All around the coast of France, islands large and small dot the coasts of the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, and they offer a lot of variety when it comes to landscape. Some are rocky with steep cliffs punctuated by lighthouses, while others consist of salty marshes and sleepy fishing villages. Some have long stretches of sandy beaches and others have stretches of vineyards that produce fine wine. Some were once used as offshore prisons, and some are now used to farm potatoes. Each island's unique history and personality await the curious visitor.
Corsica is France's largest island, and its location right in the center of Mediterranean's major western trade routes has made it a very interesting place historically. It's been under the rule of many different civilizations from the indigenous Corsicans to Ancient Rome and the Kingdom of Tuscany. The island was purchased by France from Geona in 1768, but the Italian influence can still be seen in the architecture all over the island.
The landscape on Corsica is varied with half-moon bays and mountainous forests like Cap Corse, which was once cut off from the rest of the island until Napoleon built a road around it.
To reach Corsica, you can take the ferry from France and arrive in Bastia, the capital of the north and main Geonese city. From here, you can get to the northern Cap Corse harbors, fishing villages, and sandy beaches or drive into the Nebbio region where the fertile soil produces chestnuts, honey, and good wines. Sandy beaches line the west coast down to Ajaccio, Napoleon’s birthplace and the island’s capital. At Filitosa, you'll find wonder in the pre-historic carved stone faces that date back to Corsica's Bronze Age.
When in Corsica, make sure not to miss the beautiful beach of Saleccia or the UNESCO Heritage Site of Calanches de Piana, where bright orange and pink rocks snake down to the sea.
Islands Near Normandy
The islands off the Normandy coastline begin just north of the D-Day Landing Beaches in the Baie de la Seine and just off the Cotentin Peninsula.
Île de Terre: Near Saint-Marcouf on the east coast of the peninsula, you’ll find the two small, uninhabited islands of Île de Terre, which is an ornithological reserve, and Île du Large, which is dominated by a 19th-century military fort but is inaccessible to the public.
Tatihou: A little further north, Tatihou is a popular island ideal for bird watchers. The shipyard specializes in the repair of traditional boats, and the summer festival combines world music and organized walks around the island.
Chausey: From Granville, a city best known for the Christian Dior Museum, you can travel to Chausey, an archipelago of tiny islands famous for their white sandy beaches.
Mont Saint-Michel: Now connected by bridge to the mainland, the Mont Saint-Michel Abbey sits on a rocky outcrop just off the coast of Normandy between two charming seaside towns.
Islands Near Brittany
Brittany has an extraordinary coastline and looking out to the Atlantic, the islands stand proud against the often raging sea.
Île de Bréhat: A 10-minute boat ride from L'Arcouest will take you to Île de Bréhat. This island is totally free of cars, but you can rent a bike to get around and explore the wild coasts, old mills, and even a glassblowing studio.
Sept Îles: Go west to find Sept Îles, a collection of seven small islets. These islands are home to birds like puffins and even a rare species of gannet. Bird-watchers can appreciate the aviary scene with a boat trip around the islands.
Île de Batz: It’s a 15-minute boat ride from Roscoff to the traffic-free Île de Batz. Here, you'll find beaches, fisherman, and fresh produce grown by local farmers. You can also visit the George Delaselle Garden, which has a collection of over 2,000 plant species from all over the world.
Belle-Île: Explore further west, into the gentle countryside of Brittany, and you'll find 42 small islands with long sandy beaches of the coast of Quiberon. Belle-Île is the most popular with tourists and famous for its annual opera festival.
Islands Near Nouvelle-Aquitane
Near Nouvelle-Aquitaine, a region formerly known as Poitou-Charentes, three small islands lie just off the Atlantic coast near the city of La Rochelle. Plus, a much larger one even further north that can also be reached from La Rochelle.
Île d’Yeu: It is still a big tuna fishing island with fishermen’s cottages, long walks, and dramatic views out over the ocean. It is sometimes referred to as the Corsica of the Atlantic.
Île de Ré: At the main port of this fashionable island, you'll find chic homes, high-quality hotel spas, and many good restaurants. Although the main port is relatively busy, the rest of the island is rural with salt marshes, vineyards, and plenty of room to delight in nature.
Île d'Aix: On this small island, you can discover a small slice of Napoleonic history. It's here where Napoleon spent his last three nights on French soil before being exiled to Elba.
Île d’Oléron: After Corsica, this is France's second largest island. With plenty of natural space, this is the perfect spot for a camping or cycling trip and there is a seafood market at La Cotinière.
Islands in the Mediterranean
All along the Mediterranean coast of France, you'll find warm climates and many glamorous islands worth exploring.
Îles d’Hyères: These three islands near the town of Hyères, named Porquerolles, Port-Cros, and Le Levant, are a group of unspoiled gems located in a charming harbor. On Porquerolles, you'll find empty beaches and rugged cliffs, while on Port-Cros, you'll find a national park and a lush forest. Le Levant is mostly controlled by the army, but certain sections are open to the public. In 1932, the city of Heliopolis was established as a naturist reserve and the city mostly attracts the clothing-optional crowd.
Chateau d’If and Îles de Frioule: Near Marseille, the little island of Chateau d'If is best known as the prison for Alexandre Dumas’ Count of Monte Cristo. It's a grim little rock, but worth a short visit if you're a fan of the book. Nearby, the Isles de Frioule are still pretty rocky, but there's plenty to see from old forts to shimmering blue waters.
Îles de Lérins: An archipelago just off the glitzy coast of Cannes, these islands can also claim some Dumas fame. The bigger island of Sainte Marguerite is best known for its military history, but this was also the place where a character from Dumas' Man in the Iron Mask was incarcerated. In contrast, the next island, Saint Honorat, was settled by Cistercians, an order of Catholic nuns. The restaurants have a good reputation and there is accommodation available if you wish to stay overnight.
French Islands Overseas
Overseas, French territories add up to a landmass almost as big as France and are home to a population of over 2 million people. The majority consist of islands that exist in all regions of the world.
South America: French Guiana is the largest French overseas territory.
Caribbean French West Indies: French-owned islands in the Caribbean include Martinique, Guadeloupe, Saint Barthélemy, the Windward Islands and Saint Martin.
Indian Ocean: In the Indian Ocean, France has a claim to Réunion, Île Amsterdam, Comoros Islands, and the Scattered Islands
Pacific Ocean: In French Polynesia, there are 118 islands of five archipelagos, including the Society Islands, which include Tahiti and Bora Bora; the Marquesas Islands; the Tuamotu Archipelago; the Gambier Islands; and the Tubuai Islands. East of Australia, New Caledonia is made up of Île Grande Terre, the Loyalty Islands, the Belep Islands, and the Isle des Pins, as well as a handful of uninhabited areas such as the Chesterfield Islands.
Antarctica and the Southern Ocean: In Antarctica, the French claim many islands, including Saint Pierre, Miquelon, the Crozet Islands, Île Saint-Paul, and the Kerguelen archipelago.