From the boulevards of Paris to the fashionable seaside resorts of the Côte d’Azur, France offers some of the most beautiful scenery in the world. France delights romantics with fairy-tale castles, soaring cathedrals, and picture-perfect villages, yet still impresses realists with its progressive, contemporary style. Begin with the Eiffel Tower, the modern emblem of France. Then discover famous masterpieces of art at the Louvre Museum. Spend a day pretending to be royalty at the elegant Palace of Versailles. Save time for leisurely gourmet meals; traditional French gastronomy has been inscribed on the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage. Each region has its own distinctive cuisine and culture. Quaint fishing villages of Brittany specialize in crêpes and seafood, while cozy chalets in the French Alps serve hearty cheese fondue with charcuterie. Indulge in it all and savor the irresistible charm of France.
1 Eiffel Tower
The symbol of Paris, the Eiffel Tower is one of the world’s most famous landmarks. This feat of ingenuity is a structure of 8,000 metallic parts, designed by Gustave Eiffel as a temporary exhibit for the World Fair of 1889. Originally loathed by critics, the 320-meter-high tower is now a beloved and irreplaceable fixture of the Paris skyline. The structure’s unique gracefulness has earned it the nickname of “Iron Lady.” Visitors are impressed by the tower’s monumental size and the breathtaking panoramas at each of the three levels. Tourists can dine with a view at the first level or indulge at the Michelin-starred Jules Vernes restaurant on the second level. At the exhilarating height of 276 meters, the top level offers a sweeping outlook over the city of Paris and beyond-extending as far as 70 kilometers on a clear day.
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2 Louvre Museum
In the former royal palace of French Kings, the Louvre is an incomparable museum that ranks among the top European collections of fine arts. Many of Western Civilization’s most famous works are found here including the Mona Lisa by Leonardo DaVinci, the Wedding Feast at Cana by Veronese, and the 1st-century-BC Venus de Milo sculpture. The collection owes its wealth to the contributions of various kings who lived in the Louvre. Other pieces were added as a result of France’s treaties with the Vatican and the Republic of Venice, and from the spoils of Napoléon I. The Louvre has an astounding collection of 30,000 artworks, including countless masterpieces. It’s impossible to see it all in a day or even in a week. Focus on a shortlist of key artworks for the most rewarding experience.
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3 Palace of Versailles
More than just a royal residence, Versailles was designed to show off the glory of the French monarchy. “Sun King” Louis XIV transformed his father’s small hunting lodge into an opulent palace with a sumptuous Baroque interior. The palace became Louis XIV’s symbol of absolute power and set the standard for princely courts in Europe. Architect Jules Hardouin-Mansart created the elegant Baroque facade and lavish interior. The famous Hall of Mirrors is where courtiers waited for an audience with the king. This dazzling hall sparkles with sunlight that enters through the windows and is reflected off massive ornamental mirrors. Versailles is equally renowned for its formal French gardens featuring decorative pools, perfectly trimmed shrubbery, and charming fountains. Beyond the formal gardens is Marie-Antoinette’s hamlet, a make-believe pastoral village where the queen came to dress up as a peasant and escape court life.
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4 Côte d’Azur
The most fashionable stretch of coastline in France, the Côte d’Azur is synonymous with glamour. The Côte d’Azur translates to “Coast of Blue,” named after the mesmerizing deep blue color of the Mediterranean Sea. Also known as the French Riviera, the Côte d’Azur extends from Saint-Tropez to Menton near the border with Italy. During summer, the seaside resorts are packed with beach lovers and sun-worshippers. The rich and famous are also found here in their lavish villas and luxury yachts. The town of Nice has panoramic sea views and stellar art museums. Cannes is famous for its celebrity film festival and legendary hotels. The best sandy beaches are found in Antibes. Saint-Tropez offers great beaches along with the charm of a Provençal fishing village, while Monaco seduces with its exclusive ambience and stunning scenery.
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5 Mont Saint-Michel
Rising dramatically out of the sea on the coast of Normandy, Mont Saint-Michel is one of France’s most striking landmarks. This “Pyramid of the Seas” is a mystical sight, perched on a rocky islet and surrounded by walls and bastions. At high tide, Mont-Saint-Michel is an island. At low tide, it is possible to walk across the sand to the Mont. The main tourist attraction, the Abbaye de Saint-Michel was founded in 708 by the Archbishop Aubert of Avranches after the Archangel Michael appeared to him in a vision. The Abbey is a marvel of medieval architecture with Gothic spires soaring 155 meters above the sea, a sublime sanctuary, and splendid views. Since it was built in the 11th century, the Abbey Church has been an important pilgrimage destination. Because of its soul-inspiring serenity, Mont Saint-Michel is known as “The Heavenly Jerusalem.”
