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France Travel Guide

Ultimate France: The 30 Things You Have to Do Before You Die

From Paris to Provence and everything in between, here are the top experiences in France.

How will you experience France? Will you stroll through the streets and museums of Paris? Will you marvel at the history of Normandy? Will you envision the past among the châteaux of the Loire Valley? Or will you simply throw away your map and chance upon nestled-away villages of Provence? Whatever you decide, here are 30 experiences that need to be on your list.

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PHOTO: Sarah Sergent/Paris Tourist Office
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Explore Paris

For many, the City of Lights is the crowning jewel of France and perhaps even the best city in the world. It’s a no-brainer that a trip to France should include some explorations in Paris. Start at the Arc de Triomphe and amble along the Champs-Élysées. Stop in at the Louvre and say hi to Mona Lisa. Make it to the top of the Eiffel Tower or just wave hello at the structure from below. Anything after that—landmarks, cathedrals, museums, canals—is a bonus. Whether you splurge at brunch at the Ritz or take in the sunset from the steps of the Sacre-Coeur, this city is all about exploring the senses.

Related: 25 Ultimate Things to Do in Paris

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Marvel at Versailles

One of the world’s most famous palaces, this prime example of royals-gone-wild Baroque-style served as the backdrop for the rise to power of King Louis XIV. A tour isn’t complete without taking a section to marvel at the Hall of Mirrors and wander through the manicured gardens. And today’s influencers have nothing on the Queen of Luxury herself, Marie Antoinette. After three years of restoration, her exquisite state apartments, featuring her favorite color apple green, have reopened to the public.

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PHOTO: D. Darrault via Centre-Val de Loire
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Cycle in the Loire Valley

La Loire à Velo is a 500-mile bike path ending at the Loire Valley’s Atlantic estuary. A big chunk of the route is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, following France’s grand river through vine-covered slopes, majestic châteaux, and emblematic villages. With a countryside you’ve always dreamt about vying for your attention, remember to keep your eyes on the road.

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PHOTO: Domaine de La Tortinière
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Daydream About Living in a Château

Admit it, we all dream of discovering a long-lost royal cousin who owns one of the 300 castles in the Loire Valley. But most likely we’ll have to settle for just visiting them on a trip to France. There’s no official Chateâux Route to take, but the Giennois area to Anjou, via Orléans, Blois, Amboise, Tours, and Saumur, is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its “living cultural landscapes.” From the humblest feudal ruin and the most delicate spires to the grandest of Sun King spreads, the châteaux of France evoke the history of Europe as no museum can. A 40-minute drive from Saumur lies the Château d’Usse, the inspiration for Sleeping Beauty, with its very own Knight’s Dungeon.

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PHOTO: L. Recouvrot/Normandie Tourisme
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Learn About World War II History in Normandy

When Allied troops landed on the beaches Normandy on June 6, 1944, D-Day became the largest seaborne invasion in history, beginning the liberation of France from Nazi forces and forever linking the region with World War II. Today, you can retrace the steps of the men of the 101st Airborne Division along a 25-mile historical trail. It takes about three hours to drive and includes 13 critical points in the battle for liberation. With limited time, be sure to at least visit the memorial museum in Caen and tour Omaha and Utah beaches.

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Climb to the Top of Mont-St-Michel

Keep the faith with a climb to the top and get a breathtaking view of this fabled Benedictine abbey, whose fortified medieval village is the crowning glory of the Normandy coastline. As the third-most visited sight in the country, it remains a wonder of the modern world and one of the most beloved monuments to medieval France.

PHOTO: southtownboy/iStock
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Sample Champagne in Champagne

All Champagne might be sparkling wine, but not all sparkling wine is Champagne. That distinction can only come from sparkling wine produced in the region of France known, of course, as Champagne. The oldest Champagne house, Ruinart, is located in the city of Reims and has been producing the bubbly since 1729, while Moët & Chandon, the maker of the vintage-only Dom Pérignon, is located in Épernay and was founded in 1743. Both Champagne makers offer tours (€70 and €25, respectively) of their facilities.

