The 10 greatest small towns in France

France's small towns, such as Amboise, (pictured here) have much to offer the tourist
France's small towns, such as Amboise, (pictured here) have much to offer the tourist - Getty

I’m increasingly convinced that its small towns are the best way to experience France. For visitors, I mean. Villages may be great and pretty, but are subject to curtain-twitching and shutting up by 7pm.

Big cities have the exciting thrum of urban life but thrust you into queues and off the pavement and otherwise prove exhausting.

The small town, by contrast, will be manageable and stress-free while still rewarding exploration. It won’t be surprised by outsiders and will be able to supply (the equivalent of) Imodium, petrol, a decent dinner and a drink after 10pm.

I’ve defined “small town” arbitrarily as having a population between 4,000 and 20,000. In truth, I picked the towns I wanted, then fixed the rules around them.

These, my 10 present favourites, aren’t invariably the prettiest but have backbone and stories to tell. I’ve tried to avoid the blindingly obvious, but not entirely succeeded.


Meuse, Lorraine

The memorial for the unknown French and German soldiers who died during the WWI Battle of Verdun in 1916
The memorial for the unknown French and German soldiers who died during the WWI Battle of Verdun in 1916 - Lee Ergulec/Getty Images

Population: 15,998

If you want pretty and quaint, go elsewhere. If you want modest heroism, come to Verdun, symbol of all that’s valorous about France’s Great War record.

From February to December 1916, some 305,000 men died as the Germans tried to blast their way through to Paris. “They shall not pass,” said Général Robert Nivelle. And they didn’t. But it was a close-run thing.

Above the town, the former killing fields and forest – 40,000 acres, reduced to sludge back then – are now tranquil, as former battlegrounds usually are. There have been no new developments. There are skeletons of destroyed villages never rebuilt, new forest, two terrific forts, a monumental ossuary, a startlingly good battle museum and a sense of nobility withal.

Meanwhile the town, pounded to smithereens in 1916, wears international renown with hard-bitten restraint. The River Meuse provides a running commentary, the centre has all the food and drink you need. Verdun combines a bloody past and brighter present with great composure. It’s admirable.

My favourite? The disarming Hotel de Montaulbain (doubles from £92).


Charente, Nouvelle Aquitaine

Population: 18,338

Everyone’s heard of cognac, the sleek spirit for international sybarites (not least US rappers, Jay Z and co; they term it “yak”). But who knows that its home town is a quiet country spot amid one of the comeliest landscapes of south-west France? Well, all of us now, and so much the better.

The tranquil Charente river sets the rhythm. Soft light bathes white stone. The food is good, the drinking better and life gentle enough to mend the bruised soul.

Stroll Vieux Cognac towards the river for a sense of a tight-packed past. Dark stains on the buildings are caused not by filth but by microfungus nourished by evaporating brandy fumes.

The Musée des Savoir-Faire du Cognac tells the spirit’s story, including the starring roles taken by folk from the British Isles: Messrs Hennessy, Martell and Hine. Also Mr Otard, originally from Scotland.

His brand – now owned by Bacardi – invests the riverside Cognac château, where François I, France’s Renaissance king, was born. Thus it provides the best of all the town’s cognac visits.

Stay in the cabins and over-water lodges of the Quai-des-Pontis (doubles from £75).


Pas de Calais, Hauts de France

Saint-Omer's brick and stone streets are utterly charming - Philippe Paternolli/Getty

Population: 14,838

Long near the border with the Spanish Netherlands, Saint-Omer has a strong civil past and a religious past as grand: see the monumental cathedral. Here, too, and from 1593, the English Jesuit college educated Catholic boys denied schooling at home. (Thus were laid the roots of Stonyhurst College in Lancashire).

But the most memorable religious element is St Erkembode’s tomb. Erkembode was an 8th-century bishop who walked his huge diocese unceasingly. As a result, he’s the go-to saint for parents whose kids have walking difficulties. Thus the tomb is covered in children’s shoes, either beseeching his aid or in thanks for his success. It is immensely touching.

That’s Saint-Omer. Touching, and monumental, from the Sandelin museum to the wrecked St Bertin abbey, from the soaring façades of the Jesuit chapel and college, to mountains of carbonnade and potjevleesch – the great dishes of beer-drinking people with more sense than money. The town has everything.

