Avoid The Paris Olympics-10 Hidden Gems In France To Explore

As I sweated through the crowds at the Rouen Armada in June 2023, it hit me: maybe the Paris Olympics wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea. The heat and chaos made me realize plenty of folks might prefer to skip the crowds and high prices. I’ve looked at all the unique experiences and places I’ve been to in France over the many years and have narrowed my list down to 10 of my favorite, hidden gems in France (outside of Paris). These are the ones that I strongly recommend you visit if you’re looking for destinations off the beaten path.

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Crowds at the Rouen Armada
Crowds at the Rouen Armada (J. Chung)

What cities in France are hosting Olympic events?
Besides Paris, Marseille, Lille, Lyon, Nantes, Bordeaux, Nice, Saint Etienne, and Versailles will also be hosting sporting events at the Olympics between July 28-August 11, 2024.

10 Hidden Gems In France

Hot air balloon in the Dordogne
Hot air balloon in the Dordogne (J. Chung)

A. Coastal Retreats

1. Les Calanques

Calanque d'En Vau-Hidden Gems In France
Calanque d’En Vau (J. Chung)

While many people take a boat cruise to see the Calanques in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur Region (which are inlets with limestone cliffs), you will get the best experience and photos if you take a hike. The turquoise waters of the Mediterranean are stunning. There are three calanques and the first is easy to get to. The other two are more challenging but worth the effort. I am not an experienced hiker but I did all three.

Check out my post here:
What It’s Like to Hike The Three Calanques de Cassis

2. Etretat

Alabaster cliffs at Etretat
Alabaster cliffs at Etretat (J. Chung)

There are many picturesque seaside towns along the coast of Normandy and the one that shouldn’t be missed is Etretat. The alabaster cliffs along the coast are breathtaking and if you take the Route des Abbayes drive to and from Charles de Gaulle airport to Etretat, you can pass by many impressive churches, such as Abbaye de Jumièges.

Check out my posts here:

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3. Ile de Ré

Saint Martin-Ile de Re
Saint Martin on Ile de Re (J. Chung)

2.5 hours north of Bordeaux and off the coast of La Rochelle is the island, Ile de Ré, an idyllic retreat with sandy beaches, seafood, and small villages, like Saint Martin, scattered throughout the island. I did an excursion from La Rochelle, rented a bike once on the island and cycled around the whole island in a day.  No hills, a gentle breeze and lovely scenery. When I did my ride, it was late June and hardly any other tourists were on the bike path.

Check out my post here:
A Guide To Cycling On Île de Ré

B. Unbelievable Sites Off the Beaten Path In France

4. Rochers Sculptés

Sculptured rocks in Brittany
Sculptured Rocks (J. Chung)

A truly unique gem in Brittany and one of the most unique places I’ve ever visited is  Rochers Sculptés de Rothéneuf, located just north of Saint Malo  Rocks were chiseled into 300 faces and animals by a deaf and mute abbot in the late 1800s.

I visited these sculptures during my 6 days in Brittany, a region which is much different from France’s other regions as it has a strong Celtic heritage. You should be sure to indulge in some oysters, buckwheat galettes (crepes), cider and the sweet Breton cake, kouign amann while you’re there.

Check out the Sculptured Rocks and more about Brittany in these posts here:

5. Gouffre de Padirac

Gouffre de Padirac
Gouffre de Padirac (J. Chung)

Gouffre de Padiric isn’t just a gem, it’s a diamond in the rough! Located in the Lot department of the Occitanie region, this cave is an incredibly unique place in France. I strongly recommend a visit to Gouffre de Padirac and be sure to book your tickets in advance. As I wrote in my post, it’s like a journey to the centre of the earth—- “an immense cave system with impressive rock formations and a subterranean river where you can take a boat ride-103 metres below ground.”

Read the post here:
Gouffre de Padirac: A Fascinating Cave That’s Worth A Visit

C. Charming Villages and Towns

6. Rocamadour and Saint-Cirq Lapopie

Rocamadour France
Rocamadour (J. Chung)
Saint-Cirq-Lapopie (J. Chung)

What I enjoyed most about these two stunning perched villages in the Lot department of the Occitanie region were the stunning views and exploring the villages on foot. There was lots of medieval architecture and history, and in Saint-Cirq Lapopie, cobblestone streets. 

Read the post here:
Best Perched Villages In The Lot: Saint-Cirq-Lapopie and Rocamadour

7. Les Plus Beaux Villages de France In The Aveyron Department

Belcastel France
Belcastel in the Aveyron (J Chung)

The Aveyron Department in the Occitanie region is often called “France profound” (deepest France). One can journey through countless picturesque villages of Aveyron and during my trip to the area, I visited 6 of the most beautiful villages of France (Les Plus Beaux Villages de France): Belcastel, Brousse-le-Château, Estaing, La Couvertoirade, Najac, and Peyre. You will discover so many hidden gems in the south of France.

You can read about those villages and the region in these posts:

D. Escape to the French Countryside

8. Auvergne Department

Chain of dormant volcanoes in the Massif Central France
Chain of dormant volcanoes in the Massif Central France (J. Chung

In the Massif Central in central France, do explore the chain of dormant volcanoes (Chaîne des Puys) in the area, located 10 kilometers away from the town of Clermont-Ferrand either by taking the cog train up to the top of Puy de Dome or by hiking up/down.

Read more about the volcanoes here:
Volcanoes In France? 

9. Dordogne Department

View of Chateau de Beynac from the hot air balloon.
View of Chateau de Beynac from the hot air balloon (J Chung)

Uncover prehistoric caves, medieval castles, and gastronomic delights in the Dordogne countryside (in the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region). For my Trip #33 to France, I was based in Sarlat and Beynac-et-Cazenac [Post: Two Weeks In The Dordogne], and a true hidden gem in the Dordogne was to take a hot air balloon ride over the Dordogne river and the Vallée des Châteaux passing by beautiful villages and castles, like Château de Beynac.

You can read about what it’s like in this post:
Take A Hot Air Balloon Ride in The Dordogne-Périgord

10. Pyrénées-Orientales Department

Le Petit Train Jaune
Le Petit Train Jaune (J. Chung)

One of the reasons I headed to the Pyrénées-Orientales department of the Occitanie region during my 2 months in France was to take a ride on the Little Yellow Train, Le Petit Train Jaune. I got a seat in an open carriage and was able to take in the panoramic views of the Pyrenees mountains and made a few stops along the way to do some exploring.

Read about this famous train and its journey here:
Journey On The Little Yellow Train

My Plans
I don’t want to go to the Olympics in Paris or any city in France that is hosting an Olympic event. But, I still want to go to France this summer. So I plan to venture into the Hautes-Pyrénées region of Occitanie for some hiking in early July.

I encourage you to explore the wide-ranging and enchanting regions and hidden gems in France beyond the Olympic host cities and away from the crowds and heat. You’ll see that the country has something for every traveler’s taste. Those seeking tranquility in the countryside, coastal adventures, or the charm of quaint villages will find it in France.

Looking for more inspiration and ideas or just don’t want to go to France in the summer? Check out these other posts:

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10 Hidden gems in France

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One Comment

  1. Really enjoyed this article Janice and i definitely plan to visit Île de Re!