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Any Favorites Among These Cities?

Bonjour!

I'm planning a trip to France for the first week of April. I've been there quite a few times and am trying to visit some places I haven't yet been. In general, I like history, architecture, and towns that are pretty and fun to walk around in. I like towns of most any size although I do tend to get bored quickly if they're really small. I speak passable French.

These are some places I've been thinking about going. I'll probably end up picking 2-3, and I'll be using the train. I know this is all very subjective and I've been doing my research, but I'm having a hard time deciding. If anyone has any favorites (or not favorites) among these I'd appreciate any feedback.

--St. Malo and/or Dinan (I definitely want to see MSM but I'm not sure if I want to add time in Brittany. I've done most of the big Normandy sites already.)

--Lyon

--Beaune (looks really pretty but I'm not that interested in visiting vineyards/wineries, so I'm not sure it's worth it)

--Colmar (I haven't been to Alsace, but I have spent time in western Germany not too far from there, so I'm not sure how distinct this would be, aside from language.)

--Reims (Is it worth going to see the cathedral if I've already seen a handful of Gothic cathedrals?)

Thanks!

Posted by
4125 posts

I haven't been to all of these places, but can certainly praise Lyon, which is on major rail lines and ought to fit into your itinerary.

Burgundy isn't all about wine, but there is a lot of it and without a car it's hard to get to the good stuff. But Beaune might be worth a night or at most 2 if enroute to someplace else you really want to be.

Northern France can be pretty wet in early April.

Posted by
13361 posts

I have been to Reims, Lyon (twice), Colmar. Forget Lyon, Colmar and Reims were very enjoyable, very nice and lovely places.

Posted by
776 posts

If art and architecture are at the top of your visit list.

Reims . . .many examples of French Art Deco, maps available at the tourist office
Beaune: The treasured Hospice complex.

Colmar Isenheim altar

Posted by
5490 posts

Beaune's main attraction, apart from wine, is the Hospices, a 15th-century hospital that has been well restored and has very good exhibits. A bonus is the Last Judgment triptych by Roger van der Weyden. The city is attractive, very walkable, has a fine market twice a week. It's an easy train from Dijon. Beaune is a good base for exploring the southern part of Burgundy and tasting lots of wines, but you won't be driving or drinking.

Reims Cathedral is historically unique as the coronation site of the French kings. It was very well restored after WWI bomb damage, which makes it look and feel more like it must have looked and felt in the Middle Ages. There's also an interesting Roman gate just outside the center, and the site of the German surrender in WWII. Not to mention the champagne.

I haven't been to the others but I'd love to spend a few days in Lyon, from all I've heard about the Roman sites and the food.

Posted by
10623 posts

I just did a tour that spent an afternoon in Dinan and 3 nights in Saint-Malo.

-I LOVED Saint-Malo! The tour group spent one of the full days doing Canale/MSM and the other full day in Saint-Malo. I could easily have spent another full day there as I did not get everything done I wanted to do. I did get out to 2 of the 3 islets that are nearby. I did not make it to Petit Be as the tide had not receded enough for me to get across. I did not get to the 39-45 WWII bunker. Some of the others in the group did the tour of the Corsair's house which sounded very interested even though it was all in French, not a problem for you! I didn't get the whole city wall walked. Some of the folks took the local boat across to Dinard where Alfred Hitchcock supposedly got the idea for the house he used in Psycho. I would definitely try to do some kind of walking tour of the Intra-Muros. I found the privateer history very interesting and didn't realize that Jacques Cartier who explored Canada was from here. Apparently his Dad was a fisherman and they used to travel to the Grand Banks to fish. Anyway - apparently I need to apply for a job with their Tourist Information center, lolol!!

-Dinan - just spent a couple of hours here. Our visit coincided with several bus loads of high school students. It was a joint tour of local French kids with a school they are twinned with in Lake Como area so they were getting to know each other and were very exuberant. (Our guide recognized their bus driver which whom he works in Italy so got the scoop.) I did a self guided walking tour from the TI. I did not have time to walk down to the port. I could have spend another couple of hours here but not several days like Saint-Malo.

I'm sure you'll enjoy whatever you choose!

Posted by
15 posts

Thank you all for the responses so far! (Although you're selling these places well, so I'm not sure it's helping me narrow down my list! 😀)

Posted by
21938 posts

I was in St. Malo only briefly over 30 years ago so will not comment on that area beyond saying that you should definitely check historical weather data, especially rainfall stats. (Actually, I think you'll find that there's considerable potential for chilly, wet weather in all the places you've mentioned in early April.)

The other spots I've visited during my current trip. I'll try to add to what others have said.

