Many travelers to France don’t stray far from the big cities like Paris and Lyon. They don’t know what they’re missing: Picture-postcard medieval villages with narrow cobblestone streets and city walls. They’re also missing out on charming towns where wine-making reigns supreme and a more traditional France can still be found. Even better, many small towns in France are often situated amid gorgeous scenery of both mountains and sea.
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Peillon is unique among France’s charming, picturesque small towns. For one, it’s perched on a cliff about 18 km (11 miles) north of Nice on the French Riviera. Secondly, it’s pedestrian only. Thirdly, it lacks the numerous souvenir stands, restaurants and shops found elsewhere, though there are a couple at the village entrance. Comfortable walking shoes are a must as you walk through the village with its sometimes steep stairs and low passageways. And, of course, the views from here are spectacular.
Cobblestone streets and half-timbered buildings still exist in Dinan, considered one of the best medieval villages in Brittany. As travel expert Rick Steves says, forget the formal museums, the town itself is the museum. It’s a delightful place to wander at will, with a bustling market on Thursday mornings in Place du Guesclin, Dinan’s town square. The view of the River Rance, the old post and the surrounding area is best from St. Catherine’s Tower; nearby is a well-preserved section of the city wall.
Stone and timber combine with pots and baskets of geraniums to make Rochefort-en-Terre one of the most visited villages in Brittany and one of the beautiful villages in all of France. Many of the buildings date back to the 16th century, while others are more modern. It all adds up to a picturesque scene. Known for delicious biscuits, the village hosts a festival honoring Notre Dame de la Tronchaye, a Black Virgin, every August. A chateau, once owned by the 20th century American painter Alfred Klotz, shows his paintings.
Eze is a small village on the French Riviera famous for its medieval castle that overlooks the Mediterranean Sea. Getting to the top of the castle with its narrow cobblestone streets is a bit of a climb, but well worth the effort. When you reach the top, you’ll be rewarded with a pretty cactus garden and stunning views of the Mediterranean. Take time to visit the old church with its Egyptian cross, said to be a reminder of the Phoenician temple that once stood there.
Étretat is a small village on the Normandy coast in northwest France. This resort town on the English Channel is known for its spectacular white chalk cliffs and three natural arches that have inspired such artists as Courbet and Monet. Guy de Maupassant wrote short stories here. It’s famous, too, as being the last place The White Bird was seen in 1927; the plane was carrying two aviators trying to fly nonstop between Paris and New York.
Riquewihr is a village of less than 1,500 souls in northeastern France that is known for two things: its historic architecture and its great wines. Still looking much like it did in the 16th century, Riquewihr is considered one of the most beautiful small towns in France. Medieval fortifications surround the town; the old castle has been turned into a museum. The village was relatively untouched during World War II and is home to a museum about the war’s impact on Alsace.
Saint-Véran is a small village located in Queyras Regional Natural Park in the Haute-Alps of southeastern France. This pretty village, sitting on a hillside overlooking a river valley, is one of the highest in Europe, attracting winter and summer tourists. It is famous for its houses with their high, wooden attic balconies. Old sun dials and wood fountains are other draws. The area is popular with hikers, but they should check the weather forecast before starting out as weather changes frequently.
Moustiers-Sainte-Marie, located in southeastern France, is another picturesque village that is considered one of the most beautiful in France. Mountains in the background make this a very picturesque village. Famous for its pottery, the village is nestled in terraces on a hillside. Since the 10th century, a gold-colored star on a 225-meter (738-foot) long chain has hung from between two cliffs; legend has it a knight captured by the Saracens during the crusades vowed to hang a star if he escaped.
Sant’Antonino is a tiny extremely picturesque village that sits 460 meters (1,500 feet) above sea level on the island of Corsica, giving it the nickname “Eagle’s Nest.” It is one of the most beautiful and oldest places in Corsica. Known for its architecture, the village’s 75 houses are joined together. Besides stunning views, top sights include at 11th century church, medieval castle ruins and an old bread oven. It’s a good place to hike, ride a donkey or enjoy water sports on the nearby beach.
Roussillon, sitting at the foot of Monts de Vaucluse. It’s a colorful, must-see sight in the Luberon. Here you’ll find red buildings, instead of the white or gray that are so common elsewhere. This is because Roussillon is located in one of the world’s largest ochre deposits. The red cliffs add to the city’s very scenic characteristics. The village and surrounding area is so colorful it has often been compared to an artist’s palette, and definitely is an inspiration to them.
Eguisheim is the stuff that our pre-conceived notions of what Europe should be like are made of: narrow cobblestone streets and old colorful buildings with charmingly decorated entrances. Locat4ed in Alsace not too far from the German border, Eguisheim was voted France’s favorite village in 2013. This medieval village is uniquely wrapped in circles around the local castle. It’s famous for its wines, with the Alsace wine route passing through it. Eguisheim is, in fact, known as “the cradle of the Alsatian vineyard.”
Wandering at will is the best way to see Gordes, another one of France’s beautiful villages. Located in Provence’s Luberon region, the gray and white stone houses spiral up a rock hill that is topped by a church and medieval castle. The best place to photograph this picturesque village is from Bel-Air rock on road D15. A top sight is the 12th century Semanque Abbey where monks still make honey, lavender and liqueurs. You may also see bories, round stone huts, used by shepherds.