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8 French Cities You Must Visit Before You Die

La vie en rose.

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1. Lyon

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Here's why you should go there: If you don't eat, don't go to Lyon. If you do, you'll be happy here. Outside France, Paris might be famed for its restaurants but the French themselves arguably rate Lyon even higher.

Here's what to check out: Paul Bocuse is Lyon's reigning chef-king, with his nouvelle cuisine palace l'Auberge du Pont de Collonges just outside the city. If that sounds a little intimidating, the 89-year-old also runs four more casual Lyon brasseries – Le Nord, l'Est, Le Sud and l'Ouest – each specialising in a scrumptiously different regional cuisine.

Not sitting at all obviously with this hallowed foodie rep is the Nuits Sonores spring music festival that makes Lyon France's pulsating capital of electronica.

A Eurostar service now runs straight to Lyon from London.

2. Marseille

Atout France/Franck Charel

Here's why you should go there: If Paris is a smartly dressed, faintly neurotic intellectual quipping about art, literature and experimental theatre, Marseille is stocky and muscular, with probably a sailor's tattoo or two and very good at making fish soup. The pair wouldn't get along at all at a party, but that's fine.

Here's what to check out: Must-sees on a first tour of France's second largest city include the U-shaped Old Port, suave old-world cafes clinging barnacle-like to its perimeter; the labyrinthine Pannier quarter, setting for some of France's finest detective novels; and l'Unité d'Habitation, Le Corbusier's modernist housing masterpiece in the south of the city.

And really do try the fish soup – bouillabaisse – if you go to Marseille. Complexly flavoured and seductively delicious, it's hard to think of a dish that better sums up a city than this literal melting pot.

Since 2015, you can get the Eurostar direct from London to Marseille. Yacht aside, it's by far the coolest way to arrive.

3. Nice

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Here's why you should go there: Nice was once so popular with boater-hatted English sunseekers they named the main drag after them, Promenade des Anglais.

The soft light that bathes this Provençal city also drew artists such as Matisse, Renoir and Chagalle, and the museums dedicated to them make for transcendent gazing time.

Here's what to check out: Consider coughing up to use a private beach, where hotels lay on luxuries like hessian rugs down to the water to protect your tootsies from the scorching pebbles. If an A-lister is sprawled a few towels down from you (it is Nice, after all), don't acknowledge it in any way.

A last attraction: Nice's bric-a-brac shops. The city shows off par excellence the French genius for curating other people's possessions; you could spend your whole holiday here fossicking.

4. Bordeaux

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Here's why you should go there: Bordeaux's 18th-century city centre is as elegant as they come, and there's even a designer budget boutique hotel here, Philippe Starck's Mama Shelter.

Here's what to check out: Not drinking Bordeaux in Bordeaux would be like spurning sherry in Jerez or maybe a wheatgrass smoothie in San Francisco: incomplete, at the least, and possibly perverse.

If you've ever suspected the wine critics might be making it all up, come here and judge for yourself: the good stuff's cheap by the glass, and in June there's a mile-and-a-half of tasting stands at the Fête-du-Vin.

5. Strasbourg

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Here's why you should go there: Just over the Rhein from Deutschland, Strasbourg is like the gorgeous love child of France and Germany. Its Gothic cathedral crowns one of the most superbly preserved old towns on the Continent.

Here's what to check out: Like an eBay warehouse belonging to Santa, Strasbourg has reputedly Europe's biggest Christmas market. Few dispute its claim also to be the Continent's oldest such gathering of carved wooden things, mulled wine and baubles.

6. Lille

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Here's why you should go there: Apart from Paris, France's sexy, sultry southern cities get all the wolf whistles, but very different Lille – a Eurostar stop on the way to Brussels or the capital – also demands a visit.

Here's what to check out: Lille holds not just the mother but the entire extended family of all flea markets. Come for La Braderie, when every flea market in France and beyond packs up and heads to Lille.

Pack light if you come during the first weekend of September because you'll inevitably return with a battered old gramophone, a kooky oil painting of someone's stern forgotten ancestor and – just maybe – some classic of modernist furniture you got for a song.

7. Saint-Malo

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Here's why you should go there: Savour the irony that the fortifications this port city built to keep out English pirates now draw boatloads of tourists from the same country. No wonder: this is a fantastically romantic place whose tempestuous star is the sea.

Here's what to check out: With a yawning tidal range – one of the highest on Earth – the day can start in Saint-Malo with waves licking the teeth of the ancient ramparts. Then the Channel rolls back to reveal vast beaches hopping with sea life and land bridges to outlying granite islands.

Watch yacht races, tan on the beach, or gorge on super-fresh mussels and oysters at restos within the walls.

Saint-Malo makes an easy day trip or longer from one of the Channel Islands.

8. Montpellier

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Here's why you should go there: France's first gay marriage was celebrated here a couple of years ago, which tells you a bit about the place. The 50,000-odd students here contribute to a pervasive sunny joie de vivre, too.

Here's what to check out: What Montpellier has over other, better known southern towns such as Nice and Marseille is just that it's not them. Fewer tourists come here, although they have every reason to. The cafes lining the breezy pedestrian squares – including France's biggest, La Comédie – are sublime.

The beach is just six miles away, and the chestnut groves and gorges of the wild and beautiful Cévennes Hills are only a little further. Hm, where to go?

@SimonDBusch is a travel editor (AroundtheBusch.com)

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