Things to do in France
Abbaye de Fontevraud
Founded in 1101, this aristocratic abbey is the largest and perhaps most beautiful in France, with Romanesque, Gothic, and Renaissance buildings, extensive grounds, and even a hotel and restaurant in the old hospital.
Nestled in the quiet town of Ancy-le-Franc, this mid-16th-century château is a paragon of symmetry, with its immaculately conceived four wings and inner courtyard. Inside, its wall paintings and frescoes are worth admiring as well.
Baie des Anges
Don’t miss a dip in the azure “Bay of Angels” when the weather is warm – while free public beaches abound, the upscale private beaches allow guests to lap up the sunshine while enjoying chaise lounges, parasols, restaurants, bar service, and more.
Traveling the extensive canal network by private barge is a relaxing and elegant way to tour Burgundy; book well in advance.
The easy-drinking, buttery, young Gamay reds of Beaujolais go with almost any food. Most villages have a cave offering tastings. Villié-Morgon stands out with tastings in the cellar of the 18th-century chateau.
Bike in Alsace
Looking for the chance to channel your inner Lance? Pack up your bicyclette (or rent one there) and head to France's Alsace region, near the Swiss and German borders. With designated bike routes throughout the area, it's a pure delight to pedal beside the Vosges Mountains, through charming villages, and past the vineyards that lie along the 106-mile long Route des Vins (Wine Route), where crisp Rieslings and Gewurztraminers are born.
Canal St. Martin
Artists fleeing high rents in the Marais have transformed the once-dodgy Canal St. Martin into Paris's hippest neighborhood. Dug in the 1820s as a source of drinking water, today the 2.7-mile-long canal (part of it is underground) is lined with trendy restaurants, bars and shops. There are boat tours through the locks. Come on Sunday when the Quai de Valmy is closed to traffic.
Cannes’ sandy beaches facing La Croisette are among the best in the Riviera – paying entrance to these upscale private beaches is worth the splurge for the chaise lounges, parasols, restaurants, and bar service.
CAPC Musee d'Art Contemporain
A converted warehouse is the backdrop for modern art from the likes of Sol Le Witt and Keith Haring at CAPC Musee d’Art Contemporain.
Cannes’ largest and most legendary casino, the Croisette is the sort of place you’d expect to find in nearby Monte Carlo. Men wear jackets and the higher end gaming rooms charge an admission fee ($16).
Casino de Monte Carlo
Indulge your James Bond fantasy and go for broke at this famed casino, contained within an opulent example of 19th-century architecture designed by Charles Garnier.
Cathedral of Saint-Étienne
The gothic Cathedral of Saint-Étienne can be spotted a mile away thanks to its colossal tower. The 13th-century cathedral owes its fame, however, to its medieval stained glass – some of the best in all of France.
Cathedrale St- Apollinaire
Restored several times since its founding in 1095 by Urban II, this impressive Romanesque cathedral contains the hallowed tomb of Pope Pius the VI who perished here as a prisoner in the 18th century.
You can't miss this world-class modern art museum housed in a mammoth glass and steel building decorated with massive, brightly colored pipes. The permanent collection includes works from Matisse to Pollack, and the special exhibitions are ever-changing. Don't miss the outdoor Stravinsky fountain with its wacky motorized shapes.
Follow the footpath-embedded bronze plaques to see where this famous artist ate, drank, studied, and painted in Aix-en-Provence. Free guides from the tourist office point the way (2 place du Géneral de Gaulle).
Shoppers stroll the famously picturesque avenue to check out the mammoth Virgin Megastore, as well as the mix of upscale boutiques like Louis Vuitton and Cartier, along with pocket-friendly chains like Zara and Sephora. A detour onto the other two legs of Paris' "Golden Triangle" - down avenues Montaigne and then up George V - will make your eyes sparkle and your wallet melt.
Château Azay le Rideau
This château hosts one of the region’s best Son et Lumiéres, nighttime sound and light extravaganzas popular June through September. Part spectacle and part theatre, they combine light, music, and actors to create breathtaking interactive experiences.
