By Jim Ferri
Many travelers, however, especially those visiting for the first time, wonder where to go in France. Yes, you do need to visit Paris, since it is deservedly renowned for being one of the most beautiful and fascinating cities in the world, which is why many movies have been filmed there.
But Go beyond the capital and burrow into the little towns and hamlets of the countryside. Visit a score of regional French cities such as Lyon, Bordeaux, Nice, Rouen, and others. You’ll quickly find that each region is deliciously different in its culture, food, and ambiance, providing a wonderful French feast.
To see the most fascinating places in France, visit the landing beaches in Normandy, browse the colorful street markets of Provence, see the chateaux in the Loire Valley, visit the bistros of Biarritz, take a cooking class in Lyon, or if you’d rather, just enjoy the café culture and joie de vivre so important to French life in myriad towns and cities all over the country.
Here’s a primer on where you might go, the top 10 places to visit in France tourist-tested by other travelers. Choose one or two, or more, and indulge yourself.
Paris, #1 of the Best Places to Visit in France
From the very first moment you see the Eiffel Tower in the distance, one is mesmerized by Paris. It’s a magical city and one of the most important places to visit in France.
With such famous landmarks the Arc de Triomphe, the Louvre, Notre Dame, the Seine and countless other spots, Paris is probably the best-known place in the world, even for those who never visited it.
But there’s more to Paris than just famous landmarks. Every arrondissement beats with the rhythm of a country village, giving each neighborhood of the capital a unique personality.
Experience art and culture in its great museums. Scale its iconic monuments and while away the afternoon at a café or bistro on the Left Bank. And when all its world-renown attractions begin to feel overwhelming, you know it’s time just to walk about aimlessly. Go get lost on its charming back streets where you’ll discover the Paris of the Parisians.
It’s a great city to visit any time of year…even as Cole Porter suggests, “in the summer when it sizzles” or “in winter when it drizzles.”
A Top Place in France for History Lovers: Normandy
Normandy is an area that has played a critical role in history ever since local hero William the Conqueror set sail for England from there in the 11th century. Its most famous moment in history, however, came in 1944 as the Allies stormed its beaches.
While many American travelers are attracted to Normandy by the D-Day beaches, once they arrive they find much more. Beyond those beaches, you find a pleasant French countryside of rolling hills, speckled with cows and stone farmhouses, and little villages and cities replete with half-timbered houses and beautiful churches.
There’s a lot to do in Normandy, which makes it one of the best places to visit in France. In addition to the beaches visit fantastic Mont Saint-Michel, an ancient island-Abbey that escaped the ravages of World War II. See Rouen and its beautiful old town, as well as the world-famous Bayeux Tapestry in the Centre Guillaume-le-Conquérant in Bayeux.
Visit Honfleur, a beautiful little town whose harbor is filled with fishing boats and designer yachts. It’s a good place to take a break for lunch or just to wander about. And although it’s not quite “western” Normandy, you may want to visit Giverny where Monet painted his famous water lilies. It’s about halfway between Rouen and Paris.
The Chateaux of the Loire Valley, One of the Most Beautiful Places to Visit in France
The Loire Valley is quintessential France. It’s an area of spectacular châteaux and vineyards, forest and field, meandering rivers flowing slowly through sleepy villages. It’s all that and much more as well, making it one of the best places to visit in France.
The Loire is the heart of France, a place from which centuries ago French Kings ruled kingdoms. Some of these towns, such as Amboise, are UNESCO World Heritage Sites, famous for their historical significance and their beauty. For many travelers, this beautiful area is high on the list of beautiful places to visit on a trip to France.
Many travelers dream of seeing the chateaux in the Loire Valley and, they lure many tourists here. Nowhere else on earth do you find so many. Château d’Ussé inspired Sleeping Beauty. It was at Château Chinon during the 100-Year War that Joan of Arc begged the Dauphin to fight the English. Château Villandry still entrances visitors with its ornamental gardens.
