Escape the crowds: hidden alternatives to France's over-touristed spots
France is rolling out new measures to discourage overtourism at some of its most iconic sights. We have a few alternative recommendations to consider.
Thinking of booking a trip to the architectural marvel that is Mont St-Michel? or the dramatic Étretat cliffs made famous by the Netflix hit Lupin? France’s tourist board has a message for you: please don’t.
Well, at least not during peak season.
In a new tourism campaign intended to reduce congestion and overcrowding at some of its most popular tourist sites, the world’s most visited country is asking travelers to reconsider their trip to famous landmarks – and instead opt for sites that are off the well-trodden path.
Where locals go on vacation in France
The plan aims to address concerns of crowd control, access, safety and environmental degradation as visitor numbers continue their post-pandemic rebound.
Because just as 95% of the world’s tourists visit less than 5% of the planet (according to the UN World Tourism Organization), the French government points out that 80% of travelers to France visit just 20% percent of the country.
Tourism minister Olivia Grégoire unveiled details of the strategy to Le Figaro last week, after Mont St-Michel in Normandy was beset by hordes of tourists during a long weekend in May. The influx caused major congestion in the islet’s abbey, shops and historic alleyways – and raised alarm bells among locals.
While visitor numbers to Paris have so far fallen a little shy of their pre-pandemic levels, Grégoire says the city is on track to beat its 2019 record of 38.5 million tourists by the end of 2023, once it plays co-host to the Rugby World Cup, which starts in September.
The post-pandemic resurgence in tourism has brought hordes of visitors to famous sites like Étretat © Lou Benoist / AFP via Getty Images
Using influencers to spread the message of tackling overtourism
As part of the new tourism campaign, as of March 2024 you can expect to see travel influencers in your Instagram and TikTok feeds promoting places in France you may never have heard of before. Or social media photos of landmarks overwhelmed with large crowds stuck in long lines, aimed at deterring visitors during high season.
The government will also develop 40 or so “French Tours” that will highlight every region in France, and provide tourists with alternative circuits.
The campaign kicks off ahead of the Paris Olympic games – which are expected to draw up to 15.9 million visitors. Yet Grégoire points out that while the games will most certainly cause visitor numbers to surge, they will also compel other tourists to postpone their travels.
“France is full of beautiful places that foreigners don’t know”
While she stopped short of announcing blanket bans, the tourism minister pointed out that several sites have already implemented their own crowd-control measures.
Visitors have to reserve a spot ahead of time if they want to visit the Calanque de Sugiton in Marseille, for instance, which has a limit of 400 people a day. Toulon, meanwhile, limits access to the island of Port-Cros off the coast of the French Riviera.
“If we want to unclog overcrowded sites, we must highlight other destinations and other tourist routes,” Grégoire said. “France is not just about the cliffs of Étretat, Mont St-Michel, Notre Dame de Paris and the coves of Cassis… France is full of beautiful places that locals know well but that foreigners don’t know at all.”
Try these alternative tourist destinations
Want to get ahead of these changes as you plan your French travels? Here are a few alternatives to some of the most visited, oversaturated sites in France that you may want to avoid during peak season.
The old standby: the cliffs of Étretat
Already a prized site among the French for its dramatic white cliffs and rock formations, the seaside town of Étretat in the north of France became an international hotspot after being featured in the hit Netflix series Lupin, starring Omar Sy.
During the summer high season, the village of 1200 residents can see upward of 10,000 visitors descend on the area per day.As an alternative to crowded Étretat, consider charming Yport, just 20 minutes away © andre quinou / Shutterstock
The alternative: Yport
Head east along the same coast for just 20 minutes and you arrive at Yport, a fishing village that boasts the same high chalk cliffs and ocean views – without the maddening crowds. After exploring the charming village, head to the beach for some surfing, canoeing, paddle boarding or sunbathing, or lace up your boots for a hike along the coast.
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The usual: Mont Saint-Michel
Already one of the most visited national monuments in France thanks to the fairytale Benedictine abbey that rises out of the bay, the Unesco World Heritage Site expects to draw even more visitors this year as it marks its 1000th anniversary.Abbey of St-Pierre de Solesmes is a Benedictine monastery that rivals Mont St-Michel in medieval heritage © Getty Images
The alternative: Solesmes Abbey
In the Sarthe Valley in western France, you’ll find another Benedictine abbey that also boasts a 1000-year heritage, also with waterfront views (albeit of a river) and likewise monumental. An active center of Gregorian monastic life, the abbey of Solesmes is home to 40 monks. Visit the grounds by bike, or take in the site via a river cruise along the banks of the Sarthe.
The old standby: the coves of Marseille
The unique limestone formations and 26 coves draw countless tourists to Calanques National Park, the first national park of its kind in Europe to be at once terrestrial, marine, island and peri-urban (adjoined to an urban metropolis). To preserve the environmental integrity of the area, authorities have imposed visitor limits.
The alternative: the Blue Coast
Named after the color of its waters, the Côte Bleue (Blue Coast) stretches northwest of Marseille and also features coves, small ports and beaches, all popular among the locals. Hike the Douaniers trail, rent a private boat to explore the coves by water, shop the markets of Sausset-les-Pins or Martigues, or seek out some waves at popular surfing spots.
The usual: Château de Versailles
The stunning, gilded royal residence outside Paris and its grounds are a living symbol of the French court’s power and influence over Europe during its heyday – and accordingly attract about seven million visitors a year. This month, the palace also reopened Marie-Antoinette’s private chambers to the public.Château de Chantilly boasts the second-largest collection of old-master paintings in France after the Louvre © Philippe Lopez / AFP via Getty Images
The alternative: Château de Chantilly
About the same time and distance from Paris as Versailles, the Château de Chantilly is a reasonable alternative if you’re a lover of fine art and gardens. This castle boasts the second-largest collection of old-master paintings after the Louvre, and its sprawling gardens were designed by the same gardener as Versailles, André Le Nôtre.
The charming collection of small houses that make up the Hameau (hamlet) in the domain’s Anglo-Chinese garden also served as the model for Marie-Antoinette’s Hameau in the Petit Trianon in Versailles.