What are the most beautiful places in France? That’s a tough question to answer since a) you’d have to have visited every place in France to know which are the most beautiful, and b) what’s beautiful to one person may be “meh” to another. Just observe a group of people watching The Bachelorette to see what I mean.
However, on a recent three-week trip to France, my wife and I planned our trip around places that appeared to be beautiful, both to us, and to many others who have sought out these locations for centuries, precisely for their visual appeal.
How to decide which beautiful places in France to visit
In deciding on which beautiful places in France to see, we went for the safe bet: We intentionally sought out some of the Most Beautiful Small Villages in France (an official designation, not just a clickbait headline). To be considered one of these, you have to be a rural village of less than 2,000 inhabitants, have at least two national heritage monuments or sites, and be voted into the membership of this elite group based on 27 specific criteria. There’s probably a secret handshake involved as well. But, well, it’s secret, see.
As a visitor, you can get the official book of all 160 or so villages. Even without the book, you’ll know you’re in one of these beautiful places in France by signs proudly announcing the village’s designation. After all, if you’re Miss America, you wear the crown in public.
France is a big country. So in three weeks, we knew we could only see (or rather, see well) a relatively small area. Thus, for a complex set of reasons, we concentrated on the eastern part of the country. Our trip took us from Lyon in the southwest of France up through the Burgundy region, and finally up into the Alsace region ending in the central eastern city of Strasbourg. That meant a few big cities (by France’s standards), some towns and a lot of villages. Beautiful villages.
Before I describe the route details, let’s take a look at a key challenge to planning a trip based on trying to visit the beautiful places in France.
Beautiful places in France beyond Paris
Initially, we’d included a few days in Paris. If you’re in pursuit of beautiful places in France, what better destination to start, yes? But a few days in the City of Light is like a few bites or a great meal: better than nothing, but not as satisfying as it could be. Everyone we know goes to Paris. We’ve been there numerous times. Paris is Paris, one of the most visited cities on earth. But since I focus on Hidden Travel, we opted instead for more time in the lesser-known beautiful places in France.
We selected each beautiful place in France based, in part, on what we could determine beforehand about what the location looked like. And therein lies a problem: It’s harder than you might think to know ahead of time if the place is visually appealing to you.
The difficulty in determining what a place looks like
There are several reasons why it’s hard to get a good visual sense of a place before you leave.
- First, everyone takes photos of the same things. We’re all lemmings photographically when it comes to travel images. We see a photo of a place on several blogs or Instagram posts and we naturally want to take the same shot. And thus, we reinforce the sense that this is the defining image for a particular beautiful place in France. But it never is. In an upcoming article here, I’ll show you specific examples from a few of the places we visited of the typical image, and then some other equally compelling ones that look nothing like the same location.
- Second, everyone with a phone is now a photographer. However, walking across a basketball court doesn’t make you an NBA star. If you Google the name of a place and select “images” for that place, most will be, at best, mediocre. You have to really dig to find great images of many locations, or at least great images of the less obvious parts of those places (per the previous point). The same applies to You Tube videos. You have to kiss a lot of frogs to find a prince when searching on videos of a particular location.
- Third, when you visit may be quite different from when the image you see was taken. We were in Burgundy in May. Many photos or videos I’ve seen of the vineyards are taken in the fall when all the leaves are bright gold. Visually, it’s a different world. Or you may be there on a rainy day and images you’ve seen are all sunny. Or vice versa. I discovered, for example, that even the fairytale-like villages of the Alsace Wine Route don’t translate into good images if you try to photograph them say, mid-morning on a cloudless day. The contrast between bright morning sun and the shadows from the buildings makes for lousy photos. Yet the same street shot in the evening might be magical.
- Fourth, images come to us without context. A particular scene may look rather dull in a photo, but when you’re there, you have all the other sensory elements going on and they can transform what seems marginal into a spectacular experience.
- Finally, only you know what appeals to you visually. For example, the obvious emphasis of many photos of Burgundy and Alsace will be related to wine. The grape is king in both those regions. But there is also so much more. In fact, in Burgundy, we saw far more fields planted with wheat than we did vineyards. But before we got there, I had no idea they even grew wheat in the region because few people take photos of that crop. Even in the cities, what others deem to be some of those most beautiful places in France, (for example, the Ducal Palace in Dijon) may dominate the images you see before you arrive. You may never even know that one block away is an amazing courtyard in a 15th century building that grabs your heart and imagination far more than the big spaces.