PHOTO: Jorisvo/iStock
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Meditate in a Grand Cathedral

For centuries, France was a decidedly nonsecular nation, with Christianity being at the forefront of both politics and everyday life. Today, this history is seen best through the country’s many cathedrals. The product of a particularly Gallic mix of mysticism, exquisite taste, and high technology, France’s 13th- and 14-century “heavenly mansions” provide a thorough grounding in the history of architecture as well as France itself. Perhaps the country’s most famous cathedral, Notre-Dame in Paris, suffered a devastating fire in 2019 that resulted in the loss of its spire and roof. Luckily much of the building and its prized treasures did survive, and while it will be closed for the foreseeable future as repairs begin, there are still more than 100 other unique French cathedrals to visit. From Chartres and its 13th-century stained glass to Reims and its long history as the coronation spot of French kings, these are places that inspire much thought and reflection.

PHOTO: gorillaimages/Shutterstock
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Ski (Or at Least Après-Ski) the French Alps

One of France’s best natural wonders, the Alps stand tall over the eastern side of the country, a land of snow-covered slopes, cozy cities, and high-fashion ski resorts. As home to the first Winter Olympic Games in 1924, Chamomix, set at the foot of Mount Blanc (the highest peak in France), provides an ideal backdrop for all winter outdoor activities. Whether you’re an old pro, a newbie, or would prefer to master the art of the après-ski, the Alps are a perfect winter getaway, soaked in French charm.

PHOTO: carmengabriela/iStock
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Live Like a German in Alsace

Nestled between the Vosges Mountains and the Swiss and German borders, Alsace was long in a ping-pong game played between France and Germany, starting in 1648 and lasting all the way until right after World War II. As such, Alsatian food is heavily influenced by Germanic culinary traditions and its architecture is filled with German touches. Restaurant Chez Yvonne is one of Strasbourg’s oldest and most famous winstubs (a cafe specializing in wine), and the Alsace Wine Road is littered with picturesque, “Hansel and Gretel”-esque villages.

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PHOTO: Daniel Schoenen/Strasbourg Tourist Office
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Celebrate Christmas at a Strasbourg Christmas Market

Who doesn’t love Christmas? Strasbourg’s annual Christmas market (Christkindlsmärik) dates back to 1570. Every year, from the last week of November to the end of December, there are 11 markets spread out in the city’s Petit France district, the first city center in its entirety to be Heritage Listed by UNESCO. The 100-foot Christmas tree (with 3 miles of lights!) in Place Kleber comes straight from the Vosges Mountains and if you’re looking for delicious regional food, Place Broglie is your best bet.

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PHOTO: BERTHIER Emmanuel/Tourisme Bretagne
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Sample Seafood in Brittany

Bounded on two of its three sides by water, Brittany is blessed with an abundance of fresh seafood. Cancale oysters are a must; the city was one of the first places in all of Europe to start harvesting oysters some 2,000 years ago. Today, it’s famous for its wild flat oysters (huîtres plates sauvages, aka Belon) and more recently, starting in the 1950s, for its rounded oysters (huîtres creuses). Other towns like St-Malo also offer a delicious variety of restaurants serving up fresh seafood.

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PHOTO: David Darrault
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Learn the Story of Joan of Arc

One of the patron saints of France, the celebrated folk hero Joan of Arc is still beloved throughout the country. It’s not only the fact that Joan of Arc was a teenager when she led the French army to victory against the English during the Hundred Years’ War, but 500 years after she was burned at the stake, she was canonized by Pope Benedict XV in 1920. Guided visits in English are provided in the recreation of the house where Joan of Arc stayed during the siege of Orleans from April 29 to May 9, 1429. You can also visit the spot where she was burned at the stake in Rouen and her birthplace in Lorraine.

PHOTO: Richard Semik/Shutterstock
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Visit a Vineyard in Burgundy

Burgundy produces some of the most expensive wines on the planet, using Pinot Noir for its Bourgogne Rouge and Chardonnay for Bourgogne. Its Grand and Premier Cru and Villages’ labels are small family-owned producers that make up the region’s 100 different appellations from 74,000 acres of vineyards. Oenophiles can enroll at the Burgundy Wine School for a 90-minute class or two-day vineyard exploration, both with comparative wine tastings.

