France Travel, the best bits
Best tourism seasons: March – early October for sightseeing. January-March for wintersports.
Beware July and August when the country is packed with foreign and local tourists. Avoid driving on the weekend at the beginning of August, it’s hell on wheels, bumper-to-bumper even on autoroutes. Some services in Paris – even museums and restaurants – are closed.
The big Atlantic beaches are warm and useable though the Mediterranean coast can get too hot and the warm waters may be visited by stinging jellies.
November-February can be bitterly cold in mountain areas and in the north including Paris, though the Cote d’Azur may well see blue skies and daytime T-shirt weather, but. . . rain is equally likely in winter.
France travel best sights
***Versailles, Ile de France: (the region around Paris), one of the most famous palaces in Europe with vast, ornate buildings and beautiful gardens, as well as a formidable history. For more information and pictures see Versailles.
*Strasbourg, Alsace. A pretty European city near Germany in northeast France, dominated by the awesome **Cathédrale de Notre-Dame in pink sandstone.
Amiens Cathedral, Transept Crossing, Picardy, north France. Photo by Diliff
**Amiens Cathedral, Picardie, (Cathédrale Notre-Dame d’Amiens), France’s largest chunk of Gothic architecture; especially marvellous during the sound and light show on summer evenings.
*Champagne-Ardenne region. Try a bubbly tasting tour at Epernay or just cruise around randomly and see what you fall over (and how long that takes).
Tourists arriving at Mont Saint-Michel, Normandy. Photo by Pline. Listed as a World Heritage Site, this magnificent Gothic Abbey on a tiny fortified island, has survived Atlantic waves for hundreds of years.
*St-Malo, Bretagne (Brittany), an attractive medieval port, this is an ideal base to visit the region’s archaeological sights and Celtic culture. Nearby, there is *Côte de Granit Rose, a popular seaside resort with strange pink rock formations along white sandy beaches from Perros-Guirec to Ploumanach. An excellent region for family holidays.
**Carnac, south coast of Bretagne (Brittany), one of the world’s most important pre-historic sites displaying more than 5, 000 rows of megaliths (huge, standing stones).
Chateau de Chambord, a hunting lodge of King Francois I, Loire Valley, (Pays de Loire).
***The Loire Valley. This World Heritage region is huge, tranquil and pastoral (and not actually a valley!) yet loaded with extraordinary chateaux, castles, forests, sunflower fields and of course the lazy old Loire River. Great for driving or cycling. For more information and photos see Loire Valley Pictures
*Dijon, Burgandy. One of the France’s most inviting provincial cities, known for its mustard and an ideal base for staggering around the Côte d’Or vineyards. It has several notable museums.
Do not miss **the Hôtel-Dieu the 15th century hospital with a multicoloured, patterned roof in the nearby town of Beaune.
**Basilique Sainte Madeleine (a Romanesque church in Burgandy style) in Vézelay and **Fontenay Abbey (Cistercian monastery) near Montbard, despite the herds of tour buses, the magnificent abbeys are worthwhile.
Central/South Atlantic (West) Coast, France
*St-Malo in Bretagne is an attractive medieval port and an ideal base to visit the region’s archaeological sights and Celtic culture relics such as Carnac (above).
Nearby, there is *Côte de Granit Rose, a popular seaside resort with strange pink rock formations along white sandy beaches from Perros-Guirec to Ploumanach. An excellent region for family holidays.
Bordeaux, Place de la Bourse, southwest France. Photo Phillip Maiwald
***Bordeaux, Aquitaine, a sophisticated city with an elegant old town centre of neo-classical architecture, surrounded by globally famous vineyards.
***Arcachon, Aquitaine, just southwest of Bordeaux, a lovely little summer beach holiday resort surrounded by a massive pine forest and hosting Europe’s largest dune. Arcachon pictures and more information
**Biarritz, Aquitaine. This ancient but still popular resort with fine beaches in classy settings, is known as one of Europe’s best surfing sites. A day-trip (8 km) from Bayonne is possible. Just 20 minutes drive from Biarritz is the stunning little beach resort of St Jean de Luz with a great beach and wonderful Basque architecture.
