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18 Top-Rated Things to Do in France

Written by Lisa Alexander
Mar 27, 2019

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 are the things you do when taking part in local activities instead of just sightseeing. These special experiences and small adventures go beyond just visiting a monument or a museum, they capture the spirit of the place.

Discover this wonderful country from a different point of view with our list of the top things to do in France.

1. Watch the Sunset from the Eiffel Tower

Watch the Sunset from the Eiffel Tower

Sunset from the Eiffel Tower

One of the most enchanting things to do in France is a visit to the Eiffel Tower in the early evening, when the gentle lighting has a ethereal effect. Ascending the Eiffel Tower in the late afternoon until dusk, visitors will notice golden glows on the horizon change to amber hues. From each level of the tower, the panoramas become even more spectacular as the sun goes down, with the city's monuments illuminated and the Seine River reflecting the stunning colors of sunset. Another bonus, every evening the Eiffel Tower is decked out with glittering lights that sparkle for five minutes on the hour.

For a truly memorable experience, tourists can watch the sunset while dining at one of the Eiffel Tower restaurants: the casual 58 Tour Eiffel bistro on the first level or the Michelin-starred Le Jules Verne gastronomic restaurant on the second level. Breathtaking views are available from the dining rooms of both restaurants.

2. Take a Seine River Cruise

River cruise along the Seine

Cruising the Seine River is a fun way to see all of Paris' top sights while enjoying a relaxing experience. The Compagnie des Bateaux-Mouches offers scenic boat tours, sailing past the Place de la Concorde, the Louvre, the Musée D'Orsay, the Notre-Dame Cathedral, and other landmarks along the way. Tourists can choose from a variety of Bateaux-Mouches boat tours, including daytime boat tours, brunch or lunch cruises, and romantic dinner cruises. At night, the monuments along the Seine are illuminated, creating a truly captivating impression. The Bateaux-Mouches kiosk is located at Pont de l'Alma near the Eiffel Tower.

3. Stroll through the Charming Old Quarters of Paris

Stroll Through the Charming Old Quarters of Paris

Stroll through the charming old quarters of Paris

The Quartier Latin, the Île Saint-Louis, and Le Marais are charming neighborhoods, where visitors can soak up the ambience of medieval Paris. 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 and head to the Île de la Cité to visit the Notre-Dame Cathedral, and then cross the Pont Saint-Louis to reach the Île Saint-Louis.

Tourists can soak up the old-world charm while wandering the quiet pedestrian streets of the Île Saint-Louis and browsing the inviting boutiques on the Rue Saint-Louis en l'Île. It's also worth stopping at the Eglise Saint-Louis en l'Île, a lovely Baroque church that was dedicated to Saint Louis (King Louis IX), and then rewarding the effort with a treat from the nearby Berthillon Glacier ice-cream parlor.

The self-guided tour continues by walking across the Seine to Le Marais, an atmospheric historic district filled with old palaces and mansions. Visitors should be sure to stroll around the Place de Vosges, a graceful square lined with Renaissance aristocratic residences, and then amble along the Rue des Francs Bourgeois, a narrow street with many fashionable shops.

4. Make a Pilgrimage to Mont Saint-Michel

Mont Saint-Michel

Soaring above its perch on a rocky island off the Normandy coastline, the Abbaye du Mont-Saint-Michel appears as if a vision from heaven. This marvelous "Pyramid of the Seas" has been a beacon to devout Christians since the Middle Ages, when the abbey church was a stop along the "Way of Saint James" pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Since the 11th century, pilgrims have walked across the Bay of Saint-Michel's sandy shoreline at low tide to arrive at the Mont-Saint-Michel. Modern-day visitors can follow in the footsteps of the medieval pilgrims for a meaningful spiritual experience.

The "Chemins du Mont-Saint-Michel" ("Paths of Mont-Saint-Michel") pilgrimage routes lead to Mont-Saint-Michel from various starting points such as Paris, Rouen, and Tours (and continue on to Santiago de Compostela). Pilgrims walk the routes by foot, in the same way this journey has been approached for centuries. Upon arriving at the abbey, pilgrims are rewarded with the awe-inspiring ambience of an 11th to 13th-century chapel. The Fraternités Monastiques de Jérusalem (Monastic Communities of Jerusalem) perform religious songs three times per day at the abbey church, especially noteworthy for their harmonious polyphonic melodies.

