The Top 10 Major Cities in France

There's more to France than Paris — discover the country's biggest cities

Paris skyline with Eiffel tower aerial view in daylight
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There's more to France than Paris. The major cities of France offer a diverse array of culture, history, and picturesque beauty, from Nice's Mediterranean seaside breeze to Strasbourg's sauerkraut and Christmas markets. Discover the unique character and personality of each of these cities – then start saving up for a plane ticket. 

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With a population of 2.2 million, Paris is by far France's largest city. Connected to London via the Channel Tunnel and the rest of the world by its major international airports, Paris sees upwards of 16 million international visitors a year. 

Paris is one of the world’s major economies and a leading hub of finance, commerce, fashion, and more. However, it is best known for tourism, consistently ranking within the top five tourist destinations in the world. 

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Lyon is located near the Swiss border, 300 miles south of Paris. Considered by locals to be France's "second city", Lyon has the third largest population in the country with roughly 500,000 residents.

Lyon is known as the gastronomical capital of France, as its streets are lined with gourmet eateries. In addition to its tasty cuisine, Lyon is of great geographical importance, serving as the main hub between Paris, the south of France, the Swiss Alps, Italy, and Spain.

Lyon's history goes back to the height of the Roman Empire, when Lyon (known then as Lugdunum) was a major city. While its global influence has waned, Lyon remains a place of immense historical and cultural import, from the winding passageways of its Renaissance district (Vieux Lyon) to its striking modernist landmarks.   

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Nice, the fifth most populous city in France, is the most iconic location in the French Riviera. Tucked in the southeast corner of France, this picturesque city sits at the foot of the Alps and stretches along part of the Mediterranean coast. Nice's relatively warm climate and stunning seaside have made it one of France's most popular destinations. 

During the 18th century, Nice became a popular winter getaway for the English upper class. In fact, the name of the seaside promenade name reflects this part of its history: Promenade des Anglais, which translates to Walkway of the English. Nowadays, the city attracts re-settlers from all over Europe. Nice hosts about 5 million tourists a year, second only to Paris.

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High Angle View Of Cityscape Marseille
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Marseille is France’s oldest city and one of the oldest in Western Europe. Its timeline goes all the way back to 600 BC when the region was settled by ancient Greeks. Marseille's geographical position along the Mediterranean sea allowed the outpost to serve as an important port city throughout much of its history.

Today, Marseilles is France’s second largest city and the main port for commercial and cruise ships. In recent decades, the city has developed into a popular tourist destination with around 4 million visitors a year.

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Well known for its distinct and coveted namesake wine, Bourdeaux is considered the wine capital of the world. More than 700 million bottles of wine are produced here every year. Bordeaux wine ranges from simple table wine to some of the most prestigious wines in the world. 

In addition to its most famous export, Bordeaux is also home to 362 national heritage sites, designated as monuments historiques. Millions of visitors come every year to tour the city's architectural marvels. 

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Toulouse is nicknamed la villa rose, or the “pink city”, for its buildings comprised of signature light red terra cotta bricks made from the river Garonne's reddish mud. The city grew into prominence during the 15th century as a major producer of blue dye. Toulouse was among the wealthiest cities in France, but the economy took a major hit when a cheaper alternative pigment, indigo, was introduced from India. 

Recovery was slow, but by the 18th century, Toulouse began to modernize. The long-time rival to Bordeaux has since re-invented itself as a European capital of the aerospace industry. The city is home to aeronautics giant Airbus’ headquarters and several major firms collectively known as aerospace valley. The Toulouse Space Centre is the largest space center in Europe.

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Strasbourg is among the most popular tourist destinations in France, but in some ways the city has more in common with Germany. Situated close to the eastern border with Germany, the city is part of the Alsace region of France. Many locals speak Alsatian, a German dialect.

This heritage and a sense of Germanic identity is evident even today. Many of Strasbourg's street signs are written in classic German script, and much of the cuisine includes German classics like sauerkraut. One of the most famous attractions is the Strasbourg Christmas market, the oldest and largest Christmas Market in Europe.

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Montpellier, the seventh largest city in France, is located in the country's southern region. The city has gone through a process of rapid development, consequently distinguishing itself as more than just a port along the Mediterranean. Much of Montpellier’s increasing popularity is due to a growing student population, which makes up about a third of the overall population. In fact, half of the city’s population is under 35.

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The city of Dijon, located in eastern France, is one the country’s wine capitals, but it is perhaps even more famous for its mustard: la Moutarde de Dijon. Sadly, much of the Dijon mustard sold in stores today is no longer produced in Dijon. Still, the Burgundy region is world-renowned for its vineyards and production of top shelf wine. In the fall, the city holds its popular International and Gastronomic Fair, one of the most important food fairs in all of France.  

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During the 17th century, Nantes was the largest port city in France and a major trading center with other coastal Atlantic neighbors. Today, Nantes has a population of approximately 300,000, striking a balance between a booming artist culture and thriving service industries.

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Nguyen, Tuan C. "The Top 10 Major Cities in France." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Nguyen, Tuan C. (2020, August 27). The Top 10 Major Cities in France. Retrieved from Nguyen, Tuan C. "The Top 10 Major Cities in France." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 7, 2023).