Dordogne river activities, La Roque Gageac. Photo by Jebulon
***The Dordogne is a Brit-magnet region of Aquitaine a little inland from Bordeaux. Also known as ‘Dordogneshire’ due to its large British community that enjoy a laid-back lifestyle, warm climate, and lower cost of living than the UK. Eymet is one of the most popular villages.
**Monpazier, the best preserved ‘bastide’ (fortified town).
**Carcassonne, a very picturesque medieval city with a well-preserved cité (old fortified town). Remarkable, but you’ll need to fortify yourself against all the other France tourists.
Les Eyzies, a bland village but with an excellent Stone Age Museum (Musée National de Préhistoire), this is a prime base for visiting the prehistoric cave arts in the Vèzére valleys, while *Montignac is a pleasant base for the Lascaux caves. The must-see caves are:
***Grotte de Front-de-Gume with a vividly painted ‘Frieze of five bison’
**Grotte des Combarelles, ***Grotte de Lascaux and Lascaux II, are known for their fine paintings, including the largest known prehistoric drawing of a bull, 5. 5 m in size. Limited tickets are available daily to those sites so it’s essential to book ahead in high season.
**The Gorges de l’Ardèche, a gorge starting with the Pont d’Arc, a picturesque and natural stone arch, then winding into the Rhône Valley. Kayaking and canoeing is fantastic way to travel through this scenic landscape.
The Alps, Eastern France, shared with Switzerland and Italy
Alpinistes on Aiguille du Midi in eastern France. Photo Benh Lieu Song
***Aiguille du Midi offers breathtaking cable-car (one of the world’s highest) transport from the town, with spectacular views of the Alpine peaks. Unmissable.
** Mar de Glace. Take a train to a glacier cave, another fascinating trip.
***Chamonix, a world-famous mountain resort, lies in a valley at the foot of Mont Blanc. It is fashionable and lively, so crowded with hikers and skiers throughout the year.
***French Ski resorts. A superb collection of stylish towns and pistes in big Alpine scenery with classic names.
**Annecy. One of the most charming towns in the Alps, with a photogenic setting beside Lake Annecy and views over to Mont Blanc, Annecy inevitably gets busy in high seasons.
South of France
The Pyrenees mountains, sharing a border with Spain
**Pic du Canigou, a sacred mountain with a Romanesque monastery, St Martin.
**Sarlat-La-Canéda is a beautiful town which attracts visitors for its lovely Renaissance architecture. Try the region’s cuisine, specializing in Truffes du Périgord (black truffles) and Foie gras.
Provence and the Rhône Valley
The Pope’s Palace, Avignon, Provence.
***Avignon, Provence/the Rhône Valley. This is a delightful little city of art and culture situated inside full-on medieval city walls and rampant with character – and tourists. The main attractions are the ridiculously massive Popes’ Palace (tho’ more of a fortress than a palace), the sing-song Pont d’Avignon (aka St Bénézet), Cezanne’s life and some great museums. It’s totally mad to be there during the summer festival, but it’s still a must if you speak French.
***Arles, Provence. The site of Van Gogh’s later years and many paintings, is a small, quiet and heavily art-oriented town (especially photography) with a Roman amphitheatre (actually one and a half) and other Roman artefacts as well as endless little curiosities, ancient and modern. The town is packed with exhibitions and galleries and is a great strolling place.
**Orange, Provence. This city is also rich in history and home to Celtic fortifications and Roman monuments including France’s best preserved Roman theatre.
Verdon Gorges boat, Provence, France. Mboesch
Some other attractions in Provence
**The Côte d’Azur (Marseilles – Menton) aka Riviera (Cannes – Menton)
Nice Carnival, Côte d’Azur, France
The Riviera and Côte d’Azur are lovely evocative names but the modern reality is traffic, crowds and diminutive beaches – many of them pay-per-parasol and/or stony, BUT there are plenty of things to see and do, the climate is superb (supposedly 300 days of sunshine in a year but a little too hot in summer), good and surprisingly low cost eating/drinking/shopping if you look around. Mediterranean waters are relatively warm (compared to the Atlantic Ocean) and clean (in France), beaches are well serviced, and sharks don’t cause any trouble, though occasionally lightweight jellies bloom.
