• Leslie

The Most Beautiful (Mostly) Secret Villages in France

Updated: Dec 14, 2020

Here's my guide to visiting 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 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-listed sites.

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

20 of France's Prettiest Secret Towns and Hidden Gems

I whittled down my love list to 20 charming must see 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. I promise your memory card will be quickly gobbled.

1. 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 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.

2. Sarlat, Dordogne

Perfectly preserved Sarlat is the crown jewel of the Dordogne region of France. It's an utterly unspoiled 14th century village that just exudes rustic fairytale vibes. Sarlat is one of my favorite towns in France.

The best thing to do is stroll the twisty warren of medieval streets in the lemony limestone town. Sarlat is a bit hilly. Stop in to see the 11th century Gothic-Romanesque Saint-Sacerdos Cathedral. To see Sarlat's pretty mansions, some dripping with flowers, stroll down the Rue des Consuls.

Stop by the Place du Marché aux Trois Oies. This square holds a bronze statue of three geese, marking the spot where Sarlat's goose market was once held. Foie gras is a Sarlat specialty. The statue honors the livers of the force-fed fattened geese, better known as foie gras.  

Sarlat is known for its Saturday food market, so it's a fabulous place for foodies. Food stalls and trestle tables are loaded with fresh produce and foie gras in the Place de la Liberte. In the winter, truffles are for sale. Other shops line the Rue de la Republic, the main shopping street.

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.

the Chateau d'Auvers-sur-Oise

Vincent Van Gogh, Church at Auvers, 1890

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.

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. Roussillon, Provence

Roussillon is a hilltop village in the Luberon valley in eastern Provence, nicknamed the "Orange Town." The tiny hamlet is nestled in a striking ochre ridge.

Legend holds that the cliff's orange color resulted from a medieval squabble. The town beauty, Seramonde fell in love with a troubadour. But the lord of Roussillon loved Seramonde too and dispatched his rival by murder. Distraught, Seramonde threw herself off the cliff. Her blood stained the cliff forevermore.

It's a compelling tale. But the cliff was actually stained by the ochre pigment used to build the town.

square in Roussillon France

the Ochre Trail in Roussillon

The adorable town itself gleams with a spectrum of yellow, pink, orange, and red color. While there, you can visit Roussillon's Sentier des Ocres, the Ochre Trail. It's a nice hiking trail where you'll see the rock formations up close. Don't wear white!

5. 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

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, with half timbered houses and twisty lanes. Be sure to stroll down the lovely Rue de la Faurie. The most eye catching half timbers are on Lafaurie Place Parmentier. On Rue des Grands Ducs, you'll spot tiny half timbered passageways built across a lane, linking the homes together.

6. Riquewihr, Alsace

Situated between mountains and vineyards, Riquewihr is a tiny drop dead gorgeous village in the Alsace region of France near the German border. Most people are too busy visiting romantic Strausburg and Colmar to stray to fairytale tiny hamlet. But Disney-inspired visitors will love this living museum.

Riquewihr was reputedly the inspiration for the movie The Beauty and the Beast (my favorite Disney movie because of its bookish heroine Belle). The words "little town it's a quiet village" may involuntarily spring into your head, while walking through Riquewhir. It's quiet, but quietly lovely with its vibrantly hued homes and elaborate signs.

Stroll down Riquewihr's pedestrianized main drag, what there is of it, called Rue du Général-de-Gaulle. As you stroll, your head will be swiveling right and left until your reach the 13th century Dolder Tower and the picturesque Rue des Remparts. But don't stop there. Meander down the side streets to fuel your imagination.

Riquewihr is known for its Reisling wine. They're winemaking shops in town. And you can spot the vineyards from the edge of the town. The tourist office has maps of the wine trails.

7. Bayeux, Normandy

Normandy hugs the northern shore of France. It's 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 Bayeuux 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 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.

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

8. 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.

I lunched at Les Amoureux, right across from Pau Chateau

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.)

9. 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.

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.

10. 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.

11. Rocamodour, Dordogne

Rocamodour is a stunningly romantic 11th century village carved into the limestone cliff face of a canyon. It's not exactly a hidden gem in France. But it's so unusual and pretty that I had to include it on my list.

Rocamodour may be France's most dramatic village. Because of its precipitous vertical location, it's entirely pedestrianized. Naturally, there are many hills and stairs to challenge your quads. You'll have to climb up and down to see everything.

Aside from the sheer spectacle of its setting, the town is a dream of pre-medieval architecture and crooked lanes. The main drag is the Rue de la Couronnerie. The buildings seem to grow out of the rock wall.

photo credit: JP Newell/Flickr

sheer vertical face of Rocamadour, photo credit: Anthony CLEMENT/Flickr

Rocamodour is also associated with the origins of French Christianity. It's a stop on the UNESCO-listed Routes of Santiago de Compostela. Take the Grand Escalier, or stairway, up to the religious heart of Rocamodour.

Pilgrims still visit Rocamodour to see its religious relics, especially the Black Virgin in the Lady Chapel. Allegedly, miracles occurred after the statue's discovery, so now miracle seekers worship at her feet. The Lady Chapel flanks the Basilisque St-Sauveur. The crypt of St. Amadour, the town's patron saint and namesake, lies underneath.

12. Rocheforte-en-Terre, Brittany

Rochefort-en-Terre is one of France's les plus beaux villages and a must see village in Brittany. It was voted "France’s favorite village" in 2016. It's difficult to imagine a more beautiful, well manicured, French village. Rochefort-en-Terre is fairytale-perfect and almost mind blowing, a sensation I had upon glimpsing the beautiful Rothenburg ob der Tauber on Germany's Romantic Road.

