8 French cities to visit

While France might be the most visited country in the world, there are hundreds of very good reasons for its popularity. The capital Paris lays claim to being the most romantic place on the planet, but you've also got the wine capital, Bordeaux, and great foodie destinations like Lille and Lyon. The chilled-out south-western cities of Toulouse and Marseille have many charms, while Lens and Saint-Étienne's industrial pasts hide some unexpected attractions. Here's our guide to some of the best French cities, including where to eat, drink and sleep.

  1. Bordeaux
  2. Marseille
  3. Lens 
  4. Paris
  5. Lyon
  6. Toulouse
  7. Saint-Étienne
  8. Lille

Bordeaux

The capital of the Aquitaine region, Bordeaux is so beautiful that around 1,810 hectares of the city have been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Romans planted the first vineyard there more than 2,000 years ago and it remains the largest (and most famous) wine region in the world.


Things to do in Bordeaux

The Water Mirror in Place de la Bourse is a modern marvel and an absolute must-see.  Reflecting the beautiful buildings in the city centre, this is the world’s largest reflecting pool and one of the best photo ops in the city. Aside from Paris, Bordeaux has the most listed buildings in France. The Monument aux Girondins, Bordeaux Cathedral and Pey-Berland Tower are just some of the ones worth seeing. For more incredible architecture, have a wander down the Left Bank Quays and admire the 18th century buildings and pretty waterfront.

Eating and drinking in Bordeaux

Red wine has to be high on the list of things to try in Bordeaux, and while there is plenty to try in the bars and restaurants in the city, you can also head straight to the source and take a tour of some of the finest vineyards on the planet. If you're going in the summer, you can also get involved with the Bordeaux Fête le Vin (June 23-26), the largest wine festival in the world.

If you want to try something different, visit La Comtesse for some cheeky mojitos in the historical area or visit the bar at Mama Shelter for some cool cocktails. Eat out in one of the traditional ‘cuisine du terroir’ places, or try fine dining at a Michelin-starred restaurant (such as Maison Nouvelle or Soléna). And, off course you must try Entrecôte Bordelaise, which is a Bordeaux style of steak cooked in a rich gravy (lashings of butter and wine are involved).

Getting there: Fly directly to Bordeaux–Mérignac Airport from London, Edinburgh, Manchester and Birmingham. Find flights to Bordeaux.


Staying there: Discover the latest Bordeaux hotel deals.  


Marseille

The oldest and second largest city in France enjoys 264 days of sunshine a year so pack your swimsuit! Founded by Greek sailors more than 2,500 years ago, this Mediterranean port has a mish-mish of cultures to discover.


Things to do in Marseille

Look above and you'll see the Notre-Dame de la Garde or ‘La Bonne Mère’ watching over the city – you can climb up the hill for a nice view (it's been an observation post for centuries). Head to the artist district of Le Panier, the oldest urban area in France, and then make your way to the Old Port. From here, you can hop on a shuttle boat to visit the Château d'If, a fortress and former prison – although its most famous "prisoner" was Alexandre Dumas's fictional character The Count of Monte Cristo.

Eating and drinking in Marseille

Try Marseille’s most famous dish, Bouillabaisse, which is a rich fish soup, followed by the same fish used to make the soup as the main. It will depend on what the catch of the day is. In terms of drink, be sure to try Pastis, an anise-flavoured spirit created in Marseille which the locals drink as an aperitif. If you want a savoury snack, try a Navette de Marseille , the local hard biscuit flavoured with orange blossom water.

Getting there: Fly directly to Marseille Provence Airport from London, Edinburgh, Manchester and Birmingham. Find flights to Marseille.


Staying there: Find the latest deals for hotels in Marseille.


Lens 

Once an industrial powerhouse, thanks to the presence of the Louvre-Lens Museum, this northern town has become a cultural hub. The town is also known for its football – the locals are hugely passionate about RC Lens, one of the most popular football teams in the country. Funnily enough, the stadium has 38,000 seats – more than the entire population of Lens, which is around 36,000.

