17 Fantastic French Experiences to Have in 2017
Leah Walker January 12, 2017

As much as I adore Paris, there’s so much more to discover in the country outside of the City of Light. And since my first trip to France in late 2012, I’ve traveled extensively throughout the country, visiting every region, except the outlying territories. Though there are still plenty of items on my France to-do list, I’ve managed to see more of the Hexagon in four years than most French have seen in their lifetimes.

Meeting with a truffle producer near Cognac fed my inner foodie.

Many of my travels are a result of my work with Atout France USA, as well as with brands and local and regional tourism boards, while others are personal trips. I’ve had so many special adventures in France that I thought it time to compile a list of a few of my favorite French travel experiences. It was terribly difficult to compose this list and could easily be 1,000 items long. I will say that I didn’t include any experiences that were exclusive for me, such as walking on the rooftop of Église Notre-Dame in Alençon. Everything listed is accessible for everyone.

17 Fantastic French Experiences

You can drive to the calanques, but by boat is more special.

Dive into the Calvados Department

Normandy was one of the first French regions that I extensively explored back in 2014. During my spiritual tour of Normandy, there wasn’t an abbey, cathedral, or basilica that I didn’t see. That might be a slight exaggeration, but there is no hyperbole involved when I say that I ate my weight in Camembert and tarte aux pommes. Between the cream, Calvados, history, and wide-open spaces, it’s easy to become smitten with Normandy.

Sunrise in Cabourg is worth the early alarm.

During the fall of 2016, I returned to the Calvados department and used the cute seaside town of Cabourg as my home base. With its Belle Époque architecture, Cabourg is charming even when the temperatures are frigid. Hop in a car and head to Honfleur and visit Le Vieux Bassin and Eglise Sainte Catherine. Enjoy a fresh seafood lunch in the port at Marché aux Poissons in Trouville-sur-Mer. Cross the bridge and take a walk along the Deauville Beach boardwalk. It’s lined with beach cabins named after American actors and directors who’ve attended the American Cinema Festival held in Deauville. I adore this part of France and will return time and time again, if only for the Cider Route and freshest butter and cream from Isigny-sur-Mer.

Stay: Le Grand Hotel Cabourg – MGallery by Sofitel

My Additional Articles: France Today; Atout France UK

Take a Cooking Class in Uzès

I learned and laughed a lot with chef Eric Fraudeau.

My first trip to the Languedoc-Roussillon region came in June 2016, and it was a delicious trip, indeed. In the south of France, on the border of the better-known region of Provence, I spent a week learning the art of Provençal cooking from chef Eric Fraudeau, founder of Cook’n with Class Uzès. Morning market runs and hands-on cooking lessons were followed by eating–lots and lots of eating. Winery and goat farm visits rounded out this incredibly fun and educational experience, which not only gave me more insight into Provençal cuisine, but also life in the south of France.

Stay: Mas du Moulin

My Additional Articles: Learning the Art of French Cooking

Bi-Plane over the Loire Valley

Certainly one of the more unique travel experiences I’ve had.

As part of my French wine ambassador role with Atout France, in 2016 I explored the Loire Valley. From Nantes to Sancerre and a whole bunch of places in between, I got a good look at France’s Garden, from the ground and the air. Hot air balloons are common sights floating over the famed châteaux of the Loire Valley, but I took to the skies in a World War I bi-plane with Patrick Plançon, the owner of Vol en Biplan. Outfitted in an old-school leather cap and my trusty Ray-Ban aviators, I soared above the Loire River, verdant landscape, and the area’s legendary castles. It was simply magical!

Stay: Les 3 Lieux

My Additional Articles: Loire Valley Wine Guide; Unique Things to do in the Loire Valley; French Wine Travels

La Cité du Vin and a River Cruise

My only regret was not allotting more time at La Cite du Vin.

Oh, Bordeaux! That wonderful wine country in Southeastern France calls my name over and over. I’ve wandered the barren winter fields and harvested grapes in the fall. I’ve embraced the sweltering summer sun in September and seen the spring blossoms in April. There’s never a bad time to go to Bordeaux. No matter the season, make time to visit La Cité du Vin. This state-of-the-art, interactive museum is a temple of knowledge for wine regions around the world. It’s easily the best museum I’ve visited in 2016, and it’s not because of the glass of wine included in the price of admission. After the visit, step down to the Garonne River and hop a boat for a two-hour tasting cruise and see Bordeaux from the water.

