At even the most famous sites in France, the first thing that strikes visitors (to areas other than Paris) is just how small every other town is. With the exception of perhaps Marseilles, major French cities are mostly navigable on foot. And Lourdes, in the Midi-Pyrénées region, is no exception; there are only 15,000 full-time residents. Yet it is this sleepy hill town that has the most hotels in France behind Paris.
Why? It all goes back to 1858 and a young girl named Bernadette Soubirous. The Virgin Mary, one of the most powerful figures in Roman Catholicism, apparently appeared to Bernadette a total of 18 times in Lourdes that year. Bernadette’s unwavering confidence convinced initially skeptical doctors, clergy and residents, and today she is a saint and her hometown is a major destination for religious pilgrims and the infirm, who believe that the waters of the grotto contain healing properties. Sites to visit include the Miraculous Cave itself, its walls worn smooth by the hands of pilgrims, as well as Bernadette’s birthplace and family homes.
While you're here, take in stupendous views over Lourdes and the surrounding Pyrenees from the summit of the 3,109-foot (948-m) Pic du Jer, accessible by funicular.