Things to do in Lens

The modern Musée du Louvre-Lens is built on a former pithead, close to the stadium, and you can travel through time in the Galerie du Temps, which takes you from Antiquity, through the Dark and Middle Ages up to the present. There's even an exhibition on RC Lens in the museum if you want to combine culture and football. 

You can make a poignant visit to several of the largest WWI remembrance sites. The Notre Dame de Lorette (the largest French military cemetery), the Lens 14-18 museum, the Loos Memorial and Dud Corner Cemetery can all be visited.

Eating and drinking in Lens

Three of the city's most popular bars are Bar Les pirates, Pub Mac Ewans and Cubana Bar. The more traditional Art Deco surroundings of Le Café de Paris also make a great setting to sip a coffee or a pint. Be sure to try the local artisan beer Page 24. Specialty French Flemish dishes to try are carbonnade, a beef stew, and potjevleesch, which consists of cold jellied meats like pork, veal and rabbit, served up with chips. For traditional French food, check out Le Pain de la Bouche and Les Jardins de l'Arcardie. As for local cheese, if you like strong flavours try Fort de Lens or the pungent Maroilles with its orange-coloured rind.

Getting there: You can get the Eurostar to Lille, and then either hire a car (40 mins drive) or take the train (direct takes around 45 mins). There isn't an airport in Lens – the nearest place to fly to is Lille Airport. Alternatively, you can drive via the Channel Tunnel: it takes around three hours from Dover.


Paris

Paris needs no introduction. The capital city is world-famous for its art, its charm and its cuisine. As one of the most romantic cities in the world, it is particularly great for couples, but it really has something for everyone, whatever your interests. And the best part? You can be there in 2.5 hours with the Eurostar!


We've already put together a guide to the best attractions, museums, landmarks and neighbourhoods in Paris whether you're there just for the day or for a little longer – see our Paris Guides for more info:


Getting there: It takes just two and a half hours from London St Pancras station to Paris Gare Du Nord via the Eurostar. You can fly directly to Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport from most major airports in the UK in 1-2 hours. Check out the latest Paris flight deals.


Staying there: See our range of hotels in Paris. 



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Lyon

Lyon is the third largest city in France, after Paris and Marseille. Famous for its history and architecture, 10% of the city is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. On top of that, it’s also revered for its food – you’ll find some of the best cuisine in the country right here.

Things to do in Lyon

Wander down Lyon’s distinctive narrow streets in the Vieux Lyon and see some of the traboules, secret passageways that the city is known for. Once you’ve explored this neighbourhood , head to La Croix-Rousse (once a silk industry district and now a cultural hub),  and the more modern Presqu'île area (which has some great shops and restaurants).

The Fête de la Musique takes place in June. It's free, and you'll see some up-and-coming French musical talent on various stages. The ‘Tout l’Monde dehors!’ the festival is another free annua; event taking place across the summer from July 7 to August 28th. There'll be live music, theatre, comedy, circus acts and dance in public areas throughout the city.

Eating and drinking in Lyon

The Lyonnais also take their food very seriously, and if you spot the Bouchon Lyonnais label, you'll know you're eating somewhere traditional. Known as ‘the gastronomic capital of the world’, the city is surrounded by some of the best produce you can find. Try quenelle (creamed fish), cochonnaille (pork charcuterie) and, in the summer, the Salade Lyonnaise.

Getting there: Fly directly to Lyon-Saint Exupéry Airport from London, Manchester, Edinburgh and Bristol. Find the latest Lyon flight deals here. You can also get the Eurostar to Lyon from London, which takes around four and a half hours. 


Staying there: Book one of these hotels in Lyon.

Toulouse

The ‘Ville Rose’ is known for its history and art but also its extraordinary innovation. Toulouse, the fourth largest city in France, is the European capital of aeronautics. A blend of old and new, tradition and modernity, the city has a unique feel to it with plenty of exciting things to discover.

Things to do in Toulouse

In the summer, take a walk (or boat ride) along the Canal du Midi, a 240 km long canal and UNESCO World Heritage Site. The landscape feels like something out of a painting. If you’re looking for green spaces, you’re spoiled for choice – there are 160 parks and gardens in Toulouse, making it a great summer city break. 

