French Cities: Where To Eat, Drink and Play

For once its worth following the crowds, as 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 food destinations like Lille and Lyon. The chilled-out south-western cities of Toulouse and Marseille have many charms, while Lens and Saint Etienne's industrial pasts hide some surprising attractions. Here's our guide to some of the most famous French cities, including where to eat, drink and sleep.

1. 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

 

Le miroir d'eau, Bordeaux (c) Thomas Sanson

The Water Mirror (see above) in Place de la Bourse, is a modern marvel which reflects the beautiful buildings in the city centre - its one of the most visited parts of the city. You'll see people, and dogs, frolicking in the fountains (so be aware if you're posing for pictures). Paris apart, Bordeaux has the most listed buildings in France - for instance the Girondins Monument (19th century) and Saint-André cathedral and Pey-Berland Tower. Have a wander down the Left Bank Quays and and admire the 18th century architecture and pretty waterfront there. You can also buy a Bordeaux Metropole City pass from the Bordeaux Tourist & Conventions website - as well as book other tours of the city.

Eating and drinking in Bordeaux

Bordeaux (c) Alain Benoit at the Orangerie Jardin Public

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, pubs and restaurants in the city - you could also take a tour out to some of the finest vineyards on the planet (here's a guide to understanding Bordeaux wines). If you're going for the grape you can get involved with the Bordeaux Fete le Vin (June 23-26) - the largest wine festival in the world.

Bordeaux Fête le Vin via Bordeaux Tourisme

If you want to try something different to a drop of the red stuff, visit La Comtesse for some cheeky mojitos in the historical area or for some cool cocktails visit the bar at Mama Shelter. Eat out in one of the traditional cuisine du terroir places, or try fine dining in a michelin-starred restaurant (like La Grande Maison de Bernard Magrez - Joel Robuchon). If you're on the move, grab an organic sandwich or light lunch to go from DAP in the city centre. Of course you must try Entrecote Bordelaise, which is steak cooked in a rich gravy (lashings of butter and wine are involved).

Saunion chocolatier confiseur (c) Saunion chocolatier

Essential information

Getting there: Bordeaux–Mérignac Airport - Find flights to BordeauxStaying there: Discover the latest Bordeaux hotel deals  

2. Marseille

Port Antique (c) Office de tourisme et des congrès de Marseille

The oldest and second largest city in France enjoys 300 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

View of Notre-Dame (c) OTCM via Office de tourisme et des congrès de 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 Old Port and visit Le Panier, the oldest urban areas in France. The Château d'If has been a fortress and prison in its time, although its most famous "prisoner" was Alexandre Dumas's fictional Count of Monte Cristo - you can take a tour. A City Pass for one, two or three days from the Office de Tourisme de Marseille gives you free admission to museums, transport and other attractions.

Cours d'estienne d'orves (c) Vieux Port (c) Office de tourisme et des congrès de Marseille

Eating and drinking in Marseille

Marche du Poissons (c) Office de tourisme et des congrès de Marseille

Try their 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. You've probably heard of Pernod - but it was created in Marseille and and is known as Pastis - the locals drink it as an aperitf. If you want a savoury snack, try Navettes, the local hard biscuit.

Four des Navettes (c) OTCM-H

Essential information

Getting there: Book flights to MarseilleStaying there: Find the latest deals for hotels in Marseille

3. Lens

Panoramique of Ville de Lens. Image courtesy of Office de Tourisme et du Patrimoine de Lens-Liévin

They're hugely passionate about their football in this northern French city. Once an industrial powerhouse, now thanks to the presence of the Louvre-Lens Museum it's become a cultural hub - and is home to one of the most popular football teams in the country.

Stade Bollaert © RCL Promotion

The Stade Bollaert-Delelis is the home of Racing Club de Lens and is bang in the centre of town, close to the train station.

DID YOU KNOW? The stadium has 38,000 seats - more than the entire population of Lens, which is around 36,000.

