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Great small towns in France

Traditional France at its best

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Where best to discover "traditional France", or what the French refer to as "la France profonde"? The answer has to be in the country's many small towns. France has hundreds of very attractive small towns, places that are too big to be listed among the country's "beautiful villages", but often too small to be on major tourist circuits. With their historic environments, their small shops, their markets, their pavement cafés and their local life, many of France's small country towns are just waiting to be discovered. 
   And what's more, in most small towns, visitors can find accessible free car parking. No need to be looking at your watch to see if the parking ticket is going to run out....
Ornans, in the Jura
Ornans, in Franche-Comté

Small towns of France

About-France.com helps you discover the parts of France that most tourists never reach..... 

  France has hundreds of attractive small towns. The trouble is that while they are all by definition attractive, many of them have little else to write home about, other than the fact that they are attractive. Once you have looked at the old buildings, sat in a café on the main square, or had a meal, that's it: all there is to do is to move on.
    This is true even for some of the most beautiful small towns and villages that appear in all the guide books and on all the websites – those that are on the well-trodden tourist circuits, and those that are heavily plugged by tourist boards. About-France.com presents a unique selection of small French towns, many of them well off the tourist trail, that are not just attractive, but interesting too – including many that do not make it into the main guidebooks
    Many small French towns, specially in rural areas,  have escaped much of the urban disfiguration that has blighted larger towns and cities. Many have also put a lot of money and effort into regeneration and renovation of their built environment.  For more information on France off the beaten path, discover About-France.com's guide to the regions of France, with a region by region overview, our pages on the beauties of wild France, and our original and exclusive selection of attractive French villages on and off the main tourist circuits .

A choice of some of the best small towns in France

What is "best" ? Why are these towns "best" ?  
By definition this list is subjective, and unique; other lists will be different. This list consists of  small French towns that have been selected from direct experience by About-France.com. All are places worth stopping at, all are historic towns, and all have at least one monument or site to visit - maybe as many as three or four.
What is "small" ? With the exception of Saint Germain en Laye, near Paris (which has a small historic centre), these towns are all places with between 1,500 and 15,000 inhabitants -  large enough to offer all essential services, including hotels and restaurants, but small enough to be easy to visit on foot. While some – notably those in popular tourist areas – are mentioned in most detailed guidebooks, others are largely omitted from classic printed tourist guides in English. Towns are grouped by area (historic region).
Towns marked "Accessible by train"  are on lines with a regular train service and a station in or close to the historic town.

The best small towns to visit in France - by area or region
Town Area - Historic Region / Department Brief description
Kaysersberg Alsace
   Haut Rhin
This small town is quite popular: one of the classic stops on the Alsace wine trail, it has a remarkably well preserved centre in typical Alsace style; also wine producers, the Albert Schweizer birthplace and museum, and other historic monuments
Brantôme Aquitaine
A small town built on an island in the river Dronne. The old town on the island has attractive narrow streets with small shops and restaurants. Between the river and the cliffs at the valley's edge stands an impressive Benedictine abbey, the oldest part of which is a "troglodytic" section built into the cliff, including an underground church.
Saint Emilion
near Libourne
About 35 km east of Bordeaux, Saint Emilion is a small town with a very attractive historic centre. Renowned for its wines, Saint Emilion also has a remarkable 11th century "monolithic" church, carved out of the rock - the second largest underground church in the world – plus several other interesting monuments
Murat Auvergne
On the road to the Monts du Cantal, an attractive small town, built on a steep hillside. Stone-roofed houses built of the local volcanic rock. Less touristy than nearby Salers. Energetic visitors can climb up to the statue of Notre Dame de la Haute-Auvergne, on a volcanic outcrop just above the old town. Accessible by train.

