Exploring the Lesser-known Gems of France:

memorial slavery
Mémorial de l’abolition de l’esclavage. Nantes (Loire-Atlantique). © Franck Tomps/LVAN.

A Guide to some Lesser-Known Attractions in France

By Oscar Davis

It’s a well-known fact that Paris, France, is one of the most romantic cities in the world and thousands of loved-up couples travel there each year to get engaged, honeymoon or celebrate a milestone.

While this is most certainly true, there’s so much more to France than just Paris. With under-the-city treasures in Paris, and plenty of other cities and towns to see, let’s dive into the lesser-known parts of France.

First Stop, Paris France

This may not be your final or main destination, but it’s where the journey starts as you’ll most likely land at Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport in the capital of Paris. Once safely on land and baggage in tow, taxis and shuttles await. Depending on what type of person you are and which kind of accommodation you prefer and have booked, you’ll likely be somewhere in the center of town or one of the surrounding districts of Paris.

A good way to explore Paris is actually on foot to begin with, and then change over to the tram or underground system. Europe in general is known for its inexpensive travel options and amazing public transport, and Paris is no exception. While you are welcome to rent a car or use private taxi services, if you really want to live how the Parisians live, then the underground and tram are the way to go.

Loire Valley farm fields in France.
Loire Valley farm fields in France.

The good thing about such a touristy place is that the Parisians think in terms of tourists, meaning they cater to all kinds of travelers and budgets.

Whether you prefer to be among lots of people and visit the Eiffel Tower for example, which is free of charge by the way (unless you actually want to go up to the top), or keep it more low-key and go underground with tickets for catacombs of Paris, the good people of France have got you covered.

The low-key option will see you venture into the underground ossuaries in Paris that hold the remains of more than six million people. Going twenty meters underground, this unique site recalls the history of these Parisians and invites visitors to take a timeless journey into the past life of Paris.

The Underground of Paris

If you decide to visit the underground world of the catacombs, you’ll be guided through the tunnels including an audio presentation. Let’s not spoil this adventure for you, all that needs to be known is that this site started many years ago, in the late eighteenth century, when major public health problems arose on account of the city’s cemeteries, resulting in a decision to transfer their contents below ground level.

One last thing to note: Make sure that you get your tickets online beforehand as this will save you plenty of time, and while children over the age of five are allowed entrance, it may be good to assess whether your child will enjoy this excursion before you dive in.

Paris catacombs
Paris catacombs

Coming back up to ground level, while you’re in Paris and before heading off to explore other incredible places in France, it definitely is worth packing a picnic and taking a walk through the famous Parisian gardens on your own, with your significant other, or with your whole family.

A nice balance between the underworld and the stunning greens of these world-renowned gardens landscaped and pruned to perfection. You may also enjoy a relaxing Seine River Cruise or the water world of the Paris Aquarium before heading into lesser known parts of France.

Hey, Marseille: Better than You Think

The busy, boat-filled harbor of Marseilles, France. Sonya Stark photo.
The busy, boat-filled harbor of Marseille, France. Sonya Stark photo.

So Paris is in your rearview mirror and you’ve seen some of what the city has to offer. Now it’s time for adventure and exploration. Drawing inspiration from the annual Tour de France, you can cycle through the city of Marseille and beyond it’s borders easily as it caters to both cyclists and visitors on foot.

Being a port city, explorers are treated to delicious, fresh seafood straight from the ocean, giving them the energy they need to climb the steep hills in this historic city. With all the ups and downs (literally) of the city, it’s hard to find a place without a view. The locals are friendly and will show you the way if you do get lost, which is not that likely as everything is clearly designated and labelled.

"Fish of Marseille" by Mathias Sovereign. Guillaume Ruoppolo Photos.
“Fish of Marseille” by Mathias Sovereign. Guillaume Ruoppolo Photos.

History of Marseille

The history of Marseille is beautifully depicted for visitors to observe and enjoy: Musée Cantini, Musée des Beaux-Arts, and Château Borély – Musée des arts décoratifs, de la faïence et de la mode de la Ville de Marseille, are only three of the timeless spaces created for tourists to inhale the history of such a special and unique city.

The beauty of traveling in Europe is the sense of safety and freedom that one has, ensuring that visitors and backpackers get around easily and without much hassle.

For solo travelers and nomads, there are plenty of hostels and less expensive accommodation options to network and socialize. It’s not uncommon to meet someone along the way and travel with them for a leg of the journey, sharing experiences, the memory of which can last a lifetime. Always say yes to adventures.

Nantes, France at night. GoNOMAD photo.
Nantes, France at night.

Northwest to Nantes

Located a 2-hour train ride away from Paris, Nantes, referred to as the quirky part of France, is well worth the trip and is among the French towns that has changed the most in the 20th and 21st centuries. What many don’t know is that Nantes, having been partly destroyed in World War II, was designated in the 60s as one of the eight provincial counterweights to reduce the dominance of Paris on French national life.