It’s not original to heap praise on Château Coutet, the sweet wine
producer in the Barsac area of Bordeaux: Noted oenophile Thomas Jefferson
singled it out way back in 1787. But the latest offering, Château Coutet
2007, practically leaps from the glass. Besides providing an explosion of
pineapple, clove, and honey flavors, it has the racy acidity and freshness that
are cornerstones of a good barsac, letting it age for decades. Indeed Barsac is
home to that most elusive prey: the splurge bottle that for $63 seems like a
bargain. 2010 Smart Luxury Award winner
Château de Villandry
The Loire region is dotted with dozens of spectacular gardens. Vegetables have nowhere looked more decorative than at the formal potager jardins here.
Châteaux of the Loire
The most famous attractions of Loire Valley are its many historic chateaux, which range from medieval fortresses to elegant Renaissance palaces: Chambord, Chenonceau, Azay-Le-Rideau, Villandry, and Saumur are open daily.
Think fish and Hollywood (but not Waterworld, merci). Across from the Eiffel Tower at the bottom of Trocadéro Gardens, the Paris aquarium is home to more than 10,000 fish, including 25 sharks, and a giant touch tank full of friendlier critters. But there are also two movie screens showing four films daily, exhibits about creating special effects, live performances, a Japanese restaurant, and an area for crafts - enough to keep any child busy.
As Roman influence declined, Monastic orders increased in power and wealth, led by the order at Cluny. See superb examples at Paray-le-Monial (tourist office 33-3-8581-1092); the Abbeye de Fontenay (www.abbayedefontenay.com); and Vezelay (www.vezelaytourisme.com).
Nicolas Frion teaches cookery classes at his celebrated restaurant Le Chapon Fin on Wednesday and Saturday mornings. Classes highlight seasonal regional ingredients like foie gras and lobster.
Cruise the Corniches
For about 20 miles these three serpentine roadways run alongside one another from Nice to the Italian frontier. The highest, the Grand Corniche, provides the most dramatic views of the Mediterranean Sea and its settlements.
Cruise the Seine
Instead of taking a snooze-worthy Bateaux-Mouches tour, splurge on a dinner
cruise with Yachts de Paris (www.yachtsdeparis.fr), which offers a
five-course tasting menu nightly in an intimate setting. Alternatively, mingle
with the city's young and fabulous aboard a summer evening dance cruise. Many
river boats - called péniches - are also available for private
cruising (www.abcsalles.com). For more Paris cruising suggestions, see
Top 10 Tourist Trap Tips.
Though hilly, Burgundy is very popular for cycling. Bike shops in Beaune and Chablis rent bikes for touring and supply maps and itineraries.
Cycling and walking
The region has the longest network of dedicated cycling and hiking paths in France, with many following picturesque rivers and connecting important towns and historic sites. A scenic nature ride might take you along from the historic Briare canal bridge to Sancerre, but maps for many itineraries are available on the official website.
Soak up the stellar tower views from the Place du Trocadéro esplanade, and follow up with a visit to the highest of the tower's three observation decks for breathtaking panoramic city views. At night, the 1,063-foot tower, built as the entrance arch to the 1889 World's Fair, sparkles like fireworks for the first five minutes of every hour.
Elemental Adventure Heliskiing
It doesn't get better than skiing the Italian and Swiss Alps by day and bedding down in France at night. Heli-skiing is illegal in France, but no matter: Elemental Adventure puts up skiers in the lovely town of Chamonix and then drives them just over the border for drops in Italy or Switzerland. Heli-skiing in the Alps is distinguished by fewer, longer runs per day, each averaging an amazing 6,500 vertical feet. Skiers sleep in individual chalets, each staffed by a personal chef and a chauffeur; non-skiing friends and family can stay too.
Just outside of Saint-Paul de Vence is the Fondation Maeght, a small museum founded in 1964 that reopened in spring 2009 after a renovation. Amid a cool stand of umbrella pines, sculptures by Miró lurk in a labyrinth of water and trees, a huge Calder sculpture springs from the front lawn, and a peaceful mosaic pool by Georges Braque invites contemplation.
