17 Top-Rated Things to Do in France
When planning a trip to France, travelers dream of the Eiffel Tower, elegant Parisian boulevards, the sunny French Riviera, and charming country villages. But often the most memorable moments of a vacation happen when least expected. It might be finding the best buttery croissant at the Paris Métro station, seeing sunlight flood through the stained-glass windows of Chartres Cathedral, or learning new French vocabulary while shopping for antiques at a Provençal market. These special experiences and small adventures go beyond just visiting a monument or a museum; they capture the spirit of the place. By following this list of suggestions for things to do in France, visitors will find ways to get to know the real French culture, meet the locals, and discover the tourist attractions from a different point of view.
1 Watch the Sunset from the Eiffel Tower
For most first-time visitors, the Eiffel Tower is at the top of their must-see list when they arrive in France. While this famous site symbolizes Paris and its romantic ambience, the massive 10,100-ton metallic structure can appear surprisingly unromantic when viewed up-close. For a more enchanting perspective of the tower, visit just before sundown, when the gentle lighting has a magical effect. The grayish framework takes on amber hues and appears more delicate. Ascending the Eiffel Tower in the late afternoon until dusk, visitors will notice golden glows change to rose-colored hues as the sun is setting. Take in the spectacular panoramas of the Paris cityscape from each level of the tower, with the Seine reflecting the stunning colors of sunset and the city's monuments illuminated for the evening. Stay until after sundown to see the nighttime Golden Lighting and Sparkling Lights that glitter on the hour.
For a truly memorable experience, dine at one of the Eiffel Tower restaurants and watch the sun set over Paris while enjoying gourmet cuisine. The casual 58 Tour Eiffel restaurant, on the first level, and the Michelin-starred Jules Vernes restaurant, on the second level, offer breathtaking views. After visiting the Eiffel Tower, tourists may want to take a nighttime Seine River cruise for another gorgeous perspective of the city. The Bateaux Mouches boat tours and dinner cruises depart near the Eiffel Tower at the Pont d'Alma. During a scenic 15-kilometer journey, a Bateaux Mouches boat sails past the Place de la Concorde, the Louvre, the Musée D'Orsay, and the glorious Notre-Dame Cathedral and other illuminated monuments along the way.
2 Stroll Through the Charming Old Quarters of Paris
The Quartier Latin, the Île Saint-Louis, and the Marais are charming neighborhoods where visitors can soak up the ambience of medieval Paris. Ancient churches still chime with antique bells, and winding cobblestone streets lead to quiet, shaded squares. The best place to begin exploring is on the Left Bank in the Latin Quarter, the city's university quarter since the Middle Ages. After discovering the eclectic boutiques and bookshops of the Latin Quarter, tourists can cross the Seine River (at the Petit Pont bridge) to the Île de la Cité (Island of the City) where the Notre-Dame Cathedral is located. This little island in the Seine River epitomizes the Old World charm of Paris. Wander the quiet pedestrian streets, such as the Rue Saint-Louis en l'Île and the Rue le Regrattier, and browse the inviting boutiques. Visit the Eglise Saint-Louis en l'Île, a lovely Baroque church dedicated to Saint Louis (King Louis IX) and then stop for a treat at the Berthillon ice cream parlor. Next, walk across the Seine to the Marais, an atmospheric historic quarter filled with old palaces and mansions. Be sure to stroll around the Place de Vosges, a graceful square lined with Renaissance aristocratic residences. Then amble along the Rue des Francs Bourgeois, a narrow street with many fashionable shops.
3 Make a Pilgrimage to Mont Saint-Michel
One of the most unforgettable places of divine worship in France, Mont Saint-Michel is perched high on an island in the scenic Baie de Saint-Michel in Normandy. The UNESCO-listed Abbaye du Mont-Saint-Michel was built between the 11th and 13th centuries. The dramatic sight called the "Pyramid of the Seas" has inspired devout Christians since the Middle Ages and is still an important pilgrimage destination. To fully appreciate the marvels of this heavenly place and experience Mont Saint-Michel in the most meaningful way, participate in a pilgrimage that follows the footsteps of medieval pilgrims. Every year, at the end of July, modern-day pilgrims cross the Bay of Saint-Michel by foot, in the same way this journey has been approached for centuries. The daytime pilgrimage departs early in the morning from Genêts; the meeting point is the Pont de Genêts bridge. Check in advance with the Sartilly Presbytery as this pilgrimage depends on the sea conditions at low tide. The pilgrimage ends with a mass and vespers at the abbey. Another pilgrimage in July is part of the Entre Ciel et Mer festival of Christian art; the Fraternités Monastiques de Jérusalem (Monastic Communities of Jerusalem) leads an evening pilgrimage between Mont Saint-Michel and Tombelaine, a small rocky tidal island in the Bay of Saint-Michel. This pilgrimage includes a procession by foot at low tide, while singing vespers. Pilgrims then continue to the abbey and are awed by the wondrous sight of Mont-Saint-Michel at night from the perspective on the bay. The spiritual journey culminates at the abbey and ends with a prayer vigil.
