1. Enjoy the views in Les Gorges du Verdon
The mighty gorges are Europe’s answer to the Grand Canyon. This wonder offers stunning views, a range of hikes, and colours and scents that are uniquely, gorgeously Provençal. Peppered with spectacular viewpoints, plunging crevices up to 700m deep, and glorious azure-blue lakes, the area is absolutely irresistible. Try not to leave Provence without spending at least a day here.
The river falls from Rougon at the top of the gorge, disappearing into tunnels, decelerating for shallow, languid moments and finally exiting in full, steady flow at the Pont du Galetas at the western end of the canyon. Alongside is the huge artificial Lac de Sainte-Croix, which is great for swimming when the water levels are high. Otherwise, the beach becomes a bit sludgy.
2. Take a stroll through the markets of Aix-en-Provence
Aix is Provence’s regional capital, and with its wonderful market, top-class restaurants and lively bars, visiting it make one of satisfying things to do in France. Were it not for the great metropolis of Marseille, just 30km south, Aix-en-Provence would be the dominant city of central Provence.
The tangle of medieval lanes at the city’s heart, known as Vieil Aix, is a great monument in its entirety, an enchanting ensemble that’s far more compelling than any individual building or museum it contains.
With so many streets alive with people; so many tempting restaurants, cafés and shops; a fountained square to rest in every few minutes; and a backdrop of architectural treats from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it’s easy to while away days enjoying its pleasures.
- Best for spa: Les Suites du Cours & Spa
- Best for B&B: Hôtel Cézanne Boutique-Hôtel
Where to stay in Aix-en-Provence:
3. Visiting the Louvre - one of the essential things to do in France
The Palace of the Louvre cuts a grand Classical swathe through the centre of Paris and houses what is nothing less than the gold standard of France’s artistic tradition.
The origins of the art gallery, the Musée du Louvre, lie in the French kings’ personal art collections. The royal academy mounted exhibitions, known as salons, in the palace as early as 1725, but the Louvre was only opened as a public art gallery in 1793, in the midst of the Revolution. Within a decade, Napoleon’s wagonloads of war booty transformed the Louvre’s art collection into the world’s largest.
Paris has a wealth of attractions to suit all tastes. Our guide about the best areas to stay in Paris will help you to choose what suits you best.
4. Explore prehistoric cave art
The most impressive prehistoric art in France is found at Lascaux, Dordogne. The Grotte de Lascaux, 2km south of Montignac was discovered in 1940 by four boys who stumbled across a deep cavern decorated with marvellously preserved paintings of animals.
Executed by Cro-Magnon people 17,000 years ago, the paintings are among the finest examples of prehistoric art in existence. There are five or six identifiable styles, and subjects include bison, mammoths and horses, plus the biggest known prehistoric drawing, of a 5.5m bull with an astonishingly expressive head and face.
5. Dine out in a Lyon bouchon
Famed for its gastronomy, Lyon offers no end to wonderful eating places, not least the old-fashioned bouchons. No list of things to do in France visit is complete without a visit to a bouchon, the traditional Lyonnais eating establishment.
Its provenance most likely comes from the time when inns serving wine would attach small bundles of straw to their signs, indicating that horses could be cared for (bouchonnés) while the coachmen went inside to have a drink.
The food may not be to everyone’s taste – andouillette (hot cooked tripe sausage) and pieds de veau (calves’ feet) are typical staples. However, the dishes are usually beautifully cooked and they’re wonderfully convivial places. While many bouchons claim to be authentic, only 22 are certified, the best of which are found in the Presqu’île.
Start your tailor-made trip to Tasting Eastern France in Lyon with some unique food tours before setting off on a 4-day walk across the Beaujolais region. Almost every day ends with a wine tasting in your guesthouse, soothing for body and soul.
- Best for location: InterContinental Lyon - Hotel Dieu
- Best for brunch: Boscolo Lyon Hotel & Spa
Where to stay in Lyon:
6. Take a tour of Mont Saint Michel
One of France’s best-loved landmarks, Mont St-Michel is a splendid union of nature and architecture. The island of Mont St-Michel is almost entirely covered by medieval stone structures, encircled by defensive walls. Once through the heavily fortified Porte du Roi, you find yourself on the narrow Grande Rue, which spirals steadily upwards, passing top-heavy gabled houses amid the jumble of souvenir shops and restaurants.
Large crowds gather each day at the North Tower to watch the tide sweep in across the bay. Seagulls wheel away in alarm, and those foolish enough to be wandering too late on the sands have to sprint to safety.