Perched atop a hill offering splendid views of the Alps, the oldest of Lyon’s districts is a quick walk across the Saône river and a swift ride up the funicular. Visit the Tour Metallique, a steel tower constructed in 1893 and now used as a television transmitter, and the Basilique Notre Dame de Fourvière, which dominates the lofty summit with white marble façades.
The grandest of the few surviving 19th-century passages couverts, or covered arcades, the elegantly restored Galerie Vivienne, with its iron-and-glass roof and ornate tiled floor, is home to a dozen interesting boutiques, a high-end wine shop, and a bistro. Highlights include Odette & Zoe for funky accessories, La Marelle for designer second-hand clothes, and the American-owned tea salon A Priori Thé.
Check out the Roman ruins in Puymin (their Théâtre Antique from 20 A.D. is still active), La Villase, and Arles. Some of them, like La Villase’s sewer system, date back to 6th century B.C. Closed January-February.
Shoppers head to Boulevard Haussman for the mega-department stores Galeries Lafayette (#40) and Printemps (#64), which sell everything from home fashions to clothes - the former hosts fashion shows (check its website for schedules). Galeries Lafayette: 011-33-1-42-85-12-00; www.galerieslafayette.com; Printemps: 011-33-1-42-82-50-00; www.printemps.com
Harry's New York Bar
Once a Hemingway-haunt, this legendary watering hole's Old World ambiance and superlative cocktails tend to attract a sophisticated clientele. Rumor has it that the Bloody Mary was created here.
Jardin des Plantes
Begun in 1626 as the royal medicinal plant garden for Louis XIII, Paris'
botanical garden is an orderly, charming, and somewhat bedraggled affair,
complete with tropical greenhouse and Alpine garden. There's a small zoo along
one side, while the National Museum of Natural History, Grand Gallery of
Evolution, and Galleries of Paleontology and Compared Anatomy (and its
collection of one thousand skeletons) sit across it.
Brisk, flinty, refreshing Chardonnays from the very north of Burgundy are quite different from their southern neighbors and worthy of an afternoon of exploration. La Chablisienne, a cooperative of small producers, offers a warm welcome and daily tastings without reservations.
Trace the graceful curve of Cannes’ beaches on this mile-long, waterfront pathway dotted by palm trees, gardens, restaurants, upscale hotels, and glitzy designer shops.
This former Grand Hotel casino now hosts modern and contemporary art exhibitions and boasts a beautiful garden and lovely sea views.
Head to the public park atop “Castle Hill” for stellar views over the city and sea. The lofty ledge’s history included stints as an ancient Greek settlement and medieval castle site.
Designed by American Bill Corre in the style of a Scottish links course, Le Chateaux is challenging thanks to fast greens and brisk winds off the Atlantic. Of the 20 courses in the region, it is the best.
A fantastic pedestrian-friendly shopping district, le Marais is a medieval maze of streets harboring trend-setting boutiques on the ground floor of 17th-century mansions, plus fine shops and galleries along the perimeter of the Place des Vosges. On the district's northern edge is the Marché des Enfants Rouges, the oldest food market in Paris, founded in 1615.
Le Pyrimide Fernand-Pointe
This exclusive Vienne hotel and restaurant is the belle-monde’s preferred stopover between Paris and the Med and the Rhone’s premiere spot to sample local cuisine like crab soufflé with crunchy artichoke, imaginatively prepared by Chef Patrick Henriroux.
Les Egouts (The Sewers)
Everyone goes to the Eiffel Tower - but how many go to the sewers? Built by Napoléon, the cavernous sewers inspired the mythical escape route for the Phantom of Opera and for Jean Valjean in Victor Hugo's Les Misérables, and served as the real-life hiding place for resistance fighters in World War II. Today, a small portion of the more than 1,300 miles of tunnels that wind under Paris are open to visitors.There are street signs, photos, and historical explainers. Don't worry about the smell; the water rushing past is drain water (waste is channeled in separate pipes.)
Les Halles de Lyon-Paul Bocuse
Indoor market named after famed regional chef. Shop and sample local specialties foods like coussins (chocolate covered candies shaped like cushions), fennel and fig sausages, and a dazzling variety of soft cheeses, chocolates, and other savory goodies.
