Best things to do in France

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by Hertz AU - 06 September 2018

Famously home to one of the world’s most beautiful cities, France is a cherished destination for visitors from across the globe – and with good reason. Paris may be its showstopper attraction, but France also boasts beautiful beaches, quaint villages and stunning scenery, along with some of the very best restaurants and cafes to be found anywhere in Europe.

Here are some of the top places and attractions to explore in France, from buzzy cities to sun-kissed coasts and glorious countryside.

Eiffel Tower

Think France and there’s one iconic structure that springs readily to mind. Originally meant to be a temporary exhibit when it was constructed in 1889, the Eiffel Tower remains the symbol of both the capital and France itself. Looming over the city skyline, the Eiffel Tower stands 324 metres high, with an esplanade and three levels that are open to visitors. Climb more than 300 steps to reach the first level or take the lift skywards and enjoy incredible panoramic views of the City of Love.

Tickets for the Eiffel Tower can be bought online or at booths on the ground floor and second floor of the tower itself. If you’re feeling hungry after all the sightseeing, check out the Michelin-starred Jules Verne restaurant on the second floor. Book a table in advance to enjoy fine French cuisine while drinking in some of the best views Paris has to offer.

Head to the Eiffel Tower at night you’ll be treated to a light show you’ll never forget. The tower comes alive with the sparkle and shimmer of 20,000 lights for five minutes every hour on the hour. 

Chateaux in the Loire Valley

Venture outside the French capital and you’ll discover more historic treasures. The Loire Valley is known as France’s châteaux region. Drive along the quiet country roads and a storybook collection of dreamy castles will unfold before your eyes.

Château de Chambord is a triumph of Renaissance architecture, built in the 16th century in flamboyant style under the direction of François I. Head deeper into the countryside and you’ll find the equally exquisite and historic Château de Chenonceau, which boasts commanding views across the Cher River.

More fairy tale magic can be found in the enchanting city of Carcassonne down in the south of France. Dominated by the turreted 2,000-year-old La Cité Médiévale, you can while away hours exploring the maze of narrow cobbled streets, ambling along the impressive ramparts and admiring the blush-hued stained-glass windows of Basilique St-Nazaire.

Journey through Occitanie, Provence and the Côte d'Azur for a sun-soaked glimpse into France’s rich heritage. First stop, Nîmes – a city swathed in so much Roman architecture you could easily mistake it for a slice of Italy. Further on, Avignon dazzles with the 14th century Palais des Papes, the seat of the Pope for more than 70 years.

Yield to the call of the glittering French Rivera and you’ll experience the belle-époque architecture of Nice, 16th-century ramparts in Antibes and the postcard-perfect Vieux Port of St Tropez. These heavenly sights and more create a tapestry of history that’s so intriguing, you’ll want to come back for more.

The Louvre Museum

Nestled next to the River Seine, the Louvre is the world’s biggest museum, with a list of masterpieces gracing its walls that verges on the dizzying. Da Vinci’s ‘Mona Lisa’ and ‘The Dying Slave’ are just two of the big hitters.

Its beautiful contemporary glass exterior may be iconic, but don’t be fooled by the modern appearance. The Louvre is steeped in history and previously served as a royal residence. The crowds here can get big so it’s well worth planning ahead and booking tickets before you arrive to avoid the long queues.

Once you’ve finished hopping between the galleries, wind down with a coffee at one of the nearby pavement cafes before wandering the pretty boulevards, dotted with handsome art nouveau buildings. 

The Palace of Versailles

About a 45-minute drive from the centre of Paris is another of France’s top attractions – the Palace of Versailles. Built in the 17th century for Louis XIV, this magnificent creation is a showcase for his elaborate taste. A former hunting lodge, it was transformed into an estate that today spans nearly 2,000 acres.

