The French call their beloved homeland “l’Hexagone” because of its distinct 6-sided shape.
Each corner of France has its own unique character: the rugged and French Alps, Sun-drenched Provence, the glamorous and gorgeous Côte d’Azur coastline, and Alsace with picturesque hamlets nestled in vine-covered hills.
Paris and Versailles are must-see destinations for a 1st trip to France.
Other classic travel itineraries include stops at fashionable seaside resorts, fairy-tale castles, and glorious Gothic cathedrals.
More off-the-beaten-path experiences are found in the countryside, such as at farmhouses in Burgundy, fishing villages in Brittany, and in the forests of the Pyrenees Mountains.
From the cultured cities to the countryside, explore this diverse country with my of the best places to visit in France.
Paris & Versailles
Paris Cityscape Including Hôtel des Invalides and the Eiffel Tower
Appreciated for its elegance and joie de vivre, Paris is a grand European capital filled with architectural masterpieces like the Eiffel Tower and the Notre-Dame Cathedral now being rebuilt. Reflecting the city’s rich heritage, the Louvre contains an exceptional fine arts collection, while the Musée d’Orsay and the Musée de l’Orangerie display treasures of French Impressionist art. Other charms of Paris are its atmospheric medieval quarters and graceful boulevards. Quintessential tourist experiences include shopping at bookshops in the Latin Quarter, strolling the Champs-Elysées, and people-watching from a sidewalk café terrace on the Boulevard Saint-Germain-de-Prés.
To see one of the country’s most impressive palaces, tourists can take a 30-min train ride from Paris to Versailles. The UNESCO-listed Château de Versailles is among the best day trips from Paris. Built for Louis XIV (the “Sun King”), this opulent 17th-Century palace is a testament to the glory and absolute power that was once the realm of France’s Kings. The château’s splendid Baroque facade, dazzling Hall of Mirrors, and fountain-adorned formal gardens allow visitors to imagine a scene of France’s bygone Royal court.
The Countryside of Provence
Field of Sunflowers in Provence
In contrast to the grey skies of Paris and northern France, Provence basks under the Mediterranean Sun. This alluring countryside has a rugged and earthy appeal. The rolling hills are covered with a patchwork of small farms, olive groves, sunflowers, and lavender fields. The air is fragrant with the aroma of rosemary, sage, and thyme, herbs that grow in abundance and are used in the local cuisine. In this dreamy landscape, Impressionist painters found inspiration to create vibrant works of art.
Visitors are enchanted by the villages perchés, which crown Provence’s hilltops: Saint-Paul-de-Vence, a walled medieval town that is a short drive from many favorite Côte d’Azur tourist spots such as Eze, and picturesque Gordes, which is among the top destinations in the Luberon.
In the heart of Provence, traditional ambience is found on the tree-shaded streets and outdoor cafés of Aix-en-Provence, at the festivals of Arles; and by the old seaport of Marseilles. Also not-to-be missed are the Palais de Papes in Avignon; the alluring beach resort of Saint-Tropez; and the Roman theater in Orange, one of the amazing sites of the Haut-Vaucluse.
The Côte d’Azur
Villefranche-sur-Mer on the Côte d’Azur
The Côte d’Azur is a glamorous stretch of Mediterranean coastline named for its deep azure-blue waters. The skies are often bright blue too thanks to the Sunny weather most of the year in this area of southern France.
The Côte d’Azur begins at Saint-Tropez and extends all the way to Menton, less than 30 kms from the border with Italy. The Côte d’Azur became popular with the British as a Wintertime resort in the 1820’s. It is a super crowded Summer vacation destination. Spring and Fall bring milder weather and a quieter, more relaxing atmosphere.
The Côte d’Azur has something for everyone. Nice is the place to enjoy the good life, visit art museums, and stroll along cobblestone streets and palm-fringed boulevards. Many top day trips from Nice offer seaside beauty and cultural attractions. Cannes and Monaco are luxury resort towns, complete with lavish vacation villas, luxury hotels, gourmet restaurants, and yacht-filled marinas.
Saint-Tropez has million-dollar yachts in its Old Port, as well as exclusive private beaches, but its public beaches appeal to regular tourists. In Antibes, nature lovers and Sun-worshippers bask on expansive sandy beaches.
Mont Saint-Michel: Normandy
In the pastoral region of Normandy, a landscape of apple orchards, woodlands, and cow pastures dotted with historic castles and picture-perfect towns, Mont Saint-Michel is among France’s top tourist attractions and is number one on a list of Normandy travel destinations.
Known as “The Heavenly Jerusalem” and the “Pyramid of the Seas,” this little rocky islet off the coast of Normandy boasts a UNESCO-listed abbey built between the 11th and 13th-Centuries. The exquisite Gothic abbey church was an important medieval pilgrimage site. Modern-day pilgrims still make the journey here, crossing the Bay of Saint-Michel by foot at low tide.
The Châteaux of the Loire Valley
Like the scene of a fairy tale, the Loire Valley is a lush, forested landscape dotted with magnificent castles along the gently flowing Loire River. Stretching for 280 kilometers, from Sully-sur-Loire to Chalonnes-sur-Loire in Anjou, the Loire Valley is the largest UNESCO-listed site in France. The region boasts an incredibly rich cultural heritage. During the 15th and 16th centuries, France’s Kings built sumptuous country retreats here purely for entertainment and enjoyment.