PHOTO: prochasson frederic/Shutterstock
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Feast in Lyon

Can you keep a secret? Lyon is the world’s gastronomic center, and in the heart of the working-class based cuisine is the bouchon. The word is linked to 16th-century innkeepers who, by royal ruling, were permitted to serve wine with food in restaurants. To attract travelers and workers, the clever innkeepers would hang a bundle of tree branches—aka a bouchon—on the door. Les Bouchons Lyonnais has been a certified label since 1997 and counts 40 tested restaurants in its midst. But keep in mind, these eateries are not for the vegan-hearted. Pork is the staple here, anything from pig fat fried in pig fat to chicken cooked inside a sealed pig’s bladder to nuggets of a pig’s belly mixed with cold vinegary lentils. On the lighter side of the coin, the last half of the 20th century saw the rise of nouvelle cuisine, led by Lyon native son Paul Bocuse. His dishes favored simple recipes using fresh ingredients, and many consider it the forefather of the locavore, organic movement that has taken the world by storm.

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PHOTO: Jaakko Kemppainen/Unsplash
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Explore the Villages of Provence

Set your clocks back 50 years, you’ve arrived in Provence. Everything here is about food, Rosé, and visiting gravity-defying medieval perched villages. Traditional Provençal architecture features stone-roof houses, village chapels, charming fountains, and lively markets. Les-Baux-de-Provence and Gordes are real deals.

PHOTO: francois-roux/iStock
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Embark on the Lavender Route

France produces a third of the world’s lavender, and here, along the 560-mile Lavender Route between Drôme and the Alpes-Maritimes, you can see for yourself why museums and markets honor this plant. To see the fields at their most beautiful, visit the Plateau De Valensole from mid-June to end of July. Or head to nearby Moustiers-Ste-Marie, which hosts an annual LavandEvasion lavender festival each year, which takes visitors to see the blossoming lavender on tours via bike, foot, and even hot-air balloon.

PHOTO: Catharina van Delden/Shutterstock
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Go Bird-Watching via Horseback in the Camargue

Take an unforgettable promenade équestre (horseback tour) of the Parc Régional de Camargue, an amazing nature park in Provence home to bulls and birds—50,000 flamingos that is. Since the early 1970s, Camargue has been home to the largest colony of pink flamingos in the Western Mediterranean, along with 340 other bird species. The best way to tour the region is like a local: on horseback, led by one of the area’s gardiens, or cowboys.

PHOTO: BTWImages/Shutterstock
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Sunbathe at a French Riviera Beach

With worldwide fame as the earth’s most glamorous coastline, the beaches here often come as a shock for first-timers: much of the French Riviera is lined with rock and pebble, and the beaches are narrow swaths backed by city streets and roaring highways. But if you’re a commoner traveling to this land of the rich and famous, spending a day on the beach might be the most affordable chance to live like Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald once did. There are some natural-sand beaches—especially between St-Tropez and Cannes—and some beaches like La Garoupe on Cap d’Antibes enjoy legendary status. In many resort towns along the coast, you are charged a fee to use the restaurant/hotel beaches, which usually includes a sun-lounger and a parasol (you can often use many hotel beaches for free if you drink or dine on them). But stretches of public beach are available, generally close to the town center, but not on the main strip; you’ll just need to bring your own umbrella, sun chair, and towel.

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PHOTO: Veran/Ville de Nice
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Celebrate Carnaval in Nice

Are you up for a Flower Battle? The first Carnaval de Nice was held in 1924 and today it’s the third-largest in the world. Over two weeks, always ending on the first day of Mardi Gras, a million masqueraders descend upon the seaside city waiting until the final day when the King is burned. Every Flower Battle parade consists of 18 floats, with each one using 4,000 to 5,000 flowers. The city gives out 21 tons of locally-grown Mimosa to the crowds for flower throwing. It was the British who started this battle tradition, although they also threw eggs, flour, and confetti plaster at each other.

PHOTO: Eva Bocek/Shutterstock
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Go Snorkeling in Corsica

Few people realize that the Mediterranean’s fourth-largest island is actually located 230 miles southeast of Nice, and is very much a part of France. While Corsica has been a hotspot for the French forever, it’s relatively undiscovered by North Americans, even though it offers medieval towns, hillside villages, and white sand beaches. The Island of Beauty is known for its mild temperatures and superbly clear waters, and with its preserved marine environment, it is ideal for snorkelers, who can discover octopuses, moray eels, bream, starfish, and colorful wrasse.

PHOTO: saiko3p/Shutterstock
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Admire the Pink City of Toulouse

The modern gateway to the south of France, Toulouse is one of the country’s most high-tech cities thanks to its aerospace connections (Airbus is made here). But the most charming part of the city is still its well-preserved city center, where the brick-paved streets, rosy roofs, and redbrick mansions give the city its nickname: “La Ville Rose” (the Pink City).

