Although France’s 547,030 sq. km (211,209 sq. miles) make it slightly smaller than the American state of Texas, no other country has such a diversity of sights and scenery in such a compact area. A visitor can travel through the north’s flat, fertile lands; the Loire Valley’s green hills; the east’s Alpine ranges; the Pyrénées; and the southeast’s Mediterranean coast. Even more noteworthy are the cultural and historical differences of each region.
Destinations in France are within easy reach from Paris and each other. French National Railroads (SNCF) offers fast service to and from Paris. For example, the highlights of Normandy and the Loire Valley (the château country) are just 1 or 2 hr. from Paris by train. You can travel from Paris to Cannes on the Riviera in 5 hr.—or fly down in 45 min.
You can motor along nearly 71,000km (about 44,020 miles) of French roads, including a good number of well-maintained superhighways. But do your best to drive the secondary roads too: Nearly all of France’s scenic splendors are along these routes.
A “grand tour” of France is nearly impossible for the visitor who doesn’t have a lifetime to explore. If you want to get to know a province, try to devote at least a week to a specific region. Note that you’ll probably have a more rewarding trip if you concentrate on getting to know two or three areas at a leisurely pace rather than racing around trying to see everything! To help you decide where to spend your time, we’ve summarized the highlights of each region for you.
Paris & Ile de France
The Ile de France is an island only in the sense that rivers—with odd-sounding names such as Essonne, Epte, Aisne, Eure, and Ourcq—and a handful of canals delineate its boundaries (about an 81km/50-mile radius from the center of Paris). France was born in this temperate basin, where the attractions include Paris, Versailles, Fontainebleau, Notre-Dame de Chartres, and Giverny. Despite industrialization (and Disneyland Paris), many pockets of charm remain, including the forests of Rambouillet and Fontainebleau, and the artists’ hamlet of Barbizon.
The Loire Valley
This area includes two ancient provinces, Touraine (centered on Tours) and Anjou (centered on Angers). It was beloved by royalty and nobility, flourishing during the Renaissance until Henry IV moved his court to Paris. Head here to see the most magnificent castles in France. Irrigated by the Loire River and its many tributaries, the valley produces many superb wines.
This region will forever be linked to the 1944 D-day invasion. Some readers consider a visit to the D-day beaches the most emotionally worthwhile part of their trip. Normandy boasts 599km (371 miles) of coastline and a maritime tradition. It’s a popular weekend getaway from Paris, and many hotels and restaurants thrive here, especially around the casino town of Deauville. Normandy's great attractions include Rouen's cathedral, medieval Bayeux, the fishing village of Honfleur, and the abbey at Mont St-Michel.
Jutting into the Atlantic, the westernmost region of France is known for its rocky coastlines, Celtic roots, frequent rain, and ancient dialect, akin to the Gaelic tongues of Wales and Ireland. Many French vacationers love the seacoast (rivaled only by the Côte d’Azur) for its sandy beaches, cliffs, and relatively modest—by French standards—prices. Quimper is Brittany's cultural capital, whereas Carnac is home to ancient Celtic dolmens and burial mounds.
Every French monarch since A.D. 496 was crowned at Reims, and much of French history is linked with this holy site. In the path of any invader wishing to occupy Paris, Reims and the Champagne district have seen much bloodshed, including the World War I battles of the Somme and the Marne. Industrial sites sit among patches of forest, and vineyards sheath the steep sides of valleys. The 126km (78-mile) road from Reims to Vertus, one of the Routes du Champagne, takes in a trio of winegrowing regions that produce 80 percent of the world’s bubbly.
Few trips will prove as rewarding as several leisurely days spent exploring Burgundy, with its splendid old cities such as Dijon. Besides its famous cuisine (boeuf and escargots à la bourguignonne), the district contains, along its Côte d’Or, hamlets whose names (Mercurey, Beaune, Puligny-Montrachet, Vougeot, and Nuits-St-Georges) are synonymous with great wine.
The Ardennes & Northern Beaches
This northern region is often ignored by North Americans (which is why we feature it as a side trip from Reims). In summer, French families arrive by the thousands to visit Channel beach resorts such as Le Touquet-Paris-Plage. This district is quite industrialized and has always suffered in wars. Its best-known port, Calais, was a bitterly contested English stronghold for centuries. Calais is now the port of disembarkation for ferries, hydrofoils, and Channel Tunnel arrivals from Britain. Notre-Dame Cathedral in Amiens, the medieval capital of Picardy, is a treasure, with a 42m-high (138-ft.) nave -- the highest in France.
Between Germany and the forests of the Vosges is the most Teutonic of France’s provinces: Alsace, with cosmopolitan Strasbourg as its capital. Celebrated for its cuisine, particularly its foie gras and choucroute, this area is home to villages with half-timbered designs and the oldest wine road in France. Lorraine, birthplace of Joan of Arc, witnessed many battles during the world wars, though its capital Nancy, remains elegant and holds the beautiful place Stanislas. The much-eroded peaks of the Vosges forest, the closest thing to a wilderness in France, offer lovely hiking.
