France has far more to offer than just Paris. Look further than the capital city to discover a wealth of destinations that offer plenty in terms of history, stunning architecture and other attractions. Naomi MacKay takes a look at seven of the best
Marseille is France’s oldest and second largest city, and sits on the Mediterranean coast, enjoying mild humid winters and warm to hot summers with little rain.
Autumn and spring are ideal for strolling around the city and enjoying the sights, though in the summer, visitors might like to hit the beaches before coming into the city later in the day. The Old Port (Vieux Port) is at the heart of the city, with bars and restaurants and a morning fish market. On its north side is the world-class Musee des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Mediterranee, a product of the city’s European Capital of Culture’s status in 2013.
La Canebiere is an avenue of grand hotels and ornate town houses. Nearby is the Capucin district, with its North African soul feel of market stalls and open-fronted shops selling spices and more. It’s a steep climb up to the Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde, with its 33ft (10-metre) Virgin-and-Child statue, which is covered in gold leaf. The crypt and Romano-Byzantine basilica itself are worth a visit.
The prison island of If is a must-see for fans of the Count of Monte Cristo – it is where the fictional character was imprisoned. Football fans will want to take a look inside the renovated Velodrome Stadium, where the Euro 2016 games will take place.
Groups: The city’s tourism department offers guided tours for groups either by coach or on foot. For more information visit www.marseille-tourisme.com/en/travel-trade/guided-tours-for-groups
Winning the title of Europe’s Best Destination in 2015, Bordeaux already has its recommendation served on a plate. At its heart is the Triangle d’Or (Golden Triangle), which is full of architectural delights along with high-end shops, restaurants and bars.
Head to the Place de la Comede where the Grand Theatre sits, and either attend a performance or enjoy one of the guided tours available (www.opera-bordeaux.com).
The Riverfront has been given a new lease of life with open spaces and gardens, while the old warehouses have been transformed into shops, cafes and bars. You’ll also find Place de la Bourse with its miroir d’eau, which reflects the palace. This is best seen at night when it’s floodlit.
The St Pierre district boasts medieval history, with old churches, and little square and narrow streets mixed with bars and restaurants. Learn more about the history of the area at the Musee d’Aquitaine.
Bordeaux is also a good base for wine tours and the tourist office offers tours for groups. Half-day tours start from ƒ25 (ƒ43 with transport). For more details contact firstname.lastname@example.org. If you want to find out more about wine, the Bordeaux Wine School offers two-hour lessons. For more itinerary ideas in Bordeaux, visit www.bordeaux.com.
Caen has a rich history, and was founded by William the Conqueror during the 11th century. With a marina at its heart, narrow streets lined with shops, and plenty of parks and gardens, Caen has plenty to offer visitors.
The events of D-Day on the beaches of Normandy are recalled in the Caen Memorial Museum, a peace memorial giving an hour-by-hour account of D-Day. Another stark reminder of the realities of World War Two is the Grand Bunker – Atlantic Wall Museum.
Caen is home to one of the biggest medieval fortresses in Western Europe. Caen Castle was built by William the Conqueror and offers amazing views over the city.
It is also home to the Musee des Beaux-Arts, which showcases one of the best collections of European Art in the world, along with the Musee de Normandie. The Jardin des Plantes is more than 300 years old and has become a living museum of the flora of Normandy.
Also worth a visit are the Abbaye-aux-Hommes and the Abbaye-aux-Dames, which were built by William and his wife Mathilde. There are guided tours available at both attractions.
If the children in your group have had enough of ‘real’ history, send them off to nearby Parc Festyland, which has historically themed areas, including the Middle Ages and Vikings (www.festyland.com).
Groups: The tourist office offers a guided tour of the city with your own coach, as well as walking guided tours. For more information visit www.caen–tourisme.fr/en
The town of Lourdes is surrounded by breathtaking scenery, yet this little mountain town’s fame is accredited to a little girl called Bernadette. She was collecting wood near the Massabielle grotto when she saw a ‘wonderful lady’, all dressed in white. The apparition told her she was the ‘Immaculate Conception’.
The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes covers 52-hectares and has 22 places of worship. It is open all year round and entry is free. From April to October, there are big celebrations here, such as the international mass, the Eucharistic procession in the afternoon and the torch-lit Marian procession every evening. From November to March, celebrations take place daily.
