Small town

Great small towns in France

Traditional France at its best

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Small towns of France

What is a "small town" in France?  Though there's no technical definition to distinguish a town from a village or a city, this page is essentially about places with a population of between 1,500 inhabitants and 20,000 inhabitants. It's about places big enough to offer all or most essential services (shops, restaurants, hotels, a tourist office, etc. ) but small enough to visit on foot. While some of these are well-known and in all the guide books, others are well off the beaten track, in parts of France that most tourists never reach.

Jump directly to the list of best small towns
Ornans, in the Jura Ornans, in Franche-Comté

 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 litterally hundreds of 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....
  The trouble is that while large numbers of France's small towns are 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 and full of souvenir shops. This page is not about these; About-France.com presents a unique selection of small French towns that are not just attractive, but interesting too – including many that do not make it into the main guidebooks.

A choice of some of the best small towns in France

Discover small towns by area: interactive mapMap of 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. Some of these small towns – notably those in popular tourist areas – are mentioned in most detailed guidebooks, others are largely omitted from classic printed tourist guides in English. The lists below are grouped by area (see map),  and towns marked "Accessible by train"  are on lines with a regular train service and a station in or close to the historic town.
   For a selection of interesting larger towns, see heritage cities.

The best small towns to visit in France - by area and department

Area 1 - Brittany / Normandy

Town Area / Department Brief description
Dinan Brittany
   Côtes d'Armor
One of the first small towns to be classed as an "Art and History town", Dinan is an old fortified town perched on a rock beside the River Rance. Dinan is famous for its historic old town with narrow cobbled streets and stone houses, for its city walls, for its many boutiques, and several small museums including a railway museum at the station. Best avoided during the peak holiday season and holiday weekends. Accessible 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.
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.  On About-France.com's slow route through France
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. Best avoided during peak holiday weekends. 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.
Granville Normandy
Granville is a charming small town on the west coast of the Cotentin peninsula, perched on a fortified promontory overlooking the bay of Mont Saint Michel. As well as its fishing and pleasure port, Granvelle has an aquarium, a good small modern art museum, and a Christian Dior museum of fashion. The attractive old town can be entered over a drawbridge. Markets Tudesay afternoons, Wednesdays and Saturdays. Accessible by train
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.

Area 2 - Loire - Central France

Town Area / Department Brief description
 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 town.
Autun Burgundy,
   Côte d'Or
One of those small towns that would be very well known if it were not off the beaten track. Autun boasts one of the finest Romanesques cathedrals in France as well as kilometres of Roman ramparts, two Roman city gates, an amphitheatre and an attractive old centre. It is at the edge of the Morvan regional park..
Beaune Burgundy,
   Saône et Loire
In contrast to Autun, Beaune is very well-known, being the unofficial capital of the Burgundy wine trade. The old town is most famous for its "Hospices", a remarkably well preserved medieval hospital building that was in use until the late 20th century. It contains the beautiful Beaune Triptych, a Flemish altarpiece painted in 1445 - 1450 for the Hospice by Rogier van der Weyden. the town also has a wine museum and a fine art museum. Busy in summer.
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 Besançon
A very picturesque small town with old houses overhanging the river Loue, a trout river. Artist Gustave Courbet was born here, and his birthplace is now a museum with a good collection of his works. The town is a base for outdoor sports, and  kayaks and bikes can be hired.. 
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
Provins Ile de France
  Seine et Marne (greater Paris)
Provins is one of the most fascinating small towns in the Ile de France area. The medieval city is classed as a UNESCO world heritage site, and is partly surrounded by 12th century ramparts. The old town has 58 designated historic buildings. Markets on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Acccessible by train from Paris Gare de l'Est in 1h 23 minutes.
Saint Germain en Laye Ile de France
  Yvelines (greater Paris)
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

Area 3 - Northeast France

Town Area  / 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
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.

Area 4 -  Southwest France

Town Area  / Department Brief description
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
One of the few small towns in France to be ranked three stars in the Michelin Green Guide. 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

Sarlat, in the Dordogne, is one of the best-known small towns in France, and its reputation is thoroughly deserved. With a historic centre built in the local honey-coloured limestone, and an ensemble of historic buildings, it has been used in many films. On account of its popularity, Sarlat is best avoided between mid July and late August.

Poitou -Charentes
Officially classed as an "art and history town", Montmorillon is one of those small towns that is easily missed. It has recently developed as a "book town" on the model of Hay-on-Wye in the UK. Standing on the banks of the river Gartempe, the town has attractive old quarters with squares and narrow streets. It has several small museums including a Museum of the Arts of writing, an Art and archaeological museum, and a Macaroon museum (macaroons being  a historic local speciality). The crypt of Notre Dame church has  well preserved 12th century frescoes. Montmorillon is 20 km south of the UNESCO world heritage church at Saint Savin sur Gartempe.

Area 5 - Massif Central - Alps

Town Area  / Department Brief description
Bourbon l'Archambault Auvergne
A small town completely off the beaten track, to the southeast of Bourges. Once a fief of the Bourbons, this is today a small town that could epitomize small-town France. The town has several sights to see, including the ruined château of the Bourbons, the 12th century St. George's church, and the attractive old town.  As a spa town since Roman times, it also boast a small casino. Market day: Saturday.  On About-France.com's slow route through France.
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 (and rare)  three-star ranking in the Michelin guide. There is also a freshwater aquarium and a lace-making museum. The Contemporary arts centre, opened in 2018, hosts a major exhibition each summer. (2019: Miro, 2022: Picasso). On About-France.com's slow route through France. Market day: Saturday.  Accesssible by train.

A small town just off the A75 motorway, famous for its St. Austremoine Abbey church, one of the "Five" Romanesque Churches of Auvergne (there are actually many more than five), a twelfth century church with painted interior. The clock tower, built in the local grey Volvic stone, offers a fine view over the roofs of the old town.
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.
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.

Area 6 - Occitania & Mediterranean France

Town Area  / Department Brief description
Foix 6a Midi-Pyrénées
With less than 10,000 inhabitants, Foix is the capital of the Ariège department, so a small town with all services. Its unmissable focal point is the medieval chateau perched on a rock pinnacle in the town centre. (Take note: not for everyone... there are a lot of steps). There is an attractive old town with narrow streets and arts and craft shops. Markets Tuesdays and Fridays, accessible by train from Toulouse or from La Tour de Carol (See  Yellow Train)
  near Alès
6b Languedoc
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 6b 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.
Uzès, near Nîmes 6b Languedoc
One of the very few small towns in France to get a top three-star ranking in the Michelin Green Guide. One of the great small towns of France, Uzès exudes the atmosphere of southern France. The round romanesque tower of its small cathedral is one of the most distinctive in France. Very popular markets on Saturdays. 
Céret 6b 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 6b 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. Gets very busy in summer.
Barjols 6c 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 6c 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.

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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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