From the Mediterranean beaches of Nice to the bustling streets of Paris and beyond, France is a country filled with colourful cities, each buzzing with its own unique culture and history.
In this article, we’ll take a look at the top 10 largest French cities to visit and live in and what makes these large urban areas so attractive for tourists and residents.
I’ve also included the phonetic spellings because chances are you’ve been pronouncing them all wrong. French city names often have spellings that don’t align with their pronunciation in English or other languages. Knowing how to pronounce French city names correctly helps communicate more effectively with people you might encounter in France, such as taxi drivers, hotel staff, or train station staff, who may be more familiar with local pronunciations.
Exploring the top 10 largest French Cities to visit in France
**(France population statistics based on estimates from INSEE (French National Institute of Statistics).
France has a population of nearly 65 million, making it the 22nd most populated country in the world.
If you include French Polynesia and other DOM-TOMs, France’s population increases to 67 million.
*DOM-TOM is a French acronym which stands for “Départements d’outre-mer, Territoires d’outre-mer.”
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.
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.
Roughly 10% of France’s total population (6.5 million people) choose one of the 10 largest French cities to live in. The rest of the population is spread throughout France’s 35,000 cities and towns (communes).
|1. Paris||105 sq. km (41 sq. mi)||2.2 M||32 -35 M|
|2. Marseille||241 sq. km (93 sq. mi)||870 K||5 M|
|3. Lyon||48 sq. km (19 sq. mi)||516 K||7 M|
|4. Toulouse||119 sq. km (46 sq. mi)||476 K||5.7 M|
|5. Nice||72 sq. km (28 sq. mi)||343 K||4.3 M|
|6. Nantes||65 sq. km (25 sq. mi)||307 K||2. M|
|7. Montpellier||57 sq. km (22 sq. mi)||282 K||5.1 M|
|8. Strasbourg||78 sq. km (30 sq. mi)||280 K||3.1 M|
|9. Bordeaux||49 sq km (19 sq. mi)||252 K||2.7 M|
|10. Lille||39 sq. km (15 sq. mi)||233 K||1 M|
1. Paris [PAH-ree] France’s largest city
Everyone loves Paris. Or do they?
- Population: 2.2 Million
- Tourists per year: 32-35 Million
- Area: 105 sq. km (41 sq. mi)
Paris, the capital city of France, has a population of nearly 2.2 million people, making it the largest, most populated city. It’s also the only French city in France with a population in the millions. Paris also has the largest metropolitan area, commonly called the “Île-de-France” region, which includes the city of Paris and its surrounding suburbs and commuter towns.
Despite being one of the most famous cities in the world, tourists often mispronounce “Paris” due to the final “s” being silent. Most foreigners to France pronounce it as “Pah-riss” instead of the correct “Pah-ree.”
LIVING IN PARIS:
While many people dream of living in Paris, what you may not know is many people already living in Paris 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 individuals and for individuals about escaping the city of lights and love. “Paris je te quitte” (Paris I’m leaving you) is one example, and here is another. Here’s someone who moved their family to Bordeaux from Paris and didn’t regret it one bit.
Living in Paris is expensive. Some Parisian residents leave the city of lights to escape the high cost of living, comparable to London, Tokyo and the San Francisco Bay area. Other reasons people leave Paris include
- to reduce stress
- to improve work-life balance
- to escape city life
- to escape pollution
- to move to the countryside
- to move closer to the sea, etc. etc.
Many Parisians who don’t want to give up city life end up moving to one of the other nine cities on this list.
Roughly 1/3 of the 90 million annual visitors to France put Paris at the top of their bucket list of French cities to visit. In terms of things to do in Paris, it’s especially known for its museums and architectural landmarks, such as the Louvre and the
Many of the top attractions in Paris are within walking distance or just 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.
You might be interested in 99 things no one tells you about living in France but should know.
2. Marseille [mar-SAY ]: The second largest city in France
If you’re like Anthony Bourdin was, and you love raw, authentic grunge, then you’ll love Marseille.
