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Things to Do in France

Chic. Sophisticated. Iconic. France’s cultural identity is prominent across the globe. Paris, known affectionately as the City of Lights, tops every list of romantic destinations yet offers something for every type of traveler, from dinner shows at the Moulin Rouge to world-renowned art at the Louvre Museum and Gothic architecture at Notre Dame Cathedral. In Versailles, the colossal palace exudes grandeur; fine wines beg to be quaffed in Bordeaux and Champagne; and war history enshrouds the battlefields of Normandy and the Somme. Gastronomes will find nirvana in France, where freshly baked baguettes, cheese, casseroles, and delicacies such as snails and frogs’ legs are staples on most menus.
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Versailles Gardens (Jardins de Versailles)
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The most acclaimed example of formal French garden design, Versailles’ vast chateau gardens are famed for their geometrically aligned terraces, tree-lined paths, ponds and canals. Spreading west of the palace, the Versailles Chateau Gardens cover 800 hectares (1,976 acres) in the style of garden landscape artist, Andre Le Notre.

One of the most special aspects of the gardens is the 50 fountains which act as focal points, enhancing the geometrical design. From late spring to early autumn, the fountains come to life as part of the annual Grandes Eaux water spectacles. Garden highlights include the horses and chariot of the Apollo Fountain, the Grand Canal stretching off to the horizon, and the detailed parterres of the Orangerie.

Wherever you stroll, you’re bound to come across a grove, colonnade, fountain or sculpture that will surprise, delight and take your breath away.

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Old Lyon (Vieux Lyon)
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At the foot of Fourviére Hill, the historical streets of Old Lyon (Vieux Lyon) offer a welcome change of pace from the modern city across the river. With elegant medieval churches, Renaissance-era monuments, and pastel-painted facades, this is Lyon’s most atmospheric district.
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Eiffel Tower
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Built by Gustave Eiffel for the 1889 World Fair, held to commemorate the centennial of the Revolution, the Eiffel Tower (Tour Eiffel) made headlines at the time as the world's tallest structure at 1,050 feet (320 meters). Initially opposed by Paris' artistic and literary elite, the tower was almost torn down in 1909, but its salvation came when it proved an ideal platform for the antennas needed for the new science of radiotelegraphy.

Today, the highlight of a visit is the supreme view over Paris. When you're done peering upward through the girders from the ground, head up to the three levels open to the public, one of which features the famed 58 Tour Eiffel Restaurant. Just southeast of the Eiffel Tower is a grassy expanse that served as the site of the world's first balloon flights. Today, the area is frequented by skateboarding teens and activists stating their views on the current state of France.

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Lille Cathedral (Cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-la-Treille)
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The Cathedrale Notre Dame de la Treille takes its name from a 12th-century figure of the Virgin that has been long revered in the city. The cathedral was built by wealthy inhabitants of the city, starting in the late 19th century; building didn't finish until the 1990s! Sadly, the Virgin is no longer inhabiting the cathedral - she was stolen in 1959, and her church now gets by with a replica.

The cathedral features eight chapels in the neo-Gothic style featuring scenes from the lives of Christ, the Virgin and the saints. There's also a towering organ and, unusually, a great deal of 20th-century stained glass, including an asymmetric rose window.

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Louvre
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The Louvre may be the world's greatest art museum. Don't be daunted by its size and overwhelming richness; if you have even the merest interest in the fruits of human civilization from antiquity to the 19th century, then visit you must.

The former fortress began its career as a public museum in 1793 with 2,500 paintings; now some 30,000 are on display. The most famous works from antiquity include the Seated Scribe, the Jewels of Rameses II, and the armless duo - the Winged Victory of Samothrace and the Venus de Milo. From the Renaissance, don't miss Michelangelo's Slaves, Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa and works by Raphael, Botticelli, and Titian. French masterpieces of the 19th century include Ingres' La Grande Odalisque, Géricault's The Raft of the Medusa, and the work of David and Delacroix. The Grand Louvre project has rejuvenated the museum with many new and renovated galleries now open to the public. To avoid queues at the pyramid, buy your ticket in advance.

