Ten amazing off-the-radar experiences in France

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No Francophile worth their salt would skip the Eiffel Tower or the lavender fields of Provence. But while France’s tourist trail is well trodden for a reason, there are plenty of wonders that might have escaped your radar. Here’s an alternative bucket list for your trip to France.

See flocking flamingos in the Camargue

White horses cantering across endless plains, flamingos preening in the marshlands... the Camargue region in southern France is a wildlife haven unlike any other. Explore the area by car to get a sense of the sheer expanse of the salt marshes, but the highlight is a walk in Pont de Gau’s bird park (www.parc-ornithologique.camargue.fr) to see flamingos in their hundreds.

'Flamingos in the Camargue' by Andrea Schaffer. Creative Commons Attribution licence

Storm the castle in Tarascon

Castles are ten a penny in Europe, but few of them have that sprinkling of magic dust that makes your inner child do cartwheels. Luckily Tarascon has the kind of castle you probably marched plastic soldiers around when you were a toddler: its towers are wonderfully imposing, it has a drawbridge to die for, and even boasts its very own monster (according to legend, the tarasque had a lion's head and a tortoise's shell). Best of all, you'll encounter none of the crowds of fairytale tourist trap Carcassonne.

Related article: Ten of France’s natural wonders

'Castle of Tarascon' by Wolfgang Staudt. Creative Commons Attribution licence

Stand in the shadow of Amiens cathedral

Paris’ Notre Dame is rightly a big hitter, but you could cram two of them into Amiens’ gargantuan cathedral. Travellers in Europe often complain of cathedral fatigue after wandering around a few too many churches, but this edifice is a true standout for sheer scale and gothic craftsmanship. The famous local macarons (an almond-and-honey recipe unchanged for generations) and thick hot chocolate from Jean Trogneux (www.trogneux.fr) will fuel your visit.

'Staring up at Amiens Cathedral' by Anita Isalska

Unwind in Alpine Annecy

The charming town of Annecy in the Haute-Savoie region combines the watery beauty of Venice with French small-town chic. Sigh at the mountain backdrop as you canoe around Lake Annecy and then reward your efforts with some hearty Haute Savoie cuisine. The famous tartiflette - made with potatoes, tidbits of bacon and pungent Reblochon cheese - is a dish you'll need to walk off with a post-dinner stroll.

'Lac Annecy' by Miryam Zarzar. Creative Commons Attribution licence

Zoom over the enormous Millau Viaduct

Ancient structural wonders get all the attention, but how about some love for this record-breaking span, which is barely a decade old? This cable-stayed bridge is the tallest in the world and a true wonder of the modern age. Driving over the bridge from Clermont-Ferrand to Béziers will make you feel like you’re flying but the best views are from underneath at the visitors' centre (learn more on www.leviaducdemillau.com).

'Millau Viaduct' by Simon Hart. Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike licence

Hold your nose at the Paris Sewer Museum

Queues form at the creepy Catacombs but there’s a whiffier underground wonder in Paris that is well worth a detour. The Paris Sewer Museum plunges you into Paris’ stinking bowels – and against all odds, you’ll love it.

'Paris Sewer Museum' by Chris Yunker. Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike licence

Drink holy water in Lourdes

Lourdes is famed as a Christian pilgrimage spot, with thousands descending year-round, but did you know you can drink directly from the holy fountain? The whole spectrum of human life from nuns to sceptics turns up at the taps to fill their water bottles with holy H2O. Tourist shops all over town sell ornamental bottles for you to take home the healing liquid.

'Lourdes, France' by Jorge Andrade. Creative Commons Attribution licence

Be dazzled in Roussillon

You know you’re close to Roussillon when the hills take on a rusty hue. This is a favourite of the day-trip brigade but if it isn’t on your menu of French must-sees, it really should be. Walking the Sentier des Ocres from Roussillon town (www.roussillon-provence.com) will set your imagination ablaze: the rocky outcrops and soil are all bright shades of orange and scarlet.

'Along the Sentier des Ocres' by Anita Isalska

Be uplifted by art in Roubaix

The French aren’t giving up their art crown any time soon. Classical statues, urns and modern paintings are all reflected in the shimmering waters of an 18th-century swimming pool at La Piscine in Roubaix, on the outskirts of jaunty northern city Lille. A stained-glass window sunset illuminates the interior with golden light. The calming effect of the water and the novelty of the setting can't fail to raise the spirits.

'La Piscine in Roubaix' by Anita Isalska

Get chilly at the Mer de Glace

Hop on to the Montenevers Railway from Chamonix and you’re in for a dizzying ride – the surrounding valley has the most dramatic scenery in the Alps and is a favourite for daredevil winter sports fans. When you arrive at Montenevers, take a cable car on to France’s largest glacier where you can wander into man-made ice caves.

'Glaciar do Mer de Glace' by Denise Mayumi. Creative Commons Attribution licenc

Anita Isalska is a writer and editor based in Lonely Planet’s London office. Follow her on Twitter @lunarsynthesis.