These picture-perfect French villages (literally) stand out above the rest.
Tiny cobbled streets, centuries-old stone houses draped in ivy, colorful farmer’s markets and lively town squares: these are all the things that make French villages so irresistible. While you can find quaint towns scattered around the whole country, there’s something extra magical about those found in sensational locations. This is what lures visitors to places like Mont-St-Michel, Èze, and Mougins–and every year this number creeps higher and higher. So get away from the crowds. Get your fill of French village charm, and take in some jaw-droppingly gorgeous views at these sublimely set hilltop towns that are off-the-beaten-track.
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Nicknamed “the Mont-St-Michel of the Pyrénees,” like its more famous cousin on the north coast, this mountain hamlet is also crowned by a medieval church. The town’s history goes back much further than the latter’s construction—to 72 B.C. to be precise—when the Romans chose this advantageous location for an outpost. Called Lugdunum Convenarum, at its peak, the town’s population boomed to an impressive 30,000 people—three times the size of Roman Paris. Sacked by the Vandals in the 400s, the town was born again during the Middle Ages owing to its position along the Way of St. James pilgrimage route. Today, visitors can have a taste of the town’s two heydays by touring its Roman archeological site, its medieval center and the UNESCO World Heritage Cathedral of Sainte-Marie.
Simiane la Rotonde
Time your trip right and you’ll be able to admire the legendary lavender fields of Provence from the heights of this historic hilltop village. In addition to its purple backdrop, the lovely town has other places worthy of your gaze, starting with the Château des Simiane-Agoult, a rare rotunda castle dating back to the 12th century. After craning your neck up at the château’s five-meter (16-feet) high vaulted cupola, take a gander around the town’s ramparts, quaint churches, art galleries, and craft shops.
Roughly translated as “rocky heights on the sky,” this well-preserved medieval town in the Languedoc region earned its name from its heavenly location, sitting loftily above the clouds and looking down upon a Garden of Eden-esque valley. Voted France’s favorite village in 2014, the town was founded in 1222 by the Count of Toulouse to house those displaced by the Albigensian Crusade, a bloody 20-year campaign led by Pope Innocent III to rid southwestern France of its Cathar “heretics.” Barely a stone has budged since then, treating modern-day visitors to vine-laden houses, artisanal boutiques and stone terraces sporting splendid vistas, clouds willing, over golden meadows and dense forests.
Most visitors to la Côte d’Azur get their village “fix” by stopping in Èze, a hilltop town that overflows in both beauty and crowds. The same amount of time will take you to this lesser-known mountain marvel. Clinging precariously to a jagged outcrop in the Alps, Peillon could easily have the most dramatic setting of any village in France. An amble through its steep streets will take you past arched passageways, serpentine staircases, crumbling church towers and glimpses of the soaring alpine panorama.
Hugging a rocky promontory, this medieval town has a sweeping view of France’s famous Dordogne Valley. So impressive, writer Savinien d’Alquié deemed it “one of the most beautiful views in the kingdom” in his book, Les Délices de la France, a guide of the loveliest places in the country published in 1672. When you can peel your eyes off the vista, discover the town’s 14th-century castle, its Gothic church of Saint-Jean-Baptiste and its inviting laneways filled with honey-toned houses covered in cascading flowers and climbing vines.
The undulating Loire Valley is dotted with dozens of castle towns, however, few boast as majestic a location as Loches. The elegant town slowly ascends the slopes of a rocky spur which culminates in a fairytale citadel. Complete with turrets, towers, and sturdy fortifications, the Cité Royale de Loches was one of the primary residences of the kings of France from the mid 13th to early 15th centuries, when other castles started stealing the spotlight. An amble around the complex includes its formidable 11th-century keep, an elegant late-Gothic château and striking views over town.
Nestled within the lush hills of the Aveyron department in southern France, this village is another stop on the Way of St. James. Your pilgrimage to Conques commences by crossing over a 15th-century stone footbridge and entering via an arched gateway. Once inside, gently climbing streets lead you up to the town’s architectural crown jewel: the Abbey-Church of Sainte-Foy. The solid Romanesque church is known for its intricately carved tympanum of the Last Judgment, whose ferocious scenes of hell would prompt any would-be sinners back onto a saintly path.
A 10th-century castle sits proudly atop this village found in the foothills of the Vaucluse Mountains. Located 40 kilometers east of Avignon and within the handsome Luberon Regional Nature Park, the cream-colored stone buildings of the pretty town shimmer in the bright Provençal sunshine. After a meander through its picturesque streets, sit down at a terrace in the main square, Place Genty Pantaly, order a pastis or glass of chilled Cotes de Provence rosé and simply watch life go by.
Peeking above the treetops of the vast Grésigne Forest, this ancient village in the southern department of Tarn is aptly referred to as “the fortress in the woods.” A strategic position overlooking the Vère Valley, a first fortified town was built on the hill at the end of the 12th century. This decision proved wise as the village, and its impregnable fortifications, managed to withstand countless attacks during the Cathar Crusade, the Hundred Years’ War and the French Wars of Religion. These ramparts, albeit restored, still encircle the town’s wobbly half-timbered buildings, turreted houses, and hollyhock-emblazoned cobbled lanes.
Fiercely gripping a mountainside above the Roya Valley, this scenic Alpine town is situated a mere few kilometers from what is now the Franco-Italo border. It’s thus not surprising that the village was fought over by French and Italians for centuries. The matter was resolved once and for all in 1860 when its residents voted to become part of France. Ever since its eye-popping location has been a favorite destination for French mountain-lovers, especially hikers who use Saorge as a handy, and attractive, pitstop. No need to trek the area’s trails, wandering through town you can enjoy extraordinary views, as well as pretty chapels, some castle ruins and a medieval Franciscan monastery on the outskirts of town.