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The one place you absolutely have to visit in each department of France

The Local France
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The one place you absolutely have to visit in each department of France
Palais idéal du facteur Cheval, built between 1879 and 1912 attracts 130,000 visitors a year Photo by GERARD MALIE / AFP

Chateaux, national parks, museums, beaches, and historical sites (plus much more). These are some of the must-see places in each of France's 96 mainland départements. How many can you tick off?

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Look at a map and one of the first things you will notice about France is that it's pretty big. Yet despite this, many tourists never venture beyond the obvious attractions - here are our 96 suggestions for places to visit, one for each French département (country).

The 96 départements of France, with the Paris area expanded in the top right corner and France's overseas départements shown to the left. Map: WikiCommons

01. Ain, eastern France

The historical village of Pérouges, which has ranked among the most beautiful in France, is even the setting for a handful of French period films. 

02. Aisne, northern France

You simply cannot go past the Laon cathedral, from the 12th century, which ranks up with Notre Dame in terms of France's top examples of Gothic architecture. 

03. Allier, central France

Head to the Maison Mantin, a museum in the town of Moulins, that was once a mansion in the late 19th century before being closed off for a century. It was opened to the public in 2010 and offers a really eclectic collection of art.

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04. Alpes-de-Hautes-Provence, southern France

The top spot here is the Gorges du Verdon, of course, France's answer to the Grand Canyon. Rent a kayak and tackle the river at the bottom.

The spectacular Gorges du Verdon. Photo by MICHEL GANGNE / AFP

05. Hautes-Alpes, eastern France

The small town of Briançon is also billed as the highest town in France at an altitude of 1,326 metres. Take in the whole town on foot - and don't miss the Unesco recognised city walls. 

06. Alpes-Maritimes, south eastern France

The tiny hilltop village of Eze is an ideal day trip from Nice and promises some of the best panorama photo opportunities in France. 
The hilltop village of Eze, pictured in the snow.
Photo by JACQUES MUNCH / AFP

07. Ardèche, central France

It may be in ruins, and you may have to climb a bit to get there, but the Château de Crussol in Saint-Péray is incredible. You can also take a donkey ride after you've enjoyed the views up top. 

08. Ardennes, north eastern France

Head to the fortified village of Rocroi, which is built in a star-shape, and comes with a bloody history of wars through the centuries. 

09. Ariège, south western France

To the west of the town of Foix there's a pretty awesome chateau - the Chateau de Foix - that promises a good half-day trip. Just bring good shoes for the cobblestones!

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10. Aube, north eastern France

If you're in Aube, be sure to head to its capital of Troyes (pronounced like 'trois') for its half-timbered buildings - you'll feel like you're walking through France from yesteryear. 

11. Aude, southern France

We'd be mad if we didn't recommend the stunning medieval fortress Cité de Carcassonne, which is on the Unesco list of World Heritage Sites and a huge hit with tourists (for good reason). Very busy in summer thanks to that Unesco listing, it's best visited in autumn or winter.

12. Aveyron, southern France

Top site here is the Millau Viaduct - the tallest bridge in the world (the mast goes up to 343 metres). Here are some more pics if you need convincing.

SEE ALSO: The 12 bridges in France you just have to cross

The viaduct of Millau at sunset. Photo by Charly TRIBALLEAU / AFP

13 Bouches-du-Rhône

This department is where you'll find the coastal city of Marseille. Our top tip there? It has to be the Calanques (kind of like cliffs or canyons along the coast). Take a boat out in the Parc National des Calanques and thank us later - although at peak times you will have to book in advance.

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14. Calvados, northern France

As anyone from Normandy will tell you, the coastal town of Honfleur is one of the best half-day trips you'll take all year. It's been extremely popular with artists down the years, and you will understand why once you have seen its beautiful harbour.

Panoramic view of the harbour at Honfleur. Photo by DIDIER PALLAGES / AFP

15. Cantal, central France

You can't really go wrong in Cantal, but we recommend the view from the top of the Puy Mary summit. Bring some of the local Cantal cheese with you for the hike to enjoy on top.

16. Charente, western France

Charente's most famous product is cognac, and while you're in this part of the world, you have to have a little tipple. The town of Cognac contains several distilleries that offer tours and (importantly) tastings, probably the best known is Remy Martin. 

17. Charente-Maritime, western France

It has to be the Fort Boyard just off the coastline between the Île-d'Aix and the Île d'Oléron. This is the place that inspired the TV show of the same name. Building started over 200 years ago, and it's loaded with history that stretches well beyond its more recent fame as a TV show.

