Paris, Bordeaux, Brittany, Nice—they’re all on our wish list. But while France’s main tourist attractions are always worthy of your time, if you’re seeking something of a more authentic, je ne sais quoi Frenchy AF vibe (aka where you’ll be forced to practice your Francais), consider wandering into one of these smaller towns or cities—which you’ve probably never heard of—each with their own distinct charm and one-of-a-kind photo opps.
SAINT-PAUL DE VENCE
Explore the tiny, windy streets of this dreamy, fortified medieval village that sits on top of a hill. Turn a corner and suddenly you’re witness to incredible views of a countryside dotted with vineyards and olive trees. Storied for its art scene (Picasso, Matisse and Chagall all hung out here), it still remains a great place for art, whether you’re looking to buy from a local artist or just see some at one of the village’s contemporary galleries and museums. As you check out the pedestrian-only zone, you’ll make your way past its main gate and ramparts, cute boutique and artisan shops and small squares filled with adorable churches and water fountains—no, you haven’t magically stepped into a painting; it just feels like that.
A two- to three-hour drive from Paris, the Loire Valley region is home to castles and grand châteaux galore from a time when it was *the* place to hang your hat during the French Renaissance. Today, in the town of Amboise, you can gawk at the lavish Colombage architecture—buildings made of exposed timber beams—and visit the masterfully restored nearby castle of Chenonceau. The impressive residence and its galleries are built as a bridge directly over the River Cher (swoon). Nearby is Chambord, the former hunting lodge of Francis I that later turned into one of Louis XIV’s many digs and has a double spiral staircase (basically, two intertwined staircases that never meet) that’s rumored to have been designed by Leonardo da Vinci.
This small city where Van Gogh once lived was of great significance during the Roman period, which is why you’ll find a Colosseum-like Arena at the center of town—minus the crazy lines you’d find in Rome. Stay at the Grand Hotel Nord-Pinus, where many of the rooms have romantic French doors that open onto small balconies overlooking the Place du Forum, a picture-perfect square jam-packed with locals dining al fresco. Sit in the square for an aperitif, peruse the artisanal offerings of street vendors and soak up the French life in one of the South of France’s more casual and less-visited towns. (Bonus: It’s about a one hour drive from both Aix-en-Provence and Avignon.)
The canal and cobblestone streets might just make you think you’re in a real life version of Belle’s “little town” from Beauty & the Beast…and actually you’d be kinda right! Belle’s village is based on the nearby smaller towns of Riquewihr and Ribeauvillé, quick drives away and certainly worth exploring as well. But trust us: You will want a fair amount of time in Colmar, too. After all, you are in the heart of Alsace wine country. (Oenophiles, start your engines.) Plus, because of its promixity to Germany, this northeastern town offers a unique blend of cultures, especially when it comes to food. Think: baeckoeffe (a hearty casserole), Choucroute garnie (Alsace sauerkraut), tarte flambée (basically Alsatian pizza) and pretzels galore.
Known as one of the more luxe, Hamptons-like villages in the South of France, Gordes is a sleepier, tranquil commune. It’s also here that you’ll find one of Provence’s most covetable hotels—La Bastide de Gordes. Positioned directly over the dazzling Luberon Valley, the views from your room will be rivaled only by the Instagram thirst trap that is the pool area. Think: three fountains quietly spilling into a lap pool surrounded by cypress trees and plush lounge chairs. Yep, it’s pretty much the definition of serenity. The nearby Sénanque Abbey is famous for its lavender fields, and the 14th-century castle at the center of town should not be missed, nor should the crême brûlée at Le Loup Blanc, a restaurant with a large outdoor patio tucked into an alleyway. It’s what Provençal vacay dreams are made of.