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6 Loire Valley Châteaux
Traveling through the Loire Valley feels like turning the pages of a children’s storybook. Throughout the enchanting countryside of woodlands and river valleys are fairy-tale castles complete with moats and turreted towers. The entire area of the Loire Valley, a lush area known as the “Garden of France,” is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Some of the Loire castles are medieval fortresses built on hilltops and surrounded by ramparts. However the most famous Loire châteaux are sumptuous Renaissance castles that were designed purely for enjoyment and entertaining, as an extension of court life outside of Paris. The Château de Chambord, built for King Francis I, is the most magnificent château; Château de Chenonceau has a distinctive feminine style; and Cheverny is a charming manor house in idyllic surroundings.
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7 Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres
For more than eight centuries, the magnificence of Chartres Cathedral has inspired the faithful. Some say this breathtaking beauty of Chartres has restored belief in the doubtful. The UNESCO-listed cathedral exemplifies the glory of medieval Gothic architecture. Covering 2,500 square meters, the brilliant stained-glass windows allow colorful light to filter into the vast nave, creating an ethereal effect. Many windows date from the 13th century; all reveal the incredible craftsmanship in depicting biblical stories. The rose windows are especially noteworthy for their incredible size and details. Other highlights are the Passion window, one of the most original in its style and expression, and the Blue Virgin window that dates from the 12th century. From April through October, Chartres puts on a spectacular light show illuminating the cathedral at night.
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Provence is a gorgeous landscape of olive groves, sun-drenched rolling hills, and deep purple lavender fields, with little villages nestled in the valleys and perched on rocky outcrops. The vibrant scenery has enchanted many famous artists, including Cézanne, Matisse, Chagall, and Picasso. Provence is a perfect blend of rustic natural beauty and country charm where the art de vivre is a way of life. Take leisurely strolls along the cobblestone streets and bask on sunny terraces of outdoor cafés. Visit the colorful open-air markets and savor the delicious cuisine based on olive oil, vegetables, and aromatic herbs. Aix-en-Provence is the most important market town. Arles has fascinating ancient ruins and traditional festivals. Avignon was the medieval city of popes. Even the tiny villages, like Saint-Paul-de-Vence, Saint-Rémy, and Gordes, have amazing historic sites, fantastic museums, and an irresistibly quaint ambience.
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The awesome spectacle of Mont Blanc in the French Alps is an unforgettable sight. The highest mountain peak in Europe, Mont Blanc forms part of the French border with Italy. Mont Blanc, “White Mountain,” soars to 4,810 meters, so high that it’s always blanketed in snow. Beneath its heavenly peak is the traditional alpine village of Chamonix, nestled in a high-mountain valley. This quaint little town is filled with historic churches, cozy chalet restaurants, and charming auberges. Chamonix is a great base for skiing, hiking, rock climbing, and outdoor adventures, or just relaxing. Soak up the serene scenery and listen to the sound of rushing streams. Savor hearty meals of the rustic Savoy cuisine-based on potatoes, cheese, and charcuterie with specialties like fondue and raclette.
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10 Alsace Villages
Some of the prettiest villages in France are tucked away in the green, rolling hills of Alsace, where the Vosges Mountains border the Rhine River of Germany. These picturesque Alsatian villages feature pastel-painted, half-timbered houses clustered around small parish churches. Cheerful flowering balconies and pedestrian cobblestone streets add to the appeal. Many of the villages have won France’s “Villages Fleuris” award for their lovely floral decorations, such as Obernai, with its characteristic burghers’ houses; the charming little village of Ribeauvillé; the “town of art and history” Guebwiller; and the captivating medieval village of Bergheim. Other flower-bedecked Alsatian villages are so pretty that they have been designated as both “Villages Fleuris” and “Plus Beaux Villages de France” (Most Beautiful Villages of France), including the storybook hamlet of Riquewihr, with its quaint historic houses, and the enchanting village of Eguisheim, nestled in a valley. Another “Most Beautiful Village” is Mittelbergheim, known for its gastronomy and idyllic scenery, at the foot of the verdant Mont Saint-Odile. For those planning an Alsace vacation itinerary, Colmar is a good base to explore the Alsatian villages and surrounding nature trails.