The French Alps
This area’s resorts rival those of neighboring Switzerland and contain incredible scenery: snowcapped peaks, glaciers, and Alpine lakes. Chamonix is a famous ski resort facing Mont Blanc, western Europe’s highest mountain. Courchevel and Megève are chicer. During the summer, you can enjoy such spa resorts as Evian and the restful 19th-century resorts ringing Lake Geneva.
The Rhône Valley
This fertile area in eastern France follows the curves of the River Rhône from Beaujolais wine country in the north towards the borders of Provence in the south. The district is thoroughly French, unflinchingly bourgeois, and dedicated to preserving the gastronomic and cultural traditions that have produced some of the most celebrated chefs in France. Only 2 hr. by train from Paris, the region’s cultural centerpiece, Lyon, is France’s “second city.” Wine lovers will enjoy contrasting the aromatic red wines of Beaujolais with the robust red wines of the Northern Rhône or mythical appellations such as Côte Rôtie and Hermitage. Gourmands should travel to Valence to dine with France’s only Michelin-starred female chef or to Bresse’s ancient capital, Bourg-en-Bresse, which produces the world’s finest poultry. Try to visit the medieval villages of Pérouges and Vienne, 27km (17 miles) south of Lyon; the latter is known for its Roman ruins.
Languedoc may not be as chic as Provence, but it’s less frenetic and more affordable. Roussillon is the rock-strewn French answer to Catalonia, just across the Spanish border. Also appealing are Toulouse, the bustling pink capital of Languedoc; and the “red city” of Albi, birthplace of Toulouse-Lautrec. Carcassonne, a marvelous walled city with fortifications begun around A.D. 500, is the region’s highlight.
One of France’s most popular destinations stretches from the southern Rhône River to the Italian border. Long frequented by starving artists, la bourgeoisie, and the downright rich and famous, its premier cities are Aix-en-Provence, associated with Cézanne; Arles, famous for bullfighting and Van Gogh; Avignon, the 14th-century capital of Christendom; and Marseille, a port city established by the Phoenicians that today is the melting pot of France. Quieter and more romantic are villages such as St-Rémy-de-Provence, Les Baux, and Gordes. To the west, the Camargue is the marshy delta formed by two arms of the Rhône River. Rich in bird life, it’s famous for its grassy flats and such fortified medieval sites as Aigues-Mortes.
The French Riviera (Côte d’Azur)
The resorts of the fabled Côte d’Azur (Azure Coast) still evoke glamour: Cannes, St-Tropez, Cap d’Antibes, and Juan-les-Pins. July and August are the most buzzing months, while spring and fall are still sunny but way more laid-back. Nice is the biggest city and most convenient base for exploring the area. The Principality of Monaco only occupies about 2 sq. km (.75 sq. miles) but has enough sights, restaurants, and opulence to go around. Along the coast are some sandy beaches, but many are pebbly. Topless bathing is common, especially in St-Tropez, and some of the restaurants are citadels of conspicuous consumption. Dozens of artists and their patrons have littered the landscape with world-class galleries and art museums.
The Basque Country
Since prehistoric times, the rugged Pyrénées have formed a natural boundary between France and Spain. The Basques, one of Europe’s most unusual cultures, flourished in the valleys here. In the 19th century, resorts such as Biarritz and St-Jean-de-Luz attracted the French aristocracy; the empress Eugénie’s palace at Biarritz is now a hotel. Four million Catholics make annual pilgrimages to the city of Lourdes. In the villages and towns of the Pyrénées, the old folkloric traditions, permeated with Spanish influences, continue to thrive.
Bordeaux & The Atlantic Coast[em]Flat, fertile, and frequently ignored by North Americans, this region includes towns pivotal in French history (Poitiers, Angoulême, and La Rochelle), as well as wine- and liquor-producing villages (Cognac, St-Emilion, and Sauternes) whose names are celebrated around the world. Bordeaux, the district’s largest city, has an economy based on wine merchandising and showcases grand 18th-century architecture.
The Dordogne & the Lot
The splendid Dordogne River valley has been a favorite vacation spot since Cro-Magnon peoples were painting bison on cave walls in Lascaux. Today visitors flock to the valley to marvel at prehistoric sites near Les Eyzies-de-Tayac and to ramble through exquisite villages like Sarlat-le-Canéda and Beynac-et-Cazenac. The land of truffles and foie gras, Périgord has long been famed as a gastronomic Mecca, while nearby Cahors is celebrated for its rich red wine.
The Massif Central
The rugged heartland of south-central France, this underpopulated district contains ancient cities, unspoiled scenery, and an abundance of black lava, from which many buildings were created. The largest cities are Clermont-Ferrand and Limoges -- the medieval capitals of the provinces of the Auvergne and the Limousin. Bourges, a gateway to the region and once capital of Aquitaine, has a beautiful Gothic cathedral.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.