Underneath is the Grotte de Massabielle, where people queue for hours to enter and take a blessed dip in the cave’s icy-cold baths, while other pilgrims light candles of remembrance outside. The Centre de Diffusion de la Medaille Miraculeuse has a 100-seat theatre where you can watch the events following the apparitions. You can also visit the Moulin de Boly, the mill house where Bernadette was born and lived until she was 10 years old.
Aside from the religious attractions, the town itself is pretty, with steep streets and Bigorre houses. The covered market offers all kinds of delicacies, including roasted pie (Gateau · La Broche) and Madiran red wine. The town’s castle stands on a steep hill on the edge of the town, and now also houses the Pyrenean Museum. A free lift takes you up from Rue Baron Duprat.
A trip to the Pic du Jer, which overlooks the town, gives a fantastic view over Lourdes and to the Pyrenees. Take the 115-year-old funicular train to the summit or alternatively, make the three-hour climb.
Lyon is France’s gastronomic capital and therefore, so many of the attractions here are food related. No visit to the city should be without a visit to a bouchons, a small restaurant offering traditional Lyonnais offal dishes – expect bone marrow, tripe, pork offal sausage and more.
Sitting above the city is the Basilica Notre-Dame de Fourviere, built in the 1870s to celebrate the triumph of reactionary ‘Christian values’ over the socialist ideals of the Paris and Lyon communes. Lyon’s history goes back far beyond that though – it was probably the most important Roman city outside the Italian peninsula. It’s no surprise that there is an Amphitheatre (where they still hold rock concerts), along with other Roman remains on Fourviere Hill and a large Roman museum nearby.
For more recent history, take a trip to the International Puppet Museum (www.gadagne.musees.lyon.fr/index.php/puppets_en) and the Museum of Miniatures and Film Sets, where you can see artists at work on miniatures and restoring old film props – home to the Alien Queen from the Aliens franchise (www.museeminiatureetcinema.fr/accueil_eng.html).
If you want to dance on the bridge like in the famous song, then the bridge to choose is the Pont St-Benezet (St Benezet’s Bridge) – it remains half a bridge, as much of it was washed away in the 1600s. There is a fee to walk across what remains of it.
Avignon has another claim to fame as the ‘City of Popes.’ During the 14th century Popes lived here rather than in Rome, and top of the tourist list is the Palais des Papes, the largest Gothic palace in Europe.
From August to October, it is the venue for Les Luminessenses d’Avignon, a sound and light performance that takes the audience through its history. Next to it is the Romanesque Notre Dame des Doms.
Avignon is also a good place to hop on a wine tour through the villages of the Cutes du Rhune and its wineries, whilst finding out how they make the famous Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Other day trips from Avignon include Arles, where Van Gogh lived, and Nimes, with its prehistoric artefacts, Neolithic settlements and Bronze Age village sites.
Provence has its own distinct style of cuisine and houses the biggest covered market in Avignon – Les Halles – that boasts free cooking lessons on Saturday mornings. Audience members also get to sample the finished result. The market is open Tuesday through Sunday.
Groups: The Tourism Centre runs a number of guided tours on different themes, such as the history of the bridge and the Palais des Papes. For more information visit www.avignon-tourisme.com.
Lille was for a long time simply considered a stop between Paris and Brussels on the Eurostar, but it has plenty to offer to the visitor. This is the capital of the Nord-Pas-de-Calais and at its heart is the Grand Place, with the beautiful La Vieille Bourse – a 17th century stock exchange.
The old town has a neo-gothic cathedral – Notre Dame de la Treille (www.cathedralelille.com).
Lille is renowned for its friendly nightlife and there are plenty of places to eat and drink – galettes (savoury buckwheat pancakes), oysters and Belgian beers are all favourites.
Lille is also the stepping stone for tours of the Flanders battlefields of World War One. You can visit the Ypres Salient battlefields, the German cemetery in Langemark, Passchendaele, the St. George’s Chapel and Menin Gate Memorial along with memorials to British, Australian and Canadian regiments on the Hill 60 Battlefield. It is also possible to take a trip to the Somme.
The renowned Palais des Beaux Arts (Fine Arts Museum) has a fabulous collection of paintings, pottery and porcelain, medieval statues and 18th century scale models of the fortified cities of northern France and Belgium. Audio and video guides in English are available (www.pba-lille.fr).
12km outside the city, an art deco swimming pool has been transformed into La Piscine Musee d’Art et d’Industrie, a museum for fine arts, applied arts and sculpture (www.roubaix-lapiscine.com). For more itinerary ideas in Lille, visit www.lilletourism.com.