International travelers can prioritize visits to the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre when visiting France.
But the French have other ideas.
Border restrictions during the pandemic largely gave locals a chance to explore their country without foreign tourists, who numbered around 90 million in 2019.
The French did not miss the opportunity. According to French research firm Raffour Interactif, more than two-thirds of France residents traveled in 2021, with 84% of metropolitan French residents choosing to stay in the country.
As the desire for nature and outdoor activities increased during the pandemic, several areas emerged as top destinations among local travellers, said Maud Bailly, CEO for southern Europe at multinational hospitality company Accor, which has more than 1,600 hotels in France.
Domestic travelers were drawn to the coasts of Brittany – or Bretagne in French – for the “sea”. [and] the vastness of the landscape,” she said. The northwestern province is home to charming seaside towns like Cancale and the walled port city of Saint-Malo, famed for its gastronomy and history.
Where the French travel in France
|Brittany||Saint Malo, Cancale, Quiberon||Gastronomy, vastness|
|New Aquitaine||Biarritz||Seaside resorts, Basque culture|
|Cote d’Azur (French Riviera)||Cannes, Nice||Nature, outdoor experiences, active holidays|
|Burgundy||Dijon, Beaune, Macon||gastronomy, wine|
On the south side of the country, the famous French Riviera — particularly the chic coastal areas near Cannes and Nice — drew local visitors for the same reasons, she said.
While Covid thrashed tourism in French Polynesia, some islands closer to the mainland were attracting large numbers of local tourists, Bailly said. The Ile de Ré, off the west coast of France, did well for its proximity to Paris – it’s less than a five-hour drive away, she said – while visitors also visited the “super famous, fantastic” island of Belle Ile to the north. and Corsica in the south.
“When people go to Corsica… they text me [saying] “There’s no point in going to the Maldives because the water looks the same,” she said. She spoke to CNBC from the Hotel Molitor Paris-MGallery, where she said many Parisian stays have been enjoyed.
The Sofitel Golfe d’Ajaccio Thalassa Sea and Spa Hotel in southern Corsica.
From skiing in the Pyrenees to scuba diving in the Mediterranean, it’s the variety of landscapes and experiences in France — which is about twice the size of Colorado — that make it so popular, Bailly said.
“I think the richness of this small country is a bit unique with so many different entertainment and vacation options in just one place,” she said.
Secrets and “little jewels”
Most places loved by the French will eventually become popular with foreign tourists as well, Bailly said.
The Alsatian Wine Route is an exception, at least for the time being.
“You can just go to Strasbourg and then start with the car, hop from one village to another and just taste and discover the wine, the châteaux… the landscapes,” she said. “It’s pretty secret.”
The small village of Dambach-la-ville on the Alsace Wine Route.
Alexander Sorokopud | moment | Getty Images
The secret is out in places like Beaune and Macon 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 travelers, 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 area – their vin jaune, or yellow wine.
Bailly and Lhuillier both recommend the French department of Dordogne. It lies between the Loire Valley and the Pyrenees and has “untouched natural gems” like Bergerac and Duras, Lhuillier said.
Although less chic than other parts of France, the Dordogne is a place “where you can really enjoy the French way of life, gastronomy and nature,” said Bailly.
France’s “art de vivre” – literally “the art of living” – is one of the reasons why France has been one of the top destinations for international travelers for decades. The emphasis on enjoying life is ever-present – along the boulevards of Paris, in the rooms of the Palace of Versailles and in the country’s restaurants, which combined have more Michelin stars than any other country in the world.
But Bailly said that in the “secret, more discreet places” travelers can really “rest and reconnect with the French way of life”.
The ‘most beautiful’ villages
Another village in the Dordogne, Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne is one of the newest villages on the list of ‘The Most Beautiful Villages in France’.
The list, which began 40 years ago, names 168 villages of exceptional heritage and beauty. Each is judged on 30 criteria, including historical sites and architecture, as well as smaller details like hidden power cables. According to the list’s website, there is less than a 1 in 5 chance of making the list.
Southern France has the highest concentration of these villages, with more than 75% lying in provinces such as Nouvelle Aquitaine, Occitanie and Provence-Alpes-Cote-d’Azur.
The TV show ‘Le Village Prefere des Francais’ – or ‘The French’s Favorite Village’ – also draws visitors to lesser-known spots 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 drew more tourists: the tiny hilltop town of Sancerre, one of France’s best-known Sauvignon Blanc appellations.
The same is likely to happen for Bergheim, a village on the Alsace Wine Route that was named this year’s winner on Wednesday.
Domestic tourism to Sancerre increased in 2021 after it was voted the most beautiful village in France.
Julian Elliott Photography | stone | Getty Images
Bailly said travelers can build an entire journey around these villages.
“It’s a more private, domestic, cultural way of looking at 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.”