France Travel Guide – Top 10 Vacation Highlights

For decades, France has reveled in the status of being the most popular tourist destination in the world. Receiving 82 million foreign tourists each year, the European country’s historical landmarks, tasty cuisine, quaint châteaux and picturesque countryside, draw people from around the world.
France Travel Guide
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It’s hard to think of France and not immediately think of Paris. You really can’t have a top 10 places to see in France list, and not include a number of Parisian attractions. Attracting over 45 million visitors every year with its art, history, romantic ambiance and entertainment opportunities, Paris, the capital of France, is the most popular city destination in the world.

A witness to historic events, the inspiration of artists and a key landmark, the Eiffel Tower deserves a place in the itinerary of every tourist visiting Paris. And while in Paris, you also cannot afford to miss out on a tour of the vast art collection in the Louvre, the most famous museum in the world.

But there is much more to France than just Paris. France is a feast for the senses that is best experienced when one goes beyond Paris and its major sites. There is an abundance of other historic cities and regions different from the French capital, but each wonderfully unique and offering something different.

Begin your tour in Chartres and marvel at its amazing cathedral. Second to none in terms of dazzling sculpted ornamentation, Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres is the masterpiece of churches in France. The cathedral offers an outstanding blend of architectural artistry and royal history, with an overall grandeur that is certain to leave a lasting impression.

At Reims, you will also be enthralled by its cathedral. Not only is it stunning in the architectural sense, Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Reims also boasts historical significance as the place where the kings of France were crowned. Other French architectural masterpieces of historical significance include the Abbaye de Mont Saint-Michel and the Château de Versailles.

Nature lovers will also find something to love in French towns like Annecy and Lourdes. Here you can enjoy diverse landscapes, high mountain ranges of the Alps and Pyrénées respectively, and acres of green countryside. But if you just want to soak up some sun, there’s no better place to do this than on the long stretches of dazzling coastline that is the Côte d’Azur.

Everywhere you go in France, you will find lots to enjoy and discover. Be it the rural backwaters of the French countryside or the cosmopolitan city streets, France offers a little taste of everything. In fact, once you get to France, there’s a chance that you may never want to leave.

1. Tour d’Eiffel

Dominating the Parisian skyline, the Tour d’Eiffel or “Eiffel Tower” is a vast monument situated within the Île-de-France region. Since construction, over 200 million people have visited the tower, thereby making it the world’s most visited paid tourist attraction. Today, the landmark continues to attract 7 million visitors each year.

An iconic symbol of Paris, Eiffel Tower was built by Gustave Eiffel in 1889. Eiffel is the famous French engineer who was also involved in the construction of the Statue of Liberty, another world renowned landmark. The Eiffel Tower was originally intended to serve as the entrance arch for the International Exhibition of Paris, to mark the celebrations for the centennial of the French Revolution.

The tower was built with an airy structure such that it would be easy to tear down after its 20 year permit expired. However, the City of Paris decided against dismantling the tower due to the radio antenna located at the top which was found to be very useful.

Standing at 1,063 feet, the tower is today the tallest structure in Paris. Built from wrought iron, the tower consists of 3 levels that stand on 4 pillars. Every pillar is quite massive and has an elevator. You will be stunned by the sheer immensity of the pillars which don’t really look as big from far away.

For great views of Paris both by day and by night, ascend the Eiffel Tower towards the end of the day. If the ground level elevator line is too long for you, you can walk up 360 steps to the first level or 700 steps to the second level and take the elevator here to the top level.

Many tourists prefer the view from the second level to that on the third because you are able to see all other Parisian monuments and places of interest quite well. Nevertheless, the higher you go up the tower, the more comprehensive your view of Paris becomes.

At the third level, you will find an observation deck surrounded by glass which offers a 360 degrees view of the city. Stand at the top observation deck on a cloudless afternoon and gaze at the endless Parisian panorama. On a sunny day, you will be able to see as far as 70 kilometers away.

