In case you missed it (The Honeymoon Season), I spent two months travelling around France. And it’s all boiled down to these ten things to see.
This list is about landmarks, specific things to see, rather than beautiful towns (Annecy!) or pretty villages (Menerbes!). You know, things like the Chateau de Chantilly pictured above.
So, if you’re looking for interesting and worthwhile things to see around France, you’ve come to the right place. Note: Paris is not mentioned. I assume you realize the City of Light is the top attraction of France. All distances below are given from Paris.
So pack your weekend bag and let’s go!
(Podcast fans can listen to this list in an episode by clicking play below or wherever you get your podcasts. Video fans can watch the whole list in video form at the bottom of the page.)
1. Mont Saint Michel
This is the most obvious one on the list, so let’s get it out the way quickly. The Unesco heritage island is like something from a fairytale. Winding cobbled streets that lead up to a magnificent hilltop abbey. A population of just 50 people. Views as far as the eye can see from the top — but the view from the bottom is arguably even more spectacular.
Facts: 4 hours drive from Paris or about half a day with trains and buses.
Inside tip: Get there before lunch to avoid the crowds, or after dark if you’re staying nearby.
Off the coast of La Rochelle to France’s west, Ile-de-Ré is perhaps France’s favourite getaway island (apologies to Corsica). Wander around the charming little towns with an ice cream in hand and make a beeline for Saint Martin de Ré for a sunset cocktail. Just next door to the island is the city of La Rochelle, a good base if you can’t find accommodation on the island.
Facts: 5 hours drive from Paris, or a 3 hour train to La Rochelle.
Inside tip: Rent a bike and see the salt fields on the western side of the island.
3. Roman arenas in Provence
There are some incredible ancient Roman arenas dotted around Provence, with Nimes, Arles, and Orange all offering particularly brilliant examples. It’s pretty mind boggling to consider that you’re walking inside a building that’s been around for 2,000 years. Do as I did and scream a few lines from the film Gladiator if you find yourself all alone.
Facts: 7 hours drive from Paris, or a 3.5 hour train ride.
Inside tip: Go inside. They may be amazing from the outside, but it pays to go in, believe me.
4. Vézelay and its abbey
Here’s an unusual one you won’t find on other lists like this (we hadn’t heard about it either, rather we kind of chanced upon it). The hilltop village of Vézelay is splendid, leading ever upwards to the 11th century basilica, where a bone is on display that (legend says) comes from the body of Mary Magdalene (that’s it below).
Facts: 3 hours drive from Paris
Inside tip: Be sure to find the crypt in the abbey, right in the middle and down the stairs.
5. The Notre-Dame de la Garde in Marseille.
Marseille is worth visiting just for this cathedral. It must be the most spectacular view from a cathedral in France, with the Alps to one side, the Mediterranean sparkling to the other, and the colourful and bustling city stretching between. The cathedral itself is achingly breathtaking inside, with some World War Two damage on one side remaining intact for the history lovers among you.
Facts: 7.5 hours drive from Paris, 3.5 hours with a train.
Inside tip: Bring water if you’re walking… it’s a steep, steep hike to the top.
6. The pink granite at Ploumanac’h
On the north coast of Brittany you can find pink granite rock formations that make up the entire coastline. If you can only visit one of these beaches, do it at Ploumanac’h which was fairly recently voted as France’s favourite village to boot. The rocks formations are quite eye-catching just for their shapes alone, but you’ll see they appear to change colour depending on the light.
Facts: 5.5 hours drive from Paris
Inside tip: Drop into a local cafe or bakery for a kouign-amann afterwards. It’s a fatty cake that’s a delicious specialty of the region.
7. Promenade at Deauville
This may well be a bit touristy, but it’s worth a look for the people watching opportunities alone. Follow in the footsteps of French and British aristocracy who once holidayed in the area, not to mention Coco Chanel (who opened her first every store just a stone’s throw from the famed promenade). Enjoy a long wander along the 650 metres of boardwalk by the beachside.
Facts: 2.5 hours drive from Paris, 2.5 hours with a train.
Inside tip: It’s very busy, so head to the neighbouring town of Trouville-sur-Mer for dinner.
8. Chantilly chateau
I’ve already suggested that Chantilly may be the best day trip out of Paris. Even the name is kind of magical. The 16th-century chateau provided the backdrop for James Bond and Audrey Hepburn films (A View to a Kill and Funny Face, respectively). The galleries boast artwork by Raphael, Delacroix, Botticelli and many more and are said to be only rivalled by the Louvre for their classical collection.
Facts: 1 hours drive from Paris, 25 minutes with a train.
Inside tip: Go into the stables and see the horses, then cross the gardens for some Chantilly cream on your sorbet.
9. The Bayeux tapestry
This town is famous for its tapestry, a 70-metre long piece of art that was made in the 1070s. It depicts the Norman conquest of England and the Battle of Hastings, which may sound like an unusual choice for a tapestry, but William the Duke of Normandy, and Harold the Earl of Wessex never looked so good.
Facts: 3 hours drive from Paris, 3 hours with a train.
Inside tip: Once you’ve seen the tapestry, head to the nearby cathedral which is definitely worth going inside (find the crypt too!).
10. Carcassonne old town
I saved my favourite for last, be sure to check out the Cité de Carcassonne while you’re in France. It turned me into a history nerd. In fact, I dubbed it France’s most interesting town.
It’s 2,500 years old and became a 3D jigsaw puzzle over the years because it was torn down, damaged, occupied, rebuilt, and left to ruin over and over again throughout history. And it was saved by one man, Eugene Viollet-le-Duc, France’s biggest history buff with an eagle eye for renovation. You have to see it to believe it.
Facts: 7 hours drive from Paris, 6 hours with a train.
Inside tip: Walk the ramparts. See my video on YouTube for an idea.
Well that’s it, that’s the list. If you prefer to see France rather than read about it, take a look at this list below in video form. It’s my first video list and it’s full of footage from the trip. Subscribe on YouTube and I’ll make more!