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With its turreted towers and crenellated ramparts, Carcassonne seems straight out of a fairy-tale scene. This well-preserved (and renovated) fortified city takes visitors into the world of the Middle Ages. The walled town, known as the Cité, is a totally enclosed world of narrow, winding cobblestone lanes and quaint old houses. Every street, square, and building has retained its medieval character. Must-see tourist attractions are the double-circuited ramparts with 54 towers and the 13th-14th-century Cathedral of Saint-Nazaire with spectacular stained-glass windows. One of the other popular things to do here is view the Bastille Day fireworks on July 14th.
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Brittany is a beautiful historic region on the northeastern coast of France. Rugged seaside scenery, quaint fishing villages, and weathered sea ports characterize this region. Brittany is proud of its ancient traditions and famous for its costumed religious festivals. Brittany is also a mystical land of myths and legends, with a Celtic influence and a dialect related to Gaelic. The local cuisine is delicious, best known for its savory buckwheat crêpes and sweet dessert crêpes. The quintessential Breton port is Saint-Malo surrounded by ancient walls. Quimper is a picture-postcard historic town with handsome half-timbered houses, pleasant squares, and an impressive Gothic cathedral. Nantes has a spectacular château and is where the Edict of Nantes was signed in 1598 granting freedom of religious belief to Protestants. Other highlights of Brittany are the pristine sandy beaches, tiny remote islands, and ancient castles.
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13 Editor’s Pick Biarritz
Biarritz is a fashionable beach town on the beautiful Bay of Biscay in France’s Basque country. This celebrated seaside resort has an elegant and aristocratic air; it was a favorite destination of Empress Eugénie, wife of Napoleon III. The imperial couple’s grandiose Second-Empire-style palace has been converted into the Hôtel du Palais, a luxury hotel featuring a Michelin-starred restaurant and sensational views of the Grande Plage beach. This large sandy beach, with its broad seafront promenade, has attracted high-society vacation goers since the Belle Epoque. Other must-see sights are related to the ocean: the Aquarium de Biarritz; Lighthouse; and Rocher de la Vierge (Virgin of the Rock) figure, which stands along the coastline on an immense rock beaten by the Atlantic’s wild waves. For a taste of the town’s regal past, visit the chic Miremont Tearoom that has served exceptional pastries since 1872.
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Suspended between heaven and earth on a sheer limestone cliff, Rocamadour is an unforgettable sacred site. In the 11th century, this pilgrimage destination was the third most important in Christendom after Jerusalem and Rome. Rocamadour was also a stop on the medieval pilgrimage trail to Santiago de la Compostela in Spain. The village has seven ancient sanctuaries, but pilgrims flock to the Chapelle Notre-Dame (Chapelle Miraculeuse), which possesses the venerated Black Virgin (Notre-Dame de Rocamadour). This precious Virgin Mary figure was carved from walnut wood that naturally darkened over the centuries and is associated with miracles.
Another must-see sight is the UNESCO-listed Basilique Saint-Sauveur, the largest church of Rocamadour built in Romanesque and Gothic style between the 11th and 13th centuries. For a challenging spiritual experience, pilgrims can ascend the steep flight of steps, with 12 Stations of the Cross, leading up to the château at the highest point in the village.
About 145 kilometers from Limoges, Rocamadour is surrounded by the Parc Naturel Régional des Causses du Quercy, a natural park of the Dordogne region.
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15 Prehistoric Cave Paintings in Lascaux
Visitors can delve into the fascinating world of prehistoric art in Lascaux, the finest example of Paleolithic art in the world. This UNESCO-listed site is in the Vézère Valley of the Dordogne region. Discovered in 1940, the Lascaux Cave contains exquisite prehistoric paintings but has been closed to the public to prevent damage. A replica of the cave was created at the nearby Lascaux II site, 200 meters from the actual cave. Lascaux II is a faithful reproduction of the cave and its paintings. The Paleolithic art has been carefully recreated, including every detail of the animal paintings in authentic ochre hues. Highlights are the Salle des Taureaux (Hall of the Bulls) with panels featuring unicorns and bears and the Diverticule Axial, a narrow 30-meter-long hall with impressive drawings of bulls, cows, and horses. The art reproductions of Lascaux II are so accurate that visitors would not be able to tell the difference from the original.
A recent addition to the site, the International Centre for Cave Art offers an interactive visitor experience. Built on top of the Lascaux II cave, this sleek ultra-modern museum boasts more than 8,500 square meters of exhibition space used to display 3-D images, a virtual reality map, and other educational features. To visit the cave and museum, tourists must book a guided tour. The small-group tour provides an in-depth visit with interesting commentary from a knowledgeable guide.