I don’t want to discourage anyone but France is so diverse I think it would take a lifetime of visits. I’ve spent a lot of time in this beautiful country when I was growing up and it has a special place in my heart, but I will definitely come back many times and am sure I will find new adventures.
That being said I must admit that the surly French (especially in the cities) are one of my main reasons I don’t pack my things to go and live there right away.
There’s endless scope for outdoor stuff to do but if you want more urban activities then the great cities provide them plentifully between the historical and cultural options.
Places to visit in France range from coasts to limestone hills, canyons to islands and from wooded valleys via meadows to glaciated peaks. Each region looks and feels different, has its own style of architecture, its own food and often its own dialect.
Top things to see and do in France:
Evening picnic under the Eiffel tower
This might be a bit of a cliche, but it simply has to be done because there’s nothing like seeing it lighting up for the first time! There are plenty of bakeries, Asian takeout, cheese and wine shops, etc within a block or two in every direction from Champs du Mars. So pick up some goodies, bring a blanket and make sure you pay attention every 5 minutes after the whole hour to see the sparkly lights.
Roman ruins in Nimes
This city is often referred to as the French Rome and is home to one of the most impressive ancient sites in the country. The Square House and Amphitheater are simply amazing and if you’re there, don’t forget to visit the Pont du Gard, the prettiest aqua-duct you’ve ever seen and not far out of town. Bring your own food and drinks though, everything is ridiculously overpriced on the sights.
Lavender fields in the Provence
They bloom from June to August, smell amazing, are used to make soap and cosmetics, are part of the local cuisine and lavender honey and sorbets are something you have to try.
Chateaux de Loire
If you’ve read some of my posts on other countries you must’ve realized by now: I love castles! This river valley is home to tons of them, illustrating the Renaissance ideals of design and the personality of their former and current owners. All with stunning stained glass, great views, unbelievable gardens or fairy-tale settings. Best explored by yourself on a bike!
Winetasting in Bordeaux
Some of the best wine in the world is made here. It’s not a cheap destination so budget-travelers beware, but it’s beautiful and worth all the money you will spend! This city has amazing wine, a super long shopping street, great seafood, good wine, seaside access, and did I mention the wine?
The beautiful island of Corsica
I personally don’t like the South coast of France at all. It is beautiful but filled with resort towns and fancy non-sense. If you visit this country and want to spend some time on the beach, I would recommend a stop at this island with bays of white sand, transparent water and dramatic red rockformations of Calanches on the West coast.
Visit the Gorge du Verdon
Probably my favorite lake in the world sits at the end of a 25 kilometres long and up to 700 metres deep canyon. There is a balcony on the rim of the canyon and a tunnel by the bottom, you can go climbing, hiking, canyoning or just swimming, all the options are amazing. Quick bragging note on the fact that I’ve climbed these rocks many times as a kid.
See the chalk cliffs in Etretat, Normandy
The cliffs steal the show here, thanks to their exceptional natural drama and the fact that famous Impressionists painted them so memorably. You get the best views from the coastal path that follows the cliff past the tiny fishermen’s chapel of Notre-Dame de la Garde.
Cavepaintings of Lascaux
Remember those cave-paintings from your history books? To see them in real life is way more impressive than you could’ve imagined! Visit some of the best-known Upper Paleolithic art in the world with pictures of bison’s and everything 🙂 Sorry about that, I recently found out that this is off-limits to tourists now because of a fungus outbreak.
Carnac’s French version of Stonehenge
One of the most extensive Neolithic menhir collections in the world, more than 3000 prehistoric standing stones aligned in rows with sheep grazing in between.
Orleans flea market along the wharfs
The French basically came up with the concept of flea-markets, with their brocante filling many streets and squares for you to find treasure. From garbage to true vintage and there is always at least one stand with some food or a nice little glass of pastis 😉 This especially nice one in Orleans is held every Saturday morning in a car park on the busy Boulevard Alexandre Martin, just around the corner from the impressive cathedral.
On a rocky little island between sandbanks stands a Gothic-style Benedictine abbey dedicated to the archangel St Michael, and a village in the shadow of its walls. You can walk to this UNESCO-listed heritage over the salt marshes when the tide is low. There are plenty of paid tours but it can easily be done by yourself, just make sure you know when the tide is coming in, so that you don’t get caught by swiftly rising waters. Watch out for the quicksand and go as early as you can to avoid the giant amounts of tourists!
This lovely historical town South of Paris is easily reachable by a 40min train-ride. It is renowned for its large and scenic forest, a favorite weekend getaway for Parisians, as well as for the historical Château de Fontainebleau, but the most fun thing to do here is climb the boulders that are scattered around the forest and sand plain.
