Top 10 Largest Cities In France By Population- And What Makes Them So Popular To Live In

10 Largest French Cities by population infographic

Here’s a look at the top 10 Biggest cities in France by population. Each buzzing with its own unique culture and history. From Nice’s Mediterranean seaside promenade to Strasbourg’s Christmas markets, which one will you visit or love to live in? 

**(France population statistics based on estimates from INSEE  (French national institute of statistics).

How many people live in France?

France, with a population of nearly 65 million (67 million if you include French *DOM-TOM’s such as French Polynesia, La Réunion and Guadalupe), is the 22nd most populated country in the world.  To give you some perspective, China, India and the United States are in the top three positions with 1.4 billion, 1.3 billion and 327 million inhabitants respectively.

A little less than 10% of France’s total population, roughly 6.5 million live in 10 French cities while the rest are spread throughout the 35,000 cities and towns (communes) throughout France.

Let’s not forget about the nearly 90 million tourists who visit France annually, making it the most popular tourist destination in the world year after year. 

*DOM-TOM is a French acronym which stands for “Départements d’outre-mer, Territoires d’outre-mer.”

Here’s a closer look at the top 10 most populated cities in France which you’re probably pronouncing incorrectly and what makes them so attractive for both tourists and as a place to live.

Table of contents

Scroll down past the table for more detailed information about each of these 10 popular French cities.

(turn your smartphone to landscape mode if the table doesn’t display properly)

CITYAREAPOPTOURISTS
1. Paris105 sq. km (41 sq. mi)2.2 M32 -35 M
2. Marseille241 sq. km (93 sq. mi)870 K 5 M
3. Lyon48 sq. km (19 sq. mi)516 K7 M
4. Toulouse119 sq. km (46 sq. mi)476 K5.7 M
5. Nice72 sq. km (28 sq. mi)343 K4.3 M
6. Nantes65 sq. km (25 sq. mi)307 K2. M
7. Montpellier57 sq. km (22 sq. mi)282 K5.1 M
8. Strasbourg78 sq. km (30 sq. mi)280 K3.1 M
9. Bordeaux49 sq km (19 sq. mi)252 K2.7 M
10. Lille39 sq. km (15 sq. mi)233 K1 M

1. Paris [PAH-REE] 

Everyone loves Paris. Or do they?

Population: 2.2 Million

Tourists per year: 32-35 Million

Area: 105 sq. km (41 sq. mi)

France map with Paris capital flag

Paris is the capital of France with a population of nearly 2.2 million inhabitants, making it not only the largest, most populated city but also the only city in France with a population in the millions.

LIVE IN PARIS:

While many people dream of moving to Paris, what you may not know is many Parisians yearn to escape it. Just type “quitter Paris” (leave Paris) into a search engine, and you’ll see page after page of stories, advice and resources from or for people trying to escape the city of lights and love. “Paris je te quitte” (Paris I’m leaving you) is one example, and here is another one. Here is someone who moved their family to Bordeaux from Paris and doesn’t regret it one bit. 

Some Parisians say they want to escape the notoriously high cost of living in Paris, comparable in many ways to the cost of living in London and the San Francisco Bay area. Other reasons cited include to reduce stress, improve work-life balance, to escape city life, pollution, to move to the country, closer to the sea etc.

Many Parisians end up moving to one of the other nine cities on this list.

101 things no one ever tells you about moving to France

VISIT PARIS:

Roughly 32 million, a third of the 90 million annual visitors to France chose to visit Paris, a city especially known for its museums and architectural landmarks such as the Louvre and the Eiffel tower, two of the most visited tourist attractions in France and the world. Many of the top attractions in Paris are within walking distance or a short trip on the metro making it ideal for vacationers. Even Disneyland Paris is reachable by train from the city centre in under an hour. 

10 Largest French Cities by population infographic

2. Marseille [MAR-SAY]

If you’re like Anthony Bourdin and love raw, authentic grunge than you’ll love Marseille.