Fort Boyard off the western coast of France, near La Rochelle. Photo by XAVIER LEOTY / AFP

18. Cher, central France

Get your Scottish vibe going at the Chateau des Stuarts in Aubigny-sur-Nère, "France's Scottish town". Its unusual heritage can be traced to John Stewart of Darnley, a Stuart who came to France in 1419 to fight for Charles VII. 

SEE ALSO: Nine must-see chateaux you've not heard about

19. Corrèze, central France

Ever heard of the Vézère Valley? It's home to hundreds of other remarkable prehistoric ruins. Plenty of caves and historical sites along the way, providing a glimpse into long extinct civilisations that have been difficult for researchers to comprehend. The valley became a world heritage site in 1979.

SEE ALSO: Ten World Heritage sites in France you won't have heard of

2A. Corse-du-Sud, Corsica

The clifftop village of Bonifacio is an absolute must, right on the southern tip of the island. Enjoy the view, then take the 187 steps down to the sea. Just make sure you leave enough energy to get back up again . . .

2B. Haute-Corse, Corsica

Corsica is one of France's most popular holiday spots with the French themselves, and one of the reasons for that is its beautiful beaches. Head to Plage de Palombaggia in Porto-Vecchio, ranked as the second best beach in France.

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21. Côte-d'Or, central France

The charming town of Beaune has original features from the pre-Roman era as well as the medieval and Renaissance periods, making it a fascinating place to wander around for anyone who hasn't over-indulged on the local Burgundy wine.

22. Côtes d'Armor, western France

The village of Ploumanac'h was ranked as the best village in the entire country in 2015. The isolated coastal village, which is affectionately called Ploum by the locals, can count strange rock formations as a major draw card. 
The lighthouse at Ploumanac'h, Perros-Guirec, in Britanny's Pink Granite Coast. Photo by LOIC VENANCE / AFP

23. Creuse, central France

Ever wanted to hang out with wolves? Why not try the Wolves of Gueret experience, where you can see wolves in their almost natural environment. It's the top rated thing to do in Creuse on TripAdvisor. 

24. Dordogne, western France

Head along to the life-size replica of the Lascaux cave paintings, which was a mammoth three-year artist effort to create a true-to-life replica of renowned Stone Age cave paintings long hidden away in southwestern France. The original paintings are not open to the public, but are just down the road. 

25. Doubs, eastern France

The Citadel of Besançon is renowned for being a masterpiece of military architecture, and even Julius Caesar took note (yes, well over 2,000 years ago). Get to the top and admire the structure - and the views. 

26. Drôme, south eastern France

Head to Cheval's Palais Idéal, an odd attraction indeed. The story goes that postman Ferdinand Cheval tripped over a stone in 1879 and then dreamed of his "ideal palace". He spent the next 33 years building it with stones he collected on his journeys. 

Palais idéal du facteur Cheval, built between 1879 and 1912 attracts 130,000 visitors a year
Photo by GERARD MALIE / AFP

27. Eure, northern France

You simply cannot miss Giverny, where Claude Monet used to live. Monet himself regarded the gardens that he created as the true artwork, with his paintings of them - including the famous Waterlilies series - merely a record of his work.

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28. Eure-et-Loir, central France

Some say the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Chartres is even better than the tourist-overloaded one in the capital. Yes, the Chartres Cathedral is often cited as one of the best examples of French Gothic architecture, and is a Unesco World Heritage Site to boot (plus it's open, while Notre Dame in Paris will be closed until at least the end of 2024 for restoration after the devastating fire of 2019).

29. Finistère, western France

Take in the breath-taking granite rocks in Ushant, or "Ouessant" as the island is known in French. Stop in at the Creac'h lighthouse, which is said to be the most powerful on earth. 

30. Gard, southern France

Hands down, you have to see the Pont du Gard. This fascinating bridge was built during Roman times to allow the Nimes aqueduct to cross the Gard River. Unesco calls it a "technical as well as an artistic masterpiece" - and it's not hard to see why. 
 
Pont du Gard, a Roman aqueduct bridge part of the UNESCO's list of World Heritage Site, in Vers-Pont-du-Gard southern France. Photo by Sylvain THOMAS / AFP

31. Haute-Garonne, southern France

Take a stroll around the old town in the city of Toulouse, which earned its name of La Ville Rose because of the pinkish brick used in construction. Once you've seen the sights, enjoy the lively nightlife or take in a rugby game at the home ground of French rugby powerhouse Stade Toulousain. 

