France Travel Guide

When you think about France, what comes to mind? Grand villas lining the French Riviera or Bordeaux’s rolling vineyards? The historic beaches of Normandy, quaint mountain villages at the base of the French Alps or Notre-Dame de Paris overlooking the Seine River? France’s diverse geography makes the country the complete package.

 
Six Questions with Amale, Our Director of French Programs

France Travel Tips

France At A Glance

  • Official Name: Republique francaise — French Republic
  • Population: Metropolitan France — 62,814,233 (21st in the world)
  • Language: French
  • Capital: Paris
  • Currency: Euro
  • Time Zone: +1 CET (Central European Time) — Six time zones ahead of Eastern Standard Time
  • Total Size: 248,573 sq. mi. (44th in the world)
  • Major Cities: ParisMarseillesLyonToulouseNice
  • Overseas Territories: French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Mayotte, Reunion

1.

Go Beyond Paris

There is a lot to see and do in Paris; so much so that it may be overwhelming and seem like there is never enough time to see and do it all. But beyond the boulevard périphérique, there is a whole country waiting to be explored. Walk in the hallways of the Popes at the Palais des Papes in Avignon or bask in the legacy of the Romans at the Arles Amphitheater. Become an architecture critic and find your favorite Notre-Dame in Strasbourg or Metz, Nantes or Orléans, Bordeaux or Lyon. Catch your breath on the beaches of Normandy and the French Riviera or hike to the glaciers hidden within the French Alps. And how could we forget: Sampling local delicacies — wine and food alike — in Lyon, St. Malo, Burgundy or Champagne. 

2.

The French Siesta

Schedules in France operate a little differently than most other countries, with a midday break to enjoy lunch. Many shops and museums open in the morning and close during lunch hours so employees enjoy a brief reprieve from work and take time to eat. Most restaurants open for lunch around noon and close at 2 pm, so finding a restaurant open for a late lunch may be a challenge. In Southern France, the down hours are pushed back to coincide with the hottest time of the day. French law requires that shops close on Sunday, with the exception of those that sell food. Some shops find loopholes in the law and stay open all day, but it is easiest to stock up during the week or on Saturday and enjoy a leisurely day on Sunday.

3.

Food Rules

As expected for a place where food is a focal point of their culture, there are certain tips and tricks everyone should know when dining out in France. Their food is internationally renowned and it should be savored, so the French prefer to sit and dine as opposed to ordering food to go. When deciding what to wear, always choose to dress your outfit up and once you’ve sat down, place your napkin on your lap. The French love their bread, and for good reason, but bread is broken and never cut. When eating cheese, be sure to leave the point intact. Last but not least, the French love a good coffee but rarely drink it after breakfast. If you’d like coffee with lunch or dinner, it is typically ordered after dessert and you can expect a shot of espresso as opposed to the cup of coffee typical in the United States.

4.

Dress for the Moment

We know what you may be thinking: “France is one fashionable place,” and we couldn’t agree more. Clothing matters and dressing too casually can make you stick out and possibly feel uncomfortable. The French take their fashion seriously with makeup and accessories riding in the passenger seat. For women in France, and Paris in particular, natural hair and skin is considered the most attractive, with makeup being complimentary. They love simple, darker colors such as black, grey and navy and always dress like there is someone to impress. Unless exercising, men rarely wear shorts or athletic clothing, especially when dining out.  

5.

Parlez-vous Francais?

The French are proud of their history and culture, but even more so, of their language. Even though many people may speak English — especially in larger cities — it doesn’t mean they will forgo their native tongue. Greeting with a simple “Bonjour” can change the entirety of your interaction with a local. Learning some simple French phrases to use in conversation can go a long way and you may find that attitudes can shift when you at least try to speak their language. In addition to brushing up before traveling, there are a number of handy apps that are free to download on your phone that can help translate back and forth between English and dozens of other languages, including Google Translate for both Apple and Android devices.