A mighty symbol to Frenchmen, the tower can be seen from many vantage points across the city. However, the most spectacular view can be had from Place du Trocadero in the 16th arrondissement, just across the river. Place du Trocadero houses the Palais de Chaillot, a neo-Classical building that was designed in 2 wings to provide a framing view of the Eiffel Tower.

During the day, you can admire the intricate details of the tower. At night, head down to Champs de Mars to watch the Eiffel Tower’s golden sight when the thousands of twinkling multicolored lights inside its framework are lit up. Every hour after sunset, until 1 in the morning, the Beacon light at the top of the tower casts a beam that encircles the entire structure.

2. Musée du Louvre

Situated in Paris, the Musée du Louvre or the “Louvre Museum” is the most visited museum in the world. Home to world-famous art, artifacts and sculptures from an era spanning more than 2,000 years of history, the building itself is a work of art, with its main entrance featuring an interesting pyramid. But don’t linger too long marveling at the pyramid for inside awaits the riches of the world’s artistic legacy.

Situated in Louvre Place on the right bank of the Seine, the Louvre’s building began as a 12th century fort that was at one point converted into a medieval palace. It then held the royal family’s extensive art collection until the French Revolution when it was turned into a museum.

The museum’s collection is divided into 8 departments: the Egyptian Antiquities, Islamic Art, Near-Eastern Antiquities, Roman, Greek and Etruscan Art, Paintings, Decorative Arts, Sculptures, Prints and Drawings. The Sculptures, Prints and Drawings department features notable works including: Venus de Milo; the Winged Victory of Samothrace; and Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss.

The Paintings department is the most popular due to the many famous works of art it holds, spanning the 13th century to the 19th century. These include: the Mona Lisa; Liberty Leading the People; the Coronation of Napoleon; the Raft of Medusa; and Death of the Virgin. Other notable attractions you may not want to miss include: the Islamic Art Collection and the Apartments of Napoleon III.

Attracting over 15,000 visitors a day, the long queues outside the Louvre are almost as famous as the museum itself. It could easily take you an hour just to get in line at the Pyramid entrance for a ticket. But you can avoid the queues completely by purchasing your ticket in advance. This service will incur a small fee of a couple of Euros, but at least you won’t have to wait in line for a long time.

With 35,000 art works and 380,000 museum objects to see, the Louvre is so massive that it would take an entire day just to walk through the galleries, even without really seeing any of the art. To avoid having to wander endlessly in search of the masterpieces, try to find out beforehand the location of the specific artworks on your checklist list.

It is important to know how to best approach this mammoth of a museum, in order to emerge with a satisfying and enriching experience. Researching the highlights ahead of time will help you place things into a more meaningful context such that you can focus on the artworks themselves, rather than get overwhelmed by it all.

Set aside a whole day to tour the Louvre. And when you need to stop and recharge, there are some good places to eat and drink inside the museum. Or you could have some refreshments in the many cafes and mobile snack stands outside the building.

The Louvre is home to a lot of art and history, with interesting pieces from antiquity to contemporary times. With so much to see at the museum, you may not be able to see it all in one day. The best advice is to have a checklist of what you want to see and then plan an inevitable, yet worthwhile second visit to the Louvre.

3. Château de Versailles

Château de Versailles is a royal palace started in 1624 by Louis XIII. Situated within the Île-de-France region of France, Château de Versailles was the largest palace in all of Europe when it was first constructed.

While the palace boasts incredible architecture and an impressive size, even more interesting is its history. The grand and ornate palace once housed the kings of France, including the ill-fated Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette. The palace remained the official residence of the French Monarchy until the French Revolution when it became a museum.

The Château de Versailles began as a creation of Louis XIV, who transformed his father’s hunting lodge into a work of wonder and excess. He then moved his entire court and government to Versailles from Paris in 1682. The next 2 kings of France added their own touches to the palace which eventually became unbearable for the starving people of France to witness, and contributed to the 1789 revolt.