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PHOTO: A.Lonchampt/CMN Paris
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Go Back in Time in Carcassonne

After the Eiffel Tower, Carcassonne’s medieval Château Comtal is France’s second-most visited tourist spot, built on Roman foundations in the 12th century with a fairy-tale collection of drawbridges, towers, and cobblestone streets. After you visit the château, explore the Canal du Midi countryside by foot, bike, or boat.

PHOTO: bensliman hassan/Shutterstock
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Embrace Basque Culture

Basque Country is an independent community in northern Spain and southern France, located near the Pyrenees Mountains. The Basque language has seven different dialects, and the Basque are behind the Running of the Bulls festival held every July in Pamplona. But food, drink, and sports dominate the culture. Basque cuisine focuses on fish, vegetables, beef, and lamb, with a love of sauces that is rare south of the Pyrenees. And a Basque village without a fronton (a pelota court) is like an American town without a baseball diamond. Also called jai-alai, the fastest game in the world is played with rubber balls flung from hooked wicker gloves at speeds up to 150 mph. Betting is very much a part of the game, and courtside wagers are brokered by bet makers as play proceeds.

PHOTO: Bartek Naprawa/iStock
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Hike the Pyrenees

The Pyrenees Mountain range spans the border of France and Spain. Hiking the mountains from end to end is a 43-day trip, but there are plenty of smaller hikes you can take, including to the legendary Cirque de Gavarnie (a natural mountain amphitheater) to the top (or as close as you can get) to the Vignemale, the highest summit in southern France. The 490-mile Camino de Santiago pilgrimage also starts in St-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France, eventually crossing the top of Spain to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia. It would take about a month to complete, but the first leg from St-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Roncesvalles in Spain is 15 miles (6 hours) hiking through the peaks of the Pyrenees.

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PHOTO: Sophie Duboscq/Bordeaux Tourisme
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Learn About Bordeaux Wine-Making at La Cité Du Vin

Wine from Bordeaux is a blend of a variety of grapes, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Cab Franc, and Petit Verdot, and known for its five “growth” classifications—the First Growths are Châteaux Rothschilds or Châteaux Margaux, for example. Visit the St-Emilion wine route, which you’ll discover has a unique layout to the rest of Bordeaux. But for a true only-in-France wine experience, head to the city of Bordeaux and its La Cité du Vin, a museum dedicated to the history of wine-making in the region (with plenty of wine-tasting involved, of course).

PHOTO: Nikolai Korzhov/Dreamstime
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Hang out at a French Café

Still the center of social life for many French locals, neighborhood cafés offer great food and coffee, and even better people-watching. Whatever you do, don’t take your coffee to go. French cafés are not about making a complicated coffee order and dashing off. Here, it’s essentially black or with milk, and then you sit, sip and repeat—and people watch behind your designer sunglasses.

PHOTO: Kiev.Victor/Shutterstock
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Go Shopping

In glamorous cities like Paris and Cannes, the wealthy come from all over the world to scoop up haute couture from the likes of Chanel, Louis Vuitton, and Dior. And you should certainly do some aspirational window-shopping while here, but if you have a more realistic bank account to think about, a traditional street market or marches couvert (covered market) is a much more accessible French experience and the perfect place to find an authentic souvenir. Be sure not to miss the flea and brocante (collectibles) markets, too.

PHOTO: Krisztian Juhasz/iStock Editorial
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Take an Art History Road Trip

France is one massive artist’s trail. From Monet’s gardens in Giverny that produced his famous water lilies to the very spot in Arles where Van Gogh painted Le Café La Nuit, you don’t have to go to a museum to experience art. Cezanne in Aix-en-Provence, Picasso in Antibes, Matisse in Nice; nearly every major city and town in France has some sort of artistic connection. The best example is dining under a Picasso at the Colombe d’Or in St- Paul-de-Vence, where the artist would once trade his work for room and board.

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PHOTO: DAN COURTICE/Semitour Périgord
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See France’s First Artwork in the Lascaux Caves

Within the Dordogne region, there are dozens of small caves filled with Paleolithic drawings, etchings, and carvings left behind by the first inhabitants of France. The most impressive of these are the Lascaux Caves, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which contains the most impressive collection of Paleolithic art in the world.