Getting Around France

With some of the best public and private transportation infrastructure in the world, getting around France has never been easier. Paris’ Charles de Gaulle (CDG) is one of the busiest airports in the world and is a major layover destination for Europe-bound flights from the United States. Once in France, thousands of miles of rail lines — both high speed and local trains — efficiently crisscross the entire country. For a more relaxed pace, cruises navigate France’s storied coasts, rivers and canals, leaving no part of the country out of reach. 

By Air

Despite France’s large size — roughly the same area as the state of Texas — it is an easy country to navigate. Paris’ main airport, Charles de Gaulle (CDG), is the busiest airport in mainland Europe and the country’s major point of entry. Air France is the French flag carrier with hubs in Charles de Gaulle and Paris’ secondary hub airport Paris Orly (ORY). Flights are also readily available to major cities in neighboring countries including London, Brussels, Frankfurt and Geneva. From London, the Eurostar train offers an affordable, high-speed option connecting London to Paris is just over two hours. Once within Europe, numerous intercontinental and domestic flights are available to connect the rest of the country through flights to Lyon, Toulouse, Bordeaux, Nantes and more. 

By Train

France’s extensive rail network easily weaves these cities together with the second-largest rail network in Europe. Paris’ largest rail station, Gare du Nord, is the country’s main station that connects Paris to Northern France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and the United Kingdom. Additionally, Paris is home to six other train stations — each station is the launching point for trains departing for a certain region of the country. The four main directional stations are Gare du Nord to London and northern France; Gare Saint-Lazare to Normandy; Gare du Lyon to the Alps, the French Riviera, Barcelona and Lyon; Gare de Austerlitz to the Loire Valley, Toulouse and central France. These four stations connect the local Paris Métro, the suburban rapid transit RER (Réseau Express Régional) lines and the high-speed TGV lines. 

France’s national rail network is operated by the state-owned SNCF (Société Nationale des Chemins de fer Français) and offers a number of flexible transportation options for travelers interested in both time-efficient and affordable journeys. The high-speed TGV (Trains a Grande Vitesse) is the most efficient mode of transportation when navigating the French countryside, traveling from Paris to Marseille in just under three and a half hours — a distance of nearly 500 miles (800 kilometers). Traveling at maximum speeds of up to 199mph (320km/h), the TGV connects the major cities in France to Paris and most of its neighboring countries — Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, Switzerland, Italy and Spain. France’s regional railway — the TER (Transport Express Regional) — is the most affordable mode of transportation connecting 20 regions across the country. Travel via the TER is best for nearby cities and towns and allows you to fully enjoy the French countryside without breaking the wallet.

When looking to buy tickets for a leisurely train ride through the French countryside, they can be purchased via phone app, online or at the train station through automated machines or the teller window. Be sure to specify whether you are interested in the TGV or the TER trains and select a first- or second-class ticket. Most trains require a seat reservation at an additional cost, especially high-speed trains like the TGV and Eurostar, international trains and overnight trains. You don’t need a seat reservation for regional trains, but planning ahead and doing so makes sure that you’ll have a spot aboard. Each train has a limited number of reserved seats and they can sell out quickly during peak times and holidays. Most trains throughout Europe can be reserved up to three months ahead of time, so if you have a set destination, it is always better to book further ahead of time.

By Ship

With more than 2,000 miles of coastline and navigable rivers connecting the entire country, experiencing France by ocean cruise, riverboat or barge is a one-of-a-kind experience. At the western end of the French Riviera (Côte d'Azur), Marseille is France’s second-largest city and one of the oldest ports in Western Europe. Marseille is a common departure and port of call for Mediterranean cruises and connects southern France to North Africa, Sardinia and the western coast of Italy. At the foot of the Alps and the eastern edge of the French Riviera, Nice is a hub for Mediterranean cruises sailing to the neighboring Principality of Monaco and ferries sailing to the French island of Corsica, located 110 miles off France’s southeast coast. 

