The Prettiest French Seaside Towns for the Perfect Vacation
France is known the world over for its picturesque villages and towns. While they can be found all over the country, there’s something extra magical about the ones located on the sea. Blessed with over 6,000 miles (10,000 km) of coastline rambling along three major bodies of water, France’s seaboard embraces a wide variety of terrain ranging from pristine sandy beaches to craggy cliffs. Whether you want to escape to a frozen-in-time fishing village or a grand seaside resort dating to the heyday of the Belle Époque, there’s an exceptional ville en bord de mer for you.
Pictured: Saint Jean de Luz
Lined with bobbing fishing boats and tall regal townhouses, it’s hard to beat the picture-postcard beauty of Honfleur. Located on the edge of the English Channel and the mouth of the Seine River estuary, the town jumped on the bandwagon—or rather, the galleon—of the 16th and 17th century maritime trade boom, making a killing on trade, mostly with the Americas. The shipping tycoons flaunted their newfound wealth in the expensive slate-clad mansions which still stand stoically around the Vieux Bassin port. The 19th century brought a new set of upstarts to Honfleur: palette-and-paintbrush wielding Impressionists who immortalized the town and its surroundings on their canvases.
Often overshadowed by its glitzier, newer neighbor Deauville, Trouville-sur-Mer prides itself on being a more authentic Normandy coastal resort. The sleepy fishing village was bluntly awakened in the mid-19th century by the soaring popularity of seaside holidaying. Nicknamed “the Queen of Beaches,” Trouville’s wide sandy shores were quickly overtaken by sunbathers, glamorous villas, and artists and writers including Corot, Monet, Flaubert, and Proust. Fortunately, the cobbled maze of the old town and its historic fish market have survived the influx and are a testament to its maritime roots.
Sitting across the mouth of the Rance River from the famous fortified city of Saint Malo, Dinard is Brittany’s equivalent to Trouville-sur-Mer. Another fishing village-turned-seaside resort, this spot along the beautiful Emerald Coast posesses something of a microclimate courtesy of the Gulf Stream. Not quite as warm as the French Riviera in the south, those few extra degrees still managed to put Dinard on the mid-19th century resort map. In no time, extravagant villas were cropping up on the cliffs above the lovely Plage de l’Ecluse, whose fine sands and turquoise waters are remain popular today with a stylish summertime crowd of British, American, and French holidaymakers.
Île-de-Ré, or the King’s island, reigns in popularity over France’s other Atlantic Coast islands—and with good reason. The flat island, accessible by bridge from La Rochelle, is fringed with incredibly fine sandy beaches, crystal clear waters, and the most delightful seaside towns, especially Saint-Martin-de-Ré. After serving as a military base for both Catholics and Protestants during the 16th-century Wars of Religion, it’s no wonder Vauban, Louis XVI’s chief military engineer, built one of his formidable fortresses around the town. Completed in 1691, the impressive star-shaped fortifications were added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2008. The village’s narrow lanes teem with traditional houses with their typical colorful shutters, scatterings of wild hollyhocks, and a variety of chic souvenir shops. Meander, and you’ll inevitably discover one of Saint-Martin’s excellent ice cream parlors or a restaurant terrace on the port where you can indulge in the island’s famous oysters and sparkling wine.
This alluring Basque Country town has more personality and a richer history than its better-known resort town neighbor Biarritz. Set on an curved bay a mere 9 miles (15 km) from the Spanish Atlantic coast border, Saint-Jean-de-Luz rose in prominence and elegance during the 16th and 17th century thanks to prosperous but dubious maritime endeavors including privateering (government licensed pirates). Regardless of the origins of this wealth, the town and its Saint-Jean-Baptiste Church were chosen to host the 1660 wedding of Louis XIV and the Infanta Maria Theresa of Spain, further adding to the port’s prestige. It continued to grow with stylish buildings well into the 1800s, when it morphed into a popular summertime destination for French and Spanish aristocrats. A hundred years later, a more democratic crowd can be found strolling the beach, surfing the Atlantic’s massive waves, and enjoying the many summer festivals.
Selected as one of our Best Places to Go in 2019, this vibrant Catalan town is one of the last under-the-radar destinations along France’s popular Mediterranean coast. Located just above the Spanish border, for centuries, Collioure was caught in a tug-of-war match between the French and Spaniards. Not surprisingly, these battles sparked the construction of a monumental medieval fortress. This still presides over the harbor, which is flanked on the other end by the Church of Our Lady of Angels and its iconic, round bell tower. The scenic town became something of an artist colony in the early 20th century, attracting the likes of Picasso, Matisse, Braque, and Derain. You, too, will fall in love with the town as you browse its galleries, try some of its renowned anchovies, and get lost down its colorful streets.
Although it’s only 15 miles (25 km) from Marseille, this picturesque fishing village is spared the hubbub of France’s second-largest city thanks to its idyllic and protected natural setting. Located in a sheltered bay of sloping vineyards, Cassis is at the edge of the Calanques National Park, known for its majestic coves bordered by steep limestone cliffs. These are generally accessed either on foot or by boat from Cassis. The town, with its towering medieval castle, bourgeois mansions, and attractive center, is well worth exploring in its own right. However, don’t expect to come across boutiques selling crème de Cassis—the famed currant liqueur used in kirs is actually from Burgundy. Instead, be sure to look for some of the town’s acclaimed white and rosé wines.
Despite being coined the "The Pearl of France," pastel-toned Menton seems to be part of the Italian Riviera and, for a time, it was. From the 14th century right up to the French Revolution, Menton fell under the jurisdiction of the Princes of Monaco. The first half of the 19th century was one of flux for Menton as it flip-flipped across the French-Italian border, had a brief stint as a "free city" in 1848 and was a protectorate of the Kingdom of Sardinia for a decade. Even though France eventually lay permanent claim to the town when it annexed the County of Nice in 1860, its Italianate nature is still very much apparent in the colorful houses and Baroque churches clinging to the winding streets of the hilly old quarter.