13 French cities for an amazing autumn break

How sweet it is to enjoy life, to catch up with the latest fashions, and see what’s new and what’s great… France is a country that embodies the ‘art de vivre’, the art of the good life, where the simple joy of spending time with those who matter to you is truly valued. Whether it’s over a good meal, taking in a fascinating exhibition, or just feeling the breeze on your face as you wander, cycle or take a boat trip, here are 13 French cities for you to (re)discover this autumn. Dive right in... and slow right down.

#1 – Tours and arty tourism, in the heart of Centre Val de Loire

Tours isn’t as well-known as it ought to be and often visitors see it simply as a staging stop on the way to the beautiful chateaux of the Loire Valley. But, just an hour from Paris, it’s a city that’s worthy of a longer tour. After all, this is the International City of Gastronomy. Yes, it does have historic neighbourhoods, and an architecturally fabulous city centre built from tuffeau limestone, and yes the medieval lanes and squares offer a glimpse of times long since passed. And Lonely Planet says its Place Plum’ (short for Plumereau) in the heart of Tours, with its year round lively terrace cafés and bars, is the finest square in all of France! And if you fancy a modern art fix, the Centre de Création Contemporaine Olivier Debré (CCCOD) with its cutting-edge architecture is just a stone’s throw away. But you’ll get your first taste of modern art along the way - the trams are designed by Daniel Buren. It doesn’t get much artier than that!

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#2 - Ride along the river Ill in Strasbourg, in Alsace

Did you know that Strasbourg is France’s most cyclable city? Before you head off on the Alsace Wine Route and visit its villages in bloom, take a leisurely ride along the canals, islands, picturesque bridges, and bucolic quays of Alsace’s capital city. Along the banks of the Ill, a tributary of the river Rhine which winds its way around the historic old town and the breath-taking historic quarter Petite France, Strasbourg’s majestic cathedral, an iconic landmark, is always in sight. Stop as you please and discover the sites of the city like the 5ème Lieu, a new exhibition space dedicated to heritage and architecture. And why not take an environmentally friendly trip right up to your accommodation - if you stay at Tandem, Strasbourg’s first sustainable (and cyclist friendly) hotel!

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#3 – Lyon: food courts and secret passages

Lyon’s hidden lanes, known as traboules, are the perfect place to play hide-and-seek and discover the city’s heritage. Secret passages, stairways and courtyards connect the streets and lanes of the Vieux Lyon and Croix Rousse districts and you won’t miss a thing if you download the “Traboules” app. Use it to find the bouchons, Lyon’s traditional restaurants which are famous for their tasty local speciality dishes and generous portions. Visit the superb Musée des Confluences, and Lyon’s four new food courts which showcase all things gourmet. Following the opening of food halls La Commune and Heat et Food Traboule, Food Society has set up gourmet food trucks in the Lyon-Part-Dieu mall. There’s almost as much to see as there is to eat!

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#4 - Nantes, extraordinary adventures in the Pays de la Loire

When you pull into Nantes by train, your first impression is of the gleaming new train station and its panoramic walkway designed by Rudy Ricciotti, the architect who also designed MuCEM in Marseille. From there just follow the ground level green line to be taken on an entertaining and cultural tour of the city. The 60+ stages of ‘Le Voyage à Nantes’ can be enjoyed year round, helping you to discover the city’s top sights and the lesser-known gems. En route you’ll meet a giant elephant as well as extraordinary and peculiar machines that seem to have come straight out of a Jules Verne novel. There is a beautiful castle, fascinating art gallery, the buzzing Hangar à Bananes with its trendy cafés and galleries on an island in the Loire. Discover a fabulous viewpoint jutting out from a cliff, and soon a giant Heron Tree. Everything is designed to put on a great show. What are you waiting for?

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#5 - Amiens, a nature cruise in Hauts-de-France

Take an enchanting cruise through a market garden, floating between patches of leeks, cabbages, carrots and colourful flowerbeds. Do a spot of shopping on the water and buy direct from the growers. With its hortillonnages, an ancient local word for the floating market gardens, Amiens is bang on trend... naturally! Take a tour aboard a traditional wooden boat or at the helm of an electric boat, or even cycle along the banks of the canal in the beautiful, historic Saint Leu district, just go with the flow and fall for the charms of these winding waterways. Fresh air, tranquillity and autumnal hues - all within a few hundred metres of the world’s largest gothic cathedral. It’s an absolutely brilliant place to visit.

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#6 - Rouen, keep up in Normandy

Joan of Arc, the Impressionists, and even Gustave Flaubert (Normandy celebrated the 200th anniversary of his birth in 2021) – there are so many historical and artistic avenues to (re)discover in Rouen. Not to mention its picturesque streets, half-timber houses, gourmet markets, and the quayside, where the banks of the river Seine are reserved for pedestrians and cyclists. For a high energy break why not try a Run&Visit tour, your guide/ coach will put you through your paces on a run through the city, while entertaining you with tales of the city’s past. Take a well-earned break at the recently restored Aître Saint Maclou in Old Rouen. The restored Medieval ossuary has been transformed into an oasis of calm with exhibition spaces, art galleries and a beautiful winter garden… It’s a must-see.

