The South-East part of France has so many places of interest that are worth visiting, that it can be a challenge to choose where to go next. Let me help you to choose with my list of five cities over 100,000 inhabitants that convey the French joie de vivre to perfection. They might be less well known than big brother Paris, but all of them have a unique charm of their own.
Toulouse is a lovely city and the capital of the rather new region ‘Occitanie’. You can easily spend a couple of days in the fourth largest city in France while enjoying its history, architecture and culture. Known as ‘La Ville Rose’, or ‘The Pink City’, you will recognise Toulouse from afar. The red-stained terracotta bricks used for the city’s unique architecture give it a pinkish glow (or reddish, if you prefer) during the golden hour towards the end of the day. As the second university city of France, Toulouse has a lively atmosphere. The banks of the River Garonne are the ideal meeting place for get-togethers. Perfect to settle down for a picnic, or, why not, a glass of wine.
Medieval Perpignan is the last stop before the Spanish border, and it breathes Catalan influences. Not surprising when you think of all the times Perpignan switched between French and Spanish rulers. Today, you can still enjoy a great mix of cultures in historical Perpinyà, the southernmost city of France. Perpignan’s most emblematic monument is Le Castillet, which used to be the main gate into the town at the Place de la Victoire. Or you could visit the Palais des Rois de Majorque, the palace named after the Kings of Majorca. This stunning palace dates from the time when Perpignan was the mainland capital of the Kingdom of Majorca, and they ruled over the city.
If you can be in love with a city, it would be Montpellier for me. The instant Mediterranean vibe, the historical centre with its narrow streets, the numerous, cosy squares hosting the best terraces, the countless cool restaurants and bars, and so much more. I love it! Get lost in the labyrinth of little streets in the historical centre, also known as L’Ecusson. Discover ‘Le Quartier de l’Ancien Courrier’, grab a drink at a terrace on Place de la Comédie, or saunter under the Arc de Triomphe towards the Peyrou Promenade with its remarkable water tower and gorgeous view of the Southern French region. Life is good in Montpellier!
Nîmes’ rich history goes back a long way, as it was already an important city during the very early stages of the Roman Empire. Hence its nickname ‘French Rome’. Ideally located on the famous ‘Via Domitia’, the Roman road that connected Italy with Spain. When walking through Nîmes, you will encounter several Roman monuments. La Maison Carrée, a perfectly proportioned building of 26 meters long, 15 meters wide and 17 meters high is one you can’t possibly miss. Or visit another well-known monument: the arena. Nime’s Roman arena was built in the first century AD, inspired by the Colosseum in Rome. Then walk to the Roman ‘La Tour Magne’, which will bring you through the lush and leafy park ‘Les Jardins de la Fontaine’.
Welcome to the oldest city in France: Marseille! Known as the ‘Cité Phocéenne’, after the Greek settlers from Phocaea who built the port in 600 BC, it has everything for a great city trip. You can leisurely walk along the harbour with its gently oscillating sailboats. Another highlight is the Sain-Jean Fortress, which is one of the two knight’s castles that watch over the port. Fort Saint-Jean is also part of the Mucem museum, along with the modern J4 building. Or what about the oldest neighbourhood in Marseille: Le Panier. Literally translated as ‘The Basket’, this well-known part of the city has undergone quite a transformation. From a rough district that was once best avoided and was nicknamed ‘coupe gorge’ or cut-troat, to the colourful and artistic neighbourhood it is today.