While most known for its big cities like Paris, Marseilles, and Nice, France is packed full of adorable, and uber-charming small towns and villages, you can find these quaint towns all over France, with historic town centers, cobblestone lanes, narrow winding streets, and picturesque viewpoints.
So, let’s leave behind the hustle and bustle of the big attractions and arrondissements of Paris and venture out into the countryside, and discover some of the best small towns that France has to offer.
Colmar is a charming small town in France near the border of Germany, in the Alsace region of France. Thanks to the proximity to Germany and the fact that this region has actually belonged to Germany in the past, the town resembles a Bavarian village, with half-timbered houses and buildings throughout the historic town center.
The Petite Venise area of Colmar is absolutely the best part, as the buildings here are painted in vibrant colors, and there is a canal running through the center of it. Colmar is said to be the village that the Disney film “Beauty and the Beast” was based on – the Schwendi Fountain in town resembles the fountain Belle sits at with the sheep in the opening musical number in the movie.
The German influence in town is also seen in the regional cuisine – bratwurst, sauerkraut, and flammekueche, and you’ll definitely want to sample some of these dishes during your stay in Colmar.
If you’re visiting from late November through December, Colmar has one of the best Christmas markets in all of France.
Arles is a cute, medieval small town in France that enjoyed a lot of Roman influence. The main attraction in Arles is the massive Roman amphitheater (like a smaller version of the Coliseum in Rome). You can admire the amphitheater from the outside, go inside and walk the passageways, and even go sit in the stands.
Today the amphitheater is used for concerts, plays, and bullfights. There is also the well-preserved Roman theater nearby that has the remains of a stage, the seating, and other ruins to walk through. Besides the Roman sites, Arles is just a cute and very medieval-like town to explore. You can walk through the gates of Arles and stroll down a path right along the Rhone river. The famous painter, Vincent Van Gogh, lived in Arles for about a year, and the Provincial town served as an inspiration for some of his paintings.
Eetretat is a coastal town in Normandy, on the northern coast of France. Unlike other coastal towns in France, Etretat sits at the top of sheer, chalky white cliffs that plunge dramatically to the sea. The town itself is delightful, with traditional timbered buildings, and lovely streets to explore. You can visit the Gardens of Etretat and see the manicured and unique gardens, sometimes referred to as “living sculptures.” Definitely swing by the local Notre Dame de la Garde Chapelle, and walk the seaside path, both of which overlook the cliffs.
There are many arches, cutouts, and coves in the area around Etretat, and admiring the coastline is what brings many visitors to the area. If you visit during the warmer months, head down to the beach that sits right below the town center. The cliff’s walls make a slight curve around you, the sea is in front of you, and the famous and oft-painted and photographed arch is just to your left. It’s a beautiful place to spend an afternoon.
Located on the Mediterranean coast and only 5 miles from the Italian border, Menton exudes charm and laidback living. The city is famous for its lemon and orange trees that grow in the region and throughout the city (there are even orange trees planted on regular city streets!). There is even a big Lemon Festival in Menton that takes place in February.
Menton is most famous, though, for its pastel-colored old town – the buildings are painted in shades of pink, orange, tan, red, and cream. It’s absolutely postcard perfect. Within Old Town, make sure you stop by the impressive Basilica of Saint Michael Archangel, which is set at the top of the hill, and the Cemetery of the Old Chateau, which overlooks the old town and the sea.
Menton is also one of the few spots in southern France that has sandy beaches (most beaches along the Mediterranean are rocky), and in summer, heading down to Plage des Sablettes to enjoy the sand and the sea is an idyllic way to spend an afternoon. Menton is very close to Nice and is a popular day tour from Nice, and is one of my top favorite small towns in all of France.
Saint Malo is a charming walled city in the Brittany region of northwest France, and sits on a rocky promontory on the English Channel. This town is a walled city and the entire old town is surrounded by extremely tall, imposing granite walls, complete with main gates and corner turrets.
The entire village has a very authentic feel, even though most of the village was destroyed by bombs during World War II, it was then subsequently painstakingly and carefully rebuilt and restored in the original style.
