Top 18 experiences in France

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France is all about world-class art and architecture, Roman temples and Renaissance châteaux, iconic landmarks known the world over, and rising stars few yet know. Stroll the lily-clad gardens Monet painted and savour un café at the Parisian café where Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir met to philosophise.

In this excerpt from Lonely Planet's new-look guide to France we recommend the top sights and experiences for visitors.

1. Bistro Dining, Paris

Image by Ted Drake

The latest buzzword in the capital is néo-bistro (new bistro), a small, casual address serving outstanding cuisine under the tutelage of a talented (and often ‘name’) chef. Take Christian Constant’s Les Cocottes, a stone’s throw from the Eiffel Tower, or Jadis, hidden on a little-known street in middle-of-nowhere. Tables are jammed as tight as ever, dishes of the day are still chalked on the blackboard, and cuisine is just as simple except for one new ingredient – a creative twist.

2. Eiffel Tower

Image by  Adriano Aurelio Araujo

Seven million people visit it annually but few disagree each visit is unique. From an evening ascent amid twinkling lights to lunch at 58 Tour Eiffel in the company of a staggering city panorama, there are 101 ways to ‘do’ it. Pedal beneath it, skip the lift and hike up, buy a crêpe from a stand here or a key ring from the street, snap yourself in front of it, visit it at night or – our favourite – on the odd special occasion when all 324m of the tower glows a different colour.

3. Mont St-Michel

Image by david humo

The dramatic play of tides on this abbey-island in Normandy is magical and mysterious. Said by Celtic mythology to be a sea tomb to which souls of the dead were sent, Mont St-Michel is rich in legend and history, keenly felt as you make your way barefoot across rippled sand to the stunning architectural ensemble. Walk around it alone or, better still, hook up with a guide in nearby Genêts for a dramatic day hike across the bay.

4. Champagne

Image by dottorpeni

Name-brand Champagne houses like Mumm, Mercier and Moët & Chandon in the main towns of Reims and Épernay, are known the world over. But – our tip – much of Champagne’s best liquid gold is made by almost 5000 smallscale vignerons (winegrowers) in 320-odd villages. Dozens of maisons (Champagne houses) welcome visitors for a taste, tipple and shopping at producer prices, rendering the region’s scenic driving routes the best way to taste fine bubbly amid rolling vineyards and drop-dead-gorgeous villages. Our favourite: tasting in Le Mesnil-sur-Oger and lunch at Le Mesnil.

5. Loire Valley Châteaux

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If it’s aristocratic pomp and architectural splendour you’re after, this regal valley is the place to linger. Flowing for over 1000km into the Atlantic Ocean, the Loire is one of France’s last fleuves sauvages (wild rivers) and its banks are a 1000- year snapshot of French high society. The valley is riddled with beautiful châteaux sporting glittering turrets and ballrooms, lavish cupolas and chapels. If you’re a hopeless romantic seeking the perfect fairy-tale castle, head for moat-ringed Azay-le- Rideau, Villandry and its gardens, and less visited Beauregard.

6. Adrenalin Kick, Chamonix

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The Vallée Blanche is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. You won’t regret the €70-odd it costs to do the more than 20km off -piste descent from the spike of the Aiguille du Midi to mountaineering mecca Chamonix – every minute of the five hours it takes to get down will pump more adrenalin in your body than anything else you’ve ever done. Craving more? Hurl yourself down Europe’s longest black run, La Sarenne, at Alpe d’Huez.

7. Ste-Chapelle & Chartres

This is a top experience reserved strictly for sunny days and those who like looking at the world through rose-coloured glass. Be stunned and inspired by the sublime stained glass in Paris’ Ste-Chapelle, one of Christendom’s most beautiful places of worship. Then head out of town to Chartres, where you can’t get bluer blue than the awesome stained-glass windows of Cathédrale Notre Dame de Chartres. Leave with the true blue of so-called ‘Chartres blue’ firmly imprinted in your mind.

8. Dune du Pilat

Image by Erik Hagreis

The Dune du Pilat is a ‘mountain’ that just has to be climbed. Not only is the coastal panorama from the top of Europe’s largest sand dune a stunner – it takes in the Banc d’Arguin bird reserve and Cap Ferret across the bay – but the nearby beaches have some of the Atlantic Coast’s best surf. Cycle here from Arcachon and top off the heady trip with a dozen oysters, shucked before your very eyes and accompanied by crepinettes (local sausages).

9. The Three Corniches, Nice

Image by chuck624

It is impossible to drive this dramatic trio of coastal roads, each one higher and more hairpin bend–riddled than the next, without conjuring up cinematic images of Grace Kelly, Hitchcock, the glitz of Monaco high life, and scandalous royals – all to the standing ovation of big view after big view of sweeping blue sea fringing Europe’s most mythical coastline. To make a perfect day out of it, before leaving Nice, shop for a picnic at the morning market on Cours Saleya.

