Beyond Paris: Where to go in France

You probably want to visit France but aren’t sure what part of France to go to. You may want to see chateaus, go wine tasting or participate in a cooking class. But where to do that? The choices can be overwhelming so I've put together a handy quick reference guide to the most popular regions of France.

Paris - Since most trips to France will include at least a couple nights in Paris I thought I’d start off with this amazing city. Even if you have visited before there is always new sights to see, food to eat and wine to drink. Paris overflows with art museums and galleries. Of course there is the Louvre (which I recommend going to with a guide to get a full experience and to help navigate the crowds - ask me about the night time tour with wine!) and the Musee D’Orsay but there is also the Pompidou Centre (modern art), the Rodin Museum (sculpture garden with a nice cafe), the Picasso Museum, and the oft-overlooked l’Orangerie (home to a few of Monet’s huge Water Lilies paintings). Outside of art museums, you can do a variety of food/wine related activities such as wine tastings, “foodie” walking tours (including one for pastries and chocolates!), guided visits to the local markets followed by a lunch cooking class with a professional chef as well as dessert and macaron making classes (yum!) Day-trip ideas include to the Palace of Versailles (ask me about the new “behind the scenes” option!), Giverny (home to Monet’s beautiful garden as well as an American Art Museum), Champagne (if you are short on time but want to get some bubbly), Normandy and the Loire Valley. The latter two would be 12+ hour excursions but are a good way to get out of the city and see the highlights if you don’t have time to stay in those areas. For most visitors to Paris, I recommend at least 4-5 nights which would equal 3-4 full days.

Loire Valley - The Loire Valley is located to the southwest of Paris in central France. This area is known for its chateaux, vineyards and small towns. The wine that is mainly made in this region is dry whites such as Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume. The main capital of the region is Tours which is about 3 hours from Paris by train. I usually recommend staying in a smaller town called Amboise which is home to the Chateau of Amboise which allegedly houses Da Vinci’s tomb. It is a lovely town on the river with excellent restaurants, a farmer’s market and a bar overlooking the river with amazing cocktails! This makes an ideal base to visit the other chateaux in the region including Villandry (beautiful garden), Chenonceau (located on a river with beautiful grounds) and Chambord (which is one of the largest with an impressive spiral staircase). You don’t need to rent a car if you aren’t comfortable driving overseas (especially if you also want to indulge in tasting wine) as there are small group or private tours available. Wine tastings and vineyard visits can also be arranged on a small group or private basis. This area is beautiful and the highlights are definitely the chateaux. I’d recommend picking 2-3 that you really want to visit as you can become “over-chateauxed” (unless you break it up with wine tastings and days at leisure!)

Normandy - The main reason visitors flock to Normandy is to visit the WWII beaches, cemeteries and memorials. What a lot of my clients do not realize at first is that Normandy encompasses a wide region in the north of France. It does require private transportation in order to see all the sights - whether you have a guide or driving yourself. Going with a guide is recommended so that you can hear stories and learn more about what you are seeing; my husband and I went alone and was surprised at the lack of signage and information for the beaches, etc. Wasn’t like in the U.S. where there are brochures, signposts, maps, etc. at each site. One day of exploration is typically enough for most visitors unless you are really interested in WWII history. Mont St Michel is also in Normandy and is worth a visit - you’ve probably seen pictures of it. Basically, it is a town on an island close to shore that gets cut-off from the mainland during high tide - you have to be aware of the tide schedule or risk being stuck overnight. There are a handful of hotels but most people visit as a day-trip (can be done from Paris).

Vacation Idea: If you want a more in-depth exploration of the Normandy area there are 7-night river cruises from Paris that would give you a more immersive experience versus visiting Normandy for a day or two. The river cruises do include the WWII sites but also more “off the beaten” path areas as well. All your meals (made with fresh, local ingredients) are included as well as regional wines and beers with lunch and dinner.  Great idea for those who have the time to focus on one area.