Over the past few decades, it has become increasingly dynamic, with a diversified economic structure and various fields growing in size. The city is a playground for artists, engineers and students, cementing the feel of creativity and education in the air.

A trip to Nantes is more than just a tick on your bucket list, it’s a place where you can dream big and live large, but not in the traditional sense. Luxury in terms of possessions is not the top priority in this northern part of France, its much more about luxury of the mind and thoughts, a place to broaden one’s horizons and connect with one’s soul.

Beautiful parks and historic walkways give people who are lucky enough to visit Nantes, the feeling that anything is possible. Grab a blanket and take some downtime in the lush green gardens, of course while eating baguette and sipping some Cacolac, a traditional non-alcoholic French beverage.

Meet up in Metz

Depending on what time of year you visit France, Metz is absolutely stunning in the winter time and features one of the best Christmas markets in the entire country. Metz is both overlooked and underrated, making it the perfect place to escape to if you’re not too keen on tourists. Bordering three separate countries, namely Germany, France and Luxembourg, travelers are treated to different cultures and impressions all in one city.

This varied history can still be found in the architecture today. From the Temple Neuf and the breathtaking Cathédrale de Metz, which is dedicated to Saint Stephen, to more contemporary modern architecture found in the Centre Pompidou-Metz, there is so much to marvel at and enjoy.

Metz is ideal to let the senses rest a little and unwind, to enjoy the simpler life of a city less frequented than a place like Paris. It’s a stunning backdrop for those who like to journal and take pleasure in the little things in life. People are often spotted with a coffee, the sun on their faces and a book in hand, either reading or even writing their own thoughts down.

International influence can also be felt, for example if you visit Torii Japonais, located at the edge of Plan d’Eau de Metz. This special feature is made of wood and painted in bright red, commissioned for a Japanese exhibition in the 1980s, and becoming a popular tourist attraction since then as it’s said to act as a boundary between two different worlds, one physical and one spiritual.

There’s a sense of appreciation for life in Metz, something that the locals are happy to share and generously pass on to travelers.

View from the Arras town hall in Northern France. Max Hartshorne photos.
View from the Arras town hall in Northern France, near Amiens. Max Hartshorne photos.

There’s Something about Amiens

Perhaps you haven’t heard of it, but Amiens is a must-see and far removed from the touristy places one envisions when thinking of France. This captivating city is part of the Haut-de-France region in northern France, divided by the River Somme.

And if it’s coffee and incredible food you’re after, then the shops and cafes lining the Quartier St.-Leu’s narrow streets are calling you.

Another highlight are the unique floating market gardens that dot the city’s canals, and it wouldn’t be Amiens without the fascinating Amiens Cathedral full of French history and culture, as well as being a UNESCO World Heritage site.

One could spend days just sitting around, sipping coffee and eating croissants, watching the people walk by and pondering life and what it means. This is a city made for those who love the slower part of life and can enjoy simplicity and complexity at the same time, for example at Les Hortillonnages d’Amiens, which is a network of canals and floating gardens right in the heart of Amiens.

This natural site is so special and is often referred to as the “Little Venice of the North” thanks to its labyrinth of waterways and lush vegetation. It’s like stepping into a whole new world, a different world, that may open your mind to new ideas and ways of living.

The best part about Amiens, apart from the history, nature and cuisine of course, is the budget-friendly aspect. France is known to be on the pricey side, especially if you’re wanting to be close to all the sites, but Amiens offers top-tier hotels at very affordable prices, meaning that you could stay in hostels in Paris and Marseilles, and then treat yourself and look forward to a more upmarket dwelling in Amiens. It’s all about balance, and Amiens sure is playing along.

St Briac sur mer near Dinard Brittany.
St Briac Sur Mer near Dinard, Brittany.

Run to Rennes

In the last of our underrated towns and cities, the path less travelled leads to Rennes, which is the capital city of Brittany, northwest France. What makes Rennes so special is its medieval half-timbered houses as well as the grand Rennes Cathedral.

For those who love flora and fauna, the Parc du Thabor will fascinate and intrigue you thanks to its immaculate rose garden and one-of-a-kind aviary. Art lovers are in for a treat at the Musée des Beaux-arts which proudly displays works by Botticelli, Rubens and Picasso.

Although Rennes is steeped in history and dates back hundreds of years, it’s also a city that moves with the times, and with people nowadays so keen on sustainability and green spaces, Rennes is here to please. Picture lush gardens, beautiful rivers and miles of cycle paths; Rennes can be enjoyed in any season.

Traveling is about exploring and learning, it’s about opening your mind and heart to new things, different cultures and ways of living. Taking a road, be it alone or with others, that leads you into the unknown can’t be compared to anything else in the world.

And France is the ideal place to take a journey like this, as it merges culture and history, flora and fauna, as well as the new and old. As the saying goes, “To travel is to live”.
oscar davis unsmushed

Oscar Davis is a freelance writer from Leeds, UK. 

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