Things to do in Lens

Louvre-Lens © Matthieu Brard

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 through 2015 chronological displays. There's even an exhibition of RC Lens in the museum if you want to combine culture and football. The 11/19 Coal Site is a major mining heritage site, complete with a miners villlage and pit. You can climb up Europe's tallest slag heap (mining remains) for lovely views of the area and city below.

Cabaret Rouge British Cemetery, Souchez (c) (P. Frutier)

You can make a poignant visit to several of the largest WWI remembrance sites. The Notre Dame de Lorette is the largest French military cemetery and its new museum Lens'14-18, and the Loos Memorial and Dud Corner British Cemetery - which honours the 20.586 lost in the 1915 Battle of Loos.

Eating and drinking in Lens

Bière chti © Laurent Lamacz

Two of the city's most popular bars are Le Mac Ewan's and the Irish Tavern. The more traditional Art-Deco surroundings of Le Cafe de Paris is a great place to watch football, with plenty of screens. Local tipples include Ch’ti (the brewery can be found at Benifontaine) and the artisan beer, Page 24. Specialty Flemish dishes to try are carbonnade and potjevleesch - this is cold jellied meats like pork, veal and rabbit, usually served up with chips.

Fromages (Cheese) (c) mage courtesy of Office de Tourisme et du Patrimoine de Lens-Liévin

As for local cheese, if you like strong flavours try Fort de Lens or the pungent Maroilles with its orange-coloured rind. La Cuisine Familiale Du Terroir has been a family run restaurant for 60 years and is near the fan zone, or Le Pain de la Bouche which is close to the train station and stadium.

Essential information

Gare SNCF © Rémi Vimont ADRT Pas de Calais

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. Or alternatively you can drive via the Channel Tunnel: it takes around three hours from Dover. Staying there: Here are the latest Lens hotel deals. The tourist information centre is next to the train station if you need any further advice.

4. Paris

Things to do in Paris

We've already put together a guide to the best attractions, museums, landmarks and neighbourhood's in Paris whether you're there just for the day or for a little longer - see our Paris Guide for more info.

Essential information

Getting there: It takes just two and a half hours from London St Pancras station to Paris Gard Du Nord via the Eurostar. It only takes an hour and a quarter to fly into Paris Charles de Gaulle - check out the latest Paris flight deals. Staying there: see our range of hotels in Paris.

5. Lyon

Les jardins de Fourvière (c) Louis Peyron via Lyon Tourism and Conventions

The "City of Lights" is the third largest in France. It's famous for its food and and intriguing 2,000 year old architecture. Part of this pretty city is a UNESCO World Heritage site and you can visit some world-class museums before trying some of the best cuisine in the country at the famous Bouchons.

Place du change © M.Perrin via Lyon Tourism and Conventions

Place Bellecour © L.Berthier via Lyon Tourism and Conventions

Fan Zone

Head to the Place Bellecour to watch the games on the big screen. They'll be laying on entertainment and plenty of food and drink.

Things to do in Lyon

12 rue Fernand Rey - Traboule © www.b-rob.com via Lyon Tourism and Conventions

Wander through and down their unique narrow streets (traboules) in the Renaissance district (dating from the 15th/16th centuries). These have helped the area become an UNESCO World Heritage site. Other acclaimed areas covered include the La Croix-Rousse (the silk industry district), the Gallo-Roman area, Fourvière and the more modern Presqu'île area.

Pont Lafayette (c) Tristan Deschamps via Lyon Tourism and Conventions

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!" - which roughly translates as "everyone let's go out" - is another free festival taking place across the summer from June 20 to September 1. There'll be live music, theatre, comedy, circus acts and dance in public areas throughout the city. Only Lyon - the tourist board here - also recommends you grab a city card, this gives you free access to some of the best attractions in Lyon as well as public transport.

