There's no easy way to say this: France is a large country and you simply cannot see it all on one trip. There, we said it.
The main problem is Paris. It is an incredible city, and we have plenty of tours in Paris to keep you busy for a lifetime. But Paris is not France. Surprisingly few travelers (especially first-time visitors) escape Paris' gravitational pull. But you really must. And we will show you how.
The first step is to pick a region (or two) to visit. This is harder than it sounds, because nothing in France is far from Paris. For example on the TGV (France's high-speed train) you can travel from Paris to Marseille in less than three hours, for around €85 (US$115) per person.
Some people simply cannot tear themselves away from Paris. We fully understand. However here are the must-see sights within 100 kilometers (60 miles) of the City of Lights.
First up, the magnificent 13th-century cathedral at Chartres, 88 km (54 mi) southwest of Paris. Chartres is famous for its twin spires, one Gothic and one Romanesque, and for its incredible stained glass. You can visit Chartres on a tour from Paris. Or, if you're seriously into castles and cathedrals, consider a full-day tour from Paris that covers Chartres, Rambouillet and the Chevreuse Valley.
Southeast of Paris, Fontainebleau is a sleepy well-heeled suburb with a blockbuster attraction: the Chateau de Fontainebleau. The place is enormous, with more than 1,800 rooms and some of the finest period furniture from the reign of Louis XIV. I am not usually a fan of furniture, but I tell you what – I still am in awe of the collection at Fontainebleau. Viator has a half-day Fontainebleau tour and a full-day Fontainebleau tour that includes Vaux-le-Vicomte, one of the inspirations for Louis XIV’s palace at Versailles.
I will not mention Versailles here, because really it’s an extension of Paris. But I will mention one other area to explore that includes a visit to Versailles to boot! It's Giverny, the home of painter Claude Monet. We have plenty of options to visit Giverny, my personal favorite being the cycling tour that also includes Monet’s gardens.
Last up? If you’re a fan of bubbly, consider spending a full day in the Champagne region, including a visit to the Moet and Chandon cellars in Epernay. Remember: if it’s not from Champagne, it’s only sparkling wine!
Does your itinerary ultimately include Germany or Switzerland?
If so, you're well positioned to spend a few days in the French region of Alsace. It borders Germany and the Rhine River, and as a result is known for cold-weather and comfort foods that are typically more heavy, rich and meat-infused than in other parts of France. Pork, mutton, sauerkraut and bacon are common Alsatian ingredients. Alsace is also famous for its white wines (very few reds are produced here) including phenomenal Riesling and Gewurztraminer varietals.
The highlights of Alsace are its rugged beauty and mountain scenery. Take in Ribeauville and Kayserberg, or maybe spend a day visiting the Black Forest from Colmar.
From Alsace's main town, Strasbourg, you’re within easy reach (less than 1 hour by train) of Paris; Bern and Lausanne in Switzerland; and Frankfurt in Germany.
Ahhh, Burgundy, the heartland of France, bordered on one side by the Alps and on the other by the flat plains of Champagne.
The eponymous Dijon mustard hails from Burgundy, and if you love beef, wine and mustard you will have a gastronomic field day in the region. Perhaps the most famous dish is boeuf bourguignon (beef Burgundy), Burgundy is also famous for its escargots (raised on grape leaves) and its black currants, which is used to make the well-known liqueur crème de cassis. Burgundy is also well-known for its wines; we have a few wine tours in Burgundy that will get you into the vineyards and cellars for a first-hand look (and taste!).
One of the joys of Burgundy is its rural calm; even a major city like Dijon is relatively peaceful even in mid-summer. Other good options for sleeping in Burgundy are Beaune, Vezelay and Noyers-sur-Serein.
The region of Aquitaine and the city of Bordeaux (it’s one of France’s finest culinary cities) hold places of honor for oenophiles (wine lovers).
Bordeaux has been synonymous with red wine (few well-known whites are produced here) since the Roman era. Bordeaux is an excellent base for wine tasting and vineyard tours. The "big three" in Bordeaux are merlot, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc.
The Loire is France's longest river, and over the centuries kings, dukes and miscellaneous French nobility have built palatial homes – known as chateaux – along the banks of the Loire. So much so that UNESCO has designated the entire region a World Heritage Site.
Even if you've never visited the Loire Valley you have likely encountered its signature dishes: coq au vin (chicken simmered in wine) and tarte tatin (apple tart). The Loire region is also noted for its fresh fruits and vegetables – you may, in fact, find it impossible to eat badly in the Loire Valley.
Some of my favorite travels in France include a bike tour through the Loire Valley in order to stop at some of the small family-run wineries that the Loire Valley is famous for. The regions main towns – Orleans, Blois, Tours – are good bases for visiting the Loire Valley's chateaux.
When the French think of Normandy they typically think of cows. And that's not an insult. Because from cows come Normandy's deliciously creamy butters, creams and cheeses. This is the home of Camembert and Neufchatel, after all. Tempering the heavy cream sauces are some of France's freshest seafood, from lobster to crayfish to mussels. Normandy is also famous for cidre (apple cider).
When it comes to attractions, Normandy has two claims to fame. Foremost is Mont Saint Michel, one of France's truly iconic sights. It's a massive abbey complex perched atop a rocky outcrop, alone on an otherwise flat horizon. When the tide is out, the abbey is accessible – just. When the tide comes in the sea completely encloses the mount. If you're staying in Bayeux or Caen consider a private tour to Mont St Michel that includes the fortified town of Saint Malo.
Normandy's other major attraction are the World War II landing beaches at Omaha, Juno, Gold, Utah and Sword beaches. On June 6, 1944, hundreds of thousands of American, Canadian, British and other Allied troops landed on these beaches, taking the Nazis largely by surprise. After some of the most brutal fighting in the European theater, the Allies were able to hold their landing zones and create a staging point for the subsequent invasion of Nazi-held Western Europe. Viator has private tours to the Normandy landing beaches from Bayeux or Caen, as well as morning and afternoon tours of Pont du Hoc, Omaha Beach and the Canadian & American cemeteries.
I saved my favorite region for last – Provence. Vincent Van Gogh was not the first (nor the last) artist to fall in love with Provence for the quality of its light and the rugged beauty of its land- and seascapes.
When I think of Provence -- and Provençale cuisine -- I immediately think of three things: olive oil, garlic and fish. If you're anywhere near the city of Marseille then you owe it to yourself to sample the bouillabaisse, a traditional fish stew. Equally traditional is ratatouille, similar to bouillabaisse but typically made from fresh vegetables.
Marseille, the largest city in Provence, is a good base for exploring the region. Some of my favorite trips are along the Rhone River to Arles, Les Baux and Saint Remy. I’m also a big fan of Aix-en-Provence, which is an easy day trip from Marseille.
The region’s other treasure is Avignon, once home to the Roman Catholic church (during the Schism days) and now one of southern France's most pleasant mid-size cities. Avignon is the perfect base to do one of those quintessentially Provençal things: tour a lavender field.