Head for the Mercure Saint-Omer Centre (doubles from £82).


Finistère, Brittany

Population: 14,121

Douarnenez is a hard-shell Breton fishing port of tough men and tough women. Prosperity, such as it was, came from sardines.

In 1878, 160 million were canned in town, to be exported worldwide. This was considered women’s work. From eight years old to 80, the sardinières prepared the fish – gutting, frying, oiling, packing – for 80 cents an hour.

In the 1920s, that bought a litre of milk. Unsurprisingly, 1,600 of them went on strike 100 years ago this year. It was one of Europe’s first great women’s labour struggles, and is being commemorated in town through 2024. Six weeks on, the women won, but not much. The Port Museum has the story.

You may still sense the strength on the port, and granite streets – aged but not pampered and barely as wide as two fat fishwives. The bay out front provides the breathing space. Across the inlet, the Treboul district has the headlands, beaches and seaside bars.

The onward walking is wonderful. Back in town, the Penn Sardin shop boasts the world’s greatest selection of different sardine preparations and brands, in hundreds of gaily-decorated cans. It’s seventh heaven for puxisardinophiles (sardine tin collectors).

The traditional, friendly Hotel de France would be my choice (doubles from £81).


Cher, Val de Loire

Tartan abounds in Aubigny, the lasting legacy of the 1295 Auld Alliance - Tuul and Bruno Morandi/Alamy Stock Photo

Population: 5,443

And so to a corner of a foreign field which is forever… Scotland. In the watery green Berry region Aubigny is an outpost of full-scale jockery. Saltires are ubiquitous. High street shops have kilted blokes adorning their façades.

The town has a pipe band, its own tartan and whisky, a sword-in-a-rock monument to the 1295 Auld Alliance (between Scotland and France, versus the English, obviously) and a Stuart castle. There’s a Cutty Sark pub. Ring the tourist office and the holding music comes blasting at you from bagpipes.

It’s been that way, on and off, since the Hundred Years’ War when 10,000 Scottish soldiers, under John Stuart of Darnley, hurtled across the North Sea to help French forces against the good guys. The French king had insufficient cash, so paid the Stuarts with Aubigny.

They stayed 250 years, distinguishing themselves in the service of the French military. Their in-town château is now the town hall, and the year’s undoubted highlight is the Franco-Scottish festival around July 12-14 this year, 2024.

But the place is fine at any time. Claim you’re from Kilmarnock, and you’re in.

Go for the lovely chambres-d’hôtes, Villa Stuart (B&B doubles £85). 


Lozère, Occitanie

Population: 12,316

You’ve been roaming the Causses limestone plateaux. Or the Cévennes mountains. Or the Margeride granite uplands. You now need the breath of civilisation. You’ve found it. You’re in Mende, bite-sized capital of France’s most sparsely-populated county. It crams in along the River Lot – and around a gigantic Gothic cathedral, evidence that a pope was born round here (Urban V, since you ask, in 1310).

Mende has ever been a tough spot of essentials, hemmed by mountains from which ruddy-faced farming folk descend for the market, other supplies, school, admin and to meet people to whom they’re not related.

In recent times it has opened and brightened. Shops look 21st century, the HyperU hypermarket has the greatest, best-displayed cheese section I’ve seen anywhere and I recently drank a good mojito in a garden bar (for £4; yes – £4).

Things move on but rural roots remain deep. Thank heavens.

Best hotel in town is the Hotel de France (doubles from £98).

Mortagne-au Perche

Orne, Normandy

Mortagne-au Perche
Well-heeled Parisians flock to the markets of Mortagne-au Perche, the French capital of black pudding - Herve Lenain/Alamy Stock Photo

Population: 4,086

To my mind, a town which is the undisputed French capital of black pudding needs nothing further. Wandering round butchers’ shops filling one’s boots with boudin noir is as intense an urban experience as I require.

But Mortagne does have more. As a main centre of the Perche region – the French Cotswolds – it’s layered with centuries of crypt and cloisters, stone streets, town gates, townhouses and a sense of ancestral self-sufficiency.

