What do you picture when you think of France? For most people, it’s either Paris, or a vineyard or château in a picturesque countryside. Neither one of those images are incorrect, but there’s so much we overlook in between.
82% of French people live in a metropolitan area. This very much includes greater Paris, which is Europe’s most populated metropolitan region, with about 10.5 million residents. But behind this statistic, there are also hundreds of other French cities. Some have significantly large geographic areas and populations, while others are on the smaller side. Each one has at least a few aspects that make it interesting.
Whether you’re dreaming of or planning a trip to France, or are just here for some France-related reading, here are some must-know facts about French cities.
The 5 biggest cities in France
Let’s start with the five most populous cities in France, and the best things to see, do, and eat in each one.
Population: 2,241,346 million people.
The capital of France, the City of Light is one of the world’s most famous cities, a center for fashion, business, culture, and the arts. If I do say so myself, it’s an amazing place to visit, and to live.
Some French people wouldn’t agree with me on that last part, though. Like most other major world cities, you’ll find people from just about anywhere living and working here.
Still, for other French people (and many foreigners) “Parisians” have one thing in common: they’re rude! As I’ve explained before, this stereotype isn’t true – I know many perfectly nice Parisians. But there’s a good portion of the population that came here for work and who would rather be back in the regions they grew up in, rather than the “grind” of big city life (it should be noted that, compared to places like New York, Tokyo, Shanghai, and London, Paris is actually rather calm).
What are the best things to do in Paris?
There are so many things to see and do in Paris that it’s hard to pick only a few. My personal favorites include strolling around scenic, history-rich neighborhoods like Montmartre and the Latin Quarter, and having a coffee or a bite to eat on a café terrace (an iconic Parisian tradition). For first-time visitors (or anyone who’s never done it before), a boat ride along the Seine is a wonderful way to see lots of monuments and get a real feel for the beauty of this city. You should also consider hitting up at least one museum or gallery, since Paris has so many that you’re bound to find something that suits you. Paris has also always had a bit of a strange side, so if you’re not claustrophobic or afraid of skeletons, stop by the Catacombs.
What to eat in Paris?
Paris is a global city and you’ll find excellent food from around the world here. But if you’re looking for traditional Parisian fare, try a salade composée in a café, or head to a boulangerie and enjoy a baguette. Paris is known for having the best baguettes in France — there’s even a yearly competition for the best one in the city. You can find the current winner here.
Official tourism website: https://en.parisinfo.com/
Population: 861,635 people
France’s second-largest city is a teeming metropolis on the Mediterranean. Its inhabitants are known for their warmth and distinctive southern accent. For those who only picture France as Paris, farms, or chateaux, Marseille will probably come as a surprise: its bold culture is closer to Italy than the stereotypical image of France.
What are the best things to do in Marseille?
If you love architecture, Notre Dame de la Garde is the city’s iconic church, and definitely worth a look. Stroll around in the Vieux Port (old port) for a seaside ambiance and Instagram-worthy photos. A short trip outside the city, Les Calanques is the rocky terrain along the Mediterranean coast. It’s a favorite with visitors and locals alike. Everyone I know who comes back from a trip to Marseille gets a happy, dazed look on their face when they talk about going to Les Calanques.
What to eat in Marseille?
Bouillabaisse is Marseille’s iconic local dish. Originally a way for fisherman to use their scraps, this deliciously seasoned fish stew (which has several variants) is held in much higher regard today. You’ll be able to find it throughout the city, but unfortunately, the real deal, with fresh fish, will probably cost 30 euros or more. At least it’s usually served in large portions that could be shared. If you’re a seafood lover, it’s worth the splurge.
Official tourism website: http://www.marseille-tourisme.com/en/what-to-do/visit-marseille/
Population: 513 275 people
Like many of the cities on this list, Lyon has roots dating back millennia. It was even the capital of Gaul (France) in Roman times. People from Lyon are very proud of their city’s history and culture, and you’ll find lots of both here today. But I have to admit, that to me, Lyon feels like a city without much character. It’s still very much worth visiting – there’s lots to see, do, eat, and drink, and there are many really beautiful places. And as its population shows, it’s also a pretty nice place to live.
What are the best things to see in Lyon?
Stroll through the charming Vieux Lyon (Old Lyon) and climb the old streets of the Fourvière (Fourvière Hill) for an excellent view of the city below, and access to the striking Notre-Dame de la Fourvière basilica. Visit the scenic Place Bellecour, where there’s everything from temporary activities, to shopping, to famous bakeries nearby! Lyon has a number of cool and rather unique museums, too, including the Musée Miniature et Cinéma, which houses everything from Hollywood movie props, to elaborate miniature models. Another particularly interesting site to visit is the city’s Roman ruins, including its amphitheater.
What to eat in Lyon?
Among the French, Lyon is considered the city for excellent traditional food. The bouchon (literally “cork”) is a traditional restaurant where you can get iconic dishes like quenelle and various typical sausages, among many other tasty options.
To make sure you’re in a quality bouchon, not a tourist trap, look for a plaque outside marked Authentique bouchon Lyonnais.