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Caen Memorial Museum (Mémorial de Caen)
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The Mémorial de Caen, a museum and war memorial, is one of the city’s most popular attractions and a must-see for anyone visiting Normandy to pay respects to the heroes of World War II. While the site specifically commemorates D-Day and the Battle for Caen, it is the overall sentiment that provides the perfect primer for those planning to see multiple memorials in the area.

The museum's exhibits take visitors through life in the 1940s during the war while specifically noting the D-Day landings and the Battle of Normandy before continuing with coverage through the fall of the Berlin Wall. The many personal accounts, artifacts and multimedia segments work to bring the war out of the past and into sharp focus. In addition, there are British, Canadian and American gardens on the grounds for strolling and picnicking.

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Lille Museum of Fine Arts (Palais des Beaux Arts de Lille)
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Lille's Fine Arts Museum, or Palais des Beaux-Arts, is a giant - only the Louvre tops it for size among France's museums, and its collection is suitably illustrious. It was instituted in 1801 as part of Napoleon's push to bring art to the masses. It's housed in a splendid Belle Époque building dating from the late 1890s.

Stroll through the rooms and you'll find all the stars: Rubens and van Dyck, Picasso and Redon, Corot, Delacroix and David. There is also a wonderful decorative arts collection and a special curio: a selection of 18th-century models of fortified cities.

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Annecy Castle (Chateau d'Annecy)
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Soaring dramatically over Annecy’s intact Old Town and set atop a rocky promontory, the medieval castle is a fine display of Savoyard defensive architecture as it was the princely residence of the Counts of Geneva between the 13th and 17th centuries; it was later on abandoned and served a military barracks until the end of World War II. Imagine yourself as a brave 14th century knight and try to identify the primitive keep, the gates, and the cellar rooms. Like many other fortresses elsewhere in Europe, the castle was considerably extended and given several upgrades throughout the centuries, both in terms of style and defensive purposes. The furniture, artworks, and accessories nowadays found inside the otherwise bare yet fascinating exhibition area are testament to these changes, and perfectly complemented by sections on contemporary Savoyard art and Lake Annecy’s eventful history.

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More Things to Do in France

Reims Cathedral of Notre Dame (Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Reims)

Reims Cathedral of Notre Dame (Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Reims)

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Notre-Dame de Reims is known as the seat of the region’s archdiocese and also the location of coronations for kings of France. Built on the former site of a church that was destroyed by fire in 1211, the impressive portals, statues and spires of Notre Dame have become one of the most popular attractions in Reims.

After taking in the chevet’s ornate exterior and Notre Dame’s famous rose window, travelers can venture indoors where colorful stained glass dating back to the 13th and 20th centuries decorates the nave and altar. A vast collection of tapestries, including a series representing the life of the Virgin Mary, is also on display, and the church’s treasury, dating back some 800 years, showcases rare artifacts like a holy flask broken during the French Revolution.

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Hall of Mirrors (Galerie des Glaces)

Hall of Mirrors (Galerie des Glaces)

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Built during the reign of Louis XIV in the mid-17th century, the Palace of Versailles nearly emptied the kingdom's coffers as 30,000 workers and soldiers toiled to flatten hills, move forests, and drain marshes to create the fantastical palace and gardens that so effectively projected the absolute power of the French monarchy at the time.

The opulence of Versailles reaches its peak in the central gallery known as the Hall of Mirrors — a 75-meter-long ballroom with 17 huge mirrors on one side and, on the other, an equal number of arcaded windows looking out over the formal gardens. Designed by architect Jules Hardouin-Mansart and decorated by painter Charles le Brun, construction of the Hall of Mirrors began in 1678, and it has quite the history: this was the setting for 17th- and 18th-century royal ceremonies, and it was also the location for the signature of the 1919 Versailles Treaty that formally ended WWI.

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Promenade des Anglais

Promenade des Anglais

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The Promenade des Anglais (Walk of the English) stretches along the seafront between the beach and the road. It is constantly busy with promenaders, dog-walkers, joggers, cyclists, skaters and sight-seers sitting on the iconic blue chairs to enjoy the deep azure of the sea in the Baie des Anges. In the late 18th century, the English adopted Nice, then a sleepy town, as a place to escape the harsh English winter. One particularly nasty winter, many beggars from northern France drifted south to Nice so the wealthy English put them to work building a beachfront walkway. The City of Nice stepped in to increase the scale of the project. These days the locals just call it The Promenade.
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Calanques National Park (Parc National des Calanques)

Calanques National Park (Parc National des Calanques)

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Calanques National Park (Parc national des Calanques) sits in the south of France between Marseille and Cassis. The area boasts dramatic rocky inlets, azure waters and pebble beaches, making it a popular destination for tourists looking to hike, swim and sail.

