France is huge and varied – perhaps that’s why it’s been the world’s most popular holiday destination for years. It boasts a diverse and beautiful landscape, plenty of space, excellent food and drink, good weather (depending on where you go) and its people have an infectious passion for art, culture, heritage and tradition.
Talking of infectious passion, there’s a romance about France and its language, and an intensity and emotion in its people, that can make us Brits feel a little prudish. The French seem to value things we used to value – the things we would still value if we only had the time and hadn’t fallen foul of fast-food, convenience-driven lifestyles. They think nothing of sweating onions for four hours to make the perfect pissaladière. They shut their shops on Sundays (and often Mondays). They are happy with ugly fruit and veg because it tastes better, and they buy fresh bread twice a day. They kiss hello, sometimes four times, and are openly affectionate. In public.
France, then, is an intoxicating mix of familiar and foreign and its proximity is another big draw, now the days of carbon footprints are top of mind when booking holidays.
Current travel restrictions and entry requirements
Fully vaccinated travellers need to present proof of their vaccination status, available in the NHS app. Fully vaccinated means the full course of the initial vaccine, plus a booster if the last dose was over nine months ago.
If you’re not fully vaccinated, you can enter by showing a recent certificate of recovery, or a negative test result from within 48 hours (antigen) or 72 hours (PCR) of departure. Children under 12 are totally exempt and under 18s don’t need boosters.
In France, everyone over 11 years old must wear a mask on public transport and in hospitals.
Best time to go
France is a popular destination for British families, so if you can, try to plan your trips outside both the UK and French school breaks, particularly for ski trips and summer holidays to the south.
Summer is a great time to visit the north, particularly those huge empty beaches, but you’re taking your chances with the British-style weather.
There are lots of fetes and festivals across the country during the summer – the big national celebration is Bastille Day on 14 July – but there are quirky carnivals during the spring months too. Try the Dunkirk Carnival in March to see a whirlwind of fancy dress and chaotic herring throwing!
Top regions and cities
The region, known for Normandy icons like William the Conqueror and Joan of Arc as much as the D-Day landings, is a mecca for history and culture, with Monet’s house in Giverny and the Unesco Mont St Michel to visit. But it’s not just big hitters; try the coastline of La Manche which sweeps up towards Cherbourg in a series of genteel seaside towns, towering tides, cling-on cliffs and strewn islands. Or visit the white cliffs of Etretat near where Normandy meets The Bay of the Somme, made famous recently in Netflix’s Lupin. Or find out why the port of Honfleur or the upscale Deauville and Trouville are still a magnet to Parisians in search of peace.
Everyone knows Paris, don’t they? The City of Light with its Eiffel Tower, Champs Elysées, Louvre and convalescent Notre Dame… But it’s only when you visit the second or the third time that you start to uncover its real magic: the street entertainers on Pont St Louis, the pavement cafes, the dusty bookshops, the leafy cemeteries, the vintage shops, the catacombs, the preposterously posh cake shops, the cream-gravelled squares, the lovers on benches, on canal banks and in art galleries. Go, go and go again; it gets better every time.
It’s quite a stretch – over 500km – including cycle-friendly, beach-ringed islands like Ile-de-Ré (and smaller Noirmoutier and more rugged Ile d’Oléron), the wild surfing beaches of Biscarosse, chi-chi Arcachon Bay and then down to the Basque towns of St Jean De Luz and Biarritz. There’s a heavenly hinterland to explore with Bordeaux’s city and its wine-growing areas too. There are gems like the Dune de Pyla, Europe’s tallest sand dune; Cap Ferret, a smart seaside town between the lapping waters of Arcachon Bay and the crashing waves of the Atlantic; and La Rochelle, a lively fishing port and gateway to Ile-de-Ré.
The French Alps are divided into two areas: the north, which is topped by Mont Blanc at 4,810m and is home to ski resorts like Chamonix, Courchevel and Val d’Isere; and the southern alps, which extend to within binocular distance of the Med and are lower, with more arid vegetation than in the north. The Alps are a huge adventure playground and, apart from snowsports, they’re also popular for walking, hiking, mountain biking, watersports and wellness activities in the spring and summer.
Provence and Cote d’Azur
Perhaps the most famous of France’s regions, this area is a feast for the senses, with its villages perchés, its eucalyptus scrub, its heavenly calanques, its Van Gogh, its Cézanne, its Renoir… There are juicy tomatoes to savour, potent lavender to sniff, sparkly sea to gawp at, nice sand to feel between your toes and atmospheric twangy accents to overhear in cafes. Yes, it’s touristy, the roads get clogged and accommodation can be ruinous – but it’s worth it.
