• Leslie

Hidden Gems in France: The Most Beautiful (Mostly) Secret Villages in France

Updated: Aug 3

half timbered houses along a cobbled street in a typical French village

Here's my guide to visiting 30+ of France's secret out-of-the-way towns, villages, and hidden gems, for the more discerning traveler.

France is my favorite country in the world. Its small towns are so appealing and romantic -- swathed in centuries old cobbled lanes, stone cottages and castles, and tumbling geraniums. You'll be transported back in time to a quainter and simpler version of life.

From north to south, France is filled with picturesque less touristy hamlets that often go unnoticed and undiscovered. Many of them are listed among France's 157 "les plus beaux villages" (the most beautiful villages) and are UNESCO World Heritage sites.

If you have tourist phobia like me and are looking for more unusual destinations and offbeat things to do in France, you'll want to ferret out these off the beaten path towns in France.

Secret Towns in France for Your Bucket List

30+ of France's Prettiest Secret Towns and Hidden Gems

I whittled down my love list to 30+ charming must see towns and villages in France. There's many more I could add to your itinerary for France. I'm dreaming about them now. *Swoon!*

But a blog post can only be so long. So let's take the road less travelled and discover some of France's best kept secrets and off the radar hidden gem towns. I promise your memory card will be quickly gobbled.

1. Albi, Occitanie

Underrated Albi is ideal base for touring the Occitanie region of France. It's just an hour away from both Carcassonne and Toulouse. What’s more, very few people outside France know just how fantastic Albi is.

Albi was listed as a UNESCO site in 2010 and is a strangely affecting place, despite the weight of its past or perhaps because of it.

Situated on the Tarn River, Albi is a perfect ensemble of militaristic medieval architecture and a vibrate urban center. It has a stunning UNESCO-listed cathedral, Albi Cathedral. It's one of the world's largest brick structures and is a place of superlatives both inside and outside.

READ: Complete Guide to Albi France

the Berbie Palace in Albi France, a fortress which now houses the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum
the Berbie Palace in Albi France, a fortress which now houses the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum

Another imposing citadel, the Berbie Palace, houses the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum. The museum is fantastic, boasting a huge cache of the Post-Impressionist's groundbreaking art.

Both structures ooze power and stand as a symbol of the Catholic triumph over the Cathar rebels, in the 13th century religious wars called the Albigensian Crusade.

The prettiest area of Albi is the Castelnau neighborhood. It's effectively a village within a village, full of medieval half-timbered houses bedecked with colorful shutters and flowers. There, you'll find Hotel du Bosc, the birthplace of Toulouse-Lautrec. Nearby, you'll also find the lovely Saint Salvi Collegiate church and cloister.

READ: Visitor's Guide to Albi's Toulouse-Lautrec Museum

the Grand Place of Arras
the Grand Place of Arras

2. Arras, Picardy

I liked Arras far more than I expected too, actually. It's quiet and charming -- full of lovely squares and grand 17th and 18th century Flemish-Baroque architecture. The town's two main squares are the Grand Place and the Place des Heros. From Arras, you can also visit the Battle of the Somme memorials.

The Belfry of Arras was listed as a UNESCO site in 2005, along with 56 other belfries in France and Belgium. Construction began in 1463 and took almost a century to complete. The top of the belfry offers amazing views. You can take an elevator most of the way, with a few additional steps to hike up.

the picture perfect village of Auvers-sur-Oise on the Oise River
the picture perfect village of Auvers-sur-Oise on the Oise River

3. Auvers-sur-Oise, Oise

Auvers-sur-Oise is a lovely underrated French village, surrounded by wheat fields and set on the banks of the Oise River. The legendary painter Vincent Van Gogh described Auvers as "gravely beautiful." To him, the quiet village calmed his nerves and inspired his art.

Van Gogh spent the last 70 days of his life creating 70 paintings of Auvers-sur-Oise. He was buried in the village with his brother Theo. Common wisdom holds that Van Gogh committed suicide, as a notoriously tortured soul. But there's growing evidence that Van Gogh was murdered.

READ: Van Gogh Murder Mystery

the Chateau d'Auvers-sur-Oise
the Chateau d'Auvers-sur-Oise

In Auvers, you can walk in Van Gogh's footsteps. Some of his greatest masterpieces were painted there, including Crows Over Wheatfield, the Portrait of Dr. Gachet, and Church at Auvers.

The Roman-Gothic Church of Auvers is sober and beautiful. It was built between 1137-1227. It's instantly recognizable as the subject of one of Van Gogh's most famous paintings.