Population: 870 000

Tourists per year: 5 Million

Area: 241 sq. km (93 sq. mi)

Paris to Marseille map outline

Marseille, the second largest city in France in terms of population and one of the sunniest is a port city located in the south of France along the Mediterranean sea and is roughly an 8-hour drive from Paris or a 4-hour train ride.

LIVE IN MARSEILLE:

The city itself and the surroundings are beautiful; however, it’s a city that has had a bad reputation, described by some as grungy, dangerous, dirty and overrun by immigrants. Some French people go so far as to avoid the city. 

Founded around 600 BC by Greek Mariners, Marseille was once thought to be the oldest inhabited city in France until a recent archeological dig found evidence that Bezier, another southern town was slightly older.

Many locals speak with a very distinct accent “l’accent Marseillais” which sounds like French with a splash of a Spanish/Italian accent. Unlike standard French, every syllable is pronounced. Remnants from a century ago when most people in Provence spoke Provencal and learned French as a second language

 By the way, I used to live in Marseille. You might be interested in reading: how much it cost our family of five to live in Marseille France for a year. 

VISIT MARSEILLE:

Popular points of interest are le Vieux Port (Old Harbor). Château d’If, once a fortress and later a prison, located on a tiny island just a short 20-minute ferry ride from the old port and around 17 Museums. Perhaps the most visible landmark of all has to be Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde which sits high above the city.

A fun fact: Marseille is the 2nd most filmed city in France after Paris of course. 

Marseille France is France's second largest city in terms of population

3. Lyon [LEE-OWN] 

You’ll love Lyon, especially if you love French cuisine and gastronomy because Lyon, not Paris, is known as the food capital of France. 

Population: 516 000

Tourists per year: 7 M

Area: 48 sq. km (19 sq. mi)

Paris to Lyon map outline

Lyon, France’s 3rd most populated city, is located in the east-central part of France near the border of Switzerland, roughly a 5-hour drive from Paris or 2 hours by TGV train.

LIVE IN LYON:

While most foreigners think of Paris as the French food Mecca, if you ask a French person, they’ll most likely say the capital of gastronomy is Lyon. Food is taken very seriously in Lyon and “gustation” tasting is a way of life in Lyon. 

Lyon has more restaurants per person than any other city in France but if you want to try some local flavours of Lyonnaise cuisine, usually very rich and or rustic, make a reservation at a Bouchon, a type of restaurant found only in Lyon.

A few local specialties that stand out are…

  • Quenelles– a mixture of creamed fish or meat, sometimes combined with breadcrumbs, formed into a football shape and topped with a sauce.
  • St-Marcellin cheese– one of my daughter’s favourites.
  • Andouillette– a sausage of coarsely cut tripe and my least favourite food in the world.
  • Salad Lyonnaise– a salad typically made with frisée or curly endive, hot bacon, and a freshly poached egg.  

Driving in Lyon can be stressful, and parking can be a nightmare, it’s a city. Luckily Lyon has an excellent transportation system, considered the most accessible city to live in without a car. There are currently 4 metro lines, 5 tram lines, 2 funicular railways, over a hundred bus routes, Velo’v bike rentals and 180 miles of cycling paths. There’s even a boat shuttle called Vaporetto which operates along the Rhône river between the Vieux-Lyon (old district) and the trendy Confluence shopping area.

Lyon is France's Third largest city (by poplation)

VISIT LYON:

Lyon is a UNESCO World Heritage site thanks to the over 160 well-preserved buildings classified as historical and architectural landmarks in the four historic sites of the city. Around December 8th, a must see and do is the four day Light Festival “Fête des Lumières” where the city becomes one big light show. Don’t forget to visit “Les Halles de Lyon,” a renowned, prestigious indoor market which can be expensive but also worth it if you appreciate having the best local products. 

4. Toulouse [TOO-LOSE] 

If you’re an aviation enthusiast, and like the idea of visiting an underrated city with a cool vibe that’s both modern and traditional, you’ll love Toulouse. 