The city is also known for a few pastries and treats, including brioche Saint-Genix , a brioche that looks like something a kid would create, with its sloppy topping of colorfully dyed praline and sugar. And then there’s the wine. Lyon is tied to two famous wine regions – Côtes du Rhône and Beaujolais, and not far from a number of others, as well.
Official tourism website: https://www.lyon-france.com/
Population: 471 941 people
With many of its buildings made of a pale red terra cotta, Toulouse is known as la ville rose. It’s a beautiful and unique place to visit. One of the many things that make it unique is its blend of the old and the very new: from its ancient origins and examples of medieval architecture, to lively student life and an avant-garde art scene.
What are the best things to do in Toulouse?
If you’re a fan of Romanesque architecture, you may already have the Basilica of Saint-Sernin on your bucket list. You can admire more impressive architecture (from a few centuries later) or just enjoy the ambiance in the Place du capitale, the city’s lively main square. Toulouse offers a lot of interesting things to do for several subcultures, as well, from artists’ squats, to aeronautics (it’s the headquarters of French aviation giant Airbus). There are a number of excellent museums devoted to more expected things, too, like fine arts and history, so take your pick! And don’t forget to explore the beautiful Canal du Midi, on foot or by boat.
What to eat in Toulouse?
Toulouse is famous as the home of cassoulet, a stew made up of beans, sausage, and various other ingredients that is a beloved comfort food throughout France. Cassoulet is very heavy, so it can make for a good thing to have for lunch on a day of walking around the city. Duck-based dishes are also popular in Toulouse, and interestingly enough, you’ll also find some places that offer honey, oil, bread, and many other foods that are made with violets, the city’s flower.
Official tourism website: https://www.toulouse-visit.com/
Population: 342 522
If the luxury of the Côte d’Azur is what you crave, Nice is probably your favorite of the five biggest French cities. Its pretty, colorful buildings and upscale beachy ambiance will naturally make you feel pampered. This isn’t to say that every part of Nice is upscale and expensive – there is government housing here, like anywhere else. But the main areas of the city do have this vibe (and the prices to back it up).
What are the best things to do in Nice?
The beaches of Nice are covered with pebbles, not sand, as this very thorough Wikitravel post aptly points out.
As the piece advises, come prepared, with swimming shoes and something soft to sit on. I’ve been to Nice and will say that while it’s rockier than I like, the water is beautiful and usually warm, and the views alone are worth taking in, either from the beach, or from vantage points around the city, like la Colline du Chateau (Castle Hill).
Take a walk along the famous Promenade des Anglais, a flat, pleasant paved walkway beside the beach – it’s great for both sea-gazing and people-watching. If you’re more indoorsy, the city has a number of museums, including a few devoted to its ancient roots, and the Musée Marc Chagall, which houses the largest public collection of the awesome artist’s works.
What to eat in Nice?
Socca is a delicious flatbread made of chickpeas and is considered a quintessential treat by most Nice residents. Pissaladière, a sort of pizza/focaccia hybrid, covered in olives, caramelized onions, and anchovies, is another local specialty. You can also try a salade niçoise – fresh greens and veggies topped with hardboiled egg and tuna salad and famous around France, or its sandwich form, pan bagnat.
Official tourism website: http://en.nicetourisme.com/
Five special cities in France
There are many more cities in France, of course. Here are five of my personal favorites:
This small city is so lovely that I forgot all about mustard when I visited it! Yes, that’s what Dijon is known for around the world, even though the mustard factories are located outside the city and the town doesn’t seem to play up its claim to fame very much.
But there is so much more here, including beautiful parks, stunning architecture, and delicious food.
If you only have a day, get a map or app – whatever suits your fancy — and just stroll around. You’re bound to discover historic wonders, pretty streets, charming shops, and so much more. Climb to the top of the tour de Philippe le Bon for a bird’s eye view of the city and the surrounding region, including several Burgundy-style rooftops, with their distinctive, colorful tiles.
Official tourism website: http://www.destinationdijon.com/en/
This city’s roots are ancient, but its most striking architecture is from the 18th and 19th centuries. Some of these examples are so aesthetically pleasing that they inspired Haussmann’s style and layout of Paris when he modernized the City of Light in the mid-1800’s.
Bordeaux’s impressive buildings, like the stunning Place de la Bourse and the Porte Cailhu, once a part of the medieval city’s wall, contrast wildly with the vibrant, fun culture of college students, who make up a sizeable portion of the city’s population.
The ambiance is friendly and lively, with an undertone of elegance. You’ll also find lots of museums, cultural events, and plenty of other things to do. And of course, if you’re a wine fan, Bordeaux may have already been a place you were considering checking out.
Official tourism website: https://www.bordeaux-tourism.co.uk/
Located on the German border (Germany is just across the Rhine River), Strasbourg offers a fascinating blend of the two cultures – and also the best pretzels I have ever eaten.
They are fresh and covered in butter and salt and just one of the best things on earth. If that isn’t enough of a draw, Strasbourg has a remarkable cathedral, scenic streets (especially in the Petite France district) and waterfront, and is especially worth visiting in November and December when its annual Christmas market, famous throughout France and much of Europe, is held (dates change yearly, so check before you plan your trip).
