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19 alternative places to visit in France to avoid the crowds

Genevieve Mansfield
Genevieve Mansfield - [email protected]
19 alternative places to visit in France to avoid the crowds
Hunspach, a village in Alsace, was voted the best village in France by the French TV show called "Le Village Prefere des Français" (France's favorite village). (Photo by PATRICK HERTZOG / AFP)

France routinely ranks at the top of the world's most visited tourist destination - but the vast majority of people visit the same few sites. Here are our suggestions for some different places to visit.

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Of the millions of people who visit France, 80 percent of them visit sites within just 20 percent of the country; largely Paris, the Riviera and certain well-known Alpine towns.

Now many of the best-known places are putting in limits on daily visitor numbers, while the government launches a plan to deal with 'over-tourism' and try to distribute their visitors a little more evenly.

READ MORE: France launches plan to tackle 'over-tourism' in visitor hotspots

Here are our suggestions for places to visit that might have fewer crowds. Some of these sites are well-known in France but often missed by foreign visitors, while others are a little more off the beaten track.

Underrated towns and villages

Castres - Located in the Tarn département in Occitanie, this small town sits along the Agout river and is best-known for its picturesque town centre with the multi-coloured Medieval houses along the river.

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The quintessential small French town, it also houses several fascinating small museums, like the Goya museum - dedicated to Spanish artists - and the museum of Jean Jaurès - the Castres-born giant of the French political left, assassinated because of his opposition to World War I.

Albi - Also found in the Occitanie region, Albi is a UNESCO world heritage site thanks to its extremely unusual Cathedral (which also has a fascinating backstory involving a bishop blackmailing his parishioners into donating to his building fund).

The birthplace of the painter Henri Toulouse-Lautrec it hosts a superb museum dedicated to his work, while the nearby village of Lautrec holds an annual festival dedicated to its famous pink garlic. 

Vannes - A small-to-medium sized city, Vannes is nestled along the Gulf of Morbihan in southern Brittany in the west of France. The city itself is a port, home to medieval ramparts and cobblestone streets, as well as popular festivals throughout the year - like the Breton cultural festival "Le Festival d’Arvor" or its well-known jazz festival which takes place each summer.

It is accessible by direct, high-speed TGV train from Paris, and it is also well-connected to many of the small islands found in the Gulf, as well as off the coast of Brittany - like Groix. If you have access to a vehicle, Vannes is also just a short 30-40 minute drive from the famous prehistoric site of Carnac, home to thousands of ancient standing stones.

Balazuc - This small medieval village, home to just a few hundred inhabitants, in Ardèche sits on a clifftop overlooking the river, and has made several lists for 'best villages' in France.

The village is home to two popular historic sites - its feudal castle and Romanesque church of St. Magdalen. You can get the best view of the town by crossing the bridge to see the village from a distance. Other than exploring the old alleyways, those looking to get into nature can also enjoy canoeing in the river just below.

Cordes-sur-ciel - the town gets its name 'Cordes in the sky' because of a meteorological phenomenon that occurs on autumn mornings, when fog hangs over the valley floor and the town appears to 'float' over the clouds. Even if you miss this special sight which has inspired numerous artists, the 800-year-old hilltop town is well worth a visit. It's also known for its outdoor market and museum of Sugar and Chocolate, where you can see hundreds of pieces of art made entirely of sugar.

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Hunspach - Voted the 'favourite village of the French' in 2020, Hunspach is located in Alsace, in the Bas-Rhin area. Its architecture consists of traditional, half-timbered 18th and 19th century farm houses. It is not far from the Vosges Regional Park. which is a great place to go hiking or simply enjoy some of France's most beautiful forests.  

Auxerre - Well known to football fans as the place of Eric Cantona's professional debut, the town also has a lot to offer those with no interest in the sport. Situated in Burgundy wine country it's ideal as a base for vineyard tours, while the town itself offers medieval architecture, renowned Burgundian cuisine and a walking trail based on a popular children's song. 

Nature and the countryside

The Pyrenees mountains - Instead of heading to the Alps during peak seasons, consider alternative ski locations in the Pyrenees or even the micro state of Andorra.

During the summer, you can also enjoy hiking and plenty of sports, like rafting along the Garonne river. If you head to the Ariège area, then you can visit up to six caves with prehistoric artwork still intact. Unlike other ancient caves in France, the ones near Ariège still allow visitors.

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READ MORE: Six prehistoric sites in France to visit

The Jura mountains - Located along the border with Switzerland, the Jura are one of the seven main mountain regions in France. These mountains will give you a break from the crowds, with green rolling hills, waterfalls, plenty of forest and of course lakes, like the Lac de Chalain.

If you don't know where to start in the Jura, you might consider the village of Château-Chalon, which was listed on the 'most beautiful villages of France' list in 2022. The village, known for producing the unique 'Vin Jaune' (yellow wine), sits above vineyards.

