Have you ever heard that France is much more than Paris, its capital? Well, it’s true!
Many people visit France simply because they consider it to be one of the most beautiful places in the world. Other people visit France for the numerous tourist attractions, cities of cultural interest such as Paris and Strasbourg, the spectacular beaches, the French Alps, the language, the food and so much more. It’s no wonder France has held the number one position for 25 years. Although France’s 547,030 sq. km (211,209 sq. miles) make it slightly smaller than the American state of Texas and destinations in France are within easy reach from Paris and each other. French National Railroads (SNCF) offers fast service to and from Paris. For example, the highlights of Normandy and the Loire Valley (the château country) are just 1 or 2 hr. from Paris by train. You can travel from Paris to Cannes on the Riviera in 5 hr.or fly down in 45 min.
You can drive along nearly 71,000km (about 44,020 miles) of French roads, including a good number of well-maintained superhighways. But do your best to drive the secondary roads too: Nearly all of France’s scenic splendors are along these routes.
Since January 2016, France is divided into 13 regions in continental France and 5 overseas regions. While some French regions like Ile de France remained the same, other regions like Alsace, Champagne or Bourgogne are today part of new, bigger regions such as Grand Est or Bourgogne-Franche-Comté. Despite this regions reduction, the regions of France have their own distinctive character, culture, traditions and gastronomic delights.
A “grand tour” of France is nearly impossible for the visitor who doesn’t have a lifetime to explore. If you want to get to know a province, try to devote at least a week to a specific region. Note that you’ll probably have a more rewarding trip if you concentrate on getting to know two or three areas at a leisurely pace rather than racing around trying to see everything! To help you decide where to spend your time, I have summarized the highlights of each region for you.
Regions of France List
- Normandy is no longer divided administratively into two regions, upper Normandy and lower Normandy.
- Nord-Pas de Calais and Picardy have been merged into Hauts-de-France
- Champagne, Lorraine and Alsace have been merged into Grand Est
- Burgundy and Franche-Comté have been merged (Bourgogne-Franche-Comté)
- Aquitaine, Poitou-Charentes and Limousin have been merged into Nouvelle Aquitaine
- Midi-Pyrénées and Languedoc Roussillon have been merged into Occitanie
- Auvergne and Rhône Alpes have been merged (Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes)
- Centre Val de Loire, Pays de la Loire, Bretagne (Brittany), Ile de France (Paris region), la Corse (Corsica) and PACA (Provence Alpes Côte-d’Azur) have remained as they were.
- French Overseas Territories: Martinique, Guadeloupe, Guyanne, Réunion Island, Mayotte
ILE DE FRANCE, Paris city of lights
While the region is dominated by Paris, which lies at its heart and is the thriving cosmopolitan capital of the country, Ile-de-France actually has much more to offer. The Ile de France is an island in the sense that rivers, with odd-sounding names such as Essonne, Epte, Aisne, Eure, and Ourcq and a handful of canals delineate its boundaries. France was born in this temperate basin, where the attractions include Paris, Versailles Palace and Gardens, Château de Fontainebleau and forest, Château de Vaux le Vicomte, Château de Vincennes. Despite industrialization (and Disneyland Paris), many pockets of charm remain, including the forests of Rambouillet and Fontainebleau, and the artists’ hamlet of Barbizon.
Picturesque villages are never far from the capital, with small towns like Auvers-Sur-Oise or Bougival immortalized by Van Gogh, Renoir, or Pissarro.
Get to know Paris
From the very first moment you see the Eiffel tower in the distance one is mesmerized by Paris. It is a magical city and one of the world’s most visited cities. With such famous landmarks as the Louvre, Sacré-Coeur, the Arc de Triomphe to the Centre Pompidou, this city does not lack for emblematic monuments. But there is more to Paris than just famous landmarks. Spend a day wandering around the picturesque Haussmann boulevards, lined with quaint cafés and trendy boutiques, lose yourself in the Louvre and Orsay Museum masterpieces. A boat ride down the Seine past the sparkling Eiffel Tower is a particularly memorable way to see the City of Light. Around every corner, you’ll run into open-air food markets and find the fresh aroma of bread wafting from authentic boulangeries. Whether you are interested in French cuisine or classical architecture, Paris is one of the world’s must-see capitals.
Paris, has many must-see places within its 20 districts, called ‘arrondissements’. The majority of them will never be very far from the Seine River, dividing Paris into two banks:
Тhe Rive Droite (right bank) with its famous golden triangle near the Champs Elysées and the Arc de Triomphe, the Concorde square and the Louvre, the Opera Garnier and Place Vendôme, the City Hall and Bastille square a bit further east. Only Montmartre is not close to the Seine, being a hilltop outside of Paris historical center.
Тhe Rive Gauche (left bank) often associated to the ‘Intellectual’ district with St Germain des Prés, the Latin Quarter and the Pantheon, the Eiffel Tower and the Invalides. Between the two banks, is the historical heart of the city is here, on two islands: l’île de la Cité and l’île St Louis with the famous cathedral Notre-Dame de Paris and the Sainte Chapelle.
History: Inhabited by the Celtic Parisii tribe as early as the 3rd century BCE, by the Middle Ages, Paris was the largest city in Europe. It was an important religious and commercial center. Gothic architecture was born here. With its Sorbonne University, Paris was one of the principal centers of learning in Europe. The Renaissance brought royal wealth, revitalizing the city and bringing magnificent structures such as the Hotel les Invalides and Château de Versailles. Paris was at the center of the French Revolution in 1789 when the people overthrew the monarchy to create the short-lived First Republic. The capital alternated between glory and suffering during the turbulent 19th and 20th centuries. Today it is one of the most visited cities in the world.
The Paris of a Parisian…from little squares to typical streets: Would you like to discover Paris far from the tourist areas, where the true Parisian everyday-life takes place? Sometimes, it is only just one or two streets behind a famous monument…but where the classic flow of tourists doesn’t go. Taking a walking tour with a local host visiting the more authentic Paris will offer a completely different experience. Discover the Paris of the Parisians on the charming back streets up close and personal with the locals.
Cuisine: French cuisine is famed for a reason. Paris features the best regional French cuisine and modern chefs working at the top of their game. Indulge in a foodie experience in its 101 Michelin-star establishments. On a smaller budget, you’ll find fantastic regional bistros and international restaurants throughout the city.
