Want to discover France? Here's ten great French destinations to start with!
Paris is a beautiful, walkable city that's best explored on foot, with regular stops at the patisserie. What it doesn't have is tall buildings in the centre... except for one. So start with a visit to the Eiffel Tower to get an overview of the city that's waiting to be discovered. Opened in 1889 for the World's Fair, it's the most-visited paid monument in the world.
When you enter the gates and pass through the immense stone walls of this great citadel, it's like travelling back in time to the Middle Ages. The largest walled city in Europe is beautifully preserved, and the old streets are filled with artists, craftspeople and merchants. The city's history goes back even further: it was once a Roman site, and before that was occupied since prehistory.
The northwestern corner of France is a world apart. Brittany has been an independent kingdom for much of its history, and has prehistoric monuments that go back seven thousand years. The region has its own distinct Celtic language and a culture rich in music and myths, which is related more to Irish, Welsh, and Scottish traditions than to the rest of France. Nowhere in Brittany is far from the spectacular cliffs and sandy beachs of its coastline.
As World War 2 passes out of living memory, it's more vital than ever that we learn from the great sacrifices made by previous generations. The five beaches where the Allies landed their great assault upon Nazi Germany in 1944 pay tribute to that memory with museums, memorials, and preserved fortifications. The five beaches, codenamed Utah, Omaha, Juno, Gold, and Sword, stretch across 80 kilometres of coast. The town of Caën at the eastern end is a good place to start.
This gem of a medieval town is set in a gorge above a tributary of the Dordogne. Hugging a cliff, the upper part of the town is filled with old churches and monastic buildings, while the winding narrow streets lined with houses and shops lie on the lower slopes. You'll need to climb a lot of steps to explore the town, but luckily there are plenty of spots to take refreshment.
The Camino de Santiago de Compostela: it's the medieval pilgrimage route that continues to inspire thousands every year to put on their walking shoes and discover a slower, gentler pace of life, one step at a time. The network of walking trails leads through France to Northern Spain and finishes at a cathedral on the Atlantic Coast where Saint James is said to be buried. There are a few different routes through France, depending on where you start, but all pass through great towns and scenery. There's no better way to discover France's endless kilometres of marked walking trails.
Entering Sarlat-la-Canéda is like stepping back in time to 14th century France- minus the misery. Impeccably restored, its streets are filled with cafés and restaurants, sellers of crafts, and art galleries. There's also a great indoor food market. It's very popular with tourists, so try visiting outside the peak season, or get there early in the morning. The region is well known for its foie gras and truffles, so if you enjoy good food, don't miss market day on Saturday and Wednesday.
Starting in the late 1400s, the French kings marked a new era of peace by building new castles for themselves in the valley of the Loire. Other members of the nobility quickly followed, and an era of château-building began. The Loire Valley châteaux were built for grandeur, not for war. Some of them didn't survive the French Revolution, but of the many that did, the best are major tourist attractions, with enchanting gardens and water features and richly furnished rooms.
The "Azure Coast" is the eastern Mediterranean shoreline of southern France, stretching from Toulon to the Italian border. Along the way, it takes in glamourous resort towns like Saint-Tropez, the big city of Nice, the world's biggest film festival at Cannes, and the tiny nation of Monaco and its famous casino. When you get away from the popular beaches and shops, there's a wealth of natural beauty and great scenery to discover.
After you've seen the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, and the Musée d'Orsay, what will you see in Paris? The city's full of less well known attractions, some of which are delightfully quirky. Such as the Musée des Arts Forains, or museum of fairground art.
The museum was created by an actor and antiques dealer, Jean Paul Favand, from his private collection. It includes dozens of amusement rides, fair stalls, and lots more, mostly dating from between 1850 and 1950. The collections include merry-go-rounds and carousels, German swings, hundred-year-old bicycles, Japanese billiards, a Parisian Waiter Race and a Hooghuys Organ, and the grand vizier Ali Pasha. It's located in the 12th Arrondissement, a little outside the well-travelled tourist areas, but good for a day trip as there's plenty more nearby, including a cinema, the zoo, and a large park, the Bois de Vincennes. You'll have a great day out.
When you descend, try the alternative path down on the east side: it's narrower, steeper, and more challenging, but will get you down faster and with a great view of the mountains as you descend.
The abbey is located close to the Spanish border. The two nearest cities are both on the Mediterranean coast: Perpignan on the French side, and Figureres in Spain. As you head inland, it becomes a sparsely-populated land of tiny medieval villages and great mountains.
If you fancy visiting the Pyrénées, find a home in the Southwest of France.