Experience the best of Northern France on this tailor-made Northern France Tour. Visit Brittany and Normandy for pretty port towns and sombre historic sights. Discover galleries and gourmet restaurants, and explore the beaches and scenery of the wild Atlantic coastline.
7. Visit Amiens cathedral
The largest Gothic building in France, Cathédrale Notre-Dame has a clever son et lumière show. The west front shows traces of the original polychrome exterior, in stark contrast to its sombre modern appearance.
A spectacular summer evening sound and light shows show how the west front would have looked, with an explanation of the various statues on the facade in French and then in English. The interior, on the other hand, is a light, calm and unaffected space.
Visitors with strong legs can mount the cathedral’s front towers. One of the most atmospheric ways of seeing the cathedral is to attend a Sunday morning Mass (9 am and 10.30 am), which is accompanied by sublime Gregorian chants.
8. Appreciate the beauty of Annecy
One of the prettiest towns in the Alps, Annecy has a picture-postcard quality that even the crowds can’t mar. These days, the delights of the town lie not just in its historical monuments. The imposing château on the hill or the stronghold of the Palais de l’Île closer to the lake, is also surrounded by stunning scenery.
Annecy’s old town is a bewitching warren of passages and arcaded houses that date from the sixteenth century and are divided by peaceful little branches of the Canal du Thiou. Many of the houses here are ringed by canalside railings overflowing with geraniums and petunias in summer. Added to the cool shade offered by the arcades, these flowers make the town’s pedestrianized streets a delight to wander around on a sunny day.
9. Take a drive around medieval Provençal villages
Provence’s hilltop villages attract visitors by the score. Gordes is one of the most famous. Gordes is an incredibly picturesque Provençal village much favoured by Parisian media personalities, film directors, artists and the like. A cluster of magnificent, honey-coloured buildings clinging to a sheer rock face, it’s a spectacular sight.
At the top of the village, a church and houses surround a mighty twelfth- to sixteenth-century château, which houses the paintings of the contemporary Flemish artist Pol Mara, who lived locally.
As well as the charming architecture of the Provençal villages, many of them are also excellent starting points from which to explore the famous Provence lavender fields.
10. Take a canoe trip in Gorges de l’Ardèche
The fantastic gorges begin at the Pont d’Arc and cut their way through limestone cliffs before emptying into the Rhône valley. The Gorges de l’Ardèche begins at the Pont d’Arc, a very beautiful 54m-high stone arch that the river has cut for itself through the limestone.
The gorge winds back and forth, much of the time dropping 300m straight down to the almost dead-flat scrubby Plateau des Gras. It’s beautiful, but a tourist trap. The road following the rim, with spectacular viewpoints at regular intervals, is jammed with traffic in summer.
11. Take a walk through Canal du Midi
Cycling, walking or drifting along the Canal du Midi are among the most atmospheric things to do in France’s southwest. The Canal du Midi runs for 240km from the River Garonne at Toulouse via Carcassonne to the Mediterranean at Agde.
The canal has, since its construction, been known for the lovely plane trees that line the riverbank. Sadly, a wilt infection was discovered in 2006 and since then the trees have been systematically cut down. They will be replaced, however, the view will not be the same for many years to come. You can follow the canal by road, and many sections have foot or bicycle paths, but the best way to see it is, of course, by boat.
12. Relax in Jardin du Luxembourg
Paris’s most beautiful park, in the heart of the laid-back Left Bank, is the ideal spot for relaxing. Belonging to the Palais du Luxembourg, seat of the French Senate, the Jardin du Luxembourg offers a lovely ensemble of formal lawns. Explore the broad gravel paths, more than one hundred sculptures and resplendent floral parterres, with citrus and olive trees in giant pots (taken inside in winter).
Most people enjoy the view from the many elegant sage-green chairs dotted throughout the gardens. Sprawling on the lawns is strictly forbidden, except on the southernmost strip, which gets fantastically crowded on sunny days. The shady Fontaine Médicis, in the northeast corner, is another pleasant spot to relax, and there are a couple of sit-down places to eat.
This is the perfect tailor-made trip for lovers: stay in the luxurious Park Hyatt Paris-Vendôme and take things completely at your own pace. From tours to sightseeing, you can choose from a range of activities to suit your individual tastes and desires.
13. Cycling the many French trails - one of the best things to do in France for enjoying the scenery
Cycling is one of the ideal things to do in France for exploring France’s scenic back roads, and there are some great long-distance cycle routes, too, such as those that lace the Alps. There are around 60,000km of marked cycle paths (pistes cyclables) in France. Many towns and cities have established cycle lanes, while in the countryside there are many specially designated long-distance cycle routes (véloroutes and voies vertes).
