When you think of France, you may picture the emblematic Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe or the famous smile of the Mona Lisa. You may think of drinking coffee in the lively Parisian cafés where great intellectuals once lingered, or eating croissants in a local bistro in a sleepy but beautiful country village. Images of magnificent castles probably come to mind, lavender fields or perhaps vineyards as far as the eye can see. Or you might consider the chic seaside resorts of the French Riviera. And you wouldn’t be wrong. But they are only the tip of the iceberg of France’s many sights and attractions.
Paris, the “City of Light” and capital of romance, has been a magnet for travellers for centuries and is a real must-see. Of course, no visit would be complete without a look at the world-famous monuments. The Eiffel Tower is hard to miss, especially when beautifully lit up at night, but the Arc de Triomphe, Notre Dame and Sacré Coeur are also famous and amazing sights. With no less than 3,800 national monuments in and around Paris, history is literally around every corner. Stroll through the city’s large green parks, of which the Jardin du Luxembourg is a favourite, and be sure to spend some time on the famous banks of the Seine. Don’t miss the magnificent Palace of Versailles either, the greatest reminder of the Ancien Régime, located just 20 km from the capital.
Bordeaux is famous for its wine, but it is also a very lively city with many historical sites to discover. It has been inscribed on the World Heritage List as an “exceptional urban and architectural ensemble”. Lyon, the country’s second largest city, is also listed and has a magnificent historic centre as well as many Roman ruins. Strasbourg, one of the seats of the EU, has a character all its own, with clear German influences. Montpellier is one of the most beautiful places in the south, with many monumental buildings and pretty cafés. To the west is the beautiful and historic city of Nantes, home to the castle of the Dukes of Brittany and many other monuments. The Capitole de Toulouse is at the heart of the urban plan of this famous university city. Not forgetting Arles with its Roman and Romanesque monuments, which are World Heritage Sites.
Provence and French Riviera
There are the beautiful towns of the Côte d’Azur, once the place of choice for the rich and famous, but now equally popular with a mixed crowd. Its sandy beaches, beautiful bays, rocky cliffs and pretty towns have made it one of the best boating and cruising destinations in the world, but also a popular destination for land travellers. Nice is a bustling city where some 4 million tourists a year enjoy the stone beaches and stroll along the Promenade des Anglais. Although Saint-Tropez is crowded in summer, it is a charming place at any other time of year. The same goes for Cannes, where the jet-set of the film industry gathers every year for the famous Cannes Film Festival. From there you can take a boat to the much more peaceful Lérins Islands. Much smaller but just as beautiful (and popular) are the high-altitude villages of Gourdon and Èze, perched on a 427-metre cliff, a bit like an “eagle’s nest”. Both villages offer breathtaking panoramic views. From Èze, it is only a short drive to the glitz and glamour of Monaco. For millionaires and aristocrats from all over the world, the green peninsula of Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat has long been a popular spot, the centrepiece of which is the impressive Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild with its impressionist art. A little further inland, but definitely worth a visit, are the towns of Grasse, known for its perfume factories, and Biot, famous for its glassblowers.
Provence, which bears a good part of the French Riviera, is one of the most popular regions. It has a typically Mediterranean atmosphere and is famous for its lavender fields and rosé wines. It is also home to the magnificent Gorges du Verdon, one of the most beautiful gorges in Europe. The huge city and arts centre of Marseille has many historic sites and nearby are the magnificent Calanques, a series of miniature fjords which it shares with Cassis. Provence also has the famous Verdon Gorges, famous cities such as Aix-en-Provence, Arles and Nîmes have a strong ancient heritage, and Avignon, with its magnificent ramparts and Palais-des-Papes, was once the seat of the popes and hosts the largest theatre festival in the world every July.
Countryside & villages
You haven’t seen the best of France if you haven’t at least had a taste of the amazing countryside with its wonderful medieval villages and castles. Beautiful examples can be found in all parts of the country, but some 156 villages have been identified as the most beautiful in France, or “Les Plus Beaux Villages de France” [www].
The country’s landscapes range from the snow-capped peaks of the Alps and Pyrenees, with their many winter resorts, to lush river valleys, dense forests and vast expanses of farmland and vineyards. The rolling river landscape of the Loire Valley is home to many grand castles, of which Amboise, Villandry, Azay-le-Rideau, Chambord and Le Pin are among the finest examples.
The western region of Brittany stretches to the Atlantic Ocean and has many megalithic monuments, such as at Carnac. The beaches of Normandy, also on the Atlantic coast, are famous for the Allied invasion on D-Day, 6 June 1944, and although the modest American cemetery in Normandy and the countless museums, memorials and wartime remains keep the memory of those dark days alive, the region is now a popular and enjoyable tourist destination. The picturesque coastline includes long stretches of beach as well as steep limestone cliffs, such as at Etretat).
The region is also home to the magnificent Mont-Saint-Michel and its bay, a World Heritage Site. The lush hills of the Dordogne form another region famous for its castles, of which there are more than 1,500 in an area of 9,000 km2.
Since the French have a real taste for art, there are many art galleries and museums in the country. Some of them are among the best museums in the world for art, art history and culture. The size and reputation of the Louvre Museum in Paris cannot be matched by any other museum in the world. It has a fabulous art collection from antiquity to the 19th century and houses the Mona Lisa and many other famous works. Just a 15-minute walk away is the Musée d’Orsay, another world-class museum that picks up right where the Louvre’s collections leave off. Located in a former railway station, it houses the national collection of artworks dating from 1848 to 1914. The outstanding collection includes some of the finest works of French Impressionism, Post-Impressionism and Art Nouveau, including Degas’ Ballerinas and Monet’s Water Lilies. The Musée national d’art moderne at the Centre Pompidou, also in the French capital, is the largest museum of modern art in Europe. The Musée des Beaux-Arts in Lyon has an excellent collection ranging from ancient Egyptian antiquities to modern art paintings and sculptures. In Lille, you will find the Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille, one of the largest museums in the country. Its diverse collection is the second largest after that of the Louvre and includes objects from antiquity to modern art. The collections of the Musée Fabre in Montpellier, the Musée Toulouse-Lautrecin Albi and the Musée Picasso in Paris are more modest but still exceptional. Marseille has many galleries and the Cantini Museum has a good collection of modern art associated with Marseille, as well as some works by Picasso. The Maeght Foundation in Saint-Paul de Vence also houses works of modern art.
Parks and natural attractions
Disneyland Resort Paris is by far the most popular park in France and is visited by families from all over Europe. The country’s national parks also welcome many visitors for their beautiful landscapes and the sports opportunities they offer. The Vanoise National Park is the oldest and one of the largest parks, named after the Vanoise massif. Its highest point is the Grande Casse at 3,855 m. The impressive natural landscapes of the Pyrenees National Park lie on the southern border of France and extend into Spain, where they are part of the Ordesa y Monte Perdido National Park. The entire region is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In the French part, the glacial cirques of Gavarnie, Estaubé and Troumouse are among the most beautiful sights, as is the Barroud Wall. The Cévennes National Park, also mountainous, covers parts of Languedoc-Roussillon (including the popular Ardèche), Midi-Pyrénées and the Rhône-Alpes region. The park’s main offices are in the castle of Florac, but there are towns throughout the park. Donkey rides are available and the Aven Armand cave formation is one of the most beautiful sights in the park.
Mont Blanc is not yet protected, but it is very popular. It is the highest peak in Europe and attractive for climbing, hiking and skiing. On the French side, it is mostly explored from Chamonix, a well-known resort at the foot of the mountain.