Stay: Intercontinental Bordeaux Le Grand Hotel

My Additional Articles: Vendages in Bordeaux; Paris Getaways

Sunrise in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat

Easily, one of my favorite hotels in the world.

I saw summer 2016 out in style in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat. This peninsula on the French Riviera isn’t a place for millionaires. No, this is where the billionaires go. Well, and me. When people ask, as they inevitably do, “Other than Paris, what is your favorite area of France?” Without a moment’s hesitation, my answer is Provence. As if that opinion needed any sort of solidifying, I found the gorgeousness that is the Grand-Hôtel du Cap-Ferrat, A Four Seasons Hotel. Befitting this spectacular location, the Grand-Hôtel easily ranks as one of my top hotel experiences ever. If you’ve seen Dirty Rotten Scoundrels or Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie then you know this hotel. I literally gasped on numerous occasions.

The sky transformed from pink to fiery orange; this sunrise is burned into my memory.

Beyond the brick and mortar, it’s the turquoise Mediterranean Sea and the jagged coastline that also sets my heart aflutter. The best decision I made during that trip was not a type of massage or from the menu of their gourmet menu. Rather, it was setting my alarm for 5:45 am to see the sunrise. Phenomenal, and I didn’t need a billion bucks to enjoy it.

Stay: Grand-Hôtel du Cap-Ferrat, A Four Seasons Hotel

My Additional Articles: Provence Rosè Wine Guide

Walk around Lake Annecy

In the summer, you’ll find me swimming in Lake Annecy.

Annecy might be heaven on earth, and I finally discovered it for myself in November 2016. In the rain, this town in the Rhône-Alps is mystic and moody, and in the sun, it’s simply spectacular. The Old Town, with its pastel buildings and numerous canals, are dreamy, but it’s Lake Annecy that woos me most. Surrounded by the Alps, France’s third-largest lake is also Europe’s cleanest. Walk, bike, or skip along the lake’s shore, and soak up the fresh-mountain air.

Stay: Imperial Palace

My Additional Articles: A Weekend in Annecy

Meet Marseilles

As France’s second city, Marseilles has its own charm.

In Paris, I don’t dare say too loudly that I like Marseilles. The two cities really do have a hate-hate relationship. Much of that stems from football, but it carries over into just about every other aspect of life. As a person with no dog in the fight, I see the city without prejudice. As the second-largest city in France, Marseilles is perched on the Mediterranean coast, which means temperate weather and incredible seafood.

Get lost in the pretty Panier area of Marseilles.

This multi-cultural port city does have a bit of grit to it, reminding me of Naples, Italy. But that’s part of Marseilles’ charm. Vieux Port {Old Port} and Château d’If, the prison island made famous in Alexander Dumas’ book, The Count of Monte Cristo, are just a few highlights. Wander the woven streets and alleys of Le Panier {the Basket}. During the Greek times, the area was a marketplace, and during World War II it was bombed because of its Jewish population. Partially restored, the area filled with pastel buildings befitting Provence is a melting pot and a center for artistic types. For an unbeatable view over the city, go to Notre-Dame de la Garde. Peel back the layers of Marseilles, and you’ll discover that Paris isn’t the only big city in France worth visiting.

Stay: InterContinental Marseille Hotel Dieu

Become a Cognac Connoisseur

Cute Cognac is filled with picturesque alleyways and pretty parks.

In the summer of 2015, I learned to love Cognac, not just the spirit, but also the town. This was the year that my Visit French Wine tour with Atout France took me to Poitou-Charentes in the southwestern part of the country. Cognac, both the town and spirit, are often overlooked in favor of its famous wine-producing neighbor to the south {Bordeaux}. But, this area also has plenty of vineyards {dating to the 3rd century}, picturesque alleyways, and a lovely river, which once was used for salt trade during the Middle Ages.

Part of my Cognac college included a sensory experience at Courvoisier.

When the Dutch started double distilling the area’s wine in the 17th century, Cognac was born. Anglo-Saxons moved in during the 18th century, giving Cognac a unique blend of Catholics and Protestants. Begin your studies at Cognac college by visiting Le Musee des arts du Cognac; sample a small Cognac producer like Michel Forgeron; blend your own XO at Camus; and take a traditional boat ride along the Charente River. This area is also known for producing truffles. That’s reason enough to visit in my book.

