Call it a cliché, but if you want to know the real France then it’s the small towns you need to visit.
In the best ones you’ll get to know about local savoir-faire, culture, cuisine and industry.
You can visit the wine-growing villages of Alsace, Burgundy or Gironde to see how the terroir, built environment and flavours feed into one another.
The official “plus beaux villages” are sometimes so immaculate they’re like film sets, and you’ll be rubbing your eyes wondering if they’re real.
Lets explore the most charming towns to visit in France:
1. Riquewihr, Haut-Rhin
Undamaged by the Second World War, Riquewihr is a perfectly conserved walled town packed with timber-framed buildings from the 1500s.
You have to park outside and walk in through the gates.
What greets you on these cobblestone streets is like something out of a movie: House after house of timber and daub, many of which have been Winstubs (wine cellars) for centuries.
Indeed, this is Alsace’s wine region, and the hillsides right outside the gates are grooved with vineyards growing riesling and gewürztraminer grapes.
You can go for gentle hikes in this bucolic landscape or see the town’s sights, like the Dolder, a 13th-century watchtower rising 25 metres above the town.
2. Rochefort-en-Terre, Morbihan
This village’s history as a “Petite Cité de Caractére” goes back to the early-20th century when Alfred Klotz, a rich French-born American, bought the decrepit château.
He did it up, and the building is open to the public, holding exhibits about rural life in Brittany and a collection of his own paintings.
Klotz encouraged this achingly pretty stone village to grow geraniums, and now they’re a part of Rochefort’s identity, spilling out from window boxes and even adding colour to the local well.
You’ll also notice how the buildings seem to be from different times; renaissance mansions are next to rustic timber-framed houses and 19th-century cottages, which only adds to Rochefort’s character.
3. Argentat, Corrèze
This small riverside town on the Dordogne appeared on French postage stamps in the 90s.
The Lestourgie quay is particularly picturesque, with a small promenade by the river and the best views of the stone houses teetering over the opposite bank.
If you pick up a map from the tourist office, you’ll get directions to the most historic house, and you’ll bump into exciting little features at almost every turn.
For people energised by the low mountains and the Dordogne river, there are adventure sports companies in the town leading you out to the wilderness for climbing, canoeing and canyoning experiences.
The 19 kilometre canoe trip down river to Brizezac is special, with some rapids to negotiate on the way.
4. Beynac-et-Cazenac, Dordogne
For such a gorgeous place, perched above a meander in the River Dordogne, Beynac-et-Cazenac has a violent history.
In the Hundred Years’ War the romanesque castle perched over this golden-beige settlement faced off against Castelnaud, which was loyal to the English Plantagenets.
The river, cliffs, the village below and the castle at the top of the bluffs (one of the best-preserved in the region) all come together to make Beynac-et-Cazenac impossibly beautiful.
Take the steep winding alleys up to visit the château, where historic murals and tapestries still decorate the walls.
5. Ars-en-Ré, Charente-Maritime
On the western side of the Île de Ré, Ars-en-Ré is in a scene of salt farms and old windmills.
Many of the village’s buildings are whitewashed, and some, like the 16th-century seneschal’s house just down from the church, have small ornamental towers.
For bird-spotters it’s the perfect place to be, where sandpipers and wading birds like herons white stilts are easy to spot in the shallow saline waters.
Fishing and lobster farming are part of Ars-en-Ré’s economy, and the boats come in and out of the harbour all day via a long channel between the marshes.
If you’re curious about the church’s strange black and white steeple, it’s been a useful mariners way-finder for centuries.
6. Barjols, Var
The history of Barjols in “Provence Verte” is intertwined with water: Unusually for the region this hillside town is served by four rivers, and for centuries these supported Barjols’ leather tanning industry.
When the trade decline in the 70s, the old tanning workshops were turned into the ateliers, galleries and boutiques you see today.
The abundance of water also gave Barjols its many fountains and washhouses.
There are 42 in total, and you can get hold of an itinerary detailing every one.
If you visit Barjols in winter you could be in for a treat, as the Sunday closest to January 17 is the Tripettes, a one-day festival with parades and riotous of dancing.
7. Louhans, Saône-et-Loire
Set on Burgundy’s Bresse plain, Louhans is known across France for its arcades.
These structures are from the 15th and 16th century, below handsome stone houses, and continue along the Grand Rue for 400 metres.
There are 275 arches on this street in total, creating an urban scene that you can’t find anywhere else in the country.
On Mondays the Louhans’ market sets up under the arches, and people come from far away to browse the stalls.
The first and third Mondays of the month are extra special as this is when the livestock market takes place – it’s an authentic glimpse of rural France, but probably not for vegans!
8. Roquefort-sur-Soulzon, Aveyron
Yes, this is “that” Roquefort, the home of the beloved cheese.