5. Discover the Charm of Artists' Villages in Provence

Discover the Charm of Artists' Villages in Provence

A Provence village | Tim Gage / photo modified

Many famous Impressionist and Expressionist painters fell in love with Provence's quaint medieval villages and sun-drenched seaports, representing the gorgeous scenery in colorful works of art. The medieval hilltop town of Saint-Paul de Vence has been popular with artists since the 1920s. Marc Chagall lived here for 20 years, and during that time, he painted prolifically. The Office of Tourism offers "In the Footsteps of Marc Chagall" tours.

Belgian artist Jean-Michel Folon adorned the Folon Chapel with splendid paintings, sculptures, and stained-glass windows. Other well-known 20th-century artists also found inspiration in Saint-Paul de Vence, and their works are on display at the Fondation Maeght.

Near Saint-Paul de Vence is another perched medieval village, Vence, worth a detour to see the Chapelle du Rosaire in the outskirts of town. Matisse added his post-Impressionist decorative flair to the stained-glass windows, paintings, and art objects that adorn the chapel. Saint-Rémy de Provence is famous for its association with Vincent van Gogh, who stayed here for a year at the Saint-Paul de Mausole asylum. The Musée Estrine displays works by Vincent van Gogh and his contemporaries. Over 20 of the sites in Saint-Rémy de Provence that the artist painted are indicated on the "Promenade dans l'univers de Vincent van Gogh" trail.

Biot is a tiny village in the countryside where Fernand Léger resided briefly. The Musée National Fernand Léger is dedicated to the artist's works and display a collection of 450 pieces. Biot abounds with art galleries and artisan shops tucked away on quiet side streets. Just 12 kilometers from Biot, the lovely little village of Mougins is also full of art galleries and artists' ateliers. From 1961 to 1973, Picasso resided at an estate six kilometers outside of Mougins near the Chapelle Notre-Dame-de-Vie, an ancient hermitage chapel that now houses a collection of Picasso photographs.

Along the Provençal coastline, the sun-dappled scenery of the Mediterranean Sea lured many artists in the late 19th to early 20th century. An impressive list of famous painters, including Paul Signac, Pierre Bonnard, André Derain, and Henri Matisse, spent time in the fishing village of Saint-Tropez. Taking advantage of the southern light, the artists created vibrant paintings of the old port and other sights in and around Saint-Tropez. The Musée de l'Annonciade displays an excellent collection of these paintings.

The pleasant seaport of Cassis appealed to Post-Impressionist painters, who captured the picturesque harbor and charming waterfront houses of Cassis in colorful works of art.

6. Attend the Royal Serenade at the Château de Versailles

Dancers performing at Château de Versailles | Maurits Verbiest / photo modified

A soirée at the Château de Versailles offers a glimpse into the bygone world of French aristocrats and their lavish royal court. Every Saturday evening during summertime, the Royal Serenade is held throughout the château's royal apartments, grand salons, and in the opulent Hall of Mirrors.

The serenade brings to life a scene of 17th-century court life, complete with period costumes, Baroque music, and dancing. The festivities take place in the Hall of Mirrors, where courtiers once waited for an audience with the king. The Folies Françoises musical ensemble and the Compagnie de Danse l'Éventail dancing troop entertain audiences.

7. Learn to Cook Classic French Cuisine in Burgundy

Learn to Cook Classic French Cuisine in Burgundy

Escargots | Craig Hatfield / photo modified

The cornerstone of Gallic culture, the French gastronomic meal has been inscribed on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list. Each area of France has its own distinctive culinary style, but the Burgundy region boasts some of France's most renowned regional dishes: escargot, gougères (cheese puffs), Coq au Vin (chicken stew), and Boeuf Bourguignon (Beef Burgundy).

If you're looking for French activities, cooking classes provide an immersion into the Burgundian lifestyle and culture, with visits to local markets to shop for ingredients, instruction in preparing traditional specialties, and then savoring the delicious meals. Choose from a wide range of culinary classes and vacations in the region.

American expats Marjorie Taylor and Kendall Smith Franchini, a mother-daughter duo, run the Cook's Atelier in Beaune. Their one-day cooking courses or five-day culinary vacation introduce participants to the delights of Burgundian cuisine. In the country village of Marigny-le-Cahouet, Katherine Frelon's Culinary School offers seven-day culinary vacations at a 400-year-old farmhouse. Highlights are the trips to Dijon and Semur-en-Auxois and lunch at a Michelin-starred restaurant.

