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21 Best Places to Visit in France

Written by Lisa Alexander
May 31, 2019

The French affectionately call their beloved homeland "l'Hexagone" because of its distinct six-sided shape. Each corner of France has its own unique character: the rugged and outdoorsy French Alps, sun-drenched and slow-paced Provence, the glamorous and gorgeous Côte d'Azur coastline, and Alsace with picture-perfect hamlets nestled in vine-covered hills.

Paris and Versailles are must-see destinations for a first 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 quaint countryside, explore this diverse country with our list of the best places to visit in France.

1. Paris & Versailles

Paris and the Eiffel Tower

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. Reflecting the city's rich heritage, the Louvre (one of the top museums in Paris) 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-minute 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.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Paris: Best Areas & Hotels

2. The Charming Countryside of Provence

The Charming 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.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Provence

3. The Côte d'Azur

Villefranche-sur-Mer

Villefranche-sur-Mer (Day Trip from Nice) on the Côte d'Azur

The Côte d'Azur (French Riviera) is a glamorous stretch of Mediterranean coastline named for its deep azure-blue waters. The skies are often a mesmerizing cerulean hue as well, thanks to the sunny weather most of the year in this area of southern France.

The Côte d'Azur begins at Saint-Tropez (overlapping with the Provence region) and extends all the way to Menton, less than 30 kilometers from the border with Italy. The Côte d'Azur became popular with the British as a wintertime resort in the 1820s. Nowadays, it's a bustling (and crowded) summer vacation destination. Spring and autumn 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 (famous for its film festival) and Monaco are glitzy resort towns, complete with lavish vacation villas, luxury hotels, gourmet restaurants, and yacht-filled marinas.

Saint-Tropez (once just a typical Provençal fishing village) 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.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Côte d'Azur

4. Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy

Mont Saint-Michel

In the quaint 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.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Normandy

5. The Châteaux of the Loire Valley

Château d'Azay-le-Rideau

Château d'Azay-le-Rideau

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.

For families with kids, the Parc Mini-Châteaux in Amboise is a marvelous destination. Set in two hectares of woodlands, this adorable and educational amusement park features more than 40 replicas of Loire châteaux built on a 1/25 scale. Children love exploring the kid-sized castles designed with authentic details.

6. Reims & its Magnificent Gothic Cathedral

Reims Cathedral

Reims is justifiably placed among France's list of "Villes d'Art et d'Histoire" ("Cities of Art and History"). 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 (the dauphin) here in July of 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.

7. Fishing Villages, Historic Ports & Beaches in Brittany

The walled city of Saint-Malo

A picturesque coastal region, Brittany has a rich maritime heritage seen in its historic port towns: Saint-Malo, surrounded by old ramparts; the medieval capital of Nantes; and the fortified 14th-century Concarneau. The seaside also boasts stylish beach resorts like fashionable Dinard on the Côte d'Emeraude and La Baule on the estuary of the Loire.

The scenery is dramatic and unspoiled, with secluded sandy beaches and a rocky coastline, where wild Atlantic waves crash against the shore. Quaint centuries-old fishing villages are nestled in quiet bays and on tiny windswept offshore islands.

The Breton culture traces its influence back to the Celts (the local dialect is related to Gaelic). Similar to Ireland, it is a land of mythology and legends. Today, Brittany is strongly Catholic. Locals celebrate ancient religious customs called "pardons," special festivals when townspeople wear old-fashioned regional costumes.

The local cuisine is equally intriguing, focused on seafood and savory buckwheat crepes. Brittany also has a famous regional pastry, the "kouign-amann," a buttery pastry made with croissant dough that is layered with sprinkles of sugar, has a moist cake-like center, and a crispy caramelized exterior.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Brittany

8. Biarritz & Saint-Jean-de-Luz

Biarritz Beach

Biarritz Beach

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.

Just a half-hour drive (15 kilometers) from Biarritz is the historic fishing port of Saint-Jean-de-Luz, a popular summertime destination with family-friendly beaches. Traveling inland 25 kilometers from Biarritz is the traditional Basque village of Espelette. This small village boasts typical half-timbered, red-shuttered Basque houses decorated with rows of dried red peppers called Piment d'Espelette (prized for use in Basque cuisine).

In Spain's Basque country, 50 kilometers by bus, car, or train from Biarritz, San Sebastian is a lively seaside city that delights visitors with its elegant architecture, sandy beaches, and gourmet tapas.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Biarritz

9. Joan of Arc Monuments in Chinon, Rouen & Orléans

Joan of Arc Monument at Place du Matroi in Orléans

France's national heroine, Joan of Arc led the country to victory during the Hundred Years' War when she was only seventeen years old. Her divinely ordained mission, instructed by heavenly voices, is still an inspiration to the faithful.

