Pau or Lyon? France Program Comparison

Has France been calling your name? Cuisine, culture, fashion–France is the mecca for it all. Now a bigger decision must be made, which city will you call home for a summer, semester or year? USAC has two programs in France, one in Lyon and one in Pau. Let’s go see which USAC France study abroad program is the right one for you!


500,000 people call Lyon home. If a big city calls to you, look no further. Being the third largest city in France, there is no shortage of activities or diversity. Lyon is home to a variety of annual festivals including the cinema festival (cinema was invented in Lyon), international music festival, and more. This gives you the opportunity to immerse yourself in the French language and culture, but also learn about different cultures from around the world.

Lyon, France, City
Fontaine Bartholdi sits in Place des Terreaux in Hotel de Ville, Lyon, France.


Foodies can rejoice because Lyon is known for its cuisine and food culture. They pride themselves on being the “World Capital of Gastronomy,” as described by Curnonsky, a French food critic.

Cafes, restaurants, gastropubs and food stands can be found on every street, so you need never fear going hungry.

Another testament to this rich city–its registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its food culture and its historical and architectural landmarks. This means with the turn of every corner, you can also learn about and see its history outside of the classroom.

Cuisine, Lyon, France
Students try their hand at the world-renowned cuisine during the cuisine class at “In Cuisine” in Lyon.


Lyon is our only program with a language requirement. To be accepted, you must complete two semesters of college-level French language. If you’re looking to really improve your fluency, Lyon is a great place for that to happen. The required ILCF Intensive French Language Courses will earn you up to 9 credits in just one semester. What’s more, you’ll have plenty of chances to practice your French outside of the classroom–if not at your homestay or room, then just by exploring the city.

Université Lumière Lyon 2, Lyon, France
Students practice their French during class at Université Lumière Lyon 2.

Living Accommodations

Being a big city, public transportation is the main mode of getting around. Should you choose to live with a host family, your homestay could be a 20 to 45-minute ride on the metro to get to school–just another part of big city life. If you don’t want to live in a homestay, you also have the option to stay in the university dorm or private residence where you will be with other local and international students.

Travel Accessibility 

Another great part of being in a big city is how well connected it is to the rest of France. Lyon is known as the “Gateway to Europe” and is an easy point to travel from. It’s 290 miles from Paris, 92 miles from Geneva, and the international airport and great train and bus systems can get you anywhere. So if you’re hoping to extend your stay abroad with some post-program-travel, it will be easy from here.


Pau is a smaller city nestled close to the Pyrenees in the Bearn region, with 100,000 residents calling it home.  If you’re looking to immerse yourself in the typical French town, this is the place for you. There is no language requirement for Pau, but you will find fewer locals here who speak English. Students, therefore, will use their French skills all the time outside of class (so a little practice before arrival is recommended).

A big draw for students, the city is small enough to offer everything within walking or biking distance but large enough to keep you busy and entertained with theaters, markets, festivals, concerts, sports facilities, outdoor cafes, beautiful parks, museums, and fantastic shops.

Pau, France
Students learn about Chateau de Pau, situated in the middle of the city.


In Pau, you are also required to take intensive language courses which will earn you up to two years of French language credits in just one semester. However, you don’t need to know how to speak French in order to study in Pau. Unlike Lyon, Pau offers Business French with a Diploma from the Chamber of Commerce in the Fall and the Spring. Additionally, Pau offers classes in French literature and French and European studies.

Students listen during class at Université de Pau.


If you are interested in French history, there is plenty to be experienced here. Pau is known for being the old royal city and students spend their time in the historical quarters, which date back to the medieval and Renaissance times. Château de Pau is a castle situated in the center of the city and was once home to Henry IV of France (he ruled France from 1589-1610).

Château de Pau, Pau, France
The courtyard inside Château de Pau

Living Accommodations and Travel

Living in a smaller town, you can expect a more relaxed, slower pace of living. You can also expect not to commute as far to school should you choose a homestay, or if you would prefer to live in a dorm, you will be on campus, just minutes away from your class.

It might be a little smaller, but Pau is ideally situated for easy travels to the French and Spanish Basque Country. Toulouse, Bordeaux, and Spain are all within two hours from Pau and the ocean and mountains are within 1 1/2 hours. In the winter you’ll even find yourself within 30-45 minutes of ski resorts.

Pau, France
Students grow close to their host families in Pau, France.


You have several opportunities for outdoor activity in Pau. From hiking in the nearby Pyrenees to kayaking right through the center of town, this is definitely the place for the outdoor enthusiast.

Pau, France
Students go rafting at Stade d’Eaux Vives in downtown Pau.

How do I choose? 

If you’re looking to improve your French, either program is going to be great for you. So what should you base your decision on?

Step 1: Look at the courses that are available. Does one location offer an elective you might need to graduate?

Step 2: Decide what kind of a city you want to live in. In short, if you’re looking for a big city full of culture and happenings, you should set your sights on Lyon. But if you’d prefer a smaller town to explore with lots of history and opportunity for outdoor activities, Pau is the town for you. Do you want to experience lots of different cultures (Lyon) or focus on the French culture (Pau)? Are you planning on filling your free weekends with travel or do you want to travel back in time to learn about Pau’s rich history?

The decision is yours.