From the French Alps packed with dense snow to a citrus parade on the Cote d’Azur and luxury ski resorts and a carnival in February, France can be a winter wonderland to visit.
Also, many of the main cities in France, including Paris, Marseille, Bordeaux, Strasbourg, and Lyon, have fewer tourists in winter because it’s the offseason, which means lower rates on airfare and hotels. Here’s our roundup of the top destinations to visit in France during winter.
Sometimes called the Venice of France, Annecy has a string of scenic water canals which are surrounded by Lake Annecy. Located in southeast France, Annecy is in the Auvergne-Rhone Alps region just over 20 miles from Geneva, Switzerland. Lake Annecy is one of the largest and cleanest lakes in France.
Annecy is a festive, Alpine delight during the Christmas season, with an authentic Christmas market, an ice-skating rink, holiday lights and illuminations, classical concerts, and a tourist train.
Strolling through the ancient streets of the Old Town, you will experience the history and beauty of the city with buildings from medieval times, cozy restaurants and cafes, and small boutiques.
Construction of the Chateau d’Annecy took four centuries, from the 1200s to the 1600s, and the structure housed dukes and counts for centuries. It later was abandoned and then turned into barracks. The township bought the chateau in 1953 and restored it with the assistance of the government historical society then turned it into a museum.
The Palais de l’Ile, on a separate island, was the home of the aristocracy of Annecy and later became a prison. Today it’s a museum and also the Centre for Interpretation of Architecture and Heritage.
Bundle up and take a bicycle trek around Lake Annecy on a sunny day. You’ll be rewarded with the stunning scenery of the snow-capped Alps.
A special event in January is the GlaGla Race, which has hundreds of participants, mostly from France, gliding on standup paddleboards across chilly Lake Annecy.
The sunniest place in France, Menton on the Cote d’Azur in the south of France has a special micro-climate that provides it with over 300 sunny days a year. In the winter months, the temperature averages about 64 degrees Fahrenheit in Menton, and with the sunny weather, it makes for an ideal destination.
The biggest and most anticipated event of the year in Menton is the Citrus Festival (Fete du Citron) in February. Menton is known for its celebrated lemons, some of the best in France, and the 17-day festival, which uses 145 tons of citrus fruits, attracts over 200,000 visitors. The city has parades day and night with extravagant floats decorated with oranges and lemons. Every year there’s a theme, and when I attended the festival in 2017, the theme was Broadway musicals and the parade included floats of the shows Grease, The Phantom of the Opera, The Lion King, and Little Shop of Horrors.
The Jean Cocteau Museum celebrates the artist, poet, filmmaker, writer, and designer Jean Cocteau. The museum contains over 1,000 writings, paintings, poems, films, and drawings of the legendary artist who produced his greatest works in the mid-20th century.
A must-visit site in Menton is the Val-Rahmeh Botanical Gardens, a former estate with acres of local and exotic plants and flowers.
Menton is right on the border of Italy, so you can take a short train ride to Ventimiglia on Friday to visit the enormous open-air market with food, clothing, and souvenirs. While you’re there, dine at a genuine Italian trattoria.
Once a mountain farming village, Megeve is now one of the most glamorous ski resorts in France. The famed aristocratic Rothschild family discovered Megeve in the 1920s, with other elites and the wealthy following in their footsteps, making it an alternative to skiing the Saint Moritz enclave.
Located near Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in the Alps and in western Europe, the skiing conditions in Megeve are some of the best in France. The three main ski areas include Mont D'arbois, Rochebrune, and Le Jaillet, which have 200 miles of skiing area with 88 lifts.
Megeve has great cross-country skiing, with almost 25 miles of marked trails for all levels, from beginner to advanced. The scenic trails go through pine forests with easy slopes. Mountain bikes take on a whole new meaning with electric fat bikes, which have oversize tires that can tackle the snowy terrain. Old-fashioned snowshoes can be rented to trek through a peaceful landscape of spruce trees and ice falls.
