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Top Ten French Towns Outside of Paris

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Lille

Very visitor-friendly with a network of pedestrian shopping streets selling everything from high street fashion to haute couture, antiques to interior furnishings, rich chocolates to sumptuous patisseries.

Sit at a pavement cafe on the Place du General de Gaulle; stroll amongst the flower sellers and second-hand bookstalls in the quadrangle of the Stock Exchange; and soak up the city’s past in the museum of the Hospice Comtesse. The Fine Art Museum housing France’s second most important art collection is far more manageable than the Louvre. And all just two hours from London by Eurostar.

Rouen

Narrow cobbled streets and timber frame houses give Joan of Arc’s city a real sense of living. The young shepherdess was martyred here and is commemorated by a modern church and a museum in the old market square.

At the opposite end of the pedestrianized Rue du Gros Horloge – named after the big clock which spans the street – lies the flamboyant Cathedral with its stained glass windows and Renaissance tombs. A busy port on the river Seine, Rouen has some great restaurants where you can try gastronomic specialties from Normandy.

Besançon

Surrounded by lush forests and seven green hills, Besançon in Franche-Comté has been voted France’s greenest urban center. Vauban, Louis XIV’s architect, designed the huge hilltop citadel which dominates the town – great views from the ramparts over the river Doubs which loops around the old town below. The Museum of the Resistance and Deportation inside the castle walls is sobering but very moving.

Take a river cruise or just stroll along the quaysides and soak up those elegant stone buildings.

Troyes

Step back in time through the narrow cobbled streets of St John’s district where Champagne fairs were held in the Middle Ages. Today it’s a mix of stunning timbered houses, interesting small shops, and lively. And don’t miss the Museum of Modern Art in the beautiful 16th-century bishop’s palace next to the cathedral.

Troyes is also the factory shopping capital of France with designer outlet villages such as McArthur Glen and Marques Avenue, as well as budget brand factory shops. Be sure to take an empty suitcase!

Lyons

France’s second-largest city, by the Romans at the point where the Rhône meets the Saône. Take in the view from the terrace of Notre Dame Basilica, then walk through the centuries from the two Roman theatres of Fouviere to the Renaissance old town with its Mediterranean colors, the 18th-century boulevards to the 19th-century silk weavers’ district.

Don’t miss the hidden courtyards and passageways – traboules – of the Old Town; the fountains of the Place des Terreaux; and the painted trompe l’oeil walls. Then sample some of the best gastronomic restaurants in France.

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