An incarnation of Classicist art in France, the palace today remains a symbol of royal absolutism, offering insights into the lives of 18th century French royalty before the start of the French Revolution. One of the best known tourist attractions in France, the palace is the very definition of exquisite opulence, and the best showcase of the grandeur of the French monarchy.

Mind blowing in scale, the palace spans 63,000 meters squared and houses 2,300 pieces of furniture. There’s so much to see here, from the stunning architecture, fabulous arts, intriguing antiques and magnificent gardens. Due to the sheer scale of the place, visitors may want to use the available audio headsets to guide their tour.

Tourists can admire the dazzling interiors of the massive palace and its 700 rooms complete with frescoed ceilings, gilded cornices and detailed carvings. Inside the multi-winged palace building, visitors can admire the gilded royal apartments, the lavishly-furnished private rooms of the king, as well as the exquisite Opera House.

The breathtaking Hall of Mirrors houses 357 beautiful mirrors and intimate cabinets, which are all great examples of artistic creation, and masterpieces in their own right. You can also enjoy a tour of the meticulously manicured gardens with their magnificent fountains, geometrically designed walkways, terraces, canals and hundreds of ornamental lakes.

Once done touring the palace, take a 30 minutes’ walk or a short tram ride to the Grand Trianon and the Petit Trianon, the two smaller palaces that were the king’s retreat from Versailles. You can also visit Marie-Antoinette’s hamlet in the afternoon to discover a more intimate and rustic aspect of Versailles.

It is recommended that you spend an entire day touring Versailles to allow you to enjoy everything there is to see and do here. This way you get to marvel at its wonders at your leisure. To double the effect, ask your guide to explain the complex etiquette of the royal court of Versailles.

4. Abbaye du Mont Saint-Michel

Soaring out of the sea on a rocky island, on misty mornings, Mont Saint-Michel seems to appear from the sky itself. A heritage site most celebrated for its Gothic-style abbey, the island is located within the pristine setting of a magnificent bay of the same name, in the Normandy region of France.

An imposing sight that sits amid sandbanks, the medieval structures of Mont Saint-Michel are built as if stacked one upon another. The spectacular, well-preserved grand monastery stands at the peak of the island, its fortified walls stretching from the base to enclose a picturesque medieval village with winding streets and small houses.

Second only to the Eiffel Tower as France’s best-loved landmark, Mont Saint-Michel is a symbol of French identity and resistance to English attacks during the Hundred Years’ War. During the French Revolution, the island was used as a prison, although it is today back to its origins as home to a religious community.

The site dates back to the 10th century when the bishop of Tombe was inspired by an apparition of St. Michael to build an oratory on the island. Thereafter, Benedictine monks settled on the island and founded an abbey, fortifications, a village and even more splendid structures, all to honor the saint.

History buffs will enjoy a tour of the abbey and its grounds, as well as the lovely view from the abbey of the sea and coastline which is well worth the climb to the top. But to witness the true beauty of Mont St. Michel, you must view it from afar, either at dawn or dusk. If you happen to go here during the spring tides, you will be mesmerized by the natural performance of the sea.

While the tides in the bay are the highest and most powerful in Europe, it is still possible to walk across a causeway to access the island and its attractions. The causeway was constructed in 1877 to link the island to the mainland. The island is accessible at all times except during very high tide.

Mont Saint-Michel is a must see that you can cover in one day. While visiting this region, if you have a time to spare, also head out to nearby Bayeux, a town situated on the coast of Normandy. Bayeux is home to the famous Bayeux Tapestry, created to document the invasion of England by William, Duke of Normandy in 1066.

5. Annecy

When most people think of the French Alps, the first thing that typically comes to mind is up-market ski resorts. However, Rhône-Alpes, the region of France in which the French Alps are located, is also home to some splendid towns that are great to visit both during winter and summer. The one town that really stands out from the rest in this region is Annecy.

Built around a 14th century chateau, Annecy is the stuff dreams are made of. The small lakeside town looks like it was taken right out of a fairy tale or romance novel. The picturesque town of Annecy is quaint, with a huge lake and the gorgeous French Alps for backdrop.

