France is the largest country in western Europe, so expect a dazzling range of landscapes.
For starters, France has some of the best beaches you could hope to find, from the sweeping sands of the north coast along the Normandy D-Day Landing Beaches, through the rugged inlets of Brittany, the long sandy dunes and pounding surf of the Atlantic, and the lazy life of the sun-drenched Mediterranean.
Inland there are mighty rivers, great mountain ranges like the Pyrenees and the Alps, and canals that criss-cross the country linking the Atlantic to the Mediterranean.
Divided into historic regions, pick your destination according to your tastes. Provence is one of the world's favorite places to stay with its fortified hilltop villages; Aquitaine to the west of the country has castles and market towns; the secret, unknown Auvergne has volcanic hills and lakes and is the real France profonde.
The Geography of France
Food and Dining in France
Think of France and you think of good food, top restaurants and cozy bistros, and the world's best chefs. The French meal is now recognized by UNESCO in 2010 as a ‘world intangible heritage’. The French take their food seriously, shopping in the local markets for the freshest fruit and vegetables, spending a small fortune on charcuterie and cheese, and eating locally: bouillabaisse in Marseille, lamb from the salt marshes in Provence, or braised partridge with Puy lentils in the Auvergne. In France, food matters and you’ll quickly discover that it’s a very real expression of the nation’s heart and soul.
More on Food and Dining in France
More on Food and Dining in France
The World's Top Wines Come from France
For years French wine was the best. Then came the New World wines that for a time dominated the world’s taste buds. The French fought back and have encouraged the development of smaller, bio-dynamic vineyards as well as improving the quality of all their regional wines. The result is that once again, French wine is considered the best in the world.
They have also developed a great tradition of wine tourism. In every major wine-producing region, you’ll find good wine tours. Check with the local tourist office, either in advance or once you are in your chosen region. They will have maps and information on various wine trails you can do, either by car or often by bicycle.
If you're a wine enthusiast, visit the areas best known for wine, like Burgundy and the vineyards around Beaune, or Bordeaux for its world-famous wines, and try the Jura region for some unusual tastes.
Great Architecture and History
You can see the whole history and development of European architecture in France. Start with the amphitheatres and triumphal arches of ancient Rome that are scattered around France, but mainly in the south; wander through the explore the marvels of Gothic cathedrals in cities like Chartres and Bourges; then move on to the majestic châteaux on the banks of the mighty Loire river where aristocrats lived the high life while plotting the downfall of their fellow lords and ladies (and the odd King and Queen as well).
Baron Haussmann’s ordered 19th-century boulevards in Paris; Eiffel’s elegant cast-iron lattice viaducts and towers; Le Corbusier’s modernist style in buildings like the Cite Radieuse in Marseille; the soaring viaduct over the river Tarn at Millau, and the great Pompidou Center in Metz are all worth the detour for later developments.
More Architectural Gems
Top Gardens in France
Somehow we don’t think of the French as great gardeners, but you’ll be surprised by the variety and imagination of many of their gardens. In the north, I spent hours at Sericourt, tucked away in Pas de Calais, then a delightful afternoon at the Abbey of Valloires in Picardy wandering through its formal and wild gardens.
As you might expect, the Loire Valley has more than its fair share of top gardens, some created by those Renaissance aristocrats vying with each other to produce the best; others by modern gardeners with a new vision. The Chaumont Annual Garden Festival is a grand affair, where top international garden designers are invited to design a different garden each year around a specific theme. Unlike Chelsea and the other great English festivals, Chaumont lasts all summer. And there’s even a theme park inspired by botany, Terra Botanica, at Angers in the western Loire Valley.
Check out my Guide to the Best Gardens in France.
More Garden Ideas
Great Outdoor Markets and Top Shopping
One of the greatest pleasures of a holiday, particularly in France, is coming across the local markets that every city, town, and village holds at least one day a week. Some are exclusively food markets...and what great food markets they are. Large white vans open their sides to show off tempting arrays of cheese or charcuterie; stallholders set up with the freshest vegetables and fruit; flower sellers fill the air with the sweet scents of their offerings. Other markets offer Provencal fabrics, soaps, lavender, olive oil and more.
Many places, particularly in the summer, have a local antique or brocante fair, sometimes weekly where you can pick up bargains and oddities to take home as gifts. Go to the local tourist office for details. Try to make the Lille annual braderie in September and the Amiens braderie in the Spring.
France has also fallen in love with discount shopping. If you're in Champagne, the pretty medieval city of Troyes is the place to make for, though there are outlet malls all over France.
Christmas Markets open at the end of November and finish at the end of December. Mulled wine, great gifts, skating, and good food are all laid out for you in the sparkling streets of French cities and towns at Christmas.
More about Shopping in France
Top cities for Shopping
Great Large Cities and Small Towns
Paris, the City of Light, might be one of the brightest stars on the planet, but there are plenty of other towns and cities that deserve your attention. Many people choose Nice as their south of France destination but don't forget the nearby towns like Antibes, where its small cobbled streets of the old town, enclosed by ramparts, lead you to the covered market and the Picasso Museum in the Chateau.
More about France's Beautiful Cities
Special Cities in France
World Class International Festivals and Events
The French celebrate anything and everything…with a festival. From the great jazz festivals that attract the best musicians in the world to small local concerts over a summer weekend; from international art to small photographic festivals; from street theater to great puppet festivals, there's something for everyone throughout the year.
Check out the monthly calendars and events articles to discover what to see and do when you visit France.
Major French Festivals
Great Beaches in France
With such a long coastline, there’s something for everyone on a beach holiday. Normandy, best known to visitors for the D-Day Landing beaches, has beautiful long sandy beaches, while Brittany is ruggedly beautiful with the coastline washed by the north sea.
Each area has its surprises. Have you seen the polo matches played at the chic north coast resort of Deauville, or played golf at Le Touquet-Paris-Plage? Tried one of the famous naturist resorts along the Atlantic coast? If you’re after peace and quiet, try Noirmoutier, a delightful island off the Vendee on the mainland French Atlantic Coast. If you want glitz, go for the Cote d'Azur, Great Gatsby style.
More Beach Ideas
Top Sports in France
In summer take a bicycle ride along any of the fabulous cycle routes that criss-cross France. The Loire à Velo route shows you a different, more leisurely Loire Valley where you travel from chateau to chateau and town to town at your own pace. Go canoeing or white water rafting in France's great rivers; hike or walk along the great French walking paths, or take one of the pilgrimage routes that countless people have been doing for centuries.
As the snow falls on the mountains of France, enjoy some of the world's top winter sports. France has some of the most exciting skiing in the world, and some of the most varied. There’s a level for everybody from tiny children launching themselves down the slopes with no apparent fear under the watchful eyes of professional instructors, to the nail-biting exploits of the top jumpers and speed skiers.
The resorts are geared up for all kinds of different winter sports as well, from learning to drive a car on ice to snowboarding.
Winter Sports in France