I was recently asked by a client to provide a list of the best places to visit in France during his month long tour. He was already pretty familiar with Paris, but he wanted to explore the rest of the country. This was the list of 20 places that I came up with. I have lived in France for over 10 years and before that I was a frequent visitor to all parts of France. There are some obvious ommissions from the list, for example, Strasbourg, Lille, Bordeaux and Grenoble. But I was mainly focusing on the places that I have visited in France over the years. But looking back through the list now, I think that this is a pretty good start for exploring some fantastic places to visit if you are in France on holiday.
Best places in France to visit # 1 - Mont Saint Michel, Normandy
Every year 2.5 million people visit the site of Mont Saint-Michel, a spectacular castle situated on a rocky outcrop in the sea, off the Normandy coast in Northern France. The Mont-Saint-Michel and its bay are part of the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites. The castle is separated from the mainland by a causeway. Actually, to be precise, over the years this tidal causeway had silted up so the castle had become a part of the mainland, but a project commissioned by the French government in 2006 built an hydraulic dam to make Mont-Saint-Michel an island again. The tides can vary greatly, at roughly 14 metres between high and low water marks. There has been a monastery at St Michel since 708 AD. During the Hundred Years' War, the English made repeated assaults on the island, but were unable to seize it due to the abbey's fortifications. During the French revolution the abbey was closed and converted into a prison. A campaign led by Victor Hugo in the mid 19th Century led to the Abbey being restored and declared an historic monument in 1874.
Best places in France to visit # 2 - Nice/Cannes, Cote d,Azur
If you think of the South of France, then Nice and Cannes spring automatically to mind. Along the 120km coast of the Cote d'Azur, there are many places to stop off and enjoy, such as St Tropez (see below), Frejus, Sainte-Maxime, Cap Ferrat and Cassis; but Cannes with its international film festival and Nice with its exotic buildings and promenade have the wow factor. With its broad avenues, wide sweeping bay and golden beach it is not difficult to see why some 3 million people flock to Nice every year. Only Paris rivals it as a tourist attraction. Equally so, Cannes with its 3 local beaches, narrow streets and celebrity visitors is an excellent base for exploring the South of France.
Best places in France to visit # 3 - Chateau de Chambord, Loire Valley
If you want to visit a Chateau in France, then I would suggest you skip Versailles (strictly speaking this is a palace) and Fontainebleu and head straight to the Loire Valley and see the impressive Chateau de Chambord. Chateau de Chambord is located South West of Paris, close to the lovely towns of Blois and Amboise. Whilst Chateau de Fontainebleau near Paris gets all the visitors and it is certainly an amazing place, my favourite Chateau in France is at Chambord. This is the image you conjure up when you think of a French Chateau, full or turrets and ornate design, as well as a moat. You have got to have a moat if you want a proper Chateau. And there is also deer wandering about as well. A Chateau has to have deer as well! The building, which was never completed, was constructed by King François I. One story tells how it was supposed to be the home for his mistress; another story says that it was supposed to be a hunting lodge. Another (probable) tall story indicate that Leonardo da Vinci may have designed it, but you suspect that he may have been too busy designing helicopters and painting ceilings. The history of the Chateau tends to follow the same pattern with many different generations trying to find a use for it. Napoleon passed it off to one of his Generals. It was used as a field hospital during the Franco-Prussian war and in 1939, shortly before the outbreak of World War II, the art collections of the Louvre and Compiègne museums were stored at the Chateau.
The Loire Valley is a lovely place to explore. Full of interesting little towns, rolling countryside and lots of good wine and cheese. To reach Chateau de Chambord take the A10 from Paris towards Orleans and exit at Mer or the A10 from Bordeaux and exit at Blois. There is a TGV train that runs in between the Montparnasse station in Paris and Tours (around 35 mins). Alternatively you can catch a regional train to Blois.
