France has long been the world’s favourite tourist destination, and it doesn’t take a much imagination to understand why. It has some of the highest mountains, the most dynamic cities, the best beaches and a treasure trove of the some of the world’s most famous artistic, cultural and historical artifacts. The wide open spaces and impressive mountain ranges of the French countryside allow for a vast scope of outdoor activities to thrill even the most adventurous traveller. Those seeking more of an urban adventure won’t be disappointed by the vast range of clubs, shops, fashion and music provided by France’s cities in abundance. Combine all of these riches with the most sumptuous culinary scene in the world, and you may be planning your next trip to France before you even head back home.
With the River Seine gently meandering through it, the enchanting romantic city of Paris has been described in just about every possible way and is a dream destination for plenty of people the world over, even those who have already visited before. With nearly as many famous landmarks as faces it shows in the different light and seasons, Paris enchants one in its magic. The city features monument-lined boulevards, fascinating museums, classical bistros, bohemian art nouveau cafes, creative wine bars, stylish boutiques, and art galleries. Must-see attractions include: the impressive Gothic Notre Dame Cathedral, the world-renowned Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, and the Arc de Triomphe standing guard over the glamourous Champs Elysees Avenue. Don’t miss the opportunity to sample infamous French cuisine at an array of enticing boulangeries, patisseries, and fromageries.
Nice is a fairly large French city situated on the French Riviera with spectacular Alps-to-Mediterranean surroundings. It is well known for its breathtaking views along the Promenade des Anglais, its famous waterfront, lined with deck chairs, perfect for spending a lazy afternoon in the sun alongside the azure water of the Bay of Angels. Art lovers can marvel at the impressive collections housed in the city’s numerous world-class museums including the Matisse Museum, Musée Chagall, the Musée d’Art Moderne et d’Art Contemporain, and the Musée et Site Archeologiques de Cimiez, which includes the ruins of the Gallo-Roman settlement in Cimiez. Architecture enthusiasts will find plenty to peak their interest in the ocher-tinted streets of the city’s charming Old Town. These narrow, traffic-free alleyways are lined with romantic cafes, picturesque houses and boutiques, as well as the famous flower and fruit market of the Cours Saleya. With its perfect balance of modern sophistication and old-world charm, nice is a popular destination for vacationers both young and old, with something to offer nearly everyone.
Situated a kilometre off France’s northwestern coast, Mont Saint Michel is a tiny hilltop village erected on an 80-metre high granite boulder emerging from the ocean. It is a stunning and otherworldly spectacle of old stone buildings and winding roads leading to the magnificent medieval cathedral that crowns the village. Take a guided tour of the Abbey, where you might be lucky enough to hear the beautiful sound of the monks’ choir; then take a stroll around the ancient lanes, past the quirky shops and quaint cafes.
Dubbed the ‘Pearl of the Aquitaine’, Bordeaux is a blissful mix of sophisticated city and bucolic countryside: historical architecture and hip modern culture, briny river waters and sandy shores, fragrant pine forests and sprawling vineyards. A wander through the city centre will take you past lacy-spired Gothic cathedrals and basilicas, through ancient cobbled alleyways and atmospheric squares dotted with sidewalk cafes, and along the walled banks of the mighty Garonne River. If retail therapy is what you are after, head to Avenue Saint-Catherine, France’s longest pedestrian boulevard, stretching for over a kilometre and lined with stores of all description, from exclusive boutiques to major department stores. And of course, don’t leave town without taking a tour of the wine estates dotting the city’s surrounds, where you can sample the region’s world-famous vino.
Marseille’s election as the European Capital of Culture in 2013 threw it into a flurry of restoration and transformation. Five major new major art centres were developed; the Old Port was beautifully refurbished; and neighbourhoods, shops, restaurants and museums were given a fresh coat of paint and a new lease on life. The result of this renaissance is a pulsing, cosmopolitan port city rich with history and innovative creative spaces, inhabited by trendy multicultural urbanites. Wander through colourful, spice-scented, French-African markets, visit the magnificent Basilique de Notre-Dame de la Garde, browse the chic boutiques on the historic high street, or try a steaming bowl of Marseille’s famous bouillabaisse. The choices are as diverse as they are seductive.
