From the beauty of Provence to the history of the D-Day beaches, here's inspiration for a first-time visitor to France © Daniel Harwardt / Shutterstock
France is the world’s top tourist destination for good reason – artistic and architectural masterpieces, remarkable museums and natural landscapes, and a history harking back far beyond the Romans. Top it off with fine wine, food, and a culinary culture that permeates through every city and small town. This first-timer's guide to things to do in France can help you narrow down the best places to go, along with other top tips to make the most of your visit.
The Eiffel Tower is an essential stop on a trip to Paris © seng chye teo / Getty Images
France’s chic, sexy capital has to be experienced at least once. Mix picture-postcard icons with simple Parisian moments and you'll truly fall in love with the city. Scale the Eiffel Tower then walk or cycle along the Seine, or cruise down it on a bateau-mouche. Stroll by Notre Dame, which is closed for extensive renovation works following the 2019 fire, and grab a coffee at Café Saint-Régis, ice-cream at Berthillon or super juice at literary cafe of mythical bookshop Shakespeare & Company. Hit the Louvre then collapse on a bench with a Pierre Hermé macaron in the Tuileries or Jardin du Palais Royal. Delve into hilltop Montmartre with a local Paris Greeter. Escape to posh leafy Versailles and come back blown away by France’s most famous chateau.
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Château de Chambord is one of the Loire Valley's most visited chateaux © StevanZZ / Shutterstock
The lush Loire Valley is scattered with stunning French castles, or châteaux. Stand in awe of the Renaissance castle Château de Chambord, and graceful Château de Chenonceau astride the Cher River. Château de Blois, with its whistle-stop tour of French architecture, and classical Château de Cheverny is the perfect one-day combo. In summer put the gardens at Château de Villandry and Château d’Azay-le-Rideau after dark on your hit list. Base yourself in Tours, Blois or Amboise; hire a bike to pedal along the Loire riverbanks at least once; and try to catch a son-et-lumière (sound-and-light) show.
Villefranche-sur-Mer shimmers along the Cote d'Azur © Olga Vorontcova / Shutterstock
This strip of seashore on the big blue Med has it all – hence the extreme crowds in summer. The seaside town of Nice is the queen of the Riviera with its cutting-edge art museums, belle époque architecture, pebble beaches and legendary promenade. Take glitzy day trips keeping an eye out for film stars in Cannes, Formula One drivers in Monaco, and hobnobbing celebs and socialites in St-Tropez. Sensational views make the drive along the three coastal roads from Nice to Menton an absolute must. Otherwise, grab your hiking boots and stride out in the fiery Massif de l’Estérel for brilliant red-rock mountain scenery.
Summer brings incredible colors to the fields in Provence © Linhking / 500px
Check all devices are fully charged: the extraordinary light and landscape in this part of France’s south demands constant snapping and sharing. Start with Marseille, a millennia-old port with striking museums such as the anthropological MuCEM and coastline straight off a film set. Inland, zoom in on glorious Roman amphitheaters and aqueducts in Nîmes, Orange and at the Pont du Gard. Drive past lavender fields and cherry orchards to hilltop villages and food markets in the bucolic Luberon and Vaucluse regions. No lens is large enough for the peak of Mont Ventoux (a cyclist's paradise) or the Gorges du Verdon, Europe’s deepest canyon with 2620ft (800m) sheer-drop cliffs and startling emerald green water, no filter required.
Take a tour of vineyards and a Champagne house © FreeProd33 / Shutterstock
The sparkling viticulture region of Champagne in northern France is all class. Where else can you sip champers in centuries-old cellars and taste your way through vineyards and medieval villages straight out of a Renoir painting? Stay in Reims (pronounced something similar to "rance") or Épernay to visit Pommery, Mumm, Moët & Chandon and other big-name Champagne houses. In Reims, pick a clear day to scale the tower of the cathedral where dozens of French kings were crowned. From both towns, scenic Champagne driving routes thrust motorists into the heart of this intoxicating region.
Don't miss the magical abbey of Mont St-Michel © Jean Surprenant / Getty Images / Moment RF
Brittany and Normandy
A wind-buffeted part of northern France, Brittany and Normandy were created especially for outdoor fiends and history buffs with sensational seafood, cliff-top walks, a craggy coastline and ancient sights steeped in lore and legend. Top billing is Mont St-Michel, a magical mysterious abbey-island, best approached barefoot across the sand with a guide. Hire a bicycle to explore the Carnac megaliths strewn along Brittany’s southern coast (wear a windbreaker). Normandy’s time-travel masterpiece is the Bayeux tapestry but it's the heart-wrenching D-Day beaches and WWII war cemeteries nearby that will really take you back to a moment in history.
Read more: How to explore the D-Day beaches
Outdoor enthusiasts will love it in the French Alps © egyjanek / Shutterstock
The French Alps is one massive outdoor playground, which pumps during the ski season (December to April) when insanely challenging slopes and trails entice adrenaline junkies from everywhere. Mont Blanc prevails, and party town Chamonix is the place to get up close to its might and majesty – the mountain panorama from the top of the Aiguille du Midi cable car is the best there is, whatever the season. If small and chic is more your style then strap on the skis in Megéve-St-Gervais. To let rip after dark over hardcore après-ski head to Val d’Isère or Méribel and Courchevel in Les Trois Vallées.
What to pack
- Walking shoes
- French phrasebook
- Lonely Planet's Paris City Guides App
- Adaptor for France’s two-pin plugs
- Raincoat and umbrella (particularly for Paris and northern climes)
- Sunscreen and mosquito repellent (particularly for southern France)
- Detailed road map and/or GPS device
Good afternoon: Bon après-midi
Good evening: Bonne soirée
Goodbye: Au revoir
Please: S’il vous plaît
Thank you: Merci
Do you speak English?: Parlez-vous anglais?
I am lost!: Je suis perdu!
Please can I reserve a table for two/four people: Je voudrais réserver une table pour deux/quatre personnes s’il vous plaît.
TGV are high-speed trains © Enzojz / Getty Images
Regular trains link cities and main towns. Check schedules and buy tickets at SNCF. Traveling around by car buys freedom, flexibility and a ticket to rural France. Motorists drive on the right side of the road and pay to use autoroutes (motorways). Plot routes, toll and fuel costs with autoroutes.
Bicycle is a brilliant way of navigating towns and cities, including Paris. Sleek cycling paths link sights in the gorgeous and flat Loire Valley, Provence (not so flat) and Brittany. Research routes with France Vélo Tourisme.
Read more: How to get around in France
14 of the best places to visit in France
Article first published in June 2015 and last updated in July 2021.