For all the millions of French people that live in its many vibrant cities, the idea persists that theirs is a rural country. The importance of the land reverberates throughout French culture, something you will truly understand when you travel to France.
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France boasts metropolitan powerhouse cities that represent the countries accumulation of wealth, evident in the astonishing variety of places to visit, from the Dordogne's prehistoric cave paintings and the Roman monuments of the south, to the Gothic cathedrals of the north, the chateaux of the Loire, and the cutting-edge architecture of the grands projets in Paris. This legacy of history and culture - le patrimoine - is so widely dispersed across the land that even the briefest of stays will leave you with a powerful sense of France's past.
Travelling around France is easy. Restaurants and hotels proliferate, many of them relatively inexpensive when compared with other developed Western European countries. Train services are admirably efficient, as is the road network – especially the (toll-paying) autoroutes – and cyclists are much admired and encouraged. Information is highly organized and available from tourist offices across the country, as well as from specialist organizations for walkers, cyclists, campers and so on.
As for where to go in France, Paris, of course, is the outstanding cultural centre, with its impressive buildings – not least Frank Gehry’s stunning new Fondation Louis Vuitton – and unparalleled art, nightlife and ethnic diversity, though the great provincial cities – Lyon, Bordeaux, Toulouse, Marseille – all now vie with the capital and each other for prestige in the arts, ascendancy in sport and innovation in attracting visitors. Marseille, in particular, has a host of exciting new cultural institutions, a legacy of its year as European Capital of Culture in 2013.
For most people, however, it’s the unique characters of the regions that will define a trip. Few holiday-makers stay long in the largely flat, industrial north, but there are some fine cathedrals and energetic cities to leaven the mix. The picture is similar in Alsace-Lorraine where Germanic influences are strong, notably in the food. On the northern Atlantic coast, Normandy has a rich heritage of cathedrals, castles, battlefields and beaches – and, with its cream-based sauces, an equally rich cuisine. To the west, Brittany is renowned for its Celtic links, beautiful coastline, prehistoric sites and seafood, while the Loire valley, extending inland towards Paris, is famed for soft, fertile countryside and a marvellous parade of châteaux. Further east, the green valleys of Burgundy shelter a wealth of Romanesque churches, and their wines and food are among the finest in France. More Romanesque churches follow the pilgrim routes through rural Poitou-Charentes and down the Atlantic coast to Bordeaux, where the wines rival those of Burgundy. Inland from Bordeaux, visitors flock to the gorges, prehistoric sites and picturesque fortified villages of the Dordogne and neighbouring Limousin, drawn too by the truffles and duck and goose dishes of Périgord cuisine. To the south, the great mountain chain of the Pyrenees rears up along the Spanish border, running from the Basque country on the Atlantic to the Catalan lands of Roussillon on the Mediterranean; there’s fine walking and skiing, as well as beaches at either end. Further along the Mediterranean coast, Languedoc offers dramatic landscapes, medieval towns and Cathar castles, as well as more beaches, while the Massif Central, in the centre of the country, is undeveloped and little visited, but beautiful nonetheless, with its rivers, forests and the wild volcanic uplands of the Auvergne. The Alps, of course, are prime skiing territory, but a network of signposted paths makes for great walking too; to the north, the wooded mountains of the Jura provide further scope for outdoor adventures. Stretching down from the Alps to the Mediterranean is Provence, which, as generations of travellers have discovered, seems to have everything: Roman ruins, charming villages, vineyards and lavender fields – and legions of visitors. Its cuisine is similarly diverse, encompassing fruit, olives, herbs, seafood and lamb. Along the Provençal coast, the beaches, towns and chic resorts of the Côte d’Azur form a giant smile extending from the vibrant city of Marseille to the super-rich Riviera hotspots of Nice and Monaco. For truly fabulous beaches, however, head for the rugged island of Corsica, birthplace of Napoleon and home to an Italian-leaning culture and cuisine and some fascinating Neolithic sculptures.
The climate in France can be tricky to navigate when deciding the best time to visit. The north experiences similar weather to the UK, often being wet and moderately unpredictable. The south is significantly warmer, particularly behind the Mediterranean coastline. Briefly speaking, the best time to visit is during late spring to early autumn, when the temperature is warm and crowds are not swarmed with tourists.
If visiting for the first time, or as a returning traveller, planning an itinerary ensures you experience as much of the country as possible, particularly if driving. The diversity of France's beautiful landscape means there are many routes to choose from, so if you have a particular mission in mind, check out our range of itineraries, or alternatively plan a tailor-made trip with one of our experts. For inspiration, we've created an itinerary below.
Your travels to France would not be complete without visiting the iconic Eiffel Tower in the heart of Paris. Tick of the main sites on the checklist; the Louvre Museum, the Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower, and the Arc de Triomphe. Enjoy exploring the charming streets, stopping off for macarons in delightful little cafes.
Take a trip to Epernay, the birthplace of Champagne. Enjoy a glass of authentic bubbly whilst taking in the beautiful landscape of rolling green hills. Go wine tasting, cycle along the vineyards, take morning walks, and explore the charm of the small town. Simply enjoy the countryside of France.
The Loire Valley is a place of fairy tales, explore the many Chateaux and immerse yourself into feeling like you have stepped back in time. Chateaux of the Loire Valley is an impressive example of French Renaissance architecture and is a good starting point. Other monumental castles to look out for include those at Ambroise and Nantes. Take part in a tour, also possible along the Loire River, and explore the historical towns and get a real feeling for French history and culture.
The importance of these traditions is felt deeply by the French state, which fights to preserve and develop its culture perhaps harder than any other country in the world. Private companies, which also strive to maintain French traditions in arenas as diverse as haute couture, pottery and, of course, food, are perfect examples of this. The fruits of these efforts are evident in the subsidized arts, notably the film industry, and in the lavishly endowed and innovative museums and galleries. From colonial history to fishing techniques, aeroplane design to textiles, and migrant shepherds to manicure, an array of impressive collections can be found across the nation. Inevitably, however, first place must go to the fabulous displays of fine art in Paris, a city which has nurtured more than its fair share of the finest creative artists of the last century and a half, both French – Monet and Matisse for example – and foreign, such as Picasso and Van Gogh.
French cuisine is as varied as it's landscape, as the creator of the Michelin Star, France takes its food reputation seriously. Dive in deep to France's food and drink culture, that will have you eager to travel to France as soon as you can.
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From traditional village boulangeries cooking fresh bread and croissants to high-class restaurants, you'll notice the always pleasant aroma of delicious dishes being cooked. Popular recipes to look out for include ratatouille, bourguignon and crepes. Drink-wise, France boasts some of the best wines, and of course, there is Champagne.