10 Best Places to Visit in France in Winter
Winter is an enchanting time to visit France. Besides the crisp weather, the absence of crowds in the off season makes sightseeing delightful.
The galleries of the Louvre feel incredibly spacious without mobs of tourists gathered around the masterpieces. The grandiose chateaux of the Loire Valley echo with the sound of only a few footsteps. Glorious Gothic cathedrals reverberate with sacred organ music at Christmastime.
Holiday season festivities give travelers a good reason to visit in December. The elegant avenues and boutiques of Paris sparkle with lavish decorations and holiday lights, while traditional Christmas markets offer enticing treats and the chance to shop for artisanal crafts.
Even the everyday experiences can be special in wintertime. Nothing compares to enjoying hearty French bistro cuisine in Paris on a chilly December day, or sipping hot chocolate at a refined tea salon on a drizzly afternoon in January.
For travelers who appreciate visiting uncrowded museums and monuments, winter is the best time to visit France. Tourists can also take advantage of lower hotel rates in winter (except for the Christmastime period) since it is the off season.
From the capital city of Paris to the ski resorts of the French Alps, plan a fabulous vacation with our list of the best places to visit in France in winter.
Something special happens to Paris in wintertime. Without the leafy trees, the boulevards look wider, and the formal gardens appear even more austere. Parisian rooftops seem to meld with the steel-grey skies. On rare occasions when it snows, the bright powdery coating gives the city a dreamy quality.
The experience of visiting Paris in the winter is completely different than during the summertime high season. Many travelers consider winter to be the best time to visit Paris. You can wander the spacious halls of the Louvre without running into other tourists, and spend some time admiring the Mona Lisa without anyone obstructing your view.
Winter is the ideal time to visit the world-class museums of Paris. It's also a wonderful time to explore the city's historic churches. Many churches feature performances of sacred music or Christmas carols during the holiday season.
Christmas concerts take place at the Eglise Saint-Germain-des-Prés in the 6th arrondissement, the Eglise de la Madeleine in the 8th arrondissement, and the Eglise Saint-Ephrem in the 5th arrondissement, as well as at other churches. The Basilique du Sacré-Coeur in Montmartre holds a Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve with an organ concert prior to service.
During December, Paris comes to life with Christmastime festivities. The fancy pâtisserie and chocolate shops offer holiday cakes called bûches de Noël (yuletide logs), while the boutiques and department stores of Paris decorate their windows with charming holiday-themed scenes. The Galeries Lafayette and Printemps department stores in the 9th arrondissement and the Ladurée pâtisserie boutique on the Champs-Élysées or the Rue Bonaparte feature elaborate decorations.
Not to be missed during Christmastime are the Marchés de Noël, Alsatian-style outdoor Christmas markets. The best Christmas markets include the Marché de Noël Saint-Germain-des-Prés held near the Eglise Saint-Germain-des-Prés in the 6th arrondissement, the Marché de Noël at the Jardin des Tuileries which includes rides and games for kids, the Marché de Noël Notre-Dame de Paris held in a square next to Notre-Dame Cathedral.
Gourmands should be sure to visit Le Chalet de Noël du Ritz Paris, a traditional Christmas market held in December that features gourmet holiday treats like gingerbread and strudel prepared by the pastry chef of the Ritz hotel.
Paris delights foodies during wintertime with its cozy bistros. Chilly weather makes the intimate dining rooms and hearty French dishes even more appealing. Recommended Parisian bistros include L'Ami Louis, famous for its classic French cuisine and especially the roast chicken; Joséphine Chez Dumonet, a charming bistro with a wood-paneled dining room on the Rue du Cherche-Midi; and Chez Georges, which was one of Julia Child's favorite restaurants in Paris.
Another essential Parisian wintertime experience is savoring chocolat chaud a l'ancienne, old-fashioned hot chocolate. The Maison Angelina salon de thé (tea salon) on the Rue de Rivoli is famous for its rich, dark "L'Africain" chocolat chaud, hot chocolate prepared using the finest cocoa beans sourced from three different African countries. Jean-Paul Hévin Chocolatier on Rue Saint-Honoré and the Café Pavane on Rue de Vaugirard are also renowned for their hot chocolate.
The chilly winter days do not stop Parisians or tourists from enjoying outdoor recreation. You can still go for walks through the parks or stroll down the avenues lined with boutiques.
Another one of the top things to do in winter is ice-skating. From around mid-December through February, ice-skating rinks are found next to the Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall), on the first floor of the Eiffel Tower, at the Grande Arche de la Défense, and beneath the glass dome of the Grand Palais.
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This UNESCO-listed city brims with cultural attractions and has a rich history dating back to the ancient Roman era. The city's museums offer enough to keep travelers busy while staying warm indoors during wintertime.
The Musée des Beaux-Arts displays masterpieces of European painting from the 15th through the 20th centuries, along with sculptures, antiquities, decorative arts, and graphic arts. The Musée de la Civilisation Gallo-Romaine gives visitors a sense of the ancient Roman city that thrived in the locale that is now Lyon.
