Soak up some savoir-faire with our top ten French cities to visit by rail.
France’s cultural and natural diversity is difficult to beat, so it’s no surprise that it remains one of the world’s most visited countries. From medieval metropolises to coastal cities, it’s easy to reach France’s major heritage honeypots by rail. Here are some of our favourite French cities accessible by train, chosen to give your next holiday that extra bit of je ne sais quoi.
Reminiscent of Paris’ left bank, Aix-en-Provence’s leafy boulevards and 17th century mansion-lined squares give this pocket of Provence a feeling of urban chic. Aix-en-Provence is also known for having been home to some of the most pre-eminent minds in art and literature, including Paul Cézanne, whose studio is open to the public, as well as Hemingway and Zola, who frequented Les Deux Garçons brasserie in the Cours Mirabeau, a boulevard in the oldest part of the city.
Considered by many to be the world’s capital of wine, Bordeaux is an intoxicating blend of 18th century elegance and urban street life, hemmed in by vast vineyards producing some of the world’s finest vin. Bordeaux also boasts the world’s largest urban World Heritage Site, its Place de Bourse being one of many highlights in its UNESCO treasure chest. With the city straddling the River Garonne, it’s easy to take in many of Bordeaux’s riverside riches by bike along its cycle paths. For more Bordeaux regional beauty, take the 50km Roger Lapebie cycle path to the UNESCO old town of St. Emilion. For a seaside escape from the city, catch the 53-minute train from Bordeaux to Arcachon on the Atlantic coast. Arcachon Bay is a picture-perfect stretch of coastline and home to the tallest sand dune in Europe, Dune du Pilat.
Less than 2 hrs by train from Paris, Lyon has a history dating back 2,000 years with Roman ruins and medieval monuments earning its old town a UNESCO World heritage listing. Visit the Place Bellecour between the Rhône and the Saône rivers before gliding up the F2 funicular (buy locally) to the Fourvière hilltop for views of Lyon’s Notre Dame basilica and the city below. Lyon is also one of France’s gastronomic greats, with plenty of bouchons (traditional Lyonnais restaurants) and Michelin-star options to enjoy. After indulging in something délicieux, enjoy Lyon’s cycle-friendly roads offering a superb greenway that makes up part of the Via Rhôna, an 800km cycle route following the Rhône.
A multicultural port city where grit meets grandeur, Marseille is a city with a cultural history stretching back to 600 BCE. Marseille has shed its rougher edge in recent years thanks to its title of European Capital of Culture in 2013, offering a wealth of museums, like the Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée, parks, cultural hubs and beaches. The city’s Vieux Port is where Marseille’s past and present come together, its boat-lined promenades filled with cafes, bars and brasseries perfect for people watching and enjoying a bowl of bouillabaisse.
Nantes, gateway to the Loire Valley, has transformed itself in the last 30 years from industrial port city to lively cultural hub. Sprawled along the banks of the Loire, Nante’s rich history is seen in its Château des ducs de Bretagne, a 13th century castle; the ornate Passage Pommeraye, a 19th century arcade lined with luxury boutiques; and its Musée d’Arts. Jules Verne was famously born in Nantes, his creative legacy reflected in the Machines de l’île, an artistic and cultural theme park housed in the city’s former shipyards. Here, immerse yourself in a world of mechanical marvels, including a giant, mechanised elephant.
As early as the 1700s, Nice was enticing visitors to its Cote d’Azur shores thanks to a Mediterranean climate and sandy beaches. Walk in the footsteps of France’s Belle Epoque aristocrats down the Promenade des Anglais, resting when needed on one of the walkway’s iconic blue chairs overlooking the sea. Revel in this Riviera city’s sunlit sophistication by wandering around the old town, its streets crammed with colourful shops and cafes where you can refresh yourself with Niçois nibbles and a cold glass of something nice.
The French capital, Paris, will never cease to inspire visitors with its beauty and architectural elegance. Home to many of the world’s most iconic monuments, like the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, Sacré Coeur and countless others, Paris is a pleasure to visit no matter what time of year. With plenty of nearby cultural heritage gems, festivals, forests and quiet villages, it’s also worth stepping out of the City of Light and into its surrounding towns and cities. Read more about exploring Paris’ environs in our day trips from Paris blog.
Located in the heart of France’s Champagne region, Reims is a cultural corker of a city, with more than just its famous caves giving it sparkle. Its Gothic cathedral, founded in 1211, is a UNESCO World Heritage site, as is its Palais du Tau. While your cultural cup can runneth over in Reims, there’s plenty of opportunity to fill yourself with the region’s most famous eponymous export, Champagne. Explore Reims’ famous bubbly buildings, with many UNESCO-listed cellars open to the public for tours and tastings. Travel from Reims to Champagne neighbour Epernay by train in just 35 mins.
A striking blend of French and German cultures, Strasbourg captures the best of both countries in its architecture, gastronomy and markets. The city’s UNESCO-listed Grand Île houses the famous district of Petite France, where half-timbered houses are perched alongside cozy canalside winstubs (taverns) in its warren of medieval alleys. Of course, Strasbourg becomes the capital of Christmas in December with its world-renowned Christmas markets which make this fairytale city sparkle au maximum. Don’t miss taking a trip to the nearby Black Forest, whose German gateway town of Freiburg is only one hour away by train.
Blushing brick churches, coral-coloured shop fronts and ochre rooftops have earned Toulouse the nickname La Ville Rose (The Pink City). The city’s colourfulness is also reflected in its vibrant student population, thriving food markets and progressive music scene. Located between the Garonne River and the Canal du Midi, Toulouse is a perfect base for exploring the Occitanie region by bike along the 240km Canal du Midi cycle path. Also less than an hour away by train is the town of Albi, where artist Toulouse-Lautrec was born and where the largest collection of his art is housed in the Musée Toulouse-Lautrec.
Image credits top to bottom: Blue chairs on the English Promenade in Nice iStock ©Delpixart, Restaurant in Aix-en-Provence iStock ©helovi, Old pier with bicycle by the Rhone river in Lyon iStock ©SerrNovik, Nantes elephant (cropped) Flickr Commons ©Andy Maguire, Alexandre III bridge in Paris iStock ©manjik, Petite France district in Strasbourg iStock ©g215
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