All are worth visiting, most definitely including Lyon. It has the old medieval district as well as the newer but great- for-strolling Presqu'isle, churches, museums, etc. Quite a lot of indoor attractions (not to mention the restaurants), which would be very handy if you had a rough early spring.

I actually made a quick second trip back to the Reims Cathedral to look at the modern glass again. The next-door Palace du Tau houses some treasures from the Cathedral. There are some promising-looking restaurants located near the covered market. The aforementioned Roman gate was swathed in something that made it totally invisible a few weeks ago and there was no evidence outside that wrapping of any work in progress. I do not know whether it will be unwrapped by next spring. The Musee des Beaux-Arts is worthwhile. Some sources say it is currently closed, but the planned work was canceled or postponed. There's an interesting exhibit of art nouveau/art deco furniture and some decorative objects on the ground floor. Otherwise it's mostly paintings, with (I think) some glass. While not disputing that there's some interesting architecture in Reims, I thought Nancy was a better place to see art nouveau at its source. Reims is clearly prosperous (buildings in good repair, etc.), but not outstandingly attractive by the standards of France as a whole. I wouldn't particularly recommend it for someone uninterested in the champagne houses, despite the sights I've mentioned.

Colmar does look German to my uneducated eyes. To me it is drop-dead gorgeous, because I love half-timbered buildings. The Isenheim masterpiece is stunning. I visited Nancy immediately afterward and thought that was a good combo, architecturally. I had quite hot weather, but you'd be more likely to have the opposite problem. I think there's enough walking to be done (the other tourists are fairly concentrated, leaving much of the historic area pretty untrafficked) to fill about two days in conjunction with the Unterlinden Museum, which is quite large. You could also visit one of the smaller towns. I found Selestat (also half-timbered) pleasantly untouristy. And of course there's also Strasbourg. Normally I'd have opted to stay in the larger city, but hotels in Strasbourg seemed a good bit more expensive than those in Colmar.

I visited Beaune as a day-trip from the larger Dijon. It's attractive (handsome streets for strollimg) but I thought one day was sufficient for someone not interested in wine. I'd pair Lyon and Dijon and side-trip to Beaune.

Posted by
15321 posts

I spent several days in Burgundy with a car, including a half-day in Beaune. The Hospice was lovely and I'm glad I got to see it, and the little else I saw of the city was very pleasant but I don't know if there's enough there for several days.

Colmar is lovely, Strasbourg as well. It's an easy day trip by train from one to the other. Both have interesting museums and churches and canals, and of course there's the unique cathedral in Strasbourg. I understand there is good bus service between Colmar and the "route du vin" villages. They are all charming and colorful. There's definitely a German flavor to the architecture and the food but for me the French influence is much stronger. There's a castle and nearby Monkey Mountain too, but I don't know if you can get there by bus. And you'll see nesting storks with there chicks everywhere (except Strasbourg). I'd be happy spending a week there, with an overnight (or 2) in Strasbourg. If you choose Alsace, consider flying in or out of Frankfurt. It's a couple hours from Strasbourg by train or shuttle bus.

In Reims I was even more impressed by the basilica than the cathedral. The champagne cave tours are interesting from a regional historical perspective, not typical winery tours. I took 3, two in Reims and one in Epernay. They were all different. If you want to drink some champagne, you'll enjoy 2-3 days in Reims with a day trip by train to Epernay. If not, I wonder if it's worth more than one day.

Posted by
11996 posts

I liked St. Malo and Dinan. They're different.

St. Malo is a walled city on the ocean. My favorites there were walking the Ramparts and wading in the sea on the small beach. Inside town it's pretty much shops, hotels and restaurants. They have a museum but I didn't visit. You can also walk out to some small island fortifications at low tide.

Dinan is upriver but has a port area. The tides are so big here that many ports are well upriver from the sea. The port is nice, a small version of Vannes, and the old center is nice to walk around. There are some very old half-timbered buildings here. I guess Dinan gets crowded in summer. I was there in September and it wasn't crowded at all and didn't seem touristy. Others to consider are Vannes and Auray.

Brittany is a wet area along the coast. It was nice in September but I'd expect a good chance of driving rain in April.

I'll be in Lyon this September for the first time.

I wasn't thrilled with Beaune. My seriously bad lodging probably dampened my view but the bigger reason is that everything is 17th/18th century and I prefer older. I think half the town is in better shape than the other half so the area more populated with tourists seems nice. If you wander like I do, however, you find yourself in very rundown parts of town. I also ate a lot of bad food there, thus my theory that if it doesn't require reservations, it's probably not worth trying. My favorite town in Burgundy was Samur en Auxois, more medieval, more picturesque, smaller and centrally located - but there are others that are right along that line. I was there this May and it was freezing (and previously mentioned hotel had no hot water). It felt too early in the Spring to visit. Next time I go to Burgundy it will be at least well into June.