Leonardo da Vinci is buried in the Château at Amboise. The nearby Clos Lucé, his former home, contains models of some of his inventions. But go beyond the châteaux and also visit such places as the Abbaye Royale de Fontevraud. It’s the largest medieval abbey in France and where Richard the Lionheart is buried.
Among France’s Top Places: Elegant Bordeaux and the Aquitaine
An important seaport, Bordeaux is the center of the legendary wine industry of St. Emilion and Médoc. Visit the legendary châteaux in the area but leave time to see many of the other sites in the region.
Bordeaux, the regional capital, is an elegant city of tree-shaded avenues, Gothic churches, stately old merchant’s houses, markets and antique shops that will keep you busy for hours. Its historic wealth is reflected in the many old beautiful buildings about the city.
Along the Atlantic coast, southwest France has beautiful beaches and a handful of famous resorts. Stylish Biarritz, once a little fishing village, was a favorite of Napoleon III and his Spanish-born wife. It also has Europe’s best surfing.
Dordogne, the home of foie gras, is a land of quiet country roads and gentle hills covered with sunflowers. It’s also renown as the home of prehistoric cave dwellers. You’ll find those sites around the area of Les Eyzies and Lascaux (a UNESCO World Heritage Site).
One of the Best Places to Visit in France for Oenophiles: Burgundy
To many of the French, Burgundy is the heart and soul of French food and wine. Gastronomically speaking, it is the richest province in the country and is the place to come if you want to enjoy great wine and fine cuisine in a historic setting. If you love good food and wine this is definitely one of the best places to visit in France.
Its fine wines – from its regions of Chablis, Côte de Nuits, Côte de Beaune, etc. – are world renown throughout the world. The town of Beaune annually hosts a world-famous wine auction.
Dijon, the capital of Burgundy, is now known for mustards, but it was once the capital of the Dukes of Burgundy. Throughout the city are beautiful Renaissance buildings and old Burgundian palaces. It also has a rich cultural life. Experience it viewing the art treasures in the Musée des Beaux-Arts and the Musée Magnin.
In Burgundy and you’ll see castles rising from vineyards and medieval churches poking up through rooftops in little villages. Many companies throughout the region will escort you on wine and culinary tours to the great vineyards and chateaux.
The Top Spot on the Med: Nice and the Riviera
The Côte d’Azur, more commonly known to Americans as the French Riviera, is synonymous with elegance and chic. Put it on your list of the best places to visit in the south of France.
In the Brigitte Bardot-era of the 1950s and 60s, the Riviera was a magnet for everyone who was anyone. Today it still lures travelers not only with its storied elegance but also with its lifestyle and beauty.
In Nice, Belle Époque Mansions line one side of the palm-lined Promenade des Anglais and the famous beach the other. The avenue sweeps along the coast past more chic beaches in Antibes, Cannes, and St-Tropez, all the way to Marseille. Go east instead of you’ll enter tiny Monaco and the casino of Monte Carlo, both associated with an extravagant lifestyle.
Many walk instead down the charming narrow streets of Nice’s Vieille Ville (the Old Town). It lures visitors with tiny bistros, fashionable boutiques, and museums such as the Musée Matisse and the Musée Marc Chagall.
In the hills above the Côte d’Azur you’ll find beautiful villages. Visit Grasse (the home of the perfume industry), the walled town of Vence and the enchanting artistic village of St. Paul-de-Vence. It’s a region to enjoy ambiance and art, and food and wine. Its Joie de vivre makes it one of the best places to visit in France.
A Great Place for Gourmandes: Lyon
2000-year-old Lyon is the culinary capital of France, one of the reasons it’s listed as one of the top 10 places in France. Many Parisians travel here on high-speed trains to dine in one of the city’s many fabulous restaurants.
Set at the confluence of the Rhône and Saône Rivers, Lyon is an intriguing potpourri of ancient and contemporary architecture. Wander the cobblestone lanes of Vieux Lyon, the oldest part of the city. There you’ll be taking a trip through time among centuries-old shops, including old weaver shops from its renowned silk industry. Vieux Lyon is so historically important that it’s on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites.