You’d not be surprised to see a villein, knight or cowled monk scurrying at sundown. (Well, you probably would, but you know what I mean.)

What it does have is a supply of well-heeled Parisians seeking weekend serenity. “See you in LA next week,” I heard last time I was at the Saturday market. I don’t hear that in other country markets.

So much the better. It’s spreading cash around. And sing-ho for the great Black Pudding festival next March. You’ll learn, among much else, that “boudin” is the word we wrestled into “pudding”.

The Hotel Tribunal is the place to stay (doubles from £93).


Indre-et-Loire, Loire Valley

The Royal Château of Amboise
The Royal Château of Amboise is situated in the heart of Amboise - Jean-Christophe Coutand

Population: 12,861

You should really approach Amboise on horseback, flanked by men-at-arms rather than in, say, a campervan. The old town demands it. High above the wide, idling Loire, the château dominates river and the oatmeal-hued town drawn in deferentially around its skirts.

Stand on the château terrace and you’ll sense a manifest destiny to rule, at least, France. It goes with the territory. A couple of royal Louis, a brace of Charles and two François were in and out of the place, occasionally storming off to Italy to bring back the Renaissance.

Or, in François I’s case, to bring back Renaissance man. Having crossed the Alps on a donkey – with the Mona Lisa in his knapsack – Leonardo da Vinci spent his last years here, in the Clos Lucé manor house. It’s beautiful, and now home to a riveting evocation of the life and works of a man who was better than everyone at everything.

Meanwhile, elsewhere, the little town scurries with commerce and reflected glory, both royal and fluvial. Tourists? Of course! You didn’t really think you’d have the Loire’s most elegant small town to yourself?

Try Le Fleuray, just out of town (doubles from £75).


Var, Provence

Sanary Var Provence
Sanary has much to recommend it - Giacomo Augugliaro/Getty Images/Moment RF

Population: 17,844

Sanary is the pick of the small towns on the French Med coast. Let us count the ways.

There are eight good beaches, excellent bars, admirable wines from the Bandol appellation, a Wednesday market recently voted France’s favourite, a comely seafront for strolling away stress and a sense that, if there are worldly cares, someone else has them.

That said, the “someone else’s” in the interwar years were several – German artists and writers fleeing fascism. It’s the town’s literary sub-plot. The likes of Thomas Mann, Berthold Brecht and Leon Feuchtwanger would gather at the Nautique or Marine bars during what philosopher Ludwig Marcuse termed “six years of happy unhappiness”.

You might hear the echoes: the seafront bars still exist. So do shops somewhat smarter than in neighbouring villages and memories of Aldous Huxley: he wrote Brave New World here. With literary duty done, incidentally, the most appealing beach is Portissol. Then again, quite a few people know this: go early.

On the port, the two-star Hotel de la Tour has been run by the Mercier family since 1936. They’re largely on top of the job (doubles from £77).


Lot, Occitanie

The market in Figeac
Figeac is a medieval town in the Lot department of the Midi-Pyrenees - Horizon Images/Motion / Alamy Stock Photo

Population: 9,741

People – monks and merchants, peasants, nobles and rebels – have been dropping down from the limestone plateau, crossing the Célé River and ending up in Figeac, for a thousand years or more.

They’d still recognise much of it (though the lingerie shops would doubtless trouble them). Here are stone-arched frontages, half-timbered streets, alleys, unexpected squares, cat-lurking crannies and the laughter of children.

It’s like ambling through the historic structures of French living. The country town rhythms have been evolving since the ninth century and aren’t short of juice yet.

Life swirls through. It might take you an hour to get to the tomatoes on the market on Place Carnot. Then you need to honour local lad Jean-François Champollion, the genius who cracked hieroglyphics. There’s a big black granite reproduction of the Rosetta stone in a hidden courtyard and, in Champollion’s birth-house, a first-rate museum of writing, from hieroglyphics and cuneiform onwards.

This includes a facsimile of a big bollard bearing Babylon’s Hammurabi legal code from the 18th century BC. Among its 282 rules is the requirement that an unfaithful wife be thrown in a river. Back to basics, eh?

Stay at Le Quatorze in Figeac’s historic heart (doubles from £66).