Flea markets (open on weekends and sometimes Mondays) on the outskirts of Paris are worth the trek for antique treasure hunters; Saint-Ouen's flea market, or marché aux puces, in the 18th, is the best-reputed. Take time to sift through the heaps of silverware, antique beads, 1920's purses, or - if you can arrange a container - the beautifully restored art deco furniture.
Sit down for a Parisian-style pique-nique or just give museum-trodden tootsies a rest in this 55-acre haven of extensive lawns, gravel footpaths, embellished fountains, elegant sculptures, and meticulously designed flower gardens. France's Sénat occupies the 17th-century Luxembourg Palace on the park's northern edge, while the southwest corner holds a puppet theater. Rent and sail model boats in the large octagonal pond in the park's center.
Marché aux Fleurs
This is the place to discover the art of market shopping in southern France. Colorful and fragrant flowers are sold every day except Mondays, when the blossoms are replaced by the Marché à la Brocante, an antiques market.
Marche aux Vins
Complex, peppery Pinot Noirs and rich, buttery Chardonnays abound in Burgundy. For an entry fee of $13, the friendly Marche aux Vins in the center of Beaune offers daily tastings of 15 grand vins de Bourgogne along with a mental blueprint for navigating the confusing patchwork of names.
Small designers have flocked to Montmartre in recent years, making this charming "village" a shopping destination. Troll the streets around the Abbesses métro station to find trendy boutiques, notably along Rue des Martyrs, Rue Houdon and Rue des Abbesses.
Visit this village to see its “troglodyte” cave dwellings, some of which date to the 12th century. The dwellings often have elaborately carved facades, and house barns, wine cellars, churches, and even residences.
Set in a Belle Époque train station that itself is a work of art, the Orsay is home to a treasure trove of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings and sculpture. If you're pressed for time, begin your visit on level zero, where you'll find the star works by Cézanne, Degas and Monet. Come early to avoid the long entrance lines.
Musee de Beaux Arts
This museum has a number of Renaissance and Impressionist masterpieces by greats like Titian, Rubens, and Renoir.
Musée de la Castre
Housed in what was once the Castle of Cannes, this unusual museum contains artifacts from across the planet, including South America and the Pacific Islands.
One of the world's best collections of Asian art can be found in this airy, well-designed museum. Gems include the extensive Chinese collection and the Khmer sculpture gallery - the largest outside Cambodia. Don't forget the Buddhist Pavilion, down the street at #19, with two floors of Buddhas from China and Japan.
The 19th-century power couple Edouard André and Nélie Jacquemart spent their married years touring the world and collecting art, transforming their sumptuous mansion into the showpiece of its day. The collection is an interesting mix, heavy on Italian and French Renaissance works. Check out the Tiepolo ceiling in the former dining room, now a pleasant café. The free English audioguide is recommended.
This impressive collection of work by French artist Henri Matisse, who lived in Nice during the last four decades of his life, is housed in a light-bathed 17th-century villa.
This impressive collection of artworks by French artist Henri Matisse, who lived in Nice during the last four decades of his life, is housed in a light-bathed, 17th-century villa.
Musée National Message Biblique Marc Chagall
Featuring late works by Russian-born Chagall, including 17 biblical scenes on large canvases, this natural light-filled museum is enhanced by surrounding gardens and pools.
Musée National Message Biblique Marc Chagall
Featuring late works by Russian-born Chagall (including 17 biblical scenes on large canvases), this natural-light-filled museum is enhanced by surrounding gardens and pools.
Above Antibes’ old port presides Château Grimaldi, once a residence for the Antibes’ royals and today the home of the Musée Picasso, which is world-renowned for its staggering Picasso collection. Closed for renovations through early 2008.
Auguste Rodin lived and worked in this mansion, which now houses two floors of the master's sculptures and paintings from his personal collection. If you're in a hurry, skip the museum and pay €1 to tour 7 acres of garden, where you'll find some of the most famous sculptures such as The Thinker and the Gates of Hell, inspired by the doors of Italian Renaissance churches.
Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art
A quartet of marble towers connected by glass passageways house a collection of French and American art that spans from the ’60s to the present.