Colmar is a very cute town. It's worth seeing. It seems to be a good size to have something to do without being a city. The other little towns on the wine route are very pretty but are so small, there probably isn't much going on after dark (for me a cafe where I can get dinner and people watch). The popular local wines are definitely dry whites like in Germany and the food is a mix of French and German.

Reims is okay, I think worth a visit. The cathedral is one of the great ones and you can tour a champagne house. There are also some Roman ruins. There is a large pedestrian area near the train station with a ton of cafes. I wouldn't spend a lot of days in Reims but it's worth seeing, especially if you don't plan any other stops in Champagne.

Posted by
223 posts

Fred writes: "Forget Lyon...".

I'm curious what shaped that particular opinion.

Posted by
781 posts

I just spent four days in Lyon and I don't understand why one would forget it,beautiful archiecture ,old town,Cathedral with city view ,two rivers and great culinary scene.Don't miss St Malo with its ramparts and Dinan up the river.Strasbourg is also nice.
Mike

Posted by
6897 posts

We are not that fascinated with vineyards either and have visited one or two in Burgundy, but Burgundy is stunning. We have often stopped for a night or two on our way to Paris and have stayed in Auxerre which is a lovely town, have stayed at Moulin des Ruats a little inn on a small stream in the Morvan Forrest near Avalon and then visited Vezelay from there, and spent a week in a cottage in Semur en Auxois which is just beautiful. We spent one night in Beune and thought the Hotel Dieu hospice was very interesting. Here are a few stops we made in Burgundy:
https://janettravels.wordpress.com/category/burgundy/
We have also spent a lot of time in Paris and do day trips from there. Reims is easily done as a day trip from Paris and we did that this spring visiting a champagne house and the cellar tour (we did Taittinger but there are many ) The Cathederal is magnificent as is the Bassilica of St. Remy which is also worth a visit. The town center is quite lovely.

We loved Strasbourg and visited Colmar and a couple of other small towns in the region.

There are dozens of great little day trips from Paris:
https://janettravels.wordpress.com/category/day-trips-from-paris/
There is a lot to be said for the pleasures of Paris with then varying the scene in easy day trips.

We had planned on St. Malo this last fall but a broken elbow in the south of France and surgery meant that part of the trip had to be scrubbed and so I am reading people's stories about St Malo with interest. We will be back in Paris next spring and plan to do maybe 2-3 nights in St. Malo by train.

Posted by
1008 posts

We loved Lyon and were sorry to only have two nights there. There is so much to see, and eat!
Beaune felt like a one-night town, especially if you're not into drinking wine. We were only there for one night and it was enough. I agree with the comment about the food being hit-and-miss. We missed.

Posted by
79 posts

My wife and I were in Beaune for 3 nights last week. Yes it's all about the wine but even a mostly non-drinker like myself loved it. The hospice is a treat. The village is picturesque. The food is excellent and the people friendly. We took a full day bike tour thru the vineyards and villages of the Cote de Beaune and that was a highlight of our trip. Slowly biking thru some of the loveliest villages in France was wonderful. By the way, if you've never toured with a Greeter, this is a great place to start. Greeters are unpaid local volunteers who spend a couple of hours showing you around. Our Greeter in Beaune, Philippe, showed us some hidden sites probably unknown even to many locals. And if you go, do taste at least a little wine! Enjoy.

Posted by
15 posts

Thanks again to all of you for the recommendations. Since I'm from Seattle, I can definitely handle the rain. ;)

After doing some more research and reading your posts, these places all sound amazing but I keep coming back to Colmar and Alsace. It's been on my list for awhile, and after reading more about the little villages near it, it seems like a great spot to park myself for a few days.

One of you mentioned the idea of just staying in Paris and doing a lot of day trips; I'd considered that because I love Paris and I love day trips. However, I am really trying to see some new places on this trip, and I've done most of the day trips out of Paris before. But that would be a really fun week! I'm sure I'll spend a couple days in Paris before I go home anyway.

Lyon also sounds really great, but I think I may save that for another trip. Since I know I'll be in Paris, I think I"d like the rest to be in smaller towns, and I'm not sure I'll have enough time on this trip to see it proper.

Thanks all!

Abby

Posted by
11996 posts

I think there are manageable day trips from Paris, and there are hopelessly rushed efforts to go further. Reims is probably on the outer edge because there are plenty of direct trains and the major sights are walkable from the train station.