10. Carcassonne at Dusk

Image by Claudia Castro

That first glimpse of La Cité’s sturdy, stone, witch’s-hat turrets above Carcassonne in the Languedoc is enough to make your hair stand on end. To properly savour this fairy-tale walled city, linger at dusk after the crowds have left, when the old town belongs to its 100 or so inhabitants and the few visitors staying at the handful of lovely hotels within its ramparts. Don’t forget to look back when you leave to view the old city, beautifully illuminated, glowing in the warm night.

11. D-Day Beaches

Image by FaceMePLS

This is one of France’s most emotional journeys. The broad stretches of fine sand and breeze-blown bluffs are quiet now, but early on 6 June 1944 the beaches of northern Normandy were a cacophony of gunfire and explosions, the bodies of Allied soldiers lying in the sand as their comrades in-arms charged inland. Just up the hill from Omaha Beach, the long rows of symmetrical gravestones at the Normandy American Cemetery & Memorial bear solemn, silent testimony to the horrible price paid for France’s liberation from Nazi tyranny.

12. Pont du Gard

Image by Torcello Trio

This Unesco World Heritage Site near Nîmes in southern France is gargantuan: 35 arches straddle the Roman aqueduct’s 275m-long upper tier, containing a watercourse that was designed to carry 20,000 cu metres of water per day. View it from afloat a canoe on the River Gard or pay extra to jig across its top tier. Oh, and don’t forget your swimming gear for a spot of post-Pont, daredevil dives and high jumps from the rocks nearby – a plunge that will entice the most reluctant of young historians.

13. Provençal Markets

Image by Michael Gwyther-Jones

No region is more of a market-must than this one. Be it fresh fish by the port in seafaring Marseille, early summer’s strings of pink garlic, melons from Cavaillon all summer long or wintertime’s earthy ‘black diamond’ truffles, Provence thrives on a bounty of fresh produce – grown locally and piled high each morning at the market. Every town and village has one, but those in Carpentras and Aix-en-Provence are the best known. While you’re here, stock up on dried herbs, green and black olives marinated a dozen different ways, courgette flowers and oils.

14. Hilltop Villages

Impossibly perched on a rocky peak above the Mediterranean, gloriously lost in back country, fortified or château-topped… southern France’s portfolio of villages perchés is vast, impressive and calls for go-slow touring – on foot, by bicycle or car. Most villages are medieval, built from gold stone and riddled with cobbled lanes, flower-filled alleys and hidden squares silent but for the glug of a fountain. Combine a village visit with lunch alfresco and you’ll never want to leave.

15. Lyonnais Bouchons

The red-and-white checked tablecloths, closely packed tables and decades-old bistro decor could be anywhere in France. It’s the local cuisine that makes bouchons in Lyon unique, plus the quaint culinary customs, like totting up the bill on the paper tablecloth, or serving wine in a glass bottle wrapped with an elastic band to stop drips, or the ‘shut weekends’ opening hours. Various piggy parts drive Lyonnais cuisine but, have faith, this French city is said to be the gastronomic capital of France. Dine and decide.

16. Centre Pompidou-Metz

Bright white by day, all aglow after dark, this new star of the northern France art scene is on the tip of everyone’s tongue. A provincial cousin to the well-known Centre Pompidou in Paris, this modern art museum was designed by a world-class, Japanese–French duo of architects and is as much architectural gem as exhibition powerhouse, easily on a par with Bilbao’s Guggenheim and London’s Tate. Part of the experience is a designer lunch, aka edible art on a plate, at the museum’s La Voile Blanche.

17. Carnac Megaliths

Image by jez.atkinson

Pedalling past open fields dotted with the world’s greatest concentration of mysterious megaliths gives a poignant reminder of Brittany’s ancient human inhabitation. No one knows for sure what inspired these gigantic menhirs, dolmens, cromlechs, tumuli and cairns to be built – a sun god? Some phallic fertility cult? You decide. To top off the Breton experience, stop for crêpes and cider at Crêperie au Pressoir, a traditional long house in Carnac set amid a circle of menhirs.

18. Alsatian Wine Route

Image by Fr Antunes

It is one of France’s most popular drives – and for good reason. Motoring in this far northeast corner of France takes you through a kaleidoscope of lush green vines, perched castles and gentle mistcovered mountains. The only pit stops en route are half-timbered villages and roadside wine cellars, where fruity Alsace vintages can be swirled, tasted and bought. To be truly wooed, drive the Route des Vins d’Alsace in autumn, when vines are heavy with grapes waiting to be harvested and colours are at their vibrant best.

Further reading: more France articles here to help you get the most from your trip