Burgundy is particularly well served with an 800km circuit. While the Loire à Vélo cycle route runs the length of the Loire Valley from Nevers to St Nazaire. The Fédération Française de Cyclisme has useful information on mountain-biking sites and tourist offices can provide details of local cycleways.
14. Climb the GR20
Arguably France’s most dramatic – and most demanding – long-distance footpath climbs through and over Corsica’s precipitous mountains. Winding some 170km from Calenzana to Conca, the GR20 is Corsica’s most demanding long-distance footpath.
Only one-third of the 18,000 to 20,000 hikers who start it each season complete all sixteen stages, which can be covered in ten to twelve days if you’re in good physical shape. If you’re not, don’t even think about attempting this route.
Marked with red-and-white splashes of paint, it comprises a series of harsh ascents and descents, sections of which exceed 2000m and become more of a scramble than a walk, with stanchions, cables and ladders driven into the rock as essential aids.
15. Taste champagne at Épernay
Dom Pérignon is the most famous, but there are plenty of other bubblies to try in the cellars of Épernay’s Maisons. Nowhere else in the world are you allowed to make a drink called champagne, though many people do, calling it “champan”, “shampanskoye” and all manner of variants.
The centre of champagne production is Épernay, a town that’s made much of its association with the fizzy stuff. This is where all the Maisons of the well-known brands are lined up along the appropriately named Avenue de Champagne.
All of these champagne houses offer tours and tastings, and one of the best places to indulge in at the maison of Moët et Chandon, arguably the best-known brand in the world. The splendid, cathedral-like cellars afford suitable dignity to this most regal of drinks, while the multilingual guides divulge the complexities of blending different grapes and vintages to maintain a consistency of flavour from one year to the next.
16. Travel to Carcassonne
So atmospheric is this medieval fortress town that it manages to resist relentless commercialization and summer visitors. Right on the main Toulouse–Montpellier train link, Carcassonne couldn’t be easier to reach. For anyone travelling through this region, it is a must. This is one of the most dramatic if also most-visited, towns in the whole of Languedoc.
A major summertime event worth catching is the Festival de Carcassonne from late June to mid-August, featuring world-class dance, theatre and music. The high point is the mammoth fireworks display on Bastille Day (July 14).
17. Explore Carnac
Archaeologically, Brittany is one of the richest regions in the world and the alignments at Carnac rival Stonehenge. Carnac is the most important prehistoric site in Europe. In fact, this spot is thought to have been continuously inhabited longer than anywhere else in the world. Its alignments of two thousand or so menhirs stretch over 4km, with great burial tumuli dotted amid them.
Divided between the original Carnac-Ville and the seaside resort of Carnac-Plage, modern Carnac has a special charm, especially in spring and autumn. For most visitors, the alignments are, if anything, a mere sideshow. The town and seafront remain well-wooded, and the tree-lined avenues and gardens are a delight.
18. Visit Châteaux of the Loire
The River Loire is lined with gracious châteaux, of which Azay-le-Rideau is the most staggeringly impressive. Even without its striking château, the quiet village of Azay-le-Rideau would bask in its serene setting, complete with an old mill by the bridge and curious, doll-like Carolingian statues embedded in the facade of the church of St Symphorien.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it has become a magnet for tourists. On its little island in the Indre, the château is one of the loveliest in the Loire. Perfect turreted early Renaissance, pure in style right down to the blood-red paint of its window frames.
19. Swim in Les Calanques
The cliffs between Marseille and Cassis offer excellent hiking and isolated coves that are perfect for swimming. Portside posing and sunbathing aside, don’t miss a boat trip to the Calanques. These are pristine fjord-like inlets that cut deep into the limestone cliffs between Cassis and Marseille, declared a national park in 2012.
Several companies operate from the port; be prepared for rough seas. If you’re feeling energetic, follow the well-marked GR98 footpath from Port-Miou on the western side of the town. It’s a four-hour round trip on foot to the calanque, En Vau, where you can reach the shore. The water is deep blue and swimming between the cliffs is pure heaven.
20. Be amazed by Bayeux Tapestry
This 70-metre-long tapestry is an astonishingly detailed depiction of the 1066 Norman invasion of England. A grand eighteenth-century seminary remodelled as the Centre Guillaume le Conquérant houses the extraordinary Bayeux Tapestry. It is known to the French as the Tapisserie de la Reine Mathilde.
Unexpectedly, and unceremoniously, the first thing you see on entry is the tapestry itself, with an interesting audio-guided commentary to explain the events it so vividly depicts. Only afterwards comes an exhibition detailing the theories that surround the tapestry’s creation, and explaining more about its turbulent history, followed by a film that gives more of the historical background.