Best places in France to visit # 4 - La Rochelle
I love La Rochelle. I don't know whether it is the fact it is by the sea, or its history, or its covered walkways, but it just has a great feel to it. We stayed nearby on holiday when our eldest son was just 6 months old and we had a great time. The town is laid out on a grid pattern, with most of the buildings overhanging the pavement and creating these really cool and ornate covered walkways. This is great if you are visiting in the summer because it keeps you in the shade. A lot of the buildings are built from limestone, especially around the port, but you will also see some lovely timber-framed building. La Rochelle has a famous history to it. As one of France's biggest seaports (both for trade and the navy) it featured in prominent battles (including the Battle of La Rochelle during the Hundred Years War) and was also the base from where the early French settlers in America and Canada, including the founders of Montreal, set sail. Apparently, La Rochelle's cobblestone streets are made out of ships' ballast brought back across the Atlantic (I don't know how accurate this story is but you want it to be true). La Rochelle was also a part of England for a long period of time (although don't mention this too loudly). From memory there is a large aquarium in La Rochelle and there are some pretty decent restaurants around the harbour. La Rochelle is also a huge Rugby area and you will see lots of pictures of rugby teams and trophies in the local bars.
La Rochelle is on the Atlantic coast South West of Paris. If you have time, make sure you stop off and visit the Ile de Re (or even better stay overnight). This is a beautiful island just 30 kilometres long and 5 kilometres wide. This is where cool French celebrities go to chill out. Here you can cycle about, visit great seafood restaurants by the ports and paddle in the sea. The island is connected to the mainland by a bridge.
Best places in France to visit # 5 - Lyon
I have been to Lyon quite a few times and luckily on a couple of occasions I have been there on business and have been taken out in the evening and shown around the city by my colleagues. From what I remember Lyon is situated where two large rivers merge (Saône and Rhône). Lyon has a reputation as one of the best places in France for food (there are many good restaurants here) and the local accent is purportedly the 'purest' French that you will find spoken in France. Between the two rivers Lyon has quite a nice historic centre (Fourvière) and there is a lovely bridge that crosses over the river here. To be honest you will probably want to spend most of your time wandering around the old quarter looking at all the shops. But if you do have time, make a stop off at the Parc de la Tete d'Or, which is a large park come zoo on the banks of the Rhone. The Basilica Notre Dame which stands on top of the Fourvière Hill, was constructed in the late 19th century and is OK if you are into churches and that sort of thing. For me it was mainly the view from the hill that made the walk up worthwhile.
Lyon is roughly 2 hours on the TGV train from Paris. It would take you about 4 hours to drive. There is an airport at Lyon, which is about 30km outside of the city to the South East (don't make the mistake I made and catch a taxi, it will cost you a small fortune - catch the train or bus instead, it will cost you about 20% of the price).
Best places in France to visit # 6 - Les Baux de Provence
In the picture-postcard village of Les Baux de Provence, sitting on top of a hill overlooking the surrounding countryside, is a magnificent site. The fortress was first constructed on a rocky spur in the southern part of the Alpilles mountains (or Little Alps) in the 13th Century, when there was a population of around 3,000. Earlier remnants purport to show settlements here going back as far as the Celts in the 2nd Century. Over time the fortress changed hands between rival families and Kingdoms (becoming part of Monaco at one point). Its population eventually dwindled down to about 400 in the mid 19th Century. Interestingly, the name of the village gives its name to the aluminium ore Bauxite, which was first discovered there in 1821.
On the drive up to Les Baux from the lovely Provencal town of St Remy, you will pass through a thick forest, then olive groves and vineyards, before you arrive onto a plateau. Then you will be met with the gorgeous site of Les Baux standing tall over the countryside. The castle walls and village have been painstakingly reconstructed and you get some idea of what it must have been like to live here. At Les Baux de Provence, you will also find the extraordinary Cathedrale d'Images, which uses the natural canvas of the cave walls to projects huge images of people and famous paintings. The Cathedrale d'Images is currently in the process of being upgraded and its reopening is eagerly awaited.