Thus, my goal here is to give you a visual tasting menu of some of the beautiful places in France (eastern France, to be exact) you may never have considered visiting. I’m showing you images of what stood out to me visually, but I’ll go into depth on several of the places in future articles because again, you can’t really get a sense of any place from just one image. But hopefully, even the single image per location here will help you realize that there are so many beautiful places in France beyond Paris. Especially places you may never even have heard about before.
Beautiful places in France: The trip
Now for the images and brief explanations for some of the beautiful places in France we visited. I’ve included links to sites we found particularly helpful.
We started our trip in Lyon, France’s third-largest city (after Paris and Marseilles). I loved Lyon for its blend of old and new. For the big (Paris-like buildings and boulevards) and the small (the intimate, secret passages known as traboules). For the food (we loved the simple goodness of Le Kitchen, as well as the famous bouchons or family-style small restaurants) and the art (the various murals and street art, as well as the museums, in particular, the Musée Miniature et Cinéma), and all the ateliers (artists’ studios and workshops)). And of course, the two rivers that flow through the city, the Rhône and the Saône. There’s gotta be a song about those two somewhere…
A resort town, Annecy sits at the edge of the French alps. Its lake is said to have some of the purest water in Europe. If the above photo doesn’t look like others you’ve seen of Annecy, it’s because most turn inward from the lake and photograph the medieval core of Annecy. That old town is beautiful, particularly with its canals and canal-like river running through it. But once you’ve explored the old city, the lake and surrounding mountains offer a wealth of beauty to explore. On the way to Annecy, we stopped at the medieval villages of Perouges and Cremieu, both of which are lovely and worth a visit if you’re nearby and, along with Annecy, could be done on a day trip from Lyon.
Beautiful Places in France: The Jura
This is a region that runs along the eastern edge of France north of Lyon up to the area east of Dijon. Here are some of the beautiful places in France we visited in this area. In addition to the villages and cities shown below, we also visited (and enjoyed) the towns of Poligny, Arbois, and Dole.
One of the Most Beautiful Villages of France, Baume-les-Messieurs sits in this valley and for that reason, gets our vote for the loveliest setting of any village we saw. It also has an ancient abbey with a spectacular altarpiece (a surprising theme you’ll soon note below) and a small, yet beautiful waterfall just outside the village.
Another of the Most Beautiful Villages, I visited this one just after sunrise. I drove in the dark from our nearby B&B and got to Chateau-Chalon just as the sun was coming up. It was magical. The views from the village added to the wonder since you can see for miles from this hilltop village.
When I saw a photo of Pesmes in the book covering The Most Beautiful Villages in France, I wasn’t sure how pretty it would be. But as with all the villages, being there in person, seeing it from different perspectives, and strolling its ancient streets reveals charms that the photos just don’t show. Same with our B&B in the area: the photos don’t reveal the wonderful people who made our time there so special.
Between Dijon and the Alsace region to the north and east lies the surprising city of Besancon. Surprising, to me, because I’d never heard of it before this trip and also because it turned out to be one of my favorite places. It has an UNESCO World Heritage Site in the citadel above the city, and a curious focus on time (as evidenced by the Museum of Time there). I wish we’d had more of that precious commodity here.
Beautiful places in France: Burgundy
You’ve likely heard of the wine by the same name, and while most of the region is famous for its wines, it has so much more to offer as well. We spent over a week in this area and barely scratched the surface of all there is to see and do in this beautiful place in France. I’ve only listed the main towns or villages we visited because there are numerous villages, chateaus (castles), abbeys, parks and wineries we passed through or stopped in briefly that would make this an even longer list. But the following should be enough to give you a feel of Burgundy.
Dijon is a good-sized city known for its mustard, but also its culinary experiences. This is a foodie town that rivals Lyon. When we visited, they had just opened the City of Gastronomy, a huge space filled with shops, tasting areas, and restaurants. Combine that with Les Halles, the permanent food market in a building designed by Gustav Eiffel (of the tower’s fame) and a wealth of great restaurants and cafés, and you won’t go hungry here. But it was the architecture (this was an extremely wealthy city back in the 14th and 15th centuries) that made Dijon one of my favorite stops and high on my list of beautiful places in France.