Rochefort-en-Terre is an architectural dream, beautifully sited on a hilltop overlooking the Valley of Arz. It's a town where rich merchants built lavishly decorated chateaus. Most date from the 17th century.

The mansions run from the Rue de Porche to the Place du Puits. They're made of granite and half timbers and adorned with corbelled turrets, sculptures, and wood carvings. As you stroll, inspect the Notre-Dame-de-la Tronchaye church, which dates from the 16th and 17th centuries. It's famed for a statue of the Virgin Mary, which was discovered by a shepherdess in a tree trunk.

Place du Puits in Rochefort-en-Terre in Brittany

The most swoonful place in Rochefort-en-Terre is the Place du Puits. It's the perfect intimate village setting with stone buildings, hanging iron signs, a fountain, and flower boxes on every facade.

Pop into L'Art Gourmand for delicious chocolatey things. If hunger calls, try Le Café Breton, boasting original medieval decor. There are plenty of crepes and waffles to be had as well.

13. Etretat, Normandy

Sleepy Etretat is a classic old world French town on the north coast of France. Etretat is unique in that it boasts mesmerizing scenery. Etretat is set on the sea, where waves crash against the shores of a jagged chalky coastline. Its beauty inspired artists like the revered Claude Monet and Henri Matisse.

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

When you're done admiring the caves and tunnels carved into the cliffs, head down to the sparkling turquoise waters of the 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.

14. 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 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.

Place aux Aires in Grasse

tiny cobbled lane in Grasse

When you're done testing your olfactory senses, wander the pretty old lanes of Grasse. The main road is Rue Jean Ossola, from which various alleyways spike off. There's plenty of quintessentially French architectural delights and little artisan and retail shops.

A highlight of your stroll will be Grasse's cathedral, Notre Dame de Puy. This little gem dates from the 12th century. The exterior isn't exactly impressive. But the interior is more opulent. It boasts three paintings by Dutch artist Peter Paul Rubens.

15. 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. It 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.

16. 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 setting. The higgedly-piggedly medieval buildings are covered in conical turrets, grape vines, and wisteria.

You'll see the magnificent town hall and the House of the Mermaid. Now housing a museum, the Mermaid House is typical of the architecture of the village, 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 your'e hungry, try the adorable restaurant Auberge de Benges, which boasts views of the countryside.

the Grand Place of Arras

17. 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. Its 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.

view of Cathedrale St Vaast from the bell tower in Arras

my travel partner enjoying the views in Arras

While in Arras, you can visit the massive St. Vaase Cathedral, which was rebuilt after WWI. Next door is the former Bendictine monastery, the Saint-Vaast Abbey. The abbey and the cathedral form the largest 18th century religious architectural grouping in France. Inside the abbey is Arras' Musee de Beaux-Arts, housing a collectoon of religious paintings that are free to visit.

Arras also has a series of underground passages, called Les Boves, dating from the 10th century. They were originally chalk mines. But were later used by the Allies in WWI as they prepared for the Battle of Arras, a major British offensive. If you want to re-live history, you can take a guided tour.

cobbled street in Senlis France

18. Senlis, Oise

Historic Senlis will appeal to medievalists and history-architecture buffs. Senlis is an easy day trip from Paris. You can also combine Senlis with a visit to the Château de Chantilly, just 15 minutes away.

Senlis has a rich history. It's a royal town and was the cradle of the Capet Dynasty. Hugh Capet was the Lord of Senlis before becoming France's first Capetian king in 987. Capet is buried in Paris' historic Saint-Denis Basilica.

Senlis was a royal seat from the time of Clovis in the 5th century to Henri IV in the 16-17th century. Senlis is bursting with ancient buildings and relics from the 10th to 18th centuries. A large portion of its ancient Gallo-Roman walls are intact and you can admire the 16 lookout towers. Then stroll the winding cobblestone streets and admire the stone houses.

You'll pass by a historic abbey, a medieval cellar, and the ruins of a Roman arena that you can visit. Opposite the cathedral are the 12th century remains of a royal castle, now part of an open air garden.

Senlis’ cathedral, the Cathédrale de Notre Dame, is an imposing highlight of Senlis. Built between 1150 and 1191, it's an impressive reminder of Senlis’ past power. It has a 78 meter tower and a magnificent carved-stone Grand Portal that's thought to have inspired the one in Chartres' cathedral.

19. 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.

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

hanging out on Albi's Pont Vieux with the Berbie Palace in the background

the Castlenau district of Albi

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.

Vaison-la-Romaine France in northern Provence

20. Vaison-la-Romaine, Provence

The lovely Vaison-la-Romaine is a hidden gem in northern Provence, away from Provence's main tourist destinations. Vaison-la-Romaine is an ancient town made almost entirely of stone and dotted with cypress trees.

Seated on the Ouvèze River, the town is dual faceted and split in two, with an upper medieval town and a lower Roman town -- an efficient double dose of history. Vaison-la-Romaine was one of my favorite stops in Provence.

pretty cobbled streets and cypress trees in the medieval part of Vaison-La-Romaine

the Roman Theater in Vaison-la-Romaine

Based in the lower city, the Roman part of Vaison-la-Romaine was discovered in 1907. It's the most important Gallo-Roman site in France. The luxuriousness of the restored patrician villas, filled with beautiful mosaics, reveal that Vaison was a prosperous Roman town.

When you're done admiring the mosaics, head to the 1st century Roman theater. No one will be there. Take center stage and sing your own aria.

If you're obsessed with discovering Europe's hidden gems like me, check out my articles on:

Secret small towns in Europe

Paris hidden gems

Germany's prettiest towns

Lisbon hidden gems

Barcelona hidden gems

Hidden gems in Provence

Hidden gems in Rome

Beautiful Towns in Brittany

If you'd like to visit France's secret villages, pin it for later.


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