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10 alternative city breaks in France

PUBLISHED: 11:02 04 April 2018 | UPDATED: 11:21 04 April 2018

One of the bridges in Limoges in Limousin ©Jimjag/fotolia

One of the bridges in Limoges in Limousin ©Jimjag/fotolia

Jimjag

Planning a city break in France but want something different from Paris, Lyon or Bordeaux? Here are 10 alternative cities you could visit on a weekend break

LIMOGES, HAUTE-VIENNE

This ‘ville d’art et d’histoire’ is of course famous for producing delicate porcelain crockery and finely painted enamel panes. There are many museums around town that will tell you all about to revered crafts and their history, but there is more to Limoges than that. The town has a fascinating architecture that mingles antic historical vestiges and Art Déco buildings. Popular sites in the centre include the picturesque rue de la Boucherie, several impressive squares packed with history, ancient underground tunnels and a beautiful covered market hall. There is also a very well executed trompe l’oeil, but will you spot it? Limoges is definitely family friendly thanks to its little train tour and interesting themed guided tours, but for the older ones, Limoges’ nightlife has plenty to offer as well. Get out and about and head to one of two golf courses just outside town. A good way to visit Limoges while saving cash, is to purchase the Limoges City Pass which gets you good deals with 34 partners around town, or to get an exclusive tour with the local knowledge of a Greeter.

How to get to Limoges: Limoges has its own airport with direct flights to and from London and regional UK airports flying with Ryanair, Flybe and British Airways.

Place du Civoire in Brive-la-Gaillarde in Corrèze ©Pierre SOISSONS/ADT Correze Place du Civoire in Brive-la-Gaillarde in Corrèze ©Pierre SOISSONS/ADT Correze

BRIVE-LA-GAILLARDE, CORRÈZE

Located in the heart of Corrèze, Brive-la-Gaillarde, or Brive, is an exciting little town with plenty to see and do. In French, gaillarde is a familiar adjective that means ‘saucy’ or ‘bawdy’ and the town certainly doesn’t take itself seriously and has a playful attitude, probably owing to the strong rugby culture there. The town centre is lovely to walk around with small, winding streets and historical buildings on every corner. Sites include the impressive Collégiale Saint-Martin church, bourgeois 17th-century private mansions and even the Grottes de St-Antoine – hillside caves where the saint used to live. The countryside around Brive is excellent walking and hiking country with over a hundred routes to discover on foot, but you can also go cycling, canoeing or rafting down the Vézère gorges. Explore the area around Brive and visit the plus beau village of Saint-Robert. As for food, the town is very proud of local gastronomy and there are several specialties you can taste including foie gras, pâtés, ‘cul noir’ pork ham, purple mustard or truffles. You should try and hit the covered market hall to taste all of those. Eat out in one of the 200 restaurants in the area which include two Michelin star restaurants. You can check our Aquitaine-Limousin-Poitou-Charentes guide for more info.

How to get to Brive-la-Gaillarde: From April to October, Ryanair flies twice a week from Brive airport to London Stansted. There are also regular train services from Paris.

Cathédrale Notre Dame de Reims in Chanpagne ©artjazz/fotolia Cathédrale Notre Dame de Reims in Chanpagne ©artjazz/fotolia

REIMS, MARNE

Only around 45 minutes from Paris by train, Reims is a great destination for a break away from busy Paris. It is also the home of our favourite sparkling aperitif – champagne. Obviously, while you’re there you should sample some bubbles. A Champagne Wine Tour takes you around the Champagne estates, but if you want to do it yourself, head to the village of Épernay – a short train ride brings you straight through some beautiful vineyard landscapes. For their wow factor, visit Veuve Cliquot’s impressive 24km underground galleries of cellars. Resurface and check out the beautiful mansions and chateaux, home to some prominent names such as Domaine Pomery, Villa Demoiselle or Chateau les Crayères. Once you’ve left the happy haze left by champagne, look up and admire the spectacular architecture in town. Reims has no less than 3 UNESCO world heritage sites: the Cathedral where France’s kings’ coronation took place, the Du Tau palace and the ancient Saint-Remi Abbey. The centre of town is also marked by an interesting Art Deco heritage. There are plenty of gastronomic specialties to whet your appetite – you must try Reims’ pink biscuits, gingerbread and famous ham.

How to get to Reims: regular trains and TGVs leave from Paris gare de l’Est. It’s also about a 1h30 drive from Paris on the A4. If you're driving then don't miss our itinerary for a road trip around Champagne.