Much smaller than Dijon but much larger than any of the Most Beautiful Villages, we arrived in Semur-en-Auxois on a hot Sunday afternoon during their annual Medieval Festival, an event that had been canceled due to the pandemic for the last few years making this year even more popular. Thus, we may not have seen the inside of the town at its (or our) best, but as you can see, the outside is pretty spectacular.
On the way there, we also visited two other really beautiful places in France. The first was the castle at Chateuneuf.
Another of the Most Beautiful Villages of France, Noyers-sur-Serein was mostly closed on the day (Monday) we visited. But we could still wander the streets of this medieval gem and climb the hill behind the village to the ruins of its castle.
I was really looking forward to visiting Auxerre, a larger town which lies in the northwest corner of Burgundy, between Paris and Dijon. But the famed clock tower was covered for renovation, the ancient abbey wasn’t yet open, and the people we encountered weren’t as friendly as the wonderful locals we’d met in the rest of Burgundy. Thus, while it is still one of the beautiful places in France, it wasn’t one of our favorites. See what I mean about beauty being subjective? Or really, about how many other factors that have nothing to do with aesthetics can influence your perspective on a place.
The basilica here sits on a hill overlooking the stunning Burgundy countryside. It’s been a stop for centuries for pilgrims on their way to the Camino de Santiago in southern France and Spain. The village of Vezelay itself makes the list of Most Beautiful Villages of France for good reason. In the summer, can get quite busy. But if you arrive early before 9:00 a.m. as we did, you may have the basilica and most of the village all to yourself.
In fact, we found it a great strategy to arrive in many of these beautiful places in France early before most visitors got there, but not too early so that by the time we were done exploring, the shops would be open. In these small villages, even if you’re not into shopping, the small studios, bakeries, and boutique stores are worth popping into if nothing else than for the beauty of the spaces themselves. Design matters here.
This is the so-called wine capital of Burgundy. The highlight here for my wife was a fantastic cooking class (and fair warning, if you click on the link and look at the photos, you too will find a way to justify paying for the experience). While she spent the day with a handful of other students making a seven-course meal, I visited the rest of the town including its most famous site, the Hotel Dieu. Founded in the 15th century as a hospital for those in need, it’s a wonderful combination of monument and museum with the most famous roof in Burgundy.
Beautiful places in France: Alsace-Lorraine
Now called Alsace-Moselle, this region that lies on the eastern edge of France next to Germany has passed back and forth between the two countries since 1871. We followed the Alsace Wine Route through a series of “wine villages,” ranging from quaint to straight-out-of-a-fairy-tale charming. Most people traveling through stop in Colmar and maybe visit a few others. We had several days in the area and made it to probably a dozen villages, but some for only a hour or so. Most of them start to look alike after a while. And yet each has its own special elements. I’ll show you some of our favorites of these beautiful places in France.
We stayed here (in the charming hotel, the white building on the left in the photo) and thus got to experience Eguisheim in late evenings and early mornings. Because of that and some wonderful people we met here, we really enjoyed this small village. Note the storks in their nests on the apex of the roofs in the center of the photo. We saw such nests throughout the region.
Colmar is a good size city. However, its medieval core and series of canals are easy to explore on foot. We’d been here before, when it was less crowded. But even with all the people (it was a sunny spring Saturday), it was enjoyable. Our highlight here was the Unterlinden Museum. It contains what is considered one of the finest works of the Renaissance, the Isenheim Altarpiece.
Three things made Kaysersberg one of our favorite Alsace Wine Villages.
First, the setting is lovely in this valley with the ruined castle above it.
Second, as a woodworker and carver, I appreciated the fantastic altarpiece in the main church there. While I admired the work itself, I didn’t realize just how significant it was artistically or historically until after we visited Colmar and the Isenheim Altarpiece later the same day. Funny how a little education about something you never cared about before can completely change how you see and think about it since I’ve barely even noticed altarpieces before this trip.
Third, the people we met were extraordinarily kind and very complimentary about our efforts to converse in French, something you notice more in France where, especially in the larger cities, the locals don’t always commend you on your ability to speak their language. But here, they made a point of telling us how much they appreciated our efforts.