4 Discover the Charm of Artists' Villages in Provence
Provençal villages have a special beauty that has always appealed to artists. Many famous Impressionist and Expressionist painters fell in love with the region's quaint medieval villages, the stunning natural landscapes, and the vibrant light of Provence, representing it in colorful works of art. Spend time exploring the hilltop villages and seaside towns of Provence, while discovering more about the artists who lived there.
Saint-Paul de Vence is the quintessential Provençal artists' village. This fortified hilltop town is an atmospheric world of cobblestone lanes, narrow alleyways, and quiet squares enclosed within ancient ramparts, with sensational views at every turn. Many artists have spent time in Saint-Paul de Vence since it became popular in the 1920s. Marc Chagall lived here for 20 years, and during that time, he painted prolifically. The Office of Tourism offers a guided tour of the locations that Chagall painted. Other well-known artists, including Tobiasse, Soutine, Léger, and Calder, also stayed in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, and their works are on display at the Fondation Maeght.
Belgian artist Folon also loved Saint-Paul-de Vence; his creative genius is seen in the mosaics, paintings, sculptures, and stained-glass windows of the Folon Chapel, the 17th-century church that belonged to the White Penitents. Just five kilometers away is Vence, another perched medieval village and thriving artists' community. Many artists painted scenes of the Place Godeau (town square) at the center of the village, and Matisse added his post-Impressionist decorative flair to the stained-glass windows, paintings, and art objects that adorn the Chapelle du Rosaire, in the outskirts of town.
For more hilltop charm, head to Gordes, also a village perché (medieval perched village) that inspired artists Victor Vasarély and Marc Chagall. In the foothills of the Alpilles mountain range, the Saint-Rémy de Provence is a popular tourist destination because of its association with Vincent van Gogh, who stayed here for a year at the Saint-Paul de Mausole asylum. The Musée Estrine displays many of Van Gogh's paintings, and the Tourist Office takes visitors on walking tours to see the sites that Van Gogh painted.
Biot is a tiny village in a lofty hilltop position with magnificent views of the countryside. Fernand Léger lived here briefly, and his villa is now a museum that shows off his works. Biot abounds with art galleries and artisan shops tucked away on quiet side streets. Similarly, the pretty hilltop village of Mougins is full of art galleries and artists' ateliers. Picasso lived in Mougins from 1961 to 1973 and left his mark on the village. Most noteworthy is his vibrant painting in the Chapelle Notre-Dame-de-Vie.
Along the Provençal coastline, the sun-dappled scenery of the Mediterranean Sea lured many artists in the early 20th century. An impressive list of famous painters came to live in the pleasant fishing village of Saint-Tropez. The former Chapelle Notre-Dame de l'Annonciade is a museum displaying the works of Pierre Bonnard, André Derain, Henri Matisse, Paul Signac, Edouard Vuillard, and other artists who spent time in Saint-Tropez. The picturesque seaport of Cassis appealed to Maurice de Vlaminck, André Derain, Raoul Dufy, and Henri Matisse, who came here to soak up the pleasant seaside setting. Artists enjoyed painting the charming waterfront houses of Cassis and little sailboats in the bay.
5 Attend the Royal Serenade at the Châteaux de Versailles
At the Châteaux de Versailles, tourists can walk in the shoes of French aristocrats and take part in a grandiose scene of France's bygone royal court. The Royal Serenade is held from June 20th to September 19th in the early evenings (beginning at 6:30pm) at the UNESCO-listed Châteaux de Versailles, the most opulent palace in France. The serenade brings to life a scene of 17th-century court life, complete with period costumes, Baroque music and dancing, and authentic ceremonies. The festivities take place in the royal apartments and the Hall of Mirrors, where courtiers once waited for an audience with the king. The Musiciens de Saint-Julien musical ensemble and the Compagnie l'Éventail dancing troop entertain audiences. The Royal Serenade may be combined with another event, the Fountains Night Show, for an additional ticket price. During this evening event, the Versailles gardens are beautifully illuminated, and the fountains dance to the sounds of classical music. An impressive fireworks display at 10:50pm concludes the soirée in high-spirited style.