The six-day culinary program at the Robert Ash Cookery School includes hands-on classes, visits to local markets, and free time to enjoy the property's garden, sun terrace, and swimming pool.

8. Bike around Bordeaux

Rental bike in Bordeaux

The Bordeaux region boasts some of the most attractive scenery in France: vine-covered rolling hills, 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. After about 20 kilometers from Bordeaux, the Roger Lapebie path leads to Créon, an interesting medieval town that was once entirely fortified.

Another popular bike route is the 50-kilometer ride from Bordeaux to Saint-Émilion, a beautiful pastoral village that is designated on the UNESCO World Heritage List because of its historic monasteries and churches. A captivating old castle awaits at the end of the 45-kilometer route from Bordeaux to the Château de Rauzan. The château is open to the public for visits, and guided tours are available by reservation. Shorter rides include the six-kilometer route from Bordeaux to Pessac, where visitors can admire Le Corbusier architecture, and the 29-kilometer route from Bordeaux to Margaux, a village known for its gastronomy.

9. Experience a Candlelit Evening at Château Vaux-le-Vicomte

Château Vaux-le-Vicomte grounds illuminated by candles

Tourists can spend a magical summer evening at the Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte, less than an hour away from Paris by train and shuttle. On Saturday nights from early May through early October, the "Soirées aux Chandelles" (Candlelight Evenings) give visitors a chance to discover the sumptuous château interior and its enchanting gardens, illuminated by 2,000 candles. At this exquisite estate, visitors are transported to another world and relive the romance of the Grand Siècle.

A fine-dining restaurant allows guests to take in the dreamy scene while enjoying a gourmet meal. Candlelight Evenings begin at sundown and conclude at midnight; fireworks take place at 11pm.

Official site: http://vaux-le-vicomte.com/en/news/the-candlelit-evenings/

10. Be Inspired at the Chartres Cathedral Organ Festival

Be Inspired at the Chartres Cathedral Organ Festival

Chartres Cathedral

During the Festival International d'Orgue (International Organ Festival) organ concerts, the Chartres Cathedral's renowned pipe organ brings inspiring sounds of sacred Christian music to the sublime sanctuary.

Concerts take place every Sunday afternoon in July, August, and September. With a diverse repertoire and performers from all over the world, the festival offers sensational organ music from various centuries and musical movements. The Association Grandes Orgues de Chartres also hosts Soirées Estivales (Summer Soirees), free organ concerts on Thursday evenings in July and August at Chartres Cathedral.

Chartres Cathedral - Floor plan map

Chartres Cathedral Map

11. Enjoy Summer Outdoor Performances in Haut-Vaucluse

Enjoy Outdoor Performances at Ancient Theaters in Haut-Vaucluse

Ancient theater in Haut-Vaucluse

During summertime, the UNESCO-listed Théâtre Antique d'Orange 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. Held from June through August, the festival presents classical operas and music concerts, as well as dramas such as Romeo and Juliet. No expenses are spared to create incredible stage sets. Balmy evening weather and starry night skies add to the ambience.

Ancient Theater Week in Vaison-la-Romaine is another exceptional event held at an ancient theater, Théâtre du Nymphée, in July. Performances include comedies and tragedies of antiquity, such as the works of Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Ovid. 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. In June and July, the Vaison Danses festival presents ballet, jazz, hip-hop, and modern dance performances at the ancient theater and other venues in Vaison-la-Romaine.

12. Commune with Nature in the Auvergne Region

Commune with Nature in the Auvergne Region

The Auvergne Region

Many French vacationers come to Auvergne to get away from it all and relax in the peaceful natural surroundings. The region has two of France's most expansive nature reserves. The Regional Park of Volcans d'Auvergne offers plenty of things to do for outdoor anthusiasts. This is one of the best places to visit in France to go hiking, cycling, and horseback riding. Fishing is also possible in the park's freshwater rivers and streams. On the serene Lake Aydat, swimming and boating are favorite summertime sports.

The Regional Park of Livradois-Forez, with its amazing biodiversity, also abounds with opportunities for bird-watching, nature walks, and hiking.