Ribeauville and its nearby neighbor, Rinquevihr, are two of the most popular villages on the Alsace wine route. And yet, as in Kaysersberg, we met several very sweet (and fun) people in the shops and bakeries here. Yes, bakeries plural. You gotta compare, right? Note the ruined castle above the town. As in Kayersberg, the castle adds to the charm of the setting.
We stayed here in Bergheim for two nights in part because of recommendations that it felt less touristy than many of the other villages. And that’s true even if you look at the above photo and wonder, “Do people really choose to live in houses like these for their own sake?” And the answer is a resounding, “Yes.” We also had a wonderful apartment with extremely thoughtful hosts, which also added to our strong liking of this village.
Château du Haut-Kœnigsbourg
On the mountainside above Bergheim sits this 12th-century castle that was restored in the early 20th century by Kaiser Wilhelm II back when Alsace was still part of Germany. The castle itself is quite impressive, but we had a whole new appreciation for what it took to do the restoration after seeing the various photos and exhibits on the process, including before and after shots.
Note the giant candles to the left of the blue drapes, the arm sconce on the far right, and the altarpiece in the middle.
The village of Dambach-la-Ville itself is much like many others in the area only with an emphasis on their town symbol, a bear. Apparently, centuries ago, farmers found a bear eating a particular batch of grapes. These turned out to be an excellent vintage of wine. So, they still honor the bear to this day. On its own, would I consider Dambach on of the most beautiful places in France? Maybe not. It is charming, but then so are most of these villages.
What made this place special was the small church above the village, Chapelle Saint-Sébastien. Outside, you’ll find an ostiary—a pit filled with human bones. While macabre, it’s also rather cool. Unlike in the catacombs of Paris where the bones are neatly stacked and arranged, here, they have been unceremoniously dumped into a huge pit behind a locked gate. No one seems to know exactly where they came from.
Inside, the church has candles taller than my wife, candle holders carved to look just like human arms coming out of the walls, and another stunning wooden altarpiece. All in this small chapel surrounded by vineyards.
Honestly, we didn’t see much of the village of Mittelbergheim. When we drove through it, we did note that all the buildings are built of the same-colored stone. So they’d definitely win the award for the most uniform looking streets. But other than that, not much stood out. We did have to wait for a Viking River Cruise bus to pull out of the road so we could get by, so clearly there’s something to see here.
But I’m including it because of the above photo. I don’t recommend you doing what we did, but we pulled over into a small road/path to take a photo of the vineyards. That “road” (more like a pathway) was one the farmer uses to get through the vineyards. But because of traffic and a blind curve on the road we’d been on, we couldn’t back up onto the main road. Instead, we continued down the dirt road looking for a turnaround. In so doing, we discovered this field of purple flowers. We never saw so many flowers like these elsewhere, so it was rather magical. And by continuing on the dirt road a bit further, we were able to get back on the main road. I repeat: Stay off of private property. But when you’re stuck, keep your eyes open.
We had a lovely lunch at a small patisserie here in Barr. It was one of the few places open that day. As we explored the rest of the town, we came across this street filled with butterflies. Was it for an event or just civic decoration? We never found out. But it doesn’t matter. It was a wonderful discovery even without the background information in a town I hadn’t heard much about before but that surprised us with the variety of areas there to see.
Obernai is bigger than many of the other villages (it’s a town rather than a village) and can get crowded (are you starting to sense that maybe I’m not wild about touristy, crowded sights?). But we enjoyed our brief time there. We poked around the old town before most stores opened and got some decent lattes at a gluten-free bakery we found near the main square.
I’d been here in Strasbourg way back when I was in college studying in nearby Freiburg, Germany. But my memories didn’t prepare me for Strasbourg’s numerous scenic areas such as Petit France with its canals and most of all, the incredible cathedral here, definitely one of the most beautiful places in France. It’s hard to explain, even in our age of skyscrapers and massive buildings, the effect of coming out of a side street and there before you is this stone edifice that seems bigger than physics should allow. It’s crazy to think that an 800-year-old building can still blow your mind. Or, after all the incredible architecture we beheld this trip, maybe it’s not so crazy after all.