France Travel Guide
Things to Do in France
Top Attractions
Eiffel Tower

Casting a watchful gaze over the City of Light, the Eiffel Tower is an ambassador to France and welcomes visitors from far and wide to Paris. Constructed in the late 1880s for the 1889 World’s Fair, the wrought- iron lattice tower was initially rejected by French artists and architects — it was deemed unworthy of representing the intrinsic nature of engineering and architecture within France. Today, the iconic monument is one of the most widely known pieces of structural art. 
 

The observation decks offer unobstructed views of Paris from the 7th arrondissement along the Seine River, two miles west of Notre Dame and the Île de la Cité. The first observation deck stands 187 feet above the ground and is home to an immersion gallery, the restaurant 58 Tour Eiffel and a glass, see-through floor. The first observation deck is only accessible via a 300-plus staircase and is often overlooked by visitors who head directly for the elevator. From the 377-foot-high second floor, you can see all of Paris’ monuments and feast on gourmet cuisine at the Jules Verne. The elevators from the esplanade ride directly to the second floor, or the more adventurous can climb the 704 stairs. Last, but most certainly not least, the 906-foot-high third floor is the highest observation deck in the European Union and leaves Paris beneath your feet. The two-story observation deck — one indoor and one outdoor — offers unforgettable views that can be enjoyed with a glass of champagne from the sky-high champagne bar. 

Palace of Versailles

The shining example of regal splendor, the Palace of Versailles is the architectural embodiment of Louis XIV’s famous exclamation, “I am the state!” Originally a two-story hunting chalet in a bourgeois Paris suburb, Louis XIV upended the French monarchic system and moved the government and court into its increasingly expansive hallways and courtyards. Versailles’ growth, from a chalet to the palace we know today, is a visual lesson in French architecture through the 17th and early 18th centuries and recalls an era during which France was the leading European power. UNESCO inscribed the Palace and Park of Versailles into the list of World Heritage Sites in 1979, noting that generations of artists, architects, landscape architects, gardeners and more have provided Europe with an image for the quintessential royal residence. 
 

Today, the palace contains 2,300 rooms, including the opulent Hall of Mirrors, King’s State Apartments and Gallery of Great Battles. The opulent Hall of Mirrors — designed to overlook and reflect the elaborate gardens to the chateau's west — is among the most well-known rooms in the château. While the Hall of Mirrors was exclusively reserved for Louis XIV, the seven rooms of the King’s State Apartments are adorned with all of the monarch’s admiration of Italian Renaissance and Baroque stylings for hosting official events. The longest room in the palace, the Gallery of Great Battles boasts French artistic masterfulness and has remained unchanged since the hall's completion in 1845.

The estate grounds are as much of a destination as the chambers and hallways within. Designed to illustrate the king’s dominion over nature, the French formal gardens occupy a majority of Versailles’ 800 hectares and follow the sun’s daily journey across the sky from East to West. The gardens were designed under the Sun King’s direct orders and were designed with canals, fountains and hydraulics that remain to this day. The Park of Versailles, segmented by the cross-shaped Grand Canal, is home to Marie Antoinette's estate and Louis XIV’s Grand Trianon. If Versailles was built with all the elaborate grandeur meant for a god, the Grand Trianon is home to the marble intricacies meant for man. 

Mont Saint-Michel

Sitting in the shallow bay fed by the Couesnon River, the abbey of Mont Saint-Michel rises towards the sky from between the tides. The water level of the silty bay ebbs and flows with the tides, creating a natural mirror that fog rolls off of and envelops all but the highest reaches of the island. Monks first came to the rocky, secluded island in the late-seventh century in search of solitude and began to build a church atop the island after having a vision of Archangel Michael. The massive undertaking was supported by local dukes and the French kings as crypts were built to support the church above since the island’s peak was too narrow to support a cloister of such magnitude. Ramparts and fortifications were added to the bay’s natural barrier to protect the center of learning from hostile adversaries. The surrounding waters and mudflats pin Mont Saint-Michel against the horizon and provide a changing landscape that captures the imagination of all who visit. Often seen in popular culture, Mont Saint-Michel was the inspiration for several Disney movies, including the castle in The Little Mermaid. 
 

Adhering to the forces of nature, Mont Saint-Michel is accessible via an elevated causeway that allows the Couesnon River to flow freely into the bay and preserve the island’s maritime character. Crossing the bridge provides one of the most enchanting views of the abbey and visitors are welcomed by daunting ramparts and stone steps that wrap around the rocky isle. The town below — home to 50 residents — has remained unchanged through the centuries and is connected to the church and cloister above by narrow pathways and garden terraces. The highlights of Mont Saint-Michel are the monastic structures capping the island. The Church of Saint Michel is an awe-inspiring example of Romanesque architecture dating to the 11th century, with Gothic features added through the centuries as the abbey grew in size and wealth.

