The 10 best French cities for a spring minibreak – now we can visit again

·11-min read
Place des Orphelins in the historic district of Strasbourg, holidays in France, the best cities in France - Getty
Place des Orphelins in the historic district of Strasbourg, holidays in France, the best cities in France - Getty

Millions of us flock to Paris each year, and for many Britons the easy-to-reach French capital represents a first taste of overseas travel. But there are countless other cities across the Channel that are just as enticing. Our France expert picks his 10 favourites now that France has lifted its ban on UK holidaymakers.

Montpellier

The waiters at the Café Riche are busy men. They’re obviously fitting customers in between more important engagements – key-hole surgery, disarmament talks – so may be offhand. They’re also working on the Comédie, France’s most seductive central square in the country’s most desirable city. Understandably, they have attitude. Montpellier is sensuous and elegant, monumental, cultured and subversive, its features sharpened by the southern spring light. It’s been brainy since Arabs and Jews met up here to pool medieval medical knowledge. The historic centre is a conspiracy of in-town mansions jammed alongside ethnic jewellers, wine bars and a zillion students.

Montpellier, best cities in France - Getty
Montpellier, best cities in France - Getty

The place has no classical past so has created a Greco-Latin present with recent monumental development echoing the times when the Mediterranean ran the world. This is also the only city where one might happen upon statues of Mao and Lenin in a shopping centre. So take a seat, and watch the swell of Latin swirl past. The Riche waiter will arrive eventually, especially if you show some je ne sais quoi.

Stay at: The higgeldy-piggeldy Hotel Aragon, in a bang central side-street (hotel-aragon.fr, doubles from £63). Or discover more places to stay with our guide to the best hotels in Montpellier.

Look out for: The World Figure Skating Championships, March 21-27.

Colmar

Near the German border, Colmar is stupendously attractive. Winding channels flanked by high-hued, half-timbered buildings pay wonky tribute to a watery past – fishing, tanning – and there’s Riesling and gewürztraminer in tithe courtyards: Colmar is Alsace wine HQ. In sun-bright squares overcome with spring flowers, food comes both in traditional steaming heaps and in posher platefuls at the Atelier du Peintre (atelier-peintre.fr).

Holidays in Colmar, the best cities in France - Getty
Holidays in Colmar, the best cities in France - Getty

This region has long embraced epic domesticity as a refuge from batterings administered whenever Latin and Germanic worlds fight. There’s a sense of life lived decently and merrily for generations, for tomorrow may bring howitzers. And, in the Unterlinden museum is Grunewald’s Issenheim altarpiece. City breaks don’t invariably serve up such sense-smacking art.

Stay at: The 16th-century Maréchal Hotel, squeezed in along the river in a riot of flowers, half-timbering and colour (hotel-le-marechal.com; £100).

Look out for: Colmar’s spring festival, April 8-May 1 (printemps-colmar.com).

Nice

When nearing death, Queen Victoria allegedly gasped: “If only I were in Nice, I’d get better.” Undoubtedly. Nice can do that. For two centuries, the clearest light spangling the Bay of Angels has created a setting for sybarites, and shadows for well-heeled decadence. Victoria herself, here on hols alongside hundreds of other wintering nobles, wasn’t immune to the charms of the louche in what was, and remains, a permanently simmering sunshine event. Cézanne and Matisse favoured the light and light-touch morals. Both have ace museums.

Baie des Anges, holidays in Nice, the best cities in France - Getty
Baie des Anges, holidays in Nice, the best cities in France - Getty

Heat-seeking White Russians built the greatest orthodox cathedral outside their homeland. And when on the Promenade des Anglais sweeping round the bay, I can never think of any reason to be elsewhere – except maybe in the old town, behind a salade niçoise and bottle of rosé.

Stay at: The Deck Hotel, a bright-eyed spot with lots of blue and a modern maritime theme (deck-hotel.com; B&B doubles from £73). Discover more amazing places to stay with our guide to the best hotels in Nice.

Look out for: France’s finest carnival, February 11-27 (nicecarnaval.com).