When to go: Paris can be enjoyed at any time of the year. Summer brings long days in which to explore the city, but spring and fall are lovely with fewer visitors and comfortable temperatures. Summer brings La Fête de la Musique on June 21, when the whole city is transformed into an open-air concert. Bastille Day, on July 14, is the city’s biggest summer celebration with fireworks and parades fill the city in celebration of its National Day. Christmas is a magical time to visit the City of Love. Try regional specialties or shop for souvenirs at the Les Halles Christmas market or La Magie de Noël in the Tuileries Garden.
EXPERIENCE THE LOIRE VALLEY, one of the most beautiful places to visit in France (Regions of Centre Val de Loire & Pays de la Loire)
The Loire valley is quintessential France and located only a few hours drive from Paris. The most magnificent castles of France span the valley from Orleans to Anger. Some are imposing fortresses while others are flamboyant displays of wealth and power (château can mean both castle and palace in French). It was a battleground during the Hundred Years War before becoming a much beloved playground for French royalty in the 15th and 16th centuries, flourishing during the Renaissance until Henry IV moved his court to Paris. For many travelers, this beautiful area is high on the list of beautiful places to visit on a trip to France. Nowhere else on earth do you find so many chateaux’s to visit. Château d’Ussé inspired sleeping beauty and it was at Forteresse Royale de Chinon during the 100 year war that Joan of Arc met with the dauphin. Château de Villandry entices visitors with its ornamental gardens. Leonardo da Vinci is buried in the Château Royal d’Amboise (a UNESCO world heritage site) and the nearby Château du Clos Lucé, his former manor, contains a number of the models from his inventions. But go beyond the castles and also visit such places as the Abbaye Royale de Fontevraud, the largest abbey in France where Richard the Lionheart (Richard I of England) is buried.
Irrigated by the Loire River and its many tributaries, the valley produces many superb wines. Fantastic, diverse vineyards and enchanting villages also await visitors to the Loire. The gently rolling hills of this UNESCO World Heritage-designated region are a pleasure to explore on a bike. But, the most romantic way to appreciate the Loire Valley may be from above, aboard a hot air balloon.
NORMANDY (La Normandie)
With scenic chalky cliffs and beautiful beaches lining its long coastline along the English Channel, Normandy is a breathtakingly beautiful place to visit and is home to a diverse array of landscapes and habitats.While many American travelers are attracted to Normandy by the D Day beaches and sites, the region has so much more to offer. Beyond those beaches, you will find a pleasant French countryside of rolling hills, speckled with cows and stone farmhouses, and little villages and cities replete with half-timbered houses and beautiful churches. There is a lot do in Normandy which makes it one of the best places to visit in France.
From the Norman conquest of England to the monumental allied victories on the D-Day beaches, this region has hosted some of Europe’s most significant events. The waters produce wonderful seafood while the fertile green pastures of the interior Pays d’Auge yield delicious creamy cheeses, crisp ciders, and fiery Calvados apple brandy. The natural beauty of the dramatic cliffs and wild seaside, specifically the striking Etretat, inspired impressionists like Monet. Picture-perfect villages, like romantic fishing village Honfleur, imposing castles, like the Château de Caen, dot the landscape. Claude Monet’s Gardens in Giverny are a favorite. Rouen with its delightful historical city center dominated by the spires of Cathédrale Notre-Dame, much-painted by Impressionist Claude Monet.
History: Normandy has a compelling history from Viking invasion, to Joan of Arc, and WWII. William the Conqueror, the Duke of Normandy, invaded England from here in 1066 to become the King of England. He forever changed England’s history and language. The legendary Battle of Hastings is immortalized on the intricate, well-preserved and 68-foot long (20-meter) Bayeux Tapestry. Throughout the Hundred Years War, the region shifted between English and French control leaving behind numerous medieval castles. On D-Day, July 6th, 1944, over 45,000 allied troops landed on the Norman beaches, a key victory in the liberation of Nazi-controlled Europe. The Memorial Museum in Caen offers an immersive and comprehensive dive into the Battle of Normandy and wider WWII history.
BRITTANY (La Bretagne)
Jutting into the Atlantic, the westernmost region of France is known for its rocky coastlines, Celtic roots, frequent rain, and ancient dialect, akin to the Gaelic tongues of Wales and Ireland. It’s a stunningly beautiful region running from the Côte du Granit Rose (the red granite coast) with its pink rock formations and wonderful beaches in the north to the prehistoric remains at Carnac and the glorious islands just off the mainland in the south. It has history and great towns, superb food, and top events. Enjoy seafront strolls, sea trips along the Rance river, quaint villages and local gastronomy, history, architecture, ‘oysters’ of Cancale …in one word, Breizh (‘Brittany’ in Breton).
- Saint Malo, the ‘Corsair city’, was built like a stone ship facing out to sea, with its ramparts standing proudly over long beaches and a lively port.
- Dinard, the famous 19th century seaside resort has left a superb legacy in the magnificent villas dotted along the coastline. It was considered to be France’s top seaside resort in the 1880s.
- Dinan is the arch medieval city with its 1.8 mile-long ramparts, half-timbered houses, attractive port and cobbled streets. No doubt for being one of the most attractive and best preserved small towns in Brittany.
- The famous Mont Saint Michel. The world-famous island abbey may stand just across the border in Normandy, but much of the phenomenal bay is part of Brittany. We can also make you reach the Mont by crossing the bay with a professional guide for a memorable walk. You can visit Mont Saint Michel whether in a Normandy Tour or in a Brittany Tour.
- The Morbihan Gulf and its islands: True jewels, the Breton islands and peninsulas promise a complete change of scenery. Hidden coves, stretches of fine sand, pebbled beaches…sometimes offering tropical appearances… make no mistake: you are in southern Brittany!
- Carnac, the prime megalithic site in the world: The landscape shaped by megalithic architecture has come down through the ages from the fifth millennium BC. Over 550 megalithic sites scatter across the Carnac region and southern Morbihan which make it the prime megalithic sites in the world.
- From Paimpol to Cap Fréhel : From the fishing port of Paimpol to the majestic headlands of Cap Fréhel and Cap d’Erquy, here you’ll discover a land steeped in the good things in life – great food, great beauty, and lots of excitement.