Lyon holds a place of honor in the celebrated gastronomic heritage of France and is widely considered the French culinary capital, thanks to its central location near the farmlands of Auvergne and Provence and the cheesemakers of the Alps.
Lyonnais cuisine is famous for its hearty traditional dishes. Winter is the best time to sample some of the classics, like lamb stew and roast chicken in morel sauce, because they are rich and warming. To sample the best local cuisine, dine at the "Bouchons Lyonnais" found throughout the city. These inviting little bistros offer a friendly ambience and authentic regional cooking.
The city of Lyon has created a list of bistros certified as Bouchons Lyonnais, including La Meunière in the heart of the Presqu'île district; La Tête de Lard also in the 1st arrondissement; Aux Trois Cochons near Place Bellecour; the Café de Jura, a family-run bouchon that opened in 1867; and Daniel et Denise in the Croix-Rousse district, the historic silk workers' quarter.
For gourmands in search of the finest haute-cuisine, the Restaurant Paul Bocuse is not to be missed. This Michelin-starred restaurant outside of Lyon was created by legendary French chef Paul Bocuse. Renowned dishes include the quenelles of pikeperch; Bresse chicken in cream sauce with morel mushrooms; and pigeon cooked in a casserole.
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3. Alsace Villages
During Christmastime, the Alsace villages of northeastern France delight visitors with their holiday charm. Lovely decorations adorn the pastel-painted half-timbered houses, and the town squares feature festive centerpieces or Christmas trees.
Tourists can sample holiday goodies, shop for gifts, and soak up the magical ambience at traditional Christmas markets called Marchés de Noël. Any travel itinerary through Alsace in the month of December should include stops at these festive outdoor Christmas markets.
The historic town of Obernai hosts a Marché de Noël, where local vendors sell their artisanal crafts. Visitors will enjoy the Christmastime baked goods such as gingerbread and kougelhopf at the Marché de Noël in Kaysersberg, a picturesque town with many half-timbered houses. The picturesque village of Ribeauvillé hosts a medieval-themed Christmas Market with gourmet treats that date back to the Middle Ages.
Eguisheim, one of the Plus Beaux Villages de France (Most Beautiful Villages of France), dazzles with its festive Christmas decorations and illuminations during the holiday season. The Christmas market of Eguisheim has earned the "Cities and Villages of Christmas" designation for its authenticity. The medieval walled town of Dambach-la-Ville also hosts a traditional Marché de Noël with musical performances.
A favorite tourist destination in Alsace, the captivating medieval town of Colmar is exquisitely decorated for the Christmas season. Colmar is a quintessential Alsatian town, with its cobblestone pedestrian streets and quaint half-timbered houses, and has many cultural attractions.
With six Christmas markets (Marchés de Noël), the town of Colmar ensures a lively visit during Christmastime. The Christmas markets are in the historic center of town, so tourists can stroll from one to another.
4. French Alps
A thick blanket of snow covers Mont Blanc during wintertime, and the ski resorts of the French Alps welcome visitors in droves. Winter is the high season for alpine skiing at these top French ski resorts.
Considered a premier ski resort in the French Alps, Courchevel within Les Trois Vallées (Three Valleys) has 150 kilometers of ski slopes accessible by 60 lifts. The resort boasts five villages with a wide variety of accommodations and dining options including Michelin-starred restaurants.
Other top ski resorts include Val d'Isere, found in a high-mountain valley, and Chamonix on the legendary Mont Blanc. The quaint village of Chamonix is a great base for your ski vacation.
5. Nice and Menton
Nestled alongside a picturesque bay on the Côte d'Azur, Nice enjoys a Mediterranean climate with gentle winters. In fact, Nice became a popular wintertime resort in the 19th century, prized for its luxurious resort hotels, sublime sea views, and lovely gardens.
The months of December, January, and February brings mild, refreshing weather, around the 50s to 60s Fahrenheit. Winter is not the time to sunbathe at the beach, but you can take walks along the waterfront and dine al fresco on pleasant outdoor terraces when the sun is out. Prepare for a mix of sunny days and rain during wintertime on the French Riviera.
In mid-February, the Carnaval de Nice takes place in the center of Nice at the Place Masséna and the Jardin Albert 1er. This lively event rivals the famous carnivals of Rio de Janeiro and Venice. Every year, the carnival attracts a crowd of several hundred thousand spectators who come to watch the parades with its marvelous floats and vibrant entertainment.
The French Riviera town of Menton near the border with Italy also hosts another fabulous wintertime event. The Fête du Citron (Citrus Festival) draws thousands of visitors to the town in mid-February to celebrate the locally grown lemons. Parades feature dazzling floats and elaborate sculptures like lions and castles, made entirely from citrus fruits.
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An off-the-beaten-path tourist destination, the Auvergne region rewards visitors with its dramatic natural scenery and interesting historic towns. Tourists will also enjoy the region's cultural attractions and festivals.
Worth traveling to Auvergne in the winter for, the Sancy Snow Jazz festival presents a program of New Orleans jazz, swing music, and traditional genres of jazz. The line-up includes high-caliber musical artists like Grammy award-winning jazz musician Leon "Kid Chocolate" Brown; renowned pianist and composer David Torkanowsky; and Enrico Tomasso, five-time winner of the British Jazz Awards. Check ahead of time to see the festival's schedule and plan your trip.