READ: Guide To Paris' Musee d'Orsay

The Chateau d'Auvers is also stately and impressive. It's a 17th century Louis XIII-style building. The chateau features an immersive multimedia Impressionist exhibit and has a beautiful garden.

4. Bayeux, Normandy

Normandy hugs the northern shore of France. The town played an outsized role in French history. It's the site of the Norman invasion of France in 1066 and WWII's D-Day landings of 1944.

Most people go to the village of Bayeux to see the thousand year old, and exceedingly long, Bayeux Tapestry. Housed in the Bayeux Tapestry Museum, the tapestry depicts the story of William the Conqueror's 1066 invasion. It's remarkably well preserved given its age.

The Bayeux tapestry (actually an embroidery) was created by William's queen, Matilda, and her court. The Nazis seized the tapestry during WWII and took it to the Louvre, which they had commandeered and were using as a clearinghouse for art theft. After the war, the tapestry was returned to Bayeux, its rightful owner.

detail of the Bayeux Tapestry, which has 50 scenes depicting the Norman conquest
detail of the Bayeux Tapestry, which has 58 scenes depicting the Norman conquest

But Bayeux isn't just a piece of cloth, however impressive. Full of medieval architecture, the town itself is delightful and fairytale-like. Honey colored stone buildings are topped with black slate roofs. Flowing flower boxes spill into the narrow lanes.

While you're strolling, pop into Bayeux's Notre Dame Cathedral. This rather large church was consecrated in 1077. It's thought to be the original home of the Bayeux Tapestry. Fierce gargoyles on the exterior scowl down at you.

For history buff, the D-Day beaches are nearby. You can immerse yourself in the history of Operation Overlord. For background, visit the America Gold Beach Museum, the Memorial Museum of the Battle of Normandy, and the Bayeux War Cemetery.

READ: The Impressionism Trail in Normandy

5. Collonges-la-Rouge, Dordogne

The label "most beautiful village in France" could've been born in Collonges-la-Rouge. It's so uniquely pretty. In 1942, the entire village was classified as a monument historique.

Collonges is a rust red stone village set amidst a verdant natural setting. The red derives from the sandstone plateau of Limousin. Nicknamed the "City of 25 towers," Collonges is home to many stately castles, mansions, and tiny cottages.

Start your stroll on the Rue de la Barrière, the main street. It could be a movie set. The higgedly-piggedly medieval buildings are covered in conical turrets, grape vines, and wisteria.

beautiful stone home in Collonges-la-Rouge

You'll see the magnificent town hall and the House of the Mermaid. Now housing a museum, the Mermaid House is typical of the village's signature architecture -- with a slate roof, pretty porch, and facade covered with flowers.

St. Peters Church dates from the 11th century. It has two naves where Protestants and Catholics conducted simultaneous services.

Further on, you'll reach a covered passage that takes you to the church square. You'll find a beautiful market hall, which is the site of Collonges' annual bread festival. If you're hungry, try the adorable restaurant Auberge de Benges, which boasts views of the countryside.

typical cobbled streets in Conques France
typical cobbled streets in Conques

6. Conques, Midi Pyrenees

Tucked away in a gorge where two rivers meet, lies the small sweet town of Conques. It's an easy day trip from from Lyon, Montpellier, or Toulouse. The settlement here was founded in the 8th century. Modern developments bypassed the town and it seems charmingly frozen in time.

Conques sports narrow cobblestone lanes and medieval stone and timber beamed homes. The roads are nearly too narrow for even small cars. It's tranquil in this ancient town.

The heart of the historic center is the beautiful Abbey Church of Sainte-Foy. Its massive towers are visible from the entire town. The intricate Last Judgment carvings on the portal demand your attention. The abbey's monastery hold the relics of a young girl martyred in the 4th century, making it a pilgrimage destination.

From this looming edifice, it’s a small wander across the square to a number of restaurants and cafes. Try Le Charlemagne for lunch on its grapevine-covered terrace.

READ: Must See Sites in Toulouse

7. Cordes-sur-Ciel, Occitanie

Cordes-sur-Ciel seems to sit in the sky. Hence its name, which translates to "ropes on the sky." Cordes-sur-Ciel is so ancient, so cobbled, so dreamy that it has a time warp feel. The dawn of modernity seems to have passed it over, exodus style, leaving a sweetbox escape for those who want to fall back in time.

The little village began life in southern France in 1222, founded by Count Raymond VII of Toulouse. During the Albigensian Crusade, Cordes-sur-Ciel was prosperous. Its wealth derived from the leather, textile, and silk industries.

pretty homes in Cordes-sur-Ciel France

Today, Cordes-sur-Ciel is an artsy village, a treasure trove of local art. Its cobbled streets are filled with quaint galleries, ateliers, and cats. You can find contemporary painting, pottery, sculpture, handmade jewelry, glassware, woodcarvings, and artisanal leather.