Tourists banking on dry weather when they visit Brittany have the greatest chance of success in July and August, when the temperatures are hottest, and the crowds are biggest. With the area’s temperate climate, winters tend to be drawn out, cold and wet, and many of its hotels and restaurants close for a stretch. For better hotel rates and more breathing room, opt for travel plans in May or September.
CHAMPAGNE (Region of Grand Est)
As an appellation d’origine contrôlée, a protected designation of origin, this is the only place that can officially use the name Champagne. Located forty-five minutes east of Paris by train, there are hundreds of producers ranging from small family-owned wineries and collectives to prestigious Champagne houses like Louis Roederer and Moët & Chandon (who produce Cristal and Dom Pérignon respectively).
Most people traveling to Champagne will want to do some winery visits and tastings! Visit the producers with a private driver-guide, on a private guided tour, to learn about traditional méthode champenoise fermentation. Visits always include a delightful dégustation, an opportunity to sample the famous drink. Oenology classes explain the flavor nuances and the usage of pinot noir, pinot Meunier, and chardonnay grapes. In 2015 Champagnes’ hillsides, houses, and wine cellars were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
History: This region is critically important to French history. It was from here that Clovis I united the Frankish tribes, pushed the Romans out of Gaul, and became the first King of France in the late 5th century. He converted to Catholicism, and was baptized on the site of the current Reims Cathedral. This made the church a symbolic space where a millennium of French monarchs would be crowned. Wine was cultivated in this area at least as early as the 5th century, often in monasteries. The 17th-century Benedictine monk Dom Pérignon is certainly the region’s most famous character. He is credited with inventing sparkling Champagne, but the myth is not true. He took steps to improve wine-making process and actually decrease bubbles in the wine. At the time refermentation in the bottle was considered a serious defect. Building pressure in the bottles would cause them to explode. Sparkling Champagne would not become trendy until the 19th century.
The location of Champagne between Paris and the German border put it on World War I’s Western Front. Military history aficionados can tour the nearby Marne battlefields and memorials.
ALSACE-LORRAINE (Region of Grand Est)
Alsace lies on the plain between the Rhine river and the Vosges mountains. This unique region is home to some of the most beautiful villages in France, with brightly colored half-timbered designs and the oldest wine road in France. Lorraine, birthplace of Joan of Arc, witnessed many battles during the world wars, though its capital Nancy, remains elegant and holds the beautiful place Stanislas.
In the charming city of Strasbourg, which is home to the famous Notre-Dame Cathedral, stroll along the banks of the river in the Petite France neighborhood, explore the many museums including the Strasbourg Fine Arts Museum. The city of Colmar also promises a trip that is filled with discoveries, from the cultural wealth of the Unterlinden Museum to the picturesque charm of the town of Little Venice, and the medieval 16th-century Maison Pfister. There is also the city of Mulhouse, which hosts the National Automobile Museum, Train City railway museum and the Zoological and Botanical Gardens. Alsace recounts the ups and downs of its history within the Vauban Museum, the Haut-Koenigsbourg Castle, the Hohlandsbourg Castle, as well as at the Mont Sainte-Odile Monastery.
What to eat: The Alsace region is also the home of gourmet specialties, one more appetizing than the next. The history of gingerbread is the focus of the Museum of Ginger Bread and Folk Art as well as the Ginger Bread Palace. The winstubs (Alsatian restaurants), particularly those awarded Alsace Stars, offer traditional menus with dishes like the kouglof, the baeckeofe, the tarte flambée, (flammekueche) and dishes made with the famous Munster cheese. The Alsace Wine Route along with the Museum of Vineyards and Alsatian Wines reveals the secrets and flavors of the sylvaner, pinot blanc, noir or gris, riesling and gewürztraminer, Not forgetting the beer and brasseries.
BURGUNDY, one of the best places to visit in France for oenophiles (Region of Bourgogne-Franche-Comté)
To many of the French, Burgundy is the heart and soul of French food and wine. If you love great wines, gastronomy, history, forests, barge trips and small villages, Burgundy is definitely one of the best places to visit in France. Discover the Champs Elysées of Burgundy wines: Chablis, Romanée-Conti, Meursault, Nuits-Saint-Georges, Mâcon, Clos de Vougeot, Côte de Nuits, Côte de Beaune … give a treat for your senses. Walking through the vines with a winemaker is an unforgettable experience that gives insight into the fascinating play between grape varieties, terroir, and cultivation and production techniques that influence the final product. Many of the wine growing techniques were developed and the plots divided by monks a millennium ago.
Beyond its wine, Burgundy boasts a rich history. Charming villages, and an impressive concentration of medieval castles and churches are evidence of that history. The Palace of the Dukes of Burgundy, the Hospice de Beaune, and the Fontenay Abbey are but a few of the region’s great monuments. The Benedictine Cluny and Cistercian Citeaux monasteries were two of Europe’s great medieval monasteries, growing to wield tremendous religious and intellectual influence throughout the continent.
Among the French, Bourgogne is loved for its nature. It boasts rolling hills, navigable canals, pristine lakes, and extensive cycling trails. Sports and nature enthusiasts can go walking, biking, rafting, canoeing, and sailing. The Morvan National Park is full of dense woodland and majestic flora and fauna. Burgundy is a land of wine and gastronomy. You will find many excellent restaurants, Michelin-star chefs and food specialties : Époisses cheese, mustard from Dijon, Anis de Flavigny, Andouillette from Chablis, chicken from Bresse … Experience local markets where the French make their weekly “courses” (fresh food shopping). Would you fancy joining a Michelin starred Chef into his culinary world, from buying products to its final transformation in the restaurant?
History: From the 10th through the 15th centuries, the Duchy of Burgundy and the Free Country of Burgundy were separated from France. The large and powerful kingdoms flourished. Their territories grew to include parts of modern-day Alsace and Lorraine, Luxembourg, Belgium, and the Netherlands. They were a fearsome enemy of France and an ally of the English during the Hundred Years’ War. When the last Duke Charles the Bold was killed in 1477 the kingdom was annexed into France. The wealthy Burgundians left behind stunning castles, churches, and half-timbered houses.