Population: 476 000

Tourist per year: 5.7 M

Area: 119 sq. Km. (46 sq. mi)

Paris to Toulous map outline

 

France’s 4th biggest city is Toulouse, located in the south-west of France, halfway between the Mediterranean and the Pyrenees and 5 hours from Paris by train. 

Before moving to Montpellier, Toulouse was on the top of our list of cities to live in. 

LIVE IN TOULOUSE:

Nicknamed the Pink City “La Ville Rose “ after the distinctive colour of the clay bricks used to construct many of its buildings, this city has many Spanish accents thanks to its proximity to Spain. Toulouse is also known as Europe’s space capital. It’s been an important science and technology hub dominated by the aeronautical and space industries and was even named the International City of Space for 2017. 

Although people come from all over France to live in Toulouse, a large portion are people leaving Paris to escape the high cost of living, crowds or seeking other benefits such as warmer weather.  Toulouse is also a destination for students and is often ranked among the top 5 best cities in France for students to study and live.

Transportation is top notch. You can easily wind your way from one end of the city to the other by Tram, aboard the metro, the many pedestrianized streets or by bike on 550 kilometres of cycling trails.

Toulouse, 4th most populated city in France

VISIT TOULOUSE:

Toulouse, often an overlooked city, receives just a fraction of the tourists of Paris but that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty to do and see.

Toulouse boasts two UNESCO World Heritage sites…

  1. A gothic church “Les Jacobins”- the church of Jacobin built during the 13th and the 14th centuries
  2. And Saint Sernin Cathedral “Saint Sernin Basilica”  the largest Romanesque church in France.

There’s also a theme park focused on space and the conquest of space called Cité de l’espace –City of Space. Then there’s Place du Capitole, perhaps one of the most photographed attractions in Toulouse, a sprawling neoclassical building that dates back to the 12th century. Casino théâtre Barrière, a very upscale Las Vegas-style Casino with slots, gambling tables, shows, restaurants and hotel. Toulouse is also home to one of the best rugby clubs in the world. 

I could go on, but I’ll run out of space so check out the official Toulouse city website

5. Nice [NIECE] 

If you love the Mediterranean sun, the sea, beaches and the French Riviera, you’ll love Nice. 

Population: 343 000

Tourist per year: 4.3 M

Area: 72 sq. km (28 sq. mi)

You might be interested in 15 reasons why I love Nice France.

Paris to Nice map outline

 

Nice is located in the south of France near the border of Italy, 6 hours train ride from Paris.

LIVE IN NICE:

Nice is known for its warm Mediterranean climate where cafe terraces are filled with people practically all year round, but it’s probably most famous for being located along the French Riviera (also known as le Cote d’Azur). In comparison to other southern cities such as Toulouse and Montpellier, Nice is not cheap. Many wealthy and famous people such as Johnny Depp, Tina Turner, Bono and  Brad Pitt have homes along the French Riviera. 

The local specialties are clearly influenced by Mediterranean cuisine and include…

  • salade niçoise
  • Pan Bagnat (Think of it as a salad in a sandwich)
  • ratatouille (stewed veggies in a tomato sauce)
  • soupe au pistou (pesto soup with vegetables and white bean)
  • socca (a flatbread made from chickpea flour).

You might be interested in reading about what I love about Nice France.

Nice France is the 5th largest city in France by population

VISIT NICE:

Nice is a popular tourist destination, but perhaps the most iconic landmark in Nice is “le Promenade des Anglais,” known locally as just “le promenade” where visitors can admire the beaches as they stroll along the 7km stretch of seafront. Nice is also a city of art and culture. After Paris, it has the most museums in France including the Matisse museum and the Chagall museum. During Carnival season, it’s home to the most famous carnival in France, Nice Carnival.  Nice is also just 35 minutes from Cannes where the annual Cannes Film Festival is held. 25 minutes to Monaco and an hour to Saint Tropez.

6. Nantes [NON-TUH] 

You’ll love Nantes if you’re a professional who enjoys the arts and culture. The Nantes nightlife is quite lively too.