Best places in France to visit # 7 - Vulcania, Auvergne
For me, the Auvergne region is one of the prettiest areas of France from a landscape perspective. Auvergne is a region located in central France, 3 hours due South of Paris. The region includes the mountains of the Massif Central and the wonderful area of Vulcania, with the famous site of Puy-de-Dôme, a volcano to the South-East of the city of Clermont-Ferrand. Vulcania (I have to confess there is no area actually called Vulcania, in strict terms the area is called Puy-de-Dôme, but there should be!) is an area of largely extinct volcanoes. Vulcania also features its own unique theme park dedicated to volcanoes. Built mainly underground, in the Chaine des Puys range of extinct volcano craters, Vulcania features tours, rides and film shows exploring the story of volcanoes. Auvergne is also home to Volvic (of bottled water fame).
Clermont-Ferrand is an okay city. It is a big city, which balances a large industrial sector (it is home to the Michelin tyre company) with many local spa resorts. What is nice about Clermont-Ferrand is that it is quite a low-rise city and the central cathedral towers above the other buildings. It is also a big Rugby town and its team Clermont-Auvergne recently won the French championship. The nearby spa town of Vichy is a very pretty place, although there seems to be a bit of an overhang from its association with the Nazi collaborationist government during the Second World War
Best places in France to visit # 8 - Carcassonne
Carcassonne, South of France, is France's most famous and evocative medieval citadel. Carcassonne is an UNESCO World Heritage Site in the South of France. It is the sheer scale of the castle at Carcassonne that blows you away. There is a full size village inside the walls of the castle. The castle was first established in the 11th Century and in 1209 it was taken by Simon de Montfort during his crusade against the Cathars. He made Carcassonne his capital. In 1299 it came under control of the Royal Court and King Louis IX laid out the plans for the building of the town underneath the Citadel. The Black prince laid siege to Carcassonne in 1355 during the Hundred Years' War, but he was frustrated in his attempts to take the Castle. According to my son, who isn't always to be believed, Carcassonne gets its name from the time of the siege. Eager to show the invaders that they had plenty of supplies (which they did not have) the villages killed the last pig in the castle, then rang the church bells (sonar: 'sonne') and then threw the carcase ('carcasse') of the pig over the walls. Unfortunately, the plan didn't entirely work out as the invaders stayed and burnt down the castle. During the 19th century the castle was extensively rebuilt by Viollet-le-Duc. Some would say that he overdid it somewhat, letting his artistic licence overcome historical accuracy. But nonetheless it remains a fantastic monument.
The best time to visit Carcassonne is on Bastille day (14 July) when the firework display at the castle is second to none. It is very impressive indeed. Carcassonne is situated in the Aude department, 1 hour East of Toulouse and 1 hour to the Mediterranean coast. There is a local airport and regional trains run in between Narbonne and Toulouse.
Best places in France to visit # 9 - St Tropez
Glitzy, sexy, chic, relaxed, rich, sunny, beautiful. Whatever adjective you use to describe St Tropez, it still does not satisfactorily sum up this top South of France resort. Starting with Bridget Bardot and continuing with present day celebrities, St Tropez in the South of France continues to be the summer home of the rich, famous and beautiful. St Tropez's beaches are among the best in the world and its harbour only loses out to Monaco for the impressive array of yachts on show. The town itself is nothing to write home about, an old fishing village that has been gentrified. That is a bit harsh, but it is not as nice as Antibes or Cassis. But what it may lack for in character it more than makes up for in ambiance.
Nearby, Port Grimaud is a seaside town located in between Saint-Tropez and Sainte-Maxime that is always worth a walk around. It was created by architect François Spoerry in the 1960s and built out of the marshes of the bay of Saint Tropez. Built with small canals like Venice, the mainly traffic free town is popular with boat owners as most properties come with their own berth. The beach, located slightly away from town is one long stretch of golden sand. The sea is shallow and gently sloping, making it perfect for families. Windsurfing and kayak hire is also available. Port Grimaud beach does get quite busy during the high season, but it is probably one of the best beaches around St Tropez. If you are looking for a beach near St Tropez, then I would head out for Tahiti beach. It is small, but beautifully formed (just like the bikinis you will see on the beach!).