Joan of Arc's remarkable story began in Chinon, where on March 9, 1429, she went to meet Charles VII (the dauphin) at the Forteresse Royale (medieval castle) to inform him of his right to the crown. Because of its rich heritage, Chinon is listed as a "Ville d'Art et d'Histoire." At the tree-lined Place Jeanne d'Arc stands a monumental bronze equestrian statue of Joan of Arc depicted as a heroic military leader.

Among the top attractions of the Loire Valley, Orléans is another essential stop on the Joan of Arc trail. The city was saved by the "Maid of Orléans," during the Siege of 1429. After leading the French to defeat the English army, Joan of Arc came to the town's Cathédrale Sainte-Croix to pray. The cathedral's 19th-century stained-glass windows recount the history of Joan of Arc.

In a 15th-century half-timbered house, the Maison de Jeanne d'Arc presents exhibits about Joan of Arc, who is now recognized as a saint by the Catholic Church. A bronze equestrian statue of Joan of Arc graces the Place du Martroi in Orléans.

Tourists can learn more about Joan of Arc's life story at several of the top sights in Rouen. At the 13th-century Tour Jeanne d'Arc (dungeon), a relic of the town's old château, Joan of Arc was imprisoned, threatened with torture, put on trail, and accused of heresy.

Since this infamous trial in 1431 and martyrdom, Joan of Arc has been elevated to a saint. Built on the site in Rouen where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake, the Eglise Jeanne d'Arc pays tribute to the saint's legacy. This modern church features an upwards-swooping roof designed to resemble flames.

10. The Alsace Region

The Alsace Region

Tiny Hamlet of Hunawihr in the Alsace Region

The historic cities of Strasbourg and Colmar, along with the hundreds of Alsatian villages, have a special old-world charm that is completely distinct from the rest of France. The architecture and ambience of Alsace was influenced by neighboring Germany, as seen in the brightly-painted, half-timbered buildings and venerable Gothic churches. Strasbourg enchants visitors with its narrow cobblestone streets, scenic canals, and ornate cathedral. Colmar is the quintessential Alsatian town, full of interesting old churches and traditional houses with flower-bedecked balconies.

Outside these two cities is an unspoiled landscape of vine-covered foothills. Nestled in the valleys and along the Rhine River are tiny storybook hamlets and picturesque villages. The Alsace Villages route is a popular tourist itinerary and is a delightful way to explore the region. Many of the villages, such as Hunawihr, Riquewihr, Ribeauvillé, and Eguisheim are listed as the "Plus Beaux Villages de France" (Most Beautiful Villages of France), and many communities are designated "Villages Fleuris" (Flowering Villages) because of the vibrant potted flowers that adorn the homes and streets.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Alsace

11. Mont-Blanc & Annecy in the French Alps

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 snowcapped 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 (about a 15-minute drive from the base of Mont Blanc) offers traditional alpine ambience, while Annecy (just over a one-hour drive from Chamonix) 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.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in the French Alps

12. Prehistoric Caves in the Dordogne & the Pyrenees

Prehistoric Painting at Lascaux Cave

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's 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.

13. Rocamadour: A Medieval Pilgrimage Destination

Rocamadour: A Medieval Pilgrimage Destination

Rocamadour: A Medieval Pilgrimage Destination

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.

The village has seven medieval-era sanctuaries. The most famous is the Chapelle Notre-Dame (Chapelle Miraculeuse), which has the precious "Black Virgin" (Notre-Dame de Rocamadour), a figure of the Virgin Mary carved from walnut wood that naturally darkened over the centuries and is associated with miracles. Rocamadour's largest church, the Basilique Saint-Sauveur is a UNESCO-listed historic monument.

Two other interesting tourist destinations are within an hour-and-a-half drive of Rocamadour: Limoges (145 kilometers away) is a "Ville d'Art et d'Histoire" ("City of Art and History") and is one of the top travel destinations in the Limousin region. Périgueux (115 kilometers away), in the Dordogne region, is a historic town dating to the Roman era that was also on the Camino de Santiago.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Rocamadour

14. Bordeaux & Saint-Émilion

Palais de la Bourse, Bordeaux

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.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Bordeaux

15. The Burgundy Region: Quintessential France

Cluny, Burgundy

Cluny, Burgundy

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 (Beef Burgundy), and Coq au Vin.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Burgundy

16. Cirque de Gavarnie in the Pyrenees Mountains

Cirque de Gavarnie in the Pyrenees Mountains

Cirque de Gavarnie in the Pyrenees Mountains

The mountainous Pyrenees region is a soul-inspiring place that offers both natural splendor and spiritual wonders (including many sacred pilgrimage sites). The UNESCO-listed Cirque de Gavarnie is nature's version of a cathedral. Forming a semicircle, the awesome 1,700-meter-high limestone rock walls are draped with dramatic waterfalls that tumble down into rushing rivers and peaceful streams.