The Maison Carrée roman temple in Nîmes in Gard ©Zoe McIntyre The Maison Carrée roman temple in Nîmes in Gard ©Zoe McIntyre

NIMES, GARD

The historic town of Nîmes in Gard was founded in the 6th century BC and is packed with ancient heritage. You may have heard of the famous amphitheatre and the Maison Carrée, built to honour Emperor Augustus’ grandson and adoptive son, but do you know about the Roman city walls, the biggest of their time, or the 18th-century Fontaine gardens? There are plenty of guided tours to choose from, each covering the main sites according to a theme. Nîmes also testifies to the typical south art de vivre and offers a rich gastronomic culture. Visit the covered market halls to sample picholines olives, buy freshly fished sea bream or taste the creamy Pélardons cheese. Grab a fougasse – a flaky bread filled with lardoons – for a snack and enjoy a local Petit Pâté Nimois which is a little like a pork pie. While you’re there you should head out to see the spectacular three-tiered roman aqueduct, Pont du Gard. Nîmes is also known for its adrenaline-induced Feria festivity, which takes place twice a year and involves a carnival and a hair raising abrivado – where a couple of bulls are let loose, surrounded by horses, to run around town while onlookers try to free the bulls by looking for a weakness in the horses’ defence. Read our Languedoc-Roussillon-Midi-Pyrénées region guide for more ideas.

How to get to Nîmes: Ryanair flies to Nîmes from London Luton and London Stansted.

Le Mans from the river Sarthe ©Office de Tourisme Le Mans from the river Sarthe ©Office de Tourisme

LE MANS, SARTHE

When mentioning Le Mans, one can only think of the screaming sound of engines and the rush of wind as racing cars compete fiercely in the famous 24H du Mans race, but there is more to Le Mans than the racecourse. Le Mans has an interesting centre of town named the Cité Plantagenêt which stretches across 20 hectares of winding cobbled streets, colourful timber framed houses and Renaissance homes, surrounded by Roman walls and overlooked by an impressive cathedral. It is packed with historical monuments and sites, but also offers interesting museums, including, of course, the Musée des 24H du Mans. Food-wise, there is plenty to keep you busy and you should definitely try Maison Prunier’s pâtés and cured meats, Sablésienne biscuits and the very popular French inspired pâtisseries with a Japanese twist from Takayanagi tea salon! From July to September, at nightfall, Le Mans’ buildings turn into canvases for spectacular light and music shows, much like Lyon’s Fête des Lumières. You can walk around freely and watch monuments come to life under multicoloured dancing lights.

How to get to Le Mans: regular trains and TGVs to Le Mans leave Paris from Gare Montparnasse. Direct TGVs take just less than an hour.

View of Béziers' Pont Vieux and the Cathedral in Hérault ©Emmanuelle Bonzami/Cynoclub View of Béziers' Pont Vieux and the Cathedral in Hérault ©Emmanuelle Bonzami/Cynoclub

BÉZIERS, HÉRAULT

Located on a hill surveying the Orb river, Béziers has everything a town from the south of France can offer. It is close to the Mediterranean and the beautiful beaches of Sérignan and Valras-Plage. The old town is full of charming historical sites and its narrow streets wind up to the impressive 13th-century Cathedrale Saint-Nazaire which has great views over the river and the town’s 5 bridges. It is also well-placed in the Languedoc-Roussillon wine region, with several wine-producing villages just a few minutes’ drive away. Finally, the emblematic Canal du Midi – a UNESCO World Heritage Site - runs past it with the spectacular Fourserannes Lock, a staircase lock with no less than 9 gates to go through. Béziers is also known for its Feria, an annual bullfighting festival that grips the entire town. Olive oil is one the many specialties you can taste and purchase straight from the producers in town, but make sure to also visit Béziers’ market hall. Active travellers will appreciate the 100km of cycle paths across 7 different routes leaving Béziers and taking cyclers right through winemaking villages.

How to get to Béziers: Béziers has an international airport with flights from Bristol, London Luton, London Stansted and Manchester with Ryanair.

Besançon's citadel built by Vauban in Doubs ©Xdrew/Dreamstime Besançon's citadel built by Vauban in Doubs ©Xdrew/Dreamstime

BESANÇON, DOUBS

Besançon may not be the first place you think of for a weekend break, but you couldn’t be more wrong. The town is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and boast impressive fortifications and a beautiful citadel designed and built by the French engineer, Vauban. It is a town known for its rich cultural life and there are several fascinating museums you can visit, including the Maison Victor Hugo and the Museum of Time. Besançon is actually France’s greenest city thanks to its 2,408 hectares of parks, gardens and forests, so if you’re a more outdoorsy person, then there are plenty of outdoor activities, including many walking and cycling routes. A particularly nice way to experience Besançon is taking a boat ride on the River Doubs. You can choose among 7 different rides, from a large river-cruising barge to self-driven electric boats. There are 2 main markets in town where you can sample the best local produce: the Marché des Producteurs Locaux du Grand Besançon – the equivalent of farmers’ markets, that take place just outside the town centre – and the fascinating covered Marché Beaux-Arts.

