I’ve spent at a lot of time since September travelling around France during the weekends, making the most of my year abroad and visiting some of its lesser-known destinations. Most of France is completely obscured by the bright shining light of its capital, Paris. The capital of France is one of the most popular city breaks in the world but a lot of the places that I consider my favourites in France are often not on the radar of many tourists. France is underrated in many ways… its capital makes it a mainstream destination so many hipster travellers in Europe skip it in favour of the more quirky Balkan or Baltic regions. But there’s a reason why I’m addicted to this cheese-loving, wine-obsessed European country and there are a lot of beautiful places that go unnoticed. So, without further ado, here are my favourite off the beaten track spots in France:
Off the beaten track Destinations in France:
Most lists online of the best natural wonders in France don’t usually miss out the beautiful Annecy (and I’ve read most of them). Anyone who has travelled extensively in France probably won’t think of Annecy as a off the beaten track destination, but a lot of people I’ve spoken to have never heard of it, and they should! Its centre point is Lac d’Annecy, a bright blue gem of a lake set against a backdrop of pristine mountains. However, the town of Annecy is just as enchanting, with canals running through in a maze, pastel coloured houses, flower boxes, a central marketplace under a canopy of arches and a church floating on a river amongst it all, I was in absolute –perfectly conserved- medieval heaven. Annecy is the perfect destination for a day-trip or even a weekend getaway and I beg anyone about to embark on a European road-trip to circle this place on your map right away in bright red sharpie. It has grassy banks to sunbathe on, a crisp alpine lake to swim in, kayaks and canoes to rent, paths running all around the lake, a picture perfect town boasting a plethora of French restaurants, patisseries, boulangeries. Just please go to Annecy before I have to begin yet another list about its wonders.
Before this year, I had only heard of Dijon as a type of mustard and it certainly wasn’t a destination on my bucketlist. I can’t remember what compelled me to visit Dijon other than desperation to get away for the weekend and its proximity to Lyon. We visited Dijon in the first weekend of December and it was the perfect off the beaten track destination for getting in the festive spirit. In order to best explore Dijon, I recommend you download La Chouette app from the app store for the small price of £1.90. The app takes you round Dijon in a loop of 22 steps, taking you to all the best monuments and architecture whilst detailing their history. We absolutely loved this app as it took us down alleyways we would have never glanced at and told us interesting little facts along the way. Dijon is a haven for medieval architecture bods like me; there are winding cobblestone streets flanked with colourful timbered houses (I love timbered houses) with tall red and orange chimneys. The Cathédrale Sainte-Benigne is magnificent and the lines of intricate Gargoyles that stare down at you are slightly intimidating in their impressive details. Les Halles Market in the centre of Dijon is a must visit to feel like you’re fully embracing French culture. The French love their food markets and this one, designed by Gustave Eiffel is really the epitome of them all. The colours and smells that surround you as you wander through the stalls are enchanting and you have to exercise a lot of self-control not to buy all the tonnes of cheese on offer (if you’re anything like me). The Place de la Liberation is another tour-de-force of architecture, next to which you can take in the views of the city from Tour Phillipe le Bon. If you visit Dijon in winter, try to go during December in order to make the most of the adorable floating cloud decor and Christmas Market that fills up the whole square with beautiful festive sounds and smells. If you’d rather go in summer, don’t miss a day-trip out to the Beaune vineyards a short bus ride away. Pathways through the vineyards are open to the public to take a ramble in and I’ll definitely be returning when the weather perks up to take a relaxing vineyard stroll.
Grenoble is a place that I always knew of but never knew much about. I was surprised to find that it was in the same region of Lyon, though much further East and closer to the Alps and when our friend invited us to stay for a weekend I was intrigued to find out more about this little town. The best thing about Grenoble hands-down is the mountains. Flanked by mountains on each and every side, being in Grenoble –which itself is extremely flat- feels like being in a crystal, snow-tipped bowl. The architecture in the centre of the town also enchanted me with its open squares, large fountains, narrow winding streets and pastel blue and yellow Renaissance buildings. We spent one day wandering the streets, trying out the pizza and riding up the cable car to watch the sun set over Grenoble high up from Fort de la Bastille. Seeing Grenoble at dusk from the Bastille is a must, with deep sapphire skies, silhouettes of the Alps towering over the town and the web of twinkling orange lights as the streetlights illuminate the growing purple darkness. On my last day in Grenoble whilst my friends slept off their hangover –they assure me the nightlife is also good there- I took myself off to explore one of Grenoble’s nearby national parks and I was left spoilt for choice. Les Chartreuse lies North, Les Écrins, south and Les Vercors, West; Grenoble is quite rightly called the Porte des Alpes, its well and truly a hiker’s paradise. I decided to take a walk in Les Chartreuse as this park is adjoining the Bastille, which I walked up to this time. My autumn solo walk in the hills and mountains of Grenoble is still one of my fondest memories from 2016 and I recommend to anyone to stop by and see what the town and its natural veranda has to offer.
Puy de Dome
This point also includes Clermont-Ferrand, the town of access into Puy de Dome and a charming one at that. I planned for the three of us to visit Clermont-Ferrand chiefly in order to hike Puy de Dome but was actually pleasantly surprised at how pretty the actual town was, with extremely unique and quaint architecture. Although we didn’t get to see the cathedral close up we did take a few peeks at it from afar and it was quite a mesmerising spectacle, gothic in every aspect, harsh, intimidating and completely, curiously black, like it had been charred on a barbecue.