The entire Hautes-Pyrénées region is part of a national park, the Parc National des Pyrénées, which borders Spain. Within the park are hiking trails through lush forests and verdant valleys. During wintertime, the French Pyrenees is a popular destination for downhill skiing.

17. Lourdes: France's Biggest Catholic Pilgrimage Site

Lourdes: France's Biggest Catholic Pilgrimage Site

Lourdes: France's Biggest Catholic Pilgrimage Site

Nestled in the foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains, Lourdes is France's most important Catholic pilgrimage site. Millions of visitors come to Lourdes every year for spiritual inspiration. Some arrive to bathe in the waters in hopes of miracle cures. To the faithful, Lourdes is known for the 70 validated miracles that have occurred here.

The main pilgrimage sites, the Grotto (where Saint Bernadette received her divine visions), and the Basilique du Rosaire are surrounded by a serene woodland alongside a tranquil babbling brook. Marian processions take place every evening at 9pm from April through October. The procession of hundreds of pilgrims holding candles is a breathtaking sight to behold.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Lourdes

18. Gourmet Restaurants & Cultural Attractions in Lyon

Sidewalk Cafe in Lyon

Outdoor Seating at a "Bouchon Lyonnais" Restaurant

An enticing destination for gourmands to visit, Lyon is at the heart of French gastronomy. Lyonnais cuisine is famous for its delicious regional specialties such as quenelles (fish dumplings served in a creamy sauce), hearty meat dishes, sausages, and salads.

Tourists can choose from an incredible selection of gourmet restaurants. The legendary three-star Michelin restaurant, the "Auberge du Pont de Collonges," carries on the legacy of France's famous chef Paul Bocuse. For everyday dining, the "Bouchons Lyonnais" (traditional bistros) allow visitors to sample the authentic local cuisine while enjoying an inviting, cozy ambience.

Besides fine dining and epicurean delights, Lyon is rich in cultural heritage. The UNESCO-listed city boasts ancient Roman ruins, atmospheric medieval quarters, and elegant Renaissance houses. Lyon's Musée des Beaux-Arts is second only to Paris' Louvre Museum in its wealth of artistic treasures.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Lyon: Best Areas & Hotels

19. Gascony Region & Toulouse in the South of France

Toulouse

Toulouse

The rural area of Gascony and the city of Toulouse exude the sultry charm of southern France. Sunny and slow-paced, Gascony (Le Gers) is an unspoiled countryside with a traditional character that has remained untouched by modernity. The rolling hills are blanketed with a patchwork of small farms and dotted with quiet little villages and ancient castles.

Steeped in history dating back to the 13th century, Toulouse is known as "The Pink City" because of its distinctive red-brick architecture. These buildings reflect the sunlight in a rosy-toned hue. While ambling the pleasant town squares and basking on outdoor café terraces in Toulouse, visitors soak up the laid-back vibe of this beautiful and balmy city.

The UNESCO-listed Canal du Midi runs through Toulouse and flows all the way to the Mediterranean port of Sète near Marseille. The tree-shaded path along the canal is popular for leisurely strolls and cycling.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Toulouse

20. The Camargue

Wild horses in the Camargue

The Parc Régional de Camargue, just 16 kilometers from Arles in Provence, is a place where visitors can take a breath of fresh air and enjoy unspoiled natural scenery. Marshlands, meadows, salt flats, and pastures blanket the landscape. In this pristine UNESCO-listed Biosphere Reserve (around 100,000 hectares of protected wetlands), wild white horses roam free, and pink flamingoes flourish.

The nature reserve is home to over 300 bird species which makes it a paradise for bird-watching. Other famous fauna include the native Camargue Bulls, which are raised for use in bullfighting.

21. Island of Corsica

Fishing boats in Bastia, Corsica

Corsica has a rugged and raw beauty, seen in its dramatic coastal landscapes, pristine forests, and snowcapped mountains. The island is fringed with beautiful beaches, quiet bays, attractive fishing ports, and lively seaside cities, while the inland hillsides are crowned with ancient villages where time seems to stand still.

Sun-worshipping beach lovers and outdoorsy and sporty types (including hard-core hikers) are drawn to the island's incomparable nature sites. The 1,000-kilometer shoreline offers crystal-clear waters that make it a paradise for snorkeling and scuba diving.

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