Auvergne also has many summertime events, such as the Concerts de Vollore classical music performances in July, International Street Theater Festival in August, and the Roi de l'Oiseau (King of the Bird) Renaissance Festival in September. Whether staying in a town or in the countryside, visitors can enjoy a vacation of outdoor activities along with the cultural happenings.

13. Shop at the Colorful Markets of Aix-en-Provence

Shop at the Colorful Markets of Aix-en-Provence

Aix-en-Provence market

Soak up the colorful local culture of Provence at the open-air markets of Aix-en-Provence. Every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday morning, the flower market fills the Place de l'Hôtel de Ville with stalls of vibrant blossoms. The "Grand Marché" (Large Market) is a typical Provençal market held in two places on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday mornings: At the Place des Prêcheurs, vendors sell fruits, vegetables, and artisanal food products, while the Place de Verdun hosts the antiques market, which also includes furnishings, books, and clothes. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, a Provençal textiles market is held at the Cours Mirabeau.

A traditional farmers market is held every day at the shaded square of Place Richelme. Here, locals shop for their groceries, such as fresh produce, cheese, olive oil, and fish, to prepare daily meals. Tourists who peruse this market may want to take home a gift box of calissons d'Aix, a specialty of Aix-en-Provence: little almond candies shaped like diamonds. Shoppers should arrive early for the best selection.

In December, the Cours Mirabeau is transformed into a festive Christmas market (Marché de Noël) with charming decorations and lively entertainment. For this special occasion, the Cours Mirabeau is lined with dozens of "chalets" selling handcrafted artisanal gift items, local treats like brioche des rois (kings' cake), and warming beverages such as hot cider.

14. Attend the Summer Festival in Carcassonne

Attend the Summer Festival in Carcassonne

The Summer Festival in Carcassonne | Jean-Baptiste Bellet / photo modified

The fairy-tale medieval city of Carcassonne becomes part of the modern world every year during July for the Festival de Carcassonne. This acclaimed festival presents a diverse program of 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 and theater.

The festival uses several open-air venues such as the Jean Deschamps Theater, the Place Carnot within the ancient ramparts, and the 13th-century Château Comtal. Audiences will enjoy being entertained in outdoor theaters under the starry night skies.

Carcassone Map - Tourist Attractions

Carcassonne Map - Attractions

15. Go Sailing in Saint-Tropez

Go Sailing in Saint-Tropez

Saint-Tropez

Although this glitzy French Riviera resort is famous for its harbor filled with private yachts, anyone can go sailing 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 found at the Vieux Port (Old Port) and the Marines de Cogolin (marina).

16. Attend the Cannes Film Festival

Attend the Cannes Film Festival

The red carpet at 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

17. Ski in the French Alps

Ski in the French Alps

Skiers in the French Alps

The French Alps is a winter wonderland of powdery snow on bright sunny days and spectacular alpine scenery. For skiers, the French Alps is one of the most desired destinations in the world, appreciated for its quaint mountain villages, rustic alpine charm, and superb ski conditions.

The first Winter Olympics took place at Chamonix-Mont Blanc and since then the epic mountain peaks of the Alps have been renowned for their challenging alpine slopes. The wide variety of ski runs and top-notch resort facilities make the French Alps a world-class skiing destination.

The legendary ski resort of Chamonix-Mont Blanc has a wide range of slopes, plus the village of Chamonix is an inviting place to stay. Val d'Isère draws crowds because of its expansive 300-kilometers ski terrain and atmospheric village featuring many restaurants. Les Trois Vallées is the world's largest ski area with 600 kilometers of ski runs, including the exclusive Courchevel resort and the quaint alpine village of Méribel.

Some of the best ski resorts in France are found at the Portes du Soleil ski domain; the best known is Morzine-Avoriaz. Cozy little chalets and rustic lodges in the village of Morzine are the perfect accommodations for a ski holiday.

18. Study Art at Monet's Gardens in Giverny

Study Art at Monet's Gardens in Giverny

Giverny

Travelers with an artistic bent will find endless inspiration at Monet's Garden in Giverny. At this splendid location in the bucolic 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 sites where famous Impressionists have painted. Retreats are available as eight-day or 11-day sessions, which include instruction and lodging in the village of Giverny. The best time to take a class is during May and June, when the blossoms of Monet's Garden are in full bloom.

Official site: http://www.giverny.org/artists/schools/artstudy/index.htm

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