- Best for B&B: Clos de Bellefontaine B&B
- Best for location: Le Castel Guesthouse
Where to stay in Bayeux:
21. Taste some wine in Bordeaux
Bordeaux was the principal English stronghold in France for years and is still known for its refined red wines. The city of Bordeaux cuts a fine figure, towering above the west bank of the River Garonne. It is a blend of Neoclassical grandeur and modern innovation. The Romans set up a lively trading centre here, and the city still functions as the transport hub for Aquitaine.
First-rate museums, excellent shopping, fine restaurants and lively nightlife make Bordeaux an absorbing place to spend a long weekend. Don’t miss the spectacular new Cité du Vin if you have even a cursory interest in the city’s wine history.
Stroll along the historical streets of Bordeaux; tour the surrounding vineyards, tasting some of the region's best wines; create your own French dinner and dine in a romantic castle, combining history with gastronomy, all with this unique tailor-made trip to the Romance, Food and Wine of Bordeaux.
- Best for calm stays: Le Clos des Queyries
- Best for quirky vibes: Moxy Bordeaux
Where to stay in Bordeaux:
22. Celebrate the Bastille Day
July 14 sees national celebrations commemorating the beginning of the French Revolution, with fireworks and parties. On July 14 the sans-culottes stormed the fortress of the Bastille, a symbol of the oppressive nature of the king’s “ancien régime”. Throughout the country, peasants attacked landowners’ châteaux, destroying records of debt and other symbols of oppression.
Nowadays the 1789 surrender of the Bastille is celebrated with parades of tanks followed by fireworks, concerts and street dances.
23. Go shopping in the St-Ouen flea market in Paris
It’s easy to lose track of an entire weekend morning browsing the covetable curios at St-Ouen, the mother of Paris’s flea markets. Puces de St-Ouen claims to be the largest flea market in the world, though nowadays it’s predominantly a proper – and expensive – antiques market. You'll find here mainly furniture — including old café-bar counters, traffic lights, jukeboxes and the like. Many quirky treasures are to be found here.
Of the fourteen or so individual markets, you could concentrate on Marché Dauphine. Good for vintage movie posters, chanson and jazz records, comics and books. Or try Marché Vernaison for curios and bric-a-brac.
24. Attend War memorials
World Wars I and II left permanent scars on the French countryside. The dead are remembered in solemn, overwhelming cemeteries.
On the southwestern edge of Somme is a war cemetery and memorial by the British architect Sir Edwin Lutyens. It’s a movingly elegiac, classical colonnade of brick and stone, commemorating 35,928 missing soldiers, their names inscribed on the walls.
Around the back of the barracks is the stark Mémorial des Fusillés, which commemorates two hundred Resistance fighters shot by firing squad during World War II – many of them of Polish descent, nearly all of them miners, and most of them Communists.
Retrace the steps of the Liberation Route in France. From the Normandy beaches where the US allies landed over museums in Paris to Memorial museums and the concentration camp in Alsace - this tailor-made tour brings the Liberation Route in France to live.
25. Take a tour of the Cathar castles
These gaunt fortresses are relics of the brutal crusade launched by the Catholic church and northern French nobility against the heretic Cathars. Romantic and ruined, the medieval fortresses that pepper the hills between Quillan and Perpignan have become known as the Cathar castles. Though actually many were built either before or after the Cathar era.
Roussillon, Languedoc and the eastern Ariège were the twelfth-century sect’s power base. Their name derives from the Greek word for “pure” – katharon. As they abhorred the materialism and worldly power of the established Church, and they were initially pacifist, denying the validity of feudal vows or allegiances.
26. Go skiing in the Alps
The French Alps are home to some of the world’s most prestigious ski resorts and spending some time here is one of the best things to do in France for winter sports. With their long and varied runs, extensive lift networks, and superb après-ski, the French Alps offer some of the best skiing not just in Europe, but in the world.
Resorts in the Alps have an abundance of hotels, equipment outlets and ski schools, while at many you can simply clip your skis on at the hotel door and be skiing on some of the most challenging pistes on earth within minutes.
Although downhill is the most common form of the sport at all the resorts, cross-country or nordic skiing has become increasingly popular on gentler slopes while there are also several famous routes for ski touring.
If you are planning your winter holiday in France check our list of best French skiing resorts.
27. Get some sunbathing at Corsican beaches
Some of France’s best beaches are found on Corsica, with its white shell sand and turquoise water. More than six million people visit Corsica each year, drawn by the mild climate and some of the most diverse landscapes in all of Europe.
