People are always pinning to know: “where should I go in France? Should I just go to Paris and see the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre?” (the answer to that rhetorical question is no). The reality is that it’s almost a fool’s errand to recommend one place over another in France (hint: almost). There’s just so many beautiful cities, towns, beaches, and villages packed into one country that it’s nearly impossible to cover them all. But if you have 5 days to explore the South of France and see more than just the top five in France/if you are looking to travel deeper/travel off the beaten path we got you. That’s why in this post, I’m only going to cover three regions & cities that I personally loved exploring. Two of these destinations are tried & true tourist hubs like the French Riviera and Marseilles. The other is the city of Montpellier, an eclectic European city that perhaps don’t get enough love.
The French Riviera – Côte d’Azur in French – is the cultural and shoreline hub perfectly situated on the Mediterranean. In the summer, the glistening coastlines of the Riviera are packed to the brim with travelers from all around the globe, and everyone just wants a spot on the beaches there. After the city of lights (Paris) has exhausted you, take the fast train to Nice and make this your base.
The coastal city of Nice is the glimmering icon of the Riviera – the initial epicenter of everyone’s beachside travels in the south of France (it’s also the country’s 5th largest city). From there, you can take any of the day-trip worthy towns scattered nearby, like Cannes, Monaco, and Antibes via an easy train ride.
Done working on your tan, spend a couple of days in the mountains either on the French or Italian side. Alongside the beaches and coastal towns, the Côte d’Azur also comprises smooth mountains & rolling hills that make for beautiful hikes. If you can, rent a car and go for a beautiful coastline road trip from Nice to Menton to get a glimpse of the beautiful French countryside. I would even recommend driving across the Italian border to Ventimiglia or Sanremo, the two closest Italian towns situated along the French & Italian border. So grab your bathing suit & some hiking boots and explore everything the Côte d’Azur has to offer!
The 2nd largest city in France, Marseilles is often overshadowed by Paris and the French Riviera. People often forget Marseilles is also in the south of France, specifically in the region of Provence just west of the French Riviera. Wander through Marseille’s famous districts like Le Panier or Vieux Port and you’re bound to experience the city in the best possible way. Or, for those of us who need a little nature, the Parc National des Calanques is a non-negotiable must-see. A true microcosm of the south of France, the Calanques – just 9 miles outside Marseille – both hiking and boat tours through this national park offers pristine views of majestic cliffs, beaches, and coves.
Going back to the actual city, make sure to check out the Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée (which goes by MuCEM), Marseille’s leading museums and institutions hosting an anthropological journey through Mediterranean history. No matter what you’re interested in seeing, this historical city offers a little something for everyone.
If Marseilles is overshadowed by bigger, more metropolitan European cities, Montpellier is downright underrated. Montpellier is a student city with no shortage of universities throughout. A byproduct of this is that year-round there’s a great nightlife scene curated for young adults, mostly with bars and microbreweries crowded around the city center and train station.
Because of the influence of King Louis XIV had on Montpellier (in the 17th century, King Louis anointed the city the capital of Bas Languedoc, a former region in the south of France), the city formerly attracted many affluent figures and nobles who in turn transformed Montpellier into a cultural capital.
Like a true Mediterranean city, Montpellier has beautiful, sandy beaches on the outskirts of the city, accessible just 20 minutes by tram. Montpellier’s beaches are famously shallow and frigid cold – you can tread over 100 feet in the ocean water yet still be only knee-deep. I recommend renting a bike in the city and biking to either the Carnon or Palavas beach destinations, both of which have bike paths separated from the highway. The bike rental system in Montpellier is Velomagg. You can either rent a bike from one of the automatic rental stations around the city (payment by credit card) or you can rent a bike directly at the tourist office or the Velomagg office next to the train station! My last piece of advice is if you do rent a bike, make sure to arrive early – in the summer, they tend to run out quickly.
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