Best under-the-radar destinations
Hauts de France
You haven’t heard of it, have you? No, and let’s keep it that way. France’s north is a gem that hides in plain sight, its history, culture and geography sign-posted in brown on the side of the autoroute but unseen by Brits who stick their foot on the gas and power on south. This region includes the white sands of the Opal Coast, towns like Le Touquet that encapsulate the golden age of the seaside, gastronomic hotspots like Montreuil-Sur-Mer, not to mention thriving cities like Lille and Amiens and cultural gems like the Louvre-Lens.
Possibly France’s quietest corner, it’s a mountainous region east of Burgundy and west of the Swiss border. Not mountainous enough to rival the Alps for skiers (although it packs a punch when it comes to cross-country skiing), what can you expect from the Jura? Apart from peace and quiet, the region boasts rolling vineyards and foothills and more than its fair share of lakes, waterfalls and caves.
Pays de la Loire
It may not be a headline grabber when it comes to the Loire’s mansions and moats, but it’s wonderful. Its capital, Nantes, has a large student population, progressive powers-that-be, a fondness for public art, green spaces, good food, history and joie-de-vivre. There’s proof in the form of Les Machines de l’Ile, a ‘museum’ dedicated to the creation of mechanical animals where you can ride on a giant elephant that squirts water out of its trunk. And there’s a medieval castle where they’ve installed a silver slide to skirt the outside of the fortifications. The rest of the region is a mix of coastal lowlands, salt pans, beautiful beaches like La Baule and Les Sables d’Olonne, ancient towns and, for more fun, there’s a historical theme park called Puy du Fou.
Best things to do
If you’ve only time to do a few of the 42 chateaux that make up the Unesco Loire Valley, these four are what the French would term Les Incontournables (the unmissables): Chambord, Chenonceau, Villandry and Azay-le-Rideau. One of the most visited destinations in France outside Paris, it’s wise to pick your time carefully. Some chateaux offer illuminations at night and it can be a good way of visiting while avoiding crowds.
Gurgle and spit
Whether it’s Burgundy or Bordeaux, Languedoc or Loire, Rhone, Alsace or Champagne, wine is a huge part of French culture and, along with cheese, cars, rugby and cooking, the French are very proud of it. Taste it, talk about it, learn about the heritage and history, tramp round the vineyards and picnic on route.
France has huge gastronomic heritage. The quality is so high thanks to a mix of great ingredients, age-old skills and traditions and a respect for the art of cooking. It’s easy to immerse yourself in food traditions in France, whether it’s visiting local marchés or food festivals, eating in small, independent restaurants, or buying your food in high street stores.
Cruising the waterways
The Canal du Midi stretches for 240km from Toulouse to the coast at Sète and it’s a popular waterway for holidaymakers, mainly because of the peace of the canal, shaded from the hot sun by leafy trees, but also because of the great sites you see on the way like Carcassonne, Castelnaudry, Beziers and Narbonne.
France’s train network is modern and good value for money, with the TGV taking care of high-speed intercity journeys and regional lines linking up the rest. You can also fly between a number of big cities such as Paris, Bordeaux, Lyon, Toulouse and Nice.
The motorways are very well maintained, and easy to navigate, although toll charges on longer journeys can add up.
For shorter journeys, there are plenty of bus services, as well as trams in many cities. The amount of dedicated cycle pathways varies, but most smaller roads and byways are generally very safe for cyclists.
How to get there
France is so close that your best transport option will change depending on where you live in the UK and where you’re travelling to in France.
The cheapest option is usually the Eurotunnel, as long as you’re not travelling too far on both sides – otherwise flying is the most cost-effective choice.
The quickest way to get where you’re going is usually by flying but again, if you live in the southeast and are staying around Northern France, the Eurotunnel or Eurostar may be just as quick.
The Eurostar passenger train is the number one sustainable choice, ideally coupled with public transport within France itself.
The French are gloriously partisan when it comes to their yearly vacation down south, with a mixture of modern juilletistes (who prefer holidaying in July) and aoûtiens (traditionalists who go in August). So go before July or later in August to avoid the high-season accommodation prices.
What’s the weather like?
The Mediterranean climate has hot summers and mild winters. Thanks to the Atlantic, western areas are relatively mild and damp. Inland central and eastern areas have hot summers but cold winters, while the mountains are cooler, with snow for up to six months of the year.
What time zone is it in?
France uses CET plus CEST from the last Sunday in March to the last Sunday in October. That puts it one hour ahead of UK time throughout the year.
What currency do I need?
What language is spoken?
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