France is known for its quaint little villages that pop out of nowhere and completely “wow” the unsuspecting visitor. People return to France with the express desire to seek out this French rural charm that seems to seep its way into the traveler’s soul.
Sometimes, it is a grand idea to have a few of these villages on your radar so that one doesn’t bypass a darling village unintentionally.
Here are five French villages that will transport the traveler to another time. Some are better known than others, but all five are certain to make for an unforgettable outing.
Pro Tip: The Most Beautiful Villages of France is a designation given to select small villages that are working to preserve their cultural and historical heritage. The population of the village must be less than 2,000 inhabitants in order to qualify. The first four villages in this article all fall into the category of “The Most Beautiful Villages of France.”
Loir-et-Cher, Centre-Val de Loire
Lavardin is located in the Loir-et-Cher department of the region of Central France. Lavardin is 30 miles from the city of Tours.
There are several reasons to visit the charming village of Lavardin. The small town is nestled under a rocky outcrop where either a fortress or a castle has existed since the 11th century. Today, the ruins of the last castle still stand guard over the town, its craggy silhouette etched against the skyline.
Climb a few minutes out of the center of the village and enter the castle grounds. The ruins are home to flocks of pigeons roosting in the crevices, but it isn’t hard to imagine the families and guards that would have inhabited this location over the centuries. Climb the stairs, stand before the keep, and look out over the Loir Valley and Lavardin.
Note the Romanesque church, Saint-Genest, in the village. It is a treasured highlight not to be missed. The ancient church is replete with detailed frescoes depicting religious scenes. Pick up the pamphlet available in the church and spend some time exploring these paintings that hail from between the 12th and 16th centuries. When medieval paintings were no longer considered in vogue, the frescoes were covered in plaster. Three hundred years later, these astonishing works of art are a wonder to behold.
It is also key on a visit to Lavardin to stand on the shores of the Loir River and take in the view of the arches of the 16th-century Gothic bridge leading into town.
Photographers will love the play between the arches of the bridge and the imposing castle ruins silhouetted against the open sky.
Pro Tip: The Loir River is not the same as the Loire River found in the popular tourist destination, the Loire Valley. The Loire River is one of Frances’s largest rivers, and this is where many travelers go to see the famous chateaux such as Chambord and Chenonceau.
The Loir, a smaller river, is a tributary of the Sarthe River.
Locronan is found in the department of Finistère in the region of Brittany. It is about 9 miles west of Quimper and 6 miles east of Douarnenez.
The minute you stroll into Locronan, you’ll nod in agreement to its designation as one of Les Plus Beaux Villages de France (“the most beautiful villages of France”). Locronan oozes charm from the get-go. Narrow cobbled streets filled with artisanal gift shops lead to the main square, Place de l’Eglise, which is lined with beautiful stone buildings framed by colorful hydrangeas. It is an essential part of any visit to Locronan to sit at Place de l’Eglise and observe life in this small village. The artists posed at their easels intent on their representation of this square held my attention the day I visited.
Enter the ancient 15th-century church of Saint-Ronan after whom the town was named. Wander through the Penity Chapel holding the tomb of Saint-Ronan and into the graveyard that has a lovely view of the church spire. Find the sloping street called rue Moal that leads to the 15th-century Chapel of our Lady of Good News with its fountain dating from 1698.
A visit to Locronan is best taken slowly. Stop into the gift shops, talk to the local owners, wander down another cobbled street, stop for a true Breton cider and galette (savory crepe) and imagine life as it was centuries ago in Locronan, France.
Pro Tip: Go earlier in the day when you will find Locronan at its most tranquil and charming. This town is definitely on people’s travel itineraries and can get very busy in peak season.
For more villages to visit in Brittany, read 5 Amazing Villages To Visit In Brittany, France.
Saint-Céneri-le-Gérei is found in the Orne department of southern Normandy, France, and more specifically, in the Normandy-Maine Regional Natural Park. It is 9 miles northwest of Fresnay-sur-Sarthe and 33 miles northwest of Le Mans.