Stay: Château de L’Yeuse

My Additional Articles: Things to Know about Cognac; Franco-Files

Enjoy Promenade des Anglais

Promenade des Anglais is much more than the tragedy that occurred there.

I first visited Nice in April 2015. A sunrise walk along Promenade des Anglais was one of the highlights of that trip. The Mediterranean waves rolled back and forth over the rocky coast, as the golden sun peeked above the mountains. A few Niçois jogged, while others fished. All was calm. All was perfection. Even now, it’s difficult to imagine that this serine spot was the location of a terrorist attack on July 14, 2016. Again, I visited Promenade des Anglais in September following that horrific event. A memorial of flowers and stuffed animals remained, but so did the spirit of the location. As a main vein and an integral part of Nice, terrorism hadn’t robbed the city of Promenade des Anglais. A few Niçois jogged, while others fished, but no doubt with a heavier heart.

Stay: Hôtel La Pérouse

My Additional Articles: 48 Hours in Nice; Best way to Travel around France

Ascend L’Aiguille du Midi

The cable car was stuck for about an hour, but there was no complaining with this view.

The Alps awaken my senses and leave me in awe, no matter how many times I see them. Snow covered or summer, they are simply majestic. In July 2014, I had a Best of the Alps tour that included a stop in Chamonix. Since then, the Alpine village remains on my must-return list. Taking the 20-minute cable car ride from the center of Chamonix to the top of L’Aiguille du Midi {Needle of the Mid-Day} is the closest you can get to the summit of Mont Blanc without hiking.

I stepped into the void, and it freaked me out.

The cable car rises to an altitude of 3,842 meters in two steps. The first is to Plan de l’Aiguille at 2,317 meters. The second will strike terror into anyone with a fear of heights {me!}. With no pillar supports, the cable car crosses over the stunning Les Pelerins glacier, until finally arriving at the top station of Aiguille du Midi. Think that’s all? No, take the bridge to the Central Piton terrace, and hop on the elevator 42 more meters to the 3,842-high terrace. And if your heart isn’t beating fast enough, take the highest cable car in the world {Panoramic Mont Blanc} five kilometers across the Mont Blanc Massif to Italy. That’s right, ITALY. And if you’re so inclined, Step into the Void. Inspired by the Skywalk at the Grand Canyon, this glass box protrudes out with 1,000 meters of abyss below.

Stay: Hôtel Mont-Blanc

Visit Massif des Calanques

No editing necessary. That water is real, and it’s spectacular.

In April 2015, I got to see one of France’s most beautiful corners: Massif des Calanques. From the edge of Marseilles, running 20 kilometers east, this rugged coast is filled with inlets enveloped in steep limestone cliffs. Similar to Norwegian fjords, this geological phenomenon is only found near Marseilles and in Corsica. The wild topography is in direct contrast to the mesmerizing Mediterranean water. With a range of colors from turquoise to cobalt, the sea reminds me of a brilliant opal. At only four kilometers wide, the Massif des Calanques really is a slice of paradise.

Stay: InterContinental Marseille Hotel Dieu

Climb the steps to Mont St. Michel

Most visitors don’t make the climb. They’re missing out.

Going to Mont Saint-Michel is a no-brainer. After all, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the most-visited places in France. Mont Saint-Michel was the last stop on my October 2014 spiritual tour of Normandy, though technically, it’s in Brittany. Dare I say that we saved the best for last? Consecrated to Saint-Michel in 708, the current abbey is built on a rocky islet on the remains of a Romanesque church.

Don’t let the smile fool you. I was dying.

Getting around the island isn’t for the disabled or lazy. To get to the top of Mont Saint-Michel, there are approximately 900 steps. Because of the physical challenge, some 70% of visitors {if I remember correctly}, never actually take the approximately 300 steps necessary to visit the actual abbey. Plus, it’s easy to get sucked into all of the little alleyways and Grande Rue shops selling trinkets and omelets. If you are physically able, don’t miss seeing this incredible piece of history.

My Additional Articles: Spiritual Tour of Normandy

France Meets Spain in Arles

Vincent Van Gogh was inspired by Arles, and I was, too.