Ocean and Small Ship

Along the coasts of the Atlantic Ocean to the east and the English Channel to the north, port cities and fishing villages welcome ocean liners and small ship cruises. Larger cities such as Nantes and Bordeaux are cruise gateways to the world-famous Loire Valley and Bordeaux wine region. European cruises navigating the Iberian Peninsula — sailing to and from renowned cities including Rome, Barcelona and London — offer spectacular introductions to coastal France. 

River

Each of France’s three major rivers — the Seine, the Loire and the Rhone — have their own personalities and transport visitors through the country’s distinctive regions aboard immersive river cruises. Seine River cruises sail out of Paris and connect the metropolis to the Impressionist villages of Giverny and Rouen and the D-day Beaches lining the English Channel. France’s longest river, the Loire, begins in the French Alps and turns west at the City of Orléans towards the Atlantic Ocean; Loire River cruises are famous for the hundreds of imposing châteaux and monuments reminiscent of the Renaissance and Age of Enlightenment. Flowing from the Rhône Glacier in Switzerland to the sun-kissed shores of the Mediterranean, the Rhône River passes through France’s culinary capital Lyon and the Palais des Papes at Avignon. Rhône River cruises navigate through cities protecting ancient Roman ruins and the premier Rhône wine region. 

Barge

France's main rivers are connected by nearly 1,500 miles of canals, built mainly throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Canals are especially common in northeastern France in the regions of Burgundy, Alsace and Lorraine. Many historic barges have been repurposed and renovated to share the beauty of the French canal towns at a relaxed and leisurely pace. French barge cruises transport passengers into towns fresh out of a Disney fairytale and many have onboard bicycles that allow you to cycle between destinations during the daytime sailing. 

 

 

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.

“We had some really unique experiences on this adventure, such as visiting a truffle farm and being awed by prehistoric cave art. Especially enjoyed visiting so many beautiful small villages and reacquainting ourselves with the French appreciation for the good things in life.”

— Lucinda from Lutz, Fla. —

The second-largest country fully contained within Europe, France borders eight countries — Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Monaco, Spain and Andorra — and is protected by three mountain ranges and more than 2,100 miles of coastline. 

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.

CORSICA & THE MEDITERRANEAN

Just over 100 miles southeast of the Côte d'Azur, the island of Corsica is a collective territory of France; Corsica has its own legislative body that has greater autonomous authority than other regions in metropolitan France. A single mountain chain runs through much of Corsica’s interior, making Corsica the most mountainous island in the Mediterranean. Nearly one-third of the island is unspoiled, protected nature reserves and is home to one of Europe’s esteemed hiking trails — the 112-mile GR 20. 

The golden gem of coastal France, the French Riviera enjoys a Mediterranean microclimate with comfortable temperatures all year. Toulon is the southernmost point of the Côte d'Azur and is the dividing point between the eastern and western halves of the Riviera. The eastern stretch — from Toulon to Monaco — has warmer, drier winters and cooler summers than the western stretch of the coast towards Marseille. During the summer, there are copious amounts of sun with rare amounts of rain and the winters are interspersed with sunny days and periods of rain and clouds. 

Corsica, despite its small size, has a different climate on its coast compared to its interior. Along its shores where most of the islands population resides, mild and rainy winters are paired with warm and sunny winters. As you journey inland, mountains rise to Monte Cinto’s peak at 8,878 feet (2,706 meters) and temperatures gradually cool as elevation increases. Inland Corsica is home to a number of ski resorts as snow is common through the winter and can occur as late as May. Wet winters and sunny summers are complemented by pleasant shoulder seasons with comfortable temperatures and occasional rainfall. 

“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 from Peacham, Vt. —

French Food & Wine

If there is one aspect of French culture that resonates around the world, it is French cuisine.

French gastronomy holds such an undeniable influence on world cuisine and traditions, it was inscribed on UNESCO’s (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2010. Much more than enjoying a quality meal, UNESCO describes French gastronomy as a “a customary social practice for celebrating important moments in the lives of individuals and groups … The gastronomic meal emphasizes togetherness, the pleasure of taste, and the balance between human beings and the products of nature … Individuals called gastronomes, who possess deep knowledge of the tradition and preserve its memory, watch over the living practice of the rites, thus contributing to their oral and/or written transmission, in particular to younger generations. The gastronomic meal draws circles of family and friends closer together and, more generally, strengthens social ties.”

