Top French cities to Visit: Start with Aix-en-Provence
Aix-en-Provence is one of the most attractive cities in Provence. It has everything you expect from a southern France city: a delightful old town quarter centered around the tree-lined Cours Mirabeau; a tapestry museum in the former bishop’s palace with historic and contemporary tapestries, plus other museums from the Musée Granet in a 17th-century priory to the startling modern Fondation Vasarély which shows some of his visionary architectural ideas, and massive abstract art. And when you want something different, Aix is full of tempting shops and outdoor markets.
Aix-en-Provence is above all a city of artists, the place where Paul Cézanne was born and lived. You can visit his studio and house then go to Mont Ste-Victoire which he painted so famously.
Aix is the place to sit on a sunny terrace and watch the world go by. It’s full of pavement cafes, bars and restaurants, a city to chill out in and enjoy the life of the Mediterranean.
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Top French Cities to Visit: Amiens in Picardy
Amiens in the Somme is the capital of Picardy. It’s best known for its huge Gothic cathedral, the biggest in Europe. Don’t miss the cathedral and try to catch the light show in summer.
But there’s a whole lot more to this city where Jules Verne (1828-1905) lived for many years. Eat in the old Quartier St Leu area on the canalside, or take a boat trip out to the market gardens of the nearby marshy Hortillanges area. And if you’re in Amiens you might plan your trip around some of the events, like the two extensive flea markets in the Spring and Fall, or the largest Christmas market in the north of France.
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Top French cities to Visit: Angers in the Loire Valley
Compared to the other great towns along the Loire Valley, Angers is strangely overlooked by visitors. But this city in the western part between Tours and Nantes is well worth a stopover. Once the capital of Anjou, it’s pretty and very green, full of parks and gardens.
Its blockbuster attraction is the Tapestry of the Apocalypse, woven between 1372 and 1382. It’s kept in a darkened room, depicting the end of the world in terrifying, graphic detail. In contrast, The Song of the World was designed and woven between 1957 and 1966, a modern version by Jean Lurçat, an artist living through World War II and the Cold War.
Angers is an old town, with many of the museums housed in splendid buildings like the Hospital of St-Jean, founded in 1174, and the mighty château. A little more recent is the Cointreau distillery, making that sweet liqueur. If it’s food and drink that interests you, Angers is the place with Loire Valley river fish on many menus as well as its famous Le Mans beef dishes. Don’t miss the daily market of fruit and veg that expands on Saturdays to take in the flea market in the surrounding streets.
If you like gardens and want to see something of the countryside, try the Terra Botanica Theme Park
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Top French cities to Visit: Lyon in the Rhone Valley
When I first visited Lyon, the capital of the Rhone-Alpes region, I couldn’t understand why so many people pass it by. It’s France’s second city after Paris and well deserves the position.
On the banks of the Rhône and the Saône, Lyon has a great history, founded on its position on vital European trade routes. It was an important Roman city, with amphitheaters which play host to Les Nuits de Fourvières, a festival full of imaginative surprises.
There’s a fascinating, very extensive old quarter with traboules, secret passageways used in the past to carry the precious silk that brought such wealth to the city from street to street without getting damaged. There’s a silk weavers quarter and huge frescoes painted on city buildings. There are plenty of museums, from the Cinema Museum in the villa of the Lumières brothers, to the Museum of Textiles. The latest opening is the Musee des Confluences which takes the big themes of life. It's quite a place.
And finally Lyon is France’s gastronomic heart, with restaurants ranging from bustling, smart brasseries (Paul Bocuse has four of them) to the traditional bouchons where you eat like a king andpay like a pauper.
If you can, make the Light Festival which takes place in December over 3 days and nights. It's quite spectacular.
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Top French cities to Visit: Marseille
Marseille is enjoying a burgeoning reputation as a tourist destination, greatly helped by the new express train service that speeds you, without changing trains or stations, from the heart of London to the heart of Marseille in 6 hours 27 minutes. Marseille is a city in transition, vibrant and exciting, with huge areas like the former docks transformed with new housing, shopping centers, restaurants and museums.
Don’t miss MuCEM, the Museum of the Civilisations of Europe and the Mediterranean and the Château Borely, now filled with superb pottery and porcelain.
There are good hotels with fabulous views and a wide variety of restaurants, both around the Old Port and in the small streets of the other quartiers.
