Essential France

  • 10 Days

For a taste of quintessential France, follow this 10-day 'best of' itinerary.

No place screams 'France!' more than Paris. Spend two days in the capital, allowing time for cafe lounging, bistro lunches and waterside strolls along the Seine and Canal St-Martin. On day three, enjoy Renaissance royalty at Château de Chambord and Château de Chenonceau in the Loire Valley. Or spend two days in Normandy, marvelling at Rouen's Notre Dame cathedral, the Bayeux tapestry, sea-splashed Mont St-Michel and – should modern history be your passion – the D-Day landing beaches.

Day five, zoom south for world-class cave art in the Vézère Valley. Key sites are around the towns of Les Eyzies-de-Tayac-Sireuil and Montignac. Or base yourself in Sarlat-la-Canéda, showcasing some of France's best medieval architecture and a fabulous food market. Day seven, experience 12 hours in Bordeaux, not missing wine tasting in its stunning La Cité du Vin and its sparkling new seafaring Musée de la Mer et de la Marine. Next day, drive three hours to walled Carcassonne, Roman Nîmes and the Pont du Gard. Finish on the French Riviera with a casino flutter in Grace Kelly's Monaco, a portside aperitif in Brigitte Bardot's St-Tropez and a stroll through Henri Matisse's Nice.

The Channel to the Med

  • 2 Weeks

France has 3427km of coastline, handsomely spread along the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, and a trip from coast to coast uncovers a wealth of dramatically contrasting seascapes, port cities and quaint coastal villages.

Step off the boat in Calais and be seduced by cliffs, sand dunes and windy beaches on the spectacular Côte d'Opale. Speed southwest, taking in a fish lunch in Dieppe, a sensational cathedral visit in Rouen or a picturesque cliffside picnic in Étretat en route to your overnight stop: your choice of the pretty Normandy seaside resorts of Honfleur, Deauville or Trouville-sur-Mer. Spend two days here: a boat trip beneath the breathtaking Pont de Normandie, shopping for fresh fish and seafood at Trouville-sur-Mer's waterfront fishmonger, and hobnobbing with Parisians on Deauville's chic star-studded boardwalk are essentials.

Devote day three to Normandy's D-Day landing beaches. Start with Le Mémorial – Un Musée pour la Paix in Caen, the best single museum devoted to the Battle of Normandy, then follow a westward arc along the beach-laced coast, taking in the caisson-strewn sands at Arromanches-les-Bains, gun installations at Longues-sur-Mer and the now-serene 7km-long stretch of 'bloody Omaha'. Come dusk, rejuvenate spent emotions over fresh scallops and calvados (apple-flavoured brandy). Or, if art is more your cup of tea, skip the beaches and go for the stunning representation of 11th-century warfare embroidered across 70m of tapestry in Bayeux.

Day four and iconic Mont St-Michel and its sandy bay beckon – hiking barefoot across the sands here is exhilarating. End the week in Brittany with a flop in an old-fashioned beach tent in Dinard and a bracing stroll on spectacular headlands around Camaret-sur-Mer.

Week two begins with a long drive south to chic La Rochelle for a lavish seafood feast. Spend a night here, continuing the gourmet theme as you wend your way south through Médoc wine country to Bordeaux. Next morning, stop in La Ville Rose, Toulouse, through which runs the undisputed queen of canals, Canal du Midi, and/or Carcassonne before hitting the Med. The Camargue – a wetland of flamingos, horses and incredible birdlife – is a unique patch of coast to explore and Van Gogh thought so too. Follow in his footsteps around Arles, before continuing onto the ancient, enigmatic and totally fascinating port city of Marseille.

Brittany to Bordeaux

  • 1 Week

For an exhilarating dose of Breton culture, Atlantic sea air and outstanding wine full of southern sun, there is no finer trip.