32. Gers, south western France

Condom's Cathedral is a spectacular example of Gothic architecture and you get to take a picture next to the road sign Condom, which is a must for anyone with a childish sense of humour (which includes us at The Local).

33. Gironde, western France

It comes at no surprise that the Port de la Lune, the port city in Bordeaux is a Unesco World Heritage Site after you witness its incredible architecture, although Bordeaux's wine museum Cité du Vin runs a close second.

34. Hérault, southern France

The awe-inspiring Abbaye de Valmagne fuels two great French passions: wine and architecture. Built in the 12th century, it was inhabited first by Benedictine monks who cultivated vines on the estate. Never has wine tasting been so good. 

35. Ille-et-Vilaine, western France

The capital is Rennes, which was incidentally ranked by The Local as the best city in France to live for foreigners, and we recommend you check out this picturesque old town.

36. Indre, central France

Time for a museum - head to the home of writer George Sand in Nohant (whose real name was Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin - yes, George Sand was a woman). Her charming home and breathtaking gardens will make you want to pick up a pen and write a book of your own. 

37. Indre-et-Loire, central France

The Chateau de Chenonceau, near the small village of Chenonceau spanning  the River Cher, is 500 years old a real pearl of the Loire Valley. It's a heritage listed site and protected by France's Ministry of Culture. If châteaux are your thing, this late Gothic and early Renaissance castle is for you. 

Chenonceau chateau. Photo by GUILLAUME SOUVANT / AFP

38. Isère, eastern France

Another chateau, sure, but a good one. The Château de Vizille is popular among French travellers - but you'd be forgiven if you'd never heard of it. Check out the 320 acre garden and the Musée de la Révolution française inside, which focuses on the French revolution.

39. Jura, eastern France

The Parc Naturel regional du Haut-Jura is one of the best in the country for hiking or skiing, depending on the season. 

40. Landes, western France

Take a hike in the Landes forest, which is Europe's biggest forest for maritime pine. Bring a compass - it's 10,000 square kilometres in size. 

41. Loir-et-Cher, central France

Le Château de Chambord is one of the most magnificent in France. Stroll around its enormous grounds of rolling countryside or admire its twisting double stair-case.

42. Loire, central France

The charming village of Sainte-Croix-en-Jarez has been voted among the most beautiful in the country and it used to be a Carthusian monastery. Read more here

43. Haute-Loire, central France

Heard of Saint Michel d'Aiguilhe chapel? If not, welcome to one of the most mind-blowing buildings in the country - built in the year 969 on a volcanic plug, get ready for a steep climb to get up there (no, there isn't an elevator).

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44. Loire-Atlantique, western France

Stop what you're doing, grab your towel, and head to La Baule beach right now. The seaside town is a popular weekend getaway, and the beach stretches (seemingly) forever.

45. Loiret, central France

Another chateau, yes, but that's what you can expect in this incredible part of France. The Chateau de Sully is an architectural wonder.

46. Lot, south western France

The clifftop village of Rocamadour. Located in a gorge above a tributary of the River Dordogne, this entire village is an oft-overlooked gem, and marks a popular spot on pilgrimage routes. Don't forget to taste their one-of-a-kind goat's cheese while you're there.

47. Lot-et-Garonne, southwestern France

Don't miss the Bonaguil castle, which was a cutting edge fort 700 years ago and was never attacked. It was the last of France's fortified castles. 

48. Lozère, southern France

The small town of Sainte-Enimie is nestled at the top of the Gorges du Tarn and dates back to the 7th century. Expect limestone houses and cobbled streets descending in tiers from the foot of an ex-Benedictine monastery.

49. Maine-et-Loire, eastern France

The Saumur skyline. It sounds like something from Lord of the Rings and resembles Bratislava - but you're smack bang in the middle of the Loire Valley and it's incredible. Walk along the river and take it all in. 

50. Manche, northern France

A clear winner for the Manche department is the Mont-Saint-Michel island and its abbey. Just make sure you get the timing right, no point heading there at high tide (and certainly not during the supertide). 

51. Marne, northern France

The Porte Mars arch is the only arch on this list - and it's a stunner. You can find it in Reims, and it's from the 3rd Century. 

52. Haute-Marne, north eastern France

Find former French president Charles de Gaulle's old private residence in Colombey-les-Deux-Églises, then check out his very humble grave in a nearby cemetery. The tombstone reads: "Charles de Gaulle 1890-1970".

