Aerial view of Paris, France at night.
Luke Ma/Flickr

Secret France: The Sights and Experiences Most Visitors Miss….But Shouldn’t

You don’t need us to tell you that the view from the Eiffel Tower is eye-candy of the first degree, that castle- and winery-hopping in the Loire Valley is a sophisticated treat or that few beaches are as chic as those along the French Riviera. But there are experiences one can have in France that are as delightful as these, but are skipped by the majority of visitors. If you want to experience France as the French do, try the following activities.

Photo editing by Olivia Lyons
View of the ocean at Ile de Bréhat in France
Julien Carnot/Flickr
Escaping to an Island
There are thousands of wild and inhabited islands off Brittany’s rugged coastline. You’ll be enchanted by the beauty and breath-taking sea views of Ile de Bréhat or Belle-Ile-en-Mer.
People look at the awe-inspiring stones stood upright
Jeremy Atkinson/Flickr
Marveling at France’s “Stonehenge” (Brittany)
The seaside resort of Carnac is home to the largest megalithic site in the world. A visit might not answer how these massive stones got turned upright, but it will certainly leave you pondering the mysteries and theories surrounding this curious site.
A renaissance castle in France
Jena-Yves Didier/Flickr
Exploring the Glamorous Château des Millandes (Dordogne)
This splendid Renaissance castle was the former home of singer/dancer Josephine Baker. Learn about her fascinating life and visit rooms furnished as they were when she lived there, then take a stroll in the gardens.
People hike the dirt trail
Axel Brocke/Flickr
Rambling the Sentier des Ocres de Roussillon (Provence)
Located in the heart of the Luberon, Roussillon once possessed some of the world’s most important ochre quarries. Today this landscape is just as brilliantly hued, and can be explored via a picturesque hiking trail.
A religious mural
Daniel Jolivet/Flickr
Peeking at Crypt Murals Auxerre (Burgundy)
The overused term ‘hidden gems’ is appropriate to describe Auxerre’s two crypt murals because that is exactly what they are. Underneath the remains of the Abbaye Saint-Germain are a series of religious wall murals dating from the 9th century, the oldest so far found in France. Those at the nearby Cathédrale Saint-Etienne go back to the 11th century and are famous for depicting a rare image of Christ on a horse.
People gaze out at the ocean from a secluded area on the coast
Lars Plougann/Flickr
Discovering Secret Beaches between Monaco and Roquebrune-Cap-Martin (Riviera)
The Riviera’s rippling coastal path turns up plenty of hidden surprises. Head east out of Monaco, passing the Monte-Carlo Beach Hotel. The trail then meanders along the Mediterranean shoreline. Aleppo pines and fig trees part to reveal the tiniest turquoise coves. Be sure to pack your swimsuit.
A spiral staircase
Tracking down Art Nouveau (Lorraine)
Nancy is one of Europe’s Art Nouveau capitals. Start at the Ecole de Nancy museum located in a period house, then wander the city in search of its many architectural treasures of the era.
A man rides his bike through the vineyard
Curtis Foreman/Flickr
Cycling in the Countryside
The country that hosts the Tour de France offers thousands of options for bike trips, all of them ideal for leaving the crowds far behind. You’re even welcome to take your bike aboard most trains in France, free of charge. For cycling through Provence’s vineyards and past pretty hilltop villages, check out Vélo Loisir en Luberon’s downloadable routes.
Antique perfume bottles and frame on gass table
JF Gornet/Flickr
Hunting for Antiques
The 18th- and 19th-century French aesthetic was gloriously different from that of England and North America. Many objects bear designs with mythological references to the French experience. France has some 13,000-plus antiques shops throughout the country. Stop where you see the sign antiquaire or brocante.
People on a barge float along a river in France into the sunset
Joe deSousa/Flickr
Cruising France’s Rivers
Floating slowly down one of France’s major rivers is a superb way to see hidden corners of the countryside. Most luxury barge cruises offer daily excursions, elegant dinners on deck, and bicycles for solitary exploration.
A church in Paris
Ken and Nyetta/Flickr
Reveling in St-Etienne-du-Mont
One of the prettiest in Paris, this stunning church that sits atop the highest point in the Latin Quarter is often left off the tourist itinerary. A delightful mix of late-Gothic and Renaissance styles, the church has a 16th-century chancel boasting the city’s only rood screen, a magnificent work with decorations inspired by the Italian Renaissance.
A lit up mosque at night
Sipping Tea at the Mosquée de Paris
A delicious fountain bubbles in the patio of this beautiful mosque tearoom, which serves mint-scented tea and Middle Eastern pastries in lovely mosaic-tiled surroundings. An ideal spot for relaxing after a long day of sightseeing.
Inside a Troglodyte cave
Going Underground at Touraine’s Troglodyte Caves
Admire art, sample regional wine, and even stay the night underground in the Loire’s Touraine region, home to France’s largest concentration of troglodyte caves.
Panoramic view of the monastery
Jean-Etienne Minh-Duy Poirrier/Flickr
Returning to the Time of the Crusades (Loire)
See the history behind the foolhardy Crusades at the 12th-century Abbey of Fontevraud. It’s one of the largest medieval monasteries in Europe as well as the final resting place of most of the Plantagenets.
A trench in France
Paul Arps/Flickr
Tracing the Trenches
While Normandy usually attracts most visitors interested in war history, the western front of World War I carved its way through Eastern France. Many moving battlefield sites and memorials are located near Verdun.
Courtyard in Vieux Lyon
Connie Ma/Flickr
Meandering through Traboules in Vieux Lyon (Rhône Valley)
Hidden behind brown-painted doorways lie flower-ringed courtyards and vaulted masonry ceilings. You’ll discover many architectural gems on a 2-hour tour around Vieux Lyon’s medieval traboules—corridors connecting two streets through a building or courtyard.
View of the ocean from Iles des Lérins
Mathieu Marquer/Flickr
Enjoying a Semi-Private Beach on the Iles de Lérins (Riviera)
The Iles des Lérins may lie a 20-minute ferry ride from Cannes. Yet these two car-free islands attract just a fraction of the visitors. Take a picnic lunch and a good book, and get ready to leave the crowds back on the coast.