Population: 307  000

Tourist per year: 2 M

Area: 65 sq. km (25 sq. mi)

Paris to Nantes map outline

At just over 300K inhabitants, the dynamic city of Nantes is France’s 6th most populated city. Located in the upper Brittany region of western France on the Loire River, an hour from the Atlantic Ocean and about a 3-hour train ride from Paris.

LIVE IN NANTES:

Nantes, the capital of the Pays de la Loire region has a long history as a port and industrial center, known locally as une belle endormie, ‘a sleeping beauty.’ Following significant renovations and rejuvenation, the city was has become a major French city, not as the prettiest, but as one of the nicest to work and live. Culturally alive, with a reputation for being edgy, vibrant and playfully, Time magazine named it as the most livable city in Europe in 2004. In 2013 it was awarded the European green capital award.

Nantes, Machines of the isle; Nantes is the 6th largest city in France in terms of population

VISIT NANTES: 

Main sights include the cathedral, the castle of the dukes of Brittany “Château des Ducs de Bretagne” where the Dukes of Brittany once lived. The Machines of the Isle, a touristic, cultural and artistic steampunk wonderland in the old warehouses of the former shipyards where you can take a ride on the Great Elephant, a 12-metre high mechanical elephant or jump on the carousel and ride one of the Jules Verne style creatures.

7. Montpellier [MOAN-PUH-LEEY-YAY] 

You’ll love Montpellier if you like a big city with a small town feel and a vibrant young population.

Population: 282 000

Tourist per year: 5.1 M

Area: 57 sq. km(22 sq. mi)

Paris to Montpellier map outline

 

France’s 7the biggest city in terms of population is Montpellier, where I live. It’s a city located in southern France, 10km inland from the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, approximately 4 hours from Paris by TGV.

LIVE IN MONTPELLIER:

Montpellier is a biggish city that doesn’t feel big. Things move slower than you would expect. There are plenty of excellent French restaurant options, especially in the old part of Montpellier which dates back to Medieval times. Montpellier is also one of the fastest growing cities in France, partly because of the large student population which makes up about 30 percent of the population. The tourism board claims that almost 30 percent of the population is under 30 years old. It’s as close to a French university town as you can get in France. It was voted 8th best place to live in France and 29th best place to work by l’Express. Europe’s first medical school was founded here in 1137 

In terms of rent and cost of living, Montpellier is more affordable compared to the bustling capital of Paris, Nice and even Lyon. Expect to pay around €500 a month for a single bedroom property in the city centre.

Montpellier is France's 8th largest city and the city with the youngest population

VISIT MONTPELLIER:

Montpellier has a beautiful old quarter (L’ Écusson) that dates back to medieval times, with an intricate network of narrow cobbled roads where you’ll find hidden restaurants, quaint hotels, shopping and secret gardens. Just a little outside the old quarter is la Place de la Comédie with the Esplanade Charles-de-Gaulle running off the north end where you can take a stroll, listen to street performs or have a seat at one of the outdoor cafes and people watch. Other points of interest are le Promenade de Peyrou, a 17th-century Arc de Triomphe, Cathédrale St. Pierre, Fabre museum and an Olympic size pool. 

8. Strasbourg [STRAHS-BOOR] 

If you love Germany as much as you love France, you’re going to love Strasbourg.

Population: 280 000

Tourists per year: 3.1 M

Area: 78 sq. km (30 sq. mi)

Paris to Strasbourg map outline

Strasbourg is situated along the Rhine river on the eastern border of Germany along the Rhine River less than a 2 hour TGV train ride from Paris and is the 8th largest city in France.

LIVE IN STRASBOURG:

Although Strasbourg is a French city, it has been fought over and passed back and forth for centuries before returning to France for good at the end of World War II. As a result, Strasbourg spent long periods under German influence. 

Many street signs in Strasbourg’s are written in French and Alsatian -a Germanic dialect spoken in Alsace and one of France’s recognized regional language.  Local specialties include German classics like “choucroute” – sauerkraut,   flammekueche, a type of bread topped with creme fraîche, onions and lardons (cubes of fatty pork). 

