When most people think of France, a few images come to mind — the stone buildings of Paris, the castles of the Loire Valley, the D-Day beaches of Normandy, the Mediterranean coastline of Provence. But several equally vibrant regions remain off the beaten path.
In that vein, here are some of the lesser-known French destinations you might want to explore on your next trip to this European nation.
Let’s start in northwestern France. Here, you’ll find Bretagne (better known in English as Brittany), a landscape infused with Celtic culture and legends. The locals exhibit an immense amount of regional pride, and most street signs are written in both French and the ancient language of Breton (even though Breton is losing its foothold in modern times). You’ll also spot plenty of regional flags and symbols across the region, as well as an abundance of postcards showing off traditional Breton attire.
Given Bretagne’s location on the coast, its lighthouses have become some of its most iconic emblems, so keep an eye out for these stalwart towers. The most famous of these structures include La Jument (off the coast of the island of Ushant), Le Créac’h (on the island of Ushant), and Men Ruz (in the small town of Ploumanac’h), though there are dozens more to see. For an extra exciting outing, you can climb to the top of the lighthouse on Batz Island or even kayak up an estuary to La Croix lighthouse.
Whether you prefer sweet or savory crepes, Bretagne specializes in this dish, so remember to scarf a few of these pastries down. Local chefs use buckwheat flour in most savory options, and they often fry an egg in the middle of the folded crepe as well. For dessert, try kouign amann, a caramelized, layered pastry that’s sure to delight.
Although all of Bretagne serves as a fascinating getaway, a few cities stand out as particularly tourist-friendly locales. Whether you head to Rennes (a large city where half-timbered buildings abound), Vannes (a village with a charming old harbor), or Saint-Malo (a port town nestled against an old fortress), you’re in for a treat!
If France and Germany were circles in a Venn diagram, Alsace would be the overlapping section between them. This region has traded hands many times throughout the centuries, so you’ll see ample evidence of German influence when you visit. Keep an eye out for the pretzel stands and foaming mugs of beer!
Between its brightly colored houses, flower-lined canals, and fruitful vineyards, Alsace is a picture-perfect fairytale setting. Of all the cities in this region, Strasbourg and Colmar are the Alsatian destinations most commonly frequented by tourists. Strasbourg is laced with canals, so river cruises are a popular activity in the city, as are visits to the cathedral and the small, photogenic island called Petite-France. In winter, Strasbourg is nicknamed “the capital of Noël,” and millions of people from around the world flock to its massive Christmas market.
Colmar has its fair share of canals too, but this city is even more colorful than Strasbourg. When you’ve tired of wandering through its streets, head to the Unterlinden Museum, which houses artworks such as a 500-year-old altarpiece and a Monet painting. What’s more, oenophiles will be happy to know that Colmar is a major stop on the world-famous Alsace wine route.
Just don’t forget to venture to a few small villages during your Alsatian stay as well! Eguisheim, Kaysersberg, and Riquewihr are all excellent options that have held up well throughout the centuries — so be sure to drop by for an unforgettable day trip from the region’s larger cities.
Haute-Savoie (Upper Savoy)
Dreaming of the Alps? Haute-Savoie, or Upper Savoy, lies in the shadow of this stunning range, so you can enjoy fresh mountain air during your vacation. But you’ll also want to spend some time in the region’s unbeatable cities!
At 15,781 feet (4,810 meters), Mont-Blanc is the tallest mountain in western Europe, and it’s a paradise for hikers, rock climbers, skiers, and snowboarders. They often converge in Chamonix, the city bordering the iconic peak, where fellow adventurers will feel right at home. Whether you decide to ski in one of five nearby resorts, hike to Lac Blanc, trek around the entire mountain on the famous multi-day Tour du Mont Blanc, or ascend in the Aiguille du Midi cable car for fantastic views of the Alps, you’ll have plenty of ways to stay busy.
Once you’ve had your fill of high-altitude thrills, Annecy will be the perfect getaway. This city features a picturesque old town built alongside a canal, as well as a pristine glacial lake — Lake Annecy — that’s often lauded as Europe’s purest. Here, locals and visitors practice just about every water sport in the books, so you’ll probably want to rent a boat, scuba diving equipment, a kayak, a paddleboard, or fishing gear.
Savoyards cook and eat lots of hearty food — especially in the winter — so make sure you work up an appetite during your visit. The region’s most famous dishes include raclette, melted cheese scraped directly from its block onto boiled potatoes, and tartiflette, a dish comprised of potatoes, bacon, and onion that are cooked under a thick layer of cheese.
The Rhone Valley
On either side of the Rhone River, you’ll find lush vineyards, sunny orchards, and limestone hills. With these beautiful landscapes, the Rhone Valley is an excellent place to go on day-hikes, drink wine, and simply explore. Whether you choose to road-trip through the Beaujolais wine country, tour archaeological sites in Vienne, or wander the great outdoors in Ardèche, you can’t go wrong in the Rhone.
For a sophisticated city-break away from Paris’ crowds, there’s no better place to go than Lyon, the largest metropolis in the valley. This city is considered the gastronomic capital of France, which is a difficult distinction to earn in such a foodie-friendly country — but Lyon lives up to its nickname. Head to its bouchons (small, usually family-owned bistros that serve all of the regional delicacies), and order any pig-based dish, and you’ll see why.
When you’ve finished chowing down, take time to visit the Presqu’île (the city’s peninsula) and Old Lyon. Whether you’re scouting out Roman ruins, medieval streets, French façades, or modern architectural wonders, you’ll find lots to do and see!
There are plenty of exceptional regions in France — some popular, some lesser-known, and some hovering in between the two. But no matter where you choose to go, you’ll love exploring the diverse offerings of this incredible country.
Header image by Pedro Lastra