We’ll always have Paris (bien sûr), but spending time in these smaller French towns can lend a more immersive cultural experience in a shorter period of time. Outside of the busy capital, you have a better chance of rubbing elbows with the locals in a slower-paced ambiance, in a more accessibly sized city. We’re not surprised to learn that two of the three picks are stops on river cruises—after all, traveling France’s waterways is an extraordinary way to see the country.
Here’s a taste of what’s to love about the three towns in France that garnered top ratings from cruise members.
Artists' Retreat to Arles
Arles is situated about 30 miles up the Rhône River from the Mediterranean. Aside from the perfectly romantic alleyways and tree-lined riverside walkways you have come to expect of the ideal small town in France—of which Arles has plenty—the town’s UNESCO-listed ancient Roman architecture is reason to visit. Its 1st century B.C. Roman amphitheater and the underground galleries (cryptoporticus) wow most history buffs. And art aficionados will recognize the settings of many of Vincent van Gogh’s paintings. Many of these locales are well marked with signage depicting the painting right in front of the site so you can compare. In 2014, Fondation Vincent van Gogh was inaugurated; finally a home for the artist in Arles since the destruction of his famous yellow house in World War II.
Papal Enclave of Avignon
Continue North on the Rhône from Arles, and you find Avignon. Its old town located right on the river makes for a very easy entry point. Not many people know that the pope—nine popes of them in fact!—called France home during the 14th and 15th century. Over one hundred years of papal legacy lead to an impressive amount of Roman Catholic architecture still to be enjoyed today. The most notable is The Palace of Popes, or Palais de Papes, a Gothic building of such importance in Europe it was awarded world heritage status in 1995. With a good guide you can visit the sanctuary and their private apartments, and listen to legends of the Great Schism and the illegitimate popes.
A Hamlet on the Riviera: Villefranche-sur-mer
It’s no surprise cruisers love this find; such a quaint town is not always so easily accessible to ocean liners. Lucky for us, Villefranche-sur-mer is located on a deep harbor. Cobblestone alleyways lead you from the fishing village to climb narrow paths for hillside views of the sea. This is small town Riveria for those that seek a quieter French provincial ambience away from the glitz of neighboring Nice. Visitors and locals alike enjoy the sandy beaches, snorkeling, and some incredible fresh seafood. Perhaps a glass of rosé with lunch? This town is impossible not to love.