Enjoying a French meal is about enjoying a story of harmony. 

Main ingredients, spices and sauces all complement each other through simple, yet effective cooking techniques. Local products are the cream of the crop and shape the flavors produced through the seasons. Lyon, France’s gastronomic capital, is the living embodiment of local terroir and has been shaping French cuisine for the past 80 years. The confluence of rivers Rhône and Saône, fertile fields of Provence and the French Riviera and the vibrant vineyards of the Rhône valley and Beaujolais each contribute to Lyon’s unrivaled culinary scene. Local chefs are unafraid to challenge the palate and use unusual ingredients including beef snout and pig’s ears.

  

Provençal cuisine

Provence, Dijon, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne and Cognac have become household names for their traditional meals and products that have been produced there that have gained reputations beyond France’s borders. Food in southern France — dominated by Provençal cuisine — is unlike anything else found in France due to the unique Mediterranean microclimate, ripe for fresh vegetables and fresh hauls brought to market by coastal fisherman. Fields and lavender and olive trees provide ample seasoning for dishes that include bouillabaisse, tapenade, ratatouille and Aïoli. Further inland, the tastes of Burgundy go far beyond their Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays. The region’s phenomenal wine has become intertwined with the cuisine through dishes including bœuf bourguignon and coq au vin while Burgundy snails (Escargots de Bourgogne) — the most common method to prepare escargot — are cooked in a simple mixture of butter, parsley and garlic. Returning to the coast, seafood makes a resurgence in Brittany and Normandy alongside crêpes and pastries. Spanning the coast of the English Channel, fresh scallops, mussels, clams and fish are often cooked in cider and are garnished with apples. Crêpes and buckwheat pancakes are enjoyed through all meals of the day and filled with sweet and savory toppings from Nutella and fruit spreads to cheese and local meats.

French Bread and Pastry

No matter where you are in France, your jaw will drop in astonishment when you see the variety of bread and cheese available. Parisians pick up fresh-baked bread daily and a typical meal includes a serving plate for five to seven cheeses between the main course and dessert. The French love affair with bread began out of necessity in the late-18th century, and the infatuation has only grown through the centuries. Napoleon’s government standardized the kneading and mixing techniques for making bread and established criteria for making an authentic French baguette. As technologies advanced and use of communal ovens decreased, bakers were able to focus on grain combinations and focus on the wheat’s natural flavors. With the revitalization taking place during the post-war period, the bread market started to diversity as bakers began incorporating their imagination into their craft. Today, the willingness to experiment with new flavors and techniques is a theme across French cuisine and is especially relevant in bread and pastries.

French Cheese

When it comes to cheese, there is nowhere else in the world quite like France and Charles du Gaulle said it best: “How can anyone govern a nation that has two hundred and forty-six different kinds of cheese?” We can thank the meticulous experimentation of French monasteries for the delicious traditions of French cheese as we know it today. With the methods in place, farmers in different regions began establishing their own techniques for making cheeses that are classified in seven different categories — fresh cheese, blue-veined, hard, semi-hard, processed cheese, soft-ripened and chevre (goat cheese). Different types of cheese depend on the type of milk and the climate in which it is being produced. While estimates vary as to how many types of cheese currently exist, most believe there are 350 to 400; some proclaim there are up to 1,000 types of French cheese!

FRENCH WINE

Regarded by many as the best in the world, conquering the world of French wine can seem like a daunting task. 

