The sparkling Eiffel Tower might have been what first drew you to France, but trust us, the tiny towns outside the French capital are what will keep you coming back for more. Beyond the Arc de Triomphe, Louvre, and Sacré-Cœur, these towns are home to a host of lesser-known attractions that exude French charm and character—minus the crowds.
Unsure where to start? We turned to French girls and European travelers to find out where they go on summer vacation. Yes, when throngs of tourists queue to climb the Eiffel Tower, locals leave the city for the quiet canals of Annecy, yacht-lined bays of Cassis, and rugged cliffs of Corsica. Log your leave: This is where you should go on summer vacation, according to the French.
You'd be forgiven for thinking this postcard-perfect picture is of Amsterdam or Venice, not a town in France. Annecy, an alpine town in southeastern France, is perched on the shores of Lake Annecy and has a network of canals that intersect the cobbled streets. Gelato-colored houses with window boxes overflowing with flowers overlook the water, making this town one of the most scenic spots in the country.
Local Tip: Embrace water spots. Thousands of French people travel to Lake Annecy every summer to make the most of the glass-like water and sublime conditions. Make like a local and go sailing, water skiing, kayaking, or stand-up paddleboarding.
Cassis is often overlooked thanks to its proximity to popular Marseille, but don't be fooled—just because you haven't heard of it doesn't mean it should be missed. The picturesque port town on the Côte d'Azur is the perfect base to explore the famous Parc National des Calanques and take a dip in the impossibly turquoise Mediterranean Sea. It's a much less obvious choice to Nice and Cannes with 10 times the charm.
Local Tip: Visit a local French restaurant, choose a table on the street, and order bouillabaisse with a glass of Cassis's famed white wine. You won't regret it.
BEACH OR BAR?
Gordes, one of the prettiest towns in Provence, belongs on every traveler's French bucket list. The honey-colored stone resort town is home to quaint French boutiques, galleries, and markets, and has a wide range of accommodation options, from luxury vacation homes to locally run B&Bs. Be sure to visit Sénanque Abbey to capture the popular swaying lavender fields.
Local Tip: Don't miss the farmers market. It runs year-round and is the perfect place to buy souvenirs you'll actually use, like local truffle oil and Provençal linens.
Corsica, one of the 13 regions of France, is nothing like the country's mainland towns. The island juts out of the Mediterranean sea and has an unparalleled landscape of golden cliffs, rugged coastline, and breathtaking mountains. Be prepared for adventure: Corsica is renowned for its winding hiking trails and mountain bike tracks.
Local tip: Don't leave without doing a day trip to the Lavezzi Islands, a cluster of pristine beaches and diving spots off the southern tip of Corsica.
WOULD YOU LIKE AN UPGRADE?
Part elegant resort town, part laid-back surfing enclave, Biarritz caters to almost any type of traveler. Located on the Basque coast in southwestern France, Biarritz draws European royalty and die-hard surfers alike. The long sandy beaches and abundance of surf schools make it a great family vacation spot, too.
Local Tip: Stop by Cite de l'Océan et du Surf, a sleek modern museum dedicated to ocean issues and conservation. The award-winning structure was designed by Steven Holl Architects in collaboration with Solange Fabião.
Our intel tells us Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat is a must-see in France. The town is almost entirely surrounded by water, making it a mecca for yachts and luxury travelers. It's located near Nice, so it's easy to explore the French Riviera or jump across to Italy to continue your European adventure.
Local Tip: Head to Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild, a mini palace perched high on a hilltop with incredible views of the sea and surrounds. Venture inside the estate to glimpse manicured gardens, 18th-century paintings, and furniture collected by the former owner, Baroness Ephrussi de Rothschild.
Have you been to any of these French towns? Share your travel tips and recommendations with us.