Best places in France to visit # 10 - Pont du Gard, Uzes and Nimes
The Pont du Gard, South of France, is an extraordinary Roman aqueduct located just north of Nimes. The Pont du Gard is one of 4 UNESCO World Heritage Site located in the South of France. Complete with an excellent visitors centre and Mediterranean garden, the Pont du Gard, is a special place to visit in France. One of my favourite days out with the kids is head off to Uzes, 15kms to the west of the Pont du Gard. We like to potter around in the town and grab some lunch in one of the pavement restaurants in the main square. The we head off for the afternoon at the pont du Gard. The boys like to swim under the arches of the Pont du Gard or take a canoe up the river. In the early evening we then head off to Nimes for a wander around, do some shopping and to grab some dinner. Nimes is a lovely city. The outskirts are a bit scruffy, but the town centre is gorgeous. This city is inextricably linked to its Roman past. Its location on the Via Domitia - the main chariot route from Spain to Rome - helped make it a favourite with a series of Emperors. Today it is endowed with an outstanding collection of monuments including the Maison Carrée, the Amphitheatre and the temple of Diana. It also houses two good art galleries and hosts some of the most colourful festivals in the south of France - February's Carnival and the ferias of Pentecost and September.
Best places in France to visit # 11 - Avignon
Avignon, arrived on the World's stage when in 1303 the Vatican decided to move away from the anarchic violence of Rome and to set up camp in the peaceful banks of the Rhone in Provence. Although the Popes only stayed for 70 years, their legacy can still be seen on the beautiful streets of Avignon. Today Avignon is a charming South France city, often called recognised as the gateway to Provence. The town contains lots of bustling streets and squares. It is also home to the famous Pont du Avignon - famous because of the song and because if you mention this song to any French person they will immediately starting it and dancing with nearby strangers
The Palais des Papes, is the biggest Gothic palace in Europe. Once home of the Sovereign Pontiffs, this Palace with its ceremonial rooms, chapels and private papal apartments, became a symbol of the power of the Christian world in the 14th Century. Avignon is also close to Chateauneuf du Pape, the summer home of the Popes, and internationally recognised as an excellent centre of wine. You can taste the wine at many 'caves' in the village and surrounding Domaines.
Best places in France to visit # 12 - Aix-en-Provence
Aix-en-Provence, often regarded as the central point of Provence, is a very pretty town and you can easily spend a pleasant few days here. It is an excellent base for exploring Provence itself. Aix-en-Provence is famous for being the home of Cezanne. Aix is surprisingly well-equipped with shops and boutiques and there are plenty of pavement restaurants and cafes. The city centre consists of lots of narrow streets and squares. The town is also home to 3 universities and several French-language schools, so you are always surrounded beautiful young students (which is always a good thing!). Aix holds two music festivals each year (Festival d'Aix-en-Provence) and it has a reputation as being an arty town. Aix is just 30km from Marseille. What I would say is if you want to chill out and be somewhere clean and comfortable, then stay in Aix. If you are looking for a bit of life with an edge, then head on down to Marseille, especially around the Old Port area. The restaurant "Boite à Sardine" is one of the trendiest places to be in Marseille. It is only open at lunch time and has only 12 tables, but this restaurant inside a fishmonger is the hottest ticket in town.
Best places in France to visit # 13 - Arles
It is a difficult choice, but I think that Arles is my favourite city in the South of France. With its Roman heritage - complete with Amphitheatre, Forum and Theatre; beautiful 17th Century mansions, mazy streets, modern Museums and wide rolling river; Arles has it all. Arles was made famous as the base for Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin, during their ill-fated but successful partnership in the 'Studio of the South'. Here Van Gogh painted some of his most famous masterpieces. It has been estimated that the 40 paintings that Van Gogh and Gauguin produced during their 3 month stay are now collectively worth over $120 million, yet they never sold a single painting during this time.