When you're in southwestern France, don't miss the chance to visit the city of Cahors. Built by the Romans two thousand years ago, the city still has plenty of Roman artifacts. It was an important city during the Middle Ages, had a university, and was a centre of medieval banking. This led to Cahors getting a nasty mention in Dante's Inferno.
Today, Cahors is a popular tourist destination, renowned for its medieval quarter and its magnificent 14th century bridge (see picture). The city enjoys a beautiful location on a U-shaped bend on the Lot river, surrounded by wooded hills. There are many sights worth visiting within the city, and you won't have any trouble finding a good meal. If you visit in July, you can also catch some acts in the city's annual Blues Festival.
Find a holiday home in Southwest France so that you can enjoy your day in Cahors.
As Europe's largest river delta, it is rich in natural beauty and is home to a great variety of animals and plants. The area is protected from development, so more than 400 species of birds make their homes here, including flamingos, who throng the salt pools in large flocks.
But the most famous animals of the Camargue may be the wild white horses, the Camarguais. The ancient breed is one of the oldest in the world, and they are known for their stamina and agility.
The city of Arles, at the northern edge of the region, is itself rich in history and culture, and was home to Vincent Van Gogh for part of his life. If you're planning a visit, find a place to stay in the South of France.
People lived in the caves of central France tens of thousands of years ago- and they still live there now. France's prehistoric cave dwellers created the cave paintings of horses, buffalos, and action scenes of hunting that you can see at dedicated exhibits at Lascaux and Chauvet.
Living in a cave fell out of fashion for a long time, but hundreds of years ago in the Loire Valley, people discovered that living in a cliff face can be a great idea. In the Loire Valley, workers cut out the white stone to build the great châteaux. Locals found that the holes in the quarries made convenient caves for storage and dwelling.
Today, lots of people still live in houses built into the sides of cliffs. The best place to see some of these cave homes is the town of Saumur, but there are many other cave homes scattered around the Loire Valley. Find a place to stay in the Loire Valley and explore this fascinating region for yourself.
Autumn can be one of the best times to visit France. The lower temperatures can be very pleasant, making it possible to get plenty of sunshine without the scorching heat. The high season for tourism ends when September arrives, so you can have a beach almost to yourself. Many outdoor sports, such as hiking and cycling, are more pleasant on a crisp autumn day than under a hot sun.
And gîtes offer bargain rates, with excellent value to be found. It's even better if you can find a special offer for a fall vacation. Take a look at Gite.com's Special Offers now to find an autumn break. If you've only visited France in summer, you'll find a new range of delights in autumn. And if you've never been, now's the time to book.
If you love the timelessly beautiful art of the Impressionists, don't miss the chance to visit the village of Giverny, site of the home where Claude Monet spent the latter half of his life and painted many of his most famous canvases. It's 80km north of Paris, so it's well situated for a day trip.
Monet moved to Giverny in 1883, when he was already an established artist, and cultivated the garden, which he immortalized in many paintings. The most famous of his Giverny paintings are the many canvases of the water lilies floating in the pond, a subject he returned to many times.
Monet's artistic energy never flagged, and the canvases painted in his 80s are some of his most beloved, with great richness and complexity of colour.
If you're in Paris, head to the Place de la Bastille for a big dance party. You won't find the Bastille Prison there any more - after the revolutionaries stormed the building on a hot July day in 1789, the old jail didn't last long. But you will find lots of happy party goers and plenty of French joie de vivre. Or head over to the Champs Élysees to catch a big military parade, followed by fireworks at the Eiffel Tower.
But wherever you are in France, you'll find a celebration. The French love their festivals, and Bastille Day is the biggest of all.
Rural France is renowned for its slow pace of life, but if you go at the right time, you'll enjoy some of the fastest action on two wheels. The Tour de France, the world's most prestigious bicycle race, takes place every July over about three weeks. It's a different route every year, but some features never change: the riders take on the gruelling slopes of the Alps and Pyrénées, and cross the finish line on the Champs-Élysées in Paris, having pedalled through about 3500 kilometres of great French countryside.
If you're not racing, you can always stand by the road and cheer on your favourite team. To see riders performing under some truly testing conditions, take a spot on Mont Ventoux. To find a home nearby, just use our map to search for "Mont Ventoux".
Photo: Christopher Voitus
For three weeks every July, the Provençal city of Avignon hosts one of the world's greatest arts festivals, the Festival d'Avignon. The official festival is centred on the city's great medieval Papal Palace and is focused on theatre, but also includes films, musical performances, dance, readings, and live discussions.
An equally rich fringe festival takes place in many other locations around the city and includes street performances and works by new and undiscovered artists. Take a look at the English language website of the Avignon festival. And if you fancy staying somewhere nearby, you'll find the perfect home in Provence right here.
Photo: JP Campomar