Cordes-sur-Ciel is a great day trip from Toulouse or Albi in France's Occitanie region. If you want to read more about the idyllic hilltop village and how I almost lost my friend's iPad in my trance-like state of adoration, read my story.

READ: Easy Day Trips From Toulouse

8. Etretat, Normandy

Etretat is another must visit town on the Impressionist Trail in Normandy. Sleepy Etretat is a classic old world French town with absolutely mesmerizing scenery.

Etretat is set on the sea. Waves crash against the shores of a jagged chalky coastline, with a pretty beach promenade. A monumental arch, Porte d'Aval, plunges into the sea. It's France's version of England's White Cliffs of Dover.

The town's beauty inspired artists like Claude Monet, Henri Matisse, Eugene Boudin, and Gustave Courbet. The cliffs, known as the Elephant and the Needle, were one of the artists' favorite spots to paint.

READ: The Monet Guide To Paris

The best way to admire the seascape is to walk along the cliffs. On your walk, you'll come across the Chapel of Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde. The original was destroyed in WWII, but it was rebuilt in the 1950s.

the white cliffs of Etretat
the white cliffs of Etretat

As you walk along the seaside path, you'll find placards depicting the precise spots where Monet painted some of his most famous paintings. You can hike to the top of the arch via a pathway and stairs to see different perspective of the alabaster cliffs.

When you're done admiring the caves and tunnels carved into the cliffs, head down to the sparkling turquoise waters of Etretat Beach. The water is cold, but the pebbles are soft and smooth, not hard on the feet.

Etretat's town center is quaint and shouldn't be ignored. It's bursting with shops, eateries, and art galleries. Cider is a local specialty and there are plenty of crepes. There's also quite a number of small bed and breakfasts -- a testament to Etretat's appeal to (mostly) French tourists.

9. Foix, Midi-Pyrenees

Located on the edge of the Pyrenees, Foix is a beautiful red roofed village steeped in history. Its old town is a labyrinthian web of tiny cobbled streets with half-timbered houses more characteristic of the Alsace region.

On Rue des Marchands, you'll find one of Foix's historic buildings, the Saint-Volusien Abbey. It was originally built in 1104 by Charlemagne. But it was destroyed and rebuilt in the 16th century.

pretty street in Foix France
pretty street in Foix

Foix is dominated by its medieval 10th century castle, Foix Castle. The doughty defensive castle was considered unconquerable in the Middle Ages because of its perch.

Even Simon de Montfort failed to capture it during the Albigensian crusade. Foix Castle finally fell to French King Philippe the Bold in 1272.

The historic center of Foix itself is lovely and full of twisty lanes. Be sure to stroll down the lovely Rue de la Faurie.

The most eye catching half-timbered homes are on Place Lafaurie Parmentier. On Rue des Grands Ducs, you'll spot tiny half-timbered passageways built across a lane, linking the homes together.

pretty brick house in the pretty town of Gerberoy, a hidden gem in France
pretty brick house in the pretty town of Gerberoy, a hidden gem in France

10. Gerberoy, Normandy

Located in the Oise region, the small town of Gerberoy is a "plus beaux village de France." Time warp Gerberoy is filled with charming cobbled streets and half timbered buildings clad in painted shutters and flowers. It's known as the "City of Roses." It's a perfect day trip from Paris.

The early 20th century artist Henri Le Sidaner put Gerberoy on the map. The town was recommended to him by sculptor Auguste Rodin. Sidaner captured its 17th and 18th century houses, winding lanes, and profusion of roses.

READ: Guide to the Rodin Museum in Paris

cobbled street and half timbered homes in Gerberoy France
cobbled street and half timbered homes in Gerberoy

The Gardens of Sidaner are one of Gerberoy's must see sites. It's a three level Italianate garden, filled with roses and wisteria, boasting views over Gerberoy. You an also visit the Jardin des Ifs. This garden is listed as a Jardin Remarquable, with a stunning topiary yew garden.

Gerberoy also has plenty of adorable squares, eateries, galleries, and museums to keep you busy. Have lunch at Les Remparts. Check out the Collegiate Church of Saint Pierre, begun in the 11th century and completed in the 15th century.

READ: One Week Itinerary for Normandy

11. Grasse, French Riviera

The French Riviera is not my favorite place in France, though I love sophisticated Nice. It's just too crowded and glitzy.