THE FRENCH ALPS (Region of Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes)
This area’s resorts rival those of neighboring Switzerland and contain incredible scenery: Think cozy ski resorts, beautiful chalets, dynamic slopes, and the most breathtaking mountain views. The Alps spans eight countries, reaching their pinnacle on France’s Mont Blanc. The 15,777-foot high peak (4,808m) is not only the Alps’, but Europe’s highest. The French Alps have been attracting skiers for decades, with powder white snow and dynamic Olympic-grade slopes. In fact, the very first Winter Olympics was held in Chamonix in 1924. They returned to the region in 1968 and 1992. Experienced skiers can test their skills on La Face de Bellevarde, made famous during the 1992 Winter Olympics. Chamonix and the Trois Vallées’s Courchevel are the most famous ski areas internationally. French Side Travel can also organize trips to other Alpine destinations including Val Thorens, Les Gets, and Val-d’Isère. Wherever you choose, you’ll fall in love with the stunning French Alps.
This region of the Alps has been inhabited for thousands of years. In 118 BC, the Romans Empire forged a road, The Domitienne Way. The French and Italian Alps road incorporated Gaul and Spain into Rome. Skiing was popularized here in the 19th century when the French alpine military brought the new Scandinavian invention of the “ski” to France. Soon the first skiing school opened on the slopes. It was, however, the first-ever Winter Olympics in Chamonix in 1924 that cemented recreational skiing as a sport and put the French Alps on the map.
Chamonix: Located in the shadow of Europe’s highest peak, le Mont Blanc, Chamonix is one of the world’s first ski towns. It features exceptional on-piste and off-piste skiing, including the Vallée Blanche’s 9,000-foot (2,800m) descent from the Aiguille du Midi back to Chamonix. Alternatively, take the cable to the top of the Aiguille du Midi (12,605 feet or 3,842m) to appreciate the spectacular views of Mont Blanc and the French, Swiss, and Italian Alps.
Annecy: Capital of the Haute-Savoie, Annecy walking around the old town is a real delight. With its charming canals, its flower-bedecked banks, its small delightful bridges and its beautiful houses with colorful facades, Annecy carries really well its nickname of Savoyard Venice. How pleasant it is to stroll along its canals or walk around the lovely narrow pedestrian streets! The pristine Lac d’Annecy, one of the largest lakes in France, sits among snow-capped mountains and is known as the cleanest lake in Europe. Painted by Paul Cézanne, Lake Annecy is partly ringed by a cycle path that travels past Saint-Jorioz, which is part of the UNESCO Prehistoric Pile Dwellings around the Alps.
What to eat and drink: Many visitors to France will already be familiar with fondue, but it’s just one of many hearty cheese dishes to be tried in the French Alps. Raclette is a similar idea where the cheese is melted at the table and served with potatoes and charcuterie. Another favorite is tartiflette, a gratin of reblochon cheese bacon, creme, onions, and white wine. Many great cheeses are made here. Cheese lovers should try the Reblochon, Beaufort, Tomme de Savoie, Abondance, and Emmental de Savoie. Those who prefer goat cheese will enjoy the Chevrotin.
Wine, mostly white, is produced in the Savoie region. Although the grapes are planted at a high elevation they thrive due to a surprisingly warm and sunny micro climate south of the peaks. The Jacquère white and Mondeuse red are the most popular varietals. Seyssell and Crémant de Savoie are recognized as AOP appellations. Vermouth, notably from Dolin, is also made in the region. Aromatic génépi is a herbal liqueur made in the French and Italian Alps that has a similar flavor profile to absinth, but sweeter. It is served as an after-dinner digestif.
When to go: Skiing is possible from early December until late April. Snow conditions are best from January through March. December offers Christmas markets and holiday activities. March is a great time to come, with agreeable weather, nice ski conditions, and lighter crowds. For summer activities, particularly hiking, come in August and September the only months without snow.
By Plane and Car: Fly to Geneva, Switzerland. Reach Chamonix (1 hour) and Courchevel (2 hours) by rental car or private driver.
By Train: From Paris or southern France, the TGV train can get you close to many French Alps resorts. Upon arrival, you may need a shuttle or driver.
LYON, a great place for foodies (Region of Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes)
Paris, Nice, Bordeaux, the D-Day Beaches… these are what people think of when they think of France. But Lyon? It rarely makes the list. Despite being France’s third-largest city, the country’s gastronomical capital, and home to several UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Lyon tends to fly under the tourist radar.
2000 year old Lyon is the culinary capital of France. Many Parisians travel here on high speed trains to dine in one of the city’s fabulous restaurants. Set at the confluence of the Rhône and Saône rivers, Lyon is an intriguing mix of ancient and contemporary architecture. Wander the cobblestone streets of Vieux Lyon, the oldest part of the city, getting lost in the traboules secret passagways, dine on coq au vin in a jam packed bistro, pop into centuries old shops including old weaver shops from its renowned historical silk industry. The city’s heritage goes back to when it was known as Lugdunum and was the capital of the Gaul in 43BC on the slopes of the Fourviere. To this day the basilica-crowned hill above Lyon’s quaint old town is perfect for culture and gastronomy lovers. The Rhône-Alpes region to the west is a breathtaking part of southeast France, bordering Italy and Switzerland and Provence to the south. As one might guess, it is a mecca for skiers and hikers.
THE RHONE VALLEY
This fertile area in eastern France follows the curves of the River Rhône from Beaujolais wine country in the north towards the borders of Provence in the south. The district is thoroughly French, unflinchingly bourgeois, and dedicated to preserving the gastronomic and cultural traditions that have produced some of the most celebrated chefs in France. Only 2 hr. by train from Paris, the region’s cultural centerpiece, Lyon, is France’s “second city.” Wine lovers will enjoy contrasting the aromatic red wines of Beaujolais with the robust red wines of the Northern Rhône or mythical appellations such as Côte Rôtie and Hermitage. Gourmands should travel to Valence to dine with France’s only Michelin-starred female chef or to Bresse’s ancient capital, Bourg-en-Bresse, which produces the world’s finest poultry. Try to visit the medieval villages of Pérouges and Vienne, 27km (17 miles) south of Lyon.
