River, and for the past ten summers, locals have even created their own beach resort here, complete with tai chi and zumba classes, games for children, and live shows.
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Mulhouse, near the German and Swiss borders, has brilliant street art including original outdoor sculptures that recount stories of the city's past and future. Le Quai des Pêcheurs, for example, is known for its avant-garde graffiti, as well as for being a romantic green promenade along the Ill River Canal. The market at Quai de la Cloche, one of France's largest, has everything from food to second-hand treasures and the local fabric that has played a major role in Mulhouse history. There's also a renowned textile museum here. In Guebwiller, about 30 minutes away, Les Dominicains de Haute-Alsace is a former convent taken over by artists nearly 200 years ago. Now it's a cultural center dedicated to music and digital arts, which offers artist residences and a jam-packed schedule of events.
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Art Nouveau flourished in Nancy from the late 19th century until the beginning of WWI, which led to this northeastern city’s moniker, "Little Paris." After a visit to the Musée de l'Ecole de Nancy, the Art Nouveau school for those interested in decorative arts, head to the Saurupt area and test your knowledge of the different architectural styles. Then spend some time soaking in the Nancy Thermal baths. There are three pools: choose the round one under the dome, with the warm spring water said to treat arthritis. Note that the city is building an entire aquatic wellness center there, scheduled to open in 2022. Top off a trip with a paté lorrain, a locally brewed beer or a handful of bergamot candies.
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Poitiers, a thousand year old Romanesque city in west central France, has by contrast a very young population. Explore the city via four different audio-guided tours, which include interviews, current affairs, and music. You won't look at Poitiers the same way after this insiders' visit. The same can be said about Le Confort Moderne, an eclectic venue promoting independent music and contemporary arts. This space, located in the heart of the Pont Neuf district, hosts a variety of experimental events, and its Fanzinothèque boasts Europe's largest collection of fanzines. Futuroscope amusement park, just a few miles from the city center, is a must for those traveling with children and the young at heart. Others might prefer a quieter picnic along the shaded shores of the Clain River.
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Saint-Etienne is a former mining and manufacturing town that's evolved into an avant-garde City of design, art, and history. Right up there with Berlin, it stands at the forefront of the modern arts world, with installations and sculptures adorning the city. You’ll find more than a dozen topnotch museums, including one not-to-be-missed showcasing the region's mining past. Visitors can admire the Houses Without Stairs at 54-56 Boulevard Daguerre, an oddity built in the 1930s and a precursor to the city's flare for innovative design. Saint-Etienne was also home to the country's first bicycle factory some 100 years ago, and the surrounding trails are ideal for cycling. Opt for a river cruise through the gorges of the Loire, or a more adventurous mountain climbing adventure along the Via Ferrata de Rochetaillée.
Explore Saint-Etienne at a glance
Visit the Saint-Etienne Tourist Office

About Top French Cities –

Top French Cities is an association of 29 cities, from regional capitals like Bordeaux to important towns like Avignon and Versailles. They are perfect for young travelers, families and anyone else looking for fun and authentic French experiences that will fit their budget. Most of these cities are university towns with a youthful atmosphere, but all of them reflect the heritage and distinctive flavors of the regions to which they belong. Many are forward-looking too, with historic buildings repurposed to house contemporary art and activity centers like Les Docks in Marseille. Many have created or integrated new, modern museums to contrast with their classical, architectural heritage, like in Nimes, where the cutting-edge Museum of Roman Civilization (Musée de la Romanité) is located across from the historic Roman amphitheater, or in Nantes, where whimsical mechanical creatures are being created, or in the UNESCO World Heritage Site concrete city of Le Havre.


Marion Fourestier
ATOUT FRANCE – France Tourism Development Agency
(212) 745-0963/67