When visiting Saint Malo, you can stroll the ramparts surrounding the city, relax at the beaches nearby, or visit the Cathedral Saint Vincent, or the Fort Nacional, which is located 300 meters from the walled city of Saint Malo.
Moustiers-Sainte-Marie is a little village tucked away in the Verdon Mountains in the southern part of France. Moustiers-Sainte-Marie is pretty tiny, and you can explore the town in just a couple hours. Definitely find the little stream that runs through the center of town, and make the 30 minute trek up the side of the mountain to the Notre Dame de Beauvoir chapel, which sits on a cliff overlooking the town and valley and offers spectacular views. You’ll also definitely want to walk to the Cascade Riou, a little, picturesque waterfall on the outskirts of town.
Many visitors stop by this charming village on their way to or from the nearby Lac Sainte Croix, a stunning turquoise alpine lake. The lake is fed by the Verdon River, which cuts through the Gorge du Verdon. This canyon is absolutely gorgeous, with deep green, turquoise water cutting through the tall, fairly sheer, white limestone cliffs of the gorge. You can hike around the lake, go swimming at the beach, or rent a boat and head up the river into the gorge.
Annecy is a smaller town in the French alps that sits right on the shores of Lake Annecy, a beautiful alpine lake. You can bike or stroll around the lake, go swimming from one of the beaches, or take a boat out onto the crystal clear water. The old town of Annecy is absolutely delightfully picturesque – there’s a canal that winds its way through the old town, with bridges, flowers, and beautiful little spots all over. You can also visit the Château d’Annecy, a medieval castle from the 1100s. Today, it’s a museum and also offers great views over the town.
Annecy is only 30 minutes from Switzerland, so it comes as no surprise that there is some Swiss influence in the cuisine in Annecy. Dishes that heavily feature cheese, in particular melted cheese, are common in Annecy, including raclette, tartiflette, and fondue.
Carcassonne is an ancient, ultra-fortified city with UNESCO World Heritage site status. The historic town is encircled by over 2 miles of a double row of fortified walls – the outer wall is lower than the inner wall, which creates a really unique and impressive sight!
There are also over 50 watchtower turrets situated along the city walls. While you’re here, make sure you stroll through Narbonne Gate, the main gate into the city, and visit the Chateau Comtal inside the citadel. Stop by the Basilica of Saint Nazaire, one of the most prominent churches in the city.
Saint Paul de Vence
Saint Paul de Vence is regularly chosen as one of the most charming of the “perched villages” found in southern France (particularly in the Provence region). These villages are “perched” high up on hills overlooking the nearby valleys and make for beautiful and unique towns to visit in France.
Saint Paul de Vence is noteworthy for attracting renowned artists to the city. In the 1900’s painters like Picasso, Matisse, and Chagall, among others, set up shop here to capture the charming alleyways of the village. Today, the village is home to over 40 art galleries and museums, which you can pop into as you wander the streets.
The best thing to do in Saint Paul de Vence is a meander through the idyllic streets, with the cobblestoned streets, stone buildings, flowers, and creeping ivy. You can also stroll the ramparts that surround the village, stop by the Saint Paul de Vence Cemetery, visit the village fountain at Place de la Grande Fontaine, or watch locals play pétanque (a game similar to bocce ball).
Rocamadour is a tiny village in the Occitanie region of southwest France. This village has been built next to and up the side of a cliff, and there are dramatic views of the village from many viewpoints around town. However, Rocamadour is mainly known as a pilgrimage site, where pilgrims come to climb the 216 stairs of the Grand Escaliers that takes you up to the complex of religious buildings that are built into the side of the cliff.
One of the main focuses is the sculpture of the Black Madonna. This, combined with the well-preserved medieval village, the original stone gates, and the ramparts around town have earned Rocamadour status as a UNESCO World Heritage site, Don’t miss trying Rocamadour cheese while you’re in town, a regional specialty made from unpasteurized goat’s milk.
Final Thoughts on Best Small Towns in France
While there are quite literally dozens, even hundreds, of adorable and quaint small towns to explore in France, in my opinion, these small towns are just la creme de la creme, the cream of the crop, and some of the cutest, most interesting, and most unique villages in France. Exploring their historic sites and strolling the streets will be a highlight of your trip to France.