Roquefort is a village in the UNESCO-protected Causses and Cévennes region.
Thanks to Roquefort’s AOC status, this village is the only place where real Roquefort cheese can be made, and the way they do it is pretty special: The cheese is made from sheep’s milk, and then matured in the depths of the Cambalou Caves.
Here temperatures remain a steady 8°C to 10°C in winter or summer, and a sea of roquefort blocks is laid out on wooden platforms in a chamber, 300 metres wide and two kilometres long.
9. Saint-Émilion, Gironde
Saint-Émilion is on a limestone rise amid a rolling sea of green vineyards.
As you may know from the distinguished name, Saint-Émilion is one of Bordeaux’s four red wine regions.
So viticulture is a way of life on these cobblestone streets, still shielded by medieval walls with seven gates.
The village’s 11th-century church is actually carved from the limestone plateau, with a nave 11 metres in height and a crypt deep below.
13,000 square metres of rock needed to be excavated to create this monument.
There’s also a bell-tower you can scale for views 50 metres above the town.
Go wine-tasting at the châteaus surrounding the town, and don’t pass up the chance to try Saint-Émilion popular macarons.
10. Le Puy-en-Velay, Haute-Loire
The French trailhead for the Way of St.
James, leading to Santiago de Compostela in north-western Spain, Le Puy-en-Velay has some of the most peculiar and captivating sights of any small town in France.
There are two needle-like volcanic crags that overshadow the town, and both are crowned with religious monuments.
One, Le Rocher, has the Saint-Michel-d’Aiguilhe chapel, 85 metres and an exhausting 268 steps above the streets.
This was built in the 10th century to recognise the first French pilgrim on the Way of St. James.
The other rock, the Corneille is capped with the gigantic Notre-Dame de France, a statue of Virgin and Child made with 213 cannons from the Battle of Sebastopol melted down.
11. Brantôme, Dordogne
Brantôme, in a biosphere reserve, is often lauded as the prettiest small town in Périgord, which is high praise for this part of France.
The inescapable landmark is the Abbey, which was founded by Charlemagne in the 8th century, and because it was sacked so many times, boasts architecture spanning almost a millennium up to the 1800s.
Behind the abbey is the troglodyte cave where Brantôme’s earliest monks settled.
There’s an incredible sculpture depicting the Last Judgement carved into these walls.
There are five castles and châteaux in this small town, as well as what could be the oldest romanesque belfry in France.
The riverbanks are fabulous for walks, and you can hire a kayak to unwind on the river, and get the best perspective of Brantôme’s beautiful heritage.
12. Usson, Puy-de-Dôme
This village hugs the slopes of a volcanic dome, protruding above the Allier Valley.
The dome peaks at 639 metres and on these slopes once stood an imperious fortress, where Margaret of Valois, the wife of King Henry IV was held prisoner for several years.
Cardinal Richelieu ordered the castles destruction but there are plenty of hints of the grandeur of the location, in Usson’s stately 15th and 16th-century mansions and vestiges of its triple ring of walls.
It’s also well worth climbing the dome, on the way passing surreal basalt columns.
At the summit is a 20th-century statue of the Virgin, built to protect France’s airmen.
From up here you can bask in panoramas of Auvergne’s ethereal mountain volcanic ranges.
13. Vézelay, Yonne
On a steep hill, Vézelay has dreamy vistas of the vineyards and woodland in the Cure Valley, as well as the Monts du Morvan in the distance.
The zigzagging streets inside the 12th-century walls are crowded by the elegant homes of winegrowers and renaissance mansions.
Vézelay Abbey is the a local sight you have to see: Together with the ensemble of buildings on the hills it’s a World Heritage Site.
Check out the sculptures on the portals and the capitals at the top of the columns inside.
These are masterpieces of romanesque art and date to the 12th century.
14. Locronan, Finistère
On the list of France’s “most beautiful” villages, Locronan is built from a local granite that has an enchanting blue tint.
For hundreds of years the local industry was hemp farming, which grew all around the town and was cultivated to make ship-rigging and sailcloth.
As with many heritage towns in France, Locronan feels frozen in time, with gorgeous lichen-flecked houses from the 1600s and 1700s.
The consistency of this architecture makes it a dream shooting location for films; some 30 have been made here, including roman Polanski’s Tess in 1979.
15. Lourmarin, Vaucluse
Albert Camus and Henri Bosco were two French cultural giants enticed by the undeniably beautiful Lourmarin in Provence’s mythic Luberon massif.
You can pay your respects to Camus who is buried in the town.
All around are sunflower fields, Côtes du Luberon vineyards, orchards, and olive groves.
And inside the surprisingly lively village are cafes that use every inch of the pavements for outdoor seating, Wander up to the château, which is mostly in the renaissance style and is blessed with a dignified balustraded terrace facing the village with its terracotta roofs and ochre walls.