The French have long perfected the art of vacationing and take great pride in exploring their own country year after year. There’s little wonder why. France packs a lot within its borders. There are two gorgeous coastlines, one lapped by the gentle waters of the Mediterranean, the other pounded by Atlantic surf, plus more than 1,000 islands and islets. Inland, as soon as you get away from the big cities—having gotten your fill of restaurants, markets, and museums—you’ll find yourself in blissfully peaceful countryside, meandering between villages and vineyards, or even hiking the slopes of now-extinct ancient volcanoes.
The most important thing is to take your time. You can easily spend two weeks just in Provence or Corsica. So, as you’re researching places to visit in France, do as the French do—pick one destination and get to know it inside out. You can always visit somewhere new next year. Here’s a complete guide on where to go next in France.
Where should I go if it’s my first time in France?
There’s nowhere more quintessentially French than Provence, where olive trees dot the arid countryside and lavender fields burst into barely believable color come June. This is the France that inspired Cezanne’s softly focused landscapes, the France where the sun shines some 300 days a year, and where market day still sets the rhythm of weekly life.
Aix-en-Provence should be your first base. This sun-soaked tangle of ancient stone buildings with creaky shutters is at once a sleepy college town and elegant former provincial capital. A few days is plenty to soak up its charms: guided tours of the olive-laden markets, the Max Ernst exhibition (and checking out the beautiful courtyard garden) at the Hôtel de Caumont, and at least one afternoon spent sipping rosé in a shady square, church bells tolling in the background.
You’ll need a car to explore further, staying in a mas (farmhouse B&B) or two as you go. The hilltop village of Gordes, its tile-roofed houses stacked up a rocky outcrop, is so pretty it’s officially classed as one of the most beautiful in France—and attracts plenty of visitors, especially in July and August, when the French enjoy their month-long vacations. Take your time exploring the Luberon to discover Provence’s lesser-known highlights, among them discovering the medieval village of Oppède le Vieux, hiking through the Foret de Cedres near Bonnieux, and kayaking down the Sorgue River.
How about if I like big waves and taking it easy?
You can really let your hair down in France’s surf capital, just 30 minutes’ drive from the Spanish border. It’s undoubtedly the only place in the country where you can watch a surfer tuck a longboard under their arm in the middle of a city street as you sip an aperitif before a Michelin-starred dinner. This is France, but not as you know it, fueled by wild Atlantic waves and the richness of Basque culture and cuisine.
That said, the secret is definitely out. Biarritz is now as chic and expensive in some parts as it is laid-back in others. But if you’re not a Parisan driving up local property prices, you’ll find the welcome warm, the surf powerful, and opportunities to try the local hot pepper, piment d’Espelette, plentiful.
Steer away from the fancy Grand Plage and hire boards or book lessons from Hastea on the Côte des Basques instead. It’s not uncommon to see surfers rescued by helicopter when the beach vanishes at high tide and waves crash into the promenade, so keep an eye on the shore as well as the break. If you’d prefer not to get your feet wet, you can also catch the French surfing championships here at the end of October.
I’m looking for art, culture, and photography. Surprise me.
The opening of the Frank Gehry–designed arts center, Luma, really put Arles on the map two years ago. But this tiny, UNESCO-listed southern city has been on the French cultural radar for much longer.
It doesn’t take long to get your bearings. Arles is set around a magnificently preserved Roman amphitheater, where mock gladiator fights enrapture groups of kiddos. Beyond, narrow alleyways lace between ancient ruins and vine-draped houses, restaurant tables spilling into the streets and barely a car in sight. It’s a magical place, particularly during its many festivals and events. Watch flamenco performers dance beneath the moonlight in cobblestone courtyards during FlamencA, held this year from July 28 to August 14, or listen to saxophones in the 1600s Méjan chapel during Jazz in Arles in late May.
The best time to visit is between July and September when you can catch the internationally renowned Rencontres d’Arles, the annual photography festival, which spreads exhibitions across venues around the city. This year, the festival will examine the world’s “state of consciousness” and awareness of climate change.
Staying at L’Arlatan, a gorgeously colorful boutique hotel set in a private mansion, protected as a historic monument and renovated by artist Jorge Pardo, puts you in the center of the city.
I’ve eaten my way around Lyon. Where next?
Bordeaux is fast becoming one of France’s most youthful, dynamic cities, with a growing tech scene and culinary offering that easily ranks among the best in Europe. The wine trade, of course, has underpinned the very fabric of Bordeaux since the Middle Ages. Barrels might no longer be rolled down to barges on the Garonne, but you can visit the engaging Cité du Vin, a museum dedicated to the history of wine and winemaking. The tourist office has the most comprehensive schedule of tours and tastings at nearby vineyards.
As for dining out, your options abound. Aside from Paris, Bordeaux claims to have the most restaurants per capita in the country; 12 of them have received one or two Michelin stars. Try the superb Ressources, with affordable and inventive three-, four-, or five-course menus (featuring delicate and precisely constructed dishes, such as smoked scallops and beetroot or goose breast with porcini mushrooms and caviar).
