France, things to do beyond Paris: 20 highlights most visitors miss

1. Calanques du Cassis

A dozen secluded inlets are strung along France's southern coast in Parc National des Calanques, between Marseille and the picturesque seaside town of Cassis. The calanques can only be reached by a strenuous hiking trail or boat, but the effort involved in reaching the inlets pays off in dividends. Think clear turquoise waters enclosed by hulking, limestone cliffs. The beaches themselves are beautiful (albeit not sandy) – the easier to reach, the busier they get. You can visit them all via a boat tour from Marseille, but hiking the trail that links the calanques offers the most breathtaking views.

2. Marseille

While the rest of the country might say (and this is a direct quote) "Marseille is not France", this is exactly the reason why you should visit the seaside, African-influenced city. Marked by the hilltop Notre Dame de la Garde, the city boasts two striking cathedrals, colourful Vallon des Auffes and tangled old streets of the Panier district.

3. Gordes

In a sea of spectacular hilltop villages in Provence, this is perhaps the most visual arresting, especially at sunset, which sets the whole town aglow. This is also the best time to visit, when all the day trippers and busloads of tourists have long since departed and you'll only have to share the roads with Gordiens, playing soccer or dancing at the town's market square.

4. Saignon

A pleasantly tourist free destination a stone's throw away from Gordes, clifftop Saignon is home to the world's most beautiful town square, and just to prove it, art classes often take place. Vine-covered houses with pink shutters surround its central fountain, which trickles water atmospherically. The views of the valley from its crumbling castle are similarly swoon-worthy.

5. Roussillon

In the heart of one of the biggest ochre deposits in the world, someone really did paint the town red. The hilltop artists' village has a requirement for houses to be painted a prescribed palette of 40 tints, all shades of ochre.

6. Gigondas

Come for the famous red wines (which you can taste for free at the Gigondas Cave), stay for the gorgeous views. Then head across to Chateauneuf-du-Pape for hilltop views from its crumbling castle, and taste the even more famous wines from the cellars of the same name. Just north of Avignon.

7. Aix en Provence

The beautiful market town of Aix has much to offer visitors to Provence; stay for a while and take advantage of the region's best produce. This is usually high on the list of first-time visitors to the region. It's also home to the famous rose of the same name.

8. Pont du Gard

An hour from Avignon, this spectacular, three-tiered arched Roman bridge straddles the Gardon river and is a joy to visit in summertime, when locals take pique-niques and spend the day swimming to escape the stifling Provence heat.

9. Millau Viaduct

From ancient Roman architecture to modern French, this bridge is the world's tallest at 343m and cost 394 million euros to build, so you better believe it is one of the most spectacular modern sights to behold in Europe. It's higher than the Eiffel Tower's 324 metres, and only took an unbelievably short three years to build.


10. Penne

This Occitanie drama queen is perhaps the most spectacular of them all as its decayed castle sits on a rocky outcrop that extends from the village like an outstretched arm. Before it was abandoned for 400 years, it was inhabited by the persecuted Cathars of Southern France, whose dramatically and strategically placed castles make for excellent sightseeing opportunities throughout the region.

11. Rochefort en Terre

Despite it being voted one of the most beautiful villages in France and one of Brittany's most visited sites, dreamy Rochefort is a peaceful town in a fairytale setting. Home to artists and friendly locals (including the feline variety) its shopfronts are decorated with baskets overflowing with greenery and colourful flowers.

12. Vannes

This southern Brittany big-hitter has it all; picturesque, half-timbered medieval buildings, imposing city walls and some of the best crepes in the north. Its old moat has been converted into colourful gardens pleasantly lit to roam at night, and the town has a friendly, lively atmosphere.

13. Plougrescant

At the very northern tip of Brittany the spectaculaire Coates d'Armour has a house wedged between two boulders, no doubt to shelter from the notorious wild weather that has shaped this unusual coastline.

14. St Malo

Capturing my imagination since forever, this walled seaside city at the tip of Brittany is throbbing with beach-going visitors during the summer months, and dramatic during the winter, when wild waves crash against the promenade's walls. The town is best seen walking around its huge, imposing walls which you can wander beyond to outlying forts at low tide.

15. Dinan

Half an hour from St Malo, this quiet medieval town is built along a steep hillside giving it plenty of places to admire the views. Walk along the city ramparts, down its curving main street, around its city square dominated by half-timbered houses and climb the Tour de l'Horloge, for dizzying views across its old rooftops all the way to Mont St Michel.

16. Cancale

This seaside town is Brittany's best kept secret. While St Malo throbs with tourists, locals take refuge here. Famed for its oysters, shells completely cover one side of the bay from carts selling them on the seafront. Another major draw for the stomach is Brittany's famous crepe restaurant Breizh Cafe, and Gran de Vanille, which makes the best mille feuille in the world (and I'm not exaggerating).

17. Mont St Michel

The huge carpark on the mainland gives you an idea of how many tourists visit the iconic island of Normandy (three million, apparently, per year). Most spectacular from the causeway, inside is awash with shops and tourists. Time your visit to watch the tide come in – however the island is only ever surrounded in water a few times a year. Its rising tides are extremely fast-moving and subsequently dangerous. Once described by Victor Hugo as "à la vitesse d'un cheval au galop" or moving "as swiftly as a galloping horse" – they often thwarted attacks from approaching enemies.

18. Fort la Latte

Brittany's Emerald Coast is not short of spectacular sights, but the hike from wildflower-covered Cape Frehel to the 14th century Fort la Latte gives you a taste of the wild coastline away from the tourists. Short on time? There's parking at both sites.

19. Etretat

Blanketed in bright green grass, Etretat's white cliffs have been eroded to create archways and needles towering over the ocean, which takes on a beautiful turquoise hue. Walk the path along the clifftops for unparalleled views.

20. Honfleur

Near the mouth of the mighty Seine, the Normandy town is centred around its colourful riverside port, where, wonky, tall, and very narrow shingled buildings overlook the busy Seine estuary. It's captivating to see; behind it lies a buzzing tourist mecca filled with shops, great restaurants, and a buzzing market.

Take a look at these 20 spectacular spots in the photo gallery above.

Instagram: @kylieam

See also: Twenty things that will shock first-time visitors to France

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