It seems like a lifetime ago that the world was flocking to la belle France to feast on its monumental gastronomy, landscapes and unmatched cultural savoir faire. But with a vaccine on the horizon and travel cautiously inching its way back onto the table, now is the time to start planning that first trip.
As a country consistently ranked as the most visited tourist destination on earth, France has not been sitting on its derrière during COVID-19 shutdown. New destination museums, grassroots dining and wildly exciting outdoor adventures in 2021 promise much-needed joie de vivre in spades.
Editor's note: during COVID-19 there are restrictions on travel. Check the latest guidance before departure, and always follow local health advice.
Admire unseen art in Paris
Swooning over timeless masterpieces in the Louvre, Impressionist icons at the Musée d’Orsay, and the world’s most famous kiss at the Musée Rodin are art classics in Paris, and early this year the capital welcomes a new jewel to its crown: Collection Pinault Paris – Bourse de Commerce. The gallery showcases the private contemporary art collection of art collector and French billionaire François Pinault inside the historic grain market and stock exchange. The belvédère (viewing platform), with aerial views of the circular building and glass cupola roof (1810–12), splendidly restored by Japanese architect Tadao Ando, promises to be a highlight – as will dining in its restaurant, La Halle aux Grains by former triple-starred French chef Michel Bras, from spring 2021.
Autumn in Paris is a giddy twirl along Haussmann boulevards peppered with gold leaves and cafe pavement terraces strewn with rugs to snuggle up in. Throw in the blockbuster wrapping of the Arc de Triomphe in 25,000 sq m of silvery-blue recyclable fabric and 4 miles (7km) of red rope – conceived by New York artist Christo (1935–2020) prior to his death – from September 18 to October 3, 2021 and you may as well book your trip right now.
Go ice-floating in the Alps
The call of the French wild has never been so strong – and mountains resorts in the French Alps have ramped up their off-piste repertoire to ensure everyone gets a slice of intoxicating outdoor action. In the Val Cenis, on the remote southern fringes of the Parc National de la Vanoise, ice-floating is the modish new way of refuelling on the valley’s brazen overdose of peace, solitude and natural beauty. Don a toasty warm floating wetsuit, hurl yourself in a glacial alpine lake, and drift on your back in weightless wonder. A wood-fired hot tub and sauna on the lake shore, laced with snow-dusted pine trees, complete the forest experience. Snow fiends seeking adrenalin-pumping thrills can also try their hand at ice diving, air-boarding and wing-jumping with Sensations Vanoise.
Other ways to let rip in the snow 2021-style: scaring yourself silly at 62mph (100km/h) on brand new ziplines in Serre Chevalier and Valmorel; challenging family and friends in La Plagne to an escape-room experience on skis or bike trek though snow on electric fat bikes.
Dive into Marseille’s Big Blue
With its cult beach-volley court on golden sand and easy-stroll proximity from the Vieux Port, Plage des Catalans is the cinematic hotspot in downtown Marseille for chilling, people-watching and experiencing a ground-breaking new museum – underwater. Freely accessible to swimmers, snorkelers and deep-sea divers, a 100m splash from shore, the ecological Musée Subaquatique de Marseille exhibits sunken sculptures evoking the beauty and fragility of their big blue environment. The eye-catching collection by French artists – monumental monkeys, a polar bear, free diver, Greek god of the sea Poseidon, all sorts – stands 5m deep on the seabed. Statues are sculpted from pH-neutral concrete to ensure aquatic flora and fauna bloom.
Marseille’s hottest seaside-hotel opening, retro-styled Tuba Club, is the place to stay. The former 1960s diving club was the coastal hangout of French free-diving idol Jacques Mayol, the focus of Luc Besson’s classic French movie The Big Blue (Le Grand Bleu; 1988).
Taste the best French cuisine at trendy food halls
Food and drink – sinfully gooey cheese, tangy saucisson spiked with pistachio and black truffle, artisan gin fired up with hot red Espelette peppers – is reason alone to visit France. And with chefs working closer than ever with artisan producers to elevate taste and quality to new heights, new-gen food halls are taste havens. Think of them as a Generation Alpha spin on the morning market where the French traditionally gather to taste produce so fresh earth still clings to the roots, shop, and linger with friends over Sunday-morning oysters and wine.
In Paris cheeky La Felicità at Station F and a galaxy of Michelin-starred chefs at Beaupassage kickstarted the trend. In Bordeaux gourmets gravitate to state-of-the-art Les Halles de Bacalan, in a waterfront hangar opposite La Cité du Vin, and Halle Boca in former abattoirs. Gastronomic Lyon plays an ace with Food Traboule, an explosive fusion of 16th-century architecture and modern French cuisine in Unesco-treasured Vieux Lyon. Then there’s Food Society, set to become the biggest food hall in Europe – 5000 sq m of pop-up food counters – when it opens in Montparnasse, Paris.
Explore Normandy’s belle époque with Marcel Proust
Marcel Proust bagged the prestigious Prix Goncourt literary prize in 1919 and to belatedly mark the centenary, a museum celebrating the life and times of the French novelist – the glittering belle époque – is opening this April in the seaside town where Proust holidayed. A trip to Villa du Temps Retrouvé in Cabourg, an elegant beach resort midway between Caen and Deauville on the Côte Fleurie in Normandy, will be as much about enjoying the gloriously retro vibes and glamour of the French seaside in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as learning about the man who wrote parts of the world’s longest novel here. Time your visit with Cabourg’s summer music festival Cabourg, Mon Amour on sandy Plage de Cap Cabourg (June 25–27, 2021).
Get off-grid and sleep in a Breton lighthouse
With its wild, cliff-spiked coastline prancing for 1530 miles (2470km) past emerald coves, mystical megaliths, authentic fishing villages and a raft of romantic offshore islands, Brittany boasts peaceful pockets galore to bliss out in. Lighthouse stays are the on-trend way to get off-grid. Out at sea on Île Vierge, a pinprick islet offshore from Plougerneau in Finistère, a twinset of lighthouses twinkle in the night sky. The taller of the two, built from granite in 1902, is the world’s tallest stone lighthouse at 82.5m; and its older sister – an 1845 vintage – will open as a 10-bed hostel this summer. Should absolutely nothing suffice bar a bed with 360° view in a glass lighthouse lantern, try the Phare de Kerbel in southern Brittany.