*** Cannes is smaller, more posh/pretentious (in spite of evolving from a fishing village) and offers sandy beaches and a fine viewpoint up Le Suquet hill but *** Nice is bigger and embraces many wonderful 19C buildings as well as the spectacular 7km Promenade des Anglais, the new Promenade du Paillon central park, tramway transport and Ave Jean Medecin shopping street. Both Cannes and Nice and well worth a visit tho’ we prefer Nice.
*** Antibes port/town offers a lovely coastal walk beside the old town, port and sandy beaches. It’s compact, with a famous daily market and excellent restaurants, but limited parking so consider going there by train or bus.
Antibes is a joint-metropolitan area with *Juan-les-Pins – which is a hideous mash-up of vast and featureless apartment blocks that is an appalling use of space except, perhaps, for a meal on the narrow sandy beaches.
* Cagnes-sur-Mer and * Villeneuve-Loubet are little townships between the Cannes and Nice big brothers. They offer nicely developed shores with stony beaches, water sports facilities and adjacent bars/restaurants but nothing of interest away from the coast.
*** Eze is a spectacular little hilltop village while * Menton on the Italian border is tiny, quiet and a bit old fashioned and lacking much interest apart from the colourful Lemon Festival that runs concurrently with Nice Carnival.
*** Monaco is the tiny (less than a square mile), independent, silly-rich principality embedded in the Riviera between Nice and Menton and definitely worth a day trip – which doesn’t have to be expensive. There’s a decent free beach, a grand grotto, some magnificent buildings, great views and sublime statues.
Another old fortified village inland from Nice that’s worth a visit is * St Paul de Vence.
* Mougins, a pretty hilltop village just off the A8 autoroute, is a short drive from Cannes/Grasse/Antibes etc. Visitors are mainly very affluent, looking for fine wines, gourmet meals and expensively mediocre art.
Grasse has great history and perfumes but we feel is overcrowded and under-supplied with sights and not worth the hassle of getting there.
An hour down the coast west of Cannes hangs the wealthy peninsula of *** St Tropez; just don’t head that way at peak times as the main entry route is very narrow and horribly congested. Trains don’t go there. It’s not easy to visit on the cheap.
Cannes’ Zamenhoff beach, on the Côte d’Azur (also the French Riviera).
On the right is Boulevard de la Croisette and on the other side of the bay is the Festival Hall where the Cannes Film Festival takes place.
France’s lengthy coastlines east and west offer a huge variety of beaches, ranging from big, sandy Atlantic stretches with cool, surfy water to small, warm, crowded and sometimes stony stretches on the southeast coast where you may have to pay to lay if you like your comfort. Alternatively head to Corsica for more space, less development and some superb sandy crescents. See France Beach Pictures or Corsica Beaches
Filitosa monument, Corsica, small ancient menhirs, France
A small and rugged island four hours by carferry southeast of Nice in southern France, Corsica is about 160 kms/100miles long and 80kms/50miles at its widest.
The birthplace of Napoleon and still French territory in spite of local demands for independence, Corsica is a popular holiday target not only for local tourisme but also European tourists in search of a mild climate, warm seas, piles of fine sandy beaches and dramatic hiking trails through an unspoilt and picturesque landscape of mountainous red and grey granite outcrops separated by huge swathes of pines and eucalyptus trees.
Popular Activities in France
With more than 60, 000 km (37, 500 miles)of well-marked long-distance footpaths to hike on, France is a superb walking country. Many hikes take place on the Pyrenees Mountains is the south of France but the most spectacular routes are in the Alps. For example the stunning Grande Traversée des Alpes which takes around five weeks.
Alternatively, the best shortish Alpine bit is probably the 7 day route from Les Houches south to Pralognan. It moves from spectacular snowy peaks, past glaciers and through flowering meadows, with plenty of wildlife (including ibex and chamois) and mountain refuges serving hot meals. Check holidays in the Alps
The most French of activities; the first modern bike was French!
