Love Paris? Try Lyon, Nantes or Montpellier

The coastal city of Montpellier has a triumph arch just like Paris.

If you’d rather skip the crowds, expense and queues of Paris, Bron Maxabella has rounded up the next-best cities to visit in France for a dose of Parisian-style delight.

By Bron Maxabella
Paris is delightful, but it's also crowded.

What's not to love about Paris?

It’s not your imagination, every tourist (and their cousin) visits Paris. In fact, around 37 million international visitors visit the French capital each year. That’s over a million people every day, all shuffling down the Champs-Élysées, tripping up the Eiffel Tower and clamouring for a view at the Louvre. Or at least waiting endlessly in line to do all of the above.

If you’d rather skip the queue, there are many other French cities that are just as satisfying to visit as Paris. Try one of these beauties – Lyon, Montpelllier or Nantes – to find your joie de vivre.

Paris is utterly wonderful, but so are these 3 cities that Bron Maxabella rates for a French experience that will leave you just as satisfied as the capital.

Eating and exploring in Lyon

A zippy 2 hours from Paris by TGV, Lyon is one of France’s most underrated destinations… by foreigners. The French are well aware of her many charms, namely her reputation as the ‘gastronomy capital of the world’. Not a bad moniker in a country as celebrated for its food as France is. But when your local produce is Charolais beef, Bresse poultry, dairy from Dauphiné and Rhône Valley wines, you’re starting well ahead of the masses. 

Little wonder the city is starry-eyed with Michelin-starred restaurants, but one of the things Lyon does particularly well is humble local eateries. Known as bouchons, these casual places specialise in rustic dishes that use local produce particularly well. Think bare tables, packed seats and dishes that make you want to lick your plate.

With exquisite streetscapes and delicious food, try Lyon, which is 500km from the capital but only 2-hours by fast train.

The humble magnificence of bouchons fit Lyon very well. She’s a quieter, smaller, greener and cleaner Paris. This makes for a highly walkable city that’s made for exploring.

Start your adventure by trying to find the 40 traboule in the old town. These are ancient hidden passageways that wind their way between courtyards and buildings, around parks and rivers and even under the city itself. Many traboule are hidden passages between some of the remarkable buildings that Lyon has loved and preserved throughout her history. A history so immediate that 427 hectares of the city were inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1998. 

More info: Lyon tourism

Boulevards and beaches in Montpellier

Both architecture and nature buffs should bypass Paris and head straight for Montpellier. The city was founded in 985 and its well-preserved medieval centre gives way to elegant boulevards and plazas overlooked by ornate buildings like Cathédrale Saint-Pierre, Porte du Peyrou and Saint Clément Aqueduct. Testament to Montpellier’s perfect blending of old and new, her boulevards are also a canvas for some spectacular street art.

The fountain of three graces is in the main square of Montpellier in the south of France, 700km or so from Paris.

This sort of vibrant creativity across Montpellier makes it no surprise that the city is home to 2 of France’s largest universities. Student life means the city buzzes at every hour and life spills from cafes, bars and restaurants in squares such as Place de la Comédie, Place de la Canourgue and Place Saint-Côme.

If you tire of city life, though, Montpellier has something extra special up her sleeve. Take a tram or rent a Vélomagg bike to travel a mere 11 kilometres to a succession of unspoiled sandy beaches. On the way you’ll pass through the Petite Camargue where you can keep an eye out for its famous flamingos.

Travel from Montpellier in the other direction and you’ll find yourself at Pic St-Loup, the Languedoc region’s highest peak. A well-marked 6km hike will reward you with panoramic views in every direction and you’ll have earned a glass or two of the region’s famous ruby-red wine. 

More info: Montpellier tourism

Culture and crêpes in Nantes

Paris might house Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, but does it have a gigantic mechanical elephant? Machines de l’île is a surreal sort-of steampunk, sort-of theme park inspired by the works of da Vinci and Jules Verne. It’s quirky, original and built at such scale that it truly must be experienced at least once in a lifetime.

Machines de l’île doesn't exist in Paris, only in Nantes.

The park is situated on old shipbuilding yards on the Île de Nantes, in the middle of the Loire and surrounded by other equally impressive museums and parks. There’s the Le Hangar à Bananes, a contemporary art venue-slash-nightclub precinct or the Quai des Antilles, a sculpture-dotted pedestrian and bike boulevard that links the island precincts.

Nantes may be considerably smaller than Paris, but she boasts a number of beating hearts. Marché de Talensac is where locals gather to dine and shop; Musée d’Arts showcases an impressive collection of Tintoretto, Rubens, Monet, Rodin, Kandinsky and Chagall to rival bigger cities; and Le Lieu Unique, housed in the old LU biscuit factory, is Nantes colourful cultural centre that dances all night long.

Muscadet is the local wine that fuels this pulsing nightlife; you’ll find it in every bar, restaurant and crêperie. Speaking of which, you’d be hard-pressed to find better crêpes anywhere in France. After all, Nantes was the capital of Bretagne for hundreds of years before being made the administrative centre of the Pays de la Loire region.

Art, culture, wine and crêpes – what else could you want?

More info: Nantes tourism

Citro travel tip:

Hiring a car is one of the cheapest ways for a group of people to experience France, but you'll need to produce an international driving permit if the licence is not in French, as well as photographic ID like a passport or local drivers licence. The rail network is also an excellent way to cover large distances in France and you can buy flexible Eurail passes before you leave home.

For more info, read the Explore France tourism website.

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