Ah, Paris. The winding river, the soaring spires, the pavement cafes and the wonderful shopping. Oh, and the crowds, the traffic and the snaking queues outside every attraction. Want to sample French city life without the stress? Here are five characterful alternative French city breaks we think you’ll love (we do!)
Just a short hop across the Channel brings you to the handsome Normandy city of Caen. One of the oldest university towns in France, Caen is as animated as it is attractive.
Its relatively compact core is made for ambling. Start your wanderings at Abbaye aux Hommes. Built by and the final resting place of William the Conqueror, it’s a riot of turrets, spires and Romanesque flamboyance. Then head into the labyrinth of streets in the old town, with its shops, cafes and bars constructed from the famous Caen stone, a cream-coloured limestone quarried locally.
Take lunch at La Medicis (23 Rue Vauquelin) before heading to Caen castle for terrific views over the city. Of course, this being Normandy, the long shadows of the Second World War still colour the character of the city. The vividly powerful Museum of War and Peace (esplanade Général Eisenhower), largely dedicated to D-Day, is a must.
Nearest parc: Château le Brevedent
The Loire’s chateaux-studded countryside and vineyard-cloaked slopes make the region perfect for countryside breaks. But when the city calls you’re in for a sumptuous, UNESCO-protected treat at Tours. For a start, here’s where you can sample all those delicious Loire-harvested wines!
A remarkably well-preserved medieval core is home to the exquisite 15th Century Tours Cathedral and the perfect streetscape of Place Plumereau (especially lovely when the sun sets and bars and cafes spill out onto the pavements). There’s a reason the town’s called “Le Jardin de la France”, as there are several parks located within the city. Ideal picnic spots in summer.
Stock up in the covered food market, Les Halles, in rue des Halles and Les Belles Caves wine shop, for a bottle of Vouvray. The pace picks up along Rue Colbert – now one of the city’s most fashionable streets, with its boutiques and bars, or the riverside bustle of ‘La Guinguette de Tours’ with their summer concerts and relaxed, leisurely lunches.
Nearest parc: Le Parc de Fierbois
There is a wealth of tourist and historical attractions to discover in La Rochelle – a picture-perfect harbour town steeped in history, with wonderful markets and an array of tempting restaurants.
The regional capital, La Rochelle is also a shopper’s paradise, and has a lively waterfront to explore. The Charente Maritime is famous for its oyster farms, and you’ll have no trouble tracking them down in the restaurants that line the harbour. Kids will especially love La Rochelle’s superb high-tech aquarium. It’s one of our favourites too.
When you’re done, head to the 17th Century covered arcades for lunch. The first thing that will strike you are the gleaming limestone facades, responsible for the nickname ‘La Ville Blanche’ (the White City). Wander past half-timbered houses and across the fortified ramparts for a glimpse at maritime life as it once was. For a closer look, visit the colourful Maritime Museum, with its primary-coloured canopies covering the Bassin à Flot. They call La Rochelle the St Tropez of the Atlantic. Here, on a good day, it’s easy to see why.
Nearest parc: Sequoia Parc
Arty, surprising and thoroughly enjoyable, Nantes is Brittany’s busiest port city. Standing on the banks of the River Loire, this is a city that fuses the old with the new to deliver a rich, cultural day out.
Take a trip back in time at the breath-taking cathedral or Château des Ducs de Bretagne. If abstract art is your bag, Le Lieu really takes the biscuit. Formerly a factory that produced the sweet, crumbly treat, it’s now a thriving contemporary arts and music venue. Le Voyage à Nantes – Europe’s biggest art trail – takes place across the city every summer (for 2020 that means from 4th July to 30th August), and features world-class performance art, sculpture, music and impromptu happenings. Follow the green line! This is the city that has not one but two giant-making theatre workshops, producing super-sized elephants (main pic, above), school girls, grannies and spiders, so watch your step! And after all that art? Nantes specialises in the best of Breton cuisine, ready to refuel you for tomorrow’s adventures.
Nearest parc: Le Mané Guernehué
The vibrant Catalan city of Perpignan is the last major town in Languedoc before you reach the Spanish border. It enjoys a very lively mix of cultures. Half Catalan, half French, you’ll see the street names written in both languages.
The Cathedral Saint-Jean with its solid stone-and-brick walls (which took nearly 200 years to build) is a suitably impressive sight. Culturally, Perpignan feels very alive. The surrealist painter Salvador Dalí said he got his best ideas sitting in the waiting room at Perpignan’s central station. It was the ‘Centre of the Universe” in his mind.
The ancient capital of Roussillon, Perpignan has a Moorish feel in places, with its brightly coloured shops and vibrant Arab Quarter. Dive into the Museum of Catalan Crafts and Traditions to understand this singular city’s curious fusion of cultures, and visit the the magnificent Palais de Rois de Majorque – the Palace of the Kings of Mallorca. Visit in July for the Les Estivales at Perpignan – a vibrant international celebration of dance and theatre.
Nearest parc: Camping les Peupliers