11 Best Places to Visit in France in Winter
Winter is an enchanting time to visit France. Besides the crisp weather, the absence of crowds makes sightseeing more enjoyable and allows you to reserve tables at desirable restaurants more easily.
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.
During the holiday season, the cities and villages of France take on a magical ambiance. The elegant avenues and boutiques of Paris sparkle with lavish decorations and holiday lights. In the small towns, traditional Christmas markets tempt you with 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 evening or sipping hot chocolate at a refined tea salon on a drizzly afternoon in January.
If you appreciate visiting uncrowded museums and monuments, winter is the best time to visit France. You will be able to stay at hotels for reduced rates during the 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 as long as you'd like admiring the Mona Lisa without anyone obstructing your view.
During winter, the world-class museums of Paris invite you to come in from the cold and wander the awe-inspiring galleries. 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 (which presents candlelit concerts) 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 and exquisite illuminations. Traditional outdoor Christmas markets (Marchés de Noël) kick off the holiday season, around the end of November or early December. 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 des Tuileries at the Jardin des Tuileries which includes rides and games for kids, and the Marché de Noël Notre-Dame de Paris next to Notre-Dame Cathedral.
If you love holiday treats, be sure to visit Le Chalet de Noël du Ritz Paris. This old-fashioned Christmas market gives you a chance to sample gourmet holiday treats like gingerbread and apple strudel prepared by the pastry chef at the Ritz Paris.
During wintertime, the cozy bistros of Paris provide a welcome escape from chilly weather. 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.
A favorite 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.
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.
If you're seeking a world-class ski destination in a picture-perfect setting, consider planning a trip to Chamonix. This little village at the foot of Mont Blanc exudes old-fashioned alpine charm, seen in its traditional wood-beamed chalets and cozy restaurants. The area also brims with tourist attractions.
A thick blanket of snow covers Mont Blanc during wintertime, and the nearby ski resorts of the French Alps take advantage of the powder conditions. Some of the top ski resorts in France are a short drive from Chamonix, including Les Grands Montets Ski Resort (just 8 kilometers away), the Domaine de Balme (18 kilometers away), and Les Houches Ski Resort (about 8 kilometers away).
You will find stylish lodges and upscale hotels in Chamonix such as Les Grands Montets Hôtel & Spa, the charming Hôtel du Clocher which has mountain views, the historic Park Hôtel Suisse & Spa, and the Belle Epoque Hôtel Mont-Blanc which offers five-star amenities.
This UNESCO-listed city has a rich history and brims with cultural attractions. You could keep busy for several days just visiting the museums and dining at cute bistros.
Put the Musée des Beaux-Arts on the top of your must-see list. The prestigious collection displays masterpieces of European painting from the 15th through the 20th centuries, along with sculptures, antiquities, decorative arts, and graphic arts.
To discover the city's ancient Roman heritage, head to the Musée de la Civilisation Gallo-Romaine. The museum gives you a sense of the ancient Roman city (called "Lugdunum") that thrived here long before the town became known as Lyon.
Considered the French culinary capital, Lyon holds a place of honor in the gastronomic heritage of France and is celebrated for its hearty traditional cuisine. Farmlands of the nearby Auvergne and Provence regions and the cheesemakers of the Alps supply the finest ingredients.
On cold winter days, you will gravitate towards Lyonnais classics, like lamb stew and roast chicken in morel sauce, because these dishes are rich and warming comfort foods.
Try the certified "Bouchons Lyonnais" (bistros) found throughout the city such as La Meunière and La Tête de Lard in the Presqu'île district; the Café du Jura, a family-run bistro that opened in 1867; and Daniel & Denise in the Croix-Rousse district, the historic silk workers' quarter. These inviting little bistros offer a friendly ambiance and authentic regional cooking.
If you appreciate haute cuisine, then reserve a table at the Restaurant Paul Bocuse. This Michelin two-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.
4. Alsace Villages
Enjoy the magic of Christmas in the Alsace villages of northeastern France. These enchanting little towns burst with festivities during December. Lovely decorations adorn the pastel-painted half-timbered houses, and the town squares feature holiday-themed centerpieces or illuminated Christmas trees.
You will be treated to seasonal goodies and hot spiced beverages, as you shop for gifts at the Marchés de Noël. Take your time and soak up the convivial ambiance at these traditional outdoor Christmas markets.
The historic town of Obernai hosts a Marché de Noël, where local vendors sell their artisanal crafts. It's a good place to start your Christmas shopping.
Your sweet tooth will be tempted by the Christmastime baked goods, such as gingerbread and kougelhopf (brioche cake studded with raisins and almonds), at the Marché de Noël in Kaysersberg, a quaint town with many half-timbered houses.
In early December, the picturesque village of Ribeauvillé holds a Medieval Christmas Market where you can shop for handcrafted nativity scenes and gourmet specialties inspired by recipes from the Middle Ages. The medieval walled town of Dambach-la-Ville also hosts a traditional Marché de Noël with musical performances.
