First-time France: where to go and what to do
France is the world’s top tourist destination for good reason. There's a lot packed into this country – artistic and architectural masterpieces, remarkable museums and natural landscapes, and a history harking back far beyond the Romans.
Top it off with fine wine, food and a culinary culture that permeates through every city and small town, the hard part is deciding where to go first.
France’s chic, sexy capital has to be experienced at least once. Mix picture-postcard icons with simple Parisian moments and you'll truly fall in love with the city. Scale the Eiffel Tower then walk or cycle along the Seine, or cruise down it on a bateau-mouche. Venerate Notre Dame then grab a post-cathedral café at Café Saint-Régis, ice-cream at Berthillon or super juice at literary café of mythical bookshop Shakespeare & Company. Hit the Louvre then collapse on a bench with a Pierre Hermé macaron in the Tuileries or Jardin du Palais Royal. Delve into hilltop Montmartre with a local Paris Greeter. Escape to posh leafy Versailles and come back blown away by France’s most famous chateau.
Stunning châteaux are scattered around the lush Loire Valley. Stand in awe of the Renaissance castle Château de Chambord, and graceful Château de Chenonceau astride the Cher River. Château de Blois with its whistle-stop tour of French architecture, and classical Château de Cheverny where the spectacle of the dogs having dinner steals the show, is the perfect one-day combo. In summer put the gardens at Château de Villandry and Château d’Azay-le-Rideau after dark on your hit list. Base yourself in Tours, Blois or Amboise; hire a bike to pedal along the Loire riverbanks at least once; and try to catch a son-et-lumière (sound-and-light) show.
This strip of seashore on the big blue Med has it all – hence the extreme crowds in summer. The seaside town of Nice is the queen of the Riviera with its cutting-edge art museums, belle époque architecture, pebble beaches and legendary promenade. Glitzy day trips trail film stars in Cannes, Formula One drivers in Monaco, and hobnobbing celebs and socialites in St-Tropez. Sensational views make the drive along the three coastal roads from Nice to Menton an absolute must. Otherwise, grab your hiking boots and stride out in the fiery Massif de l’Estérel for brilliant red-rock mountain scenery.
Check all devices are fully charged: the extraordinary light and landscape in this part of France’s south demands constant snapping and sharing. Start with Marseille, a millennia-old port with striking museums such as the MuCEM and coastline straight off a film set. Inland, zoom in on glorious Roman amphitheatres and aqueducts in Nîmes, Orange and at the Pont du Gard. Drive past lavender fields and cherry orchards to hilltop villages and food markets in the bucolic Luberon and Vaucluse regions. No lens is large enough for the peak of Mont Ventoux (a cyclist's paradise) or the Gorges du Verdon, Europe’s deepest canyon with 800m sheer-drop cliffs and startling emerald green water, no filter required.
This sparkling viticulture region in northern France is all class. Where else can you sip champers in centuries-old cellars and taste your way through vineyards and medieval villages straight out of a Renoir painting? Stay in Reims (pronounced something similar to ‘rance’) or Épernay to visit Pommery, Mumm, Moët & Chandon and other big-name Champagne houses. In Reims, pick a clear day to scale the tower of the cathedral where dozens of French kings were crowned. From both towns, scenic Champagne driving routes thrust motorists into the heart of this intoxicating region.
Brittany & Normandy
A wind-buffeted part of northern France, Brittany & Normandy were created especially for outdoor fiends and history buffs with sensational seafood, cliff-top walks, a craggy coastline and ancient sights steeped in lore and legend. Top billing is Mont St-Michel, a magical mysterious abbey-island, best approached barefoot across the sand. Or grab a bicycle and toot your horn at the Carnac megaliths strewn along Brittany’s southern coast (wear a windbreaker). Normandy’s time-travel masterpiece is the Bayeux tapestry but it's the heart-wrenching D-Day beaches and WWII war cemeteries nearby that will really take you back to a moment in history. History buffs should check out our guide on how to explore the D-Day beaches.
The French Alps is one massive outdoor playground, which pumps during the ski season (December to April) when insanely challenging slopes and trails entice adrenaline junkies from everywhere. Mont Blanc prevails, and party town Chamonix is the place to get up close to its might and majesty – the mountain panorama from the top of the Aiguille du Midi cable car is the best there is, whatever the season. If small and chic is more your style then strap on the skis in Megéve-St-Gervais. To let rip after dark over hardcore après-ski head to Val d’Isère or Méribel and Courchevel in Les Trois Vallées.
What to pack
- Walking shoes
- French phrasebook
- Lonely Planet's Paris City Guides App
- Adaptor for France’s two-pin plugs
- Raincoat and umbrella (particularly for Paris and northern climes)
- Sunscreen and mosquito repellent (particularly for southern France)
- Detailed road map and/or GPS device
Good Afternoon: Bon après-midi
Good Evening: Bonne soirée
Goodbye: Au revoir
Please: S’il vous plaît
Thank you: Merci
Do you speak English?: Parlez-vous anglais?
I am lost!: Je suis perdu!
Please can I reserve a table for two/four people: Je voudrais réserver une table pour deux/quatre personnes s’il vous plaît.
Regular trains link cities and main towns. Check schedules and buy tickets at SNCF.
Travelling around by car buys freedom, flexibility and a ticket to rural France. Motorists drive on the right side of the road and pay to use autoroutes (motorways). Plot routes, toll and fuel costs with autoroutes.
Bicycle is a brilliant way of navigating towns and cities, including Paris. Sleek cycling paths link sights in the gorgeous and flat Loire Valley, Provence (not so flat) and Brittany. Research routes with France Vélo Tourisme.
This article was first published in June 2015 and updated in June 2019.