France is the world’s second-largest wine-producing country with more than 1.4 million acres of vineyards spread across the country’s seven largest regions. Within France’s borders, much of the country is split between isolated massifs and rolling plains. Beyond the golden beaches of the French Riviera, the Rhône River separates the French Alps from the mountainous plateau that covers south-central France. The Rhône River is dotted with ancient settlements that have grown into modern cities and the renowned Côtes du Rhône wine region lines the hilly riverbanks. These highlands to the Rhône’s west covers approximately one-sixth of France and feeds the Loire River and smaller waterways that flow across France’s lowlands. The Loire is the longest river in France, flowing north until the city of Orléans and turning west towards its outlet at the Bay of Biscay. Along the Bay of Biscay, western France ranges from French Basque country along the Pyrenees Mountains to the rolling hills of Brittany. This region is largely flat and is best known for the famed vineyards of Bordeaux and the thousands of chateâux spread throughout the UNESCO-listed Loire Valley.

  

Appellation D'origine Contrôlée (AOC)

A note of pride for the French people, the government has placed strict rules on winemaking and grape growing as part of the AOC — appellation d'origine contrôlée. This system is based on the concept of terroir or “land,” that the products should reflect the features of the land from which they are produced. Through terroir, all French wines are required to label the region and the producer, with more information as the level of classification increases. Within the AOC, there are four main categories from lowest to highest: Vin de Table (Table Wine), Vin de Pays (Country Wine), Vin Délimité de Qualité Superieure (VDQS) and Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC). Today, the system has expanded to more than 500 AOCs and includes cheese, butter, meat, honey and lavender.

One of the main difficulties the AOC system presents is the type of grape is not often presented on the wine label. Instead, wine enthusiasts are expected to know the flavors of the land from which the wine was produced and the grapes that are typically grown there. For example, the region of Sancerre sits in the eastern part of the Loire Valley and is renowned for the Sauvignon Blanc produced in its fertile soil. 

Here are France’s seven largest wine-producing regions ranked from largest to smallest in vineyard size and qualities of wine that are associated with each.

Languedoc-Roussillon:

With more than 500,000 acres of vineyards, Languedoc-Roussillon is the largest wine-producing region in all of France. The warmer climate in southwestern France is known for rosés and red blends that are fruit-driven and full-bodied. 

Look for: Côtes du Roussillon, St. Chinian and Languedoc

Bordeaux:

One of the best-known wine-making regions in the world, Bordeaux’s red wines have a hard-earned and well-deserved reputation. Dominated by Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, these wines tend to be high in tannins, medium-bodied and fruity. 

Look for: Médoc, Pauillac, Saint Émilion

Rhône Valley:

Typically labeled as Côtes-du-Rhône, the valley is home to steep, picturesque vineyards lining the Rhône River. Ranging from Lyon to the Mediterranean, these wines are known for their robust, spicy flavor profiles. Syrah’s dominate the Northern Rhône while the Southern Rhône is known for its GSM blends (Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre). 

Look for: Côtes du Rhône, Hermitage, Châteauneuf-du-Pape

Loire Valley:

Home to 87 appellations, the Loire Valley spans 600 miles and is the country’s most diverse wine producers. While almost every type of wine is produced here, it’s fresh and airy white wines — Melon de Bourgogne, Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc — reign supreme. 
 

Look for: Muscadet, Sancerre, Chinon

Burgundy (Bourgogne):

Arguably France’s second-most reputable wine-producing region behind Bordeaux, Burgundy wines are often complex, earthy and medium-bodied. Wines from this region are likely 100% Pinot Noir or 100% Chardonnay and age well. Gamay grapes are grown in the Beaujolais region and are enjoyed while young. Burgundy wines are ranked from lowest to highest: regional wines, village wines, premier cru, grand cru.
 

Look for: Cote d’Or, Chablis, Pouilly-Fuissé, Beaujolais

Champagne:

Due to this regions northerly climate, grapes — mostly Chardonnay — harvested as early as the 12th century endured a double fermentation on either end of the cold winter. Today, only wines produced using the traditional methode champenoise can be labeled as champagne. Champagne is classified by what village the vineyard is located in on a scale of 1-100. Villages ranked Premier Cru are rated between 90 and 99 points, with Grand Cru villages receiving a rating of 100 points. Less than 9% of villages are rated Grand Cru.

