I have dreamt of France ever since I read The Three Musketeers as a seven-year-old. I fell in love with D’Artagnan and wanted to be him at the same time. I imagined walking through the halls of the Louvre and Fontainebleau. I even took up fencing (very briefly).
When Chevalier De Brilie offered to take Anastasia Yaguzhinskaya to Paris, I wanted to kick her out of the carriage and take her place (this one’s for all the Russian readers out there).
When I began attending an American high school, I chose French as my foreign language. And when I got to college, there was no question as to where I would study abroad – it had to be Paris.
Since that fall semester of my junior year I have been back to France 13 more times, most recently just this summer. I have thoroughly explored 9 out of 13 of France’s European regions: Ile-de-France, Normandy, Brittany, Central Loire Valley, The Great East (including Alsace and Champagne), Burgundy-Franche-Comté, Nouvelle-Aquitaine (primarily Dordogne), Occitanie (including Languedoc-Roussillon and the Pyrenees) and Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur.
I am already making plans to visit the remaining four: Auvergne-Rhone-Alpes, Hauts-de-France, Pays de la Loire and the island of Corsica. My friends joke that I treat France like my dacha.
Through those trips I have experienced business France and leisure France, urban France and village France, dozens – possibly altogether hundreds – of museums, castles and cathedrals, the fanciest Michelin-starred restaurants and rustic picnics packed at the farmers markets, crowded beaches and mountaintop solitude. Here are my biggest tips and takeaways about travel in France.
1. France’s beaten path is unrivaled…
France is one of the most visited countries in the world. Oh how I wish I had access to travel blogs and travel hacks back in my college days, when I would get on the same overcrowded tour bus as everyone else, paper guide in hand! On the flip side, these were relatively quiet days before digital nomads, Instagram influencers and, of course, the expanding middle class of the world’s developing economies brought millions of new tourists to destinations all around the world, including to France.
At this point I am unlikely to retread France’s most famous landmarks unless I am playing guide to a first-time visitor. That said, most of what makes the France Must-See lists is remarkable, unique and worth your time. So grin and bear with the hordes of tourists at least once, for:
- Paris (more on that in a moment)
- Mont Saint-Michel, Versailles and Monet’s house and gardens in Giverny as day trips from Paris
- Chambord and Chenonceau castles in the Loire Valley, and Alsace town of Colmar (with nearby villages and wine country) on a 1-2 night trip each
- Nice, Antibes, Saint Tropez, Eze and Calanques in the French Riviera for 3-4 days.
Go early in the morning, on weekdays, off-season. Even the madhouse that is the Côte d’Azur can be downright pleasant in April and October – the Mediterranean is warm enough for swimming through autumn.
2. …especially Paris
Nowhere is the beaten path more of a must than in Paris – despite the hassle, the crowds and the prices. Having lived in Paris for four months and having been back six more times, I am still drawn to all the blockbuster sites over and over again: from the Louvre to the Orsay, Notre-Dame to Saint-Chapelle, Montmartre to the Quartier Latin.
If you can, try to do it all. Ideally, you need a week to see Paris properly. You can do the big stuff in three days, if you jam-pack your schedule. My top Paris hacks are:
- The best view of Paris is not from the Eiffel Tower, but from Notre Dame Cathedral. Until it reopens, the best views are from Montparnasse Tower (as a bonus, your view won’t have the ugly thing in it), the Arc De Triomphe and the Ferris Wheels at the Christmas Market next to the Louvre.
- The best view of the Eiffel Tower is from the Trocadero – across the river and up the steps.
- Boat tours don’t give you the best views and they eat up a lot of sightseeing time.
- The Champs Elysees is crowded, and not particularly scenic or glamorous. The real high fashion fun is on the side streets and in other parts of town altogether.
- Don’t skip Sainte-Chapelle and its breathtaking stained glass windows.
- You will need at least two and a half hours at the Louvre just to check off the most famous works, because the building is insanely huge and it takes forever to get from Painting A to Sculpture B.
- Père Lachaise Cemetery and Insta-famous Rue Cremieux are far away from everything else.