My time in Arles was brief, as it was a stop on my 2015 Portraits of Southern France trip with Viking Cruises. Traveling from Lyon to Avignon, along the Rhône and Saône Rivers, Arles was definitely my favorite stop. From the ancient Roman ruins to the Spanish influences, I adored Arles. I’m not alone. Vincent Van Gogh called this Provençal town home and inspired some of his most famous works, including Terrasse du Café le Soir and Courtyard of the Hospital at Arles, which was where Van Gogh was taken after cutting off part of his ear.

The hospital has been restored to match Van Gogh’s original painting.

I was in Arles on Easter Sunday, which also happens to be Les Ferias d’Arles. This festival that attracts hundreds of thousands of people marks the beginning of the French bullfighting season {which I absolutely abhor}. But in all fairness to Arles, the festival does also feature bull games, where the animals aren’t harmed. With that being said, the small city was electric during my visit. Stripping away all the beer and paella vendors, along with the throng of festival revelers, and I believe Arles to be a unique blend of cultures. It’s definitely a place I’d love to revisit.

My Additional Articles: Viking River Cruise

Discover Dijon

Divine Dijon is full of charm.

More than mustard and a home base for those looking to drink their weight in Burgundy wine, Dijon is a lovely destination in and of itself. In April 2015, I spent three days in the former Capital of the Dukes of Burgundy, during the Top French Cities campaign with Atout France. Half-timbered houses with colorful roofs, the Palais des Ducs et des Etats de Bourgogne, and Cathedral Saint-Bénigne are just a few of Dijon’s treasures. Find la Chouette {the owl}, touch it with your left hand, and make a wish. Pick up an Owl Trail map at the tourism office and follow the bronze triangles to discover the rest of Dijon’s points-of-interests. Oh, and don’t forget to stop for a few glasses of Burgundy on the city’s many inviting terraces.

My Additional Articles: Leah Travels France

Sip Sancerre in Sancerre

There’s nothing I’d change about this Sancerre sunset.

A couple hours south of Paris is the hilltop town of Sancerre. If I could give a place a big hug, it would be Sancerre and the rest of the Central-Loire. As the last stop on my 2016 Visit French Wine campaign with Atout France, I was simply exhausted. However, Sancerre and its surrounding hamlets {Reuilly, Pouilly-sur-Loire, Menetou-Salon} invigorated me. I’ll be honest; the world-famous wine didn’t hurt either. The Loire River, pristine streets, and patchwork of farmland make the Sancerre area feel computer generated. This place is kind of too good to be true. But it’s real. Believe me.

Stay: Hôtel la Côte des Monts Damnés

My Additional Articles: Loire Valley Wine Guide; Small Towns to include on your European Itinerary; French Wine Travels

Wagon to Pont du Gard

Take the longer, scenic route to Pont du Gard.

Well, you could easily drive to Pont du Gard, the ancient Roman aqueduct near Nîmes. But why would you when you could take a horse-drawn wagon ride to the UNESCO World Heritage site? Horseman extraordinaire, Emmanuel Pédeneau, leads his prized horses through rugged, private trails, showing a part of the area that most visitors never get to see. Beyond the landscape, watching Emmanuel with his horses is a sight to behold. A mere whisper triggers the horses’ actions.

A kiss goodbye to this chestnut beauty.

Once you’ve arrived to Pont du Gard, walk across one of the three tiers of arches that stretch over the Gardon River. As the highest of all Roman aqueducts, the views over the gorge are worth the visit. Have a picnic or go kayaking. This area is a picturesque place to be active or lazy as you’d like.

Stay: Mas du Moulin

My Additional Articles: Small Towns to include on your European Itinerary

Christmas in Strasbourg

Strasbourg is enchanting during December.

Strasbourg has changed hands countless times between France and Germany, which likely explains why the city’s Christmas markets are second-to-none. A fantastic hybrid of the two countries, in Strasbourg beignets sit next to pretzels and wine is poured alongside beer. I got my first and only taste of Strasbourg in December 2015. I’d heard from many of my French friends that Strasbourg was the place to go for Christmas markets, and it didn’t disappoint. The entire city is the embodiment of Christmas during December.

My Additional Articles: Great Getaways within 3 Hours of Paris

France continues to inspire and make me happy.

And 3,200+ words later, you have 17 fantastic experiences to have in 2017 {or in your lifetime}. Scrolling through my thousands and thousands of photos was such a lovely trip down memory lane. Writing this post is a much-needed reminder of how fortunate I am to have experienced all I have, and how much more I want to do. January is almost behind us, so I should break out my Rail Europe pass and hit the road.

Any suggestions?

