Ah France: a land of sleepy country towns and pungent cheeses, romance and wine, the moneyed Riviera and the soaring snow fields of the Alps.
It’s hard not to fall in love with this indelibly beautiful country, where Paris bursts with art and Nice is trodden by fashionistas. Here, we take a look at the top French destinations every traveler should have on their bucket list.
Lets explore the best places to visit in France:
The legendary City of Love and City of Light, home of the Louvre, towering Montmartre, the Latin Quarter where Hemingway rubbed shoulders with Ginsberg, the winding Seine, Notre Dame and the iconic silhouette of the Eifel Tower, Paris is a city that surely needs no introduction.
For travelers heading to France for the first time, it’s likely that this sprawling and mythic capital will be on the menu. Rarely does it disappoint. No sir, not with all those aromatic wine bars, elegant Versailles, the prestigious Arc de Triomphe, uber-luxurious Champs-Elysees, the haunting sepulchres of Pere Lachaise (Jim Morrison et al), the totemic buildings of the Ile de la Cite, the al fresco coffee joints along St-Martin – the list goes on. And on!
Sparkling like a pearl betwixt the turquoise waters of the Mediterranean Sea, the bowl-shaped island of Porquerolles remains one of the lesser-known jewels of the Cote d’Azur. Cars cannot cross over from the mainland, and there are no tarmacked roads to be found, meaning transport between the various secluded coves and rocky inlets, arches of ivory-white sand and charming port towns is left solely to clicking bicycles.
These rumble over rocky tracks and through blooming sunflower fields around the centre of the island, allowing travelers to glimpse the woods of Spanish fir and the swaying coastal pines, smell the eucalyptus and myrtle and enjoy pure seclusion as they flit between the various postcard beaches that abound.
The grand old dame of Marseille comes filled with confidence, history and panache. It’s considered one of the oldest cities in all of Europe, was shaped by the Greeks, the Romans, Anjou Dukes, Provencal nobility and the French imperialists alike, played hosts to Dumas’ famous Count of Monte Christo and now rises as the second-largest metropolis in all of France.
It bursts dramatically out from the edge of the Mediterranean Sea, beset by rugged calanque cliffs and home to arguably the most iconic port district on the continent: Vieux Port. This is the beating, earthy middle of the town, which sits watched over by the Byzantine faces of the Notre Dame de la Garde on the hill, hosts countless maritime museums and abuts the beautiful Le Panier neighbourhood – the oldest and most enthralling in the city.
There are few cities in Europe more historically imbued than old Lyon. Tagged by UNESCO and bursting at the seams with everything from Roman amphitheatres to Renaissance palazzos, this one is unquestionably one of France’s must-see metropolises. Travelers should begin with a jaunt through Vieux Lyon, clustering on the Saone in a glorious display of 15th and 16th century builds: the beautiful Traboules; the gilded St Jean Cathedral.
High above rises Fourviere hill, its colossal Christian buildings displaying a wealth of Gothic and Byzantine art, while Presqu’ile throbs with coffee shops, high-fashion boutiques and opera houses in the middle of the dual river ways. Meanwhile, Roman relics abound in Croix-Rousse, and monuments to the city’s much-loved Lumieres pepper the street corners all around.
Well-to-do Strasbourg may not seem French at first glance, with its Germanic homes and Rhineland-style half-timbered buildings from centuries gone by. But this richly-endowed city on the very cusp of Alsace makes for a curious mixture of cultures like no other in the country, booming with Gewurtztraminer and Reisling wines, Kronenbourg brews, choucroute cabbage platters and more handsome Alsatian streets than you can shake a flammekuche pizza bread at.
Tourists tend to flock to the impossibly pretty Petite France district, where winding cobbled lanes meet wood studded townhouses and blooming baskets of rhododendron cascade down the edges of canals. And on the newer side of town, the European Parliament and court rooms showcase this city’s uber-modern and politically important side.
Set just back from the sparkling waters of the Cote d’Azur, delightful little Gassin makes its home on the soft hillsides that rise between Saint Tropez and Saint Maxime – the two jet setter enclaves of the French Riviera. Hailed by many as the most beautiful village in the country, its labyrinth of tight-knit streets comes dressed in blooms of bougainvillea, concealing hidden staircases and archways.
The homes are clad in ivy and shuttered with Mediterranean-blue windows, while the string of al fresco bistros and cafes that line the central drag offer up sweeping views of La Croix Valmer, the coast and the looming town ramparts – themselves a relic of when the Moors held sway in southern France.
7. The Loire Valley
The beloved Garden of France stretches its way right through the heartlands of the nation for a length of more than 280 kilometers. A land of rolling vineyards and manicured wineries, Sancerre reds and Muscadet whites, it unfolds gloriously from the edges of the winding Loire River. And while the undulating hills and grass-come-sunflower patchwork of the backcountry is truly wonderful to behold and explore (best by bike), it’s the Loire’s human history that has cemented it in the lists of UNESCO.
This manifests in glorious Chateaux and hilltop castles, like the Gothic colossus at Amboise – the onetime home of the French kings – and the elaborate medievalism of the Chateau de Chambord to name just two of the many sites.
