13 French cities for an amazing autumn break

#1 – Tours and arty tourism, in the heart of Centre Val de Loire

People don’t always give Tours the tour it deserves, seeing it as a quick stop to tick off on the way to the beautiful chateaux of the Loire Valley. But just an hour from Paris, it’s a city worthy of a longer visit. After all, it is the International City of Gastronomy. Yes, its historic neighbourhoods, the city centre built from tuffeau limestone, and its medieval lanes and squares all offer a glimpse of times long since passed. But Lonely Planet says its Place Plum’ (short for Plumereau) is the finest square in all of France, with its terraces that stay lively at any time of year! And if you are feeling the need for a modern art fix, the Centre de Création Contemporaine Olivier Debré (CCCOD) and its cutting-edge design is a stone’s throw away. But you’ll get your first taste on the way there, in the trams designed by… Daniel Buren. It doesn’t get much artier than that!

#2 - Riding along the Ill in Strasbourg, in Alsace

Did you know that Strasbourg is France’s most cyclable city? So, before you head off on the Alsace Wine Route and visit its villages in bloom, why not take in a leisurely pedal along the canals, islands, picturesque bridges, and bucolic quays of Alsace’s capital city? Along the banks of the Ill, a tributary to the Rhine that winds its way around the historic old town and the breathtaking Petite France, Strasbourg’s majestic cathedral is always in sight, so you’ll never lose your bearings. You’re free to get out of the saddle whenever the mood takes you, as well as to stop into the 5ème Lieu, a new exhibition space dedicated to heritage and architecture. And here’s a bright idea: why not make it an environmentally friendly trip right down to your accommodation, with a stay at Tandem, Strasbourg’s first sustainable – and cyclist friendly – hotel!

#3 – Lyon: food courts and secret passages

Play hide-and-seek along hidden lanes on the trail of Lyon’s heritage gems. Wonders await along the secret alleys, stairways, and courtyards that interlink the streets and lanes of the Vieux Lyon and Croix Rousse neighbourhoods, and that’s before you download the “Traboules” augmented reality app. Use it to find the bouchons, traditional Lyonese restaurants that serve up generous helpings of local speciality dishes. If you’ve still got room, visit the latest places to be in this foodie city: the excellent Musée des Confluences, of course, but also Lyon’s four new food courts that showcase all things gourmet. Hot on the tracks of La Commune, Heat and Food Traboule, Food Society has just parked up its gourmet food trucks in the Lyon-Part-Dieu mall. There’s almost as much to see as there is to eat!

#4 - Nantes, extraordinary adventures in the Pays de la Loire

When you first pull into Nantes by train, you’re greeted first by the gleaming new train station and its panoramic walkway designed by Rudy Ricciotti, the architect behind the MuCEM in Marseille. From there it’s simple: just follow the green line on the ground to be taken on an entertaining cultural tour of the city. You can walk the 60+ stages of “A Journey to Nantes” year-round at your own pace, to discover the top sights in the city as well as its lesser-known gems. Along the way you will cross paths with a giant elephant and outlandish contraptions straight out of a Jules Verne novel; a beautiful chateau, a fascinating art gallery, the buzzing Hangar à Bananes with its trendy cafes and galleries on an island in the Loire; an airy viewpoint jutting out from a cliff, and soon a giant heron tree, all happy to put on a show for visitors to the city. So... you coming?

#5 - Amiens, a nature cruise in Hauts-de-France

How about a cruise through a market garden, floating along between patches of leeks, cabbages, carrots and even flowerbeds? What about doing your shopping on the water, buying straight from local producers? Sound good? With its hortillonnages, an old local word for the floating gardens that also serve as allotments, today, Amiens is right on trend... naturally! Whether catching a ride on a traditional barque à cornet with its distinctive profile, at the helm of an electric boat, or even cycling along the banks of the canal in the beautiful Saint Leu neighbourhood, you’re sure to love going with the flow along these winding waterways. It’s a guaranteed big breath of fresh air, bucolic peace and quiet, and autumnal hues, all within a few hundred metres of the world’s biggest gothic cathedral. A great trip awaits!

#6 - Rouen, trying to keep up in Normandy

With Joan of Arc, the Impressionists, and even Gustave Flaubert (Normandy is celebrating the 200th anniversary of his birth in 2021), so many historical and artistic avenues await to (re)discover Rouen with its picturesque streets, half-timber houses, gourmet markets, and quayside, where the banks of the Seine are the sole reserve of pedestrians and cyclists. Fancy a high energy break? Try a Run&Visit tour, where a tour guide/running coach will put you through your paces on a run through the city, while regaling you with stories of its history. Then it’s time for a hard-earned break at the recently restored Aître Saint Maclou in Old Rouen. With exhibition spaces, art galleries, and a beautiful winter garden, this restored Medieval ossuary is now an oasis of calm. You’ll love it!

#7 - Rennes, a gourmet paradise in Brittany

Every Saturday morning, the Place de Lices is a whirlwind of colours and scents. Market gardeners and fishmongers, local producers and healthy-eating activists pitch their stalls in tightly packed rows. Welcome to one of the biggest and oldest markets in France, in a city that is just as proud of the traditional local favourite, the sausage crepe, as it is its innovative casual dining scene. Rennes is a city where quality restaurants and tucked-away gourmet gems serve organic, locavore food to excite your taste buds. Mouth watering already? Book a spot on a Food Mood Tour to take in a few culinary highlights: 3 hours, 6 stops, and just as many tastings... Still not full? Inside the vast indoor market at Criée-Marché Central, the Marché à Manger convenes on the first Sunday of the month, bringing together the very best of Breton chefs and food trucks in a festive atmosphere. Dinner is served!