Côte du Rhône Wine Trail
Wine has been produced for more than 2,000 years along the Rhone River between Avignon and Lyon. Today the Côte du Rhône produces some of the most famous wine in the world including France’s first appellation d’origine contrôlée Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The Rhone is truly a wine lovers paradise with a remarkable landscape consisting of rolling hills and vineyards and the occasional historical village.
DORDOGNE (Region of Nouvelle Aquitaine)
Frequently ignored by North Americans, this region includes towns pivotal in French history (Poitiers, Angoulême, and La Rochelle), as well as wine and liquor producing villages Cognac, St-Emilion, and Sauternes) whose names are celebrated around the world. Bordeaux, the district’s largest city, has an economy based on wine merchandising and showcases grand 18th-century architecture.
Most French people refer to the area as the Périgord, a name used for the region before the French revolution; the region changed its name to the Dordogne in 1790. Part of the Aquitaine region in south-west France, just one hour’s drive to the east of Bordeaux, Dordogne Périgord is one of the largest and most picturesque “départements” in France. Here you will discover unspoiled nature, grandiose landscapes, and a plethora of magical sights teeming with history. Notably, the prehistoric caves in the Vézère valley (Lascaux caves), which prove that man has been present in the Dordogne for the past 450,000 years. In the Dordogne Valley you can visit castles from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, which once played a part in the Hundred Years’ War, and the Wars of Religion that raged there (45 castles in the Périgord are now open to the public to visit).
Also great to visit are beautiful medieval villages like Sarlat-le-Canéda and Beynac-et-Cazenac, Romanesque churches adorned with sculpted tympanums, water mills in the landscapes of the Périgord Vert. The 13th-century fortified Monpazier is recognized as one of France’s most beautiful villages. Bergerac and Nontron are also popular Dordogne towns. The Périgord is world renowned for its traditional gastronomy. High-quality products used to prepare local cuisine include foie gras, other duck and goose-based ingredients, the famous black truffles of the Périgord (found at markets between December and February), chestnuts, walnuts (which have been awarded their own AOC label), Périgord strawberries, plus Bergerac and Monbazillac wines (13 of which are AOC) produced from top grape varieties that are neighbors to the “grands crus classés” of Bordeaux. The region is also popular for kayaking, hiking, and outdoor activities
BORDEAUX & the Atlantic Coast (Region of Nouvelle Aquitaine)
While it’s best-known for its fine wine, charming Bordeaux has a lot to offer beyond grapes and wine tastings. The world capital city of wine, UNESCO world heritage site since 2007, it’s architecture, with spacious avenues and alluring classical facades, begs to be explored. In the summer, you’ll see people cooling off in Europe’s largest reflective pool, the Miroir d’Eau. It is a striking place to take photos. The Rue Sainte Catherine, three-quarter-mile-long (1.2 km) pedestrian shopping street, offers shopping ranging from niche boutiques to high-end designers.
Wine-aficionados will come here to visit the world-famous châteaux in the countryside. You may also be interested in Bordeaux’s La Cité du Vin, which was inaugurated in 2016. Overlooking the Garonne River, this wine museum is an architectural attraction in and of itself.
Arcachon’s bay and the highest dune in Europe
The Arcachon’s bay or “basin” as the locals say, is a fascinating world: oyster ports, sandy beaches, pine forests, a famous peninsula and the highest dune in Europe. Just a stone’s throw from Bordeaux, come and feel the peaceful atmosphere around the bay: Arcachon, La Teste de Buch, Lège-Cap Ferret.
The basin on one side and the Atlantic ocean’ big waves on the other. Arcachon is a lovely village with colorful oyster huts that are scattered around the Arcachon Basin. Taste oysters like you never have before, make a stop at the Cap Ferret market or enjoy a boat trip in a “pinasse” (local traditional boat) to discover the basin. The Dune of Pilat is the highest in Europe! With its 110 meter-high, the view from the top is breathtaking: across the Bay of Arcachon, the Atlantic Ocean and the Landes pine forest.
One of the world’s preeminent wine regions in the world, Bordeaux boasts 120,000 hectares (463 square miles) of vineyards. Its thousands of small wine producers produce a diverse array of wine, from deep reds to sparkling whites. UNESCO World Heritage site, Saint-Émilion is surrounded by prestigious Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Cabernet Sauvignon vines. The coastal Médoc sub-region’s Route des Châteaux is sublime brimming with grand cru wineries and decadent châteaux, it features 8 appellations of controlled origin wines and some of France’s elite wine producers.
Two thousand years of history between men and vines are waiting you in Gironde. Bordeaux wines appeared under the Gallo-Roman era and their reputation soared in the Middle Age till the 19th century. Since then, they’re known all over the world. Today no less than 57 appellations exist. Bordeaux wines are the result of a mixture of grape varieties. Reds with cabernet-sauvignon, cabernet, merlot, petit verdot, malbec and Carménère. Whites from sémillon, sauvignon and muscadelle. According to your taste and desires, we will include on your private tour, visits to some of these family-owned estates.
Cuisine: For authentic Bordeaux eats stop by the iconic Les Capucins food market. The food scene in Bordeaux is incredible. Oysters from the neighboring Arcachon Bay are considered some of the best in the world. The region is famous for its seafood. Gascony, the surrounding rural inland, is famous for producing the very best foie gras and menus heavily feature duck and geese (canard and oie respectively). Poultry is a staple in the most famous dishes. Be sure to try the confit de canard and confit d’oie. Local black truffles (truffes de Périgord) make for a luxurious treat. Canelés, a small rum and vanilla-flavored pastry with a caramel crust is a popular local sweet.
The goat cheeses Chabichou and Rocamadour are made a couple of hours outside of Bordeaux, while the excellent sheep milk Ossau-Iraty comes from south of Bordeaux in the French Basque Country. All three are recognized with AOP appellations.
When to go: The best time to visit is from April to October. The spring and fall months are lovely, with comfortable temperatures and fewer crowds. July to August is high season and can be warm. The vendange, or wine harvest, is in September. Bordeaux has a temperate climate, but winters can be cool and wet.
By plane: Bordeaux’s airport has direct connection to many European capitals.
By train: The TGV connects Paris to Bordeaux in only 2 1/2 hours.
By car: A car ride from Paris to Bordeaux takes around 6 hours.
