Split into 95 départements and boasting some 37,000 villages, The Hexagon, as the French have nicknamed their country because of its six-sided shape, is packed with sites, activities and food for every taste and budget. Only got a short amount of time? We tell you where to go and why…
Best for Romance
The sultry, sexy city that inspired Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris is the perfect place for lovers. Whether you dine by candlelight as you glide along the Seine river; hold hands as you stroll through the hip-and-happening Latin quarter, or lock eyes as you sip a cocktail at the top of the Eiffel Tower, romance is never far away. But love can’t survive an empty stomach, so when you need to feed the flame pick up a snack at Bastille, the city’s best food market, or splurge on some creative cuisine at the achingly atmospheric, celebrity-loved gourmet restaurant Le Grand Vefour.
If you want to burn off some calories while sticking close to your date, hire a tandem from Paris Velo Sympa and do a tour of the city’s sights. Now it’s time to check out some of the Latin Quarter’s sizzling nightlife, so pick up some hip rags in Indie boutiques near Chatelet where Parisian rock royalty love to shop, then dance until dawn at Les Bains Douches, just one of the city’s glitterati-packed clubs where celebs from Jagger to DiCaprio come to let off steam.
Place Charles de Gaulles, Paris photo credit: iStock
What else? Once you’ve checked out Mona Lisa’s enigmatic smile, pretended to be a millionaire along the glittering Champs Elysees and ‘done’ the art-packed Musee d’Orsay, sashay over to the newly renovated St Martin canal area where you can paddle around on the water, browse designer stores or catch a gig in one of the trendy cafes.
Best for Activities
With those amazing snow-capped peaks, mountain chalets, icy rivers to kayak down, lakes to swim in, paths to hike, tracks to bike along and countless crags to climb, the French Alps is an ideal destination for adrenalin freaks. Europe’s highest summit and home to the winter Olympics, Mont Blanc towers above some of the world’s most famous ski resorts. After snowboarding in Tignes and skiing in Les Arcs, enjoy a raft of après-ski activities in the lively, student-packed town of Grenoble.
If the cold stuff isn’t for you, head for La Clusaz where you can hike the spectacular Via Ferrata – the alpine route once used by partisans to carry munitions, or try white water rafting in the Giffre River, which fumes and foams its way through the narrow Tines gorge. Europe’s highest town, Briançon, is a great destination for cyclists seeking a challenge. A Unesco world heritage site since 2008, this high-flung town, conceived by engineering wizard Vauban, is an amazing labyrinth of 17th- and 18th-century forts and star-shaped fortifications where you can wander a while before whizzing through breathtaking scenery to the panoramic Col Du Lautaret.
If you want to get higher still, head for Annecy, whereyou can glide over this stunning medieval town known as the region’s paragliding capital, before hiring a canoe and paddling around this pretty city’s vast lake.
Mont Blanc photo credit: iStock
What else? When those lonely peaks get too much for you, discover Chagall, Matisse and more at Grenoble’s fabulous Musée des Beaux-Arts, or soothe those bumps and bruises in one of Courchevel’s sumptuous spas.
Best for Sun and Sea
Whether it’s aniseed-scented Marseilles pastis, the glorious sheltered calanques (creeks) of Cassis, or that catchy tune ‘Sur Le Pont d’Avignon’, Provence, the region whose luminous landscapes inspired artist Van Gogh, is the place to head when you’re seeking sea and sun. In France’s second largest city you can wander for days along cobbled streets discovering Roman ruins and eclectic museums; shopping in the old city’s bustling bazaars; supping traditional Bouillabaisse fish stew in one of the cafes along the old port; or just lazing on one of the glorious beaches in nearby La Ciotat.
When it’s time to flash that tan, make your way to the celebrity-studded beaches of St Tropez, or join crowds wandering along La Croisette in famed film festival venue, Cannes. Once you’ve had enough of those madding crowds, ride a bike into the wild and wonderful Camargue region, where you can spot pretty pink flamingos and white horses, picnic in the dunes or swim from some of Provence’s best beaches.
Lavender field, Provence photo credit: iStock
What else? If you want to duck out of that sizzling sun for a while, soak up some culture in the museums and sites of medieval Avignon. On weekends you should make your way to Isle sur la Sorgue to pick up some cool shades and other vintage bargains in the city’s vast marché aux puces (flea market).
Best for Foodies
From Bordeaux to Burgundy and Champagne, France is famed too for its guzzle-worthy grape juice – and in a country famed for its gastronomy there’s plenty of good food to go with those fine wines.
Boasting more than five dozen different appellations, Bordeaux is an ideal destination for wine lovers. Hire a bike to get around this pancake-flat city and make a beeline for the Musée du Vin et du Négoce to learn more about the city’s long wine history. Next pedal over to Quartier St-Pierre and sample local specialities lamproie à la Bordelaise (lamprey eels in red wine sauce) and esturgeon à la Libournaise (sturgeon in a white wine sauce) in one of the cafes on this lively central square. Party in one of the hip wine bars close by, then get up early and head out of the Route de Médoc, to sample some of the region’s celebrated wines.
Alternatively, head north to Burgundy’s medieval capital Beaune, where vines have been grown along the banks of the river Saone for several millenniums. Here you can see winemakers’ tools and learn about local traditions in the Musee de la Vigne et du Vin then head out on a walking tour of the surrounding villages to sample some of those dry red wines made from Pinot noir grapes and white wines made from Chardonnay grapes in local farms.
Vineyard, Bordeaux photo credit: iStock
What else? When you’ve supped enough wine, make a beeline for Cognac, home of fine brandy since the Middle Ages, where you can visit the ancient Cognac houses, learn how the brew is made, then sample some of that heady brown stuff in cafes and restaurants along cobbled streets of this picturesque town beside the Charente river.
FOODS TO TRY
Figuring on Unesco’s intangible world heritage list since 2010, the French gastronomic tradition is legendary. Here are a few dishes that you mustn’t miss.
Escargots photo credit: iStock
Escargots Removed from their shells, cooked with garlic, butter, or a wine-based sauce, then stuffed back into their shells and served piping hot, snails are the iconic French dish.
Confit de canard Traditionally from the Gascony region, the crispy delicious confit is a piece of duck meat, which is rubbed with salt and herbs, grilled in its own fat, then served with feather-light roast potatoes. Divine.
Sauternes Made from Semillon sauvignon blanc and muscatel grapes, this sweet white wine is excellent served with that other French speciality, foie gras.
Crème brûlée Invented in the 18th century, this rich dessert consists of a creamy custard base topped with a crackling cover of caramel and is generally flavoured with vanilla, although other flavours range from lavender to pistachio.
Camembert A favourite on every French table, this creamy cow’s milk cheese hailing from Normandy has been made since the 18th century.
Getting There & Getting Around
The major international airports in Paris are Roissy, Charles de Gaulle and Orly.
For the Alps you should fly to Grenoble airport, for Provence jet over to Marseilles and for wine country you can fly to Bordeaux. Flights from London to Paris start from £100. France has good public transport and it’s easy to use. In Paris the metro is your best bet, while the high-speed TGV will whiz you between most major destinations. Most larger towns have good transport systems, but it’s a good idea to rent a car if you want to explore further afield.