The French Riviera is synonymous with affluence, style and sophistication – exclusive seaside destinations such as Cannes, Monaco and St-Tropez have long attracted the rich and famous to their glittering shores. With its old-world charm, modern-day decadence and superb setting on Angel Bay, Nice is another of the Cote d’Azur’s most irresistible destinations. Wander the city’s elegant seafront avenues past superb turn-of-the-century architecture; stroll along the Des Anglais promenade, with its views over bays and beaches, or admire the amazing array of fresh produce at the city’s vibrant fruit and flower market. One of the most scenic towns is Èze, with its medieval stone houses and snaking lanes on a rugged 420-metre peak set against a cobalt Mediterranean background, while the quaint medieval village of Grasse is famous for its exquisite perfumes and redolent lavender fields.
The seat of European Parliament, Strasbourg presents an interesting fusion of cultures, from ancient to uber-modern. The medieval district contrasts sharply with the space-age architecture of its swanky EU quarter, while its rich traditions have not been diminished by its vibrant student population. Take some time to explore the city’s fairytale old town, with its cobbled lanes, exquisite stone cathedral and half-timbered medieval houses; visit the charming ‘Petite France’ neighbourhood on the Grand Isle; take an evening river cruise to see the city illuminated at night. To experience Strasbourg’s gastronomic delights, do a wine-tasting tour in the surrounding countryside and end the day sampling authentic Alsatian cuisine in a traditional ‘winstubs’.
Positioned at the confluence of the Rhone and Saone rivers in France’s Auvergne-Rhone-Alpes region, the city of Lyon boasts world-famous gastronomy, a picturesque riverside setting, rich history and a university buzz. No visit to Lyon would be complete without a visit to Les Halles de Lyon, the major food market, while the city’s restaurants, ranging from Michelin-starred to street-side chic, are the stuff of gourmet fantasy. Equally engaging pastimes are trawling the city’s superb shops, or spending a few hours people-watching on the Place Bellecour, the city’s vibrant main square. For bird-eye views over the city, head up to the Fourviere hilltop by funicular or on foot. The summit is home to the beautiful Notre Dame de Fourviere, with its turreted facade of white stone carved with lacy detail.
With the towering snow-capped peaks of the impressive Mont Blanc providing an exceptionally scenic backdrop, Chamonix is both the oldest and largest of French Alpine ski resort towns. The town was initially put on the map as the site of the very first winter Olympics in 1924. Today this remarkable resort consists of numerous charming chalets, luxury villas, Belle Époque hotels, Art Deco facades, traditional farms as well as some spectacular modern architecture. Chamonix offers a winter wonderland for snow bunnies who flock here year after year to enjoy some of Europe’s top alpine thrills including the unforgettable 20-km (12-mile) run through the Vallée Blanche and the exhilarating off-trail area of Les Grands Montets. There is also plenty for non-skiers to enjoy including a lively après-ski scene and a host of lovely restaurants and upmarket boutiques. In summer, the area’s highland hiking trails are easily accessible by ski lift and provide some of the Alps’ most thrilling panoramas. With all of this and more on offer, Chamonix is truly a wintertime playground of epic proportions.
First settled by the ancient Romans, Champagne is today synonymous with the decadent beverage that bears its name. Bubbly tasting in the famous Epernay area is at the top of most travellers’ itineraries – this is the beating heart of the Champagne production industry and the unofficial provincial capital. Meander down the elegant Avenue de Champagne, admiring the luxurious architecture and popping in to world-famous cellars such as Moet Chandon, Mercier and Veuve Clicquot. Alternatively, feast on superb French cuisine at the region’s exceptional restaurants; wander the ancient streets of Reims past superb historical architecture, or head to the affluent and trendy villages that are dotted across the vine-swathed countryside, such as Ambonnay, Pierry, and the appropriately named Bouzy.