On our first night in Clermont-Ferrand, our Couchsurfing host and his friends quite randomly took us along to an abandoned abattoir (he was interested in turning the space into an events venue) and it was quite the experience although I can’t really recommend it as a recreational activity.
Then, they took us to a cosy jazz bar, which had live music playing, cheap drinks, original art on the walls and a warm living-room ambiance (which I could recommend as a recreational activity if I could remember its name). After an interesting and thoroughly entertaining night that included one of the best take-outs I’d had in France –curry in a naan wrap with cheese, yes please- we woke up the next day and were taken by one of our hosts to Puy de Dome, what we’d originally come for.
Puy de Dome is a dormant volcano that last erupted in 5760 BC on the central massif. It’s absolutely stunning and quite bizarre to see in person, a large grassy lump that has seemingly just arisen from the ground like a molehill. The hike up the volcano started with an hour-long leisurely stroll around its base that was pleasant and delightful amongst the deep red autumnal colours and the sweet smell of damp soil and leaves. Then, we reached the actual starting point. The incline of the volcano was so intense at points it felt like we were trying to pull ourselves up a vertical wall. Our jumpers, hats and scarves came flying off as our relaxing autumnal walk turned into a sweaty workout. Stopping at each viewpoint became a regular reward system, as out of breath and clammy, we looked over the panorama of immaculate pine forests. At the top of Puy de Dome, there’s a little café and we ordered a large pot of tea and overlooked paragliders floating over the vista. Afterwards, we walked around the top and observed the old ruins of Temple de Mercure, from the Gallo-Roman. From the other side of the dome you can see the belt of dormant volcanoes unravelled before you, and endless horizon of grassy molehills with large craters in the top. It’s quite a surreal sight. This is the absolute quintessential off the beaten track destination for Autumn.
Calanques National Park
Calanques National Park is quite possibly one of my new favourite places in the world and I’m absolutely astounded that I’d never even heard of it before this year. I came across it whilst I was perusing Google maps for a town that had a nearby national park where we could hike. The original plan was to stay in Provence and take the train to Verdon National Park. However, when I zoomed out and saw that Marseille was right next to a great green expanse, I was intrigued and looked into it. The pictures of Les Calanques online had me watering at the mouth. We stayed in Marseille as our base and as it was our first experience Couchsurfing, we were a little apprehensive. However, there was nothing to worry about as our host was lovely and accommodating, left us to ourselves –had a cat!- and the city of Marseille was surprisingly charming. I’d always heard rumours about Marseille being a little bit grim and crime-ridden but we were lucky enough to have found ourselves staying in the old town. Every wall, window, fissure and crevice of the old town of Marseille is saturated with art and I loved it. Plants bordered the streets; paintings brightened the walls; statues and canvases were round each and every corner. The bicycles seemed tastefully placed against the houses and pure white sheets hung from the balconies like they were part of the mise en scene. We were minutes away from the port, where lines of boats were huddled together in the twinkling water and high on a hill in the distance, the Cathédrale Sainte-Marie-Majeure stood proudly guarding the city, noble and painted white. As the South Coast of France always seems stuck in a permanent state of sunniness, our weekend was hot and bright. We spent our first morning eating pancakes by the edge of the port and then got the short train journey to Cassis, where we decided to begin our hike. Cassis was even more enchanting than Marseille, encircled by vineyards, boasting a colourful, intimate port and a beach with yellow sands and large cliffs standing by. If we hadn’t been set on exploring Les Calanques I could have easily spent the day exploring the little town and sunbathing on its sands.
The entrance to the national park is only a five-minute walk West from the town, when civilisation seemingly dwindles away and you step into the threshold of rugged, Jurassic precipices and dusty tracks. Les Calanques means ‘creeks’ in French so the national park is a showcase of all the deep narrow creeks that cut into the cliffs from the sea. We hiked from Cassis to the third creek, past Calanque de Port-Miou, Calanque de Port-Pin to Calanque d’en Vau and then back again. Each calanque has a completely different personality and the trails between them lead past deep green craggy valleys on your right and views over the deep blue Mediterranean to the left. The whole way there were little red arrows on the rocks showing us which way to go as there wasn’t any proper paths, just footprints amongst rocks. Calanque d’en Vau was my favourite; it the most narrow, winding into the rocky landscape and culminating upon a sandy beach tucked away deep into the cliff, a mile down from where we stood at the top. From high up where we were, we could see tiny little stick people wandering around the bay and wondered how they’d got down there. There must be a way to climb down but I imagine it would be quite tricky. As we hadn’t thought to bring any food or water with us, we ended our hike there for the day and made our way back the way we came. I’ve already decided to come back and hike the whole length of the Calanques, from Cassis to Marseille, as the park stretches the distance between them. There are no words really to summarise the beauty of Les Calanques, you just have to see it for yourselves.
I hope you enjoyed reading my list of off the beaten track destinations in France and add a couple to your bucketlist for the next time you visit Central Europe. There’s still so many underrated destinations in France that I’m eager to visit, like the obscure village of Eze, which makes a wonderful day trip from Nice, and the charming city of Strasbourg, where there’s so much to see and do. in Let me know in the comments: what destination caught your eye the most?
Read more: To explore France’s neighbour Italy and its off the beaten track destinations, check out Justine’s guide!
Please give this post a share or a pin if you liked it to make me day!