Top 15 destinations in the French countryside

Gabriela Peratello
19.10.21
8 minute read

Dreaming of the French countryside? From peaceful rural retreats, to villages where you can immerse yourself in French country life, you’ll find it all in France. Use this guide for inspiration when you’re planning your trip around French countryside towns, so you’ll be able to create your perfect travel itinerary.

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What is the French countryside?

Countryside in French is la campagne. While France has many famous cities, bustling ski resorts and vibrant beach destinations, there’s also a whole world of undiscovered gems if you step off the beaten path a little and head for some French countryside towns.

Each region in France is fiercely proud of its own heritage and traditions — so your experience of the French countryside will vary depending on where you choose to explore. But wherever you go, you’ll find a charming mix of sleepy villages, traditional market towns, and scenes right out of a French countryside painting from centuries ago. From the mountains of the Pyrenees and Alps in the south, France spreads north as flat plains and rolling hills, perfect for agriculture and wine growing — as well as hiking, cycling, and sampling the best of regional cuisines.

Where should you go in the French countryside?

You’re spoiled for choice when it comes to French countryside towns. To help you plan a route and pick destinations, let’s look at 15 popular places you may choose to base yourself.

We’ll look at a mix of towns and cities which have good access to the countryside, and offer a range of activities to suit everyone:

1. Nancy

1-nancy
The town of Nancy is in Alsace-Moselle (also sometimes called Alsace-Lorraine), in the Northwest of France. Wander through the UNESCO listed architecture and check out the art nouveau influences all around this town which was previously a seat of power in the region¹. Admire nearby Toul², and sample the famous Gris de Toul wine, or if you’re more about active vacations, try the 52 mile cycle trail which links the finest towns and countryside areas in the locality. Nancy has good transport links, which allows visitors to choose to stay in the town and explore the countryside around — or head for a country retreat in the vicinity.

2. Arles

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Arles — which is the name of both the town and the surrounding commune — is in Provence, and famed for being the inspiration for some of Vincent Van Gogh’s French countryside paintings. In fact, Arles is so picturesque you can get a full guide to snapping the perfect pictures³, as well as visiting galleries and exhibitions during the summer, which showcase the beauty of the region. If food is your thing, don’t fear — there’s also a traditional food market on a Saturday to stock up on local delicacies, and plenty of places to picnic.

3. Cluny

3-cluny
The area of Cluny was developed around the thousand year old Cluny Abbey, and offered a pitstop for travelers on the pilgrim trails around the area⁴. In East/Central France, within the Burgundy region, Cluny — including the abbey and the towns and villages in the area — has a lot to offer modern day travelers too. Check out the ancient abbey. Although much was destroyed during the French revolution, you’ll still be able to enjoy the remaining architecture — and the restored Tour des Fromages (Cheese Tower), which was part of the original town defences.

4. Bordeaux

4-bordeaux
If you like great wine, you’ll probably have heard of Bordeaux. Great transport links, including a well located airport, make the city of Bordeaux a good choice as a base when arriving and exploring the Southwestern Aquitaine region of France⁵. Sleepy countryside is easy to access — and if you’re looking for a leisurely way to explore you can even choose a short cruise through the local waterways. Many of the activities in the region naturally involve food and wine — perfect for a relaxing break away from it all.

5. Toulouse

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Toulouse itself is the 4th largest city in France — and also a great point of access for some stunning French countryside towns and villages. Situated close to the Spanish border, in the Occitanie region, you can choose to visit or stay in the city, or look for accommodation in the surrounding area if you’d prefer a more immersive French countryside experience. The Canal du Midi, constructed back in the 17th century is a great way to see the area — view the world passing by as you travel by boat, hire a bike, or walk.

6. Carcassonne

6-carcassonne
A short hop from Toulouse, on the Canal du Midi, Carcassonne also made this must-see list as one of the largest fortified cities in Europe. Whatever else you do, be sure to wander round the impressive fortress, which includes 1 mile of ramparts. Carcassonne became a stronghold thanks to its position in the 5th century and remained an important strategic location for the military for the next thousand years or so.

7. Annecy

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Annecy — which is both the name of a town and its nearby crystal clear lake — was recently voted as the best place to live in France. Whether you’re looking for a town location or something more off the beaten track, you’ll be able to find it here. In fact, even the town — which is well situated for day trips to Switzerland — is known as a green location, where you can find the countryside along with the day to day necessities⁶. With lake activities, leisurely walks and great local food and wine, romantic breaks don’t get better than this.

8. Chamonix

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Chamonix⁷ is well known by skiers, thanks to its location at the base of Mont Blanc. A winter visit is likely to be based around skiing and seeing the beautiful valley in the snow. You’ll be able to stay in a range of places from bustling resorts to quiet villages along the valley if you want to get your own countryside experience. However, you can also visit the region in summertime for a totally different view⁸ — there’s plenty of outdoor and sporting activities as you might expect. But even for the less sporty, the villages along the valley put on cultural events and other treats to draw in visitors and keep them entertained.

