Can one even come to France without visiting Paris? The ideal trip to France includes spending time in the City of Light and experiencing these unforgettable things to do and then heading out to explore the other marvels that France has to offer. These 14 magnificent must-have experiences in France offer a glimpse into French culture, history, and her natural beauty. Each experience listed below can be done as a stand-alone exploration of France or used as a jumping-off point for further travel in the area.
Here are my choices for 14 must-have experiences in France.
1. Visit Magical Mont Saint Michel
A Benedictine abbey perched on a pinnacle of rock that has been calling pilgrims for centuries, Mont Saint-Michel is one of the most visited locations in France. It’s no wonder. This UNESCO World Heritage Site rises from the sea, a spectacular sight that takes your breath away both at high tide and low tide.
Read about the tides at Mont Saint-Michel and tips to know before going.
Pro Tip: Wear good walking shoes for walking the cobbled streets. It’s an uphill climb to the abbey.
2. Climb Europe’s Highest Sand Dune At The Dune du Pilat
How will you summit this mountain of sand that has been around for thousands of years? I chose to climb the staircase of 168 steps and then scoot down the mountain of soft white sand in my bare feet. The Dune du Pilat in the Nouvelle Aquitaine region is one of France’s natural heritage sites. It stretches for 1.7 miles and is 328 feet high. The pine scent from the Landes Forest and the salty sea air are welcome companions as you pause on top of Europe’s highest sand dune and stare out to sea.
Pro Tip: The staircase is installed each year from the end of May until early November. The Dune du Pilat is the perfect day trip from Bordeaux.
3. Wander Through Lavender Fields In Provence
It’s one thing to see photographs. But standing in a vibrant purple field of lavender as it gently sways in the wind is something else. Row upon row of lavender stretches out towards the horizon and the delicate scent is unforgettable.
Two of my favorite places to see lavender in full bloom are the Valensole Plateau — where exquisite purple hues greet you — and at the Abbey of Senanque, where the backdrop is a 12th-century monastery. Here are other top locations to find lavender fields in Provence and this guide will help you plan a full trip through Provence.
Pro Tip: Watch out for the bees, they also love the lavender!
4. Visit Monet’s Stunning Gardens At Giverny
It’s a breathtaking experience to see Claude Monet’s impressionist paintings in Paris. His Water Lilies canvasses with their magical use of light, color, and water immerse the viewer in a serene natural setting. Travel to Giverny, Monet’s home in Normandy, to see firsthand where his inspiration came from.
Pink and white water lilies grace the ponds, an explosion of colors and scents greets you in the garden, and walking through the house where Monet lived is all part of the Giverny experience. Be sure to spend time exploring the small town and look for Claude Monet’s gravestone in the church cemetery.
Pro Tip: These articles on How to Visit Giverny and How To Spend a Day in Giverny will help you plan the perfect day trip from Paris.
5. Be Awed By The Luxurious Chateau de Versailles
The Palace of Versailles, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the perfect day trip from Paris and a must-have experience in France. In the 17th century, King Louis XIV turned his fathers hunting lodge into an incredible palace with magnificent gardens. The Palace of Versailles was the residence of the king and the seat of France’s government for a hundred years.
The Palace of Versailles is enormous, so plan to stay the day. For first-timers, know the key places to see such as the Hall of Mirrors and Marie Antoinette’s Palaces of Trianon. Be sure to spend time amidst the spectacular fountains and time your visit for one of the musical fountain shows.
Pro Tip: Here are tips to help you plan your trip to Versailles. Interested in taking a bike tour of Versailles? Here is how.
6. Be Moved By The D-Day Beaches In Normandy
On June 6, 1944, more than 150,000 Allied troops landed along the French coast of Normandy in the largest seaborne invasion in history. The Allied troops landed at five different beaches along a 50-mile stretch of coastline. The Americans landed at Utah and Omaha Beaches, the British at Gold and Sword Beaches, and the Canadians at Juno Beach. Visiting the D-Day Beaches lays this incredible moment in history right before your eyes. It’s impossible not to be moved by the memorials, graveyards, and monuments and to stop for a while and appreciate the young soldiers who gave their lives for our freedom today.
Pro Tip: Here are some things to know before visiting Omaha Beach.
7. Stand Amidst The Carnac Alignments In Brittany
The Carnac Alignments, the largest megalithic complex in the world, are in Brittany, France. The standing stones at Carnac are the best-preserved prehistoric stones in Europe. It’s a true wonder to stand amidst the 3,000 stones that stretch as far as the eye can see. In the off-season, one can wander amidst the stones. In peak season the gate is closed. A little train or open-air bus takes you on a tour of the large area.
