You know how it goes: You plan your vacation around a cute little French town you’ve heard so much about, then you can’t get a seat at the local café because it’s so packed with other people who read about the same small town. Summer vacation shouldn’t be a competitive sport (unless you want it to be), but in many of France’s beloved destinations, it can feel like it is. Luckily, this country is so much more than Paris, Marseille, and the Dordogne; there’s no reason you can’t enjoy a tranquil glass of wine in a picturesque town square, a quiet stretch of beach, or an Impressionist masterpiece, far from the madding crowd. Here’s where to go instead:
Leave the Côte d’Azur to the socialites and reality TV stars, and hop on a train heading west from Marseille, instead of east. Only 15 minutes later you’ll find incredible views of dramatic coastlines, turquoise waters, and the rocky inlets known as calanques that rival anything you’d find near Cassis: the calanques de Méjan, Ensuès, Niolon, Eaux Salées, and la Vesse. Only residents are allowed to park their cars near the calanques, however, so pack water and sunblock and be prepared to walk a bit to reach the coast. If you head a little farther west, you’ll reach the plage de Sainte-Croix and the plage du Verdon, where the waters of the Mediterranean gently lap against fine-sand beaches.
Instead of visiting the Normandy beaches (or once you’ve already been there), shift your thoughts from the Second World War to the First, and spend a few days in this town built around a castle. Most visitors to Compiègne spend their days walking in the cool shade of the woods where the Armistice of 1918 was signed. (The Armistice of 1940, which marked France’s capitulation to Germany, was signed here as well.) But Compiègne’s opulent château—built for Louis XV and later used as the autumn residence of Napoleon III and the Empress Eugénie—is worth a visit. Don’t miss dinner at Le Bistrot des Arts; the honest French bistro fare is made using local ingredients, and at $23 for a prix-fixe dinner, it’s easy on the wallet too. At the end of the day, retreat to La Parenthèse du Rond-Royal, a bed-and-breakfast very close to that famous forest.
Let everyone else flock to the Luberon and the Dordogne; head instead to the Ariège region of southwestern France, where you can explore the hilltop villages once defended by the Cathars. Make your home base in Mirepoix, a medieval market town that has given its name to the art of dicing vegetables and gently cooking them. Stroll through the narrow streets full of 13th-century timbered houses. Don’t miss the Monday morning market in the cobblestoned town square, where you can gorge on farm-fresh fruits and vegetables and fill your rustic straw tote with all manner of bread, charcuterie, honey, and jam. Stay at the Relais de Mirepoix and enjoy an al fresco dinner in the courtyard of this 400-year-old mansion.
Located on the edge of the Jura mountains, the city of Besançon is a nexus of history, art, and natural beauty. Only a two-and-a-half-hour train ride from Paris, it is the birthplace of Victor Hugo and the setting of the first part of Stendhal’s novel The Red and the Black. The Vauban-designed, 17th-century Besançon Citadel became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008 and also houses a sobering but important Museum of the Resistance and the Deportation. At the impressive Museum of Fine Arts and Archeology, admire works by Titian, Tintoretto, Goya, Fragonard, Matisse, and Picasso. Sip a vin jaune (the local fortified wine) in the town square in the sun, or walk along the Doubs River, which borders the old city on three sides. Take a day trip to visit another UNESCO World Heritage site, a nearby saltworks called the Saline Royal de l’Arc-et-Senans. This 18th-century complex was designed in a neoclassical semicircle by the architect Claude-Nicolas Ledoux; in accordance with his utopian Enlightenment ideals, workers at the complex received decent housing and even vegetable allotments, granting them a quality of life uncommon at the time.
In the French Alps, not far from the Swiss border, there is a town on a lake with candy-colored houses, cobblestoned streets, and winding canals, all set against a backdrop of dramatic mountain scenery. It’s less known to international travelers, but the French love Annecy in any season and especially in summer, when the cool mountain breezes provide a respite from the heat and it’s still warm enough to bask in sun at one of the cafés lining the canals. For the more active traveler, the lake is well-known for its superior water sports: waterskiing, wake-boarding, wake-surfing, windsurfing, and kite-surfing, as well as sailing. Stay in one of the timber-beamed rooms at the Clos des Sens (try to book one with an in-room Jacuzzi!) or at Les Trésoms, which has a memorable view over Lac d’Annecy.
The sleepy city of Arles in southern France is becoming one of the most exciting destinations in the European art world, attracting earnest (and fashionable) art lovers, rather than throngs of holidaymakers. It’s hard to decide what to see first. You could attend the major summer photography festival, Les Rencontres d’Arles, or visit the Fondation Vincent Van Gogh—the painter lived here between 1888 and 1889, one of his most productive periods. Then there are numerous Roman ruins: The amphitheater, theater, baths, and burial ground are all UNESCO World Heritage sites. The new headquarters for the prominent arts foundation Luma is being designed by Frank Gehry and is slated to open in the spring of 2020. However, the exhibition space is already in use, and this summer you can catch exhibitions by powerhouse British performance artists Gilbert & George, video artist Pipilotti Rist, or photographer Lily Galvin, who is showing a project on Van Gogh. Stay at the gorgeous restored farmhouse Hôtel Mas de Peint, where you can take a break from all the art and contemplate the wild beauty of the Camargue region.