Few appreciate quite how varied France is. The largest country in Europe after Russia and Ukraine, hexagon-shaped France is hugged by water or mountains along every side except its northeastern boundary – an instant win for lovers of natural beauty, the coast and great outdoors. Winter snow sports and summer hiking and biking rule the Alps in eastern France and the Pyrenees lacing the 450km-long border with Spain in the southwest. For très belle beach holidays, the coastal regions of Normandy and Brittany (northern France), the Atlantic Coast (with oyster-rich islands and waves for surfers), Corsica, and the French Riviera (Côte d’Azur), Provence and Languedoc-Roussillon on the hot Mediterranean deliver every time. Then there's food and wine, most exceptional in Burgundy, Provence, the Dordogne and Rhône Valley.
Tables are jammed tight, chairs spill onto busy pavements outside, dishes of the day are chalked on the blackboard, and cuisine is simple and delicious. Such is the timeless joy of bistro dining in the capital.
Museums & Galleries
All the great masters star in Paris’ priceless portfolio of museums. But not all the booty is stashed inside: buildings, metro stations, parks and other public art give Mona Lisa a good run for her money.
Fashion & Flea Markets
Luxury fashion houses, edgy boutiques, Left Bank designer-vintage and Europe’s largest flea market: Paris really is the last word in fabulous shopping.
A Taste of Royalty
Château de Versailles – vast, opulent and very shimmery – has to be seen to be believed. Fontainebleau, Chantilly and Vaux-le-Vicomte are other fabled addresses in French royalty’s little black book.
An architectural heavyweight near Paris is Chartres’ cathedral, one of Western architecture’s greatest achievements, with stained glass in awesome blue – at its most dazzling on sunlit days.
Parisians take air in thick forests outside the city: Forêt de Fontainebleau, an old royal hunting ground, is a hot spot for rock climbing and family walks. Chantilly means manicured French gardens and upper-class horse racing.
Lille, Flanders & the Somme
Breaking for a glass of strong local beer between old-town meanders around extravagant Flemish Renaissance buildings is a highlight of northern France. Lille and Arras are the cities to target if you have limited time.
Gothic to WWI
Amiens evokes serene contemplation inside one of France’s most awe-inspiring Gothic cathedrals, and emotional encounters in WWI cemeteries.
Hiking along the Côte d’Opale – a wind-buffeted area of white cliffs, gold sand and ever-changing sea and sky – is dramatic and beautiful, as is a Baie de Somme bicycle ride past lounging seals.
Calvados & Camembert
This coastal chunk of northern France is a pastoral land of butter and soft cheeses. Its exotic fruits: Camembert, cider, fiery calvados (apple-flavoured brandy) and super-fresh seafood.
Cliffs & Coves
Chalk-white cliff to dune-lined beach, rock spire to pebble cove, coastal path to tide-splashed island-abbey Mont St-Michel: few coastlines are as inspiring.
Normandy has long played a pivotal role in European history. But it was during WWII’s D-Day landings that Normandy leaped to global importance. Museums, memorials, cemeteries and endless stretches of soft golden sand evoke that dramatic day in 1944.
Crêpes & Cider
These two Breton culinary staples are no secret, but who cares? Devouring caramel-doused buckwheat pancakes in the company of homemade cider is a big reason to visit Brittany.
With its wild dramatic coastline, islands, medieval towns and thick forests laced in Celtic lore and legend, this proud and fiercely independent region promises exhilarating walks.
Brittany’s much-loved islands, dotted with black sheep and crossed with craggy coastal paths and windswept cycling tracks, are big draws. Don’t miss dramatic Île d’Ouessant or the very aptly named Belle Île.
Gawp at a Champagne panorama from atop Reims’ cathedral then zoom in close with serious tasting at the world’s most prestigious Champagne houses in Reims and Épernay.
Nothing quite fulfils the French dream like easy day hikes through neat rows of vineyards, exquisite picture-postcard villages bedecked in flowers and a gold-stone riverside hamlet right out of a Renoir painting.
No routes are more geared to motorists and cyclists than the Champagne Routes, fabulously picturesque and well-signposted driving itineraries taking in the region’s wealthy winemaking villages, hillside vines and traditional cellars.
Alsace & Lorraine
Surveying the dazzling symmetry of crosses on the Verdun battlefields is painful. Memorials, museums, cemeteries, forts and an ossuary mark out the journey.
With the sublime (Strasbourg’s cathedral) to the space-age (Centre Pompidou in Metz), this northeast chunk of France steals urbanite hearts with its city squares, architecture, museums and Alsatian dining.