If you want something different than a popular seaside town, the town of Grasse is a secret hidden gem on the Riviera. It's the capital of perfume and the birthplace of famous scents. Get your nose ready!

Grasse is filled with perfumeries. Many of them offer free tours or perfume making workshops. The most famous perfumery is Fragonard, a company that only sells its perfumes in France. You can visit its perfume museum, the International Museum of Perfume, and learn the history of perfume through the ages.

medieval stone houses in adorable Lacoste
medieval stone houses in adorable Lacoste

12. Lacoste, Provence

Little Lacoste is fetchingly perched on a hilltop in the Luberon area of Provence, overlooking the nearby (and much larger) village of Bonnieux. Lacoste isn't an "orange city" like Roussillon. But in the sunset glow, it's a nice rusty coral hue.

Lacoste is paved with stone and is full of cobbled narrow alleyways and picturesque houses. Its oldest building, the Mason Forte, dates from the 9th century. Most other buildings date from the 16th century.

ancient lane in the medieval village of Lacoste
ancient lane in the medieval village of Lacoste

The Chateau du Marquis de Sade, also known as the Chateau de Lacoste, gets its name from the infamous French libertine who stayed there on and off while he was scandalizing 18th century society. Now, the chateau is privately owned by French designer Pierre Cardin. But it's open to visitors in July and August or by reservation.

All this makes Lacoste a must see village in Provence for history buffs. But Lacoste is also a center of SCAD, the Savannah College of Art and design. Art lovers can visit the impressive gallery and gift shop.

READ: Pretty Villages of the Luberon Valley

pretty lane in Lyons-la-Foret, a hidden gem in France
pretty lane in Lyons-la-Foret

13. Lyons-la-Forêt, Normandy

In Haute Normandy, the charming small town of Lyons-la-Foret is set in a large beech forest. The town is one of France's Les Plus Beaux Villages. It's surrounded by the kind of idyllic farmland that people associate with the Norman and Breton countryside.

Lyons-la-Foret is a classic French village with half-timbered houses, mostly dating from the 17th and 18th century. The town has cozy cafes, quaint antique shops, and a

covered marketplace. On Thursdays, in the town's heart, shops are abuzz with trade.

Many artists were attracted to the pretty town, including Claude Monet. The town was also a filming location for two different versions of the film Madame Bovary.

While there, be sure to see Saint-Denis Church, dating from the 15th century, and the Cordeliers and Benedictines Convents. The Place des Trois Moulins has three picturesque water mills and a small garden.

street in the hilltop village of Lourmarin with French blue shutters
street in the hilltop village of Lourmarin with French blue shutters

14. Lourmarin, Provence

Loumarin is a secret Luberon village not too far from the more popular and tourist-fly Gordes. Aside from its 15th century castle, there's delightfully not much to see or do in Lourmarin. Just soak up the quaint town center and views. Its narrow lanes spiral up to the belfry.

After your walkabout, indulge at one of Lourmarin's chic eateries or boutique stores. The cafe culture clusters around the Place de l'Ormeau.

Lourmarin also has a 15th century Gothic-Renaissance chateau. The Chateau decayed into ruin and was scheduled for auction and demolition. But it was rescued in the nick of time by Robert Laurent-Vibert, a rich industrialist and literary scholar, who restored it. The chateau now hosts wine tasting and performances in the evening.

Lourmarin has some literary cache to boot. Existentialist writer and philosopher Albert Camus lived in Lourmarin in the 1950s and is buried there. Author Peter Mayle moved there not so long ago. Both add to the village's cachet.

READ: 10 Day Itinerary for Southern France

15. Minèrve, Occitanie

Minèrve is another of France's les plus beaux villages. Minèrve boasts charming cobbled streets and stone houses. It's perched high above deep gorges, accessed by a high bridge. The unique fortress was "born from a tumultuous geological history and from the action of water over limestone over eons, which carved the rock into narrow canyons."

You have a splendid view of the canyons during a rampart walk. Minèrve was also a Cathar stronghold. It was the site of a famous siege in the medieval ages, in which the bloodthirsty Simon de Montfort prevailed, vanquishing the pesky Cathar rebels.

The Dove, a sculpture by Jean-Luc Séverac, commemorates the Cathars who Montfort burned at the stake in 1210. It sits in front of the 12th century Romanesque Church of Saint Etienne.

READ: Most Beautiful Villages in Occitanie

16. Moustiers-Sainte-Marie, Provence

Moustiers-Sainte-Marie is an authentic medieval village near the ever-so-beautiful and underrated Gorges du Verdon in southern France. This tiny village is one of France's "les plus beaux villages."