- Population: 870 000
- Tourists per year: 5 Million
- Area: 241 sq. km (93 sq. mi)
Marseille is the second-largest city in France in terms of population, with nearly one million inhabitants. This port city is located in the south of France along the Mediterranean Sea, roughly an 8 to 10-hour drive from Paris or a 4-hour train ride. It’s also one of the sunniest French cities to live in France.
The silent final “e” and silent “ll” in “Marseille” can cause a lot of confusion. It’s commonly mispronounced as “Mar-suh-lay,” Mar-sell,” or “Mar-say-lee” instead of “Mar-say.”
LIVING IN MARSEILLE:
The city itself and its surroundings are beautiful; however, it’s a city with a bad reputation, described by some as grungy, dangerous, dirty and overrun by immigrants (not my words.) 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 distinct accent, “l’accent Marseillais,” which sounds like French with a splash of a Spanish/Italian accent. Unlike standard French, every syllable is pronounced. This unique Marseillan accent is a remnant from a century ago when most people in Provence spoke Provencal and learned French as a second language.
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.
Popular points of interest are le Vieux Port (Old Harbor). Château d’If, once a fortress and later a prison, is located on a tiny island just a 20-minute ferry ride from the old port and around 17 Museums. The Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde is a church that sits high above the city and is the most visible landmark in Marseille.
A fun fact: Marseille is France’s 2nd most filmed city in France after Paris.
3. Lyon [lee-OHN]: Third largest French city.
You’ll love Lyon, especially if you love French cuisine and gastronomy, because Lyon, not Paris, is known as France’s food capital.
- Population: 516 000
- Tourists per year: 7 M
- Area: 48 sq. km (19 sq. mi)
Lyon, France’s 3rd most populated city, is located in the east-central part of France near Switzerland’s border, roughly a 5-hour drive from Paris or 2 hours by TGV train.
Another frequently mispronounced Frency city name is “Lyon.” Tourists often mispronounce it as “Lee-own” or “Lye-on,” but the accurate pronunciation is more similar to “Lee-ohn,” pronounced with a slightly nasal sound on the final “n” sound.
LIVING 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.
Make a reservation at a Bouchon, a type of restaurant found only in Lyon, “cuisine Lyonnaise,” which is usually very rich or rustic.
A few local specialties that stand out include:
- 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 favourite stinky French cheeses.
- 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 and is considered the most accessible French 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.
Thanks to the over 160 well-preserved buildings classified as historical and architectural landmarks in the city’s four historic sites, Lyon is a UNESCO World Heritage site. 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 that can be expensive but also worth it if you appreciate having the best local products.
4. Toulouse [too-LOOZ] Fourth Biggest French city
If you’re an aviation enthusiast and like visiting an underrated city with a cool, modern and traditional vibe, you’ll love Toulouse.
- Population: 476 000
- Tourists per year: 5.7 M
- Area: 119 sq. Km. (46 sq. mi)
France’s 4th biggest city is Toulouse, located in the southwest of France, halfway between the Mediterranean and the Pyrenees and 5 hours from Paris by train.
Before moving to Montpellier, Toulouse was one of the French cities we considered moving to.
“Toulouse” is often mispronounced as “Tuh-looz” instead of “Too-looz”. The “ou” vowel combination is always pronounced like the double “o” sound in the word “booze.”
LIVING 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
Although people come from all over France to live in Toulouse, a large portion are people escaping Paris’s high cost of living and crowds or seeking other benefits such as warmer weather. Another group of people who chose Toulouse as their top French city to live in are students. Toulouse is often ranked among the top 5 French cities for students to live and study.
Transportation is top-notch. You can easily wind your way from one end of the city to the other by Tram, aboard the metro, on the many pedestrianized streets or by bike on 550 kilometres of cycling trails.
When considering French cities to visit, People often overlook Toulouse. It receives just a fraction of tourists compared to Paris, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty to see and do.