6 Learn to Cook Classic French Cuisine in Burgundy
Gastronomy is the cornerstone of Gallic culture and reflects the country's rich heritage. French gastronomy has been designated by UNESCO on the Intangible World Heritage list. Each region of France has its own distinctive culinary style, but Burgundy is considered the gastronomic center of the country. This appealing rural region boasts France's most renowned dishes: escargot, gougères (cheese puffs), Coq au Vin (chicken stew), and Boeuf Bourguignon (Beef Burgundy).
Budding chefs can become immersed in the Burgundian lifestyle preparing and savoring the delicious dishes. Visit local markets in the morning to shop for ingredients, prepare traditional specialties from scratch, and linger over leisurely meals in grand dining rooms or on sunny garden terraces. Travelers can choose from a wide range of cooking classes and culinary vacations in the region.
Cook in Burgundy offers one-day cooking programs (on Wednesdays) at a historic farmhouse, about 45 minutes by car from Beaune. One of the programs includes a visit to the local market in the ancient Roman town of Autun, where participants meet local artisans, sample cheeses, and select fresh ingredients for the class. After shopping at the market, the group returns to the farmhouse to begin prepping and cooking a four-course menu of appetizers, first course, main course, and dessert.
For a longer program, try the Colors of Burgundy vacation in the country village of Marigny-le-Cahouet, near the noteworthy medieval town of Semur-en-Auxois. Here, in a 400-year-old farmhouse, La Ferme de la Lochere, Chef Katherine teaches guests the art of preparing Burgundian cuisine from fresh seasonal ingredients. The six-night gourmet vacation complete with technique classes includes a visit to the market in Dijon, an afternoon in the delightful town of Beaune, and a meal at the acclaimed 3-star Michelin restaurant Bernard Loiseau. Another excellent culinary vacation is Robert Ash Cookery School, which has a five-night program at a converted farmhouse near the town of Mâcon. The program includes hands-on classes, a visit to Bourg-en-Bresse market, and free time to enjoy the property's garden, sun terrace, and swimming pool.
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7 Bike around Bordeaux
The Bordeaux region boasts some of the most attractive scenery in France. Pedal through picturesque country lanes, winding around vine-covered rolling hills, past grandiose castles and quaint historic villages. Cyclists may plan their own self-guided route or use a tour company to choose a cycling itinerary. A favorite cycling route from Bordeaux is the Roger Lapebie bike path in the Entre-deux-Mer region, an area appreciated for its lush natural landscape. Part of this route runs along the tranquil tree-lined Canal de Deux Mers, called the Canal of the Two Seas because it extends from the Mediterranean Sea (beginning at the port town of Sète) to the Atlantic Ocean (ending at the seaside resort of Royan). Take the Roger Lapebie path to Créon, an interesting medieval town that was once entirely fortified.
Another popular route from Bordeaux is the 51-kilometer ride to Saint-Émilion, a lovely pastoral village with history dating back to Roman times. Saint-Émilion was an important stop on the medieval pilgrimage road to Santiago de Compostela and is designated on the UNESCO World Heritage List because of its historic monasteries and churches. Another worthwhile destination is the Château de Rauzan, about 48 kilometers from Bordeaux. This medieval fortress has vestiges dating from the 13th century and survived the Hundred Years War. Guided tours of the Château de Rauzan are available by reservation. Shorter rides from Bordeaux include the 6.5-kilometer route to Pessac, famous for its Le Corbusier architecture, and the 29-kilometer route to the village of Margaux, known for its gastronomy.
8 Experience a Candlelight Evening at Château Vaux-le-Vicomte
Tourists can spend a magical summer evening at the Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte, about 50 minutes from Paris by train and shuttle. From May 2nd to October 3rd, Candlelight Evenings give visitors a chance to discover the beauty of the château at nighttime. The formal French gardens were designed by Le Nôtre, who also created the gardens at the Château de Versailles. Visitors may wander the enchanting gardens, which are illuminated by 2,000 candles. At this elegant estate, surrounded by an idyllic pastoral setting, visitors are transported to another world and relive the romance of the Grand Siècle. A dazzling display of fireworks just before 11pm adds to the excitement. Candlelight Evenings begin at sundown and conclude at midnight. Guests may arrive as early as 2pm to visit the interior of the château before it closes around 6pm. Those who arrive around mealtime may take advantage of the château's self-service cafeteria or the upscale fine dining restaurant overlooking the garden. In addition, an outdoor lounge serves fruit juice and macaroons while entertaining guests with classical Baroque music.