The ancient town also has a Venetian feel due to the fact that it is entirely interspersed with small picturesque canals and narrow streets. This, along with the river that runs through it earned Annecy the nickname of “the Venice of Savoie”.

A good way to see Annecy is by taking a cruise on Lake Annecy, during which you can enjoy great views of the town’s medieval architecture. You can also go on a tour to learn about the ancient 3,000 year old village submerged inside the lake. Stop at small towns surrounding the lake for great views of the mountain vistas, or just while the time away on one of the lakeside beaches.

With its unique center and backdrop of snowy mountains, Annecy is easily one of France’s most photogenic towns. Annecy is also home to many historical buildings and churches, some of which feature beautiful Gothic architecture.

In the middle of town, you can visit the Palais de L’lle, the building in which the 12th century royalty lived, and which was transformed into a prison in the 19th century. This chateau-like structure is entirely surrounded by water and connected to the rest of the town via a bridge. The historical monument also houses a heritage and architecture center.

Visitacion Basilica houses a monastery that dates back to the 1600s, while the Notre-Dame de Liesse church features a 16th century clock tower and 15th century Gothic window, preserved from the previous ancient sanctuary of the church. Also take a peek at the 15th century trompe l’oeil painting in the Saint-Maurice Church which appears to be in 3 dimensions.

Also tour the Conservatory of Art and History which houses paintings from both the 17th and 18th centuries. Many paintings here depict Mont Blanc in the Alps, which is the tallest mountain in the range. At the Chateau de Montrottier, you will enjoy splendid views of the surrounding mountains from the tower. This feudal citadel also houses a museum with art and artifacts from around the world.

If you happen to be in Annecy in June, be sure to attend the International Festival of Animated Film, during which famous animators and animation fans watch screenings, attend parties and network. Annecy is also a great spot to stopover on your way to the French Alps for some winter sports.

6. Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres

Situated in the Centre-Val de Loire region of France, the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres is widely regarded as the most beautiful cathedral in France. The cathedral is also hailed as one of the most beautiful architectural works of the western world, and recognized as the most spectacular Gothic cathedral in Europe.

The cathedral is itself an architectural masterpiece and a true spectacle of detail. It features soaring spires, dazzling 12th to 13th century stained-glass windows, and elaborately adorned porches with detailed sculptures, all combined to create an epitome of French Gothic art.

The cathedral was originally constructed in 1020 but rebuilt after the 1134 fire which destroyed most of the town. One of the reasons why the cathedral is so well-preserved is the fact that all its glass was taken apart pane by pane before World War II to preserve them from destruction. As such, the majority of the cathedral’s windows date from between 1205 and 1240, including its 3 massive rose windows.

The first thing that stands out about this cathedral when you see it from the outside is that its two spires do not match. In fact, one spire dates from the 12th century, while the other traces its origins to the 16th century.

Once inside, visitors can not only admire but also walk the prayer labyrinth inlaid at the center of the cathedral floor. This is just one of the few surviving prayer labyrinths in France. For a great view of Chartres town, be sure to climb the cathedral towers.

The town of Chartres itself also makes for a great day-trip destination. Chartres has for centuries been a major pilgrimage destination due to the fact that its world famous cathedral houses a relic of cloth that the Virgin Mary allegedly wore on the night she gave birth to baby Jesus.

But just beware that you will need some proper time planning to fully enjoy your excursion to Chartres. This is because Chartres is a small town in which everything closes during lunch time, while mass times also restrict visits to the cathedral.

After touring the cathedral, spend some time strolling the cobblestone streets and perusing the art collection of the Musee des Beaux-Arts gallery, and the antique shops. Or take a break and sit down at one of the charming bistros around the cathedral to indulge in some delicious French cuisine. This would also be a perfect time to try out the fine wines and assortment of cheeses for which France is famous.

7. Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Reims

Situated in the Champagne-Ardenne region of France, Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Reims is a mighty cathedral that has survived centuries of history. The cathedral was even left standing when the city of Reims was bombed to smithereens during the Second World War.

For centuries, the cathedral served as the official setting for royal coronations, with its most dramatic being the one engineered by Joan of Arc. Instructed by voices, the teenage shepherdess made it her divine mission to reinstate Charles VII to the throne and drive the English out of France. While she accomplished the first in 1429, she was burned at the stake before completing the second.

During the 5th century, Clovis I, the first king of France was baptized in a small church on the same site, which gave the site a royal reputation that was maintained throughout the centuries. The last coronation to be held here was that of Charles X in 1825.

Built between 1211 and 1516, the cathedral boasts architecture of immense artistic richness, and survives as one of the most beautiful examples of Gothic art. Today the cathedral draws both the faithful and tourists to marvel at its magnificent architecture and elaborate statuary, not to mention its stunning stained glass windows, some of which survived the war.

The ultimate glory of this cathedral however lies in its façade which has been so skillfully proportioned that first impressions do not give the whole picture of its monumental size.

The western front façade is graced by what is perhaps the richest body of sculpture in any Gothic church, which reflects a move towards Realism in contrast to the more rigidly formal Classicist style of the 12th century. Over 2,303 statues are carved into the facades that decorate its interiors.

This façade is further adorned with elaborate portals and carvings of angels and saints. Its narrow naves inside rise up 28 meters to give the impression that the soaring sculptured arches go all the way up to heaven. Visitors can admire the western façade’s rose window with its superb 13th century original stained glass. Also have a look at the three modern stained glass windows installed in the axial chapel.

With the exception of the towers built in the 15th century, most of the original building was erected in the 100 years after 1211. Visitors can also climb to the top of the towers and have a look inside the cathedral’s amazing timber-and-concrete roof.

Take a stroll around the outside of the cathedral to get an impression of the harmony in its rich décor. At the east end, you can enjoy an idyllic sight across the well-manicured lawns. Visitors can also enjoy the vista toward the west end with its interplay of narrow pointed arches. Also take a peek at the Laughing Angel, a charming statue above the left door which is famous for its smile.

In terms of size alone, the cathedral is an extraordinary structure, designed to accommodate a massive crowd of worshippers. Today, it remains a center of pilgrimage for the faithful and tourists alike.

8. Côte d’Azur

Situated within the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region of France, Côte d’Azur is the dazzling Mediterranean coastline of the city of Nice. Popularly known as the French Riviera, Côte d’Azur is a famous tourist attraction that has for years drawn visitors from the world over.

Featuring some of the most exotic beaches in the world, Côte d’Azur makes for a most beautiful place to visit in France. Warm in the winter and hot in the summer, the region boasts miles of spectacular coastline with azure waters. The French coast offers a great seaside retreat away from the hustle and bustle of the bigger cities. The highlight of Côte d’Azur is St. Tropez Bay, which many find irresistible.

But while the French Riviera is famous for the glamour of its stylish coastal cities of St. Tropez, Monaco, Antibes and the Cannes Film Festival, it does have many other less known attractions worth seeing.

Nestled in the hills of Côte d’Azur are the beautiful perched villages of Eze and Saint-Paul de Vence, not to mention the enchanting walled town of Vence. Tourists can also walk the charming streets of Vieille Ville or the “Old Town” of Nice which draws visitors with its antique shops, small bistros, museums and fashion boutiques.

The best part about Côte d’Azur is that you can drive it all in one day, all the way to Marseilles if you like. A good time to visit the French Riviera is outside peak summer when there are fewer celebrities about. This is best time to appreciate the charms that have for a long time lured artists, writers and filmmakers to the picturesque French coastline.

9. Lourdes

Possibly the most famous French town from a religious perspective, Lourdes is situated in the Midi-Pyrénées region of southwestern France. Lourdes is today regarded as a place of miracles and boasts a beautiful setting nestled in the foothills of the Pyrénées, a mountain range that forms the border between France and Spain.