Gastronomy in Megeve is taken seriously, and for a small village, it has an exceptional number of Michelin star restaurants including the two-star La Table de l'Alpaga and three-star Flocons de Sel. For more casual dining, have a stack of pancakes plus other local specialties at the Chez Olivia.
Since Megeve attracts the rich and fashionable, it has chic boutiques with the latest in ski and winter clothing and accessories.
Another mild-weather alternative in France in winter is Nice. The central city of the French Riviera, Nice boasts temperatures in the mid-60s Fahrenheit during the winter season and also has a fair amount of sunny days.
The Nice Carnival is on par with other carnival destinations such as Rio de Janeiro and Mardi Gras in New Orleans. The two-week event, which takes place in mid-February or the beginning of March depending on when Easter falls, attracts over one million visitors. For the Nice Carnival 2021, the theme is King of the Animals. There are two main parades during the carnival. On Place Massena, the main square of Nice, is the Parade of Lights, where all the floats are illuminated starting at 9 p.m. During the day is the Flower Parade, during which costumed float models lovingly throw thousands of flowers to the audience lining the streets. The Parada Nissarda has 18 floats, plus theater troupes and music groups that perform and giant puppet heads. Admission is just under 30 euros per person for reserved seats and just over 10 euros per person to stand.
If you wear a costume for Carnival in Nice, you can gain free admission to some of the parades.
The Festival of Lights (Fete des Lumieres) in the beginning of December in Lyon is worth making a special trip to France. Based on an old tradition of residents placing burning candles in their windows to show their devotion to Mary, the mother of Jesus, the Fete des Lumieres has been transformed into an internationally recognized annual event attended by over 200,000 people.
Not only is the Fete des Lumieres a major draw for tourists, the festival also attracts figures from the laser light and outdoor light industry, and the event features the most technically advanced and sophisticated light systems in the world.
The three-day festival has 36 official indoor and outdoor sites with light shows including illuminations on church and cathedral facades, modern buildings, the banks of the Rhine River, the City Hall courtyard, city squares, and railroad stations.
Pro Tip: If you decide to attend the Fete des Lumieres, make sure to make your hotel reservations four to six months in advance.
“Paris is always a good idea,” said Audrey Hepburn, and I absolutely agree with her -- so much so that I live here.
January is a good month to visit Paris as the city empties out from the busy tourist season in December. Reservations at the top, hard-to-get-into restaurants are easier to obtain, and the main tourist attractions, such as the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Versailles, and the d’Orsay Museum are easier to navigate and have short lines or none at all. Airline tickets, hotels, and Airbnbs cost significantly less because it’s offseason. You’ll get good deals, such as a night free if you book three nights or more at certain hotels or free room upgrades. Travel companies offer reasonable rates for four and five-night travel packages that include airfare and hotel accommodations. Since the Martin Luther King holiday is on a Monday, Paris could be an easy long-weekend destination.
If you like to shop and love French fashion and design, January is the perfect month to come to Paris. The official Paris Sale starts the second Wednesday in January, and unlike the U.S., pre-holiday sales are almost non-existent. The official sale period lasts about five weeks, and the first week of the sales, merchandise is reduced by 30 to 40 percent. In the following weeks, it’s 50 to 60 percent off. The other good news is that you still receive your VAT tax refund, so if you bought a fabulous designer outfit at 50 percent off, you receive another 12 to 15 percent VAT refund on top of that. Some of the best sales are at the major department stores such as Galeries Lafayette, Printemps, BHV, and Le Bon Marche. A number of other fashion chains also promote big markdowns, including Maje, Zadig and Voltaire, The Kooples, and Claudie Pierlot. When it comes to shoes, Gabor, Arche, and Minelli are prominent brands.
Pro Tip: Louis Vuitton, Goyard, Chanel, and Hermes do not have sales.