Seeing is believing when it comes to the scale of Versailles, from its sweeping formal gardens to the more than 2,000 rooms of the main palace. Probably the most famous room – and certainly the most elaborate – is the Hall of Mirrors, home to 17 mirror-clad arches reflecting the same number of arcaded windows overlooking the gardens. 

Other must-sees include musical fountains and the Trianon estate, which includes a further pair of palaces, a hamlet of houses and extensive gardens. Meanwhile, a tour of the Equestrian Arts Academy of Versailles lets you explore the stables that are home to 40 horses including the famous Lusitanians, a favourite of Louis XIV. You might also get a glimpse of the riders in training within the beautiful Italian-style arena. 

Mont Saint-Michel and more

A visit to Mont Saint-Michel is like stepping inside the pages of a fairy tale. This walled medieval city stands on a small granite outcrop on the River Couesnon in the Normandy region, to the north-west of Paris.

At its centre you’ll find a striking Gothic abbey with a willowy spire that only heightens the mythical feel. Walk through the Boulevard Gate and then the King’s Gate – complete with portcullis – to spend time wandering the main street with its museums, shops and houses dating from the 15th and 16th centuries. The stunning views out across the bay are ones to treasure. 

Feast on France’s best food

Sampling freshly baked croissants and rainbow-coloured macaroons is a rite of passage in France. But there are plenty more national specialities to tantalise your taste buds and ignite a new passion for French food. Vibrant markets, award-winning restaurants, cosy cafes and atmospheric bistros all jostle for your attention here. France is defined by its food and there are a host of dishes you simply have to sample.

Perhaps the best-known element of French cuisine is cheese. Each region has its own delicacy, from the creamy Camembert of Normandy to the tangy blue Roquefort cheese made in the mountains of the south. Wherever you happen to be, order a platter of cheeses and enjoy with a chunk of fresh bread for the full-on French experience.

When you head out to a French restaurant, you’ll find local ingredients being used to create rich, hearty dishes. If you spend any time in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur Marseille, you should definitely try a bowl of bouillabaisse.

This delicious fish stew made with tomatoes and fresh fish is a true speciality of the region – specifically Marseille, though it’s likely to be good just about anywhere. Teaming at least four different types of fish with a spicy, saffron-laden rouille, croutons and a stock packed with onion, tomato, garlic and herbs, it’s a classic Mediterranean dish.

Provence is renowned for its culinary credentials with a host of other simple but satisfying dishes up its sleeve. The vegetable casserole of Ratatouille combines tomatoes with onions, peppers, aubergines, courgettes and a liberal helping of herbs and garlic. Act like a local and mop up the juice with a hunk of bread.

Daube is another Provençal speciality. Beef is slowly marinated, usually overnight, in red wine before being simmered with carrots, tomatoes and pork belly. Herbs such as thyme and even some orange peel add to the bombardment of flavours. Cassoulet originates from Languedoc – the neighbouring region to Provence. This bean stew, named after the dish it’s cooked in, is usually made with white beans, pork and duck.

Coq au vin is another classic French dish, one that’s been traced back to the days of medieval Gaul when it was under the rule of the Romans. Each region has its own take on the recipe but essentially it’s comprised of chicken braised with Burgundy wine and mushrooms.

There’s an abundance of excellent seafood served up and down the coast, but Paris also has some fine oyster bars if you’re craving a taste of the ocean while in the city. If you’re in the capital and want the full French experience head to L’Escargot Montorgueil, which has been serving up this speciality for almost two centuries.

In France they take dessert seriously – and there are plenty of moreish options to explore. Try a fluffy crêpe in Brittany, head to a Parisian patisserie to sample a plump éclair or fall in love with crème brûlée at just about any restaurant in France. 

Beaches in France

Make a beeline for the south of the country to enjoy the warmest weather in France. This sunbaked area is fringed by the Mediterranean coast and sandwiched between Italy and Spain.