Winter is a quiet, peaceful time in the Auvergne region. For those seeking a relaxing getaway, the historic spa towns of Auvergne provide a tranquil and rejuvenating experience.
The Hôtel des Thermes les Dômes is a contemporary-style spa and hotel in the elegant Belle Epoque spa town of Vichy. In the center of Vichy surrounded by a beautiful garden, the Thermes de Vichy offers spa stays year-round including thermal mineral water baths and wellness treatments.
Châtel-Guyon, another Belle Epoque spa town about five kilometers from Riom, has a modern spa facility that offers spa and mineral bath treatments along with garden views. The Hôtel Spa Thermalia features an on-site restaurant and a spa with a pool, sauna, and Jacuzzi.
For spa or ski vacations, Le Mont-Dore is a good choice. Le Mont-Dore has a thermal spa resort, as well as ski areas within the Parc Naturel Régional des Volcans d'Auvergne. There are opportunities for cross-country skiing and downhill skiing on the Massif du Sancy.
7. Loire Valley
Visiting the Loire Valley feels like stepping into a children's storybook. A landscape of lush forests and gentle rivers is dotted with sumptuous castles featuring turreted towers or elegant mansard roofs. In wintertime, the fairy-tale castles of the Loire Valley look even more enchanting under a fresh dusting of powder snow.
The holiday season offers the chance to see the chateaux decked out with Christmas adornments. Some of the Loire Valley castles also host Christmas events.
The magnificent Château de Chambord features lavish illuminations in the gardens and a giant indoor Christmas tree from December 1st through January 2nd. There are also special events for Christmas at the Château de Chambord, including musical entertainment by costumed performers.
In the town of Blois, the Château Royal d'Amboise features special Christmas decorations in the gardens, as well as in the interior. Other Loire Valley castles that feature holiday decorations include the Château de Cheverny, a 17th-century manor house, and the Château de Chaumont-sur-Loire, which dons colorful Christmas illuminations.
Lille boasts excellent art museums and a hearty local cuisine, which makes it a great place to visit during wintertime, although its does get chilly. From December through February, the average daily temperature ranges from the mid 30s to mid 40s in degrees Fahrenheit. During wintertime, it rains several days per month, and light snowfall is possible.
Must-see tourist attractions in Lille include the Grand Place with its exquisite Baroque Flemish architecture; the Palais des Beaux-Arts (Fine Arts Museums), which presents masterpieces of European art from the 12th through the 20th centuries; and the Musée du Louvre-Lens, an off-site location of the Louvre Museum in Paris, housed in a sleek contemporary-style gallery space about a 30-minute drive or train ride from Lille.
Recommended brasserie restaurants to try include the Estaminet au Vieux de la Vieille, which serves traditional Flemish (northern French) cuisine in a cozy dining room with a wood-beamed ceiling, and L'Estaminet Gantois, which specializes in regional cuisine. L'Estaminet La Vieille France also serves local cuisine in an old-fashioned dining room.
Lille hosts a lively Christmas Market every year from mid-November through December. The event features holiday illuminations and decor, amusement park rides, and dozens of wooden chalets offering Christmastime treats, nativity scenes, Christmas decorations, and artisanal crafts. Visitors can sample gingerbread and hot spiced beverages while browsing the gift items.
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The modern city of Grenoble spreads out around its atmospheric Old Town and affords stunning views of the French Alps. During winter, the snowcapped mountain peaks beckon skiers and outdoor sport enthusiasts.
A good place to stop on the way to ski resorts in the Alps, Grenoble is less than a two-hour drive from Courchevel, one of the top ski resorts in France.
The top attractions of Grenoble include the Fort de la Bastille, which overlooks Mont Blanc and the Massif du Vercors mountain peaks, and the Vieille Ville (Old Town), a maze of winding cobblestone streets lined with historic buildings. Within the Vieille Ville, the Musée de Grenoble presents an excellent collection of European paintings and Impressionist art.
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Why visit Bordeaux during the wintertime? The answer is simple: You will have plenty of museums and monuments to discover. Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the city counts over 350 buildings within its perimeter, which are classified as Historical Monuments.
In the heart of Bordeaux, the Cathédrale Saint-André dates back to the 12th century when it was a stop on the Way of Saint James pilgrimage trail to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. The cathedral was constructed over the centuries and exemplifies French Gothic style.
The Grand Théâtre (which presents ballets, operas, and music performances) on the Place de la Comédie and the Place de la Bourse reveal the Neoclassical architecture that has been favored in Bordeaux since the Age of Enlightenment. At the Place de la Bourse, the Musée National des Douanes educates visitors about the heritage of trading and commerce in Bordeaux.
Bordeaux has several Christmas Markets (Marchés de Noël), including a market held at the Allées de Tourny near the Grand Théâtre. Another favorite Christmas Market is held on the square in front of the Saint-André Cathedral and includes carols, as well as traditional Christmas chalets that sell gifts and holiday season goodies.
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