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#7 - Rennes, a gourmet paradise in Brittany

Every Saturday morning, the Place de Lices is transformed into a whirlwind of colours and scents. Market gardeners and fishmongers, local producers and healthy-eating advocates pitch their stalls in tightly packed rows. Welcome to one of the biggest and oldest markets in France. This is a city that is as proud of the traditional local favourite, the sausage galette, as it is of its innovative and bistronomic dining scene. Rennes is brimming with quality restaurants and tucked-away gourmet gems serving organic, locally produced food. It’s a place that really tempts your tastebuds. Book a spot on a Food Mood Tour and take in a some of the culinary highlights: a 3-hour tour with 6 stops, and just as many tastings... If that’s not enough, head to the vast indoor market at Criée-Marché Central. On the first Sunday of the month, the Marché à Manger brings together the very best of Breton chefs and food trucks in a festive atmosphere. Dinner is served!

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#8 - Dijon, the rich history of Bourgogne-Franche-Comté

With its clos estates and prestigious vineyards, Burgundy is at its most beautiful in the autumn, when it shimmers in shades of red and gold. It’s also the best season to savour Dijon: with its gourmet specialities, relaxed lifestyle and the newly opened International City of Gastronomy and Wine. In the pedestrianised city centre, the capital city of the Dukes of Burgundy invites you to wander among its half-timber houses, Roman and gothic churches, private mansions, and gourmet markets (we highly recommend Sunday brunch!). To see it all, follow the owl! Dijon’s mascot is carved into the buttresses of the cathedral, and also marks out a trail of 22 attractions starting at the Place Darcy with its beautiful renaissance garden. The Palace of the Dukes of Burgundy, the Tower of Philippe Le Bon, and the fine art museum… it’s such a historic city!

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#9 - Bayonne, festive times in Nouvelle-Aquitaine

Ongi Etorri means “welcome” in the Basque language. They are words you’ll hear over and over when you’re in Bayonne because, like everywhere in the Basque Country, the people really know how to treat visitors well! Bayonne is a city that will have you falling for its charms that include a quirky, colourful old town, tightly packed half-timber houses, fortifications, gourmet markets, and an impressive gothic cathedral. With so much going on and new things to see, there’s always a reason to return, for example the Bonnat-Helleu museum is scheduled to open in 2024. It will house a priceless collection of art by the greats including Raphaël, Michelangelo, and Leonardo da Vinci, the biggest such collection outside of the Louvre! Meanwhile don’t miss the enchanting Grand and Petit Bayonne districts on either side of the river Nive. What’s your preference - a street art or chocolate tour (another little-known local speciality)? Or both!

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#10 – Toulouse: rivers and canals in Occitanie

There’s the Place du Capitole, forming the iconic heart of Toulouse, surrounded by an impressive number of remarkable monuments: from the recently restored Basilica of Saint-Sernin to the Church of the Jacobins, and the opulent Assézat private mansion (whose museum is scheduled to reopen in autumn 2022), as well as the incredible modern art collection at Les Abattoirs. But the Ville Rose (Pink City), home to France’s aerospace industry, also stretches out along the banks of the Garonne. It’s such a refreshing part of the city where you can ride in the shade of centuries-old plane trees along the quays and towpaths lined with exceptional houses that are bathed in the soft autumn light and stop for a break at the vibrant Place Saint-Pierre or Port de la Daurade. And if you want a longer ride - there’s always the Canal du Midi...

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#11 - Amazing views at Marseille, Provence-Côte d’Azur

When you head to the Vieux Port along the Canebière, the city’s busy arterial street, it makes a striking impression. For a start there’s a giant mirrored sunshade designed by Norman Foster which gives you upside down views over the port. It’s a place where the light is exceptional year round, and at any time of day. From a hilltop to the left, Notre-Dame de la Garde Basilica watches over the city. To the right, the picturesque Panier neighbourhood unfolds around the Vieille Charité, a former almshouse now a museum and cultural centre. Follow Panier’s lanes and alleys, dotted with cafés and designer boutiques, to reach the dizzy heights of the footbridge which leads to MuCEM (Museum of Civilizations of Europe and the Mediterranean). Clothed in concrete lace, the new star of Marseille is an incredible architectural masterpiece. Even if you don’t go inside to check out the exhibitions don’t miss a visit to the rooftop terrace via an outdoor walkway. With its play on light and shadow, the deep blue skies, and the sparkling Mediterranean… this is a beautiful viewpoint.

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#12 - Ajaccio, via the “Blood Islands” in Corsica

In Corsica, summer can last until October, or even November. And this late autumn season is perfect to discover Ajaccio and its enchanting gulf. Here you can follow in the footsteps of Napoleon – this was his hometown. Whether you’re a fan of the French Emperor or not, his legacy in the city is fascinating including Place Foch, Maison Bonaparte and the must-see Musée Fesch, now a fine art museum containing a priceless collection of Italian masterpieces. And, if you want to get out of the city, follow the Sentier des Crêtes trail for a hike through the maquis shrubland, fragrant with myrtle, rockrose, and immortelle flowers. Enjoy the sunset overlooking the Gulf of Ajaccio and the îles Sanguinaires – it’s an unforgettable experience.

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#13 - Paris – once is never enough!

When it comes to Paris – it’s hard to know where to begin. Do we start with the Carnavalet Museum which tells of the history of Paris? Or the Hôtel de la Marine in Place de la Concorde? Or perhaps the Pinault Collection at the Bourse du Commerce? Or La Samaritaine with its new shopping centre, beauty parlours and restaurants? Paris never disappoints. The City of Light constantly opens new attractions, and autumn is packed with new openings and events. It’s definitely the best season to (re)visit Paris. It’s never more romantic than when the foliage in its parks and gardens turn shimmering shades of gold. And when it comes to outstanding major exhibitions, Picasso, Rodin, Botticelli, Dali and even Banksy are all on the list… What are you waiting for?!

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