East of the Rhône river in this part of the country is Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur, where you’ll find the French Riviera or Côte d’Azur. The latter translates as the ‘coast of blue’, named after the vivid colour of the glittering Mediterranean Sea here.

Glamorous resorts have given the area a reputation for luxury. Nice is one of the prettiest, a historic city with dozens of beaches stretching along its famous Promenade des Anglais. You can head to one of the best-known beaches, the Ruhl Plage, or explore one of the many quieter options including Le Sporting, about halfway down the promenade. 

From Nice it’s just a short drive along the coast to the sandy beaches and pebbled coves of Antibes before you reach the city of Cannes, famed worldwide for its annual film festival. In the other direction, to the east towards the Italian border, lies the Principality of Monaco. Known for its casinos, Grand Prix racing and glitzy lifestyle, the warm climate and deep blue sea mean Monaco is also a popular beach destination for locals and tourists alike.

Head to Monte Carlo and you’ll find a beach known as Larvotto, stretching out below a scenic promenade where residents love to stroll or skate. It boasts incredible views of the opulent buildings and there’s a great range of restaurants nearby. This beach is also great for swimming, so bring a snorkel if you want to see some of the fish that call the clear blue waters home.

Hikes and walks around France

France is a hiker’s paradise. On the other side of the river to Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur is the Languedoc-Roussillon region, famous for its vineyards and historic castles. There are a number of beautiful walks here and one of the best is the Sentier Cathar trail.

This route begins at the sea and heads west along the foothills of the Pyrenees, past the Cathar castles after which the route is named, before arriving at Foix, a historic commune known as the Gateway to the Pyrenees.

Head inside the hilltop Chateau de Foix for impressive views of the surrounding countryside or take a boat along the nearby underground stream at Labouiche, the largest navigable underground waterway in Europe.

Another popular walking route in the Languedoc-Roussillon region is the E4 European long-distance footpath, which winds through the Black Mountains, across the Cévennes and over the Rhône into Provence. Brace yourself for a bucket-load of natural beauty.

The north of France may not have the warm Mediterranean climate of the south, but there are some fantastic areas where you can enjoy a blast of fresh air. Head to Brittany, on the northeast coast, and you’ll find a number of walking trails that take in rugged scenery, historic fishing villages and peaceful green forests. 

The local tourist board has marked out a number of walks ranging in length from an hour to a whole day, so you’re sure to find a route that suits your speed and ability. Make sure you take the time to stop off for something to eat – the region is known for sweet and savoury crêpes that make for a delicious lunch.

Where to stay in France

France hotels

Visitors are well catered for in France and you’ll find a range of hotels and apartments to suit any budget. Live out your royal fantasy and splash out for a stay at one of the elegant châteaux or rest your feet at one of the boutique hotels set in elegant townhouses in the country’s biggest cities.

Luxury hotels, chic apartments, artsy hostels – you’ll find it all in Paris. In the atmospheric Latin Quarter of the city, Hôtel D’Aubusson boasts a luxurious interior complete with original beams and antique furniture. The hotel bar hosts live jazz performances every night and private parking is available on site, with the Louvre and Notre-Dame in close proximity. 

Those holidaying in the Côte d'Azur will have their pick of coastal retreats. Try Riviera Pebbles, which boasts apartments and villas across Nice, Antibes, Cannes and Cap Ferrat. Perfect for those on a budget, these chic stays don’t compromise on quality.

On a trip to Lyon, Villa Maïa promises a luxurious retreat after a day of sightseeing, while Mob Hotel Lyon offers a more affordable choice. Those heading for Bordeaux will find a similar collection of stays, the best being InterContinental Bordeaux Le Grand Hotel. Located bang in the heat of the city, it boasts room decorated in flamboyant style and a restaurant with two Michelin stars to its name.

Whether you’re looking for scenic walks, days at the beach or a romantic city break, France has all this and much more. Car hire in France will allow you to explore all the highlights at your own pace.