Best Places to Visit in France
France is one of the world’s most fascinating countries to visit. We believe that our recommendations on the best places to visit in France will provide you with an incomparable travel experience. France is a scenic country whose people and culture have been at the center of world history for over a thousand years. It is the visitor’s good fortune that the French have determinedly preserved their culture and heritage. Examples of the country’s spectacular attractions, particularly in the form of famous buildings and architecture, can be found almost everywhere, but particularly in the country’s historically important cities, cathedrals, abbeys and incredibly lavish châteaux and palaces.
Classic art and sculpture abound in this country and you can wander the collections of France’s great museums surrounded by world-renowned collections filled with works by the world’s master artists. If you prefer the outdoors, France offers a variety of outstanding and photogenic natural landscapes including beautiful coasts and magnificent mountains.
Across the many regions of France, there are innumerable cities whose wonderful food, wine, ambiance and geographical diversity reflects the landscapes and unique cultures that comprise France. For instance, Paris, one of the favorite destinations of travelers worldwide, is fundamentally unique in France, as it is like no other French city. This same this diversity of site, scene and situation occur across France and makes touring the regions of this country a perpetual morning, with something new to learn from each place you visit.
We hope that you find time to explore France and discover the incredible cities and cultural regions, both historical and current, created by the French people.
We have grouped our Best Places to Visit in France into three “geographies”. We start our tour of France with Paris, the Paris region (Ile de France) and the beaches and countryside of Normandy.
We follow this with a section describing The Loire Valley, Provence, Languedoc-Roussillon, the Pyrenees and Côte d’Azur (the French Riviera) and another focused on the wonderful areas of Burgundy, Alsace and the Rhône-Alpes
For facts on France, as well as details on driving rules, medical care, personal safety and other information useful for planning a trip to France, see the France page from the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Consular Affairs. We think you will find this information useful, regardless of your home country.
France is a nation of contrast. For several years, it was defined by differences between the urban and industrial north and the rural south, between the chic capital and the less sophisticated provincial cities and between the intellectual elite and the largely agricultural workforce. However in recent times, while this is still true to a certain extent, a lot has changed and the contrasts are not as clearly visible. The agricultural industry plays a less important role nowadays and industrial and high-tech centres have sprung up around the country. However despite the blurring of the edges of the French identity, France remains a splendid and individualist country that has much to offer visitors.
French history has been a constant quest for national identity: a conflict between strong regional loyalties and central authority. During the Middle Ages, William the Conqueror crossed the English Channel and for 400 years, English and French monarchs fought over sovereignty of various parts of France until Joan of Arc roused the French to resist the English at Orleans. Though burned at the stake, St. Joan remains today a symbol of French nationalism. Louis XIV established France’s borders as known today and shortly after his death, the French Revolution came and marked the end of the royal dynasty in France. Another undeniable symbol of nationalism is of course Napoleon Bonaparte who became Emperor in 1804. Napolean invoked nationalism in his conquest of Europe’s Ancient Regime and the layout of contemporary Paris owes much to Napolean III’s chief town planner. Today, France is a semi-presidential representative democratic republic, in which the President of France is head of state and the Prime Minister of France is the head of government.
France is a predominantly Roman Catholic country but only a minority of the population attends services. Protestant churches exist in most large towns and Muslims will find places to worship in much of the country. Going around France, plan your shopping as outside the major towns, a lot of places tend to shut for a long lunch break. Jeans and casual clothing are worn almost everywhere except in business situations. Skimpy clothing remains out of place except at resorts and in all but the most casual restaurants. When visiting places of worship, it is also polite to dress modestly.
Be sure to say Bonjour, monsieur or Bonjour, madame to anyone you meet, including when you go into a small shop or restaurant. It is also polite to say au revoir or bon appetit as appropriate. You’ll find that the French are much more welcoming to tourists who try to speak French, even if it’s only the odd word. It might be useful to carry around a small phrase book although English is spoken in the major cities.
France’s unit of currency is the euro and most Paris banks are open from 9am to 5pm Monday to Friday. In smaller places, they may close for an hour or two at lunchtime and may open on Saturdays for several hours and close on Mondays. In terms of tipping, a 15 percent service charge is generally automatically included in restaurant bills. Most people will leave another 2 or 3 percent if a meal or service has been particularly good. Rounding off the bill by a euro or two helps round off friendships with waiters too. It is also normal to hand porters, doormen and petrol station attendants two or three euros for their service.
Near the bottom of the page we provide several itineraries, if you need some suggestion for travel planning.
Paris and Ile de France
Ile-de-France is a region of France that includes and surrounds Paris, the country’s capital. Ile-de-France is the country’s most populated area, but one with numerous charms and many outstanding attractions.
The City of Light is one of the world’s great cities and a trip to Paris is, for many, the vacation of a lifetime. Paris offers the tourist numerous attractions that are unique and without match. The best art, fabulous architecture, visible history, leading museums, and romantic settings surround you when visiting Paris.
Château de Versailles
The splendor of Versailles, along with its splendid architecture and lavish parkland are unequaled in the modern world. The opulence of Versailles can be appreciated only by visiting this historic, ostentatious home of the French monarchy. Click on the link above for our description (and photographs) of Versailles and its many attractions.