LANGUEDOC-ROUSSILLON, MIDI PYRENEES, Cathar castles and abbeys (Region of Occitanie)
Languedoc Roussillon another of the best places in the country to visit lies on the coast of the Mediterranean between Provence and Spain. This is where France and Spain meld. Languedoc may be lesser known than its neighbor Provence, but it really is worth visiting, less frenetic and more affordable. People love bullfighting, wines are robust, and Barcelona inspires the region as much as does Paris. It is French Catalonia and shares a common language and culture with the Spanish region. Roussillon is an agricultural area and Languedoc is one of France’s major wine growing areas. Today long sandy beaches characterize its coastline with little of the tourism development that has enveloped the Côte d’Azur (French Riviera).
In Languedoc-Roussillon is the famous Canal du Midi, the world’s oldest commercial canal and now a UNESCO world heritage site. It was built in the 17th century as a section of a waterway to join the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. Today it is lined with a shaded cycle way and footpath and is enjoyed by cruisers from around the world.
Places to visit:
- Toulouse, the bustling pink capital of Languedoc, a stop for pilgrims who passed through on their way to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. You can tour the Airbus plants and Aerospaciale, France’s national center of space research.
- Many of the Midi-Pyrenne’s rural villages have retained their medieval charm like Figeac.
- The small village of Conques also an important pilgrimage center retains its early middle ages buildings (Midi-Pyrénées)
- People love Cahors for its medieval Pont Valentre bridge one of the most beautiful in France (Midi-Pyrénées)
- The medieval hilltop village of Cordes sur Ciel has numerous ancient half-timbered buildings as well as great views across the surrounding countryside (Midi-Pyrénées)
- Lourdes one of the greatest shrines for Catholics, is nestled in a valley about 2 hours from Toulouse (Midi-Pyrénées)
- An hour northeast from Toulouse is the “red city” of Albi, birthplace of Toulouse-Lautrec and where you can visit the finest collection of the artist’s cabaret inspired canvases
- Carcassonne, a marvelous walled city with fortifications begun around A.D. 500, is the region’s highlight
- Nîmes, with superb Roman ruins
- Fortified towns of white stone and historic villages like Trèbes and Puicheric
- Medieval market towns such as Uzès and Pézenas whose narrow streets are home to many artisans studios
- Along the coast Picasso and Henri Matisse used to visit the town of Collioure
- Medieval villages, Roman churches (Baraigne and Cazalrenoux), abbeys (St Papoul) and isolated monasteries, the Etang de Thau and its fantastic oyster beds can all be visited from your canal boat
- During the 12th century, the famous castles in ‘Cathar country’ (Peyrepertuse, Queribus , Puilaurens…) stretch from Albi to Carcassonne and Béziers. Their nickname ‘Citadels of vertigo’ describes well their location : on the top of mountains for breathtaking panoramas.
- With over 600,000 acres, the Languedoc-Roussillon is known as the largest wine growing area of France. 1 out of 3 French bottles is produced in Languedoc. 36 AOC among others will be Corbières, Minervois, Muscat, St Chinian… The wine-makers share their passion with you. Not to forget some nice local specialties as the ‘cassoulet’ from Castelnaudary!
- Wild landscapes to be discovered by feet, by car or by canoe: The Causses chalky canyon meanders with its beautiful emerald green color
PROVENCE (Region of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur)
Nestled between the sea and mountains, Van Gogh and Cézanne immortalized Provence’s beauty on canvas. Its striking colors range from azure sky to bright pastel facades and deep purple lavender fields to vibrant yellow sunflowers. In the summer cicadas melodically buzz in the background. Wine lovers can’t miss the powerful Côtes-du-Rhône reds and the refreshing Coteaux-d’Aix-en-Provence rosés. History buffs should make time to explore the exceptional Roman ruins and the Gothic Palais des Papes in Avignon (14th century capital of Christendom). This a relaxing place with great weather, millennia of history, and a fantastic art legacy. Provence has three millennia of fascinating history to explore. The Romans conquered the region in the 1st century BC. The region’s name, derived from the Latin Provincia Romana, is a legacy of this conquest. They left behind colossal works that can still be visited today including the pristine Pont du Gard aqueduct, the antique theater in Orange and the Arles amphitheater.
Camargue & Arles
To the west, the Camargue, is the marshy delta formed by two arms of the Rhône River. Rich in bird life it is famous for its grassy flats, fortified medieval sites like Aigues-Mortes. While the flamingos are the Camargue’s most emblematic birds, the area is more historically famous for its white horses. The Camargue’s horses are a special breed, reputedly one of the oldest breeds of horses in the world, and they have lived in the very particular environment of the Camargues saline wetlands for thousands of years. While some live in semi-wild conditions, most are now used either by the Camargue’s traditional cowboys, for herding and rounding up the area’s distinctive black bulls, or else for visitors wishing to go horse back riding. Apart from its bulls and its horses, the Camargue is also famous for its salt and its rice. Rice has been produced in the Camargue since the Middle Ages, and today there are some 200 rice producers and over 20,000 hectares of rice paddies in this small area, representing about 5% of rice production in Europe; furthermore, production in on the increase. Camargue’s unique “red rice” is a popular local souvenir.
The picturesque city of Arles is steeped in history dating back to its origins as a Greek settlement. Arles then became one of the most important cities of the Roman colony called “Gaul,” founded by Julius Caesar in 46 BC. Arles was described by Suetonius as the “little Rome of Gaul.” This classical city displays wonderfully preserved ruins, including the ancient Arena, Roman Theater, the Forum, and the Baths of Constantine. The city of Arles is also famed for inspiring the paintings of Van Gogh and was his home during his more productive period. The city’s Roman and Romanesque monuments were inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1981.
Aix-en-Provence and the Luberon (Hilltop villages, lavender fields, country of ocher)
Aix-en-Provence is the ancient center of Provence. It owes its an elegant atmosphere to the gorgeous 17th and 18th-century mansions and fountains. Along the Cours Mirabeau and Vieille Ville, chic cafes and boutiques seduce passerbys. Everyday visitors can enjoy great food, flowers, or antiques market in the city center. Fans of the painter Paul Cézanne can visit his studio, the Atelier Cézanne and observe the neighboring Sainte-Victoire mountain, a frequent subject of his paintings. North of Aix, the Luberon massif’s countryside and villages will seduce any visitor. The rusty red town of Roussillon, the hilltop-perched Gordes, and the Abbaye Notre-Dame de Sénanque are highlights. Come in July to admire the vast violet lavender fields in bloom and visit a lavender distillery (They bloom from mid June till mid August depending on the climate).