Champagne Wine Region
First settled by the ancient Romans, Champagne is today synonymous with the decadent bubbly beverage that bears its name. Champagne tasting in the famous Epernay area is at the top of the itinerary for most visitors, but there are many other fabulous ways to while away the hours in this scenic region. Visit the quaint stone villages that are dotted about the region; wander the ancient streets of Reims past superb historical architecture; take in the impressive fortress at Sedan; or feast on superb French cuisine at its exceptional restaurants.
Positioned at the confluence of the Rhone and Durance Rivers in southeastern France’s Provence region, Avignon is a town of good looks and rich cultural treasures. As the French capital of Christendom in the fourteenth century, Avignon grew into a thriving city with a prestigious cultural heritage, still visible today in the fascinating architectural monuments lining the cobbled streets of the medieval old town. Many of the old town’s monuments have been transformed into quirky cafes, hotels, boutiques and even a movie theatre; however, the ‘Le Palais des Papes’ remains unchanged as a reminder of the luxurious decadence afforded by the papacy. Today Avignon’s vibrant student scene, designer boutiques, and trendy restaurants combine to form a seductive blend of medieval history, youthful energy, and urban sophistication.
From its Mediterranean beaches and elegant palm-lined avenues to its sizzling nightlife and glittering annual film fest, Cannes is a quintessential Cote D’Azur destination – redolent of wealth, style and sophistication. Favourite activities include lounging on the golden sand beaches along the glamorous Boulevard de la Croissette, exploring the ancient alleyways of Le Suquet, the old quarter, with their luxury boutiques and gourmet stores stocking a dazzling array of delicacies, or visiting the high-tech, über-modern Palais des Festivals, which plays host to the highlight of the Cannes social calendar – the city’s world-famous film festival.
Set in the Mediterranean Sea between the France-Italy border across the ocean to the north and the island of Sardinia to the south, the French island of Corsica is a land of striking scenery. Sheer granite cliffs fall away to cobalt waters, picture-perfect beaches, pine-clad mountain peaks and glacial lakes, earning it the nickname ‘The Beautiful Island’. However, Corsica also boasts some incredible old buildings, a quirky cafe culture and a fantastic nightlife scene, based mainly around its vibrant harbour area. The island has absorbed a strong Italian flavour from its neighbour, Sardinia, and visitors can look forward to enjoying the cultural and culinary influences of both nations. The Lavezzi archipelago, a spattering of tiny islands just off the coast, provides crystal clear bays where water lovers can enjoy amazing scuba diving and snorkelling.
Toulouse is a city of contrasts – from the slow-paced charm of its pedestrianised old quarter (dubbed ‘The Pink City’ for its terracotta buildings) to the bustling streets of the modern metropolis that has mushroomed outwards. Highlights of the city include its scenic waterways and the historical gems of ‘La Ville Rose’, particularly the 16-century Hôtel Assézat, an elaborate Renaissance building; the Jacobins convent, with its intricate Gothic facade and gorgeous ribbed interior ceiling; the mammoth Cathedral Saint-Sernin; and most magnificent of all, the monumental Capitole complex. The city’s charms extend beyond its cultural attractions, however: this university town also has a strong foodie following, a thriving music scene and a sparkling nightlife based around its profusion of eateries, cafes, bars and nightclubs.
With all the style, culture and sophistication of Paris but with none of the crowds and tourist traps, Aix-en-Provence is the perfect holiday destination for travellers seeking a relaxed and authentic French experience. This stately town is idyllically situated in a picturesque landscape surrounded by quaint, sleepy villages at the foot of the Sainte-Victoire Mountain. One can’t help but be seduced by the splendour of the baroque architecture, the avenues of leafy plane trees, and the quietly gurgling moss-covered fountains which adorn meticulously manicured gardens. The city’s maze of tiny medieval streets forms an ideal setting for groups of immaculately dressed locals posing in the numerous chic cafes and stylish boutiques. With all its decadent elegance, it is easy to see why Aix-en-Provence has become synonymous with l’art de vivre (the art of living).