Note: There are affiliate links in this post, meaning I make a small commission if you make a purchase through my links. It costs you nothing more, but helps keep me stocked in French wine {and a roof over my head}.

Leah Walker

Leah's a luxury travel and food writer who has as many stories as she does shoes. She documents her experiences whether that's in the lap of luxury or riding through a swamp in an airboat. Leah freelances and has contributor/editor roles with The Daily Meal, The Daily Basics, Bonjour Paris, France Today, Luxe Beat Magazine, Four Seasons Magazine, Forbes Travel Guide, and is a travel ambassador for Atout France USA. Leah's thrilled to call Paris home after being awarded the coveted three-year Compétences & Talents visa from France, though her talents don't extend to speaking French. Yet.

26 Comments

  1. You’re right! There’s so much more to see than Paris! There is a whole different world out there; Mountains, amazing lakes and incredible coastal views! The plane looks like a great experience!

  2. You are absolutely right: there’s so much to see in France, besides Paris. Don’t get me wrong. I love Paris! But sometimes is just to busy with tourist. I’ve been for a brief time in Bordeaux and loved it. But your list is full of other destinations I would like to visit one day.

  3. What a fabulous collection of places to visit and ways to spend your time in France. I’d love to spend some time in the Loire Valley, exploring the castles and vineyards. River cruising has become really popular in France and I do think that would be a relaxing way to explore.

  4. You’re right! There really is so much to do in France outside Paris. I spent a few winter seasons in the French Alps (Chamonix, Courcheval, Risoul) and loved every second – but I don’t think that glass walkway was there when I lived there. Time to go back and check it out I think!

  5. I’ve been to France twice (Dieppe and Lyon) and I’m not al that tempted in visiting Paris! I know that’s not the norm, but meh I could take it or leave it. I love the bi plane experience you write about and also see familiarity with some of the French and British coastlines.

  6. So many things to see and do in France. I love traveling through France, from beautiful small towns to larger, vibrant cities. I have not spent any time in Loire Valley though, which I would love to do. Taking a bi-plane ride over the valley would be quite a way to take in the countryside! Of course, sipping Sancerre in Sancerre wouldn’t be too bad either!

  7. Oh WOW! These are such bucket-list-y activities that I would absolutely love to try myself 😀 There’s absolutely more to France than Paris. I visited Annecy before and I loved that small little town. Looking at your list ,there’s so much more I need to see!

  8. What great and fun experiences in France. I’ve had many of the experiences you’ve listed and they are all fun. Although, while I’ve been to the Loire Valley several times, I’ve never done the bi-plane ride. Noting that for my next visit. One experience to add is visiting the champagne houses in Reims. That’s amazing!!! Wishing you fun and exciting travels around France in 2017.

  9. You look truly terrified in that picture ascending in the cable car at L’Aiguille du Midi! Well done for surviving that! As much as I love Paris, this guide is so awesome for other destinations. I’ll definitely use it in the future when visiting France.

  10. Travel along the Canal du Midi – by boat, or cycling or walking along the towpath.
    Spend some time in Toulouse; the wonderful ‘pink’ city.
    Visit the citadel of Carcassone…
    I could go on and on and on!!

  11. Love this – France is one of my favorite countries, and I actually enjoyed my time exploring the countryside more than Paris :D! I’ve only scratched the surface though and your list proves that I have a lot left to experience and enjoy. I think out of everything I would most like to become a Cognac Connoisseur. Sounds fun!

  12. This post makes me want to explore so much more. Biking through the vineyards of Burgundy and canoeing down the Dordogne River past la Roque-Gageac are both a dream.

  13. Really good article thank you. I have done many of the things you mention so a walk back through memory lane for me. I have a Mas in Uzes, Mas de Bellevue, and an annual cook school so next time you are near there perhaps pop in and see somewhere different. Uzes is a magical town, so beautiful but what I love most is that it is a living, breathing town of culture and history that is not on the usual beaten path of tourists. I have made note of the horse and carriage rides and the private chef and will try to use them.

  14. A wonderful story about France. I feel your love for this country. I was only in Toulouse and the province has given me a lot of impressions. And now like to visit Provence.

  15. I’ve been to France about a dozen times, and there are still SO many more places I want to visit there.
    BTW: The word ‘Midi’ can also mean the south of France. So ‘l’Aiguille du Midi’ can mean ‘The Needle of the South.’

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