#8 - Dijon, the rich history of Bourgogne-Franche-Comté

With its clos estates and prestigious vineyards, Bourgogne is never more beautiful than in the autumn, when it glitters in red and gold. It’s also the best season to savour Dijon: its gourmet specialities, relaxed lifestyle and, soon, the International City of Gastronomy and Wine. In the fully pedestrianised city centre, the capital city of the Dukes of Burgundy invites you to wander among its half-timber houses, Roman and gothic churches, private mansions, and gourmet markets (we highly recommend Sunday brunch!). To make sure you see it all, just follow the owl! Dijon’s mascot is sculpted into the buttresses of the cathedral, and marks out a trail of 22 attractions starting at the Place Darcy and its beautiful renaissance garden. The Palace of the Dukes of Burgundy, the Tower of Philippe Le Bon, and the fine art museum… So much history!

#9 - Bayonne, festive times in Nouvelle-Aquitaine

Ongi Etorri is Basque for “welcome”. And that is by no means the last time you’ll hear those musical words, because here in Bayonne, as everywhere throughout the Basque Country, they know how to treat visitors! For Bayonne is a city that will have you under its spell with its quirky, colourful old town, its tightly packed half-timber houses, its fortifications, gourmet markets, and impressive gothic cathedral. It will also make you eager to visit again, if only to see the Bonnat-Helleu museum, scheduled to open in 2024 with its priceless collection of art by Raphael, Michelangelo, and Leonardo da Vinci, the biggest outside of the Louvre! You’ll find everything you need to make the wait an enjoyable one in Grand and Petit Bayonne, either side of the river Nive. So, what will it be: a chocolate or street art tour (or another little-known local speciality)? We say both!

#10 – Toulouse: rivers and canals in Occitanie

There’s the Place du Capitole, of course, forming Toulouse’s iconic heart, surrounded by an impressive concentration of remarkable monuments: from the recently restored Basilica of Saint-Sernin to the Church of the Jacobins, and the opulent Assézat private mansion (whose museum is scheduled to reopen in spring 2022), not to mention the modern art collection at Les Abattoirs. But the Ville Rose (Pink City), home to France’s aerospace industry, also stretches a thread of green along the banks of the Garonne. It’s so refreshing to pedal along the quaysides and towpaths in the shade of the centuries-old plane trees, as you pass by outstanding residences in the soft autumn light, stopping for a break at the vibrant Place Saint-Pierre or Port de la Daurade. Where next? Keep pedalling, and there’s always the Canal du Midi...

#11 - Amazing views from Marseille, in Provence-Côte d’Azur

Reaching the Vieux Port from along the Canebière always makes a striking impression. And not just for the dizzying inverted views beneath the giant mirrored sunshade designed by Norman Foster. It is a place where the light is always outstanding at any time of year, and any time of day. On a hilltop over to the left, Notre-Dame de la Garde Basilica watches over the city. To the right, the picturesque Panier neighbourhood unfolds around the Vieille Charité, a former almshouse now functioning as a museum and cultural centre. It is through Panier’s lanes and alleys dotted with cafes and designer boutiques that you reach the vertiginous footbridge that leads to the MuCEM (Museum of Civilizations of Europe and the Mediterranean). Clothed in concrete lace, the new star of the Phoenician city certainly looks the part! Whether you go inside to check out an exhibition or not, you simply must go up to the roof via the openwork walkway. Light and shadow, blue skies, and the sparkling Mediterranean… beautiful views everywhere you look!

#12 - Ajaccio, via the “Blood Islands” in Corsica

In Corsica, summer can stretch out all the way to October or even November. And this shoulder season really suits Ajaccio and its enchanting gulf. So, if you never made it to Paris for the big Napoleon exhibition at the Halle de la Villette, it’s not too late to retrace his footsteps back to his hometown. Whatever you make of the French emperor, your tour of the city will doubtless take you to the gleaming Place Foch, and onwards to the Maison Bonaparte and the must-see Musée Fesch, home to a fine art museum containing a priceless collection of Italian masterpieces. And if you’d rather keep out of the city, take the Sentier des Crêtes trail for a hike through the maquis shrubland fragrant with myrtle, rockrose, and everlasting. You can’t fail to be moved by sunset overlooking the Gulf of Ajaccio and the Iles Sanguinaires.

#13 - Paris, never enough!

Where to begin? The Carnavalet Museum of the history of Paris? Hôtel de la Marine in Place de la Concorde? The Pinault Collection at the Bourse du Commerce? Or La Samaritaine with its new shopping, beauty, and dining spaces? As ever and always, Paris is still worthy of its reputation and is still turning heads. The City of Lights has donned new finery and is looking forward to a few weeks packed with openings and events. And it’s just as well, because autumn is definitely the best season to (re)visit Paris, which is never more romantic than when the foliage in its parks and gardens begins to turn gold. And when it comes to outstanding major exhibitions, Picasso, Rodin, Botticelli, Dali and even Banksy are all on the list… What are you waiting for?!