Alsace:

Blending French and German wine culture, this small region is known for its drier, earthier white wines that are more intense than expected. The noble grapes — Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer and Muscat — are the regions best known. Wines that are 50% noble grapes are labeled “Gentil” and present an extraordinary value. 

Look for: Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Muscat

“This was the best week of my life. Our leaders were amazing and the schedule was perfect. The wine, lectures, wine, food, wine and field trips were wonderful…did I mention the wine? It was so much fun and educational.”

— Judith from Pitman, N.J. —

Suggested Reading List

 

“The Secret Life of the Seine,” by Mort Rosenblum

After losing his Paris apartment, Rosenblum, a born storyteller, takes to a houseboat moored on the Seine. The result is this entertaining exploration of the places and people he encounters during his discoveries along the river.

“French Wine: A History,” by Rod Phillips

French wine is the first synthetic history of wine in France: from Etruscan, Greek and Roman imports and the adoption of wine by beer-drinking Gauls to its present status within the global marketplace. Rod Phillips places the history of grape growing and winemaking in each of the country’s major regions within broad historical and cultural contexts.

“A Year in Provence,” by Peter Mayle

The original best-selling tale of an ex-pat settling down in Provence, told with warmth and a great deal of humor. It offers a wonderful inside look at the charms and quirks of the people and the countryside in the south of France.

“My Life in France,” by Julia Child

The touching and famous story of Julia Child in France, where she learned to cook and fell in love with French cuisine, all in her own words.

“Murder in the Marais,” by Cara Black

Literate and thrilling, with a strong sense of the geography and flavor of Paris, the first in a series of mysteries starring Aimee Ledoc shows off the French-American’s wit and wile. The series continues with Murder in Belleville (FRN562), Murder in the Sentier (FRN563) and many more.

“The Little Prince,” by Antoine de Saint Exupery

Antoine de Saint-Exupery's modern fable, enshrined in the hearts of many. First published in 1943, it tells of a naïve extraterrestrial who wanders from planet to planet, learning wisdom as he goes

“A Moveable Feast,” by Ernest Hemingway

A treasure for anyone interested in Parisian cafe society and its luminaries circa 1925. Hemingway includes sharp portraits of Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ford Maddox Ford and others who idled on their way to greatness.

“Omaha Beach: D-Day, June 6, 1944” by Joseph Balkoski

In this unforgettable narrative of D-Day, Joseph Balkoski describes the minute-by-minute combat as it unfolded on Omaha Beach, allowing soldiers to speak for themselves as they recall their attempts to maneuver bombers through heavy cloud cover, the claustrophobic terror aboard transports, and the relentless fire that greeted them on the beach.

Useful French Phrases

Parlez-vouz français?

The French are proud of their history and culture, but even more so, of their language. Even though many people may speak English — especially in larger cities — it doesn’t mean they will forgo their native tongue. Greeting with a simple “Bonjour” can change the entirety of your interaction with a local. Learning some simple French phrases to use in conversation can go a long way and you may find that attitudes can shift when you at least try to speak their language. In addition to brushing up before traveling, there are a number of handy apps that are free to download on your phone that can help translate back and forth between English and dozens of other languages, including Google Translate for both Apple and Android devices.

  • Bonjour — Hello
  • S’il vous plaît — Please
  • Oui/Non — Yes/No
  • Parlez-vouz anglais? — Do you speak English?
  • Je ne parle pas français —  I don’t speak French
  • Où est…? — Where is …?
  • Où sont des toillets? — Where are the bathrooms?
  • Combien ça coûte? — How much does it cost?
  • Je ne comprends pas — I do not understand
  • Pourriez-vous m’aider? — Can you help me?
  • Merci beaucoup — Thank you very much
  • Au revoir — Goodbye
  • De rien — You’re welcome

“I loved climbing a salt mountain and seeing flamingoes. I walked where Van Gogh walked, and got a view of France I hadn't imagined. I didn't know about the white horses of the Camargue, and I didn't know what the Camargue was. It was all new, and it was fun.”

— Judith from Pitman, N.J. —