There is no lovelier way of getting acquainted with this part of France than travelling from hilltop castles to stork-nest-blessed farms to half-timbered villages framed by vines – with your foot light on the pedal. Slow is the pace.
Endowed with dazzling structural and decorative gems from medieval to Renaissance and beyond, the Loire’s lavish châteaux sweep most visitors off their feet.
This region is a dramatic storyteller: through spectacular castles, fortresses, apocalyptic tapestries and court paintings, the gore and glory, political intrigue and sex scandals of medieval and Renaissance France fabulously unfold.
The River Loire is France’s longest, best-decorated river. Pedalling riverside along the flat from château to château is one of the valley’s great joys – not to mention tasting the fruits of the vineyards that fan out from its banks.
Reds & Whites
Meander between vines and old-stone villages along Burgundy’s grand cru (wine of exceptional quality) vineyard route. But this region is not just about Côte d’Or reds. Taste whites in Chablis and Mâcon also.
Nowhere is Burgundy’s past as one of medieval Europe’s mightiest states evoked more keenly than in the dashingly handsome capital Dijon. Complete the medieval history tour with abbeys Cluny and Cîteaux, Fontenay, Tournus, Vézelay and Autun.
Hiking and biking past vineyards or cruising in a canal boat is the good life. Pedal the towpath to gloriously medieval Abbaye de Fontenay, open a bottle of Chablis and savour the best of Burgundy.
Lyon & the Rhône Valley
No city in France excites taste buds more than Lyon. Savour local specialities in a checked-tableclothed bouchon (small bistro), washed down by local Côtes de Rhône wine poured from a Lyonnais pot (bottle).
Not content with lavishing two majestic amphitheatres on Lyon (catch a concert alfresco after dark during Les Nuits de Fourvière – magical!), the Romans gifted the Rhône Valley with a third in jazz-famed Vienne.
Pedalling between vineyards in Beaujolais country or around frog-filled lakes swamped with birdlife in La Dombes is a simple pleasure of valley life.
French Alps & the Jura Mountains
Culture & Cuisine
Fondue is the tip of the culinary iceberg in this Alpine region, where cow’s milk flavours dozens of cheeses. Around chic Lake Annecy, chefs woo with wild herbs and lake perch.
Crowned by Mont Blanc (4810m), the French Alps show no mercy in their insanely challenging ski trails and mountain-bike descents. Did we mention Europe’s longest black downhill piste and the world’s highest zip line?
Back to Nature
Feel the rhythm of the land with an overnight stay on a farm. Bottle-feed calves, collect the eggs, eat breakfast in a fragrant garden or before a wood-burning stove, and feel right at home.
The last volcano erupted in 5000 BC but their presence is still evident: mineral waters bubble up from volcanic springs in Vichy and Volvic; volcanic stone paints Clermont-Ferrand black; and ancient craters pocket rich green hills in the Parc Naturel Régional des Volcans d'Auvergne.
A string of early-20th-century spa towns including Vichy and La Bourboule add understated elegance to this region’s otherwise deeply provincial bow.
Hiking & Skiing
Walking is the best way to explore this unique landscape – an uncanny, grass-green moonscape of giant molehills crossed with trails. Then there are the little-known ski slopes of Le Mont-Dore.
The Dordogne, Limousin & the Lot
Black truffles, foie gras and walnuts… Gourmets, eat your heart out in this fertile part of central and southwest France, where the fruits of the land are piled high at a bevy of atmospheric weekly markets.
Not only is Dordogne’s prized collection of 13th-century fortified towns and villages a joy to explore, valley views from the top of these clifftop bastides are uplifting. Start with Monpazier and Domme.
Be it aboard a canoe, raft or gabarre (traditional flat-bottomed boat), cruising quietly along the region’s rivers is an invitation to see la belle France at her most serene.
Make a hip dining rendezvous in an old banana-ripening warehouse in Nantes, or take in bright-white limestone arcades and islands in the fortified port of La Rochelle, and brilliant art museums in wine-rich Bordeaux.
France’s largest winegrowing region, Bordeaux, encompasses the Médoc with its magnificent châteaux and medieval hamlet of St-Émilion. The wine is wonderful (not to mention the Cognac).
Paddling emerald-green waterways in the Marais Poitevin, pedalling sun-baked Île de Ré and wandering between weathered, wooden oyster shacks in Arcachon Bay are what this tranquil region is all about – slowing the pace right down.
