December is a wonderful month to visit France, a time when the whole country comes alive with seasonal pleasures. Ice skating rinks are set up in major towns, often attached to the Christmas markets that fill the streets and squares, attracting crowds who come to see, buy, eat and drink, and celebrate the holiday season.
You’ll find every major city has an annual Christmas market, usually starting around November 20. Some stop just after Christmas; some run all December; some keep going over New Year. So wherever you are traveling, check out the local tourist office website before you go to see where and when these glorious gift-buying extravaganzas and holiday events take place.
The ski season is already underway in the resorts in the Alps and the Pyrenees, with many offering a wide range of winter sports, from skiing on the glacier to snowboarding, and horse sledding to ice skating.
France Weather in December
The weather can be very variable, depending on where you are. In Nice on the Cote d’Azur you can bathe in the sea (if you’re hardy or have a wetsuit) in the early morning, then drive up to a resort like Isola 2000 for a day’s skiing. Elsewhere the days can be crisp and clear or thoroughly wintery with rainstorms and blizzards.
France sees its share of rain in December, from an average of 16 wet days in Paris and Bordeaux to 15 in Strasbourg, 14 in Lyon, and nine in Nice. Snow is not as much of a factor, though, as Strasbourg averages three days of snow and Paris and Lyon average two, while Bordeaux and Nice don't get much if any at all.
What to Pack
If you are traveling around France you may need different types of clothes for different cities. But December is mainly cold, and even in the south of France you will find it chilly at night and will need a good jacket. It might be windy and could well snow. Don’t forget the following:
- A winter coat
- A light jacket for daytime
- Sweaters or cardigans (great for layering to keep warm)
- Scarf, hat, and gloves
- Good umbrella
- Good walking shoes plus shoes for evening occasions
- A second bag for all the gifts you will buy
December Events in France
There are so many events going on in the holiday season you will find something wherever you are.
- The major events, like the Lyon Festival of Lights around December 10 every year, are famous; others are small, local, low-key affairs like the celebrations in Falaise.
- Christmas markets are found all over France, from small villages to the main towns. The major ones are in the north, with Strasbourg leading the way with a market that was started centuries ago in 1570.
- France sparkles like a huge Christmas tree throughout December with the light displays that transform many of the major cities. The French are extremely good both at lighting and at light installations, and you will see some spectacular sights.
- New Year's Eve, December 31, is big news in France and you need to book a restaurant way in advance, particularly in the big cities. All restaurants will serve a special menu, often very expensive ones, even in small restaurants. But dining on New Year’s Eve is a big public event, with everybody joining in the celebrations.
- Skiing in France at Christmas is a wonderful sport. And the apres-ski parties and activities are legendary. You're surrounded by like-minded people so you are guaranteed a wonderful seasonal holiday in whichever resort you choose.
- The French celebrate Christmas on December 24, so you might well find restaurants shut and many shops with very restricted hours. But in small towns and villages, you’ll always find the baker and the grocer open on Christmas Day morning, as well as the local bars. They will all close on Christmas Day afternoon, however.
December Travel Tips
- Visit the popular tourist attractions at will: December is a great month to visit France as there are no crowds and no wait most places. The shopping is great and restaurants are full of locals, versus tourists.
- The Christmas markets are wonderful places to enjoy shopping and just the whole holiday experience.
- Even a stroll in December can be an adventure: Many cities light up their buildings at Christmas, creating a very real fairytale look.
- Take a day to explore attractions you might not otherwise visit in Paris. There are lots of special events at the theme parks that are open.
- Prices are lower for both travel (particularly airfares) and for hotels in December.
- Don't let the December chill keep you inside. Frost can make the trees sparkle, and you see the contours of the countryside without being obscured by trees.