Off-the-beaten track Arras sits midway between the port town of Calais and the bustling metropolis of Paris. Steeped in history, it draws huge crowds right throughout the year with its palimpsest of historical treats; the result of centuries of ancient and medieval strife that saw Arras flit from Roman control to the Dukes of Flanders, Burgundy, the Spanish Habsburgs and French monarchy.
The jewel in the crown is the UNESCO-attested Gothic belfry in the centre of the city, which rises high above the cobbled squares and Flemish apses of the townhouses. Meanwhile, the iconic Boves extend below the city, representing one of the most extensive urban subterranean systems in Europe.
9. The Beaches of Normandy
The beaches of Normandy are now synonymous with the tumultuous conflicts of 1944. Today, and travelers making their way to this northern region’s string of chalk-cliff-backed sands and undulating dunes can opt to tour the iconic battlefields that were the main contact point on D-Day, flitting between looming memorials to the fallen on Omaha Beach and the remnants of the gun batteries and cement bunkers of the infamous Atlantic Wall.
However, Normandy isn’t consumed entirely by its dark past. No sir, majestic medieval cathedrals stand tall in the English Channel at Mont Saint-Michel, pretty Cistercian abbeys dot the landscapes and the winding Seine offers a walker’s paradise in the south.
Set deep in the French Alps, where the chiselled tops and ice-capped summits of mighty Mont Blanc (the highest mountain in Europe outside of the Caucuses) peaks to a formidable 4,800 meters above sea level, Chamonix remains an icon for Alpinists, skiers, boarders and adventure travelers the world over. Host of the first ever Winter Olympics, the resort town now boasts a whopping 760 acres of skiable terrain, along with some of the best off-piste riding in the world (guides are a must!).
The town is shrouded by the massif above, and travels can hop the Aiguille du Midi cable car to the top for some of the most breathtaking views in the Alps. Others will linger below, where luxury spa hotels and cafes now abound between the fashion boutiques.
A teardrop in the Tyrrhenian Sea, Corsica’s cliffs rise like a Greek phalanx against the Mediterranean waves. Rugged and unspoilt, this is a land beset by mountains and cliffs, rolling from ivory-white pebble beaches to the precipitous inland hills. Once a Greek colony, then a part of the Roman Empire and under the medieval hegemony of Italian dynasties, it’s hardly surprising that Corsica has a character apart from the rest of France.
Olive groves fill the backcountry, curious Latin-esque folk music issues from the tavernas, Tuscan citadels rise formidably in Bonifacio. Yet for all that, this is still the island that gave the world Napoleon, who was born here in Ajaccio in 1769.
Sprawled out just on the cusp of the Low Countries and the Flemish half of Belgium, Lille fuses several of the cultural strands of northern Europe in one seriously engaging and energetic metropolis. Since the industrial revolution, the town has garnered something of a reputation as one of France’s grimy, working hubs, although that’s now given way to a confident modernism that flows through the Flemish streets of the city centre with panache.
Add to that a fine Beaux-Arts museum, a huge crowd of resident students (ergo one hedonistic nightlife scene) and a clutch of Belgian-inspired chocolatiers and waffle stalls, and Lille really is worth the visit!
A jewel of the Languedoc-Roussillon, Nimes sits sandwiched between the rugged gorges of the Cevennes range and the sparkling beaches of the Med. Immediately visible is the great Roman amphitheatre at the town’s heart – the best preserved in all of France. Below, in the shadow of the great apses of the 1st century megastructure, the colonnades of the Maison Carree continue the Roman theme, while the Pont du Gard on the edge of town is nothing short of a photographer’s dream!
Today and this kingpin of erstwhile Gaul buzzes with marketplaces and al fresco cafes, doing well to balance its overtly historic veneer with just a dash of energy courtesy of the French Riviera to the south.
Looking plucked straight from the pages of Game of Thrones, the Tolkien-esque creation of Carcassonne remains unquestionably one of the most magnificent and astounding medieval citadels in all of Europe. It was raised during the Middle Ages, when this pretty Languedoc draw found itself on the frontier between France and the powers of Aragon.
Today, it comes with a much-deserved UNESCO tag, and conceals a winding old town between its bulwarks. Known as the La Cite, this is awash with medievalist craft shops and countless stone-clad alleyways and streets. What’s more, the bucolic surrounds of the city are home to some of the best Vins de Pays wineries in France. Just saying!
Enfolded by the summertime beaches of the French Rivera, Nice is much more than just the jet setter town its rows of Ferraris, Porsches and bobbing millionaire yachts make it out to be. For one, its history runs all the way back to the days of pre-Roman Gaul, when the Greeks of Massilia made it one of the biggest trading outposts on the French Med.
Later, influences from Savoy gave the place an Italian charm, while English aristocrats in the 1800s imbued the town with the now-legendary Promenade des Anglais; an arc of sun-splashed, palm-shaded promenade that runs the length of its seaside casinos and bars. Vieux Nice is charming to boot, with its medieval homes, while Cimiez means ancient ruins and Roman relics.