France – a country where car drivers respect cyclists – has 28, 000km of marked cycle routes, as well as good city and town cycle lanes. The lush and lovely Loire Valley for example, flat and full of châteaux and rural scenery has 650 kms of dedicated cycle track. Loire Valley Cycling Pictures
France is one of world’s finest and most popular destinations for both downhill and cross-country skiing, mainly in the Alps.
The limestone caves along the Spanish border or further southwest in the Pyrenees mountains offer many interesting opportunities.
There are over 500 golf courses in the country, with several world-class ones.
Among the 500 golf courses in France the best is probably the tough but spectacular Les Bordes course near Orléans, with Kempferhof (Strasbourg), Royal Park Evian (Geneva), and Spérone (Corsica) coming well up to par.
The land between Biarritz and Bordeaux is a particular haven for those who like to travel, drink wine and swing a club, with four of Europe’s top courses – among others – interspersed with vineyards.
Rental boats and organised excursions are available just about everywhere by the water in summertime. The gorges in the Pyrenees (esp. Verdon), the Alpes and the Massif Central are particularly suited for this sport.
Hangliding and paragliding: The Hautes-Alpes of Provence, the Pyrenees and Corsica are considered to be best places for high times.
The Atlantic coast has solid winds, and an interesting coastline though the water and weather can be brutal; there are plenty of delightful and welcoming ports such as La Rochelle, Cherbourg, Biarritz and St Jean de Luz. On the the Mediterranean side the sea is safer and warmer but ports are expensive and crowded, such as Monaco, Cannes, Nice and Antibes.
Often good waves along the Atlantic coast, such as Biarritz, Anglet and Hossegor.
Wind/Kitesurfing is most popular on the western end of the Mediterranean coast. Many rivers as well as on lakes such as Lac d’Annecy and Lake Geneva have leisure centres offering a wide rage of watersports.
Excellent and popular on rivers and lakes but permits required. Try Brittany for carp fishing, River Loire and Brittany/ Normandy for trout and salmon, but the best and most scenic rivers for salmon fishing are in the western Pyrenees.
Get a licence at the local tourist office. Sea-fishing, including night-fishing, is popular and available at most seaside resorts.
Widespread but particularly favoured in Burgandy and the Camargue at the Rhône Delta (in Provence), a nature reserve famous for not only its indigenous horses but also mosquito saturation.
Another horse friendly area is the north; Parc International de la Canche in Le Touquet has 112km of forest riding routes and 26km of beach trails.
January 1: Grand Parade Paris, twinned event with London for New Year celebrations. Massive and colourful.
February-March: Nice Carnival, one of the biggest and the most original carnivals in the world, a two week event with colourful parades, street parties, fireworks, and monster illuminations. Also just down the coast is the much smaller Menton Lemon Festival.
mid May: Cannes Film Festival – No need to be a celebrity to enjoy Europe’s high profile film fiesta. Loads of public screenings are available, as well as a small chance of bumping into stars. No better place for people watching tho’ crowded of course.
mid May/mid October: Gypsy Festival (Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer in Provence), a gypsy gathering; historic, unique and kaleidoscopic.
June: International Music Festival (Strasbourg in Alsace, the North), contemporary music.
June 21: Fête de la Musique, a day of free music all over France – much of it contemporary rock/ambient/trance/whatever – along with well-lubricated dancing in the street.
July 14: Bastille Day (nationwide), France’s biggest street festival, with parties, parades and fireworks to remember the French Revolution.
July: Tour de France, a three-week cycling race for 3, 500km (2000 miles) over the country (route changes annually). The world’s most famous French sporting event.
mid July-mid August: Festival d’Avignon – a dynamic and diverse Arts festival, boasting over 50 official productions and many more fringes. For classical music, try
Festival International d’Art Lyrique in Aix-en-Provence in July, too.
early August: Festival Interceltique (Lorient in Brittany), a worthy folk event (Celtic music and culture).
October: Jazz Festival (Nancy), one of the country’s best jazz events.