You can also wander down the River Garonne, and take a break at the terraced steps near Place Saint-Pierre. This is a great place to catch the last rays of the day.

In June, head to the free photography festival ‘Festival de photo MAP Toulouse’ and the annual music festival ‘Les Siestes Électroniques’. In July, you can celebrate the world of tango at the annual Tangopostale Festival with workshops, concerts and milongas.

For science buffs, there’s also the Cité de l'Espace, a scientific theme park with a major focus on space.

Eating and drinking in Toulouse

Start typing here...The city is famed for its charcuterie, so try the Toulouse sausage, either on its own or in a cassoulet, a long-cooked stew. If you’re after something sweet, try Cachou Lajaunie –  liquorice sweets laced with mint. 

In terms of restaurants, Rue des Blanchers has plenty of traditional French restaurants to try such as Du Plaisir à la Toque and Le Petit Flore. 

As a large university city, there are plenty of bars, pubs and nightclubs. Le 5 Wine bar, Quinquina and La Cale Sèche are some of the most popular spots.

Getting there: Fly directly from London or Edinburgh to Toulouse-Blagnac Airport in around two hours. Find the latest Toulouse flights here.


Staying there: Browse hotels in Toulouse.


Saint-Étienne

This former industrial powerhouse, whose settlement dates back to Roman times, is surrounded by lovely countryside with the verdant Loire gorges to the west and to the east, Pilat Natural Regional Park. The city is now part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network, and there are several impressive museums and galleries to check out when you visit.

Things to do in Saint-Étienne

While the city's industrial past can be discovered at the vast Musée de la Mine, you can also see how far it's come culturally at the Musée d'Art Moderne et Contemporain. You'll find one of the largest collections of modern art in France in this super-stylish building. Pop just out of town to Firminy and the landmark project, Site de Corbusier, the largest of its kind in Europe. If you're there on a Wednesday, book a guided tour of all the buildings and structures here, including a stadium, a church and a special swimming pool.

Eating and drinking in Saint-Étienne

The  area in and around the central Rue des Martyrs de Vingré has some great pubs and bars. L'Escargot d'Or is a great spot for traditional food – they’re famous for their snails, charcuterie and red wine. During your stay, be sure to try the specialty cheese – Fourme de Montbrison. It’s a soft cheese with an orange rind and blue streaks through it. For a sweet treat, try some chocolate at Weiss – they've been making the sweet stuff since 1882.

Getting there: You can fly directly to Lyon from London, Bristol, Edinburgh, Manchester and Belfast then take a train from Lyon to Saint-Étienne. The train takes around 45 minutes.


Lille

Lille, known as ‘The Capital des Flandres’, is only 80 minutes from London. At various points in history it has been Flemish, Burgundian, Spanish before officially becoming French in 1667. The easy-going northerners here have a rich trading history (from the Middle Ages) and are proud of their traditional food, drink and festivals.

Things to do in Lille

Start like the locals in the Grand Place (Main Square), and admire some of the city's finest buildings like the Old Stock Exchange or browse the second-hand book market.

Then wander through the Old Town, with its colourful 17th century buildings or visit the Citadelle De Lille, built on the orders of the Sun King, Louis XIV, in the 17th century. Don't miss A.Baert's 1932 Art Déco swimming baths which have been sympathetically converted into the La Piscine Museum of Art and Industry.

Eating and drinking in Lille

Lille has one of France's largest student populations (35% of the population is under 25), so the nightlife is pretty good here.There are also more than 900 places to dine in the city, from high-end Michelin-starred restaurants to estaminets – Flemish cafes serving up the fine regional rural dishes and local produce. Visit the tea room at the city’s oldest confectioners’ Méert. They created the recipe for waffles filled with vanilla in 1849 and used to supply Charles de Gaulle and the Belgium Royal Family.


Getting there: No airlines currently fly directly to Lille from the UK. It takes under an hour and a half to get to Lille by Eurostar.


Staying there: Find our latest deals for Lille hotels.

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