So, voulez vous parler Français? We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: one of the most important parts of learning a new language is immersing yourself in it — and there’s no better way to do so than through travel. The problem is, lots of well-loved travel destinations have attracted so many tourists that you barely hear a word of French spoken on the streets. That’s why we’ve rounded up some of our favorite spots to avoid the tourist traps and get a truly authentic experience.
Imagine what would happen if Amsterdam, Venice, Munich, and Paris were all mashed together into one small town. Meet Colmar. Located in the northeast Alsace region of France, Colmar was the last town to be freed after World War II, and — apart from the beautiful French language — it almost feels more German than French. Expect gingerbread house-like architecture straight out of a Grimm Brothers fairytale; walking the streets of Colmar feels like traveling back in time and slightly out of reality.
What to do: Head to “La Petite Venise” in the early morning, because it’s the biggest attraction in town. You can take a boat trip down one of the many canals à la Venice, right down to the gothic churches. If you don’t mind a little crowd of daytrippers coming from the German border, take a look around the Unterlinden Museum, home to one of the goriest depictions of the Death of Christ, amongst other masterpieces. If you’d rather get your artiste on more privately, check out the Hansi Museum to see the artist known as Hansi’s depictions of life in France during and after the German occupation. Then, head over to one of France’s best patisseries (big statement, we know, but trust us) Gilg. Try some of Alsace’s specialties, like pain pain d’épices and kougelhopf. If you’re feeling ambitious, take a daytrip to the nearby towns of Eguisheim and Kaysersberg, both of which have been named “Prettiest Town in France” by in the past five years. Finish off your night with a glass of the local riesling (to die for) and a tarte flambée (to die again for), and get some sleep – you deserve it.
You may have never heard of Vevey unless you’re a big chocolate fanatic (Nestle has its headquarters there) or a diehard Charlie Chaplin fan (Vevey was the last place he lived before he died). But that’s no excuse not to be enchanted by this sweet lakeside town. Vevey is seated right at the Eastern end of Lake Geneva — from sitting at its shores you can actually see France across the lake. Home to less than 20,000, it’s in the Vaud region of Switzerland, the only entirely French-speaking region in the country. From the expansive waterfront to the unpolished, colorful heart of Old Vevey, you’ll be wondering why this little town didn’t show up your radar sooner.
What to do: Vevey is home to an eclectic collection of sculptures, and it’s worth your time to try to hunt them all down. First, there’s the Charlie Chaplin statue, a no-brainer, given his home nearby. But there’s also a monument dedicated to Russian author Nikolai Gogol, a triumphant statue of Queen singer Freddie Mercury, and, strangest of all, a 26-foot-tall metal fork sticking out of the lake itself ( which makes some sense when you see there’s a nearby Nutrition Museum, but it’s quirky nonetheless). After you’ve finished puzzling over how they got the fork to stick so serenely out of the lake, there’s no shortage of waterfront activities to partake in. Our favorite, though, is to take a ride in an old paddle steamboat across the lake. It feels so retro and cool being inside the boat, hearing the whoosh of the massive paddle wheels propelling you along. Old Vevey is also most definitely worth poking around — it’s more unpolished than the rest of the city, which gives it a very local, untouched feel. Check out Le National, a quaint little restaurant patio with bright mosaic tables, covered from above by huge tree branches. It’s a perfect spot to hunker down with an espresso and a book. Last but not least, for the vin aficionados, touring the Lavaux vineyards is a can’t-miss. Lavaux is the largest contiguous vineyard region in Switzerland, and the buildings housing tasting rooms have been integrated into the landscape, creating a hobbit-home sort of feel.
You’ve heard of Montreal and Quebec City, but you may have overlooked the city of Gatineau. It’s only a bridge away from Ottawa, the country’s capital, but it feels like a different world entirely — partly because of the French signs at every storefront door. There’s a reason that Canada took the number 1 slot on the New York Times’ “52 Places to Visit in 2017,” and cities like Gatineau are microcosms of all Canada has to offer. This year is the time to go, too — 2017 marks the 150th anniversary of Canada’s confederation, and the country is throwing celebratory events all year long.