- If you are going to leave the center, let it be for Montmartre.
- The largest collection of Monet’s paintings is not at the Orsay or the Orangerie, but at the comparatively unknown Musee Marmottan Monet. The Orangerie is my fave though, for sheer scale and presentation (and a fantastic French art collection downstairs)
- If you were coming to Paris for the Gothic architecture of Notre Dame, take a day trip to Chartres, Reims or Amiens and their UNESCO-listed cathedrals.
- If you do have a week in Paris, start your visit with Musee Carnavalet – the museum of history of Paris. It will give you context and thus greater appreciation for everything you see thereafter. Also, it’s free. And in a beautiful mansion.
- The best cheap eats are around the very cozy and atmospheric Place de la Contrescarpe in the Latin Quarter.
- Lastly – and this really should go without saying in this day and age – buy timed entry tickets for any museum and landmark that sells them in advance, and spare yourself hours of standing in line.
3. France off the beaten path does exist
If you’ve experienced the lines at the Louvre or the traffic along the Riviera, you might be thinking that enjoying France without crowds is impossible. You’d be wrong.
Obviously, if you have spent years dreaming of sipping Dom Perignon in Moet et Chandon cellars or skiing down to Chamonix in the shadow of Mont Blanc – by all means, go there. But if your dream of France is more conceptual, I have some substitute ideas for you.
For the castles, instead of the Loire Valley and Carcassonne…
…head to the Dordogne. Dordogne River was the frontline in the Hundred Years’ War between the French and the English throughout the 1400s. Competing castles went up all over its dramatic cliffs. Today the region counts over 1000 chateaux – now museums, stately homes, romantic ruins and even hotels. You can easily see half a dozen such chateaux on a half an hour drive.
For the mountains, instead of the Alps (and I LOOOOVE the Alps)…
…head to the Pyrenees. Though not as tall and ragged as the Alpine peaks, the Pyrenees reach 3400 meters and hold on to snow through June. In the winter there are plenty of ski resorts and thermal spas; in the summer – endless hiking trails through forests, across meadows and along crystal-clear lakes. Warm waters of the Mediterranean Sea are often less than an hour away. And the food, – all that wild game, cherry clafoutis and foie gras – is, dare I say, far better than the Swiss-influenced, potato-heavy cuisine of the Alps.
For the drinking, instead of Champagne…
…head to Burgundy, Bordeaux or Auvergne (home of Côtes du Rhône and Beaujolais). You can visit vineyards and cellars in the countryside, or go on a food tour and sophisticated wine tasting in Dijon, Bordeaux (the city), or Lyon. If you are really ambitious, follow the Auvergne Cheese Trail through utterly untouristed rural wilderness to visit farmers and artisans for that perfect pairing.
For the ‘perched’ hilltop villages, instead of Provence…
…head to Occitanie. Saint-Cirq-Lapopie soars above the Lot River, Najac has a floating castle and all of Cordes sur Ciel simply floats above the clouds and the rolling hills that spread out around it. And that’s just the beginning of their charm.
For the seaside, instead of Côte d’Azur…
…head to Bretagne. White sand beaches? Check. Turquoise waters? Check. Cliffs with head-spinning vistas? Check. Cute fishing villages? Check. The freshest seafood? Check. Bretagne is truly an under-the-radar gem.
All the places I listed are beautiful and interesting. Some are half-full even in peak season, and practically empty the rest of the year. There you will be surrounded by Frenchmen (and women). Restaurants will carry French-only menus, often handwritten, of what’s been caught or shot or picked earlier that day. You might have a castle all to yourself and get to lock up its giant oak gate with an equally giant cast iron key (I have).
There will be Catalan dancing lessons around the corner from your B&B, and Celtic bagpipes in your downstairs pub. There will be no English narration for your sightseeing boat ride, but the visitor’s guides will be printed in such amusingly mistranslated English, that you’ll want to start a special collection.
Whether you’re coming for food, arts or natural wonders, there is plenty of relaxed and authentic France to discover.