Les Alpilles (country of olive groves & Van Gogh)
The Alpilles mountain range hides a wealth of treasures: cultivated and wild landscapes, forests and scrub land, historic heritage sites, archaeological showpieces, such as the ancient city of Glanum and the Antiques in Saint Rémy de Provence, the medieval Citadel of Les Baux de Provence, the Barbegal Roman Aqueduct and flour mill in Fontvieille. Perched on limestone outcrops, some of these villages offer an exceptional panorama over the vineyards and olive trees plains. This area also enjoys the benefits of a unique “terroir”, a special combination of soil and climate that gives its wines, a well-defined local character and its olive oils an intense, fruity flavor.
Château neuf du pape, côte de Provence, Bandol
The wine route in Provence stretches over 250 km, from the Southern Rhône valley (with among others the famous Chateauneuf du Pape) to the Mediterrannean sea (Bandol, Cassis AOP…) Provence’s remarkable wines are shaped by its varied landscape, the “Mistral” wind and arid, sunny climate which all contribute to its unique varieties.5 major appellations: Chateauneuf du Pape (côte du Rhône), Côtes de Provence, Côteaux d’Aix-en-Provence, Côteaux Varois en Provence and Bandol.
What to eat and drink: Food is often lighter here, featuring olive oil, garlic, and olives rather than the creme, butter, and sauces from further north. Try tapenade (an olive and anchovy spread), ratatouille (a zucchini, eggplant, tomato, and onion-based dish), or delicious socca (a chickpea flour flatbread socca) in Nice or panisse (chickpea flour fries) in Marseille. Provence’s markets are an excellent place to sample the local food. Southeast France’s climate lends itself better to goat cheeses rather than the cow milk cheeses that are produced in other many regions of France. Picodon and Banon are excellent examples. The famous blue Roquefort, declared by the writer Diderot to be “the king of cheese”, is only allowed to be made in caves Northwest of Montpellier. Southern France produces tremendous quantities of wine. Try trendy rosé wines from Côtes de Provence and the Coteaux d’Aix. Along the southern Côtes du Rhône, Châteauneuf du Pape and Gigondas are perhaps the best-regarded, but there are scores of fantastic wines made here. Locals love pastis, an anise-flavored spirit. It is cut with ice water to make a refreshing escape from the summer heat.
When to go: Most of the year is dry and sunny. Spring and Fall are lovely times to visit. The summer is popular, but it can be very hot in July and August. Marseille and Nice are worthwhile year-around. Provence host several renowned festivals in July and August.
By Train: With the TGV high-speed train, Provence and the French Riviera have never been more accessible. The train will whisk you away from Paris to Aix-en-Provence or Marseille in about three hours. Nice is six hours from Paris.
By Plane: The main airport in Provence is the Marseille Provence airport located 20 minutes from Marseille and Aix-en-Provence. It is well-connected to major European airports. Nice Cote d’Azur is France’s busiest international airport after Paris, with over 10 million passengers. It has several direct flights from North America.
THE FRENCH RIVIERA (Region of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur)
The Côte d’Azur is more commonly known to Americans as the French Riviera. The Riviera marries glamour with old-world charm. Bask in the bright sun and soak yourself superb turquoise waters. Indulge in the Rivera’s flair for luxury. Michelin-star restaurants, yacht ride, legendary nightlife, and Monaco’s Monte Carlo Casino await. This sparkling coastline from Cassis to Menton has long drawn celebrities and the jet-set crowd.
Every year in May, Hollywood elites descend for the famed Cannes Film Festival. Beautiful yachts line the white sandy shore of St.Tropez. Nice is a beguiling destination blessed with natural beauty and heavy with Italian influences. By car or boat, it is easy to take a quick international detour to follow Grace Kelly’s footsteps to the opulent Principality of Monaco.
- In the very heart of the Côte d’Azur, Antibes is a maritime city with Greek and Roman origins. The incomparable charm of Antibes will delight you.
- The old village of Roquebrune-Cap-Martin is dominated by its castle, standing like a sentinel overlooking the Principality of Monaco.
- Eze is ranked as one of the most beautiful villages in France, you will succumb to the view from the incredible place. From this striking village, there is a panorama over the entire Coast, with its rugged relief and contrasting landscapes.
- Grasse is known as the “Capital of Flowers and Perfume.” A visit to this noble, vital city is a must to appreciate its key role in the political and economic history of the region.
- Though lesser-known than the Normandy beach landings, hundreds of thousands of Allied troops landed in German-occupied Provence and the French Riviera during the summer of 1944 during Operation Dragoon. In four weeks they succeeded in liberating most of southern France. Visitors can pay their respects in the Rhone American Cemetery in Draguignan.
- For relaxing urban strolls: Nice, Capital of the Riviera. It is surrounded by the Pays Niçois and its hills, villages, vineyards and nature. The nearby coast offers the destination’s most splendid postcard views with Villefranche-sur-Mer, Beaulieu and Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, gems of the Riviera. It is in Nice that you will enjoy a walk along the famous “Promenade des Anglais”.
- Why not hiking a few kilometres inland in the “Valley of Wonders” ? You won’t believe you’re just a stone away from the Mediterranean sea but it is definitely worth a day, sometimes to escape from the heat or from the crowd.
- French-Italian border: Menton is also an incomparable showcase of the architectural styles which have shaped this quieter side of the Riviera. Visit perched villages like Sainte-Agnès, the highest coastal village in Europe, or Gorbio and Castellar.
MARSEILLE, CASSIS & THE CALANQUES (Region of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur)
Marseille, France’s oldest city, was colonized by the Greeks in 600 BC (Nice and Monaco followed soon after). Great local food with renowned ‘bouillabaisse’, the best French soap since the 14th century made from olive oil and of course the ‘Pastis’ apéritif.