Ancient volcanoes in Auvergne - You may not think of France as the land of volcanoes, but between Clermont-Ferrand and Valence, there are hundreds of them, though they are no longer active. The youngest are part of the Chaine des Puys - a set of 80 ancient volcanoes. You can start your trip by visiting the 'Parc naturel régional des Volcans d'Auvergne' or you might consider staying overnight at the town Le Puy. This town is known as the gateway to the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage trail, and it is home to the chapel of St-Michel d’Aiguilhe which is perched on volcanic rock and dates back to the 10th century.

10 reasons to visit Auvergne

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Beaches in north-west France - The beaches along the Mediterranean are beautiful but often packed. But if you head to Normandy, there are plenty of sandy beaches worth considering. While Deauville is the best known, the town of Honfleur is known for its beauty and is also accessible from Paris. It is also home to the Plage du Butin, a blue flag beach - meaning it has achieved high marks for maintaining an environmentally friendly space. It is also the location where a historical society intends to rebuild William the Conqueror's flagship. 

Camping and hiking in Burgundy - Halfway between Paris and Lyon, you can find the national park of Morvan in Burgundy. With plenty of lakes, hiking trails, and camp sites, the forest was one of the first in France to achieve 'regional natural park' status. For those looking to enjoy regional wines while taking on some physical activity, there are plenty of cycling paths along the Nivernais canal that pass through vineyards. You might also consider the Voie des vignes, a 12 km stretch taking off from Beaune. 

Morvan: Why you should visit one of France's least known natural parks

Not far from Paris

Gerberoy - For those planning a trip to Paris, there are several small villages and towns in the nearby area that are quaint, beautiful and worth your time. One of these is Gerberoy, located in the Oise département. One of the "most beautiful villages of France" Gerberoy has charming old homes, and plenty of history in its own right, having stood at the border of the ancient kingdoms of France and England between the 11th to 15th centuries. 

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Barbizon - While you may have heard of Giverny, Barbizon is another village near to Paris that inspired a lot of artwork. Not far from the Fontainebleau forest, this village inspired the pre-impressionist school of painters, the Barbizons, which include Théodore Rousseau and Jean-François Millet. It was also once home to Leon Trotsky. The town is home to a Museum of Painters of Barbizon, and it is also possible to visit the home and former workship of Rousseau. 

Provins - The medieval town of Provins is a Unesco world heritage site with beautifully preserved medieval architecture and 11th century city walls. If you happen to visit during the month of June, you can also enjoy their famous Medieval Festival. The town is also home to a network of underground tunnels featuring centuries-old inscriptions on the walls.

 

10 of the best day trips out of Paris

Hot spots to visit off-season

if you have your heart set on a popular French tourist site, think about visiting out of the high season when it will likely be quieter and have something different to offer. 

Mont Saint-Michel - The 1,000 year old abbey is a popular spot for a reason - the tidal island appears to float over the sea at high tide and boasts a long, important role throughout French history. Each year, it attracts almost three million visitors.

READ MORE: 5 things to know about France's Mont Saint-Michel

While visiting the island during the summer may involve hordes of people attempting to take the very same photograph, the location is much more calm during the off-season - spring and autumn are ideal times to visit.

The Calanques - These rock formations peak out over the Mediterranean and are easily accessible by bus or car from Marseille. They're so popular that the Sugiton Calanque has even introduced a quota system to limit the number of visitors per day in order to better protect the natural environment. However, this quota goes into effect during the peak season - meaning at the start of July. The south of France tends to start warming up toward the end of spring, so you can still enjoy the sunlight (and maybe even take a swim) in May and early June, though with smaller crowds, while September and even October still have warm, sunny days.

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The Alps - Winter might seem like the best time to visit the Alps, but due to climate change, ski resorts and alpine towns are adapting and offering more activities during the summer. If you visit the Valmorel resort, for instance, you can do anything from relaxing in the spa and swimming in the nearby lakes with sandy beaches and pools to paragliding, hiking, and mountain biking - or take your kids to enjoy a treetop climbing adventure or a zip line. You can even try to get to some Alpine areas without a car, relying solely on France's impressive train network.

READ MORE: Vineyards, mountains and islands - how to plan a car-free trip to France

Carcassonne - The Medieval cité is likely to be crowded during the summer, due to its UNESCO status, but in the winter it's much calmer. Frosty or foggy mornings lend a totally different atmosphere to its narrow streets and imposing castle and you'll also be able to take your time at the town's notoriously gory museum of torture.

And Paris . . .

The French capital is far and away the country's most popular tourist location, yet it's much better out of season. In the summer not only are the most popular tourist spots very crowded, but it can get too hot to comfortably sight-see.

Instead come in spring (April in Paris, remember?) or autumn, see all the sights you want at a comfortable temperature and without too many queues. And if it rains you can sample one of the city's many excellent cafés. 

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Gina J 2023/06/28 15:13
The first time we ever visited Paris it was in early September, after the schools go back and the August holiday has finished. It was warm, comfortable, less expensive and people were pleased to see us. We went at most other times of the year, wrap up warm for December January (Millennium - we froze but loved seeing the Eiffel go up n a blaze of light. August was not as good as other months and was very hot. April can be cold and wet.) Just enjoy what you have.

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