Strasbourg

Brexit has meant that we may ignore the Euro-buildings on the periphery – huge, forbidding, impenetrable – to concentrate on the most civilised of cities. A big past includes medieval democracy, trading wealth, independence, humanism, Reform, beer and pickled cabbage. Strasbourg pulls through the bad times – the city was German for 22 years of the 20th century – by eating, thinking, drinking, laughing, and eating again. Intensely half-timbered streets, notably in the past-perfect Petite France district, jostle with river channels, vinstubs, bierstubs and other opportunities for copious dining. Above it all soars the filigree spire of the sandstone cathedral, supplying the necessary grace and gravitas.

Holidays in Strasbourg, best cities in France - Getty
Holidays in Strasbourg, best cities in France - Getty

Stay at: The Hotel du Dragon whose outer ochre walls foreshadow serenity within (dragon.fr; £73). See more places to stay in our guide to the best hotels in Strasbourg.

Look out for: The Festival des Sacrées Journées, celebrating the sacred music of all religions, March 19-27 (sacreesjournees.eu).

Bordeaux

Bordeaux has the stately mien of a capital in search of a country. In the absence of a country, it is capital of wine, and that’s pretty good, too. As with Vitruvian man, the proportions of the centre are ideal. In the 18th century, they ripped out medieval squalour replacing it with neo-classical expressions of confidence in the rightness of colonial riches. The elegance was, though, somewhat starchy. No longer. Western France’s greatest city now throbs with Latin energy coursing from the reclaimed banks of the Garonne to the scurrying, scurrilous streets of the old St Pierre district. It’s flowed, too, out to the old Bassins-à-Flot, or dock basin.

Bordeaux river bridge with St Michel cathedral in background, Holidays in Bordeaux, best cities in France - Getty
Bordeaux river bridge with St Michel cathedral in background, Holidays in Bordeaux, best cities in France - Getty

The Cité-du-Vin has been Europe’s finest wine museum for the last five years. More recently, the vast former Nazi submarine sheds have been colonised by the world’s biggest, and probably best, digital art show – themed, from February 11, on Venice (bassins-lumières.com). There’s a great maritime museum nearby, too. All this used to be English. We need to re-encroach.

Stay at: The Hotel Zoologie (hotelzoologie.com; £139). It has cast a sheen of contemporary wit over Victorian academic premises. Discover more amazing places to stay with our guide to the best hotels in Bordeaux.

Look out for: A Picasso-and-his-booze show at the Cité-du-Vin (laciteduvin.com; April 15-August 28).

Arras

French revolutionary tyrant Maximilien Robespierre was born in Arras. Other than that, it’s a terrific place. The town’s more recent history has been entirely creditable, notably in 1917. Some 400 New Zealand tunnellers expanded pre-existing quarry workings into a vast subterranean network. Down there, 24000 soldiers sheltered before bursting out on Easter Monday for the battle of Arras. One section, the Wellington Quarry, has been rehabilitated – and, in 2021, revised again – for an absorbing visit.

Holidays in Arras, best cities in France - Getty
Holidays in Arras, best cities in France - Getty

You should pursue Great War inquiries with a trip to the great Vimy Ridge site just up the road. Then return to Arras centre where the two great arcaded squares, their crow-stepped façades lining up like giant skittles, have more Flemish flair than you thought possible. The time is ripe for a carbonade flamande.

Stay at: The Entre-Cour-Et-Jardin, an 18th-century town house with walled gardens (entrecouretjardin-arras.fr; £84). Read our guide to the best hotels in Arras.

Look out for: The Spring Art Deco fest in Arras and across this northern French region (printempsartdeco.fr; April-May).

Rouen

I was standing on the Place du Vieux Marché, where we burned Joan of Arc at the stake. The commemorative 1970s church rose like a rearing armadillo (though apparently it represents Joan’s cap). Behind, La Couronne restaurant was open for business, as it had been since before Joan’s day. Teacher was explaining to her charges what had happened here. “When?” asked a small boy. “1431,” said teacher. “Ah,” said the boy. He’d obviously been hoping for “last Tuesday”.

