International travelers can prioritize visits to the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre when visiting France.
But French residents have other ideas.
Border restrictions during the pandemic have given locals ample opportunity to explore their country without foreign tourists, who in 2019 numbered around 90 million.
The French did not miss the opportunity. More than two-thirds of French residents have traveled in 2021, with 84% of French metropolitan residents choosing to stay in the country, according to French marketing research firm Raffour Interactif.
As the desire for nature and outdoor activities grew during the pandemic, several regions have become top destinations for local travelers, said Maud Bailly, CEO of Southern Europe for multinational hotel company Accor, which has more of 1,600 hotels in France.
National travelers were drawn to the coasts of Brittany – or Bretagne in French – because of the “sea [and] the vastness of the landscape,” she said. The north-west province is home to charming seaside towns, such as Cancale and the fortified port town of Saint-Malo, famous for its food and history.
In the south of the country, the famous Côte d’Azur – notably the chic coastal areas near Cannes and Nice – has attracted local visitors for the same reasons, she said.
While Covid has taken a toll on tourism in French Polynesia, some islands closer to the mainland have attracted many local tourists, Bailly said. Ile de Ré, off the west coast of France, has done well due to its proximity to Paris – it’s less than five hours by car, she said – while visitors also traveled to the “super famous and fantastic” island of Belle Ile to the north, as well as Corsica to the south.
“When people go to Corsica… they text me [saying] “There’s no point going to the Maldives because the water is the same,” she said. She spoke to CNBC from the Molitor Paris-MGallery hotel where, she said, many Parisians enjoyed stays.
The Sofitel Golfe d’Ajaccio Thalassa Sea and Spa hotel, located in southern Corsica.
From skiing in the Pyrenees to diving in the Mediterranean, it’s the diversity of landscapes and experiences in France — which is about twice the size of Colorado — that makes it so popular, Bailly said.
“I believe the richness of this small country, with so many different opportunities for entertainment and vacations in one place, is a bit unique,” she said.
Secrets and “little gems”
Most places popular with the French end up becoming popular with foreign tourists as well, Bailly said.
But an exception, at least for now, is the Alsace wine route.
“You can just go to Strasbourg and then start driving, jumping from one village to another and just tasting and discovering the wine, the castles… the landscapes,” she said. “It’s pretty secretive.”
The small village of Dambach-la-ville, along the Alsace wine route.
Alexander Sorokopud | time | Getty Images
The secret is out in places such as Beaune and Mâcon in the world famous Burgundy wine region. Both were popular with domestic travelers last year, she said.
Before the pandemic, nearly 60% of French wine tourists were domestic travellers, said Martin Lhuillier, head of wine tourism at Atout France, the country’s tourism development agency.
One of his best “insider tips” is to visit the Jura, one of France’s smallest wine regions, to visit the village of Chateau-Chalon, he said. There, visitors can taste the “heart and soul” of the region – its yellow wine.
Bailly and Lhuillier both recommend the French department of Dordogne. Located between the Loire Valley and the Pyrenees, it has “preserved natural gems” such as Bergerac and Duras, says Lhuillier.
Although less chic than other regions of France, the Dordogne is a place “where you can really enjoy the French way of life, gastronomy and nature,” Bailly said.
France’s “art de vivre” – literally “the art of living” – is part of the reason why France has been among the most popular destinations for international travelers for decades. The emphasis on enjoying life is ubiquitous – along the boulevards of Paris, in the halls of the Palace of Versailles and in the restaurants of the country, which collectively has more Michelin stars than any other country in the world. .
But Bailly said it is in the “most secret and discreet places” that travelers can truly “rest and reconnect with the French way of life”.
The ‘most beautiful’ villages
Another place in the Dordogne, Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne, is one of the newest villages on the list of “the most beautiful villages in France”.
The list, started 40 years ago, identifies 168 villages of exceptional heritage and beauty. Each is rated on 30 criteria, including heritage sites and architecture as well as smaller details such as hidden electrical wires. There’s less than a 1 in 5 chance of making the list, according to the list’s website.
The south of France has the highest concentration of these villages, with more than 75% located in provinces such as Nouvelle Aquitaine, Occitanie and Provence-Alpes-Côte-d’Azur.
The TV show “Le Village Préférieur des Français” – or “The Favorite Village of the French” – also attracts visitors to lesser-known places in the country. Fourteen villages are shortlisted each year – one in each region of France – and the winner is crowned by public vote.
Last year’s winner attracted more tourists: the small hilltop town of Sancerre, which is one of the most recognizable appellations for French Sauvignon Blanc.
The same will probably be true for Bergheim, a village located along the Alsace wine route, which was crowned this year’s winner on Wednesday.
Domestic tourism in Sancerre increased in 2021, after being voted the most beautiful village in France.
Julian Elliott Photography | Stone | Getty Images
Bailly said travelers can build a complete trip around these villages.
“It’s a more private, domestic and cultural way of seeing France,” she said. “It’s not Saint-Tropez, it’s not Mont Saint-Michel or the Eiffel Tower, but it’s also France with the richness of its history.”
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