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How to Experience 3 Not-to-Be-Missed Towns in France

With elaborate architecture and picturesque backdrops, these destinations are well worth a trip.

U.S. News & World Report

How to Experience 3 Not-to-Be-Missed Towns in France

France, Haute-Loire, along El Camino de Santiago, UNESCO World Heritage, Le Puy-en-Velay, cityscape with Notre-Dame statue and Notre-Dame du Puy cathedral
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(Getty Images)

Skip Paris and Nice for these beautiful, must-see places.

France is replete with a rich history that lies within the walls and atop the hills of its ancient cities. Spectacular to see from a distance and fascinating to visit, these well-preserved places artfully blend historic buildings with modern shops and restaurants. If you want to capture a sense of time and place and experience the ambiance of what life was like in the early settlements in France, there's no better place to do it than in its ancient towns. Lesser-known, with their storied and well-maintained architecture and original structures, these tucked-away towns and villages will capture your imagination and take you back in time.
Place du Tilleul near the entrance of the L'Hostellerie de Perouges restaurant and inn.
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(Getty Images)

Pérouges – Day 1

The fortified village of Pérouges is classified as one of the Plus Beaux Villages de France, or Most Beautiful Villages in France. Located in the Rhone-Alpes, it lies just 25 miles northeast of Lyon (about about 300 miles southeast of Paris). Perched on a hill on the Dombes plateau overlooking the Ain River valley, this charming medieval village appears to have been frozen in time. On your way to La Place de la Halle, the main square and heart of the village, you'll walk the winding narrow streets with uneven cobblestones and pass half-timbered homes leaning with time and built tightly side by side with characteristic wooden doors and shutters.
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Skip Paris and Nice for these beautiful, must-see places.

France is replete with a rich history that lies within the walls and atop the hills of its ancient cities. Spectacular to see from a distance and fascinating to visit, these well-preserved places artfully blend historic buildings with modern shops and restaurants. If you want to capture a sense of time and place and experience the ambiance of what life was like in the early settlements in France, there's no better place to do it than in its ancient towns. Lesser-known, with their storied and well-maintained architecture and original structures, these tucked-away towns and villages will capture your imagination and take you back in time.

Pérouges – Day 1

The fortified village of Pérouges is classified as one of the Plus Beaux Villages de France, or Most Beautiful Villages in France. Located in the Rhone-Alpes, it lies just 25 miles northeast of Lyon (about about 300 miles southeast of Paris). Perched on a hill on the Dombes plateau overlooking the Ain River valley, this charming medieval village appears to have been frozen in time. On your way to La Place de la Halle, the main square and heart of the village, you'll walk the winding narrow streets with uneven cobblestones and pass half-timbered homes leaning with time and built tightly side by side with characteristic wooden doors and shutters.

Pérouges – Day 2

Pérouges is a working village, with 80 residents within its walls. You'll discover several active businesses, including an artisan paper maker, a wine shop and a traditional boulangerie. To really experience what life might have been like in medieval times in the village, plan to stay within the ramparts at Hostellerie de Pérouges. Located on La Place de la Halle, this charming hotel serves local specialties such as carp from the rivers of the Dombes plateau, Bresse chicken (the native blue-footed chicken) cooked in cream and the famous Galette de Pérouges, which is best described as a warm caramelized sugar- and butter-topped pizza.

Aigues-Mortes – Day 1

Aigues-Mortes, a walled medieval town with four corner towers, appears to rise up out of the flat coastal marshlands of the Petite Camargue. Located approximately 50 miles northwest of Marseilles (and about 75 miles west of Aix-en-Provence), the town was founded in 1240 by Louis IX, the first king of France, as a Mediterranean port. Highlights include walking around the rampart walls to view the layout of the town with its linear streets and a visit to Constance Tower, which offers a spectacular pinnacle view. Beyond the walls, in the summer, you can see the red salt lagoons of the Camargue, with their glistening salt piles that seem to bloom from the water.

Aigues-Mortes – Day 2

The center of activity is Place Saint-Louis, the main square, which is lined with the usual mix of cafes, galleries and boutiques. While wandering through the cobblestone streets of this charming town, you'll discover that most of the original medieval structures have been destroyed. Today, there is primarily 19th-century architecture on display. There are exceptions, however, like the Eglise Notre-Dame-des-Sablons (The Church of Our Lady of the Sablons). Stay within the walls of Aigues-Mortes at the lovely Villa Mazarin and enjoy some of the town's Provençal specialties. Stop by La Cure Gourmande to purchase the glazed fruits, candies and nougats for which the town is famous.

Le Puy-en-Velay, Auvergne – Day 1

This medieval hill town in south–central France near the Loire River (and about 270 miles from Cannes), has been a well-traveled destination for travelers since the Middle Ages. The town served as one of the starting points for the pilgrimage to St. James Way, also known as the Santiago de Compostela, where the apostle James is buried. The first tourists to Le Puy-en-Velay may have been pilgrims beginning their journey from Le Puy Cathedral to the Galicia region of Spain. This famous church is perched on Mount Anis overlooking the city, but it's also worth taking the time to explore the old town, a beautiful area with a rich heritage.

Le Puy-en-Velay, Auvergne – Day 2

The oldest chapel in Le Puy, Chapelle St-Michel d'Aiguilhe, towers over the city. Visitors must climb 268 winding stone steps to reach the top. Wander the well-preserved streets of the old city with its medieval architecture and narrow passageways. Known as a lace-making center for centuries, this area is also where the Le Puy lentil is grown, a traditional ingredient in many French dishes. For a throwback to Renaissance times (circa A.D. 1524) and when Francis I was king, visit the third week of September when the town hosts Les Fêtes du Roi de l'Oiseau (the Bird King Festival). Daily festival events include archery competitions, music, costume parades and mock skirmishes throughout the town.
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