Do you remember the moment you realized Paris was overrated?
I do. It was the moment I found myself locked out of my AirBnb on a February night, with pigeon feces dotting the corner of the staircase and the stale half of a demi-baguette collecting dust and pencil shavings and crusty napkins in the bottom of my backpack. This was 10 minutes after I struggled to push a faulty turnstile in the subway while a bearded man reeking of cheap cigarettes and wine tried to press his crotch into my butt, his snicker turning into a scowl as I elbowed him in his gut. Hard.
Yeah. I know this may be incredibly hard to believe, but Amelie I am decidedly not. You can keep your cute-as-hell bob and spoon-cracked crème brulee!
French manic pixie dream girls aside, the world is finally catching up to the reality that Paris has a (dirty) subway. Paris has a large immigrant community as pulsing and vibrant as any in the world. There aren’t waifish girls in berets carrying baguettes in cutesy little bicycle baskets. Or maybe there are. I just didn’t see any.
You know what’s not overrated, though?
The south of France.
Yeah. I hear you. Isn’t the south of France for celebrity vacationers? I didn’t go to couldn’t afford Cannes either. But if you’re going to go, you strip down your luxury sailboats, designer shops, and 5-star villas, because this region is about so much more than that.
That Playground of the Super Rich reputation may not be true. But it’s mostly the impression I’ve gotten from watching the cast of Made in Chelsea frolic there for a season, after which I stopped because I slowly realized that the time I spent watching Made in Chelsea was directly correlated with an uncontrollable urge to cut carbs out of my life. And why would I want to cut joy out of my life?
Despite bearing no resemblance to the very skinny, very attractive, and very white cast of Made in Chelsea, I, too, found myself in the south of France.
The south of France that I saw, however, extended beyond the sun-soaked yacht sails found in Cannes and the sandy beaches of Nice.
It instead gave me rocky cliff communes and medieval castles, sleepy art towns and stone-cobbled villages on the edge of azure sea, with the first bloom of lavender in plush fields. And despite its still-ritzy reputation, it remains an essentially rural region at heart: still, serene, bursting with endless lavender bounty and quiet life. And also traitorously narrow roads, which is why I think European drivers deserve their own driver-themed awards.
If you want to see some of France’s most idyllic and underrated towns, away from the crowds in Lyon or Nice, read on and fit some of these into your next trip to France.
Several of these towns are considered cities in their own right. Several others are villages or communes in rural areas For this reason alone, it is highly recommended that you rent a car.
If you are coming from Paris, take the train (the TGV – France’s high-speed rail service) to Avignon (our city of choice), Marseilles, or Montpellier. The journey will take between 3 – 4 hours and will cost 19 euros one-way. Book it in advance: although you certainly can buy tickets day-of (we did), I don’t recommend the time used to wait in line when you could be enjoying your trip!
These are several of the largest cities in the south of France, which will give you the proximity needed to visit the towns on this list. Make one of those cities your base and rent a car. Expect to drive at least 2-3 hours a day if you decide to visit all of these towns within one week. If you have the time, go more slowly and enjoy everything these towns have to offer.
This fortified hilltop town may have been settled as early as 3500 BC, but really became what it is today when the Romans came around (because when were those guys not around?) in 100 BC.
Afterwards, the region today known as Carcassonne passed on to various kings and lords, eventually becoming a stronghold during the Albigensian Crusades.
Conquer one uphill walk, depart with 9 euros (sans audioguide), and confront an icily but impeccably polite set of ticket staff.
You may not get a smile with your service, but, well, this is France, after all. It may be the south of France, and it may not be Paris, but some things aren’t meant to change.
You better be Ron freaking Burgundy before you can crack a smile from customer service staff (actually, maybe not even then – they’d probably be unamused). I’ve been told that this is not personal, and that I should learn to temper my overactive facial muscles (“You guys just smile at any old person in any old place!” a French friend once moaned to me, waving a cigarette in the air. “Save it for when it counts!” My laugh froze mid-formation immediately).
Bypass the aforementioned staff, and you’ll find yourselves in a true medieval fortified city, the Cité de Carcassonne – complete with crenellations, moat, ramparts, and conical towers. I wrote a post about Carcassonne here.
Hear the wind whoosh around you and imagine enormous hearths. And watch your step because there are a lot of them.
Note: Please keep this in mind, as this means it’s potentially not disability-friendly.