One of the Plus Beaux Villages de France (Most Beautiful Villages of France), Eguisheim dazzles you with its holiday decorations and events. The Christmas market of Eguisheim has earned the "Cities and Villages of Christmas" designation for its authenticity.
Colmar pulls out all the stops for the Christmas season. This quintessential Alsatian town features 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 and you can easily stroll from one to another.
Do you love downhill skiing in a setting of spectacular scenery? You can't do better than a ski vacation at Courchevel in the French Alps.
Courchevel nestles within Les 3 Vallées, a premier ski resort in France and the world's largest ski area (with seven interconnected ski resorts). Les 3 Vallées (Three Valleys) has 600 kilometers of ski slopes accessible by 158 lifts.
Les 3 Vallées includes four charming historic villages (Brides-les-Bains, Méribel, Orelle, and Saint-Martin-de-Belleville) and three modern villages (Courchevel, Les Menuires, and Val Thorens), with a wide variety of accommodations and dining options including Michelin-starred restaurants.
The historic villages incorporate smaller hamlets: clusters of buildings that center around high-steepled stone churches, dotting the mountainsides and valleys.
6. Nice and Menton
Overlooking 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 bring mild, refreshing weather, around the 50s to 60s Fahrenheit. Winter is not the time to sunbathe at the beach, but you can still find plenty of things to do. 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 (part of the Promenade du Paillon green space near the Promenade des Anglais). 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 from mid-February until early March to celebrate the locally grown lemons. Parades feature dazzling floats and elaborate sculptures like lions and castles, made entirely from citrus fruits.
7. The Auvergne Region
A worthwhile off-the-beaten-path tourist destination, the Auvergne region conceals many surprises: dramatic natural scenery; alluring spa towns; interesting cultural attractions like churches built from volcanic stone; and festivals of jazz, classical music, dance, and street art.
A big draw during winter, the Sancy Snow Jazz festival presents a program of New Orleans jazz, swing music, and classic jazz music. The program line-up includes high-caliber musical artists. Check ahead to see the festival's schedule and plan your trip.
Otherwise, winter is a quiet, peaceful time in the Auvergne region. If you're seeking a relaxing getaway, head to one of the historic spa towns of Auvergne for a rejuvenating experience.
The Hôtel des Thermes les Dômes is a contemporary-style spa and hotel in the Belle Epoque spa town of Vichy. Surrounded by a beautiful garden, this hotel offers spa stays year-round. The spa program includes thermal mineral water baths and wellness treatments.
Châtel-Guyon, another Belle Epoque spa town about five kilometers from Riom (and 45 kilometers from Vichy), has a modern thermal spa facility, Aïga Resort Thermal, that offers massages and has a hammam with steam baths.
The Hôtel Spa Thermalia in Châtel-Guyon features an on-site restaurant, a full-service spa, an outdoor swimming pool, a sauna, and a Jacuzzi.
For spa or ski vacations, Le Mont-Dore is a good choice. Le Mont-Dore has a thermal spa resort, Le Mont-Dore - Chaîne Thermale du Soleil, 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.
8. The Loire Valley
The Loire Valley gives you the impression of stepping into a children's storybook. A landscape of lush forests and gentle rivers is dotted with sumptuous castles featuring turreted towers or slate-tiled mansard roofs. In wintertime, the fairy-tale castles of the Loire Valley look even more enchanting under a fresh dusting of powder snow.
During the holiday season, the chateaux are decked out with Christmas adornments. Some of the Loire Valley castles celebrate the season with lavish Christmas events.
Emblematic of the Renaissance, the Château de Chambord delights you with magnificent garden illuminations and indoor decor from December 1st through January 7th. Christmas in Chambord includes music concerts; medieval dances; games from the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries; and walks led by costume-attired guides. Additional activities (storytime, a Christmas show, and creative workshops) take place during this period on the weekends.
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 adorned for the holidays include the Château de Cheverny, a 17th-century manor house, and the Château de Chaumont-sur-Loire, which decorates its Great Salon, Library, and other rooms with elegant decor.
Lille boasts excellent art museums and hearty local cuisine, welcoming attractions during wintertime, although it 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 Place du Général de Gaulle with its ornate 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. The Estaminet La Vieille France also serves nostalgic cuisine (as a Flemish grandmother would prepare) in an old-fashioned dining room.
Lille sets up a Village de Noël (Christmas Market) every year from mid-November through December. Dozens of wooden chalets offering Christmastime treats, nativity scenes, Christmas decorations, and artisanal crafts. You can sample fresh-baked gingerbread and hot spiced beverages while browsing the gift items.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Lille
Grenoble looks stunning during wintertime, with the French Alps presiding over the city. The snowcapped mountain peaks remind you that downhill skiing is not far away.
Grenoble is a great place to stop on your way to ski resorts in the Alps. The drive only takes two hours to reach Courchevel, one of the premier 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.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Grenoble
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 you 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.