French Basque Country
Culture & Cuisine
With its fiestas, traditional pelota (ball games), tapas and famous Bayonne ham, this exuberant Basque region beneath the mist-soaked Pyrenees feels very close to neighbouring Spain.
Riding waves in the glitzy beach resort of Biarritz or on surfer beaches in Les Landes are good reasons to visit this sun-slicked coastal region, snug in France’s most southwestern corner.
A Timeless Pilgrimage
For centuries pilgrims have made their way across France to the quaint walled town of St-Jean Pied de Port, and beyond to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Do the same, on foot or by bicycle.
Make Parc National des Pyrénées your playground. Vigorous hikes to lofty heights, good-value downhill skiing and racy white-water sports will leave you wanting more.
France’s last wilderness has rare flora and fauna, snow-kissed peaks, vulture-specked skies, waterfalls and lakes. Top views include those from Pic du Jer, Pic du Midi, Lescun, Cirque de Gavarnie, Lac de Gaube and pretty much every valley going.
Rare & Holy Cities
That same elegance that saw well-to-do 19th-century English and Americans winter in Pau still attracts guests today. Then there is sacred Lourdes, a provincial pilgrim city.
Toulouse, Gers & Vallée du Tarn
Cassoulet & Armagnac
In Toulouse be sure to try cassoulet (rich bean, pork and duck stew), a classic dish found simmering on the stove in most local kitchens. Begin the experience with an aperitif and end with an Armagnac brandy.
Towns with Tales
Red-brick Toulouse’s historic mansions, quintessential fortified town Montauban, Gothic Albi, Moissac’s Romanesque abbey: this compact region is packed with historical tales and historic architecture.
Canal du Midi
Pop a cork out of a bottle of Vin de Pays d’Oc and savour the go-slow, lush-green loveliness of the Canal du Midi. Stroll or pedal its towpaths, soak in a spa or simply rent a canal boat and drift.
Roussillon is a hot, dusty, lively region, long part of Catalonia at the eastern end of the Pyrenees. Celebrate a traditional fiesta in Perpignan, and modern art and sardane (Catalan folk dance) in Céret.
Aqueducts & Amphitheatres
Nîmes’ amphitheatre and the gracefully arched Pont du Gard are two of the Roman Empire’s best-preserved sites. Catch a show in Nîmes, canoe on the Gard.
Footpaths & Waterways
Try canoeing beneath the Pont du Gard, cycling towpaths to Carcassonne, boating the Canal du Midi, climbing up to Cathar fortresses, donkey trekking in the Cévennes, or hiking gorges in Haut-Languedoc.
Eating & Drinking
Sip pastis (aniseed-flavoured aperitif) over pétanque (boules, a variant of bowls), spend all evening savouring bouillabaisse (fish stew), mingle over buckets of herbs and marinated olives at the market, hunt truffles, and taste Bandol reds and Côtes de Provence rosé.
Travelling à la provençal is a sensual journey past scented lavender fields and chestnut forests, through apple-green vineyards and silvery olive groves, and around markets, chapels and medieval villages perched on rocky crags.
Provence itself is an art museum and has the roll-call to prove it: Matisse, Renoir, Picasso, Cézanne, Van Gogh and Signac all painted and lived here.
The Côte d'Azur & Monaco
Urban grit, old-world opulence, art that moves and a seaside promenade everyone loves – Nice, queen of the French Riviera, will always be belle of the seaside ball.
Enjoy the Riviera high life: trail film stars in Cannes, watch Formula One, meet high society in Monaco, guzzle champers in St-Tropez, frolic in famous footsteps on sandy beaches, dine between priceless art, dance until dawn…
With its glistening sea, idyllic beaches and coastal paths, this part of the Med coast begs wonderful walks. Cicadas sing on Cap Ferrat, while the sun turns the Massif de l’Estérel a brilliant red.
Corsican coastal towns are impossibly picturesque – alley-woven Bastia, Italianate Bonifacio, celeb-loved Île Rousse, chichi Calvi – but it is the hair-raising coastal roads that wend their way past medieval Genoese watchtowers and big blue views that really scream, ‘Send a postcard home!’.
Hiking high-altitude mountain trails once the preserve of bandits and bergers (shepherds) is a trail-junkie favourite, as are the cliff-hanging Gorges de Spelunca and beautiful pink, ochre and ginger Calanques de Piana.
The Big Blue
Nowhere does the Med seem bluer. Hop on deck in Porto, Bonifacio, Calvi or Porto-Vecchio for a boat excursion, or view sapphire waters through a mask while diving and snorkelling.