Beyond the fortifications of the castle, the town itself is quiet. Walking through the narrow streets will show you a town with low-roofed medieval-era architecture and lots of cobblestone streets, walls the color of stone and rust. Small local shops line the corners as tiny cars crawl through the labyrinth of roads.
For a bite to eat, stop at the Restaurant L’escargot for French and Spanish tapas served in a low-lit, cave-like setting. And if you’ve had enough of the castle, head north to the banks of the Canal du Midi, which runs through the countryside and is flanked by majestic plane trees on both sides.
For medieval history nuts and castle-crazy architecture lovers, Carcassonne is positively a dream.
The south of France makes fragrance. A lot of it.
Grasse is like Murano and Burano and Naples and Porto all rolled into one. Once known for leather tanning, it became a perfume center in the 16th century.
There’s laundry hanging everywhere, the streets are impossibly quiet, and the yellows and pinks and oranges of the walls in the old town are unmistakably peeling. But like all of us with an affinity for deteriorating buildings and what my friend likes to call “seeing old shit get older,” there’s an ineffable charm in peeling paint and alleys built for horses and wagons and not monster trucks.
Grasse is the perfume capital of the world, and it won’t let you forget it: It’s a home to perfume heavy-hitters Fragonard (1926), Molinard (1849), and Galinard (1747), and L’Occitane en Provence (now available at a mall near you). The city produces almost half of France’s perfume and about 7-8% globally.
At Fragonard, I asked the intimidating saleswoman what her most popular scents were in my best not-scared-at-all voice. She sniffed and rattled off several scents, one of which was La Belle de Nuit, which sounds sassy and dark and mysterious and everything else I want desperately to be, but smelled like a slightly sexier version of your Polish grandmother’s powder palette from the 60s. Sometimes “original perfume house” really smells like ORIGINAL PERFUME HOUSE.
I confess that I bought it. I wear it when I feel lanky and lithe like Audrey Hepburn – which is to say, almost never. I blame my love of bread.
After taking a leisurely stroll through the Old Town, head to the Musee International de la Parfumerie, the most comprehensive fragrance museum you’ll likely see in your life. If this museum doesn’t suit your fancy, there are two others (Musee du Parfum Fragonard and Le Musee de Parfum – The Museum of Fragonard Perfume and the Museum of Perfume).
If there’s no time for a complete tour, pop into the Provencal Museum of Costume and Jewelry for less than half an hour (or even less than 5 minutes) for a free-of-charge one-floor display of tastefully put together handmade Provencal attire and accessories from a bygone era. Did I mention that it’s free?
A classic and dramatic example of a village perches, or perched village, Èze rises like a jagged summit over stony castle keep about 427 m (1400 ft) above the sea.
Its locale right on the Côte d’Azur affords views so heartrendingly beautiful that it immediately brings to comparison towns clinging to craggy cliffs like Positano. As my parents exclaimed over the rugged aesthetic and craggy cliffs, I told them that they should see Positano if they like homes on cliffs, which I realise now was an asshole thing to say, because Èze isn’t trying to be Positano and has its own seductive beauty. (I’m trying to do this thing where I don’t compare new locations unfavourably to old locations I’ve seen, especially before I’ve actually explored said new location).
They ignored me, which I think is a habit both parents and their children become good at cultivating over the years.
Although its population may only number in the several thousands, Èze continues to be a popular summer holiday spot – its shops and restaurants closing in the colder months and opening again when the air carries scent of lavender bloom and salty spray from the sea.
It’s probably the most idyllically south of France Rivera town on this list, seeing as it’s right by the sea.
Adding to its charm is its completely car-free medieval town center – cars are relegated to a parking lot at its entrance, and visitors are free to explore its narrow cobbled streets on foot (something to plan for if you’re traveling with older folks or persons with disabilities).
Near the summit is the Jardin Exotique, a beautifully compact and serene botanical garden which harbors a secret majestic panorama of the Riviera and Saint-Tropez, extending all the way to Corfu (and it costs less than 4 euros to enter!).
Lining the flower-decked streets are artisanal local shops and boutiques, with local artwork and hand-made jewelry hanging in brightly lit windows. A 7-minute walk to the summit carries you to an 18th century church, the Chapelle de Saint Croix, where a bust of Christ made from olive wood survived the raging fires that raged close by in 1986.