Bordeaux - Located in southwest France (south of the Loire Valley), Bordeaux is one of the world’s most famous wine growing regions. And rightly so - their wines are some of the very best and most highly acclaimed. The city of Bordeaux sits on the Garonne River and is a port city. It has a large Gothic cathedral, art museums, gardens and 18th- to 19th-century mansions. You can base yourselves there and do day-trips to vineyard and wineries in the area. Nearby is the La Route de Medoc is a small area but with big names such as Rothschild, Margaux and Latour. The wineries themselves are just as beautiful as the Loire Valley chateaus. Highly recommended to visit with a driver/guide so that you can enjoy the tastings without having to worry about driving afterwards. One of my favorite places in France is St-Emilion, a town in Bordeaux that is located on a hilltop. There are views over the neighboring vineyards all around. You can even do a tram ride to a local winery to explore their cellar - was touristy but fun! Definitely add to your list for places to visit while in Bordeaux.

Vacation Idea: Like Normandy, there are river cruises in the Bordeaux area as well. These itineraries mainly focus on wine which makes sense as that is why most people visit Bordeaux! You can enjoy daily tastings, vineyard visits, and much more. This is a great option if you are a chef or in the wine business as you can take a group of “followers” with you to learn about and taste some amazing wines while enjoying the captivating scenery.

Burgundy - I hear the word “Burgundy” and I start to drool. Not only is the area beautiful, but the wines from this region are some of my favorite (I have expensive taste, apparently). The region of Burgundy is located in east-central France and its capital is Dijon (yes, the mustard!) Beaune is also a popular town to stay in for wine lovers because it is full of wine shops and underground caves full of wine bottles (and tastings!) Dijon and Beaune are about 3.5 hours by train from Paris (and only about 20 minutes from each other).

Private or small group guides are the best way to explore the region as the wineries aren’t always open to the public. We did an amazing lunch pairing at Olivier Leflaive’s restaurant (attached to a hotel) in the charming village of Puligny-Montrachet. This tiny village is in the valley with a backdrop of vineyard-covered hills. The area is so small that it is amazing how much wine they can produce. And the wine is A-MAZING. Popular Burgundy wines include Chardonnays, Chablis, Beaujolais and Pinot Noirs.

Vacation Idea: There are 7-night River Cruises in the Burgundy and Provence area. You would visit vineyards and do wine tastings in Burgundy as well as visit charming villages and towns in Provence (see below).

Provence - Located in southeastern France below Burgundy and includes towns such as Arles, Marseille and Avignon. Provence is known for its picturesque countryside and hilltop villages - the quintessential France. There are so many charming places to visit in this area that it is hard to narrow down the list. Highlights of the area include the Pont du Gard aqueduct, Roman monuments in Nimes, and the town of Arles which has a great markets and an ancient amphitheater, and was also the subject for many of Van Gogh’s paintings. Wine lovers will not want to miss visiting the Cotes du Rhone which is full of wineries and small villages, and if you time it right fields of lavender. The hilltop towns of the Luberon are also worth a day-trip as is Cassis and Aix-en-Provence. Marseille is also in the Provence area and is a port city on the Mediterranean Sea.

Vacation Idea: There are 7-night River Cruises that combine Burgundy and Provence. It’s all about the local food, wine and scenery. What more do you need?

Cote d’Azur (French Riviera) - Nice is really nice. Actually, that is an understatement. It is a beautiful city on the Mediterranean Sea - 2nd largest on France’s coast after Marseille. Don’t expect a sandy beach though - instead of sand the beach is covered in large stones and pebbles which make an awesome crunching sound when you walk on them. Nice is home to fabulous restaurants and gorgeous views along the waterfront and harbor. It can make a great base for visiting other towns in the region including Monte Carlo, Cannes and Saint-Tropez. Lemon lovers will want to go to Menton which is famous for its lemon festival (but lemon specialties are available year round). Villefranche-sur-Mer is next door to Nice and is a small beach-town. Eze-le-Village (sometimes referred to as just “Eze”) is a “village of art and gastronomy” and is located on top of a cliff with great views (a running theme in this area!)

Vacation Tip: Try to avoid this area in July and August which is their high season. Area can get very congested and hotel rates will be at their highest. The famous Grand Prix is also held annually at the end of May in Monaco and is also a good time to avoid the area unless you are interested in attending. If you are interested in attending, let me know as I have some ideas on where you can stay to avoid paying high hotel costs.

These areas are the main and most often visited areas of France. Perfect for wine lovers and foodies, as well as those interested in art, history and culture.

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