There’s a famous saying in French that goes “there’s Paris and there’s the rest.” Although Paris is pretty fantastic, “the rest” has a lot to offer! One of the best parts about living in different regions of France over the past four years, is that I’ve got to visit so many places I may never have discovered if I had just stayed in Paris.
Almost two years ago, I got a job offer in a tiny city called Perpignan all the way at the southern edge of France. Even though I knew nothing about this little Mediterranean town, I took the leap and moved from Paris. Since then I’ve been able to explore so many charming villages and see some stunning sites. Today, I thought I’d share with you some of my favorite hidden gems in the south of France! Keep in mind, most of these are in the Occitanie region since that’s where I live.
Looking for the perfect place to take a seaside walk or have lunch by the water? This scenic town is nestled in between the glimmering Mediterranean sea and a lagoon. After a leisurely hike along the cliffs, you can enjoy local seafood and Languedoc wine. If you feel like going on a longer walk, you can hike further inland and see some peaceful vineyards and olive groves.
To see something “dépaysant,” head over to Ille-sur-Têt in my home department of the Pyrénees-Orientales. Once you reach les Orgues you might think you are in the southwestern United States rather than southwestern France! The natural rock formations here were formed by erosion and they are like nothing I’ve ever seen before.
Read more about Ille-sur-Têt here: Incredible Rock Formations in France: Les Orgues d’Ille-sur-Têt
A ski resort, thermal baths, charm – this little mountain village in the Ariège has it all! I spent the perfect weekend here last winter snowshoeing, relaxing in the spa, exploring a nearby castle, and eating fondue! I can’t wait to go back to this Pyrenean town again someday to soak in the healing thermal waters once more.
Curious about my time in Ax? Read this: Snowshoeing Adventure in the Pyrenees
If you prefer sunny beaches to mountains, perhaps you should add Saint-Cyr-sur-Mer to your list. This little provençal seaside town is quiet and not super touristy. On my time off from teaching English to French kids at summer camp, I would come down to the beach to have ice cream and lay by the water. This beach has little rocks instead of sand FYI, but the water is some of the clearest I’ve ever swam in.
Another lovely beach town on the other side of the south of France is Bayonne. This Basque city off the Atlantic coast is one of the first places I ever visited in France during an exchange I did at 14 years old. I don’t remember too much about my trip here, but I do recall the charming city center, the sunny beach, and Basque cuisine.
If you love traveling to learn about history, Villfranche-de-Conflent is an ideal destination. A UNESCO World Heritage site, Villefranche is one of the most interesting fortified cities I’ve ever been to. It’s fort and ramparts are one of 12 designed by King Louis XIV’s military engineer Vauban. In addition to the citadel you can also explore caves, buy artisan gifts, and ride the scenic Little Yellow Train through the Pyrenees!
Learn more about Villefranche here: Forts, Witches, and a Medieval Mountain Village: Day Trip to Villefranche-de-Conflent
The lavender fields of Provence may not be a hidden gem, but the Sault plateau is not as well known as the vast fields in the Luberon. Since the fields in Sault are at a higher elevation, the lavender blooms a little bit later than the the ones at a lower elevation. After taking a guided tour around the fields last summer, I had lavender ice cream in the town of Sault as I gazed at the purple landscape below.
Get the scoop on visiting the lavender fields: Lavender Fields in Sault, Provence
I honestly don’t know why Narbonne isn’t a more well known destination in France. Located along the ancient Via Domita Roman from Italy to Spain, there is so much history here. I loved exploring the roman ruins, walking along the canal, marveling at the unfinished cathedral, and visiting the home of famous French singer Charles Trenet, which is now a museum.
What to do in Narbonne: One Day in Narbonne: a Southern French Town You Don’t Want to Miss!
Have you ever been surprised while passing through a city that wasn’t your final destination? For me, that city was Gap. When I went skiing in the Alps with some friends from grad school, I had a layover in Gap before I caught my train home. Although I didn’t visit any museums or eat at a fancy restaurant, I had a good time walking around the endearing streets and having some tea on a café’s terrance. If you need a break from skiing in the southern French alps, this town is perfect for exploring.
Finally, the last hidden gem on my list is Collioure, the Catalan perl of the Mediterranean. I’ve been to this fishing village several times and it never gets old. There’s something about colorful buildings that just brighten your mood! From sipping rosé on a patio, to wandering around the town’s castle, to sunbathing by the water, it’s hard to be bored in Collioure. Next time I visit I want to see some Matisse paintings in the Fauvisme museum and hike up to the Fort Saint Elme to admire the coastal village from above.
More about Collioure and other towns like it: Beach Hopping on the Côte Vermeille
Thank you so much for reading and let me know which one of these hidden gems in the south of France you want to visit the most!
À la prochaine,