Lyons boasts of its cultural life, evident in its outstanding art museums, as well as its excellent shopping. The city’s heritage goes back to when it was known as Lugdunum and was the capital of Gaul. Two Roman theaters have been excavated. You can learn about them and the history of the city at the very good Musée de la Civilisation Gallo-Romaine.
The Rhône-Alpes region to the west is a wild and breathtaking part of southeast France, bordering Italy and Switzerland, and Provence to the south. As one might guess, it’s a mecca for skiers and hikers.
A Top Place in France: The Midi-Pyrenees
You’ll find the Midi-Pyrenees to be one of the most varied regions in the country. Its north has wooded valleys and medieval towns and morphs into gently rolling sunflower-covered fields as you move further south. It then changes again as you near Pyrenees and the Spanish border.
Toulouse, the most famous city in the region. It was once a stop for pilgrims who passed through on their way to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Today it’s a bustling university city and the center for France’s high-tech aerospace industry. You can tour the plants of Airbus and Aérospatiale. and France’s National Center for Space Research is also located here.
In spite of hi-tech Toulouse, many of the rural villages in the region retain their medieval charm. That’s the reason many travelers put it on their list of places to visit in France. The small village of Conques, also an important pilgrimage center, retains much of its early Middle-Ages buildings. People love Cahors for its medieval Pont Valentre Bridge, one of the most beautiful in Europe. The medieval hilltop village of Cordes-sur-Ciel has numerous ancient half-timbered buildings, as well as great views across the surrounding countryside.
Lourdes, one of Catholicism’s greatest shrines, is nestled in a valley about two hours southwest of Toulouse. An hour northeast of the city is Albi, the boyhood home of artist Toulouse-Lautrec. There you’ll find the finest collection of the artist’s cabaret-inspired canvases.
Another of France’s Top Places: Languedoc-Roussillon
Languedoc-Roussillon, another of the best places in the country, lies on the coast of the Mediterranean between Provence and Spain. This is where France and Spain meld. People love bullfighting, wines are robust, and Barcelona inspires the region as much as does Paris. It is French Catalonia and shares a common language and culture with the Spanish region.
Roussillon is an agricultural area, and Languedoc is one of France’s major wine-growing areas. Today long sandy beaches characterize its coastline with little of the tourism development that has enveloped the Côte d’Azur.
The area has many historic cities including Nimes, where there are superb Roman remains, and the walled city of Carcassonne. Further afield are medieval market towns such as Uzès and Pézenas whose narrow streets are home to many artisans’ studios. Along the coast Picasso and Matisse use to visit the town of Collioure.
In Languedoc-Roussillon, you’ll find Le Canal du Midi, the world’s oldest commercial canal and now a UNESCO world heritage site. It was built in the 17th century as one section of a waterway to join the Atlantic and Mediterranean. Today it is lined with a shaded cycle way and footpath and is enjoyed by cruisers from around the world.
Alsace – Linking France to Germany
The Alsace lies on the plain between the Rhine River and the Vosges Mountains in eastern/northeastern France. It is more Germanic than French regarding its heritage, culture, and cuisine. Its villages of brightly painted, half-timbered, steep-roofed houses make it unlike any other region in France.
Although the population speaks French, a majority does it with a decidedly German accent. The cuisine is a blend of French and German (with such dishes as pork and sauerkraut being regional specialties), and many of the towns in the region have German names.
The region’s capital, Strasbourg, is the headquarters of the European Parliament. It has more of a feel of a central European city than a French one. Its historic center contains a magnificent Gothic cathedral, one of the most visited in France.
The Alsatian city of Mulhouse is a manufacturing center. Among its several sites worth visiting are the French National Railroad Museum, the Cité de l’Automobile and a car museum that contains the world’s largest collection of Bugatti’s.
In addition to its decidedly German-style cuisine, the Alsace is popular for its Muenster cheese, white wines and Kronenbourg beer.
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