by Fiona McMurrey

Paris is not only the city of lights and romance but also a gateway to a treasure trove of historical castles. While the likes of Versailles, Chantilly, Fontainebleau, and the Louvre draw massive crowds, there are a lapidary panoply of lesser-known castles near Paris that offer equally captivating experiences without waiting for hours on end to enter and then miss the sights because of the immensity of the crowd. Here are five enchanting castles to visit that promise a journey through history and architecture, all while offering a more serene and intimate experience.

1. Rocamadour

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Perched dramatically on a cliffside in the Dordogne Valley, Rocamadour is a medieval village renowned for its striking architecture and spiritual significance. This enchanting destination captivates visitors with its tiered layout, where stone houses and historic buildings cling to the rocky heights. Rocamadour is famed for its religious heritage, with the Sanctuary of the Blessed Virgin Mary attracting pilgrims for centuries, particularly to the revered Black Madonna statue housed within. Wandering through its narrow, winding streets, visitors can discover charming shops, quaint cafes, and panoramic viewpoints that offer breathtaking vistas of the surrounding valley. The village's blend of natural beauty and historical richness makes Rocamadour a must-see for travelers exploring southwestern France. Whether drawn by its sacred sites or its picturesque setting, Rocamadour leaves a lasting impression on all who visit.

2. Ploumanac’h

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Tucked away on Brittany's stunning Pink Granite Coast, Ploumanac'h is a picturesque village celebrated for its otherworldly rock formations and breathtaking coastal scenery. This charming seaside hamlet is renowned for its unique pink-hued granite boulders, which have been sculpted by the elements into fascinating shapes over millennia. Visitors can explore the scenic Sentier des Douaniers, a coastal path that offers stunning views of the rugged coastline and the iconic Ploumanac'h lighthouse. The village itself exudes a quaint charm with its traditional Breton cottages and inviting local eateries serving fresh seafood. Ploumanac'h's serene beaches and clear waters are perfect for swimming and kayaking, while its natural beauty makes it a haven for photographers and nature lovers. With its enchanting landscapes and peaceful ambiance, Ploumanac'h is a hidden gem on Brittany's northern coast.

3. Caen

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Situated in the heart of Normandy, Caen is a historic city renowned for its remarkable blend of medieval architecture and World War II history. Founded by William the Conqueror, Caen features iconic landmarks such as the imposing Caen Castle and the majestic Abbaye-aux-Hommes and Abbaye-aux-Dames, which reflect its rich heritage. The city’s vibrant atmosphere is complemented by its lush public gardens and lively markets, where visitors can sample local Normandy delicacies. Caen's poignant World War II sites, including the Memorial Museum for Peace, offer profound insights into the region's past. With its bustling university scene, eclectic cafes, and thriving cultural life, Caen provides a compelling mix of historical depth and contemporary charm, making it a must-visit destination in northern France.

4. Hendaye

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Nestled on the southwestern tip of France, Hendaye is a charming coastal city that offers a blend of stunning natural beauty and rich cultural heritage. Located on the Basque Coast, just a stone's throw from the Spanish border, Hendaye boasts three kilometers of pristine sandy beaches, perfect for sunbathing, surfing, and family outings. The city’s picturesque waterfront promenade, with its view of the iconic twin rocks of the Bay of Biscay, invites leisurely strolls while its marina is a hub for nautical activities. History enthusiasts will appreciate the neo-Gothic Château d'Abbadie, a 19th-century marvel built by explorer Antoine d'Abbadie, which now serves as an observatory and museum. Hendaye's vibrant local markets and traditional Basque festivals offer an authentic taste of regional culture, making it a delightful destination for travelers seeking both relaxation and adventure.

5. Menton

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Perched on the French Riviera near the Italian border, Menton is a picturesque city celebrated for its captivating blend of Mediterranean charm and lush gardens. Known as the "Pearl of France," Menton boasts a delightful microclimate that supports its famous lemon groves and vibrant floral displays. The city's sandy beaches and azure waters offer an idyllic setting for swimming and sunbathing, while the historic old town, with its pastel-colored buildings and winding streets, invites exploration. Menton's rich cultural scene includes the impressive Jean Cocteau Museum and the annual Lemon Festival, a unique celebration that transforms the city with intricate citrus sculptures and parades. With its serene atmosphere and enchanting beauty, Menton is a perfect getaway for those seeking a tranquil retreat on the Côte d'Azur.

6. Sillans-la-Cascade

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A quaint town in and of itself, if summer swimming and exploring is what you’re after, the gorgeous waterfall of Cascade la Sillans with its turquoise water and idyllic atmosphere is the perfect oasis to pass an afternoon while exploring the village of Sillans-la-Cascade in the Provence region of southern France.

Regardless of where you choose to spend your holiday in France this Summer, you are sure to have a lovely time indulging in fresh, local gastronomy, enjoying French culture and the grand variety of landscapes this beautiful country has to offer.