14 of the Dreamiest Places in France

Rolling hills in Provence, leisurely boating in Marseille, the storybook houses of Alsace. This is proof that France is a real-life fairytale.

37 Avenue des Calanques
When my husband and I went to Provence last summer I, uncharacteristically, did not do much planning. When we were checking into our hotel in Aix I saw a picture of the most brilliant blue water in a brochure and I asked the woman at check-in what this was. She told me it was Les Calanques, France’s newest national park, and it wasn’t that far. We set off for the park the next day and parked in the beautiful seaside town of Cassis. What followed was a highlight of our summer. It was hot and dry but the park’s cool blue green waters provided a respite from the heat. We hiked to the first three inlets jumping in to cool off each time. I loved the tingling sensation I felt when I would get out of the bracing water and feel the dry heat start to warm my extremities. Before we knew it, we had been in the park all day and we had to rush to get to our next destination before dinner. I felt alive, I felt like a kid again and it really felt like summer.
50170 Mont Saint-Michel, France
It’s safe to say there’s nothing in the world quite like this magical island, topped by a medieval monastery that rises out of the bay like a heavenly apparition. It’s said that, early in the 8th century, a bishop in nearby Avranches was visited by the archangel Michael, who told him to build a church atop an island out to sea. From 966 onward, the dukes of Normandy, supported by French kings, oversaw the development of a major Benedictine abbey on Mont St-Michel. Massive buildings were added throughout the Medieval period, and the abbey became a renowned center of learning, attracting some of the greatest minds in Europe. To access this UNESCO World Heritage site, you must park in an off-site lot and take a shuttle or walk over a footbridge. Recent improvements have made the process much easier, but you should expect crowds in most seasons, as Mont St-Michel is the third most-visited monument in France. After touring the abbey, head to La Mère Poulard restaurant for the signature omelets and butter cookies. There are also several hotels on the island, though most visitors tend to spend the night elsewhere.
4 Rue de la Herse, 68000 Colmar, France
An incredible French restaurant called Les Bateliers lies over the water just near the Rue Turenne Bridge in Colmar, France, providing a one of a kind view of the colorful historical architecture. If you had to choose one place to eat in Colmar, this would be it. This picture was taken on the bridge overlooking Colmar’s River. The view is known as La Petite Venise, resembling many of Venice‘s streets. I waited for the opportune moment when the eyes of those on the boat met with those at the restaurant, sharing gazes and absorbing the few-seconds of that moment in passing. It was a cloudy day that day, which provided a beautiful soft light over the charming Alsace city. Colmar, France is easily the most picturesque place to visit in Northeastern France, a good day trip out of Strasbourg. If you don’t come for the food, staying for the scenery is just as good.
Last summer, Tim and Kathy Turner took a break from the Mont Blanc hiking circuit for a night at Refuge des Mottets, a French backcountry lodge decorated with cowbells and old iron cookware. The Turners, from the United States, were the only trekkers there besides the jovial members of a French hiking club. All enjoyed a hearty, family-style dinner of beef bourguignon, tomato salad, and homemade bread. After the meal, the lodge’s owner pulled out an accordion, and the club burst into song. “Everyone was swaying back and forth, locked arm and arm,” says Tim. “These were classic French anthems—tunes that every Frenchman knew.” For more than 200 years, hikers from Europe and farther abroad have explored the ancient hunting and trading routes that make up the 112-mile Mont Blanc trail. Named after the highest peak in the Alps, the trek winds through France, Italy, and Switzerland, looping around the Mont Blanc Massif range, past conifer forests, glacial waterfalls, and alpine meadows covered in bright blue gentians and golden buttercups. The co-owner of tour company Distant Journeys, Andrea Ellison Mulla, led the Turners on the 12-day trip. “Andrea often knew three generations of locals at spots along the route—the grandmas, mothers, and daughters,” says Kathy. “We’d stop by a hotel or shop whether we needed to or not, just to say hello or have a coffee.” At night, the travelers stayed in comfortable mountain village lodges, some with wooden balconies draped in red and pink geraniums, or at rustic, family-owned refuges. Tim recalls, “Cultural barriers break down very quickly at the refuges. Everybody comes together to wash the day’s hiking clothes in tubs and string them up on clotheslines. Then you sit down at big, communal tables for a meal of risotto or polenta, plus plenty of beer and wine.” As the Turners experienced, sometimes a spirited round of singing follows. What the couple will remember the most, though, is the way the Europeans approached the trail. “They know how to hike. They just slow down and enjoy it all,” says Tim. “In the States, we’re too damn fast. You don’t need to get there as quickly as possible. Talk to people along the trail. Stop, take off your backpack, have a snack. You’re on vacation.” —Kelly Lack
Boulevard Jardin Zoologique, 13004 Marseille, France
Centered around an elaborate water fountain constructed during the Second Empire, the Palais Longchamp is home to the Natural History Museum, with its cabinets of curiosities and zoological specimens, as well as the Museum of Fine Arts. Here you’ll find a collection of more than 8,000 European paintings, drawings and sculptures dating from the 16th to the 19th century. Highlights include masterpieces from the Baroque artist Pierre Puget, landscape paintings from L’École de Marseille and grotesque busts of politicians by Honoré Daumier. The grounds are worth a promenade for their stylized gardens, a stone grotto and ornamented pavilions.
59 Quai de Paludate, 33800 Bordeaux, France
The crescent-shaped area on the right bank of the Garonne River is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. Of particular note are the splendid neoclassical buildings constructed during the Age of Enlightenment thanks to the wealth of the wine trade. Don’t miss La Place des Quinconces with its grand esplanade and monumental statues or the elegant 18th-century Place de la Bourse designed by Ange-Jacques Gabriel who also designed a number of buildings in Paris and the Petit Trianon at Versailles.
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