 

D-Day Beaches

Utah. Omaha. Gold. Juno. Sword. These five beaches will forever go down as some of the most consequential beaches in the world. On December 6, 1944, the largest seaborne invasion in history took place as 156,000 American, British and Canadian troops landed on the five beaches in Normandy. Initially delayed due to inclement weather, a lull in the storm provided the perfect opening for the Allied forces to land at the fortified beaches; the Americans landed in the west at Omaha and Utah, the Canadians landed in the center at Juno, the British landed to the east at Sword and Gold. The cliffs at Omaha Beach presented the greatest obstacle for the American forces and logistical errors failed to cripple the German forces protecting the broad beach. Fighting here proved to be the most devastating as the Americans had to overcome the sloping beaches and heavily fortified Pointe du Hoc.
 

The D-Day landings have been immortalized in history as stretches of the battered Normandy coastline remain as they stood in 1944 with artillery craters dotting the shore. Memorials are erected to those who stormed the beaches. From atop the coastal cliffs, one can see where the original German fortifications stand in memoriam of the challenges and difficulties faced by the landing troops. At Omaha Beach, German fortifications are scattered across the clifftop at the Pointe du Hoc and a museum outlines the decisive campaign. The troops who lost their lives lay in rest at the Normandy American Cemetery, Memorial and Visitor Centre, overlooking Omaha Beach. The Cemetery, Walls of the Missing, Museum and Memorial preserve the story of those who made the ultimate sacrifice. There are individual crosses for the 9,387 American soldiers who lost their lives in the Normandy Campaign. Omaha Beach remains the most well-known of the five beaches, in part due to the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan. Utah Beach, the second beach where American troops landed, is known for the paratrooper whose parachute got stuck on the church's steeple in Sainte-Mère-Eglise. The museums at Utah Beach are dedicated to planning behind D-Day and the American paratroopers who helped capture the westernmost of the beaches.

Loire Valley Châteaux

If castles inspire you, there is no better destination in the world than the valley of the Loire River and its tributaries. The 200-mile-long UNESCO World Heritage Site along the Loire Valley is home to more than 300 châteaux. Gazing upon the elaborate towers, turrets, gables, chimneys and walls built of yellow-hued tuffeau stone is like walking into a fairytale. When the French kings began constructing fortified castles along the Loire — France’s longest river — in the 10th century, noble families quickly followed suit. Centuries of conflict and showmanship led these early castles to evolve into the elaborate châteaux that we see today. The royal châteaux were home to some of Medieval France’s pivotal moments; marriages, assassinations, international treaties, and political and religious sanctuary all took place within their ornate halls. The Château de Loches was home to Richard the Lionheart in the 12th century and Joan of Arc met with King Charles VII at Château de Chinon in 1429. The Loire Valley enjoyed a golden age from the late 1400s to the mid-1500s when the wars subsided and the kings preferred to spend their time along the river’s banks. Even when the royal court returned back to Paris and ultimately Versailles, countless dukes and nobles stayed in the Loire and continue to build and renovate their châteaux and summer homes.
 

One of the finest examples of the French Renaissance, the châteaux of the Loire Valley inspired everyone from Leonardo da Vinci to Walt Disney. King François I is considered the most important monarch for the valley’s development, building and renovating châteaux across the region. He built Château de Chambord — the largest in the Loire — as his hunting residence and brought artists to France, including Leonardo da Vinci. Its distinctive French Renaissance architecture is the centerpiece of a massive estate with finely manicured gardens and decorative towers, walls and a moat. One of the Loire’s most famous châteaux is Chenonceau, spanning the River Cher. The castle was home to many powerful women, including Catherine de Medici, who is responsible for the famous wing seen today. In the east is the town of Saumur and one of the country’s oldest châteaux. The Château de Saumur is situated high on a hill overlooking the Loire River and town for which it was named and is believed to have been one of the castles that inspired Walt Disney for his Sleeping Beauty castle.

 

Popular Regions in France

Île-de-France

The capital region of France, Île-de-France encompasses Paris and the surrounding areas. It is here that you will find many of the monuments that come to mind when you think of France: The Eiffel Tower, Notre-Dame de Paris, Arc de Triomphe, the Louvre and the Palace of Versailles. But, these sites barely scratch the surface of what the capital region has to offer. The Louvre is the largest museum in the world but Paris is also home to the Musée d’Orsay, the Petit Palais, Musée Rodin, Musée de Cluny and Musée de l’Orangerie. Looking beyond the museums, Île-de-France’s artistic hub sits on the slopes of Montmartre, in Paris’ northern 18th arrondissement as the Basilica of the Sacred Heart — colloquially known as Sacré-Cœur — stands high above. The hill of Montmartre, which has given its name to the surrounding neighborhood, was home to artists’ studios including Pablo Picasso, Vincent van Gogh, Camille Pissarro, Edgar Degas, Claude Monet and Pierro-Auguste Renoir, as well as the site of the renowned Moulin Rouge. 