Toulouse boasts two UNESCO World Heritage sites…
- A gothic church, “Les Jacobins”- the church of Jacobin built during the 13th and the 14th centuries
- 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 Toulouse’s most photographed attractions, a sprawling neoclassical building that dates back to the 12th century. Casino théâtre Barrière is a very upscale Las Vegas-style Casino with slots, gambling tables, shows, restaurants and hotels. 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], Fifth largest French city
If you love the Mediterranean sun, the sea, beaches and the French Riviera, you’ll love Nice.
- Population: 343 000
- Tourists per year: 4.3 M
- Area: 72 sq. km (28 sq. mi)
You might be interested in 15 reasons why I love Nice, France.
Nice is located in the south of France near Italy’s border, 6 6-hour train ride from Paris.
Despite its simple spelling, “Nice” is frequently mispronounced with a long “I” sound like in the word “ice”) instead of the correct “Nees” (rhyming with “fleece”).
LIVING IN NICE:
Nice is a French city known for its warm Mediterranean climate, where cafe terraces are filled with people practically all year round. It’s probably most famous for being located along the French Riviera (le Cote d’Azur). Compared to other southern cities such as Toulouse and Montpellier, Nice is not cheap. Many wealthy and famous people like Johnny Depp, Tina Turner, Bono and Brad Pitt have homes along the French Riviera.
The local specialties which are influenced by Mediterranean cuisine 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).
Related: What I love about Nice, France.
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.” 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 the Carnival season, it’s home to the most famous carnival in France, the Nice Carnival. Nice is close to many other interesting cities: 35 minutes from Cannes, where the annual Cannes Film Festival is held, 25 minutes to Monaco and an hour to Saint Tropez.
6. Nantes [NAWNT] Sixth largest French city
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)
At just over 300K inhabitants, the dynamic city of Nantes is France’s 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.
The pronunciation of “Nantes” can be tricky due to the silent final “s.” Nantes is often mispronounced as “Nants,” like ants, instead of the correct “Nawnt,” like in the word “jaunt.”
LIVING IN NANTES:
Nantes, the capital of the Pays de la Loire region, has earned a reputation for its edgy, vibrant, and playful atmosphere. The locals affectionately call it “une belle endormie” (sleeping beauty) because it was often overlooked as a desirable French city to visit or live in. However, Nantes underwent a major transformation and awakening by investing in its urban development, cultural initiatives, and economic growth. While it may not be considered the most picturesque French city to visit, it’s gained a reputation for being one of the most pleasant French cities to live in and work in. In 2004, Time magazine named it the most livable city in Europe and then In 2013, it was awarded the European Green Capital Award.
The main sights include the cathedral, the castle of the Dukes of Brittany, and “Château des Ducs de Bretagne,” where the Dukes of Brittany once lived. The Machines of the Isle is 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-pul-YAY ] France’seventh largest city
You’ll love Montpellier if you like a big city with a small-town feel and a vibrant young population.
- Population: 282 000
- Tourists per year: 5.1 M
- Area: 57 sq. km(22 sq. mi)
France’s 7the biggest city in terms of population is Montpellier, where I live. It’s located in southern France, 10km inland from the Mediterranean Sea coast, approximately 4 hours from Paris by TGV.
Montpellier: The unfamiliar combination of letters in “Montpellier” often leads to mispronunciations such as “Mont-pell-yay” or “Mon-pell-yer” instead of the correct pronunciation, which is “Moan-pul-yay” with a nasal “n” sound, silent “t,” and a slight emphasis on the final syllable.
LIVING IN MONTPELLIER:
If you like university towns, Montpellier should be at the top of our list of French cities to live in which has been a great experience for us. It has one of France’s youngest populations and is one of the fastest-growing cities, 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. It’s also home to several prestigious universities including one of Europe first medical schools founded here in 1137
In terms of quality of life, Montpellier consistently ranks high and was even voted 8th best place to live in France and 29th best place to work by l’Express. One of the qualities I love the most about living in Montpellier is despite being a big city, it doesn’t feel big and things move at a more relaxed pace than you might expect. It reminds me a lot of Montreal. There are plenty of excellent French restaurant options, especially in the old part of Montpellier, which dates back to Medieval times. Compared to the cost of living in Paris, Nice and Lyon, Montpellier is also more affordable. Expect to pay around €500 to €900 a month for a single-bedroom property in the city centre.