A series of coves nestled between towering limestone cliffs, dot the coastline of southern France between the village of Cassis and the city of Marseille. The rugged coastal terrain, known as le Massif des Calanques, has been part of the Calanques National Park since 2012, and offers over 12 miles of hiking trails and amazing views of the many inlets and of the Mediterranean Sea.
Cassis is a dreamy fishing village on the Mediterranean. Its fine dining, white wines, and colorful port are a serious draw. It is set apart by being a perfect gateway into the Calanques National Park. Extending around 15 miles (25 kilometers) west to Marseille, the calanques are limestone inlets between Marseille and Cassis, where dramatic cliffs meet the turquoise sea forming secluded beaches. The beaches are accessible by a sporty hike or by boat from Cassis or Marseille’s Vieux Port to take in this natural wonder.
CORSICA (La Corse)
Lying in the Mediterranean Sea southeast of France and just above Sardinia, the island of Corsica is awash with stunning scenery, an island paradise. Along with its incredible landscapes and wealth of historical sights, it is also blessed with a year-round sunny climate. The geographical diversity of the isle is remarkable with magnificent mountains, shimmering coves, lush forests, and colorful seaside villages. Outdoor enthusiasts will be thrilled with the variety of activities ranging from hiking the famous GR20 trail, to whitewater rafting to canyoning in the Richiusa Canyon. Secluded white sandy beaches dot the coastline. They’re the ideal spot for tranquil sunbathing and mesmerizing snorkeling and scuba diving. Sailboats circle the glimmering bays and offer extraordinary views of the sculpted rocks of the Scandola Nature Reserve.
The Corsican culture is as rich as its natural beauty. With influences from both Italy and France, the island’s gastronomy is a real treat. Corsican artisans make tasty cured meats, particularly from wild boar, and savory goat cheeses. Fisherman prowl the rugged coastline for fresh seafood. Charming and lively villages abound. Historical highlights include the fortress town of Bonifacio, the childhood home of Napoleon in Ajaccio, and Calvi’s stunning citadel.
History: First colonized by the Greeks in 500 BC, Corsica has been controlled by a series of outsiders from the Carthaginians, Romans, and the Byzantine Empire. In the Middle Ages the island was fought over by the rulers of Pisa and Genoa. The spectacular Citadel of Calvi, built by its Genoese rulers to fight off intruders, still stands on a rocky headland. An independence movement arose in the 18th century, but France eventually gained control of the island. Around this time, history’s most famous Corsican, Napoleon Bonaparte, was born in the capital city of Ajaccio. Visitors can explore his childhood home and a small museum at the Maison Bonaparte.
The Calanques de Piana: The awe-inspiring Piana Calanques are a must-see. Massive rusty red stones jut out of the azure waters. The rocks were shaped by erosion and the wind to create magnificent natural sculptures. The drive between Piana and Porto is perhaps Corsica’s most impressive. Hiking paths curve over the bluffs for outdoors adventurers. Others prefer to appreciate the panoramas from a boat. The inviting village of Piana, with its pink granite buildings, dazzles in the sunlight. The picturesque village offers stunning views of the turquoise sea. The Baroque Eglise Sainte-Marie and Chapelle Saint-Lucie overlooking the town are a worthwhile stop, but most visitors will end up in Piana while on their way to see its Calanques.
Bonifacio: The energetic port town of Bonifacio, on the island’s southernmost tip is one of Corsica’s most charming destinations. Founded in 830, it is Corsica’s oldest town and sits atop a sweeping limestone peninsula. The Bonifacio Citadel, was built in the 9th century and was occupied by both the Genoese and Pisans. This medieval fortress offers stunning views and is surrounded by the quaint old-town’s narrow streets and authentic restaurants. Hike along the cliffs to the Pertusato lighthouse or look across the strait of Bonafacio for a view of neighboring Sardinia.
Gorges de la Restonica: Take a break from sunbathing, and travel to the center of the island for a natural adventure. Located south of the ancient capital Corte, the luscious Gorges de la Restonica are a natural wonder. The crystal clear water from the Restoration River flows through striking rock formations and lush forest while towering mountains peak in the distance. Natural swimming pools with transparent water offer the perfect location to take a refreshing swim and relief from the Mediterranean sun. Numerous hiking trails, ranging in difficulty, meander over the hills and through the gorges. Keep your eyes peeled for rare flora and fauna. If you’re lucky you might spot a Golden Eagle soaring above the trees.
The Scandola Nature Reserve: Scandola is sure to impress with its unique volcanic landscape and turquoise waters. It’s a hub of biodiversity from rare plant species and marine life. Eagles, osprey, and falcons make their nests in the striking red cliffs above. The jaw-dropping landscape is impossible to reach by land either on foot or by car. The towering 3,000-foot (1,000m) peaks mean that you’ll need to arrive by sea.
When to go: May, June, and September are the best months to visit for those planning rigorous, outdoor activities. The temperatures are warm, but not too hot. July and August are more crowded but make for a nice time to visit Corsica’s beautiful beaches. Traveling in November to March isn’t recommended, as many accommodations close for the winter and mountain passes can be snowy.
By Plane: Many major airports in France and Western Europe have direct flights to Bastia, Ajaccio, Calvi, or Porto-Vecchio that take between one and two hours.
By Ferry: There are regular ferries from Marseille, Toulon, and Nice in France, Sardinia and mainland Italy.
What to eat and drink: Corsica is famous for its fine charcuterie and boar features heavily in the island’s cuisine (try the figatellu di Corsica, prisutto ham, coppa, and lonzu). Pigs here are raised half-wild on a diet of acorns and chestnuts. Corsica’s unique cuisine food owes its unique flair to its geography, proximity to Italy, and centuries of Genoese occupation. Corsican cheese is traditionally made of sheep or goats’ milk. Brocciu, a ricotta-like fresh cheese is the island’s most famous example. It can be served fresh or aged for a more pungent flavor. Wine has been produced in Corsica since the Greeks brought the grape here more than 25 centuries ago. Heavy sunshine and varied micro climates allow it to produce excellent and very diverse wines found throughout the island. The Patrimonio and Ajaccio AOC appellations are two of the island’s best.
Not sure yet what you want to do on your tailor-made private tour? Here is a link to view a selection of our custom-crafted itineraries for inspiration to give you an idea as to what you can experience in France, Italy and Spain with Audrey.
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