I don't consider Alsace to be a reasonable day trip. If you opt for that, it's not a bad idea to train to Reims early, give yourself three or four hours to see the cathedral, Roman ruins and possibly tour a champagne house. I'd suggest Mumm because it's better wine, the house tours all take about an hour. Mumm requires a reservation but you could easily have a TI call, or call yourself if you have a phone, to book a tour only a couple hours out - especially if you're fine with a French tour (but they have plenty of English tours too).

After that you can train to Strasbourg and rent a car. It's not a long drive between Strasbourg and Colmar, so you could get there and get settled in time for dinner, then spend a couple of days touring the wine route. The best wine is probably the Gewurtztraminer. The castle Haute Koenigsbourg is a good visit. If it interests you, there's a park with Barbary Apes near there too.

When you're done, turn the car in at Strasbourg and train back, possibly stopping in Reims to see anything you didn't have time for on the way.

Posted by
349 posts

I really enjoyed Reims. It is more than just the cathedral, it has a nice pedestrian-only downtown as well. And if you are a beer drinker there are a few microbreweries that have great beer and outdoor seating (although in April that may not work out).

I would not suggest trying smaller towns in Brittany w/o a car. I used Dinan as a base and visited Dinard one day, St. Malo and Cancale on another. Not hard to do by car but I think it would be a lot of trouble by train since the region is not well served by them. Since you speak French you could try the bus system but I expect the times are more tied to the needs of commuters and students than to tourists.

Posted by
21938 posts

I'm not sure about Cancale, but I think the other three towns are fairly workable by public transporation as long as you consider buses as well as trains. On Mon-Fri there are 15 buses a day between Dinard and Dinan, taking about 42 minutes There are 9 buses on Saturday and 7 on Sunday. Mind you, they are not evenly spread throughout the day.

From St. Malot to Dinan it is more awkward. You either have to go quite a bit out of your way by train, transferring in Dol-de-Bretagne, or you need to bus to Dinard and pick up one of the aforementioned buses. Still not bad for those of us who don't want to fool with a rental car.

Posted by
54 posts

There is some great advice here. Don't want to overburden you with more advice but I've been to all these places and many in the last month and just want to ask if there is any way you can drive? It will be so much more efficient and you can see so much more in a limited period of time and France is pretty easy to drive. We do it all the time. For example if you drive you can stay in Dinan and drive to Cancale and St. Malo as we did, even in one day if you want. Also, I loved Lyon and Colmar, not so much for the big sites as for the walking around and immersing ourselves in the neighborhoods. Like Colmar for it's Germany feel and French/German food. The mix is great and different from Germany.
I'd skip MSM although I know that may be heresy. See it from a distance and avoid the crowds and Disneyland character. (our personal view). Finally, agree that April may be wet and cold in the North so think about that for timing, although you may have no choice.

Posted by
2916 posts

I've been to all the towns/cities except for St Malo/Dinan. My first choice would be Lyon, but it sounds like you've already nixed it. Colmar is terrific, made more so if you include more of Alsace, which I love. Was not thrilled by either Beaune or Reims.

Posted by
100 posts

If you like art nouveau, try Nancy. I had always driven past it before, but found it to be of museum quality.

Posted by
1878 posts

I did not find Beaune itself to be that wonderful, but the region is very worthwhile. The medieval hospital was great and the Chateau de la Rochpot outside of town were great. You could probably get to the latter with a taxi or on a rented bike. I preferred Strasbourg to Colmar, but the museum in Colmar (the one with the alterpiece) was spectacular. In that region we liked the town of Kaysersburg too, though a lot of those Alsace towns are pretty similar. Reims is on my list and I was sorry to have to cut it from our 2010 France trip. I would also consider Lyon but it would probably bump Paris off of a future itinerary, and it would be really hard to miss a return to Paris. It seems like you are covering a lot of ground if you are on the train, and how will you get to Mont St. Michel? I might consider places that are less far flung for a train-based trip.

Posted by
313 posts

I've never made it to Reims, so can't comment there. As for the others, you've got great variety, and what you choose depends on your interests and how long you're spending in these places.

Lyon is wonderful - so much there to see (Roman ruins, passageways, wonderful food, etc.). It's larger than the others listed, so is more urban without being too large.

We've been to St. Malo & Dinan and if I had to choose, I'd pick Dinan. If you do, don't miss the area down by the river -- we didn't discover it until our second trip and wished we would have stayed down there. St. Malo is great, too, and if you're a moule & frites person, they have some of the best. If you can swing both, I'd do it since you're in the "neighborhood." Because of the way the trains fan out from Paris, it's good to check out things in a proximity to the same direction.

Colmar is great -- small town experience, but plenty to see and occupy your time.

I agree with some of the others that as beautiful as Burgundy is (most of which is outside of town along the canals), Beaune was just a 1-day stop for us. The hospice was interesting, but the town wasn't one that I just adored staying in.