If you’re fascinated by modern government proceedings (personally, I’m more into pretzels), Strasbourg is one of the seats of the European Parliament, which holds events for visitors.
Official tourism website: http://www.otstrasbourg.fr/en/
Amiens is known to most people for its cathedral. It’s also a really pretty little city with an unusual feature, an area known as Les Hortillonages – essentially a marsh that was transformed into floating gardens.
You can take a tour of it by boat, or spend time pleasantly strolling through the charming Saint-Leu neighborhood.
If you’re a fan of Jules Verne, science fiction, and/or steampunk, you can visit the author’s one-time home, which is now a museum dedicated to his works, and stop by his gravesite, as well. When you’re in Amiens, be sure to get some fries. Although French fries are actually Belgian, people in the north of France make them pretty darn well, too.
Official tourism website: http://www.visit-amiens.com/
If medieval France is what makes your heart beat faster, Troyes is a city you’ll want to visit.
Dotted with medieval churches (the city’s official website calls it la ville aux 10 églises (the city of 10 churches), and, famously, home to some of the best-preserved building facades from the middle ages, Troyes is full of history and charm.
There are also contemporary attractions, of course, as well as timeless ones. Medieval residents (not to mention the ones before them – the city has been around since ancient times) probably enjoyed having a drink or a bite to eat along the banks of the Seine as much as any of us would today.
Official tourism website: http://www.tourisme-troyes.com/
What makes a French city?
The INSEE (the official French authority on statistics) has guidelines for what constitutes a city. Basically, there must be at least 2,000 inhabitants in habitations that less than 200 square meters from each other.
But to the layperson, in addition to having a larger, denser population than most locales, a French city usually has several typical features. For one, there is reliable public transportation. This could be a Metro or tram system (or both), or buses, or even water taxis. One of the reasons I love visiting French cities is that I know I’ll be able to get around easily and cheaply.
Another feature of French cities is multiple cultural and historical sites. These may not always be world-renowned, but they’re always opportunities for cool discoveries.
Like most French towns and even many villages, French cities also have (a) church(es) – usually historically and architecturally interesting, restaurants, cafes, and bars, (a) post office(s), (a) pharmacy/pharmacies, and (a) boulangerie(s).
Cities usually also boast (a) movie theater(s), supermarkets, (a) hospital(s), (a) hotel(s), a wide range of shops, a library (or even several branches), (a) theater(s), and at least one university or branch of a university.
Not all of these things may seem important, but they can come in quite handy. Once, I was in Nice when my allergies started acting up. It sure was “nice” (sorry, I had to do it!) to be able to duck into a pharmacy for some eyedrops.
French cities also have at least one major train station, making it easy to travel to nearby towns, not to mention other cities in France – and even abroad.
One greater feature of cities in France: They each have tourism offices and official tourism websites, so it’s easy to learn more about them, including any special events or festivals they may have going on when you’re planning to visit. I’ve linked to the official sites for each of the cities I mentioned above. If you’re looking into another city, just type something like “[City name] official site” or “Tourism board [city name]” into your search engine.
Are French cities safe?
As a general rule, the more people you have in a relatively small area, the more crime there will be, unfortunately. Still, that being said, most French cities are pretty safe, although it’s best to avoid areas around train and bus stations at night.
The crime you’re most likely to run into is pickpocketing, so learning how to avoid being a target can be a pretty good idea. By the way, this is a good idea if you’re visiting just about any city anywhere in the world.
Another good idea is to plan ahead and do a little research on the city you’re headed to. Use guides and online forums to find out what neighborhoods might be dangerous at night, for example.
And now, I have to address the elephant in the room. I don’t like to bring it up because it’s upsetting and can put a damper on anyone’s travel dreams, but unfortunately, as of this writing, it needs to be said.
Yes, there is terrorism in France. But there’s no way to know who will be a target or when or where it might occur. There have been terrorist attacks in large cities, but also in small villages – not just in France, but around the world. Personally, I think that avoiding travel because of terrorism means you’re letting terrorists win. Be cautious and vigilant wherever you are, and hopefully you’ll be safe. But it’s really a question of luck or destiny, I guess (whichever you prefer to believe in).
Should I visit a French city if I don’t like cities?
I hope this post has shown some really cool things about a number of cities in France, as well as the great features most French cities have to offer. But if you’re just not a city person, is it still worth visiting one?
I would emphatically say, “OUI!” There’s a reason people say Paris is beautiful – it is! There’s a reason people talk about famous works of art and architecture that are found in so many other French cities – they are usually worth experiencing in real life.
If you can’t bear the thought of being surrounded by buildings, you can also take comfort in this: Most cities in France have lots of parks, gardens, and green spaces where you can recharge.
Still, if you don’t want to spend a long period of time in a French city, remember what I wrote about the trains. You could always find a place to stay in a nearby suburb or even in the surrounding countryside, and then hop on a train and take a daytrip to the nearest urban locale.
Regardless of what you choose to do, I can’t imagine anyone regretting a visit to one (or all) of these amazing places.
If you could travel to any French city, which one would it be?