The most important factor in deciding when to visit France is tourism itself. As most French people holiday in their own country, consider avoiding the main French holiday periods – mid-July to the end of August. At this time almost the entire country closes down, except for the tourist industry itself.
Easter, too, is a bad time for Paris: half of Europe’s schoolchildren seem to descend on the city. For the same reasons, ski buffs should keep in mind the February school ski break. And don't be caught on the roads during the last weekend of July or August, and least of all on the weekend of August 15. The best time to visit France is therefore during the spring months, between April and June, or autumn, which runs from September to November.
Generally speaking, climate needn’t be a major consideration in planning when to go. Northern France, like nearby Britain, is wet and unpredictable. Paris has a marginally better climate than New York, rarely reaching the extremes of heat and cold of that city, but only south of the Loire does the weather become significantly warmer. West coast weather, even in the south, is tempered by the proximity of the Atlantic, and is subject to violent storms and close thundery days even in summer. The centre and east, as you leave the coasts behind, have a more continental climate, with colder winters and hotter summers. The most reliable weather is along and behind the Mediterranean coastline and on Corsica, where winter is short and summer long and hot.
It’s hard to beat the experience of arriving in a small French village, expecting no more than a bed for the night, to discover the streets decked out with flags and streamers, a band playing in the square and the entire population out celebrating the feast of their patron saint. As well as nationwide celebrations such as the Fête de la Musique (around June 21), Bastille Day (July 14) and the Assumption of the Virgin Mary (Aug 15), there are any number of festivals – both traditional and of more recent origin – held in towns and villages throughout France. For more information see culture.fr and viafrance.com.
NantesLa Folle Journée (late Jan to early Feb).
MentonFête du Citron (two weeks following Mardi Gras, forty days before Easter).
Nice Carnival (Feb–March).
CannesFestival de Cannes; international film festival.
Chalon-sur-SaôneMontgolfiades (last weekend in May); hot-air balloon racing.
Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer Fête de Ste Sarah (May 24–25); Romany festival.
Nîmes La Féria de Nîmes (Pentecost, seven weeks after Easter); bullfights.
Annecy Festival International du Film d’Animation (early to mid-June); animated films.
Bordeaux Fête le Vin (late June in even-numbered years).
Châlons-en-CampagneFestival Furies (early June); circus and street theatre.
LyonLes Nuits de Fourvière (June and July); performance arts.
MontpellierMontpellier Danse (mid-June to mid-July).
ParisLa Marche des Fiertés Lesbienne, Gai, Bi & Trans (late June).
Samois-sur-SeineFestival Django Reinhardt (late June); jazz.
ParisFestival de St-Denis (May–June); classical and world music festival.
UzèsUzès Danse; contemporary dance.
VienneJazz à Vienne (late June to early July).
Aix-en-ProvenceFestival International d’Art Lyrique; classical music and opera.
AlèsCratère/Surfaces (early July); street theatre.
ArlesLes Suds à Arles (mid-July); world music.
AvignonFestival d’Avignon; contemporary dance and theatre.
BelfortEurockéennes (late June to early July); rock and indie music.
Carhaix Festival des Vieilles Charrues (mid-July); rock music festival.
Chalon-sur-SaôneChalon dans la Rue (third week July); street theatre.
Colmar Festival International de Colmar (early July); classical music.
Gannat (near Vichy) Les Cultures du Monde (late July).
Grenoble Rencontres du Jeune Théâtre Européen (early July); contemporary theatre.
Juan-les-PinsJazz à Juan (mid-July).
La Roque d’AnthéronFestival International de Piano (mid-July to mid-Aug).
NiceJazz Festival (late July).
OrangeChorégies d’Orange (July); opera.
PradesFestival Pablo Casals (late July to mid-Aug); chamber music.
ReimsFlâneries Musicales d’Été (late June to mid-July); open-air concerts.
RennesLes Tombées de la Nuit (early July); concerts, cinema and performance arts.
SaintesFestival de Saintes (mid-July); classical music.
Vaison-la-RomaineVaison Danse (mid- to late July); contemporary dance.
AurillacFestival International de Théâtre de Rue; street theatre.
LorientFestival Interceltique (early Aug); Celtic folk festival.
MentonFestival de Musique (late July to early Aug); chamber music.
MulhouseFestival Météo (mid- to late Aug); jazz.
ParisRock en Seine (late Aug).
PérigueuxMimos (late July to early Aug); international mime festival.
Quimper Semaines Musicales; baroque, classical and contemporary music.
St-MaloLa Route du Rock (mid-Aug).
LimogesLes Francophonies en Limousin (late Sept to early Oct); contemporary francophone theatre, dance and music.
LyonBienniale de la Dance; every even-numbered year from mid-Sept.
ParisBiennial des Antiquaires (every even-numbered year in mid-Sept) antiques fair; Jazz à la Villette (late Aug to early Sept); Festival d’Automne (mid-Sept to mid-Dec); theatre, concerts, dance, films and exhibitions.
PerpignanVisa pour l’Image (early to mid-Sept); international photojournalism.
Puy-en-VelayFête Renaissance du Roi de l’Oiseau (mid-Sept); historical pageants, fireworks and re-creations.
StrasbourgMusica (late Sept to early Oct); contemporary music.
BastiaLes Musicales; chanson and world music.
ParisFoire International d’Art Contemporain (mid- to late Oct).
RennesRencontres Transmusicales (early Dec); contemporary music.
StrasbourgJazz d’Or (Nov).