In terms of French cities to visit, the L’Écusson area is a must-see. This beautiful old quarter dates back to medieval times and has an intricate ant-like network of narrow cobbled roads where you’ll find hidden restaurants, quaint hotels, shopping and secret gardens.
On the perimeter of 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 performances 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-sized pool to swim in for just a few euros.
It’s also a great place to take the kids trick or treating.
8. Strasbourg [STRAHS-BOOR] France’s biggest city
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)
Strasbourg is situated along the Rhine River on Germany’s eastern border. It’s less than a 2-hour TGV train ride from Paris and is the 8th largest French city in France.
People often mispronounce “Strasbourg” due to the combination of consonants and vowel sounds. “Straas-burg” or “Strahs-burg” are common, while the accurate pronunciation is “Strahs-boor,” where the “g” is silent. The correct way to pronounce Strasbourg is “Strahs-boor” with a long “oo” sound, similar to the word “moor” or “tour.”
LIVING 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 are written in French and Alsatian, a Germanic dialect spoken in Alsace and one of France’s recognized regional languages. Local specialties include German classics like “choucroute” – sauerkraut, flammekueche, a type of bread topped with creme fraîche, onions and lardons (cubes of fatty pork).
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- is 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 [bor-DOH] Ninth largest city.
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)
Bordeaux is a port city on the Garonne River in the department of Gironde, which is most well known for its famous wine-growing region.
The unique combination of letters in “Bordeaux” can be challenging. It is frequently mispronounced as “Bore-dee-oh” or “Bor-dex” instead of the correct pronunciation, which is “Bor-doh,” pronounced as “Bor-doh” with a silent “x” at the end.
LIVING 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 it used to be. As of late, Bordeaux is trying to shake its aristocratic vibe and appeal to the younger generation with affordable 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. The city was under English rule for three hundred years thanks to the marriage between Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry Plantagenet, who became King Henry II. Maybe that’s why Bordeaux attracts a lot of British tourists and Expats.
Fun fact: The Aquitaine region of France is home to the largest British expat population in the country.
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.
Porte Cailhau, also known as the Cailhau Gate, is a 15th-century Gothic monument and the old medieval gate entrance that was once part of the defensive walls surrounding the city of Bordeaux.
You might be interested in reading: Unique and unusual things to do in Bordeaux, France (besides drink wine)
10. Lille [LEEL ] France’s tenth largest city
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, which shares a border with Belgium.
- Population: 233 000
- Tourists per year: 1 M
- Area: 39 sq. km (15 sq. mi)
With a population of just over 230K inhabitants, Lille is France’s 10th largest city. Located at the northern tip of France near Belgium’s border, it’s just a one-hour train ride from Paris and an hour and a half from London by Eurostar.
Non-native speakers often struggle with pronouncing “Lille” correctly. The correct pronunciation is “Leel” with a long “ee” sound, similar to the word “feel”.
LIVING 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. The Flemish influence is undeniable from the Dutch-style architecture and red-brick structures, uncommon in France, to its strong beer and brewing culture, which picks up in October during beer week.
Like the Netherlands and Belgium, Lille is a 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 highways roads.
Lille’s blend of old-world charm, modern amenities, lively contemporary art scene, and regular festivals and exhibitions makes it a well-rounded option among French cities to visit and live in. The 104-metre Belfry Tower attached to the Hotel de Ville (town hall), where visitors can get panoramic city views, is listed as the only World Heritage Site. However, the Palais des Beaux-Arts museum has France’s second-largest art collection after the Louvre.
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 come to life thanks to the annual flea market: GRANDE BRADERIE DE LILLE.
Wrapping up the top 10 largest French cities to live in or visit
Now that we’ve explored France’s top 10 biggest French cities to visit and live in, the hard part is choosing one or maybe several. Will it be the romantic city of Paris, the sunny shores of Nice, or the fascinating city of Strasbourg, where French and German cultures blend?