The Best Places to Travel in France Besides Paris (with videos)

France is the No. 1 tourist destination in the world – and it’s certainly popular with American travelers. Millions of Americans visit the country each year.

While these numbers aren’t saying that Americans who visited Paris only visited Paris, it would be a mistake to believe France and its capital are one and the same. Au contraire. There’s so much more to France than Paris.

By all means go to Paris, take that picture of you holding the Eiffel Tower in your hand, and wait in line for hours at the Louvre – but then set out and see what truly makes France the ideal tourist destination.

Actually, one of the beauties of Paris is its somewhat central location, which makes transport by train or car to other regions of the country easy, fast and fun.

France is part of the Schengen Area. What does that mean? Read: What Americans Need to Know About the Schengen Area

Basically, all you have to do is pick a direction and go, starting with …

The untamed north

When Americans think of Normandy it’s generally in conjunction with the D-Day invasion of World War II, but Normandy is an earthy, vibrant, windswept destination that will have you thinking of Ireland or the Canadian Maritimes.

By all means visit Le Havre, a UNESCO-listed showpiece of post-WWII reconstruction, but consider renting a car and traveling from Le Havre to Brest, the heartbeat of Brittany – or “Bretagne,” to the locals.

Be sure to include stops at Caen, with its spectacular cathedral, Bayeux, home of the famed Bayeux Tapestry, and the otherworldly tidal island of Mont-Saint-Michel. Once in Brittany, make time to visit the charming walled city of Saint-Malo – and bring your appetite.

It’s a fallacy that every little restaurant in rural France is filled equally with charm and world-class cooking, but the seafood in France’s north and northwest is outstanding, whether shellfish – oysters, scallops, and mussels – sardines or sole.

One of the local specialties is moules frites – a simple meal of steamed mussels and french fries, but oh so fresh and tasty. For breakfast, crepes or galettes are a must.

If you’re looking to get lost in France, Normandy and Brittany are good places to start.

Also read: 6 Fantastic Foodie Destinations Around the World

The sunny south

For a relatively compact country, the variation in France’s scenery and climate is striking. The country’s north and northwest coast is all knobby sweaters and blustery skies, while the south is all sunshine and gentle breezes.

The cities of France’s southern coast – Cannes, Nice, and Saint-Tropez, even lesser-known gems like Menton – are as famous for their beauty as they are for the opulence of their visitors. The people-watching is world-class, whether you’re walking city streets or sand beaches.

Inland from the beaches is Provence, an area fabled in its own right as a land of sun-drenched fields and Julia Roberts movie sets. The best way to approach Provence, as noted by Belle Provence Travels, is to ease into its relaxed rhythm, stroll through the markets, and choose a home base – ideally Aix-en-Provence or L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue.

From there it’s easy to hit the must-sees (Belle Provence recommends Aix, Avignon, St. Rémy de Provence, Marseille, and the villages around the Luberon) and allow plenty of time for a leisurely lunch or an extended exploration.

Also see: 7 of the World’s Most Beautiful Botanical Gardens

The historic east

No territory in Europe has been more fought-over than the land around the border of France and Germany. The Alsace-Lorraine area has changed hands between the two countries at least six times, with the most recent handoff occurring after WWII.

What were they fighting over? A beautiful, pastoral area bisected by famous rivers, with a soft climate perfect for growing grapes and making wine.

The Alsace Wine Route is one of the country’s undiscovered treasures – a continental road trip that starts in Strasbourg and then meanders along the shore of the Rhine River (and the German border) south and southwest to Thann.

It’s not a trip for point-a-to-point-b drivers; it’s the sort of adventure where you leave your lodgings in a small village in the morning, stop at the next village for a snack, enjoy a long, leisurely lunch (with wine, of course), and then move on to the next village.

For people who love wine and automobile touring, it’s the best way to explore this area and decide for yourself whether it’s more German or more French.

Learn how travel insurance can help on a road trip

The wild west

Depending on your knowledge of European geography, you might not know that France borders Spain – or that there’s a tiny country between them. The country is Andorra, a mountainous principality primarily known for sheep and skiing, and while it’s worth exploring, you can get a real appreciation for the Pyrenees region without straying across the border.

Western France is wild and relatively untouristed, but it offers some interesting cultural mashups. The Spanish influence is strong in towns like Perpignan, while Spanish and Roman history is at play in Nîmes, where the Arena of Nîmes, a double-tiered circa-70 A.D. amphitheater, is still used for concerts and bullfights.

The west is where people go to explore nature at the country’s wildest, particularly in two rugged, sprawling regional parks, Haut-Languedoc and Pyrénées Ariégeoises, both relatively short drives from Toulouse, your hub for visiting the area.

Also read: How Travel Insurance Can Save Your Backpacking Vacation

If you haven’t already got the picture, France is the top tourist destination in the world because it has something for everyone.

If you want to beat all those crowds you’ll have to pick out-of-the-way destinations and travel in the late fall or early spring. And if you want the travel protection a trip abroad deserves, consider getting a plan from Generali Global Assistance. It’s just right for your dream French vacation.

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Fred R. from New York

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