Away from the treats of Paris, Lyon, Marseille and the country’s other huge metropolises, France has a large number of smaller cities with just as much to offer families. Journalist Ben Lerwill gives us 10 of the best, ranging from globally renowned tourist spots to enjoyable under-the-radar destinations.
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1. La Rochelle
A hugely important seaport in the Middle Ages, the handsome coastal city of La Rochelle still boasts two impressively bulky 14th-century stone towers, both of which can be climbed. Nearby you’ll find a world-class aquarium – complete with rays, sharks and piranhas – and there also two adjacent toy museums in town, one focusing on scale models, the other on automated figurines. And if you’re here in May, you might be lucky enough to catch the annual Red Bull high-diving competition in the harbour.
Picture credit: © Atout France | R-Cast
As if being just a short drive from the Med weren’t enough (the nearby resort of Narbonne Plage has a huge family-friendly beach), the unassuming city of Narbonne also has a rich history, an attractive centre and some appealing activities for kids. Wander the halls of its handsome covered market to gawp at everything from freshly netted seafood to gargantuan gateaux, then explore the old Roman remains at the city’s heart.
Picture credit: © Atout France | R-Cast
When Lorraine’s spire-dotted capital city was chosen to host France’s new Pompidou Centre – open only since 2010 – it marked a fresh beginning for somewhere that had long attracted in-the-know holidaymakers. Highlights include its riverside parks, its picture-postcard architecture and a 450-year-old Gothic cathedral, not to mention the Pompidou Centre itself, which continues to stage some great modern art exhibitions and cultural events.
Picture credit: Saint-Etienne cathedral in Metz © Atout France | Franck Charel
The graceful Provencal city of Avignon might be principally known for its historical remains – most notably the UNESCO-listed Palais des Papes, the largest Gothic palace on the planet – but it has a youthful pulse too. There’s a large student population, meaning plenty for visitors in their late teens to enjoy, and the city also hosts an excellent performing arts festival every summer. It’s been running since the 1940s.
Picture credit: © Atout France | Martine Prunevieille
Synonymous with champagne, and standing as arguably the most important city in the region of the same name, Reims is an easy place to fall for. It’s a great base for those who want to visit the area’s bubbly producers, of course, but has plenty to offer in its own right too, not least a hugely important cathedral (more than 20 French kings were crowned here) and some well-kept, child-friendly parks.
Picture credit: Château des Champagnes Pommery in Reims © Atout France | CRT Champagne-Ardenne | Oxley
The capital city of the eastern Franche-Comté region often gets overlooked by visitors, making it all the more of a pleasant surprise for those who do come calling. Spread over seven hills and celebrated in literary circles as the birthplace of Victor Hugo, it has a charming historic centre that plays home to a great museum (look out for the Egyptian mummies) and an 18th-century astronomical clock comprising no less than 30,000 moving parts.
Picture credit: © Atout France | CRT Franche-Comte | Citadelle AMB
The medieval city of Carcassonne needs little introduction. Its remarkable skyline, which from a distance is all fairytale turrets and invader-thwarting ramparts, continues to draw millions of tourists each year. Things can get crowded, but if you visit away from the peak summer months you’ll find it a rewarding place to explore. Adding to the appeal is the nearby Canal du Midi, where a gentle pedal along its banks can be enjoyed on hire-bike.
Picture credit: © Atout France | Catherine Bibollet
The alpine settlement of Annecy isn’t much of a secret, but popularity hasn’t made its lakeside, mountain-ringed setting any less dramatic. Its medieval old city is threaded with canals and makes for an atmospheric place to linger over a meal, while active families can make the most of the activities available in the surrounding region, from cycling and walking to paragliding and even bungee-jumping.
Picture credit: Annecy Lake © Atout France | Fabrice Milochau
Sitting just north of Marseille but with less than a fifth of its population, the little city of Aix-en-Provence is renowned for its plentiful gardens and bohemian heartbeat. It’s a cultured place with some great museums, the pick of which is probably the Musée Granet, which has a collection of works by artists such as Rembrandt, Giacometti and one-time Aix resident Paul Cézanne.
Picture credit: Cloisters of Saint-Sauveur cathedral in Aix-en-Provence © Atout France | Michel Angot
10. Mont Saint-Michel
The tiny walled city of Mont Saint-Michel – with a permanent population, at the last count, of less than 50 – is no urban jungle. But its abbey-topped rock remains one of the most iconic sights in French travel, and as well as the sights within the ramparts, it’s also possible to take a low-tide walking tour around the entire mount and across the bay.
Picture credit: © Atout France | Jérôme Berquez
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