At around 20EUR per night for a dorm-room bed with breakfast, youth hostels are the way to go for single travelers on a budget. In the countryside, aimed at hikers and bikers, are gîtes d’étapes, run by the local municipality, providing bunk beds and simple kitchen and washing facilities for around 20EUR per person. In country areas you will come across chambres d’hôtes too, bed-and-breakfast in someone’s house or farm. Some owners provide traditional home cooking and a great insight into French life. Prices are around 80EUR for two people including breakfast. French hotels are graded in six categories, from zero for the simplest through five for the most exclusive and prices corresponding to the number of stars.
A very useful option if you’re driving are the chain hotels (Like Formule1) located at motorway exits and on the outskirts of major towns. They are as soulless as they are cheap, starting at around 30EUR for a three-person room with communal toilets and showers. Practically every village and town in France has at least one campsite, open from around Easter to September or October. Prices go up and availability down around July and August, when the French have their holiday season.
A croissant or pain au chocolat (a chocolate-filled version) in a café with tea or coffee, is the most economical and French way to eat breakfast, costing around 4EUR. The standard hotel breakfast of the same plus orange juice should be 6EUR. The main meal of the day is traditionally lunch, between noon and 2pm, with most places offering a plat du jour (daily special) for 8–13EUR. For picnics, the local outdoor market or supermarket will provide you with everything you need, from tomatoes and smelly cheese to pâté and salami.
Don’t forget to have a croques-monsieur (toasted cheese-and-ham sandwich) and some crepes (pancakes with fillings)! Regional dishes vary per region and can be similar to neighboring countries, like Spanish heavy stew in the South-West, Germanic influences in the North-East, amazing seafood in the North-West, Mediterranean in the South-East and classical French boeuf bourguignon everywhere in the middle. Definitely have wine with every meal and pastis after, just because you can.
France has the most extensive train network of Western Europe, with the national rail company (SNCF) running fast and efficient trains through-out the entire country. There is the high-speed TGV for fast long distances, Intercité for intercity services (often with restaurant cars and sometimes sleeper services) and regional express trains for local transport. If you don’t speak the language or there are long queues at the counter, use one of the touch-screen vending machines with instructions in English to buy your tickets at any train-station. Make sure you check off-peak hours and other discounts.
If you want to get off the beaten track the best option is to have your own transport, although toll-ways can get expensive. Tell your navigation system to avoid them, not just because of the money but because it will take you to wonderful little places you’d otherwise never have found.
Wine tours are expensive but fun, for the rest you can plan your own activities easily. Most attractions and museum entrance fees cost between 7-20EUR. Make sure to buy or borrow a set of balls and play a relaxing game of petanque (or jeu de boules) on a town square with some local old men. Go (window)shopping for regional specialties like pottery or local cheese and wine. Take some time to enjoy the great outdoors and beautiful landscapes with any of the available outdoor-activities ranging from hiking to climbing and skiing.
French is the official language of 32 nations, including, ofcourse, France. The myth is that French people don’t (want to) speak English, and I find that partly true. But since trying to say ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ is hopefully on your list of things to do in any country you visit, here I would recommend adding a question to your vocabulary: ‘parlez-vous Anglais?’ (pronounce: “parlay voo anglay?) simply means ‘do you speak English?’, but since the patriotic French can be quite proud about their language, this little sentence will get you a long way. That being said, most people in tourism speak English quite well.
The French Franc was the national currency until the introduction of the Euro, whose coins all bare symbols of the French Republic. If you’re looking for an ATM, ask for a distributeur. Credit cards are widely accepted in shops, restaurants and bars in major towns but keep cash with you just in case. Normal banking hours are Monday-Friday, 9am–5:30pm. Check with your bank to see if they have associate banks in France, because you can get better exchange rates using a bank ATM, who can be found all over cities, towns and in some large villages (many small village do not have ATM machines), and are generally marked with a sign of a hand holding a card above them.
France can be one of the more expensive European countries to visit, but how much you actually spend depends a lot on where exactly you go and when. Much of France is little or no more expensive than its neighbors but in prime tourist spots all prices can go up by a third during July and August, and places like Paris and the Côte d’Azur are always more expensive than other regions.
France is another member of the Schengen Agreement. There are no border controls between countries that have signed and implemented this treaty. So a visa granted for any Schengen member is valid in all other countries that have signed and implemented the treaty. But be careful: not all EU members have signed it and not all Schengen members are part of the European Union so it can be quite confusing. But for travel, any non-EU foreigner can travel for up to 90 days without any problems.
France is one of my favorite countries in the world and is known for a lot of things. Just having a baguette and some Reblochon cheese for breakfast will cheer me up any day of the year.
From colonial history to airplane design and manicures, the French have done a good job at a lot of things. The finest artists of the last century and a half (like Monet and Matisse) have inspired many a painter from all over the world and the nature is breathtaking too. If anything, I would recommend picking a subject for your travels so you can filter the enormous amount of options somehow. Go for cities, a region, a river, cathedrals, a mountain range, castles or outdoor activities for example, and build your itinerary from there.