France

Few countries in the world can rival France for the diversity of its riches, from culture, wine, and gastronomy to exquisite landscapes, charming villages, and sophisticated cities. Throw in a history dating back to prehistoric times, plus the world’s most seductive city, and you have an endlessly fascinating destination. Skiers flock to France’s luxurious resorts, while cyclists and hikers have miles of gorgeous coastline and wooded reserves to explore. Still, cosmopolitans will always feel they’re getting the best deal. Between the countless splendors of Paris and France’s many cultivated cities—Strasbourg, Lyon, Nice, Marseille, Toulouse, and Bordeaux among them—there’s enough to keep visitors busy for a lifetime.

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Photo by Guillaume Flandre/Unsplash

Overview

When’s the best time to go to France?

France is definitely a country for all seasons. There’s no question, however, that April and May are loveliest, especially in the villages of Provence and the Mediterranean, which can be scorching in high season. In summer, the French vacate Paris en masse and festivals abound, from theater in Avignon to opera in Aix. Come fall, everyone heads back to the cities and savvy visitors have the tiny villages and tourist hot spots all to themselves. With the exception of airfare, prices do not fluctuate much from town to town, season to season, but the crowds do—another good reason to go in the off-months.

How to get around France

Paris has two major commercial airports, Charles de Gaulle (where most flights arrive) and Orly. The country’s other international airports are located in Marseille, Lille, Bordeaux, and Lyon. From the international airports, you can easily fly to most places in France via budget airlines like EasyJet, Ryanair, and Transavia.

You could also travel by train. Right from the airport in Paris, you can hop on a TGV (fast train) to dozens of major cities, including Aix-en-Provence, Avignon, Bordeaux, Marseille, Strasbourg, and Toulouse. In the city of Paris, six major train stations serve the entire country with fast, easy, and economical connections to pretty much anywhere you want to go, including points throughout Europe. Prices are cheaper the further in advance you book.

In Paris, Lyon, and Marseille, visitors will find clean, safe, and cheap metro and bus systems. Several of France’s other big cities, like Lille and Toulouse, also offer metros, and most have fast, efficient tramways. For touring smaller towns and villages, a rental car is the way to go—arrange for one before you travel and pick it up at the airport or train station in any major city or town. France has very well-marked roads and accepts both U.S. and international driver’s licenses.

Food and drink to try in France

France is the ultimate destination for food lovers, but you don’t have to be a gastronome to appreciate the country’s diverse culinary scene. In Paris, you’ll find pretty much everything the country has to offer, from haute cuisine to traditional brasseries and tiny bars touting natural wines. Smaller cities are more regional—Provence is known for sunny Mediterranean dishes like bouillabaisse, ratatouille, and tapenade; Brittany and Normandy are famous for lamb, cider, crêpes, and oysters; and Perigord and Dordogne are the places to go for foie gras, wild mushrooms, and every kind of cheese imaginable. The croissant—while most plentiful and so very good in Paris—can be found countrywide.

Paris is ground zero for the country’s drinks scene, though wine and cocktail bars are all the rage and you’ll find them just about everywhere in France. The capital city is also the center of the coffee renaissance, but good cafés have quickly spread to other major cities.

When traveling in France, be mindful that restaurants keep strict hours, almost uniformly from noon to 2 p.m. for lunch and 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. for dinner. Brasseries are the exception—they stay open all day, making them perfect for families. Bars keep slightly longer hours, though for true late-night revelry, you’ll need to find a nightclub.

Culture in France

It’s hard to find a city in France that doesn’t have a museum, historic site, or other cultural attraction; even the smallest towns have something enriching. You could spend years exploring Paris’s legendary arts scene—the city has nearly 100 museums, plus countless theaters, cinemas, opera houses, and monuments—or traveling to places like Honfleur, Rouen, and Provence, which inspired artists such as Monet, Picasso, Cézanne, and Van Gogh. Cities like Nîmes, Marseille, and Lyon offer fascinating vestiges of Roman France, while the extraordinary caves of Lascaux and Chauvet take visitors back 40,000 years.

Festivals abound in France, so it’s a good idea to check what’s on before you go. Some of the more famous events, besides the Cannes Film Festival in May, include the Aix Opera Festival and the Avignon Theater Festival (which, together with its alternative Off Festival, offers more than 500 performances each day). In Paris, visitors can plan around the FIAC and Art Paris fairs for contemporary art, as well as the wonderful Festival d’Automne for the performing arts every October through December. Smaller festivals, including the Menton Lemon Festival and Carnival in Nice, provide an excellent introduction to local life.