Journey beyond the boulevard périphérique and you’ll find natural parks, vast châteaux and a diverse array of cathedrals. The riverbanks of the Seine through the Vexin Nature Park, the château and forest of Fontainebleau and vast Haute-Vallée de Chevreuse are all favorite weekend destinations for Parisians and offer a relaxing retreat or active adventure for those looking to escape the big city. The royal palace of Versailles — just a 40-minute train ride from central Paris — combines landscaping, art and architecture on an adventure through time to the height of French absolutism. Versailles and each of the surrounding towns and communes are an easy entrance to the authentic French experience. The focal point of these towns and communes are their cathedrals and the surrounding squares. Each of these churches have their own unique character, from the Romanesque Meaux Cathedral and the early Gothic elements of the Basilica of Saint-Denis to the modernist Évry Cathedral.

 

French Riviera

With seaside villages nestled between azure waters, rocky coves and sloping hillsides — and more than 300 days per year of sunshine — it’s easy to see why the French Riviera is known for its elegance and beauty. Though the golden coastline has been inhabited for millennia, it was not until 1888 that French writer Stéphen Liégeard was inspired by the deep blue Mediterranean water and first penned the name Côte d'Azur. Ranging from the Italian border in the east to the commune of Cassis in the west, this 250-mile stretch was one of the first modern vacation destinations in the world. The quaint seaside villages helped foster the imagination and creativity of prominent artists and writers including Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Marc Chagall, and the sun-drenched beaches have long attracted royalty and international aristocrats. Many of the towns that hug the coast sprung up through the 19th and 20th centuries as the Riviera became more accessible and stories of its surmountable beauty became more widely known across Europe and the United States. 
 

Between the Italian stylings of Menton and the rising cliffs of Cassis, each of the towns along the French Riviera offers its own charms and attractions. Nice, the largest city of the Riviera and the fifth-largest city in France, is the major gateway to southeastern France. From up above, the Castle of Nice — La Colline du Chateau — offers spectacular views of the immense promenade and vibrant architecture. Down below, cozy cafes and traditional markets line the narrow streets of Old Nice, where locals and visitors go about their daily business side by side. The elegance and glamour the Riviera has come to embody most prominent in Cannes and Saint-Tropez. Cannes is best known for the Cannes Film Festival, held each May, and is home to exuberant hotels and extravagant villas — some of which have been converted to museums. In the center of the French Riviera is Saint-Tropez, which began as an isolated fishing village and military stronghold. This heritage is reflected in the small but lavish town today. Best accessible by boat, Saint-Tropez is an artistic haven and is best known for the surrounding beaches. On the Italian border, Menton basks in the seemingly endless sun and hosts a marvelous lemon festival each February. Walk through the world’s second-smallest sovereign state in Monaco and see the renowned Monte Carlo casino. Step into medieval history in the tiny village of Èze, standing atop a 1,400-foot-high hill. Or, venture into the hills beyond Cannes and visit the perfume capital of the world in Grasse and smell the endless rows of lavender.

 

Normandy

Normandy has a long history of war. During the Middle Ages, the king of England named his nephew William, Duke of Normandy, as his successor. But after Harold, William's cousin, took the English crown for himself, William — soon to be named William the Conqueror — invaded England to claim his royal crown. Through all of this conflict, Normandy emerged as a multicultural crossroads between the Celtic, Roman, Viking and Franking people. The River Seine snakes its way through eastern Normandy, connecting Paris to the English Channel, with castles built by the Normans to protect the vital waterway from their foes. Possibly the most notable battle though is D-Day and the invasion of Normandy. The results of the immense invasion can still be seen on the beaches, cliffs and towns lining the coast. While the legacy of war connects the cliffs, castles and cathedrals, a rich artistic heritage developed through the Normans and the French. The bounty of the English Channel combined with vast pastures and extensive orchards have developed a unique yet distinctively French cuisine. While you may have come for the beaches or to honor the memory of those who fought in Operation Overlord, it would be a mistake to leave without sampling the local cheese or enjoying a glass of fresh cider. 
 

