The French love a good contest. From Paris’s annual baguette competition to the cow beauty pageant at the Salon de l’Agriculture, there’s no stopping the matchups. Even villages in the countryside of France are judged in Le village préféré des Français, an annual TV show hosted by journalist Stéphane Bern (aka Monsieur Patrimoine).
Of 14 candidates each representing a French region, the French public vote for their favorite. And in a country known for its cinematic, pinch-me-pretty villages, that’s no easy feat. The result for the lucky winner is an undeniable boon for tourism—though sometimes to ill effect. (Tip: Avoid the crowds by visiting in the off-season instead of summer or the May holiday weekends.)
Here’s a look at the heart-stealing champs over the past 11 years.
- Location: Occitanie; 30 minutes from Cahors
- 2012 winner
From its vertiginous perch on a craggy cliff, this honey-colored hamlet is reflected in the waters of the Lot River below. A tangle of medieval alleyways tumbles down the hillside, dominated by the 16th-century Gothic church. Much of the village has remained unchanged since the Middle Ages, and today harbors 13 classified historic monuments, including the 14th-century Maison Bordes and an old hospital dating to the 13th. It’s attracted artists and writers since the early 20th century, including surrealist poet André Breton, who summered among the hollyhocks.
- Location: Alsace; 15 minutes from Colmar
- 2013 winner
Traditional roots run as deep as the vineyards in this village that’s straight out of a storybook. With half-timbered houses festooned with geraniums, Eguisheim is situated on Alsace’s fabled Route des Vins (Wine Route), celebrating its 70th anniversary this year. Local winemakers have been working the land for generations: Domaine Paul Schneider is an independent, family-owned winery housed in a 17th-century tithe barn, while Domaine Emile Beyer has transmitted its viticultural savoir faire since 1580 (that’s 14 generations).
- Location: Occitanie; 75 minutes from Toulouse
- 2014 winner
Photogenic is an understatement here. Rising high above the sun-baked Occitan valleys, this 13th-century hilltop village noses the clouds. Hence the phrase “sur ciel” (“in heaven”) added to the official name in 1993. From the fortified gate, steep cobblestone lanes wind uphill to a postcard panorama. Artists and writers gravitate here (Albert Camus was a fan), and you’ll find a number of artisans’ boutiques among the Gothic houses made of ochre sandstone.
- Location: Brittany; two hours from Rennes
- 2015 winner
Generations of vacationers have heard the siren song of Brittany’s Pink Granite Coast. Swept by dramatic tides, the shore is strewn with spectacular boulders and rock formations among sandy beaches. In the heart of this idyllic setting sits the village port of Ploumanac’h. Landmarks include the lighthouse, historic tide-operated mill, and the myth-shrouded island oratory dedicated to Saint-Guirec, an evangelizing Welsh monk (later declared a saint); he arrived on this beach in the 7th century. From here, boat excursions depart for the Sept-Îles, an archipelago that’s an important sanctuary for migrating birds, including puffins and northern gannets. Spring and summer are best for bird-watching.
- Location: Brittany; 80 minutes from Rennes
- 2016 winner
At a distance of about 20 miles from the ocean, this village of 700 inhabitants offers another side of Brittany. The village dates to the 12th century, but a new tradition was born in the early 20th century, when American artist Alfred Klots fell under Rochefort’s spell and settled here, restoring a ruined castle as his home. In 1907, he launched an annual window box competition, and Rochefort blossomed into a city of geraniums, the granite facades of the Renaissance houses decorated in riotous color. A highlight on the cultural calendar is the annual Christmas illuminations, which draw visitors from all over France.
- Location: Alsace, 1 hour from Strasbourg
- 2017 winner
Stork nests, vine-clad hillsides, colorful half-timbered houses next to the River Weiss: It’s the quintessential portrait of Alsace here in Kaysersberg, also situated on the Route des Vins. Lorded over by the ruins of a strategic 13th-century castle, Kaysersberg is home to the destination hotel-restaurant Le Chambard, where beloved TV host Anthony Bourdain died. Here chef Olivier Nasti operates a Michelin two-starred establishment alongside a casual winstub, or traditional brasserie.
- Location: Hauts-de-France; 1 hour from Lille
- 2018 winner
With its origins going back to the Iron Age, this fortified hilltop village has borne the brunt of a millennium-old geopolitical tug of war. At the crossroads of Roman roads in ancient Gaul, Cassel was sacked by the Vikings in 880, and later became a 17th-century war prize fought over by France and Spain. Today, Cassel offers an immersion in Flemish culture not far from the Belgian border. Brick gabled houses line the Grand’Place, estaminets dish up traditional cuisine like carbonnade flamande (a beef stew made with beer), and the carnival brings wondrous street parades of “giants” made of papier-mâché, wood, and fabric.
- Location: Normandy; 30 minutes from Cherbourg
- 2019 winner
Often likened to Ireland, the wild Cotentin Peninsula is marked by wind-swept moors tumbling over rocky cliffs into the English Channel. It’s here where this coastal fishing village welcomes sailors to its yacht marina, one of the largest in Normandy. The village of 2,000 people is also known for its oyster production and 17th-century towers that are part of the UNESCO-listed fortifications of Vauban, Louis XIV’s military engineer. You can reach Tatihou Island just offshore on foot at low tide across the oyster beds.
- Location: Alsace; 45 minutes from Strasbourg
- 2020 winner
The fairy-tale region of Alsace clinched a third “favorite village” title when Hunspach won at the height of the COVID pandemic. Close to both the German border and the forested Vosges regional natural park, Hunspach exudes authenticity, its central area classified a historic monument by the French government. Since the Middle Ages, the colors of the shutters on the half-timbered houses indicate an artisan’s dwelling. Browse for kelsch, the traditional fabric made of linen and cotton, at the Kelsch’ Idée boutique.
- Location: Centre-Val de Loire; 90 minutes from Orléans
- 2021 winner
For many, Sancerre is synonymous with the crisp white wine from the Loire Valley. Perched on a rocky outcrop overlooking the Loire River, the medieval town that gave the vin its name overlooks vineyards as far as the eye can see. (The view from the top of the Tour des Fiefs is magnificent.) Don’t miss the 15th-century Maison Jacques Cœur, the village’s oldest house, which once belonged to King Charles VII’s royal advisor.
- Location: Alsace; 40 minutes from Strasbourg
- 2022 winner
The flower-filled window boxes and pastel-hued houses may evoke a charming fantasy, but the history of Bergheim is anything but. Between 1582 and 1630, 40 women were accused of witchcraft and burnt at the stake—the Maison des Sorcières (Witches’ House) tells a story of the victims and their trials. Today this Alsatian village is like a movie set, ringed by medieval walls. You can walk the perimeter along a one-hour walking trail called the “Circuit des remparts,” which connects the nine towers of Bergheim. Another path, complete with educational signs, takes you on a stroll through the vineyards.