You can easily see why. Moustiers is encrusted between two cliffs, complete with a cascading stream and waterfall. A golden star, hooked to an iron chain, hangs between the cliffs.

Naturally, the star is the subject of local legend. One tale holds it was hung in the 10th century by a grateful crusader. Another says that doomed lovers jumped off the cliffs to their death and their families installed the star in their memory. To carry on the romantic tradition, Moustiers replaces the star as needed by helicopter.

bell tower of the Moustiers church in the background
bell tower of the Moustiers Church of our Lady in the background

Moustiers is not the easiest place to park. Look for paid lots close to the village. Then, wander through the knotty narrow streets and browse in Moustiers' acclaimed pottery shops.

Check out the 13th century Church of Our Lady of the Assumption, the most significant historic landmark in Moustiers. It's at the end of a rather steep vertical path. In the middle ages, it was a pilgrimage spot. Still born children were brought there and allegedly revivified for a few moments to be properly baptized.

the Chateau de Pau in Pau France in the Midi-Pyrenees
the Chateau de Pau in Pau France in the Midi-Pyrenees

17. Pau, Midi-Pyrenees

Pau is an adorable Tour de France village in southwest France. The cyclists blaze through, but you don't have to. Pau is perched on a cliff with a fabulous view of the Pyrenees Mountains. Terraced gardens link the upper and lower town.

King Henry IV was born in Pau. He was the only king born in southern France. He was a protestant and gave up his religion for the crown in 1589. In the 19th century, the English arrived to seek cures in Pau, thanks to its unique climate. As a result, Pau has a rather elegant English feel.

pretty medieval house in Pau France
pretty medieval house in Pau

The center of Pau is pedestrianized and a pleasure to stroll through. The Boulevard des Pyrénées is one mile of magic with gorgeous views.

The main tourist site is the elegant Chateau de Pau. Napoleon III used it as a summer residence. The chateau is now a museum and boasts some pretty Gobelin tapestries (Gobelin is a tapestry factory.)

stony streets and homes in Perouges
stony streets and homes in Perouges

18. Perouges, Ain

Perouges is a tiny walled village, an easy day trip from Lyon. It's perched on a small hill overlooking the Ain River. The sleepy town was beautiful restored in the 19th century and retains an authentic medieval feel. Listed as one of France's les plus beaux villages, Perouges is home to craftsman, artisans, and wine makers.

The village is a 20 minute walk from the train station, if you're coming by train. You enter via the city gate, the 13th century Porte d'en Haut. You're immediately plunged into a time warp atmosphere and a maze of cobbled streets.

Follow the Rue des Rondes, which is a circular route around the village. The town's main square is the quaint Place du Tilleul. Perouges is so small that you'll only need a couple hours to visit. Be sure to check out the' 15th century fortress-church, the Eglise Sainte Marie Madeleine.

This is the time to pick up some artisan products and sample the town specialty, Galette Perugienne. It resembles a cheese pizza, but instead is a delicious melange of butter, lemon, and sugar.

19. Perpignan, Occitanie

Perpignan is a quiet, perfect jewel of a place that's a casual, calm, and convivial mix of France and Spain. It's hidden away in the most southeast nook of France where the sun shines most of the year.

Perpignan is a network of cliffs, creeks, and vineyards that most tourists miss. The town exudes old world charm, with beautiful Mediterranean architecture and winding medieval streets. Visit the Castillet, a prison fortress in the historic center.

The 14th century Palace of the Kings of Mallorca and Gothic town hall are highlights of Perpignan. Salvador Dali once proclaimed that the Perpignan train station, which inspired his painting, was the "center of the universe." It's not really, but the station has a splashy, wildly painted ceiling in tribute to the artist.

READ: Guide to the Salvador Dali Museum in Spain

the UNESCO-listed medieval town of Provins
the UNESCO-listed medieval town of Provins

20. Provins, Ile de France

Provins is an utterly quaint medieval walled city. The town is an easy off the beaten path day trip from Paris. Like many medieval towns, Provins has an older "upper" city and a slightly more modern "lower" city. You arrive in the lower city, or ville basse. As you start climbing, you'll see the ramparts and Tower de Caesar.

The atmospheric Provins is filled with historic and architectural gems, including no less than 58 listed historic monuments. The town is a designated UNESCO site and was once home to a great medieval fair. If you're on the UNESCO trail in France, this is a must see site.

On your visit, inspect the Tower Cesar, a well preserved medieval tower. Then, walk the ramps and the moat, take in the world's most charming medieval bookstore, and visit the underground tunnels, Les Souterrains. Provins is famous for its roses, so you'll find rose everything in its tiny shops.

the colorful village of Riquewihr in France's Alsace region