It starts fresh off the boat in St-Malo, a walled city with sturdy Vauban ramparts that beg exploration at sunset. Linger at least a day in this attractive port. Walk across at low tide to Île du Grand Bé and lap up great views atop a 14th-century tower in pretty St-Servan. Motor along the Côte d'Émeraude the next day, stopping in picturesque seaside town Dinard en route to captivating Breton port Roscoff, 200km west. Devote day four to discovering Brittany's famous cider and megaliths around Carnac, the enchanting medieval town of Vannes overlooking the glittering island-studded Golfe du Morbihan, and the turreted medieval castle in Josselin. Push south along the Atlantic coast, stopping in Nantes if you like big cities (and riding mechanical elephants), or continuing to the peaceful waterways of 'Green Venice', aka the Marais Poitevin. Bordeaux is your final destination for day six, from where a bevy of Bordeaux wine-tasting trips tempt. End the journey atop Europe's highest sand dune, Dune du Pilat, near oyster-famed Arcachon.

A Week around Paris

  • 1 Week

What makes capital city Paris even more wonderful is the extraordinarily green and nonurban journey of Renaissance châteaux and sparkling wine that unfurls within an hour of the city.

Day one has to be France's grandest castle, Château de Versailles, and its vast gardens. Second day, feast on France's best-preserved medieval basilica and the dazzling blue stained glass in Chartres, an easy train ride away. Small-town Chantilly is a good spot to combine a laid-back lunch with a Renaissance château, formal French gardens and – if you snagged tickets in advance – an enchanting equestrian performance. On the fourth day, catch the train to elegant Reims in the heart of the Champagne region. Scale its cathedral for dazzling views before tucking into the serious business of Champagne tasting. Dedicated bubbly aficionados can hop the next day to Épernay, France's other great Champagne city. On day six, enjoy a lazy start then catch an afternoon fountain show at Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte, followed by a candlelit tour of the château. End the week with a look at futuristic La Défense or, for those with kids, Disneyland Resort Paris.

Along the Loire Valley

  • 5 Days

For five days of aristocratic pomp and architectural splendour within spitting distance of transport hub Paris, there is no finer destination than the château-studded Loire Valley – a Unesco World Heritage destination.

Make your first base the regal city of Blois, from where you can maximise the limited amount of time you have by hooking up with an organised château tour: queen of all castles Château de Chambord and the charmingly classical Château de Cheverny, with its extraordinary furnishings and dramatic hound-packed kennels, make a great combo. Day three, follow France's longest river southwest to Amboise, final home of Leonardo da Vinci. If wine is a love, build some dégustation (tasting) of local Vouvray wines in vineyards into your itinerary on the way to solidly bourgeois Tours, an easy hop from Amboise. From here Château de Chenonceau is beautifully strung across the River Cher 34km east. End your trip with France's elite riding school in Saumur and the movingly simple abbey church Abbaye Royale de Fontevraud – or push on northwest to Angers with its massive black-stone fortress and Apocalypse tapestry. Château de Verrières in Saumur is a befitting overnight address in this château-rich neck of the woods.

Burgundy & Beyond

  • 6 Days

Red-wine lovers can enjoy the fruits of Burgundy with this delightful motoring tour.

Begin in the Roman river port of Auxerre, 170km southeast of Paris. Explore its ancient abbey and Gothic cathedral, and cycle along towpaths. On day two consider an easy bike ride to a wonderful piece of Cistercian architecture in pretty Pontigny, 25km north. Stay overnight or push on to Chablis, where bags more bike rides and gentle hikes between Burgundy vineyards await – allow ample time here to taste the seven grands crus (wines of exceptional quality) of this well-known winemaking town. Day four, meander south to the picture-postcard village of Noyers-sur-Serein, then head east to the breathtaking, Unesco-listed Abbaye de Fontenay, before winding up for the night in Semur-en-Auxois, 25km south. MuséoParc Alésia, where Julius Caesar defeated Gaulish chief Vercingétorix in 52 BC, is not far from here and makes for a fascinating day out. On the last day, discover Dijon and its beautiful medieval and Renaissance buildings. From here, should you have more time, take a road trip through the winemaking area of Côte d'Or to Beaune, or south to Lyon in the Rhône Valley and beyond to the rugged Gorges de l'Ardèche.

The South of France

  • 10 Days

For sun, sea and celebrity action, hit France's hot south.