To do: Most locals in Gatineau will tell you not to miss the Canadian Museum of Civilization, and for good reason. The museum hosts everything from a history of Canada’s indigenous peoples to an exhibition all about hockey. If you’re feeling thirsty, head over to Brasseurs du Temps, known to locals as BDT. Here, you can find not only a free beer museum (need we say more?), but also dozens of local craft beers on tap with captivating names such as obscur désir (dark desire) and belle empoisonneuse (beautiful poisoner). The streets here are a lot less crowded than those of the capital across the bridge, and you can spend a half a day just wandering through them. For the nature lovers among us, get hyped. In the park, you can partake in every outdoor activity from canoeing down the canals of the Gatineau Ville de Plein Air to hiking the dozens of trails around the park. Some of these trails will take you to Pink Lake whose waters are conspicuously emerald in color and rumored to be home to prehistoric species (goosebumps!).
Fort de France, Martinique
Martinique: where the smell of fresh fruit juices mingles with the smell of freshly baked croissants. Where the rum, as the locals will be sure to tell you, is made exclusively with pressed sugar cane, and where the palm trees are interspersed with Romanesque church steeples. The mix of the Creole and Francophone cultures on this small island is entirely unique. Martinique is an overseas region of France, and so unlike many other Caribbean islands, it doesn’t depend so heavily on tourism. The island feels less like a beachy tourist destination, and more like a real, working, breathing country.
To do: Martinique’s beaches are some of the most beautiful in the world, Les Salines especially. Most of the sunbathers you’ll find here are French families, so you can get your tan on without sacrificing your French practice. Take advantage of the insane quality of Caribbean water to journey out via kayak to a sandbar with a curiosity-provoking name: La Baignoire de Joséphine (Josephine’s Bathtub). The sandbar was named for the Empress Joséphine, first wife of Napoleon, who was actually from the island itself. If you’re not feeling the beach vibe, hike up some of the trails of Mount Pelée or the Cabernet Mountains, where the greens of the surrounding rainforest are just as breathtaking as the bright blues of the ocean. As we mentioned before, Martinique is not built for tourists. The downtown area of Fort-de-France is brightly colored and easy to navigate à pied, and we definitely recommend taking a couple hours to explore the streets, but it’s unlikely that you’ll find a coffee shops or restaurants catering to Americans here. Pop into one of the maman et papa pastry shops, many unlabeled, for dirt-cheap, other-wordly croissants and donuts. Martinique is the perfect place to practice letting go of your preconceptions and just taking it all in.
Up on the Atlantic coast of Northern Morocco is the little fishing town of Asilah. Fun fact: although the official language of Morocco is Arabic, almost half the population speaks French — especially in smaller northern towns like Asilah. The town is protected from the ocean tides by huge stone ramparts, which give you the feel that you’re walking around the grounds of some castle. Expect neo-Arabic architecture complete with white-washed buildings, huge empty beaches, and relaxed, friendly people.
To do: The town itself is small, so you don’t need anything other than your own two feet to get around. (You can shell out for a donkey-drawn cart, if you prefer!) The souk is easy to navigate, and the outdoor food market with fresh meat and produce as far as the eye can see is there every day. You can find lots of little shops and restaurants in the city’s center, Ville Nouvelle, but if you head west towards the medina, you can get away from all the noise of the marketplace. The medina is pedestrian-only, which gives it an old-world European feel, and you can put your feet up at one of the seaside restaurants (try Medina Cafe for cheap and traditional Moroccan food) with a fresh mint tea in the morning or some fish tagine for lunch. To get a taste of the local art scene, all you need to do is walk around the town. Artists are invited to paint their works directly onto the city’s walls, so even the walk between your hotel and your breakfast feels like a jaunt through a museum. If you’re feeling beachy, check out the nearby Sidi Mugai or Rada where you’re likely to have the whole spot to yourself, or take a stroll down the coast to Paradise beach, one of the most popular beaches in Morocco. If you are in the mood for a treat yo’self type of day, stroll over to the hamman, the public bathhouse where you can be massaged, steamed and exfoliated to your heart’s content.
Ready to brush up on your French before jetting off? Check out our upcoming French class here.