Pro Tip: Here is more travel inspiration for the Carnac Alignments and for Brittany, France.
8. Stroll The Ramparts And Beaches Of Saint-Malo
Stroll the granite ramparts of Saint-Malo, a port city in Brittany, and enjoy views over the beaches, the English Channel, and the medieval city. Imagine this fortified town where privateers, pirates approved by the king, once lived. Explore the medieval core of the city under the soaring spire of Saint Vincent Cathedral and then head to the beaches. Saint-Malo has the highest tidal range in Europe, making for golden sandy expanses that stretch for miles.
Pro Tip: Stay a few days and enjoy classic Brittany with crepes, cider, mussels, and the iconic blue and white striped clothing. Here is everything you need to know about spending a full day in Saint-Malo.
9. Travel To The Medieval Citadel of Carcassonne
For history buffs and castle lovers, Carcassonne, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a must-have experience in France. With its 52 towers and almost 2 miles of ramparts to walk, the ancient fortified city of Carcassonne perched on a hilltop over the Aude River is impressive. There has been a settlement at Carcassonne for almost 2,500 years, and traces of each period of history can be seen everywhere. There is plenty of exploring to do in the city, and this article will help you plan out the perfect day in Carcassonne. If you are traveling further a field in the Occitanie region of France, don’t miss these beautiful villages.
10. Visit The Fairytale Château De Chenonceau
What’s a trip to France without seeing a château (castle) or two? There are plenty of castles throughout France, but the Loire Valley is the top destination for visiting the best of France’s castles. The elegance of Chenonceau Castle is immediately apparent as it appears to float over the River Cher. This historic monument with its fabulous gardens has been designed, protected, and restored by a succession of women throughout history.
Be inspired to visit these other magical castles in the Loire Valley as well.
11. Play In The Great Outdoors At The Gorges Du Verdon
The emerald green waters glistening in the summer sunshine below the soaring limestone cliffs make a spectacular setting in the south of France. The Gorges du Verdon, one of Europe’s largest canyons, is a veritable playground for those that love the outdoors. Kayak, paddle board, or pedal boat in the magnificent waters. Avid hikers have a plethora of trails to choose from. Visit Moustiers-Sainte-Marie, a designated “Most Beautiful Villages of France,” nearby.
Pro Tip: Read these tips for visiting the Gorges du Verdon here.
12. Stand Before The Ancient Bayeux Tapestry
You can easily spend a day visiting Bayeux in Normandy, France, or use it as a base for visiting the D-Day beaches. Bayeux is a lovely old town sitting on the Aure River. Since a young child, I had wanted to visit the Bayeux Tapestry, a UNESCO Memory of the World Register. The Bayeux Tapestry, over 900 years old, depicts the story of William the Conqueror and the Battle of Hastings, after which he became the King of England. It’s a stunning piece of embroidery, and examining the scenes of daily medieval life is fascinating. I love thinking of the women (most likely) who created this for posterity.
Pro Tip: The Bayeux Tapestry is presented beautifully in a darkened room where no photos are allowed to be taken.
13. Wander Through The Christmas Market In Strasbourg
What finally got me to Strasbourg, although it had been on my list for a while, was the famous Christmas Market, Christkindelmärik. France’s oldest Christmas market — which started in 1570 — has over 300 stalls set up in the city’s squares. The twinkling lights and Christmas decorations make for a magical experience. The variety of marvelous goods at the stalls makes it hands down the best Christmas market I have ever been to.
Don’t miss Place Kleber, where the enormous Christmas tree stands, and be sure to taste Bredele, the buttery Alsation Christmas cookies.
The lovely center island of Strasbourg, in the Alsace region, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Be sure to stroll through the quaint area of La Petite France where half-timbered houses line the canals.
Pro Tip: It was much colder than I anticipated because it is a very damp cold. Dress warmly.
14. Climb The Steps At The Pilgrimage Hotspot Of Rocamadour
Rocamadour, a UNESCO Heritage medieval site, has been attracting pilgrims, miracles, and visitors since the year 1105. Situated in the Lot region of France and perched on a cliff, the town of Rocamadour has seven medieval chapels carved into the cliffside overlooking the River Alzou. Climb the 216 steps of the Grand Staircase (or take the elevator) and be sure to visit the Chapel of Notre Dame housing the famous wooden Black Madonna and the Chapel of Saint-Michel with its stunning frescoes and the crypt of Saint-Amadour.
Pro Tip: Since you are right here it seems appropriate to savor the local specialty, creamy Rocamadour goat cheese. It’s the perfect addition to a picnic.