Bordered by Italy and the Mediterranean Sea, the French southeastern region of Provence features a cornucopia of culinary delights, magnificent markets, sprawling vineyards and lavender-scented landscapes. It is home to the edgy buzz of Marseilles, the sexy sophistication of Nice and the ancient architecture of Nimes. The town of Aix en Provence oozes old-world elegance from its stately colonial mansions and Gothic cathedral, and history buffs will be in their element among Avignon’s ancient palaces and an exquisitely preserved riverside Old Town. Visit the birthplace of infamous artist Paul Cezanne, explore the Southern Alps, discover the plains of the Camargue, and the enjoy the buzzing nightlife along the trendy Cours Mirabeau Avenue. Don’t miss a visit to the Cote d’Azur along the south coast with its glitzy resort towns and picturesque coastline.
Once a sleepy fishing village, Saint-Tropez was instantly transformed into the playground of the rich, famous and beautiful when it featured in a film starring heartthrob Brigitte Bardot. To this day, it has retained its status as a summer hotspot for celebrities, models, yacht-owning business tycoons and other high flyers, who come in droves to enjoy the sea, sun and sparkling nightlife. In the low season, it is easier to envision the village as it once was, whiling away the hours exploring the quaint cobbled lanes and open-air markets, or dining at one of the sidewalk cafes overlooking the port, where fishing boats and luxury sailboats float side by side.
Versailles is a leafy upmarket town, conveniently located only 22 kilometres southwest of central Paris in the Ile de France region. The town is best known as the home of one of France’s most magnificent monuments – the Palace of Versailles. Visitors to this remarkably opulent palace can explore the ultra-luxurious Grand Apartments, as well as the Hall of Mirrors which is adorned with over 350 ornately decorated mirrors. Outside the palace is just as impressive with some beautifully-landscaped formal gardens, an orangery, enormous ponds, elaborate fountains and even a grand open-air ballroom. The town of Versailles itself is one of the most wealthy in France and is certainly worth a visit for its many wonderful historic monuments and its world-class gourmet restaurants. Just beyond the city you will find the forests of Versailles, which form an ideal playground for outdoor activities such as hiking and cycling.
Giverny is found in the department of Eure in northern France, just 75 kilometres from the capital of Paris. This village is an absolute must for art and culture lovers, famously being the site of Claude Monet’s House. It is possible to tour the Foundation Claude Monet, where the real highlight is a long stroll around the exquisite gardens – full of scenes you may recognise from Monet’s paintings. From there, a visit to the Musee des Impressionnismes Giverny allows you to view a small but impressive collection of Impressionist artwork, and the lovely Saint-Radegonde Church contains Monet’s Tomb. Other key activities in Giverny include walking or cycling in the scenic surrounding hills, while day trips to Vernon – just six kilometres away on the River Seine – are highly recommended.
Arles is famous for its impressive Roman architecture and its association with artist Vincent Van Gogh, who was inspired by the town’s pastel-shuttered houses, quaint drawbridge (still in existence today) and bucolic surrounds. Top attractions include the town’s impressive amphitheatre, which has survived from the first century AD, and the Fondation Van Gogh, which celebrates the artist who so loved Arles with regularly changing exhibits of his works, as well as more contemporary artists who were influenced by his distinctive, heavy-stroked style. Like the rest of Provence, Arles offers an incredible array of culinary delights – from the smorgasbord of fresh produce and local specialities at the vibrant Saturday market, to Provençal, Basque and other dishes served at the city’s diverse array of restaurants.