9 Be Inspired at the Chartres Cathedral Organ Festival
A magnificent place of spiritual devotion, the UNESCO-listed Chartres Cathedral in the Loire Valley dazzles visitors with its sublime Gothic architecture. The best time to see the cathedral is on a sunny day when sunlight floods the colorful stained-glass windows (although the effect is still wonderful on a cloudy day). To become immersed in the divine ambience, visit during the Festival International d'Orgue (International Organ Festival) organ concerts. The cathedral's renowned Neoclassical pipe organ, with its superb acoustics and marvelous booming tones, reverberates with the luminous sounds of sacred Christian music. Concerts take place every Sunday afternoon in July and August at 4:30pm. With a diverse repertoire and performers from all over the world, the festival offers sensational organ music from various centuries and musical movements. Also in July and August, Chartres hosts Soirées Estivales (Summer Soirees) concerts at various venues throughout the town. The concerts range from classical orchestras, marching bands, and jazz to traditional French songs and Irish folk music. Continuing the musical tradition, the Association des Grandes Orgues de Chartres hosts organ recitals on Thursdays at 9pm at the cathedral.
10 Enjoy Outdoor Performances at Ancient Theaters in Haut-Vaucluse
A gorgeous sun-soaked landscape in the heart of Provence, the Haut-Vaucluse is dotted with interesting historic towns and medieval hilltop villages. One of the most fascinating destinations of this area is Orange, an important town during Roman times. The UNESCO-listed Antique Theater is the best-preserved theater of antiquity in Europe. Once the scene of ancient dramas, dance performances, and other entertainment for a crowd of 7,000 people, the 1st-century theater is still used as the venue for outdoor performances. During summertime, the theater is the venue for a prestigious music festival called Les Chorégies d'Orange. This exceptional cultural event dates back to 1869 and is the oldest festival of its kind in France. As the name suggests, the festival features music in the Greco-Roman choral tradition. The program focuses on classical operas such as works by Puccini and Verdi as well as dramas such as Romeo and Juliet. No expenses are spared to create the incredible stage sets. Adding to the magic are the balmy evening weather and starry night skies.
Ancient Theater Week in Vaison-la-Romaine is another exceptional event that channels the culture of antiquity in Haut-Vaucluse. Held in July at the archaeological site of the Théâtre du Nymphée, the Ancient Theater Week presents authentic drama from antiquity. Performances include comedies and tragedies of antiquity, such as the works of Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Ovid (translated into French). The festival allows visitors to imagine the everyday life of the people who lived here in the 1st-century, when it was a wealthy town. The popular Vaison Dance Festival also takes place in July at the ancient theater of Vaison-la-Romaine.
11 Commune with Nature in the Auvergne Region
The Auvergne region is one of France's most naturally beautiful and unspoiled regions. Many French vacationers come to Auvergne to get away from it all and relax in the peaceful country surroundings. The region boasts two of France's most expansive nature reserves. The Regional Park of Volcans d'Auvergne is especially well-suited for outdoor activities, with excellent trails for hiking, cycling, and horseback riding. Fishing is also possible in the park's freshwater rivers and streams. On the serene Lake Aydat, boating is a popular summertime sport. The Regional Park of Livradois-Forez, with its amazing biodiversity, is an inspiring place for bird watching, nature walks, and hiking.
Auvergne also has many summertime festivals, such as classical music concerts and an international folk festival in July, a music festival and gastronomic festival in August, and the Roi de l'Oiseau (King of the Bird) Festival in September. Whether staying in a town or in the countryside, visitors can enjoy a vacation of outdoor activities along with cultural events.
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12 Shop at the Colorful Markets of Aix-en-Provence
Travelers can soak up the joyous sun-drenched atmosphere of Provence at the colorful markets of Aix-en-Provence. Open-air markets are held several days a week at the city's shaded public squares, also the location of historic monuments including the Hôtel de Ville (City Hall), the cathedral, the Palais de Justice (Law Courts), and the old Post Office. The markets are filled with stalls of fresh fruits, vegetables, flowers, and artisanal culinary products, sold by local farmers and vendors. Many shoppers bring old-fashioned straw baskets to carry their selection of goods.