Strasbourg is France's 8th largest city in terms of population

VISIT STRASBOURG:

The Strasbourg Christmas market, the oldest and largest in Europe is a popular tourist attraction and a must-see during December. A visit to “La Petite France quarter,” a riverfront neighbourhood is like something straight out of Grimm’s fairy tale, with timbered buildings that look like life-size gingerbread houses accented with colourful flower boxes. The cathedral of Notre Dame in Strasbourg, a 15th-century médiéval work of art that took over 1000 years to build and stands 142.0 m (466 ft) making it the 6th largest church in the world.

9. Bordeaux [BORE-DOH] 

If you love food, wine, the art of the table and the idea of living near Dordogne but aren’t up to living in the country, you’ll love Bordeaux. 

Population: 252 000

Tourists per year: 2.7 M

Area: 49 sq km(19 sq. mi)

Paris to Bordeaux map outline

Bordeaux, the hub of the famed wine-growing region, is a port city on the Garonne River in southwestern France.

LIVE IN BORDEAUX:

 Bordeaux has a reputation for being stuffy, pompous and bourgeois partly due to the long history of producing exceptional wines associated with exclusivity, formal occasions and high prices. But bourgeois isn’t all that is used to be. As of late, Bordeaux is trying to shake its aristocratic vibe and appeal to the younger generation with wine good enough for the table every day. 

Bordeaux has also been an important port city of trade for over 500 years which grew prosperous and was synonymous with new ideas and influence. For three hundred years, the city was under English rule thanks to the marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine to Henry Plantagenet who became Henry II. So it’s not surprising that Bordeaux attracts a lot of British. The entire Aquitaine region is home to the most Brits of all France’s regions.

bordeaux France's 9th largest most populous city (photo of CITÉ DU VIN wine museum)

VISIT BORDEAUX: 

 Cité-du-Vin is a new world-class wine museum in a futuristic building made with aluminum and glass overlooking the Garonne which cost €62 million. It houses wine bottles from every wine-producing country in the world- more than 80 in total. Trust me when I say, there is nothing else like it in Europe and it’s a must see. 

10. Lille [LEE-LE] 

If you love the Netherlands and French culture and want to get away from the hustle and bustle of a large city but still have everything you need right at your fingertips, you’ll love Lille.

Population: 233 000

Tourists per year: 1 M

Area: 39 sq. km (15 sq. mi)

Paris to Lille map outline

With a population of just over 230 K inhabitants, Lille is France’s 10th largest city. Located at the northern tip of France near the border of Belgium, it’s just a one hour train ride from Paris and an hour and a half from London by Eurostar.

LIVE IN LILLE:

Birthplace to Charles de Gaulle in 1890 and once part of Dutch-speaking Flanders, first-time visitors to Lille are usually surprised by the Flemish influence intermingled with French culture. From the Dutch style architecture and red-brick structures, uncommon in France to its strong beer and brewing culture which picks up in Octobre during beer week, the Flemish influence is undeniable. 

Much like the Netherlands and Belgium, Lille is a very bikeable city thanks to its flat topography. And you can’t forget about les Friteries or  Baraque à Frites (French Fry stands), an essential part of both Belgian and Northern French culture which are often found in town squares and high way roads.  

Lille , France's 10 most populated city

VISIT LILLE: 

The town has a lively contemporary art scene with regular festivals and exhibitions plus the Palais des Beaux-Arts museum, France’s second largest art collection after the Louvre. Listed as the only World Heritage Site in Lille, is the 104 metres Belfry tower attached to the Hotel de Ville (town hall) where visitors can get panoramic views of the city. 

One of the most significant annual events in northern France is the yearly braderie or flea market that takes over the whole city during the first weekend of September when the city square and the entire old town comes to life thanks to the annual flea market: GRANDE BRADERIE DE LILLE.

Lille France's 10 largest most populated city in France

 

**source of tourist statistics https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Villes_europ%C3%A9ennes_class%C3%A9es_par_le_nombre_de_touristes

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