9. Dijon

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In East/Central France, Dijon may be famous for its mustard, but it’s also a great place for wine and local cuisine⁹. Dijon markets itself as a gastronomy capital, so you’ll find plenty of wine tours and foodie treats. And when you’ve had your fill of the city, head out into the French countryside surrounding Dijon for an altogether sleepier experience. Learn more about the towns and villages of Burgundy to help you choose which to explore — Beaune, Auxerre, Mâcon and Nevers are great places to start your search¹⁰.

10. Avignon

10-avignon
Avignon in Provence is another location with stunning architecture — you can’t miss the Papal Palace in the town centre, and can also get a sense of the history of the region from the remaining medieval ramparts¹¹. Explore the historical town centre, and when it comes to finding accommodation you’ll be spoiled for choice with hotels, vacation rentals and even campsites if you want to sleep under the stars in the French countryside.

11. Aix-en-Provence

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College town Aix-en-Provence¹² — which as the name suggests, is in the Provence region of France — is another gem which inspired French countryside paintings, this time the works of Cézanne. There’s even a Cézanne trail in the Aix region which lets you connect with the scenery which was immortalized in his paintings. Take a trip through hilltop French countryside villages, see craftspeople at work, sample local wines and food — and get a real view of the local life while you’re there.

12. Strasbourg

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On the border with Germany, Strasbourg¹³ is famous within France as the Capital of Christmas. Head there over the winter to get a taste of a traditional Christmas — or choose a warmer time of year to wander in the parks of the city and get out and about in the surrounding countryside easily. Take a look at the Strasbourg city and region tourist board website to get details of upcoming events, and inspiration for your trip — from street art tours to segways, and everything in between.

13. Colmar

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An easy drive from Strasbourg in Alsace, Colmar¹⁴ merits its own mention in our list of great French countryside towns. Shop in the historic covered market, wander down streets of colorful half-timbered buildings, or take a leisurely boat ride in the town’s own little Venice neighborhood. And like most other classic French towns, there’s a gothic church at the centre to check out too.

14. Reims

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Reims in the Northeast of France has been historically significant since Roman times. As well as being a prominent city in the Roman empire it was also the historical site of coronations while France was a monarchy. There’s fabulous architecture and food — and it’s also strategically sited on the northern edge of the Champagne region if you enjoy a glass or two. Visit the wineries of famous names like Veuve-Clicquot and Taittinger to sample and tour, and take a bottle or two home to try later.

15. Clermont-Ferrand

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Pick Clermont-Ferrand¹⁵ as a gateway to exploring the South/Central region of France. The town centre is dominated by the striking black cathedral, but you’ll also spot the string of 80 dormant volcanoes which surround the area — the lava stone is what makes the cathedral so dark. Head up one of the peaks — on foot if you’re feeling energetic — for amazing views, including access to an observatory to see the best of the local area. Clermont-Ferrand is under an hour by plane from Paris, with many direct routes available.

French countryside must sees

From the architecture to the food and wine, the French countryside has a lot to take in — here are some key things to see and do while you’re there:

  • Even the smallest village often has a large historical church at its centre — head inside to explore
  • Taste the local specialty foods — every village will have its own!
  • Visit vineyards — taste with the producers, or even take a wine tour
  • Check out local markets for fresh produce, meat and seafood
  • Cultural events are held even in small villages — expect galleries, theatre and more
  • Wander through the countryside or checkout the cycle paths and pilgrims walking routes which span the country
  • Seasonal fetes happen all year round, celebrating local festivals

Is the French countryside expensive?

A trip to the French countryside can be done on a budget — or it can become a more lavish affair if you’d rather. While life in the cities in France is relatively expensive, day to day living in the more rural areas can be very affordable.

If you’re really on a shoestring you’ll find campsites throughout France for cheap accommodation — and local, seasonal produce is typically a delicious bargain. Of course, you could go the other way on costs, too. A fully catered trip to Chamonix in ski season, in a chalet with all the extras, will quickly add up!

To give an idea of the costs of life in general, let’s look at the prices of some vacation necessities in Bordeaux. Once you’re out of the city, expect food and drink prices to drop further¹⁶:

What it isAverage price
3 course meal for 247.50 EUR
Domestic beer (0.5 litre)6 EUR
Cappuccino in a cafe3.71 EUR
2lb (1kg) of apples2.38 EUR
Bottle of mid-range wine in a store5 EUR
Wondering how much this will cost you in USD? Check the calculator below

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France is a classic destination for culture, cuisine and countryside destinations. Make the most of your trip by picking some of these French countryside towns to explore while you’re there. And don’t forget to check out the Wise Multi-currency Account as the better choice to pay your way around the French countryside — and beyond.


Sources:

  1. France - Nancy what to do what to see
  2. Plus Beaux Détours - Détour par Toul en Meurthe-et-Moselle
  3. France - Summer in Arles
  4. Fodors - Cluny
  5. Bordeaux Tourism
  6. Forbes - Why visit Annecy
  7. Chamonix
  8. Chamonix - Mont Blanc valley
  9. Destination Dijon
  10. France - Town and villages in Burgundy
  11. Avignon Tourism
  12. Aix-en-Provence Tourism
  13. Visit Strasbourg - Welcome
  14. Colmar Tourism
  15. Forbes - Why visit Clermont-Ferrand
  16. Numbeo - Cost of living in Bordeaux

Sources checked on 10.18.2021


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