France is not a classic island destination, but it has a surprising number tucked away in its Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts. But which are the most beautiful French islands?
These 10 islands provide a representative sample of what you can find (in European at least – this list does not cover overseas territory) – and they certainly deliver when it comes to dreamy scenery, pristine beaches, and charming traditional villages.
Corsica is the 4th largest island in the Mediterranean – and one of the most unspoiled, thanks to its dramatic mountainous landscape. 40% of the island is National Park, and there are several marine parks protecting the surrounding waters.
It’s home to some of the best sandy beaches in Europe, as well as the famously challenging GR20 trekking route.
But it’s not all about the outdoors – it has numerous historic cities worth a visit. The most unique is Bonifacio where buildings sit atop steep cliffs that overlook the sea and out to neighbouring island Sardinia.
South of the French Riviera are a handful of islands known as the Golden Isles (Îles d’Or in French, or sometimes referred to as the Îles d’Hyère) which tempt holidaymakers across the water with their natural beauty.
Of the 4 main islands, Porquerolles is the largest. Formerly a private island owned by a Belgian adventurer, it’s now state property and a protected nature reserve. Its main beach, Plage du Notre Dame, is one of the best beaches in France.
There are no vehicles allowed on Porquerolles (or cigarettes). Families visit for the day, bringing their bikes over on the ferry.
Port Cros is the second smallest of the Îles d’Hyère (or Îles d’Or, as they are sometimes known). It is also a car-free national park, is home to a small cross-shaped port that gives the island its name.
Hillier than Porquerolles and densely forested, Port Cros a hiker’s paradise with numerous trails to take it. Finish off your trip with a fresh seafood dinner at one of its excellent restaurants.
BELLE ILE EN MER
Brittany’s Gulf of Morhiban has hundreds of islands (if you count all of the rocky islets), but just four are inhabited. Belle Île is the largest of these.
This Breton gem, whose name means ‘The Beautiful Isle’, is best known for Sauzon, its colourful and picturesque fishing town. But it also has a lush green landscape and some fabulous beaches. Many artists and have fallen in love with this island over the years.
The Atlantic island of Noirmoutier is just off the Vendée section of coast and is an island of low-key bucket and spade fun.
It is connected to the mainland by a bridge and is a popular beach destination for the French mainlanders who love the vast sand dunes, salt pans, beach huts, and tidal pools. The shellfish round these parts are top-notch.
The interior is covered in oak and pine forests, whitewashed holiday bungalows with blue shutters, and plenty of campsites.
ILE DE RE
Île de Ré is the cool big sister of Noirmoutier dressed in nautical chic.
Just a bit further south down the coast, and connected by bridge to La Rochelle, it attracts hipster Parisians and posh families (as well a few celebs) who come for the freshest of seafood, the simple life, the easy cycling, and the vast vistas.
There’s over 100km of fine sandy shore punctuated by attractive ports such as lively St Martin-de-Ré.
ILE DE BREHAT
Bréhat is gem. Located off the north coast of Brittany, it is a small and pretty island with quaint stone houses that are popular with wealthy weekending Parisians.
The geology of the island is unique – it consists of two main islands connected by a bridge at low tide and an archipelago of surrounding islands. The pink granite rocks scattered around the coastline add to the air of drama. The rocks aren’t just photogenic – puffins nest in them too.
Little Groix is another island located in the Gulf of Morhiban and is Brittany’s second-largest island. It’s a flat, green island covered in moorland – ideal for cycling and has over 40km of cycle path.
The key attraction on Groix is the Plage des Grand Sable, reputedly the only convex beach in Europe, but there are numerous sandy beaches and geological oddities around the island.
Île d’Oléron is south of Île de Ré and connected to the mainland by bridge near Rochefort (it’s 3km off the coast). It’s the second largest island in France.
This is the spiritual home of France’s oyster country, and its most striking feature is the brightly-painted oyster huts which line the roads around the island. Some are still in use, some have been converted to artist studios. Along with the colourful beach huts, they brighten up the creeky and somewhat desolate landscape.
MONT ST MICHEL
Surely one of the most magical sights in France is that of Normandy’s Mont-Saint rising from the morning mist.
Just 1km offshore, this diminutive island is topped with a Benedictine monastery (but the whole bay is on the UNESCO World Heritage list).
It’s possible to stay on the island, there a number of hotels tucked away in its narrow streets. Try to catch a service if the Community is present – even if you’re not religious it can be a transcendent experience.
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Bicycles on Porquerolles: © Samuel Borges Photography / Shutterstock
Corsica: © Andrea Sirri / Shutterstock
Porquerolles: © Donnerbold
Port Cros: © Marta / Adobe Stock
Noirmoutier: © altitudedrone / Adobe Stock
Belle Ile: © Alexander Demyanenko / Adobe Stock
Ile de Re: © dudlajzov / Adobe Stock
Ile de Brehat: © savoieleysse / Adobe Stock
Groix: © Erwan Le Roux / Adobe Stock
Oleron: © Ivonne Wierink / Adobe Stock
Mont St Michel: © JFL Photography / Shutterstock