Park at the lower parking lot as you enter Saint-Céneri-le-Gérei and prepare to dillydally. This is a town for slowing down. Stop on the historic four-arched bridge and watch the local fishermen and the Sarthe River flowing by. Note the stone houses with their weathered red-tiled rooftops dotting the shoreline. The 11th-century Romanesque church, the Church of Saint-Céneri-le-Gérei, holds astonishing centuries-old frescoes that have only been uncovered in recent years. Follow the narrow path around the church for spectacular views including the forested valley and the bridge.
Did you pack your paintbrush? Follow the path to the field leading down to the river where you’ll discover the 15th-century stone chapel. This very location provided inspiration for painters such as Corot and Courbet. The scenery is tranquil and calming. The perfect place to paint a landscape.
Wander to the main cobbled streets of the village and admire the beautifully kept stone homes covered in ivy and lined with flowers. Pick from one of several restaurants and know that you have discovered a true treasure in France’s countryside.
Pro Tip: Saint-Céneri-le-Gérei attracts many visitors in the high season. Book a restaurant for lunch in advance.
Explore the rest of Normandy by reading 5 Idyllic Towns To Visit In Normandy, France.
Mayenne, Pays de la Loire
Sainte-Suzanne is located in the department of Mayenne in the French region of Pays de la Loire. Sainte-Suzanne is 34 miles from the city of Le Mans.
Sainte-Suzanne is found on a rocky outcrop with wonderful views over the Erve valley. With such a perfect vantage point and plenty of fortified ramparts, it is not a surprise that Sainte-Suzanne managed to keep William the Conqueror at bay for three years. Still today one can walk the ramparts and marvel at how Sainte-Suzanne fought off its attackers while all the surrounding towns fell.
A Renaissance castle from the 17th century was built on the remains of the medieval fortress. Here today one finds the Mayenne Interpretation Centre of Architecture and Heritage. Enter for free and walk amidst the vestiges of the Château Sainte-Suzanne. Stroll along the platforms and stand in front of the ancient keep imagining the bustling activity that took place there. Follow the stairs and admire the sweeping views over the forested countryside.
The interpretation center has guided tours and audiovisual exhibits immersing the visitor in the many stories of the area’s history.
The village of Sainte-Suzanne is very tranquil. Walk along the cobbled streets, have lunch at a café, and pop into the local boutiques to make for the perfect day in rural France.
Other activities to do while visiting Sainte-Suzanne include a walk called Promenade des Moulins which follows the Erve Rover and its mills. Historians will love visiting the nearby dolmen at Erves hailing from 4500 B.C.
Pro Tip: If you love visiting charming French towns, try seeing both Sainte-Suzanne and Saint-Céneri-le-Gérei on the same day. They are 30 miles apart.
Rocamadour is in the Lot department of the region of Occitanie and is 32 miles from the lovely city of Sarlat-le-Canéda.
For centuries royalty, pilgrims, travelers, and tourists have been making their way to the village of Rocamadour. Perched on a cliff in the midst of a stunning forested landscape and hailing from medieval times, it is no surprise that Rocamadour draws over one million visitors each year.
But the first reason that people flock to Rocamadour is that it has been a pilgrimage site for over 1,000 years and is situated along the Camino de Santiago Pilgrimage Route.
Make your way along the single — rather touristy — cobbled street to the Grand Staircase where 216 steps wait to be tackled. Look way up at the towering cliffs, the towers, and the chapels for a little inspiration to make the climb. At the top, there are seven ancient chapels to visit and glorious views over the Alzou River. Each chapel is unique and worth a visit, but the most essential to visit is the Chapel of Notre-Dame which house the famous black Madonna.
Rocamadour takes your breath away. It is hard to imagine how this religious site was carved into the cliffs and that even today it holds a mystical and religious draw that leaves an impact.
Pro Tip: Plan your trip to Rocamadour strategically. It draws over a million visitors a year, so go early and if you can, in low season.