Young or old, traditional or modern, no one can resist the magical charm that can only be felt while wrapped in a warm jacket with a big scarf and strolling through a wonderful Christmas market as the snow begins to fall.
If you are finding yourself dreaming of a white Christmas then you’re in luck in the south of France!
As the season of appreciation begins to approach, we’ve put together a list of five southern French towns that have been embracing the festive season in unique and wonderful ways.
Each town featured here gets transformed over this season into a picture-perfect scene – one that reminds you of a traditional Christmas postcard. Christmas lights get hung with care, pine trees line the roads with flickering lights, and international designers flock to one town, in particular, to participate in one of the world’s most amazing light shows. Holidaymakers immerse themselves in thermal springs, while others take to the snow-capped slopes of the Pyrenees for a bit of skiing.
These towns’ breathtaking beauty and charming traditions will make it a sure contender for you when planning your next Christmas getaway.
Lyon hosts one of the largest light spectaculars in the world – the Fête des Lumières. The festival happens for three days only, from the 8th to the 10th of December and attracts millions of visitors each year wanting to visit this beautiful lit-up splendour.
This tradition started in 1852 and saw locals placing tiny candles in the windows and balconies of their houses in an effort to herald in the Christmas season, specifically on the first day, the 8th of December when the French celebrate Virgin Mary. Today, a contemporary version of this tradition exists.
The Festival of Lights
World-renowned designers compete to participate in a series of magnificent light and sound shows that bring this city to life. All aspects of this city, from its buildings to rivers and parks form the canvas for this show. Colourful lights, projections and lasers light up the facades of the buildings, specifically Lyon’s most famous monuments. Once illuminated, these buildings look enchanting. These are arguably the most exquisite art pieces you will ever have the opportunity to experience! Fireworks are also something to look forward to.
Wander the streets while taking in all the surrounding sights, smells and sounds. Collectively, these will make you feel like you are living a fairytale.
The Christmas Market
The Christmas market takes place at Croix-Rousse, in the heart of Lyon, every day from the 24th of November until the 24th of December. With exception to Christmas Eve, when it closes at 4 pm, the market is open from 10.30 am to 8 pm on weekdays and 10 pm on Saturdays.
It replicates the feel and atmosphere of a traditional Christmas Village, complete with 140 rustic wooden chalets, housing a wide range of stores lining the square. These stores are filled with beautiful things to look at, delicious treats to try as well as irresistible trinkets to buy.
Food products like cured and salted meats, fascinating cheeses, praline cakes, gingerbread cookies, macarons, and deliciously roasted caramelized nuts can be bought here. Handmade jewellery, clothes and other accessories, clay figurines and toys, Christmas decorations, candles, Christmas trees, and typical Provençal nativity scenes and characters are also available for enjoyment.
The market is full of surprises that children will just love. Face painting, traditional storytelling and a Christmas carousel for them to ride on can be enjoyed here. It even has a Christmas farm with live animals and exhibitions.
If you are a lover of myths and enchanting stories, then Carcassonne is the best place to visit over Christmas time. Each year from the 6th of December to 4th of January, this hilltop town really comes alive with the onset of the “Marche de Noel” Christmas market.
Over this time the town’s world-famous 12th-century castle, numerous watchtowers and double-walled fortifications, as well as the city, are lit up with Christmas lights. The celebrations take place in both the castle as well as in the ancient city centre of Bastide Saint Louis at the base of the old city.
An open-air bazaar filled with white stores selling merchandise gets set up all over the town. Adding to this wonderfully festive atmosphere is the abundance of concerts and street entertainment that take place over this time. One-of-a-kind handmade jewellery, hand-knitted socks, and wooden serving trays made from wine barrels are just a few of the things that you can buy here.
There is a range of different kinds of entertainment that your whole family can enjoy. Step into medieval times by visiting the castle and mingling with the locals. They are all dressed in medieval attire, some on horseback parading in and around this ancient site’s narrow alleyways while others can be found having a huge medieval feast.
Amusement park rides are also available. Go up the giant Ferris wheel that gets illuminated at night. From here, you can see a breathtaking 360-degree view of the town. In a nearby smaller square, you can try out your skating skills at the ice rink. Sometimes, an outdoor toboggan run can be enjoyed too!
If you are not convinced by the magic of this town keep reading.
Some say that Carcassonne was Walt Disney’s inspiration behind Sleeping Beauty. Kate Moss also felt inspired and created her best-selling book called “Labyrinth”, a story revolving around an ancient grail.
Amélie-les Bains Palada is a small town with a big heart. It is France’s most premier spa town and the first town of its sort in the Pyrenees. For centuries, one million litres of hot sulphuric water has been flowing through this town and has been thoroughly appreciated by those looking at soaking up the magical curative properties of the thermal stream.
The water temperatures here reach 60°C and soothes as much as it energises. Sulfur is not the only mineral that can be found in this water, sodium chloride and carbonates found here make the water both regenerating and invigorating.
It is for these reasons that patients with lung illnesses and rheumatism have been enjoying these benefits since the Roman era. You will also appreciate the multiple ruins of Roman baths that can be found throughout the town.
Once you have reaped the benefits of these waters, head to the Christmas market. It starts on the 11th of December. Although it is not as grand as those found in Carcassonne and in Lyon, the market here has its own unique charm amid the picturesque peaks of the Pyrenees and the abundance of hot springs.