Nowhere in the Mediterranean has beaches finer than the island’s perfect half-moon bays of white sand and transparent water, or seascapes more dramatic than the red porphyry Calanches of the west coast.
Even though the annual visitor influx now exceeds the island’s population nearly twenty times over, tourism hasn’t spoilt the place. There are a few resorts, but overdevelopment is rare and high-rise blocks are confined to the main towns.
Discover the variety of mesmerising French beach destinations with our guide to the best beaches in France.
28. Visit Bastide towns
Monpazier is the best preserved of Dordogne’s medieval fortified towns – bastides – built when there was a fierce conflict between the French and English. Bastides, from the Occitan word bastida, meaning a group of buildings, were the new towns of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.
Although they are found all over southwest France, from the Dordogne to the foothills of the Pyrenees, there is a particularly high concentration in the area between the Dordogne and Lot rivers. At the time they formed the disputed “frontier” region between English-held Aquitaine and Capetian France.
29. Explore Abbaye de Fontenay
This complex Burgundian monastery has a serene setting in a stream-filled valley. The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Abbaye de Fontenay is the biggest draw in the Burgundy area. Founded in 1118, it’s the only Burgundian monastery to survive intact, despite conversion to a paper mill in the early nineteenth century.
It is one of the world’s most complete monastic complexes, including a caretaker’s lodge, guesthouse and chapel, dormitory, hospital, prison, bakery, kennels and abbot’s house, as well as a church, cloister, chapterhouse and even a forge. On top of all this, the abbey’s setting, at the head of a quiet stream-filled valley enclosed by woods of pine, fir, sycamore and beech, is superb.
Looking for more French-themed inspiration? You might want to discover 20 fun facts about France.
30. Feel the luxury on the French Riviera
The Côte d’Azur polarizes opinion like few places in France. To some, it remains the most glamorous of all Mediterranean playgrounds. To others, it’s an overdeveloped victim of its own hype. Yet at its best – in the gaps between the urban sprawl, on the islands, in the remarkable beauty of the hills, the impossibly blue water after which the coast is named and in the special light that drew so many artists to paint here – it captivates still.
As the summer playground of Europe’s youthful rich, St-Tropez is among the most overhyped spots in the Mediterranean. It remains undeniably glamorous, its vast yachts and infamous champagne “spray” parties creating an air of hedonistic excess in high summer. Alas, partaking of its designer charms can seriously dent your budget at any time of the year.
Immerse yourself in the Mediterranean lifestyle with this 5-day tailor-made trip to the French Riviera. Staying just 2 miles from the charming town of Antibes, you may opt to pass the days soaking up the sun on the golden sands of the Côte d'Azur, or exploring this alluring part of the world.
31. Visit Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame De Paris
It’s hard to believe that the Eiffel Tower, the quintessential symbol both of Paris and a brilliant feat of industrial engineering, was designed to be a temporary structure for a fair. It’s arguable that you simply haven’t seen Paris until you’ve seen it from the top.
While the views are almost better from the second level, especially on hazier days, there’s something irresistible about going all the way to the top and looking down over the surreally microscopic city below.
One of the masterpieces of the Gothic age, the Cathédrale de Notre-Dame rears up from the Île de la Cité’s southeast corner like a ship moored by huge flying buttresses. It was among the first of the great Gothic cathedrals built in northern France and one of the most ambitious, its nave reaching an unprecedented 33m.
Fall in love with Paris on this tailor-made luxury trip. Discover some of France's most wonderful gourmet delights and experience the city from the Seine. Explore the charming cobbled streets of the lovely Marais, shop until you drop, and then head to the Champs Elysées to make perfume at Maison Guerlain.
32. Cross Pont du Gard in Languedoc
Built in the middle of the first century AD to supply fresh water to the city, and with just a 17m difference in altitude between the start and finish, the Roman aqueduct north of Nîmes was quite an achievement. Running as it does over hill and dale, through a tunnel, along the top of a wall, into trenches and over rivers; the Pont du Gard carries it over the River Gardon.
Today the bridge is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and something of a tourist trap, but is nonetheless a supreme piece of engineering and a brilliant combination of function and aesthetics; it made the impressionable Rousseau wish he’d been born Roman.
When visiting the Languedoc, take time to explore Montpellier, a city firmly established in its place in the sun.
Ready for a trip to France? Check out The Rough Guide to France or The Rough Guide to Provence & the Cote d'Azur. If you travel further in France, read more about the best time to go and the best places to visit in France. For inspiration use the itineraries from The Rough Guide to France and our local travel experts.
We may earn a commission when you click on links in this article, but this doesn’t influence our editorial standards. We only recommend services that we genuinely believe will enhance your travel experiences.