Arles is located on the edge of the Camargue, due South from Avignon and East of Nimes. You can pick up the TGV at either Nimes or Avignon and you can fly to Marseille or Montpellier.
Best places in France to visit # 14 - Aigues Mortes
Spending time in Aigues Mortes is never a hardship. This medieval walled town is romantically set among the plains of the Camargue. A tour of Aigues-Mortes' walls and grid pattern streets is a must on any visit to the South of France. Although popular with tourists in the height of Summer, you can nonetheless still spend a very pleasant day wandering around the shops and eating at the pavement restaurants in the centre. Aigues-Mortes, South France, was originally intended to be the principal port in the South of France. It was founded in 1246 by Louis IX, who used the Port as his base for two expeditions from the South of France to Cyprus and Tunis (where he met with his death). For a time the town prospered from the nearby salt beds, but by the end of the 14th century Aigues-Mortes had become a back-water town, with its port area being swallowed up with silt. The town seems to have ambled through history up until the 19th century when it was rediscovered as a place to visit.
Best places in France to visit # 15 Beaune
Beaune is the capital of the Burgundy wine region (or Bourgogne as it is spelt in France). It is a very pretty place and I would definitely recommend that you go and visit the Hospices de Beaune, which was was founded in 1443 by the Chancellor of Burgundy, as a hospital for the poor and needy. The building and courtyard really is very beautiful and a fine example of medieval architecture. The story I like about this hospital however is not about the care it gave out, but the wine. Every year in November a wine auction was organised and the local wine merchants and produces competed to sell their best wine. The prices paid for the wine at this auction effectively set the market wine price for Burgundy for the rest of the year. But the best bit is that all of the proceeds were donated to support the upkeep of the hospice. It is not often that enterprise and philanthropy combine in such a neat package.
The other thing to do when you are in Beaune is to go on a wine tour at the Marché aux Vins. We went there with some good friends over from the States. It is not free, you have to pay €10 for this little silver tasting bowl (or soupcon). Well given that there were 4 adults we were too tight to pay for 4 bowls, so our wives pretended to be teetotal. There is a guide who takes you down into the old cellars and explains some of the history. Once this is over, you can then go to the wine barrels with little taps and pour yourself a little wine to taste. The general idea is that you should taste the wine then spit it out. But when you have paid €10 you want to get your money's worth. Well, as soon as the guide's back was turned we would be filling up the tasting bowl again and passing it around everyone. Even the children were tasting the wine. The thing that they don't tell you at the entrance is that there are about 30 wines to taste. So by the end of the tour you are absolutely spannered. We were all pissed, the children were all big eyed and blurry. We walked through the wine shop (minimum price €25 per bottle) with our heads held high and went to a nearby park and slept it off.
Beaune is also great for shopping with lots of patisseries and chocolatiers. The old town ramparts are also nice to walk around. Beaune was also the home for a period of time of the Chevrolet brothers (of car racing fame). Beaune is located between Paris and Geneva, about 2 hours from Paris. Close-by you will find Dijon and Lyon is just over an hour to the South. The train station is served by the TGV, through Dijon or Lyon.
Best places in France to visit # 16 - St Guilhem le Desert
The ancient village of St Guilhem, now designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, is widely regarded as the prettiest village in the South of France. Once a refuge for fleeing Protestants (Huguenots) during the 15th and 16th Centuries, St Guilhem's history dates back to 800 AD when the Abbey and village was founded by Charlemagne's counsellor Guilhem, who returned to Languedoc from Rome. Hugging the western banks of the Gorges de l'Herault in Languedoc, the village is almost camouflaged amongst the rock. The village itself is absolutely stunning, consisting of narrow windy lanes leading down to the Gorge. We always go for a meal in the square at the top end of the village, near the church. There is always a nice atmosphere here. There is also a very nice little lake nearby, close to the Pont du Diable bridge and the Grotte de Clamouse underground caves. At the lake you can swim in lovely cool and clear water and hire canoes to paddle up the Gorge. Our boys love to stop off at the end of the Gorge and hurl themselves off the rocks (imitating the crazy teenagers who jump off the Pont du Diable bridge into the gorge 30m below).