Start in Nice, star of the coastline that unfurls in a pageant of belle époque palaces and iconic sands. Drive along the Riviera's trio of legendary corniches – coastal views are mind-blowing – and on day three train it to glitzy Monaco. Motor southwest next, breaking for a stroll and a few snaps on the red-rock Corniche de l'Estérel en route to fishing port St-Tropez, where million-dollar yachts jostle for space with street artists. Rise early next morning for the place des Lices market and spend the afternoon on sandy Plage de Pampelonne. Day six is a toss-up between a dramatic drive along the Corniche des Maures to Bormes-les-Mimosas or a boat trip to the très belle Îles d'Hyères. Head inland next to Aix-en-Provence, a canvas of graceful 19th-century architecture, stylish cafes and squares. From Aix, it's a hop and a skip to Ventabren, where lunch or dinner alfresco at La Table de Ventabren is what eating in Provence is all about. Devote your last two days to the wild Gorges du Verdon, Europe's largest canyon, two hours' drive northeast, or gentle Luberon with its photogenic hilltop villages.

Summer in the Alps

  • 5 Days

A trip to the French Alps often translates as one week of skiing in one place. Yet take time to explore the region after the snow has melted – summer is best – and you'll be pleasantly surprised.

Warm up with old-town ambling, lakeside strolling and warm-weather swimming in fairy-tale Annecy, a beautiful medieval town just 45km from Geneva, Switzerland. Day two, shift to Chamonix at the foot of Mont Blanc, Europe's highest peak: ride a cable car up to the Aiguille du Midi or, if the sky is not crystal-clear, ride a cog railway up to the Mer de Glace glacier. Yet more unforgettable views of Mont Blanc seduce along hiking trails in the chic, picturesque Alpine villages of St-Gervais and Megève. Let the adrenalin rip, or push on via the ancient Savoyard stronghold of Chambéry to the Parc National de la Vanoise, where spectacular mountain biking in Les Trois Vallées will please the most jaded outdoor junkie. A fitting finale to your Alpine foray is the stunning drive through the Parc National des Écrins to Briançon, perhaps the loveliest of all the medieval villages in the French Alps, famous for its Vauban fortifications.

Tour de France

  • 3 Weeks

This mega, three-week itinerary takes in the best of France, and makes an ideal introduction to this vast and varied country.

Get set in Strasbourg, ambling around its cathedral and canal-clad Petite France and dining in a traditional winstub (tavern). Then move onto greener climes, picking up the Route des Vins d'Alsace, aka the Alsace Wine Route, to tipple your way around the Massif des Vosges foothills. Keep a clear head for art-nouveau architecture in Nancy, where at least one night is obligatory in order to enjoy romantic place Stanislas lit after dark. End the week sampling the wares of the Champagne cellars of Épernay.

Week two features the pick of Normandy and Brittany: Bayeux and its tapestry; Monet's flower-filled garden at Giverny; the D-Day landing beaches, Mont St-Michel and Carnac in France's Celtic land of legends. Then zoom south for more prehistory in the form of some of the world's most precious cave art in the Vézère Valley. Key sites are around the towns of Les Eyzies-de-Tayac-Sireuil and Montignac. Or consider Sarlat-la-Canéda, showcase to some of France's best medieval architecture, as a base.

The pace hots up in the third week. From the Dordogne, wiggle through the Languedoc region, not missing the spectacular Gorges du Tarn; grab a canoe to drift lazily down its waters in Ste-Énimie. Continue southeast to the papal city of Avignon with its vast empty palace, vibrant cafe culture and relaxed Provençal air. Slog like a Tour de France cyclist up Mont Ventoux for magnificent views of Provence's white stone-capped king of mountains, then speed north to the majestic city of Lyon, an unexpected oasis of culture, gastronomy and urban vibe. Should you have another week at hand, a mountain adventure in the French Alps, a comfortable two-hour dash from Lyon, is a dandy idea.

QuellaThe last leg of this ambitious itinerary embraces wine-rich Burgundy: Beaune, Dijon and Vézelay are the obvious desirable places to stop en route to Paris. If you're travelling en famile or history-mad, the outstanding MuséoParc Alésia – the camp where Julius Caesar defeated Gaulish chief Vercingétorix in 52 BC – near the village of Alise-Ste-Reine in the Pays d'Auxois, is well worth the drive from Dijon or Semur-en-Auxois.