For such a small French ski town, Cauterets has many grand offerings. The town is hemmed in by misty, snow-filled mountains carpeted in fragrant pines and has a really impressive medieval architectural element to it.
Since it is located in the heart of the Pyrenees National Park, it has become a paradise for skiers, and often the first one to open in the region, and the last one to close when the season draws to an end.
Visitors to this town leave with a charming, warm feeling.
If your family is one with mixed interests then you will appreciate this town. In fact, tourism has peaked here since the 16th-century, Victorian era. The town boasts an impressive Belle Époque-style casino, elegant hotels, a spa and even a ski resort.
More so, many celebrity clientele used to frequent here. George Sand and Victor Hugo for example used to appreciate this town and took advantage of the once open train route directly from Paris. The journey took three days, and the train station was made out of fine wood. It was built in 1904 and was in operation until 1949. Today, it hosts a theatre.
This ski resort lies at an elevation of between 2,450 and 8,000 feet, making it one of the highest Pyrenean resorts.
It is a lot smaller than that of the others in the Pyrenees. It is more catered to beginner cross-country skiers, families and intermediate skiers who would like to practise their skills.
The kids love it here. There are supervised creches on the slopes and a lot of vacation clubs that host activities for children. Over Christmas, they will see Santa coming down from his snowy domain on Christmas Eve in the Cauterets cable car!
Step into Candyland
A fun in-town activity is to watch candy being made in one of the town’s Berlingots stores. Berlingots date back to the 1800s when an enterprising doctor prescribed sugar to get rid of the lingering sulphuric taste of the thermal waters. This gave birth to the Berlingots candy industry.
Today this hard bonbon comes in several flavours and colours. You can watch them being made in Cauterets by Eric Lestable, who hails from a long line of Berlingots makers.
Spa and ski days
Just like Amélie-les Bains Palada (mentioned above), Cauterets also has mineral-rich thermal waters and is used by the nearby spa. On the premises, you will find an indoor and outdoor pool, gymnasium, a yoga room, massage rooms, a solarium, and a few steam rooms.
A ski and a spa pass called the Aquaschuss can be purchased for the whole family. It gives you access to six full days of skiing, and five two-hour passes to the spa.
Last but not least on our list is perhaps one of the most universally-appreciated southern French cities, Perpignan.
Christmas here is full of tradition, magic and fun. The old town’s warren of alleys and palm-shaded squares get decorated with Christmas lights and filled with street stalls. These stalls are set up in wooden houses, similar to those that you can find in a traditional Christmas postcard. Christmas decorations, clothes, shoes, handmade jewellery and gifts, are just a few of the products that are on sale. Christmas workshops are on the go as well.
The Church Square is hip and happening and filled with food stores accompanied by music. Here you can buy a range of sausages and cheese, to name a few delicious items. There are also gastronomic options, such as Alsace sweets, pretzels, as well as crepes, waffles and even churros.
Cold? Grab a traditional vin chaude or mulled wine to warm up those hands and head to the artists’ meeting. Since this is a university town, it’s filled with artists and will surely leave you feeling inspired. More than 50 artisans of painting, enlightenment, woodworks, ceramics and jewellery are available here.
To end your Perpignan market experience, head to the large illuminated Ferris wheel and appreciate the 360-degree view from the top.
It’s not just the market that Perignan’s famous for:
The market aside, Perpignan’s long list of assets is a drawcard for any traveller, even outside of the festive season. Firstly, the city provides a variety of contrasts. It is in the heart of picture-perfect natural environments and framed by the peaks of the Pyrenees. Vineyards, orchards, and the Mediterranean coastline surround it as well.
Secondly, you will be charmed by the many cultural treasures found in its winding medieval streets and the lively squares. These all date back to the Golden Age. Historically, it was once the capital of the kingdom of Majorca. One such asset is the Huge Gothic-and-Romanesque Palace that was once dedicated to the King. It dates back to the 14th century and stands guard to this day, and has ramparts with views of the coast.
Similarly, The Castillet, city gate and prison are equally as important as it is the emblem of Perpignan as it stands today. A few other notable Golden Age sites that are worth paying a visit to are the notable Catalan Gothic art collection by Picasso at the Hyacinthe Rigaud Museum. You should also check out Gothic City Hall, Palace of the Deputation, Saint-Jean-Le-Baptiste Cathedral, the Campo Santo (France’s largest cloister cemetery), as well as the Loge de la Mer, once the city’s commercial and maritime jurisdiction.
Whether you are looking for the perfect Christmas destination for this coming December or whether you are looking to immerse yourself in medieval times, these towns in the South of France will offer you just that, and so much more!
Ready to start planning your Christmas getaway?
Be sure to stop by for a little winter cheer. Book cheap flights to France now with Travelstart.co.za.
Did we miss any of your favourite Southern France towns? Share them with us in the comment below.
- Get a Schengen Visa for France in 48 hours
- Christmas in Austria – the ultimate guide
- The absolute best Christmas markets in Europe
All information on this blog page was correct at the time of publishing and may change at any time without prior notice. Travelstart will not be held liable for loss or inconvenience resulting from the use of out-dated or incorrectly noted information.