How to get to Besançon: direct TGVs from Paris Gare de Lyon take about 2h30 to get to Besançon. The drive from Paris takes just under 4 hours via the A6 and A36.

Dijon rooftops in Côte d'Or ©Solodovnikova Elena/fotolia Dijon rooftops in Côte d'Or ©Solodovnikova Elena/fotolia

DIJON, CÔTE D'OR

Famous worldwide for its mustard, Dijon has many little secrets that make it a perfect destination for a long weekend visit. The old city centre is lovely for a stroll thanks to the many charming timbered houses and historical buildings you will see along the way, including private mansions and impressive official buildings. In 2015, Burgundy’s climats – meaning the soil and natural resources – were listed in the UNESCO World Heritage sites and that included Dijon’s vineyards and estates. Since you’re in the heart of Burgundy wine country, you can head out into some of the surrounding wine estates. Take a guided tour of the estates with wine tastings and explanations along the way. Cycling is one of the main ways to see Dijon and the surrounding area and there are 800km of cycle routes. Dijon has a strong café culture and you will find many cafés, restaurants and bars of all types and atmospheres. Burgundy gastronomy features heavily in these places and you will be able to taste some of the local specialties, such as mustard and snails, of course, but also warming stews such as oeufs en meurette or coq-au-vin and sweet treats like gingerbread, chocolate snails or vine peach tart.

How to get to Dijon: direct TGVs from Paris Gare de Lyon take about 1h30, but you can also drive straight down the A6 from Paris in about 3 hours.

A 'cornet' boat cruises by one of Amiens' floating gardens in Somme ©Jonathan/fotolia A 'cornet' boat cruises by one of Amiens' floating gardens in Somme ©Jonathan/fotolia

AMIENS, SOMME

Conveniently located close to both the ferry ports on the Channel coast and Paris, Amiens is a very easy destination to get to for a short trip. It is a bustling and dynamic city with loads of sites to see and things to do for all ages. Must-see sites include the spectacular Cathédrale Notre-Dame d’Amiens, a UNESCO World Heritage monument, Jules Verne’s home and the old district of Saint-Leu, ideal for sitting down at a café and watching the world go by. Amiens also has a heavy history surrounding the First World War and a guided tour will take you around some of the sites involved in major historical events. Another fascinating thing to see at Amiens are the peaceful floating gardens surrounded by arms of the rivers Somme and Avre, accessible only by boat. They stretch across 300 hectares. The little flat-bottom boats are called ‘à cornets’ and are designed to facilitate boarding without damaging the river beds. Try and visit in the Spring when the Réderie de Pintemps is on. This huge, open air jumble sale is the second biggest in France, after Lille’s Grande Braderie, with over 80,000 visitors a year. This year it takes place on April 17th.

How to get to Amiens: Amien is just over an hour’s drive from central Paris but is also very close to Charles-de-Gaulle so it’s worth flying into Paris and then driving. Trains from Paris Gare du Nord take just an hour.

Metz' Cathedral in Moselle ©Nick Middleton Metz' Cathedral in Moselle ©Nick Middleton

METZ, MOSELLE

This city is allegedly over 3,000 years old and has therefore a rich cultural and architectural heritage. Its 13th-century Cathédral Saint-Etienne is stunning and boasts some beautiful stained-glass windows, but you can also see vestiges of its medieval past in the Recollets cloister or the Templars’ Chapel. For a stroll, head to the lovely Avenue Foch and its beautiful wood-timbered villas, the Place Saint Louis, with its arcades, and check out Metz’ covered market hall. Make sure to visit the Centre Pompidou de Metz, the first decentralised centre of Paris’ emblematic Pompidou Centre, if only to see its impressive contemporary structure. There are many well-tended gardens and parks for you to explore and you can also hire a bike for a cycle tour of the town. The Metz City Pass is worth looking into for the savings you could make on Museum entrances and there are several fun-themed guided tours of the centre. Metz showcases many gastronomic specialties originating from Lorraine, including quiche lorraine – a favourite in France – Paris-Metz cakes, macarons and anything with mirabelles, the local fruit. You can taste all these specialties in the 30 or so Tables de Rabelais restaurants around Metz, which are garanteed to serve quality local products.

How to get to Metz: it’s a 3 hour drive from Paris on the A4 but you can also take the train from Paris Gare de l’Est which takes just under 90 minutes.

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