Eating and drinking in Lyon

Brasserie des Brotteaux (c) Marie Perrin via Lyon Tourism and Conventions

They take their food very seriously - and if you spot the Bouchon Lyonnais label - you'll know you're eating somewhere traditional. Considered the cuisine capital of France, the city is surrounded by some of the best regional produce in the world. Try quenelles (creamed fish), Cochonaille (pork dishes like the Rosette) and as it's summer - Salade Lyonnaise. Their chickens come from the nearby Bresse region - home to popular poultry producers.

Canuts (c) Marie Perrin via Lyon Tourism and Conventions

Essential information

Getting there: It takes around an hour and three quarters to fly to Lyon Saint Exupery - find the latest Lyon flight deals. You can also get the Eurostar to Lyon - It takes around five and a half hours to get to Lyon Part-Dieu Railway station, changing at Gare du Nord in Paris. Staying there: Book one of these hotels in Lyon.

6. Toulouse

La Garonne expose @ OTToulouse

La “Ville Rose” (Pink City) combines the rich history of the South-West while reaching for the stars as the European capital of aeronautics and innovation. The terracotta bricks inspire the city's nickname and it has plenty of bridges and a lovely medieval old town to admire.

Things to do in Toulouse

Canal du Midi @ Grands Sites Midi Pyrenees (c) Patrice Hebault

There's 160 parks and gardens in the centre of the city, or take a walk (or boat ride) along the Canal Royal du Languedoc (Now called Canal du Midi - a UNESCO World Heritage Site).

Cite de le space (c) Manuel Huynh

The Cité de l'Espace is a scientific theme park with major focus on space. You can also wander down the River Garonne, and the terraces steps near la place Saint-Pierre are a great place to catch the last rays of the day.

Garonne vue de puis Saint Pierre in Toulouse (c) Patrice Nin via Ville de Toulouse

Free summer festivals include street photography exhibition (MAP Festival), the Siestes Electoniques Festival and the Tangopostale Festival (celebrating the Tango) among other events.

Eating and drinking in Toulouse

Rue du Taur Toulouse (c) Boigontier

The city is famed for its charcuterie, so try the pork Toulouse sausage, either on its own or in a cassoulet - a long-cooked stew. If you want some sweets try Lajaunie’s Catechus - liquorice sweets laced with mint. Another large university city, there are plenty of bars, pubs and nightclubs to celebrate in if your team wins. The rue Pargaminières is known as the thirsty street (you can pick up a late night snack here) and the rue des Blanchers has plenty of traditional restaurants to try - the Saint-Cyprien quarter is also a nice place to go for tapas and drinks.

Musee Augustins in Toulouse (c) JM Herrador

Essential information

Getting there: Flights take around two hours from the UK to Toulouse Blagnac - click on the link for the latest Toulouse flights.Staying there: Browse hotels in Toulouse.

7. Saint Denis

Porte Saint-Denis Arch

People have been making pilgrimages to Saint-Denis to visit the grave of the martyred first Bishop of Paris, Saint Denis, since the 3rd Century and it's famous as the burial place of Kings. Every year sports fans visit the Stade de France to watch football and rugby.

Basilique Royale de Saint-Denis

Things to do in Saint-Denis

While the town of Saint-Denis grew in medieval times, it really took off during the industrial revolution. Sadly the area had several decades of decline from the 1970s until projects like the new national stadium led to a revitalisation. The most famous monument is the stunning Basilique Royal de Saint-Denis. The burial place for the creme of French Royalty, more than 40 Kings and 30 Queens are interred there under the Gothic stained-glass. Try some of the local produce like Miel Beton, the "Concrete Honey" made from the hive on top of the Town Hall of Saint-Denis. If you're staying in Paris, remember to check out our essential guide to Paris or visit the Saint-Denis tourist website for more information on here to eat, drink and play in the area.