Lourdes was a tranquil market town until news spread fast that Our Lady of Lourdes had appeared to Bernadette Soubirous, the daughter of a miller, a number of times in 1858. Thereafter, the town was transformed into a key pilgrimage center which today houses the second largest number of hotels in France after Paris.

Try to make it to Lourdes in time to witness the spectacle of the millions of Christians who each year flock to the Sanctuary at Lourdes and its most sacred site, the Cave of Apparitions. It is believed that the Virgin Mary appeared to Bernadette while inside this cave.

Every year, many sick and infirm arrive at Lourdes in search of respite or a cure. You don’t have to be devout to be moved by the throngs of people engrossed in reverence, immersing themselves in the waters of the 17 pools of the grotto, believed to have healing powers; or leaving petitions in the handicraft box.

The Sanctuary is the biggest draw in Lourdes, which also houses a church, chapel, and crypt. Just beyond the grotto is an extensive area for candle burning, while the front has a number of trees hung with rosaries left by visitors. This area also features attractive buildings mostly dating back to the late 19th century, which are surrounded by lovely extensive gardens.

The Basilica of Saint-Pius X is the largest church at Lourdes which can seat more than 25,000 people. The Basilica is an awe-inspiring structure that should be on your ‘must-see’ list while at Lourdes. Faithful seeking a spiritual experience can attend masses held in more than 22 languages both day and night in the Basilica or the other churches. Also visit the 8th century fort that was used by Charlemagne.

Tourists can take the tourist train which is a great way to get around Lourdes. The trip covers 7.5km and lasts approximately 45 minutes, allowing you to see the Cite Mariale, old quarters, as well as the upper town and its historical buildings. You can get on and off the train at various intervals during the ride. Interesting houses to see in town are those in which Bernadette was born and where her father lived.

There are many reasons to visit Lourdes, if not for the spiritual benefits, then certainly for its astounding scenery and amazing lake in the town center. Visitors can also take a pleasant stroll by the Gave de Pau River. If you love hiking, you can enjoy the three summits of the Pyrénées. Or take the funicular up to the Grand Jer for a stunning ascent that offers great views of the Pyrénées and the town.

10. Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris

Located in the east half of the Île-de-la Cite, within the 4th arrondissement of Paris, the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris boasts a beautiful setting on the banks of the River Seine. Made famous by Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame, the Notre Dame is today a great example of Gothic architecture in France.

A church reflecting prestige with incredible results, the Notre-Dame affords views of interesting sculptures, lofty archways, rose windows of stained glass, ribbed vaults, ornate spires, flying buttresses and the indispensable Gargoyles – all of which constitute Gothic art at its most exquisite.

The most notable features of the Notre Dame are arguably its 13th century Great Rose Window that features the Virgin Mary among the apostles and angels, and the memorable Chagall window, which depicts the Crucifixion. Also incredible to behold are the intricate facades of the cathedral, including the Gallery of Kings which features over 2,000 statues.

Construction of the Notre Dame began in the 13th century, although the cathedral has been rebuilt and restored severally over the last 100 years. Today, visitors can climb the church tower for unbeatable views of Paris. This will also enable you to see the gargoyles up close, as well as the church’s famous bells.

Then go down below the structure of the church into the Crypt. Here you will find a museum that has information on the centuries of history unearthed during the excavation phase of the construction of the church. What you learn here is interesting in that it offers insights into the history of Paris from the perspective of its most famous church.

Visitors can also go outside around the back of the church to admire the flying buttresses. For a comprehensive view of the church, sit at the park out back and admire its stunning architecture. For a wider view and great photo opportunities, you will need to go further away by first crossing the Seine and walking along the quay of the Left Bank.

But it’s not enough to just see the Notre-Dame to appreciate its magic, you must also hear it. Stick around the area to hear its bells ring at the top of the hour. Having already seen them up close, you will have a new appreciation of their meaning and sound.