The park is relatively large and composed of nearly 20 acres (8,500 hectares) by land and more than 100 acres (42,000 hectares) by sea. Visitors can spend their time keeping an eye out for some of the 140 land animal species and 60 marine species that live here. These creatures are protected in the park, which is the only one in Europe to contain land, marine and semi-urban areas. The calanques themselves are also main attractions and include Calanque de Sormiou, Calanque de Morgiou, Calanque d'En-Vau, Calanque de Port-Pin and Calanque de Sugiton.

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Île Sainte-Marguerite

Île Sainte-Marguerite

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The largest of the Lérins islands located 1 km (2/3 of a mile) from Cannes, the Ile de Sainte-Marguerite is abounding with eucalyptus and pines. The island is most famous for allegedly holding the mysterious Man in the Iron Mask captive during the 17th century. During the summer months, a vast amount of boats stay in the shallow, safeguarded "Plateau du Milieu" between the islands where there is more area for water sports. The village of Sainte-Marguerite is comprised of about twenty buildings. Most of these are home to fishermen, but there are a few establishments offering refreshments to tourists who are exploring the island.

The historic Fort Royal now contains a youth hostel and a Museum featuring items recovered from ancient shipwrecks. Island visitors are also able to explore a number of former prison cells and an old Roman cistern room. Close to the Fort Royal is a small cemetery for French soldiers and another alongside it for North African soldiers.

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St-Tropez Citadel (Citadelle de Saint-Tropez)

St-Tropez Citadel (Citadelle de Saint-Tropez)

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Though St-Tropez is famous for its glamour and glitz, the city also has a rich and eventful past. The Citadel is a prime example, having been the town’s crown jewels since the 17th century, and one of the few monuments of its magnitude to still stand today on France’s southern coastline. In fact, The Citadel is one of the city’s most visited historical and cultural sites, both for its history and its panoramic views over the Bay. The Citadel was built between 1602 and 1608, based on the drawings of engineer Raymond de Bonnefons. The building, composed of a thick-walled hexagonal tower, a concealed interior courtyard, towers with cannon openings, and a bastioned outer wall, was used to defend the strategic port of St-Tropez, the most important strongholds between Antibes and Toulon for centuries. Its location on a hill with slopes bare of vegetation helped the military spot and bomb all vessels that came too close to the walls of the city.

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Hospices de Beaune

Hospices de Beaune

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Also known as Hôtel-Dieu de Beaune to locals, the Beaune Hospices used to be an almshouse in the 15th century and was used as a hospital for the poor people of the region recovering from the Hundred Years’ War. It was actually used as a fully functioning hospital until the late 1970s; it now houses a museum and a major charity wine auction every November.

The building itself is now regarded as one of the finest architectural gems in France; it was designed by the Flemish architect Jacques Wiscrère, which explains the striking resemblances to architecture typically found in the Flanders region of Belgium. The hospices’ façade is an exceptional example of Northern Renaissance architecture and features an abundance of panel painting, long half-timber galleries and, of course, the signature gabled roof and its multi-colored and geometric tiles. There are also plenty of ironworks, carvings, and tapestries inside the hospices’ walls.

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Omaha Beach

Omaha Beach

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Omaha Beach was the location of one of the most significant moments of fighting in World War II. On June 6th 1944, American troops were given the task of securing the beach as part of a strategy to land Allied troops along five points on the coast of Normandy, France. Due to unforeseen tidal forces and stronger than expected German defenses, the American soldiers suffered massive losses, 2,400 casualties, in a day of bloody fighting. Eventually however the landing was successful with 34,000 troops securing the area for the Allies, and thus beginning the end of the war.

The landings on Omaha Beach are perhaps best known these days from the film Saving Private Ryan which opens with this battle and shows the impact of the fighting and loss of life on families back home in the USA. The American Cemetery sits above Omaha Beach and is a well-kept memorial to the events.

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