Seafood, especially oysters raised in the tidal Arcachon basin, is particularly worth seeking out, as is an entrecôte bordelaise (steak with a rich, red-wine sauce) and at least one canelé (Bordeaux’s famous rum-soaked pastry). No matter the season, you’ll always find the very best of local produce on display at the city-center covered market, the Marché des Capucins.
Stay at the Bordeaux outpost of funky budget-boutique chain Mama Shelter to see the city at its most vibrant (and to soak up the views from the rooftop terrace).
Challenge my idea of France and French culture…
What if you could lay on the beach in the morning and hike a snow-covered trail in the afternoon? It’s a combo more than possible on a trip to Corsica, the French island neighboring Sardinia in the northern Mediterranean, where vertiginous mountains appear to shoot straight from sea to sky.
Corsicans themselves will tell you one thing: They’re Corsican first and French second (if at all). Fiery politics aside, they’ve got plenty to be proud of. As well as some of the country’s most beautiful beaches (the white sands and translucent waters of Palombaggia and Rondinara in the southeast could be straight out of the Caribbean), you’ll find prehistoric ruins, ancient citadel cities, and scenic port towns such as Bonifacio and Saint-Florent, their marinas crowded with luxury yachts and speedboats.
You can’t see the whole island on one visit, but you can easily link the larger towns, such as Ajaccio, Porto Vecchio, and Bonifacio, driving your way across Corsica’s rugged interior in between. Hiking the entirety of the island’s infamous 124-mile-long trail, the GR20, requires serious commitment and at least two weeks, but you can get a taste by joining one of the “stages” for a day.
Give me rolling countryside.
The French love to joke about the “diagonale du vide,” a vast diagonal swathe of rural France that sweeps from the country’s northeast to southwest. At its heart, you’ll find the Auvergne, the embodiment of bucolic sleepiness, where dense woodland seems to stretch endlessly over rolling hills—actually extinct volcanoes.
This wild region is fascinating to explore, especially with a pair of good hiking boots. Climbing the Puy de Dôme, the highest peak in the chain of 80 or so volcanoes that make up the UNESCO-listed Chaîne des Puys outside the city of Clermont-Ferrand, is a great place to start. You can also follow the Auvergne cheese route, tasting your way through slices of pungent Bleu d’Auvergne, crumbly Cantal, and earthy Saint-Nectaire.
There’s luxury, too, if you know where to look, including at the Hôtel Restaurant Le Pré with its two-Michelin-star dining room. Unforgettable stays also await in the forest canopy itself at the Cabanes des Volcans tree houses (bookable in English via Airbnb).
I want to visit the Riviera, but Cannes isn’t my vibe.
There’s so much more to the Riviera than the glitz of Cannes and Saint-Tropez. Nice, unlike the resort towns, remains an authentic city in its own right, especially when you wander beyond the Promenade des Anglais and the romantic (if touristy) old town into the genteel, residential neighborhoods that stack up the hillside.
Place du Pin, where cafés buzz from the first purr of the espresso machine to the last pour of beer, is the perfect local spot to get your bearings over coffee. From here, you’re steps from the modern art museum, MAMAC, or the start of the walk through the leafy Park de la Colline du Château, which offers wonderful views over the bay. The other essential Niçoise experience in this part of town is eating. Italian influences abound with the border just 30 minutes’ drive away, but the real local specialty is the crispy, chickpea-flour pancake, socca. Try it at Chez Pipo.
Down by the seafront, the Cours Saleya markets are always interesting to wander, overflowing with flowers and fresh produce each morning from Tuesday to Sunday. Nice’s narrow beach is best enjoyed from the comfort of a lounger, sequestered beneath one of the many beach clubs’ blue-and-white striped parasols, cocktail in hand. Or book a stay at Hôtel la Pérouse, up on the cliffs with far-reaching sea views over the sweeping Baie des Anges.
How about a totally untouched coastline?
If you’re looking for coastal isolation, Brittany’s calling your name. Especially out of high season, France’s northwestern tip is still a land of wild and windy coves, idyllic harbor villages, strings of protected islands, and salt-water swimming pools, fed by the tide. Avoid July and August, when Parisians flock to their second homes, and you’ll almost feel as if you have Brittany to yourself. The only downside is you can’t see the whole region on one trip.
If you’re dreaming of sunsets, long walks, and sea swims, base yourself on the northern pink granite coast. The village of Ploumanac’h, famous for the Men Ruz lighthouse, and Plougrescant, Brittany’s northernmost point, are among the best spots to see the glowing pink granite from which the area takes its name.
In the Gulf of Morbihan, to the south, it’s all about setting sail. Some 40 islands dot this protected bay. You can explore them from the deck of traditional fishing boats as well as small ferries that ply some of the major crossings.
True seclusion comes true with a short stay on wind-lashed Ouessant, part of the Molène archipelago, strung out in the Atlantic swell. The four-star Le Sport Ouessant & Spa has an outdoor pool, meditation spaces, and a restaurant serving local cuisine—but only 11 tranquil rooms.