  Haute Loire
A gem of a small town, with bustling Saturday market. St Julian's basilica with unique medieval mosaic floor and frescoes gets top three-star ranking in the Michelin guide. There is also a freshwater aquarium and a lace-making museum. Contemporary arts centre opening 2018 with major Chagall exhibition.  Accesssible by train.
Camaret-sur-Mer near Brest Brittany
A small fishing port on the far west coast of Brittany, at the end of the Crozon Peninsula, south of Brest. Port, beaches, 17th century fortifications.
Louhans Burgundy,
   Saône et Loire
Centre of the "Bresse Bourguignonne" area, Louhans has a unique main-street, bordered on either side by 15th century arcades, with small shops behind them. The town has a large and popular market every Monday morning. It also has a printing museum and a historic hospital, with a Renaissance pharmacy or apothecary.
 near Tours
Centre Val de Loire
   Indre et Loire
Standing on the south bank of the Loire, Amboise is remarkable for having three chateaux, including the great Château Royal, once the best defended site in western France. Leonardo da Vinci spent the last three years of his life in Amboise, and the Clos Lucé, where he lived,  is a Leonardo museum. Accesssible by train
near Tours
Centre Val de Loire
   Indre et Loire
Small country town dominated by its impressive medieval fortress with 12th century ramparts. There is a medieval gateway to the old town, the romanesque church of Saint Ours, and the art gallery of Saint Antoine's church, with its paintings by Caravaggio - as well as a renaissance town hall. Accesssible by train
Nogent le roi,
near Dreux
Centre Val de Loire
   Eure et Loire
One of a number of attractive small towns in the valley of the Eure, Nogent is a small town beside the river with  with a sixteenth century gothic church, and a number of historic half-timbered houses, some with interestingly carved timbers. Nearby Maintenon is another attractive small 
near Besançon
Little town with old houses overhanging the river Loue, a trout river. Gustave Courbet birthplace and museum with a good collection of Courbet's works; kayak and bike hire for outdoor enthusiasts. 
Arbois Franche-Comté
Attractive small town that is one of the capitals of the Jura vineyard area. Wine cellars, medieval church, and the Pasteur museum. Louis Pasteur lived and worked here. Accessible by train
Saint Germain en Laye Ile de France
Saint Germain is a small country town at the western end of the RER A line. The early Renaissance castle, birthplace of Louis XIV, houses the French national museum of antiquities. Its landscaped park is popular with walkers; the old town, with many boutiques, cafés and restaurants, has a distinctly provincial feel, compared to Paris. Accessible by RER
  near Alès
Small hillside town with views to the valley and to the Cevennes mountains. Famous for its figs. The town has narrow cobbled streets and many medieval and Renaissance buildings, and a castle
Sommières, near Nîmes Languedoc
Very attractive small town on the banks of the river Vidourle. The old town is remarkable for its criss-crossing narrow streets, and its arches and arcades. It boasts three ancient city gates and a Roman bridge, substantially rebuilt in the 18th century. In medieval times, the town was extended towards the river, and a third of the  Roman bridge is now within the old town.
Céret Languedoc
  Pyrénées Orientales
At the foot of the Pyrenees, Céret is an attractive small town with a historic centre. The town is famous for its fruit, in particular cherries which ripen here very early. The town has an impressive modern art museum (works by Picasso, Matisse, Chagall and others), plus a museum of musical instruments and a 14th century single-arched stone bridge over the river Tech, le Pont du diable, which when it was built was the greatest span in Europe. Market day Saturday.
Collioure Languedoc
  Pyrénées Orientales
A small former fishing port on the coast not far from the Spanish border. The historic Chateau Royal stands on  rock between two inlets, opposite the water's-edge church of Notre Dame des Anges. There is a historic centre with narrow streets and boutiques. Collioure has attracted artists since the start of the 20th century. Accessible by train.
Argentat Limousin
A delightful small town on the banks of the river Dordogne; cobbled quayside beside the river, ancient houses. At St. Julien nearby, discover a living museum of medieval farming.
Le Cateau
Near Cambrai
A small town in the undulating countryside close to the Avesnois regional park. Remarkable Matisse museum in the former Palais Fénelon; interesting historic brewery and brewery museum.
Montreuil sur Mer
near Boulogne
  Pas de Calais
Small fortified hill town just south of Boulogne. Montreuil was the British military command post in WW1.  The town has an impressive citadelle, and attractive cobbled streets. Markets on Saturday morning, plus Friday evenings in July and August.
Verneuil sur Arve Normandy
In the extreme south of Normandy, 40 km west of Dreux. A small town with a fine flamboyant belfry (climb the tower for 360° views), a lovely square, many attractive half-timbered houses, and other fine Renaissance buildings. Historic walking trail. Accessible by train.
Falaise Normandy
This small town that was severely damaged during the Battle of Normandy in 1944 has been rebuilt much as before. The town, which is famous as the birthplace of William the Conqueror, still has lengths of its mediaeval walls, as well as William the Conqueror's castle, with its ramparts and keep. Next to the castle is the Museum of Life under the Occupation
Bayeux Normandy
Home to the historic Bayeux Tapestry, woven to celebrate William the conqueror's victory at Hastings in 1066. A unique treasure. Bayeux also has a fine cathedral and a historic centre. Accesssible by train
Honfleur Normandy
Attractive small fishing port at the mouth of the Seine. The harbour is surrounded by old slate-clad houses, and is a favourite spot for artists. This historic home of boat-builders also has the largest wooden church in France, dating from the 15th century, and a small art museum with works by Boudin and others who painted here.
Domfront Normandy
Pretty hilltown in the south of Normandy; ramparts, old centre with half timbered houses, historic church and castle. There is a popular market on Friday mornings.
Chauvigny Poitou-Charentes
20 km east of Poitiers, Chauvigny is a remarkable small town, insofar as it boasts five historic castles built in a row on the same rocky ridge - a cluster of castles which is unique in Europe. In addition, St. Peter's Collegial church has a remarkably well preserved set of intricately sculpted medieval capitals. Chauvigny also has a museum of industrial archaeology, and a museum of popular culture and other attrctions close-by.
Barjols Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur
Well off the beaten track, Barjols, a former leather town, retains a traditional character that has been lost by most small towns in this popular tourist region of France. On a hot day, Bardols, with its 30 fountains and 12 old lavoirs, feels cool and refreshing. On its squares, there are shady café terraces beneath towering plane trees.  Market on Sundays.
Vaison la Romaine Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur
A very interesting small town beside the river Ouvèze, in northern Vaucluse. Humans have lived here since prehistoric times. The town has interesting Roman remains, notably a Roman bridge, a theatre and Roman houses. There is also a "medieval town", perched on a buttress on the other side of the river. The small town has two cathedrals, the most interesting being ND de Nazareth which is a fine romanesque building, with cloisters. The 12th century Chapelle St Quenin alos merits a visit.
Buis les Barronies
near Carpentras
Delightful small town, with narrow cobbled streets; Centre for olive oil,  apricots and aromatic plants. Arcaded market square, Renaissance gateway. Close to Mont Ventoux.
Saint Paul Trois Chateaux near Bollene Rhone-Alpes
There are no castles here, but an ancient city with traces of the old ramparts, and three gateways into the old city. There is a small medieval cathedral, and next door to it an archaeological museum. A few kilometres away is the village of Suze la Rousse with its very impressive medieval castle. Market day is Tuesday.

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Market day 
Market day in Brioude, Auvergne

Verneuil sur Arve
Renaissance houses in Verneuil sur Arve, southern Normandy

Market day in Buis les Baronnies, Rhône-Alpes

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