Essential information

Getting there: Saint-Denis is just over 10km directly north of Paris (See Paris details above). From Gare du Nord or the centre of Paris, it takes around half an hour to 40 minutes to get to the stadium and is only five stops on the Metro. The closest airport is Roissy Charles-de-Gaulle international airport

8. Saint-Etienne

Saint Etienne (c) Christophe ROY

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, the Mon Parc Naturel Regional. The city is now part of the UNESCO Creatives Cities Network, and there are many buildings and creative museums to check out when you visit.

Tribunes int rieures et pelouse lors du match ASSE Nantes (c) Chaix et Morel Associes and Saint Etienne Metropole

The stadium:

With a nickname like le Chaudron (the Cauldron), there's sure to be some smoking games at Stade Geoffroy-Guichard in the city centre if you visit during the football season. Home to ASSE, who still hold the most number of Ligue 1 titles (the last in 1981), their famous fans, Les Verts (The Greens) create one of the best match atmospheres. Visit Le Musée des Verts at the stadium to find out more about the club's illustrious history.

Musee des Verts (c) ASSE via Saint Etienne Tourisme

Things to do in Saint-Etienne

While the city's industrial past can be discovered at the vast Musée de la Mine Park, Puits Couriotyou 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.

Cite du design Agence - LIN architectes Finn Geipel + Giulia Andi. Image via Saint Etienne Tourisme

They've just introduced the Saint-Etienne City Card for tourists, which you can buy for one, two or three days and gives you savings on transport, museum and attractions discounts as well as shopping and eating out. Escape the football crowds for a bit and fit in a river cruise down the Gorges de la Loire (see image below).

Les gorge de la Loire (c) Christophe ROY via Saint-Etienne Tourisme

Eating and drinking in Saint Etienne

The city's bar area in and around the central Rue des Martyrs de Vingré has proper "pubs". One of the most famous chocolate makers comes from Saint Etienne - so visit the Weiss shop for an indulgent experience - they've been making the sweet stuff since 1882. The speciality cheese is Fourme de Montbrison, a soft cheese with an orange rind and blue streaks through it. To find our more about the city, visit the Office de Tourisme's website or in person at their office - 16 avenue de la Libération.

Maison Francoiser (c) Aurelie Sanchez

Essential information

Getting there: You can either fly to Lyon or get the Eurostar through Paris to Lyon (see Lyon travel info above) - then take a train from there to Saint Etienne. The train takes around 40 minutes.Staying there Find hotels in Saint Etienne.

Lille

City Tour © OTCL Lille / Laurent Ghesquière

The capital of Nord-Pas de Calais is only 80 minutes from London, at at various points of history has been Flemish, Burgundian, Spanish before officially becoming in French. The easy-going northerners here have a rich trading history (from the middle ages) and are proud of their traditional food, drink and festivals.

Grand Place © OTCL Lille / Laurent Ghesquière

Things to do in Lille

Grand_Place © OTCL Lille / Laurent Ghesquière

The arts and museums are well represented here, in what was the European Capital of Culture back in 2004. Start like the locals in the Grand Place (Main Square), and admire some of the citiy's finest buildings like the Old Stock Exchange (1650s) 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

Braderie de Lille © OTCL Lille / Laurent Ghesquière

Lille has France's third largest university complex (35% of the population is under 25), so the nightlife is pretty good here. The local brews are definitely worth trying but be aware, the alcohol content can be high.

Terrasses © OTCL Lille / Laurent Ghesquière

There are 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 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.

Pâtisseries Meert © pâtisserie Meert Jean-Philippe Metsers

Essential information

Getting there: It takes around an hour and a half to get to Lille by Eurostar. Staying there Find our latest deals for Lille hotels. To find out the city - visit the Lille Tourism website - they've got information on things like the Lille City Pass - which gives you free access to transport, museums and other tourist attractions.

Where's your favourite place in France?

We'd love to hear where you're planning on heading across The Channel.  There's plenty of cheap flights available to get you there - you can be right in the south of France in just over two hours. Or you can take the Eurostar there - Paris is the main hub to take you across the rest of the country. Let us know where you want to go by leaving a comment below.  

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