53. Mayenne, north western France

Just three hours from Paris by car, this peaceful department has two of France’s regional natural parks a short drive away: Normandie-Maine and the Perche.

So if you want to leave the capital but don’t fancy heading to the busy beaches of the south, this is a great alternative for nature lovers.

54. Meurthe-et-Moselle, eastern France 

Even if you were only passing through this department, make the effort to go into central Nancy for the Place Stanislas, a beautiful and historic square that's also a Unesco site. 

SEE ALSO: The most beautiful squares across France

55. Meuse, eastern France

Take in a reenactment of the Battle of Verdun, which was the longest battle of World War One and took place in the hills of Verdun. 

56. Morbihan, western France

The village of Rochefort-en-Terre was named as France's favourite in 2016. The geranium-clad village boasts a 13th castle and half-timbered 16th century buildings, as well as symmetrical stone built renaissance structures. 

57. Moselle, eastern France

Sure, there are a lot of cathedrals in France, but few are as dazzling as the one in Metz, which was completed in 1550. 

58. Nièvre, central France

In the small town of Villemoison you can find the residence of the Commander of the Knights Templar, plus the nearby chapel that dates from 1180. Part of it has turned into a gîte if you want to stay overnight. 

59. Nord, northern France

The 11 belfries in Nord have got the nod from Unesco because they are such fine representations of the eras in which they were built. Built from the 11th to 17th centuries they also demonstrate a shift away from walled cities and towards more open urban planning. Start with the belfry in the town of Douai.

60. Oise, northern France

Make a day trip for the Parc Astérix theme park. Sure, it may not be historically significant like many other things on this list, but it's a guaranteed hit for tourists and French people alike.

61. Orne, northern France

Head to the village of Camembert and check out the Cheese museum that is literally in the shape of a Camembert cheese. Cheesy, but delicious. 

62. Pas-de-Calais, northern France

A fan of art but want to be outside of Paris? Why not try the Louvre-Lens museum? It features a whole lot of works loaned out from the Louvre in Paris. 

63. Puy-de-Dôme, central France

Head to the city of Clermont-Ferrand, which an often-overlooked gem of a town with a lively atmosphere. Of course the main reason to go there is climb the Puy de Dôme that looks over the city.

READ ALSO 15 reasons Clermont-Ferrand is the best town in France

64. Pyrénées-Atlantiques, south eastern France

Time to head to the best beach in France - the Cote des Basques in Biarritz. It's a huge hit with surfers, or even surfer spectators, and was ranked in 2017 among the top 25 beaches in the world.

65. Hautes-Pyrénées, south western France

A dramatic amphitheatre-like valley surrounded by snow-capped peaks, the Cirque de Gavarnie valley was carved out of the Pyrenees mountains by glacial erosion and includes one of the highest waterfalls in Europe. 

66. Pyrénées-Orientales, south western France

Take a look at the Orgues de l’ille sur Tet, a striking rock formation that looks like organs from a church.

67. Bas-Rhin, eastern France

The Grande Île area is a real attraction, surrounded by two forks of the River Ill in Strasbourg, with a cathedral, four ancient churches and a palace all in one little district. 

68. Haut-Rhin, eastern France

The colourful Eguisheim village was voted France's favourite in 2013. Expect winding concentric streets, fairytale spires, lively floral decorations and slanted half-timbered buildings.

69. Rhône, central France

Head to the Old Town in Lyon and take in the gastronomic delights that put this central city on the world map for food. When you're done eating (try the praline brioche) take in the charming old town with its winding traboules.

SEE ALSO: Eight reasons to leave Paris for Lyon

70. Haute-Saône, eastern France

Bet you've not heard of the small town of Pesmes. You'll feel like you've gone back in time in this pretty little village. 

71. Saône-et-Loire, eastern France

Get up close and personal with the Roman ruins across the town of Autun, inclusing Roman ramparts, the impressive Janus Temple (pictured below), and a relatively intact theatre. 

72. Sarthe, central France

It wouldn't be fair to ignore the Le Mans Cathedral. Just seeing it from outside is enough to impress many, but take a closer look at the stained glass windows if you make it inside. 

73. Savoie, eastern France

Skiing in Val-d'Isère should be on everyone's bucket list (and don't rule out a good summer hike in the area either!).

74. Haute-Savoie, eastern France

Stroll along the waterside in delightful Annecy and take picture-postcard snaps along the way, before taking a dip in the beautiful and clear lake.