Can’t miss things to do in France

There’s no better place to start your visit than Paris. From there, France is your oyster, since the superb rail system makes it simple to reach the rest of the country. Foodies will appreciate France’s historic culinary capital, Lyon, as well as the scenic wine trails through Bordeaux, Champagne, Burgundy, and Provence, while hikers and bikers will love château-hopping in the Loire, sightseeing along the wild Brittany coastline, and exploring the wildflower-strewn trails of the Alps. Snow bunnies can soar down Mont Blanc, summer-ski in Megève, or experience the luxurious après-ski scene in Courchevel, and culture vultures will find sustenance everywhere, from Paris to Provence and beyond.

Practical Information

Travelers from the U.S. do not need a visa to enter France. They will, however, need a passport that is valid at least three months beyond the return date on their airline ticket. The currency in France, like the rest of the E.U., is the euro. Though you can order euros from your bank in advance, there really is no need, as ATM machines abound and typically offer the best exchange rates. While the language is French, many people—especially in Paris—speak at least some English. The voltage is 220 and the plug type is C (two round pins), so if you’re traveling from the U.S., be sure to bring an adapter for electronics and a converter for heated appliances.

Guide Editor

Read Before You Go
Resources to help plan your trip
There’s so much to see and do in Paris, the choices can be almost overwhelming. You can’t leave without visiting the Eiffel Tour, Arc de Triomphe, and the Louvre (just to name a few), but make sure to save time to relax and watch quotidian life unfold in the City of Light.
Offering everything from pastries and sandwiches to pasta, seafood, and Michelin-starred restaurants, Côte d’Azur dining goes far beyond French food—many boast sunny terraces, breathtaking views, and celebrity clientele.
This legendary region, steeped in history and wine, is crowned by the world’s largest urban UNESCO World Heritage site. The countryside is home to rolling vineyards, meandering rivers, and vestiges of Gallo-Roman culture, while the city is full of Gothic architecture, notable art museums, and distinctive restaurants. If you want to experience French wine and culture in equal measure, you can’t do much better than Bordeaux.
This summer I discovered an entirely new, completely relaxing form of travel: river cruising onboard the AmaDolce. The choice to relax, or to explore was mine; one day I’d lounge in my stateroom, balcony wide open, feet on the railing, just watching the world slide by, the next day we’d take bicycles, and race our ship to the next port. It’s a unique way to travel, and best of all, you cover a lot of ground without ever having to pack our bags!
In Normandy, sun-dappled orchards give way to a scenic coastline, known for both its heavy history and beautiful beach towns. Visitors from all over the world flock to this rugged region to see the island monastery of Mont St-Michel, the famous Bayeux Tapestry, and Monet’s former home in Giverny. Equally enticing are the world-class museums, awe-inspiring churches, and famous local products, like fresh seafood, Camembert cheese, and apple brandy.
An independent kingdom until 1532, Brittany still has a rebellious feel, its rocky coasts and windswept beaches conjuring a Celtic—and Druidic—past. History is alive here, especially in the ancient ramparts, half-timbered houses, and picturesque villages that cling to old customs and festivals. Come to this mystical region to experience a very different side of France.
Provence may be known for its sleepy villages, Roman ruins, and endless fields of lavender, but it’s also home to Europe’s Grand Canyon, a famed antique market, and a moving Holocaust memorial. Come for the impressive restaurants and delightful hotels, stay for the truffle hunts, cooking classes, and small-but-mighty museums.
So exceptional is the Loire Valley, with its enchanting châteaus, religious landmarks, and award-winning wineries, that the entire 310-square-mile region, located between Sully-sur-Loire and Chalonnes, was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2000. Lined with vineyards, orchards, and artichoke fields, it’s known as the Garden of France, but the region is about so much more than agriculture. Come here to sleep in a troglodyte cave, learn more about Joan of Arc, ride a mechanical elephant, and, of course, sample the local Sancerre.
Located in the northwest corner of France, the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine are at once proudly French and slightly German. Here, you’ll find traditionally French attractions like soaring cathedrals, manicured parks, and art nouveau mansions, but you’ll also encounter half-timbered houses, historic breweries, and lots and lots of sauerkraut. Visit cities like Metz, Nancy, Strasbourg, and Colmar and you may find yourself wondering what country you’re in, or ride a bike over the Pont de l’Europe and see both France and Germany in one day.
Rolling hills in Provence, leisurely boating in Marseille, the storybook houses of Alsace. This is proof that France is a real-life fairytale.
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