When sunshine, incredible food and compelling landscapes call your name, add these small French towns to your must-visit list: from a hilltop spot overlooking the whole of the French Riviera to the canal-filled Venice of Provence, these underrated and lesser-known destinations promise all the trimmings of a classic Southern French getaway – minus the buzzing crowds.
For a quiet and scenic break away from Nice on the French Riviera, ascend the winding roads of the Moyenne Corniche to find Èze, a mere half-hour bus ride away. A Medieval town spilling with historic charm and cobblestone alleyways, it’s home to five-star château hotels, a 12th-century Neoclassical church, the Fragonard perfume laboratory factory and exotic, cacti-filled gardens which offer sprawling views of the French Riviera.
Despite being an increasingly popular destination, Rocamadour still offers a quiet and scenic stay in the Lot. Located on a rocky clifftop, it’s best known for its Cité Réligieuse – a popular pilgrimage site which houses seven chapels steeped in religious history. Visit here in the summer and autumn months to discover a cheese festival (try the local Cabécou goats’ milk cheese) and a particularly memorable hot air balloon festival, known locally as Les Montgolfiades.
Located in the impossibly beautiful Luberon area of Provence, the village of Saignon houses a 12th-century Roman church and gorgeous small streets lined with vine-clad buildings and fountains. A must-visit for serenity-seekers, it’s also the perfect starting point for a spot of hiking and mountain biking; those with a truly adventurous streak can even try climbing the larger-than-life rock that dominates the village, for fantastic views of the surrounding rural landscape.
Located on the edge of the gorge of the River Dourdou, this postcard-perfect town combines nature with history: expect incredible valley views, dense forested surroundings and old timbered buildings at this former popular stop on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela. Cross the Roman bridge before exploring the intricate carvings and impossibly high ceilings at Sainte-Foy Abbey, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Known of the Venice of Provence on the French Riviera, this seaside village in southeastern France’s Var department offers a unique and romantic setting of winding canals. Part of the Grimaud commune, located a 20-minute drive from Saint-Tropez, it features soft pastel-toned buildings reminiscent of the Italian city’s fisherman’s houses (expect colourful shutters and iron balconies), as well as a Gallo-Roman history dating back to the 11th century. Come here for water sports and boating activities, and don’t leave without sampling the fantastic seafood.
Head into southwest France’s Dordogne to discover this town’s quaint Medieval appeal – from Sainte-Marie church with its bell tower and panoramic glass lift, to one of France’s Lanterns of the Dead structures (which dates back to the 12th century and offers lovely views over the town’s rooftops). Don’t miss the year-long covered market for all the edible staples you’ll want to sink your teeth into – truffles being a local speciality – and, should time allow, make a quick trip to the neighbouring Vézac to stroll through the hanging Marqueyssac gardens.
For Southern France with a twist, try the island of Corsica – here, the town of Sartène impresses with its granite architecture, hilly setting and, by extension, its far-reaching views of the island’s rugged mountainous landscape. Wander the cobblestone streets as you take in the tall early 16th-century buildings, before winding up on Place de la Libération, a palm and elm tree-lined square where cafés sprawl out into the sunshine – the perfect spot for people-watching and admiring the Town Hall and Sainte-Marie church.
Saint-Paul-de-Vence certainly lives up to its status as one of the French Riviera’s oldest Medieval destinations. Beautifully green, floral and brimming with romance, it’s within easy reach of the seaside, mountains and airport, yet offers all the laid-back relaxation you’d want from a sojourn in a small village. Visit its art studios and galleries, slow-sip locally-produced wines and play a game of boules, or simply take a long stroll along narrow alleyways to soak up the village’s history.
Located about an hour’s drive northeast of Toulouse, Albi combines its militaristic architecture with an idyllic location on the banks of the River Tarn. Its standout features include the Old Bridge and the Gothic Cathedral Basilica of Saint Cecilia, which is beautifully ornate and impressive both inside and out. Elsewhere, art and culture vultures should visit the Palais de la Berbie for stunning manicured gardens and a museum dedicated to the works of painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.