Straddling France’s rugged western coastline, Brittany has a raw, haunting beauty and a proud Breton culture that encompasses everything from Celtic language to craft cider. Take a trip back in time when you visit the ancient walled town of Vitré, with its amazing Gothic cathedral, turreted castle and medieval homes, visit the intriguing town of Mont St Michel, built on an 80m high granite slab, or spend a few days cruising down the canals that snake through the countryside. Foodies should not miss popping in to the local food markets to see the luscious displays of fresh produce, stock up on luxuries like patés and artisanal cheeses, and taste the region’s renowned crepes.
Set between Nice and Cannes on the Mediterranean coast, Antibes is less ostentatious than its famous neighbours, with a rich historical heritage and unassuming charm that will appeal to travellers seeking authenticity over glitz. When you’re not soaking up the sunshine on the beaches peppering the coast, you can explore the city’s impressive array of heritage sites. These include the ruins of Roman aqueducts and the beguiling old quarter, with its medieval ramparts, 12th-century cathedral and age-old lanes dotted with sidewalk cafes, trendy bars and designer boutiques. Other must-sees are the superb Exflora Park botanical gardens, and the Picasso Museum, housed in an ocean-side chateau where the artist once worked and featuring an impressive body of his work.
Situated in the beautiful Picardy Region roughly 50 kilometres north of Paris, Chantilly has numerous claims to fame, including its luxurious fabric, its phenomenal Renaissance Castle, and its delicious cream. The sophisticated town is home to a wealth of history, with the Castle set at the top of the list of must-sees. The fairy-tale-like structure consists of a 16th-century and a 19th-century section and is set among pristine landscaped gardens on the shores of a picturesque artificial lake. The town boasts a long history of lacemaking, which is best discovered at the Museum of Lace, while fans of the native cream can visit the La Capitainerie Restaurant at the castle (among other venues) for first-hand demonstrations and tastings. Chantilly has a long-standing fondness for horses – discover more about the obsession at the Museum of the Horse and the Great Stables.
Located in east-central France, Burgundy is known for its rich heritage, world-renowned wines, and exquisite cuisine. Sample the fine Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays for which the area is famous, feast on coq au vin, a local speciality of chicken cooked in a red wine sauce, or indulge in the region’s famous Epoisses cheese at artisanal fromageries in the medieval stone village where it is crafted. Beaune is dubbed Burgundy’s ‘fairytale village’ for its bucolic landscape, walled town and beguiling atmosphere, where visitors can wander through the age-old cobbled streets, cycle through the vine-swathed surrounds, or pay a visit to the intriguing Hotel-Dieu – a converted 15th-century hospital. Other Burgundy highlights include the region’s attractive capital, Dijon, and the exquisite wilderness of the Parc Naturel Regional du Morvan.
Dijon is the capital of the Burgundy wine region in north-central France and is famous for its outstanding red wines. This vibrant university city is set against a backdrop of sprawling vineyards and rolling hills and has a beautifully preserved old town. Favourite pastimes include wine-tasting in the surrounding countryside and visiting the lavish food markets with their premium fresh produce and mouthwatering cuisine. The most magnificent of these is Les Halles, set in a steel and glass structure designed by Eiffel, the architect of the Eiffel Tower. Don’t leave town without visiting its two premier museums – the Museum of Fine Arts, which has an exceptional collection of historical and contemporary artworks housed in a 14th-century palace; and the Musée de la Moutarde, dedicated to the city’s world-renowned mustard.
Situated 43 kilometres southwest of Pau, in the foothills of southwestern France’s Pyrenees Mountains, Lourdes is home to a sacred spring in a riverside rocky grotto where the Virgin Mary is believed to have visited 14-year-old Bernadette Soubirous 18 times in 1858. Now known as the Sanctuaires Notre Dame de Lourdes, the grotto is considered one of the holiest sites in Christendom, attracting over six million visitors each year who flock here to pray, bathe, or simply gawk at the spring’s reputed healing source. The town has two sections: the international, spiritual portion by the river, containing the Grotto and churches, and the ‘French’ portion, centred around the Marketplace and Hotel de Ville. Just beyond the borders of the town, you’ll find some interesting sites, including a charming hilltop castle and various humble abodes where Soubirous once resided.