And if you feel like getting away from it all, take a boat trip out of Marseille, perhaps to Château d’If where Alexandre Dumas’ Count of Monte Cristo was falsely imprisoned or to the bright blue waters along the rocky inlets of the Calanques.
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Top French cities to Visit: Nantes on the Atlantic Coast
Nantes, once a great port and proud capital city of Brittany, fell on hard times with the decline first of the slave trade and then heavy industry. But for the last few decades, Nantes has re-established itself and is a thriving city (the fifth fastest growing in France) with a few surprises.
You might expect the great white stone palace of the Dukes of Brittany and the wonderful light and airy cathedral with one of the most beautiful tombs in France, that of Francis II, Duke of Brittany and his wife Margaret, parents of Anne de Bretagne (1477-1514). You might also expect the new area on what was the former industrial section, though this one has some extraordinary art embellishing the quaysides.
What comes as a delightful surprise is the extraordinary Machines de l’île. Like a grown-up’s toy shop, a huge area is inhabited by man-made creatures. You can ride on the Great Elephant which is 40 ft (12 meters) high, made of wood, leather and steel. Or take a turn on the Carousel where three levels of strange sea monsters whirl you around so that you feel as if you’re part of a Jules Verne story.
You can take a boat ride over to a small artists’ village for lunch, or venture further along the estuary of the Loire River to encounter animals in trees, houses in the river and more feats of the artistic imagination.
Nantes is a suprising city, well worth the visit. And you can use it as a jumping off point for the theme park Le Puy du Fou, which is in my opinion, the best in Europe.If you like gardens, try the Japanese garden of Maulevrier, one of my top 10 gardens in France. And there's always the dramatic Atlantic coast where islands like Noirmoutier invite with their long beaches, fishing ports and old salt works.
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Top French cities to Visit: Orleans in the Loire Valley
Orléans, right in the heart of the Loire Valley and easily reachable from Paris, might be known as the city of Joan of Arc, but it’s got a lot more going for it than its connections with the Maid of Orléans. You can visit La Maison de Jeanne d’Arc for a bit more of the story of this young woman who during the Hundred Years War between the French and the English, lifted the siege of the town in 1429.
But don’t miss the cathedral and its stained glass windows, the Fine Arts Museum with its good collection of French and European art, and the Parc Floral de la Source, where the Loiret river rises.
More than anything, Orléans is a typical French city with its own life and you can easily blend in and feel like a local. It has good shops, restaurants and bars and a gracious center for strolling around with arcaded buildings, all kinds of markets from fruit and vegetables to general brocante markets and a host of events all year round.
And Orléans is ideally placed to tour some of the nearby Loire Valley châteaux and gardens.
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Gardens in the Loire Valley
Top French cities to Visit: Strasbourg in Alsace
Strasbourg, the ‘City of the Roads’ on the west bank of the Rhône river, was an important staging post in medieval times. At the crossroads between France and Germany, it still has a delightful center full of narrow streets and old half-timbered houses bright with colorful window boxes. La Petite France, as the area is known, clusters around the magnificent cathedral. Go inside for the impressive stained glass windows and the chance to walk up the spire for a great view. With good reason, the historic center of Strasbourg has been on the UNESCO World Heritage List since 1988. There are plenty of museums to keep you occupied in and around the impressive Palais Rohan.
In contrast, the glass and steel modern buildings of the European Parliament occupy the German quarter (Neustadt), built during the 19th-century Prussian occupation. Here you’ll also find the university where Goethe studied; it's now the largest university in France.
Good restaurants serving Alsatian dishes and top Alsatian wines, and cafes and bars lining the traffic-free Place du Marché Gayot add to Strasbourg’s undoubted attractions. In the Spring there's a great carnival, and in winter, don’t miss the world-famous Christmas market.
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- Top Attractions in Strasbourg
- Travel from London, the UK and Paris to Strasbourg
Top French cities to Visit: Troyes in Champagne
Troyes -- an old medieval town with winding cobbled streets; half-timbered houses with overhanging gables; a cathedral full of stained-glass illustrating the story of the Bible, and the Ste Madeleine church with its glass showing craftsmen at work; an impressive private modern art collection on display in the former Bishop’s Palace and an old apothecary full of ceramic jars or medicines. Add to that some truly stunning hotels built around courtyards and gardens, great restaurants and a place surrounded by cafes and bars; what more could you want?
The old part of Troyes is lovely and well worth a stopover. But many people, particularly the French, come here for the outlet and discount malls just outside the center; this is bargain France at its best.
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