You will find St Guilhem le Desert in the Languedoc region of South France. It is located in the middle of the triangle between Montpellier (20km west), Lodeve (15km east) and Clermont l'Herault. The best route is from Gignac, through Aniane on the D32. As you leave Aniane you take the D27 towards St-Guilhem-le-Desert. It is well signposted to St Guilhem (and also Grotte de Clamouse).
Best places in France to visit # 17 - Pyrenees
The Pyrenees National Park is visited by 1.8 million people each year. Located along the border of France and Spain, the Pyrénées National Park is a mainly mountainous landscape which offers a wide variety of outdoor activities including hiking, skiing, mountain climbing and observing wildlife. Apparently the park is home to 70 different species of animals, including bears and wolves (yep, camping got crossed off my list when I heard that). What always amazes me is that once I was staying in the ski resort of Font Romeu and I was talking to a hotel owner and I was saying I bet you can't wait until the Skiing season is over. He replied, "what do you mean, we are busier in the summer than the ski season". The Pyrenees is flooded with walkers and climbers (as well as lunatic cyclists attempting the Raid Pyrénées. For some amazing scenery, clear fresh air and peace and quiet, the Pyrenees is the place to be.
Best places in France to visit # 18 - Millau Bridge
The Millau Viaduct, was when it was built, the tallest bridge in the world. It was designed by the French structural engineer Michel Virlogeux and British architect Norman Foster and was opened in 2004. The bridge is apparently designed to last 120 years and given that it cost around €400 million you would have to hope that it does. The bridge is part of the A75-A71 autoroute from Paris to Beziers and I have to say that it is well worth a detour. It is not until you get on the bridge that you realise how high you are. At its highest point the road deck is 270 metres (890 ft) above the valley below. If you are travelling south from Paris, make sure that you stop off at the viewing point before you actually cross the bridge. You can then take your photos and wonder how the hell they managed to build the thing. If you are driving north up the A75, we always stop after crossing the bridge and then drive down into the town of Millau and loop back under the bridge. Here you can stop and visit the Viaduct Visitor Centre. After a quick tour around here, you can then follow the road around to Roquefort - of cheese fame - and visit the caves and have a cheese tasting.
Best places in France to visit # 19 - Monte Carlo, Monaco
Yes alright, I know it is not strictly French, but you have to include Monte Carlo, Monaco in any list of places to visit in France. This tiny but wealthy Principality, covering just one square mile, is the World's smallest Sovereign state after the Vatican. When the state was faced with bankruptcy in 1848, the then Prince of Monaco (Charles III), decided to open a casino. The profits of the famous casino soon proved to be so large that all taxes were abolished and the grateful citizens renamed the hill by the casino 'Monte Carlo' (Mount Charles). Today it is a glitzy place, home of not just the rich and famous but also a legendary Grand Prix. If you get beyond all the enormous yachts and showy jewellery shops, I have always found Monte Carlo quite pleasant to walk around and not too expensive. The view from the top of the Monte Carlo hill up near the castle is absolutely amazing.
Best places in France to visit # 20 - Pezenas
Widley acknowledged as the prettiest small town in South France, Pezenas is a joy to spend time in. This former capital of Languedoc contains many splendid buildings. It was for a short period of time, the home of Moliere, the French playwright. Today it is now a haven for antiques and a fabulous Saturday market. The beauty of the town just grows on you the more time that you spend walking its ancient streets. Pezenas is also situated amongst some of the best vineyards in the South of France. You are close at hand to sample some excellent Picpoul de Pinet white wines, red and rose wines from Faugeres, as well as wines from the Coteaux de Pezenas.