Holidays in Rouen, best cities in France - Getty
Holidays in Rouen, best cities in France - Getty

Rouen now has the Historial, a terrific museum to history’s most admirable teenage girl, to add to the cathedral which so obsessed Monet and a thrilling old centre. It’s a wraparound of streets dense with half-timbering. And, in case you’re wondering, Gilles’ Tournadre’s Gill restaurant is where you call when ordering your last dinner before execution.

Stay at: The Hotel Mercure Centre Cathédrale, for assured standards and a warm welcome (all.accor.com; £86).

Look out for: Events for the 200th anniversary of local lad Gustave Flaubert in 2021 spilling over into 2022 (flaubert21.fr).

Bourges

Were I making a period movie, I’d not look beyond Bourges. The city’s 12th-century St Etienne cathedral is “stupendous” (said Henry James, correctly), its five vast porches bearing Biblical figures which seem to swirl round, as on a fruit machine. Magnificent, too, is the palace of Jacques Coeur, 15th-century France’s richest banker and merchant, until he fell foul of Charles VII for being too powerful.

Holidays in Bourges, best cities in France - Getty
Holidays in Bourges, best cities in France - Getty

Meanwhile, the wonkier streets are just a toothless villein short of medieval perfection. And then there’s Le Grand Meaulnes, Alain Fournier’s 1913 novel of boyhood, first love and adventure. It’s set in the deep, green Berry region which nourishes Bourges. Of one Bourges character, it is written: “She had every quality except purity.” With any luck, she’ll still be around in 2022.

Stay at: The Hotel d’Angleterre, a historic spot and the only hotel in the old centre of town (bestwestern-angleterre-bourges.com; £92).

Look out for: The Printemps de Bourges spring festival when music breaks out across town with French pop-rock stars in concert (printemps-bourges.com).

Le Mans

The least interesting aspect of Le Mans is the race which spends 24 hours speeding to exactly where it started from. No, the city’s real glory is the 22-acre historical centre overlooking the River Sarthe, the seat of early Plantagenet power. Our Henry II was born there in 1133, in what is now the town hall. He was christened in the nearby cathedral. Should he return, Henry would still find his way through the cobbled streets, walled gardens and half-timbered buildings. He’d certainly recognise the Roman town walls, though might be foxed by the designer boutiques and bijou eateries which have snuck in behind the sculpted façades. The sector has gone stylish. Thank heavens. In a straight tussle between the grime of real history and a well-beamed bistro, I know where my vote goes.

Holidays in Le Mans, best cities in France - Getty
Holidays in Le Mans, best cities in France - Getty

Stay at: The Logis-Saint-Flaceau, a welcoming 16th-century chambres-d’hôtes woven into the city’s past (booking.com.fr; B&B doubles from £95).

Look out for: The Europa Jazz Festival (lemansjazz.com; June 1-6).

Lyon

France’s third city has been substantial since it was capital of Roman Gaul two millennia ago. It has long had two hills, two rivers, prominence in banking, trade, silk and sedition, with a dedication to cuisine remarkable even by French standards. Lyon has rarely bothered about its appeal, which is half the appeal. The other half is in a Renaissance centre to make Tuscans jealous, a central square big enough to host a small war, shopping (posh clothes: Place des Jacobins; posh food: Halles Paul Bocuse) and international standard museums and galleries.

Holidays in Lyon, best cities in France - Getty
Holidays in Lyon, best cities in France - Getty

The picks are the Musée des Confluences, an ultra-modern cabinet de curiosités covering everything, from insects to the universe, and the Musée de la Résistance, in Klaus Barbie’s old Gestapo HQ. The place is also alive with opera, music, and theatre, first class soccer and rugby and neighbourhood bouchon restaurants of crammed conviviality. Listen to the thrum of a big city gathering speed.

Stay at: The discreet, blink-and-you-miss-it bang central four-star Alexandre (hotel-alexandra-lyon.fr; £91). See more places to stay in our guide to the best hotels in Lyon.

Don’t miss: Villeurbanne, three miles from Lyon centre and 2022’s French capital of culture, with some 700 events (villeurbanne2022.fr).

What is the best French city you have been to? Let us know in the comments section below

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting