5. La Rochelle
Distance from Paris: 4 hours southwest by train
La Rochelle is another port city that doubles as a young, happening university town, but it’s also an unusually good place for just kind of… falling off the map for a bit. La Rochelle has one of the best aquariums you’ll find anywhere, which can be an especially fun draw if you’re packing kids on your trip. If you’re a history buff, don’t miss Tour de la Lanterne, the last surviving medieval lighthouse along the entire Atlantic coast. But if you are like me and neither children nor architectural history are particularly appealing you’ll love La Rochelle for its just-right blend of stimulating and relaxing, which isn’t as easy a thing to pull off as bloggers and travel agents would have you believe.
Amble through the magnificent old harbor, known as Vieux Port, where you’ll see colorful little fishing boats bobbing placidly in the docks. La Rochelle was the first French city to create a pedestrian-only section in its historic center, so this is really a place to come when you want time to slow down. Spend your mornings at a food market (generally speaking, most food markets around the world are best in the mornings) and then head to the Tourism Information Office and pick up one of their signature yellow bicycles (it costs just a few euro per hour). Ride that bicycle right over a long bridge that takes you to the island Ile-de-Re, where you’ll find the sort of little white houses with blue-green shutters almost reminiscent of Greek islands. Lots of French nationals vacation here, but word of mouth hasn’t quite made the jump across the Atlantic. Ile-de-Re is an excellent place to camp, both because it’s cheaper (especially in the summertime, when the island gets more crowded) and because, again, this is your time to get back to a slower, calmer, generally chiller way of life. And yet, like La Rochelle, there’s a duality about it where you can be ~fancy~ if you like here, too. Go right from a morning of bodysurfing to an afternoon of sampling artisanal ice cream in flavors like oyster, caviar, Thai sorbet, and Momentarily Forgetting About the 2016 Election.