Museum of Wine in Art at Chateau Mouton-Rothschild
Hit the museum at the Chateau Mouton-Rothschild to see wine labels decorated with artwork commissioned from such artists as Picasso, Miro, Dali, and Warhol.
The Old Charity Cultural Center incorporates the Museums of Archeology and African, Oceanic, and American Indian Art.
Trek the 255 tower steps for fantastic Paris views and a close-up of the 12th-century cathedral's flying buttresses, gargoyles and fantastical creatures. Go inside for the magnificent rosette stained-glass windows depicting Old and New Testament scenes. Expect a steady stream of crowds at this Gothic masterpiece.
Notre-Dame de l'Espérance
Cannes’ oldest extant church draws admirers of its beautiful paintings and frescos, as well as its incredible hilltop vistas.
Opera de la Bastille
The city's premier opera house opened in 1989 to mark the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution. While its acoustics are superb, the boxy modern exterior failed to win over Parisian hearts. Reserve your tickets well in advance or try for a discount ticket sold before each show (standing room tickets are available 2 hours before curtain).
Palais des Festivals et des Congrès
Home to the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, and the international glitterati it attracts every May, the Palais des Festivals also hosts a year-round slate of music, theatre, and dance events.
Charles Garnier spared no expense when he built his dazzling opera house dripping in gold leaf and marble. The auditorium's classical ceiling was later replaced with one painted by Chagall, shocking Parisians with its modern look. Reserve a ticket (well in advance) for a ballet or opera. For a behind-the-scenes peek at the house that inspired the Phantom of the Opera, take the entertaining guided tour (€12) in English.
Paul Boucuse Brasseries
Sample celeb chef Paul Bocuse’s deck of Lyon restaurants (Ouest, Nord, Sud, or Est), each with its own tasty take on regional French cooking. If you can only dine at one, try L’Ouest, the newest and most modern of the pack.
Plage de Tahiti
Sun-kissed St. Tropez, once a sleepy fishing village, has long been the most irresistible of French Riviera resort towns, attracting sunbathing beauties from Brigitte Bardot to Beyoncé. This Mediterranean beach-trip mecca of summer beach lounging and late-night partying sees chic scenesters arrive in droves between June and September to stake claim to their own little sandy piece of the action. Plage de Tahiti, one of the northern beaches along the Baie de Pampelonne, is one of the best spots to bask on golden Mediterranean shores and soak up the carnival atmosphere created by flamboyant and fashionable beachcombers. Note that the prudish needn't apply, as this haunt is notorious for itsy-bitty and teeny-weeny bathing gear. Aside from the sun-soaking and people-watching, the beach is also conveniently lined with cafes, restaurants, and shops, to boot.
Promenade des Anglais
Saunter, bike, or ’blade along this four-mile-long coastal promenade, with its sweeping Mediterranean vistas and opportunities for people-watching – it’s especially enchanting at sunset.
Promenade des Anglais
Wide and well landscaped, Nice’s four-mile-long “La Prom” is perfect for biking, alfresco dining, strolling, or simply for people watching from one of the many blue chairs that line the Baie des Anges waterfront.
Rue du Faubourg St-Honoré
This hoity 8th arrondissement rue is a magnet for shoppers on the prowl for international haute-couture from the designer houses of the ilk of Dior and Hermès. Don't miss the Boutique Talents-Atelier d'Art de France, near Opéra, where you can find the works of hundreds of young French craftsmen specializing in objéts for the home
The best view of Paris can be had from this white cream-puff of a church at the top of Montmartre. Climb the 262-foot bell tower or grab a spot on the grassy hill. Take the funicular at the base for the price of a métro ticket. The hilly streets in this quartier are some of the city's most charming. Take time to explore the area between the basilica and the Abbesses métro station.
The streets of St-Germain-des-Prés, in the 6th, exude pure charm. Follow Rue de Seine for art galleries and Rue Jacob for furnishings and accessories. Then stop into Au Plat d'Etain, on Rue Guisard, for the most charming collection of toy soldiers and figurines you're likely to see anywhere - even if you don't intend to buy.