Not all just views and succulents, artists also made their second homes here: both Walt Disney and Friedrich Nietzche spent significant time in the village. Those who appreciate artistic inspiration can walk the Chemin de Nietzche, or Nietzche’s path, where he drew inspiration to write the third part of his work “So Spoke Zarathustra.”
If visiting outside of the summer months, you may found the restaurant options sparse. However, Mets Vins Chics, located a stone’s throw away from the foot of the old town, dishes up dependable French dishes at mid-market to high prices with quick, polite, matter-of-fact service.
I also have a soft spot for them because the waiter presented the bottle of red we’d ordered to my father, who then pointed to me. And then we got this gold one for the books.
First Taster knows no age or gender!
The beautiful little town of Lourmarin in the Vaucluse region is the epitomy of old French charm.
You might have heard of the Vaucluse: those in the know flock to the south of France to take photos in blushing bloomy lavendar fields. Here in Lourmarin, There are no cliffs to be seen and no ocean breeze, but instead, there are 18th century squat town houses lining quiet streets, all in the midst of olive groves and almond trees. It’s kind of the place where you expect a 17th century French poet to turn the corner and bump into you, twirling his mustache and rearranging his frilly collar. Make no mistake: to visit Loumarin is to step back into time. It’s the kind of place where you expect there to be a single baker churning out bread for everyone living there.
The town’s center surrounds the imposing Château de Lourmarin, an imposing converted 12th century fortress which passed into the hands of several noble families until the French Revolution. Also the first Renaissance castle in the Provence region, the castle crumbled into memory after the French Revolution and wans’t restored until 1920. Today it’s open for visitors and houses majestic 15th and 19th century art collections, in addition to hosting extravagant concerts in the summer.
Since Lourmarin is so tiny, there can be no other place to stay other than at 17th century chateau Villa Saint-Louis, where the wonderfully proprietor Bernadette will show you around the chateau.
She is super lovely and super French. Like the perfect scatter-brained but perfectly kind grand-mère.
She’ll hand you an enormous heavy key and show you your room, which is the epitome of rustic French charm. It’s all lace curtains and lovely pale green wallpaper, and wooden furniture. Time has positively stopped here – exactly in the way you want.
This is what her living room looks like. I freaking kid you not.
Do you see the wooden horses below the antique mirror? Do you see the horses!!!
There is a freaking BED (and watering pails?) on her outdoor terrace. If this won’t convince you to stay here, I don’t know what will.
The one thing I will say, though, is that over one particular bed, there were two old paintings of her ancestors. I kind of felt like their eyes were watching me as I moved around the room, all Scooby-Doo mystery-like. But I’m still alive, and you can always ask lovely Beatriz (bless her heart) not to put you in the room with her ancestors.
If you can, make a stop at L’insolite for dinner. Our lovely waitress was an American who had moved to Lourmarin for her husband, who was polite as anything but I felt like he was just excited to explain things to us in English (which was at a far-superior level than most Americans I know).
I honestly can’t imagine a more charmed existence.
This was also the place where my mother and brother shouted, “What’s ‘POISON’?”, in English, in the echoing restaurant, where the the servers, polite as they were, determinedly went about their business, and thankfully didn’t laugh.
Arles is an adorable little city with a well-known and influential past: from 120 BC to the 4th and 5th centuries, it was a provincial capital for the ancient Romans.
A favorite city of Roman Emperor Constantine I and undoubtedly a cultural mecca during the late Roman Empire, it was dubbed a Roman capital in the year 408.
The streets of this ancient centre remain decidedly Roman is still something of a mini-Rome. From its own Amphitheatre, its own Forum, and a beautifully preserved set of baths, Arles’ many monuments have been named as UNESCO World Heritage sites. It’s decided not like the other towns in the south of France on this list.
Competing for the attention of its Roman relics is Arles’ other claim to fame: it was the home of Vincent Van Gogh, the original #sadboypainter who settled there in 1888 and painted over 200 canvases. The city has paid ample homage to our man Van Gogh by setting up a Van Gogh trail (trail maps available at the tourist information booths) throughout the city.
You can follow the markings on the trail to exactly the spots Van Gogh sat to create his now world-recognized paintings, aided by an propped easel to allow viewers to compare the real thing to the finished product.
Hunger will inevitably lead you to look for something to eat – located in the city’s center is Aux Brin de Thym, a classic mid-market French restaurant serving classics like escargots and boeuf bourguignon, and certain South of France specialties.
If you liked this piece on the south of France, please share it!