The exceptionalism of Normandy varies from the quiet abbey of Mont-Saint-Michel to the vibrant water lilies in Monet’s Giverny. The region’s Norman roots can be traced through regional capitals including Caen and Rouen. William the Conqueror built the Château de Caen in 1060, six years before he conquered England, and it remains one of the largest castles in Western Europe. Caen is less than 10 miles from the English Channel and was integral to the D-Day landings. Le Mémorial is one of the best museums in Europe dedicated to WWII, with an emphasis on the Battle of Normandy. The region’s capital, Rouen, is a medieval city complete with a cobblestone city center, half-timbered homes and the Gothic Rouen Cathedral dominates the city’s skyline. Farther down the River Seine at Giverny, Claude Monet’s two gardens were the inspiration behind some of his best-known works, most notably, Water Lilies. Monet spent his years shaping his surroundings to play the curves, reflections and asymmetries that leap from the canvas. One of the most renowned works of art which detail Norman history and traditions is the Bayeux Tapestry. This 230-foot tapestry is embroidered with the events leading up to the Battle of Hastings on October 14, 1066, and is one of the few remaining examples of secular Romanesque art.

 

Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes

Bisected by the Rhône River, the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region stretches from the morning shadow of Mont Blanc in the east to Vichy’s Roman Baths in the west. Lyon, France’s second-largest city and culinary capital, sits at the confluence of the Rhône and the Saône Rivers and was founded by the Romans as a settlement for refugees from nearby wars. The Amphitheater of the Three Gauls is one the oldest reminders of Lyon’s origin and part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its continued urban settlement and “great commercial and strategic significance.” On the highest point in the city, Lyon’s Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière was built on the land once occupied by Trajan’s Forum. Due to its prominent location in the Rhône Valley, Lyon was Paris’ southern rival through the Industrial Revolution, developing economically and culturally. Lyon’s food culture was captured in the early 20th century by food writer Curnonsky, who penned the city as “the gastronomic capital of the world” and has since become an international destination for food enthusiasts. Further along the Rhône, world-class vineyards line the steep riverbanks and towns are built around Roman theaters that host events and festivals to this day.

The Alps to the east are a haven for outdoor enthusiasts, attracting visitors year-round for hiking, biking, camping and skiing with images of charming chalets set upon a backdrop of towering peaks and pouring waterfalls. Many towns scattered in the alpine foothills began as Roman outposts on the frontier and have grown into gateways to the natural beauty of the French Alps. Grenoble, the largest city in the French Alps, is located in the narrow valley between three mountains and the self-declared “Capital of the Alps.” While snowcapped peaks loom in the distance, Grenoble is home to medieval bastions, a renaissance palace and one of Europe’s greatest collections of modern art. Even farther east along the border with Italy and Switzerland, Chamonix is the gateway to the north side of 15,774-foot Mont Blanc. Chamonix hosted the first Winter Olympics in 1924 and has continued to grow as a winter sports destination. Today, Chamonix is home to one of the world’s highest cable cars; an elevation gain of 9,000 feet en route to the terminus at Aiguille du Midi (12,604 feet), translating directly as Needle of the Midday.  

 

Alsace / Grand Est

If you have ever dreamed of stepping foot into a Disney village — complete with cobblestone streets, pastel-painted timbered homes, flowered balconies and narrow canals — than the medieval villages of France’s Grand Est are the perfect destinations. The neighboring villages of Riquewihr and Ribeauvillé in Alsace are the real-world models for the “quiet provincial town” that Belle so longed to escape from in Beauty and the Beast. Encompassing Alsace, Lorraine and Champagne-Ardenne, the Grand Est region is home to some world-class sparkling wine, wonderfully preserved Gothic architecture, fairytale inspiration and several institutions of the European Union. The region’s eastern border follows the northerly flow of the Rhine River and was the source of centuries of conflict between France and Germany, changing hands countless times over a 200-year period. French and German influences survived through the region’s tug-of-war and developed its own language, winemaking, crafts and, of course, cuisine.   

Across Gothic cathedrals in Strasbourg and Metz, wine routes in Alsace and Champagne and fortifications and battlefields, the Grand Est is rich as the crossroads of Europe. Major rivers including the Rhine and the Moselle connect France to Germany, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Belgium and the Netherlands, with navigable canals creating a vast web of waterways that link the medieval towns. Reims, the City of Kings, was a major city during the Roman Empire and was the ceremonial crowning site of the French monarchy. In addition to being Reims’ ceremonial importance, it is the center of the Champagne industry and home to Taittinger, Veuve Clicquot and Ruinart — the oldest Champagne house in the world. The villages in Alsace have been recognized for their beauty, from Colmar’s Krutenau Quarter known as “Little Venice” to Strasbourg’s Petite France and Grand Island (Grande Île). Between the timber homes and canal-lined villages, Alsace wines blend French tradition with German influences and is the leading producer of Gewürztraminer wine.

France by Interest

“Anyone with an interest in WW I would benefit from this program. It had a wonderful combination of in-depth field trips to the battle fields and war memorials as well as less somber tours of the champagne area. The barge was sublime in all ways: the crew, the food, the routes and the ease of movement.”

— Beatrice, Road Scholar Class of 2005, from Peacham, Vt. —

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