The Camargue National Park & Reserve
The family-friendly Ornithological Park of Gau Bridge offers unmatched views of bright pink flamingos. Walking paths, paddleboats, kayak rentals, horseback riding, and Jeep safaris round out the adventure.
Paris's underground ossuary contains 6 million bones arranged according to type: Rows of skulls, arms, and legs line miles of (well-lighted) tunnels. The bones were moved here beginning in 1786 when the city began closing many of its over-crowded cemeteries, blamed for outbreaks of diseases.
The Hemingway Bar
Barman extraordinaire Colin Field makes some of the best cocktails in Paris at this storied, pocket-sized bar tucked at the back of the Ritz hotel. With wood-paneled walls decorated with photographs snapped by Papa Hemingway himself, this is a cozy place to settle into an easy chair and order a Lemon Charlie (limoncello and vodka, €30) or one of the other house specialties. Come later for prime celebrity spotting.
With 35,000 artworks and 14 acres of galleries at this French royal palace-turned-museum, the Louvre can easily overwhelm. But it needn't - if you have a plan of attack. Visit the Big Three - the Mona Lisa, Venus de Milo and Winged Victory - and then pick a period and country that most interests you. Or pick up a multi-media guide (€6) at the entry and follow the suggested tours. Once you finish with the art inside, focus on the exterior of the building, including the Renaissance Cour Carée, I.M. Pei's 1989 glass-and-steel pyramid, and the Cour Napoléon, leading to the Tuileries Gardens.
The Maison du Vin
This prestigious school for sommeliers also offers brief introductions to the wines of Bordeaux for lay people. Ten dollars earns guests the right to taste red wines from the Médoc, Graves/Pessac-Léognan, and St-Emilion.
Tour du Masque
The last abode of the infamous Man in the Iron Mask, this 12th-century tower still purportedly receives visits from the prisoner’s vengeful ghost, making it a lit-lover’s (and children’s) delight.
Van Gogh Trail
A walking circuit through Arles, with signboards and reproductions along the way, visits spots where the artist painted. End at the river at twilight to see Starry Night as it was painted.
Lyon is a serious bicycle town. Its 340 automated bike-rental stations are affordable (the first 30 minutes are free!), accept credit cards, and make exploring the city’s density of markets and shops a literal breeze.
Dedicate two hours to exploring old Bordeaux on foot. Climb the 228 steps of the massive Basilique St-Michel’s stone tower for panoramic city views.
Wander the atmospheric streets of Old Nice. Pastel yellow- and ochre-colored buildings line the city’s historic core which today teems with shops, restaurants, bars, markets, and a hodgepodge of architectural highlights.
Marseille’s fish market is the best place for its signature dish: bouillabaisse. Made with five types of fish, plus crab or shrimp, onions, white wine, tomatoes, and spices, it’s usually served with rouille (a mixture of garlic paste, pepper, and croutons).
Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild
Built in the early 20th century for Baroness Ephrussi, a wealthy woman with an insatiable taste for the arts, this palatial home is now a museum for her eclectic collection of tapestries, china, and 18th-century furniture and paintings. Outside, there are nine gorgeous gardens.
Between April and November, whitewater enthusiasts descend upon the River Ardeche for the chance to drift through France’s spectacular Grand Canyon. Among dozens of canoe and kayak outfitters, the best is Aventure Canoe, which offers three-hour, four-mile mini-descentes for about $25.
Though there are nine “wine routes” in the Rhone Valley, the appellation is primarily famed for three wines: Syrah, Viognier, and Grenache, not to mention popular blends like Cote Rotie. Domaine St Luc is known for its luscious Syrahs.
The Bordeaux Tourism Office offers daily bus trips to key appellations from April 1 to November 15. Tours visit St.-Émilion on Wednesdays and Sundays, Graves and Sauternes on Fridays, and the Médoc on Thursdays and Saturdays.
Our Experts save you money with travel deals and advice
Having a credit card with no foreign transaction fees can really save for those who don't like to carry cash.
Danielle Long Assistant Deals Producer
Sign up for the Top 25 Newsletter
to get exclusive weekly deals