Lake Annecy. Photo by JEAN-PIERRE CLATOT / AFP

75. Paris

Where do we even begin with Paris? The advice of the locals is in fact to forget the tourist attractions like the Eiffel Tower and just take a long walk through the stunning and atmospheric city.

Ask the locals: What to see if you're visiting Paris for just one day

76. Seine-Maritime, northern France

A picturesque town on the Normandy coast, Étretat was a much-loved subject of the nineteenth-century Impressionists and is now a popular seaside getaway. The perfect starting place for windswept walks and an ice cream on the beach.

77. Seine-et-Marne, south east of Paris

The Palace of Fontainebleau and its surrounding forests are one of the best day-trips from Paris you could do.

78. Yvelines, west of Paris

OK, this was perhaps the easiest on the list. Visit the Palace of Versailles for a spectacular look at France's royal history. Simply breathtaking, and don't forget to leave time to check out the stunning gardens (including Marie Antoinette's 'hamlet'). If you're coming from Paris there is a cycle path that goes all the way to Versailles.

79. Deux-Sèvres, western France

Spend an afternoon in the small town of Niort, including a chateau and an impressive old keep. 

80. Somme, northern France

Pay your respects at one of the many military cemeteries like Thiepval, the resting place of those who lost their lives at the Battle of the Somme in World War I. But for us the best World War One site to visit is the Lochnagar crater, south of the village of La Boisselle, where the British planted underground explosives on the first day of the battle of the Somme.

81. Tarn, south western France

The small town of Cordes-sur-Ciel is magical... when the valleys below are shrouded in mist, the hilltop town of appears to be sitting upon the sky.

82. Tarn-et-Garonne, south western France

Cross the Pont Vieux in Montauban, one of the oldest bridges in the region. It's in remarkable condition considering it was built in the 1300s.

83. Var, southern France

Drift in a canoe across the turquoise waters of France’s third biggest lake, Le Lac de Sainte Croix. Surrounded by towering cliffs, the lake is well worth visiting for a weekend away. 

84. Vaucluse, southern France

Why not take a look at the Théâtre antique d'Orange - which was built in the 1st century AD by the Romans. It's been a Unesco World Heritage site since 1981.

85. Vendée, eastern France 

Check out historical theme park Puy de Fou where guests can enjoy special effects which include a Viking longboat emerging from the water to attack a reconstructed 1,000-year-old fortress. 

86. Vienne, western France

Visit the world famous healing spa waters of La Roche-Posay, a village which is also known for its charming medieval centre and medieval castle. 

87. Haute-Vienne, central France 

Include the ruins of Oradour-sur-Glane on your list of must-sees in this region. Destroyed in 1944 by the Nazis, the original village has been maintained as a permanent memorial and museum. 

Hear the team from The Local talk about a visit to Oradour-sur-Glane in the Talking France podcast. Download here or listen on the link below

 

88. Vosges, eastern France

Follow in the footsteps of Joan of Arc and pay homage to France's heroine in her birthplace, the stunning village of Domremy-la-Pucelle, where visitors can even visit the house where she was born.  

89. Yonne, central France 

Don't miss out on Morvan Regional Natural Park, a protected area of woodlands, lakes and traditional farmland in the Burgundy region.   

90. Territoire-de-Belfort, eastern France 

Be sure not to miss the Lac de Malsaucy where lovers of the outdoors can enjoy watersports, footpaths and mountain biking, or take advantage of the beach. 

91. Essonne, south of Paris 

Visit the stunning Russian Orthodox cemetery in Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois, the burial place of the White Russians who arrived in Paris after the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. Vladimir Putin once visited, but don't let that put you off.

92. Hauts-de-Seine, west of Paris

See how the other half lived at the Chateau de Malmaison, where you can visit the boudoir of Empress Josephine in the home she shared with Napoleon Bonaparte.

93. Seine-Saint-Denis, north east of Paris

Don't miss out on the world's largest antiques and second-hand goods market. Covering seven hectares which encompass seven markets, Saint-Ouen's flea market is an institution in its own right and the ideal place to ferret out unique treasures.

94. Val-de-Marne, to the south east of Paris 

Check out the impressive Rungis farmers market, the biggest wholesale food market in the world, which dates back to the 10th century.  

95. Val-d'Oise, north of Paris 

And lastly, take a walk through the town of Auvers-sur-Oise, which was made famous by the paintbrushes of countless painters, most notably Vincent van Gogh.

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