A must-see tourist attraction, the Aix-en-Provence flower market takes place at the Place de l'Hôtel de Ville, with vibrant blossoms covering the entire square, on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday mornings. For typical Provençal markets featuring fruits, vegetables, and regional food products, head to Place des Prêcheurs and the Place de la Madeleine on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday mornings. A textile market is held on the shady tree-lined Cours Mirabeau on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. In front of the Palais de Justice, at the Place de Verdun, is a crafts and antique market on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday mornings. The most traditional farmer's market is held every day at the shaded square of Place Richelme; here shoppers will find some of the best fruits, vegetables, and regional gourmet food products in Provence. Be sure to take home a gift box of Calissons d'Aix, the famous sweet of Aix-en-Provence: little almond candies shaped like diamonds. The markets open at 8am and end at 1pm (2pm on the Cours Mirabeau). Arrive early for the best selection.
13 Attend the Summer Festival in Carcassonne
The fairy-tale city of Carcassonne is a UNESCO-listed medieval walled city, complete with crenellated ramparts and turreted towers. The charm of the Middle Ages abounds in Carcassonne's tiny alleyways and narrow cobblestone streets. However, during July and August, Carcassonne becomes part of the modern world during the Festival de Carcassonne. This acclaimed festival includes a program of more than 150 performances by renowned French and international artists. Showcasing outstanding artistic talent, the performances include classical music, opera, jazz, rock, and folk music as well as dance, circus, and theater. The festival has around 20 open-air venues such as the Jean Deschamps Theatre, the Place Carnot within the ancient ramparts, and the medieval Château Comtal. Audiences will enjoy being entertained in outdoor theaters under the starry night skies of the Languedoc-Roussillon region.
14 Go Sailing in Saint-Tropez
Although this glitzy French Riviera port city is famous for its harbor filled with private yachts, anyone can enjoy boating on the Mediterranean. It's an exhilarating experience, breathing in the salty sea air while admiring the deep sea blues. Many local companies in Saint-Tropez rent motor boats, sailboats, and yachts for the day, week, or longer. Several boating rental companies are at the Port Grimaud, the marina at the Baie des Canoubiers and the Marines de Cogolin (marina).
15 Attend the Cannes Film Festival
The Cannes Film Festival in May is an exciting event for anyone who loves the cinema and the glamour of film stars. This glittering festival is one of the most popular tourist attractions on the Côte d'Azur. Filmmakers, movie stars, and paparazzi are all in attendance, and crowds of enthusiastic fans arrive in Cannes to check out the red-carpet scene. The Festival de Cannes is also known for supporting and recognizing high-caliber films.
Address: Palais des Festivals et des Congrès, 1 boulevard La Croisette, Cannes
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16 Ski in the French Alps
Imagine gliding through powdery snow on bright sunny days, while taking in spectacular alpine scenery. For skiers, the French Alps is one of the most desired destinations in the world, especially at the ski resorts of Chamonix, Val d'Isère, Les Trois Vallées, and the Portes du Soleil. Skiers are delighted by the traditional mountain villages, the rustic alpine charm, and the superb ski conditions. Chamonix-Mont Blanc is an internationally renowned ski resort and was the site of the first Winter Olympics. Another popular ski area is Val d'Isère with an extensive terrain of more than 150 ski lifts. The mountain village of Val d'Isère also offers après-ski ambience and great restaurants. Les Trois Vallées is the world's largest ski area with 600 kilometers of ski runs; this area connects several ski resorts, including the exclusive Courchevel resort and the typical alpine village of Méribel. To choose from multiple resorts, head to the Portes du Soleil ski area. There are 12 different ski resorts; the best known is Morzine-Avoriaz. During wintertime, the Morzine village's cozy little chalets and rustic lodges offer the perfect accommodations for a ski holiday.
17 Study Art at Monet's Gardens in Giverny
Travelers with an artistic bent will find endless inspiration at Monet's Gardens in Giverny, about an hour outside of Paris. At this splendid location in the lovely Normandy region, ArtStudy Giverny offers retreats for small groups of artists and photographers. The painting workshops are led by acclaimed artists, including Gale Bennett, an internationally renowned painter. Participants have the chance to paint en plein air (outdoors) at the flowering garden sites where Monet, Cezanne, Pissarro, and other famous artists have painted. Retreats are available as eight-day or 11-day sessions, which include instruction, meals, and lodging in the village of Giverny. The best time to take a class is during May and June when the blossoms of Giverny Gardens are in full bloom.