Notre Dame of Chartres, a remarkably preserved Gothic-style cathedral, dates from the late 12th century and was built over a religious site previously used by Druids. The Chartres Cathedral towers above the surrounding plain and is a remarkable architectural achievement. The cathedral’s structure is magnificent, while its interior contains some of Europe’s best stained glass windows. Chartres Cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is a spectacular package and well worth a visit.
The cathedral’s construction marked a unique point in the evolution of building construction, as the size and height of the cathedral proposed for Chartres surpassed what was thought possible at the time (for, example, its tallest tower is as tall as a 38 story building).
During your tour of the interior be sure to see the immense, beautiful Rose Window and its five lancets dating from the 13th century.
The Cathedral is well-known for its unusual circular labyrinth that dates from the late 12th century. Scholars believe that walking the path of the labyrinth was once considered a mini-pilgrimage undertaken by the faithful in a plea for the forgiveness of their sins.
If you visit on the weekend, you might be lucky enough to listen to one of the cathedral’s famous organ concerts.
This site from the San Jose State University has a detailed photographic tour of the Chartres Cathedral.
The town of Chartres is a delightful village that is known as the “Capital of Light and Perfume”. The city’s historic district, consisting of many timber framed houses, is quite interesting. See the town’s official tourism website for more details.
From its beginnings as a royal hunting lodge, Fontainebleau developed into a stately grand palace with expansive, lush grounds, exceptional interior design, and elegant furnishings. Touring Fontainebleau is an afternoon well spent. The buildings are cavernous and the grounds are expansive, so bring your most comfortable walking shoes.
Monet’s home in Giverny has put this lazy, quaint town on the map. The house and the gardens have been revitalized to match the look of the property when Monet lived and painted in this evocative parcel nested in a small country village. Although quite popular and crowded, visiting Giverny is a visual and emotional treat.
The water garden, comprised of lazily leafed willows, ponds, water lilies, and the famous Japanese Bridge, is the most popular of Giverny’s many areas. The Clos Normand, a formal French-style Garden close to the house, is another delightful area to wander.
The gift store has an enormous collection of posters, books, calendars and other trinkets, all memorializing Monet, aspects of his life and his amazing paintings.
Provins, a location famous in medieval times for its annual trade fares (including the Champagne Fairs), is a fortified city protected by a defensive wall and towers constructed before the 12th century. The town is known to have been in existence by the 9th century and later gave rise to the Counts of Champagne, as well as playing a key role in French history.
Located about 60 miles (91 km) southeast of Paris, the Old Town area that hosted the medieval trade fares has been well preserved. Most visitors, however, come to see Provins’ amazing fortifications, including the walls, and a castle-keep known as Caesar’s Tower. The experience of visiting a city with authentic medieval roots makes Provins a popular attraction.
See Provins official tourism website for more details on the attractions and visiting.
Vacation Destinations in Normandy, France
Normandy is a delightful place to visit. It is an area with a unique culture and tradition and your travels here will be unlike anywhere else in France. Its modestly sized cities contain many unique treasures, its coasts are delightful and its regional cuisine can be excellent.
For numerous visitors, touring Normandy is based on their interest in the historic D-Day Invasion that led to the end of World War II. Be prepared for an unexpected, emotional reaction when you visit the D-Day Invasion beaches and memorial cemeteries.
If you are interested in Normandy, you can explore our Guide to Normandy , or select the links below to explore the destinations in Normandy of interest.
The World War II sites
Our Normandy Invasion Guide covers Longues-sur-Mer, the American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer, Point du Hoc, the D-Day invasion beaches, and Caen (Le Memorial)]. We think these sites in Normandy provide a poignant, but concise overview of the history of D-Day. Click the link above to read our Guide to the World War II sites in Normandy.
Bayeux, the first town liberated during the invasion of Normandy, is a good place to base a tour of the Invasion Beaches.
In addition, Bayeux is a historically important town with many unique attractions. During your visit be sure to see the thousand year old “Bayeux” Tapestry. The Tapestry is over two hundred feet long and was created to commemorate William the Conqueror’s victory at the Battle of Hastings, England in 1066, one of the tipping points in European history.
Rouen, the capital of Upper Normandy, is historically significant, offers architectural delights, pleasant shopping, and delightful cafes. Its Notre Dame Cathedral is an edifice well known in the art world thanks to Monet, who painted it many times in an attempt to perfect his technique. Finally, Rouen is the city where Joan of Arc was martyred.
The Abbey at Mont-Saint-Michel is one of the most spectacular sights in the world. Sitting majestically atop a prominent rock knob, often surrounded by rising tidal flows, the Abbey lures its visitors with dramatic architecture, a spectacular coastal setting, mystery, and its unique charms. Although it is out of the way at the southern end of Normandy, be sure to see Le Mont-Saint-Michel, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as it is one of the attractions of a lifetime.
The official tourism website for France is FranceGuide.com. The website provides additional details on our recommended best places to visit, as well as information on locations that did not make our list.