Extravagant châteaux, such as the grandiose Château de Chambord and the emblematic Château de Chenonceau, offer insight into the opulence of the Renaissance-era French court. French nobles and elites also built stately manor houses, such as the majestic Château of Cheverny and the Château d’Azay-le-Rideau in an idyllic setting with a water-filled moat.
Reims is justifiably placed among France’s list of “Villes d’Art et d’Histoire” Of the town’s three UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the most renowned is the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Reims, where French kings were crowned. Joan of Arc escorted Charles VII here in July of Y 1429 to be anointed as King.
The glorious 13th-Century cathedral is a gem of High Gothic architecture. The dazzling exterior features a profusion of flying buttresses and sculpted angels, while the spacious interior has a solemn ambience of spirituality. Other UNESCO-listed landmarks include the Palais du Tau, a 17th-century Archbishops’ Palace and the 11th-century Basilique Saint-Rémi.
A blend of Parisian-style elegance and natural beauty, Biarritz is an upscale seaside resort with fabulous beaches. Biarritz was favored by Empress Eugénie, who loved this coastal area of the Basque region. She chose a sandy hillside overlooking the Bay of Biscay as the location for her Imperial residence, the Villa Eugénie.
This Second Empire palace has been converted into luxury accommodations, the Hôtel du Palais, with an oceanfront gastronomic restaurant. Near the hotel is the Grande Plage, a sandy beach that has attracted sunbathers since the Belle Epoque. The Plage du Miramar is another stunning beach lined with colorful striped cabanas and parasols during Summertime.
Mont-Blanc & Annecy in the French Alps
The French Alps
The French Alps boast some of the most awe-inspiring natural scenery in the world. The majestic Mont Blanc is the highest mountain in Europe, an iconic snow capped peak that soars to 4,810 meters. At this altitude, the air is fresh and the landscape is sublime, with crystal-clear lakes, dramatic rushing waterfalls, peaceful valleys, and refreshing pine forests.
During summertime, visitors flock to the Alps to go hiking, cycling, and mountain climbing. In the winter, the French Alps draws many tourists for alpine skiing, snowboarding, and cross-country skiing. Other things to do during the snowy season include ice-skating, dog sledding rides, and old-fashioned horse-drawn sleigh rides.
Besides the spectacular mountain terrain, the region also has a rich cultural heritage linked to the ancestral territory of the Italian royal House of Savoy, as well as the historic Dauphiné region. The lovely mountain village of Chamonix offers traditional alpine ambience, while Annecy has an ancient château, lakeside scenery, and fairy-tale ambience.
Belle Epoque spa towns, such as Aix-les-Bains and Evian-les-Bain, deliver the ultimate relaxing vacation experience at pampering thermal spas and upscale hotels.
Prehistoric Caves in the Dordogne & the Pyrenees
Prehistoric Painting at Lascaux Cave
The Dordogne region is one of the best places to visit in France for viewing prehistoric cave paintings. The UNESCO-listed Lascaux Cave in the Dordogne Vallée de la Vézère contains masterpieces of Paleolithic art created by Cro-Magnon man. Although the cave has been closed to the public to prevent damage, visitors may view a replica of the cave’s original artwork at the nearby Lascaux II site (in Motignac) and learn more about the prehistoric animal paintings the site’s International Centre for Cave Art. Also in the Vézère Valley, the Grotte de Rouffignac is adorned with paintings of horses, cows, bison, deer, goats, and mammoths.
One of the top attractions of the Pyrenees region is the Grotte du Mas d’Azil, an immense cave decorated with drawings from the Magdalenian and Azilian periods. This tourist attraction deep in the Pyrenees Mountains offers guided tours and admission to the nearby Musée de la Préhistoire.
About an hour drive from the Mas d’Azil Cave, the Grotte de Niaux also has remarkable Palaeolithic art dating from 14,000 to 10,000 BC. The Grotte de Niaux is open to the public for guided tours (reservations required). Near the town of Tarascon-sur-Ariège, the Grotte de Lombrives reveals fascinating ancient history, and the Grotte de Bédeilhac dazzles with its rare Magdalenien-era prehistoric art.
Perched on a sheer cliff in a natural park of the Dordogne region, Rocamadour seems to aspire towards heaven. This unforgettable site was the third most important Christian pilgrimage destination in the 11th century and an important stop on the Camino de Santiago pilgrims’ route.
Bordeaux & Saint-Émilion
Palais de la Bourse, Bordeaux
The Bordeaux region is a beautiful bucolic corner of France, where grandiose castles preside over rolling, vine-covered hills. The region has two exceptional UNESCO World Heritage Sites: the elegant city of Bordeaux, with more than 350 buildings classified as historical monuments, and the little country village of Saint-Émilion, 51 kilometers from Bordeaux. With a rich Christian heritage dating back to the 8th century, Saint-Émilion is filled with notable churches and monasteries.
Burgundy: Quintessential France
The Burgundy region is an idyllic landscape of lush woodlands and rolling hills dotted with impressive monuments. Romanesque churches, ancient towns, and inspiring old abbeys attest to a rich cultural heritage. Top attractions are the historic city of Dijon, with its aristocratic palaces; the charming medieval town of Beaune; and the monumental Abbey of Cluny which was the largest church in Christendom until the 16th century when Saint Peter’s Basilica was built in Rome.
Besides its incredible history, Burgundy is renowned for gastronomy. The traditional cuisine includes a repertoire of famous specialities such as escargot, Boeuf Bourguignon, and Coq au Vin.
Enjoy your travels