Paris is massive, beautiful, enchanting – and expensive. While the capital city is absolutely a must-see, it might feel like prices are as high as the Eiffel Tower. But you have options! There’s so much to do and see outside of Paris, and oftentimes at a lower price than what you’ll pay in a big city.
After all, France is a country with eighteen regions and almost 68 million inhabitants. And don’t believe for a minute that all of those 68 million French people are snobs. While there may be more unhelpful people in Paris and the other major French cities than what you’ll find in other countries, there are kind and hospitable French people, too.
If you’ve never been to France before, or if you’ve been to Paris and you’re looking to explore more of the country, take a look at these eight recommendations.
Mont St. Michel
Mont St. Michel is an iconic small island off the coast of Normandy, a region covering parts of northwestern France and part of Britain’s Channel Islands. Mont St. Michel makes up a very small part of Normandy: the island is only 17 acres in area, and its highest point is 300 feet above sea level.
Mont St. Michel’s history dates back to the 700s, and packing all that history into such a small area means that it’s easier to see and do more. Buildings on the island have served as an abbey, a monastery, and even a prison throughout the centuries. Learn about how you can access this beautiful island here.
While you are in Normandy, take time to visit the city of Rouen. Because of its location, Rouen has played an important role throughout history in Anglo-Franco relations. The English King Richard the Lionheart was crowned the Duke of Normandy in Rouen “and literally left his heart there… as would Joan of Arc, much against her will, when, in the second half of the Hundred Years’ War, English forces occupied much of northern France, including Normandy and its capital.”
But if you’re not a history buff, you should still consider visiting Rouen. The city has an amazing bike route that’s on the path from Paris to the sea, fantastic restaurants, and food festivals, and lights up with beautiful Christmas markets in the winter.
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Chateau de Fontainebleau
Like Mont St. Michel, this recommendation won’t have everything that a big city has to offer, but it’s a historical site that’s absolutely worth the visit. This chateau (“castle” in English) has 1,500 rooms, 130 hectares of park and gardens, and 800 years of history behind it.
Many of those 1,500 rooms are fit for a king. Royals lived in Fontainebleau from the 1100s to the 1800s, and the chateau is the most furnished of the French royal castles. Napoleon, Marie Antoinette, and other important historical figures lived at Fontainebleau. Visiting this chateau will take approximately 2 hours, and you can choose between a guided and unguided visit.
Continue your journey south to Lyon, a French city that’s been inhabited since prehistoric times and one of the most important cities in the Roman Empire. The city played a role in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and in the 1800s, it became a center of silk processing.
With many guided tour options, it’s easy to learn all about the history of Lyon. There are so many different ways to explore Lyon: on a boat tour, on the city tram, on a city bus, on an electric bike, on a Segway… you’ll have plenty of options.
Also located in the south of France, Aix-en-Provence, or simply Aix is a beautiful city with a warm Mediterranean climate. Aix is clearly divided between the old town and the new city by the Cours Mirabeau, a wide thoroughfare that follows the line of the old city wall.
In Aix, you’ll find the famous Les Deux Garcons, a French brasserie, a relaxed restaurant (not as formal as fine dining but not as casual as a bistro). Les Deux Garcons served famous figures such as Emile Zola, Paul Cezanne, and Ernest Hemingway. While a fire severely impacted the historic business in 2019, it is expected to reopen. During your time in Aix, visit the Baroque Cathedrale Siant-Sauveur or tour the painter Paul Cezanne’s studio.
Head west to find Nantes, a historic city on the Loire River. Nantes is a center for the arts, so if you love art in any form, make sure to visit this city! Visit HAB Galerie or the Fine Arts Museum. Explore the open-air art collection of the Estuaire Nantes Saint-Nazaire every summer, and once you’ve had your fill of art, journey to the vineyards that are only a day trip away.
No visit to Nantes would be complete without exploring the Chateau des ducs de Bretagne, or in English, the Castle of the Dukes of Brittany. Built the late 1400s, this beautiful castle features stunning architecture. Visit the 32-room History Museum within the castle to learn about both regional and global history.
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