By Rick Steves and Steve Smith
So much to see, so little time. How to choose? To help you get started, I've listed my top picks for where to go in France, my plan for your best three-week trip, and tips on when to go.
Depending on the length of your trip, and taking geographic proximity into account, here are my recommended priorities:
- 3 days: Paris and maybe Versailles
- 5 days, add: Normandy
- 7 days, add: Loire
- 10 days, add: Dordogne, Carcassonne
- 15 days, add: Provence, the Riviera
- 18 days, add: Burgundy, Chamonix
- 21 days, add: Alsace, northern France
- 23 days, add: Basque Country
If all you have is a week and it's your first trip to France, do Paris, Normandy, and the Loire.
For a more focused 10- to 14-day trip that highlights Paris, Provence, and the Riviera, fly into Paris and out of Nice. After touring Paris, take the TGV train from Paris to Avignon, rent a car there, and drop it in Nice (or use trains, buses, and minivan tours to get around). This trip also works in reverse.
Travelers with a little more time could add Burgundy and/or the Alps, which are about halfway between Paris and Provence and easy to explore by car or train.
Whirlwind (Kamikaze) Three-Week Trip Through France for Drivers
Day 1: Fly into Paris, pick up your car, visit Giverny, and head to Honfleur — save Paris sightseeing for the end of your trip (sleep in Honfleur)
Day 2: Spend today at D-Day sights: Arromanches, American Cemetery, and Pointe du Hoc (and Utah Beach Landing Museum, if you're moving fast); dinner in Bayeux (sleep in Bayeux)
Day 3: Bayeux Tapestry and church, Mont St-Michel (sleep on Mont St-Michel)
Day 4: Spend your morning on Mont St-Michel, then head for châteaux country in the Loire Valley: Tour Chambord, then head to Amboise (sleep in Amboise)
Day 5: Do a day trip, touring Chenonceaux and Cheverny or Chaumont; save time at the end of the day for Amboise and its sights (sleep in Amboise)
Day 6: Head south to the Dordogne region, stopping en route at Oradour-sur-Glane; end in a Dordogne village (your choice of the handful of lodgings I recommend)
Day 7: Browse the town and market of Sarlat, take a canoe trip, and tour a prehistoric cave (second night in same Dordogne village)
Day 8: Head to the Languedoc-Roussillon region, lunch in Puycelci or Albi, and spend the evening in Carcassonne (sleep in Carcassonne)
Day 9: Morning in Carcassonne, then on to Provence with a stop at the Pont du Gard aqueduct (sleep in or near Arles)
Day 10: All day for Arles and Les Baux (second night at same place in or near Arles)
Day 11: Visit a Provençal hill town such as Roussillon, then depart for the Riviera (sleep in Nice, Antibes, or Villefranche-sur-Mer)
Day 12: Sightsee in Nice and Monaco (second night at same place in Nice, Antibes, or Villefranche-sur-Mer)
Day 13: Make the long drive north to the Alps (sleep in Chamonix)
Day 14: If the weather is clear, take the mountain lifts up to Aiguille du Midi and beyond (sleep in Chamonix)
Day 15: Allow a half-day for the Alps (in Chamonix or Annecy), then head for Burgundy, ending in Beaune for wine-tasting (sleep in Beaune)
Day 16: Spend the morning in Beaune, then move on to Colmar (sleep in Colmar)
Day 17: Enjoy Colmar and the Route du Vin villages (sleep in Colmar)
Day 18: Return to Paris, visiting Verdun or Reims en route (collapse in Paris hotel)
Day 19: Sightsee Paris (sleep in Paris)
Day 20: More time in Paris (sleep in Paris)
Day 21: Finish your sightseeing in Paris, and consider side-tripping to Versailles (sleep in Paris)
Whirlwind Three-Week Tour of France by Train and Bus
This itinerary is designed for train travelers. To do this trip by train and bus, make liberal use of minivan tours and taxis. You'll need 12 days of train travel to complete this trip. Buy a France Flexipass with nine train days and buy point-to-point tickets for days 5, 7, and 14 (short and cheap trips). Book any TGV trips as far ahead as possible, particularly if traveling with a railpass — I have identified those trips with an * below (TGV trains fill fast; slower trains not requiring reservations are usually possible, but can be very inconvenient). A car is especially handy for exploring Normandy, the Dordogne, and Provence. If you only have two weeks, end your tour in Nice and skip Honfleur. Bonne route and bon courage!
Day 1: Fly into Paris (sleep in Paris)
Day 2: Sightsee Paris (sleep in Paris)
Day 3: More time in Paris (sleep in Paris)
Day 4: *Train and bus to Mont St-Michel via Rennes (4 hours, arrive in Mont St-Michel about 13:00); afternoon and night on Mont St-Michel (sleep on Mont St-Michel)
Day 5: Train to Bayeux (2 hours, arrive by noon); afternoon for visiting Bayeux (sleep in Bayeux)
Day 6: All day for D-Day beaches by minivan, taxi, bike, bus, or a combination of these (sleep in Bayeux)
Day 7: *Train to Amboise via Caen and St-Pierre des Corps (5–6 hours; sleep in Amboise)
Day 8: All day for touring Loire châteaux — good options by bus, bike, or minivan tour (sleep in Amboise)
Day 9: Early train to Sarlat (6 hours, arrive about 13:30); afternoon and evening in Sarlat (sleep in Sarlat)
Day 10: All day for caves and canoes by train and bike or minivan/taxi tour (sleep in Sarlat)
Day 11: Train or bus to Carcassonne (5.5 hours); dinner and evening wall walk (sleep in Carcassonne)
Day 12: Morning wall walk, then train to Arles (3 hours). Afternoon in Arles (sleep in Arles)
Day 13: Train to Nîmes, then bus to Pont du Gard. Tour the Pont du Gard, then bus to Avignon and spend your afternoon/evening there (consider dinner). Train back to Arles (while not TGV, some of these trains may require reservations; sleep in Arles)
Day 14: Morning in Arles or Les Baux (by taxi or tour), afternoon train to Nice via Marseille (4 hours — many *trains from Marseille to Nice are TGV and require a reservation), set up in Nice (sleep in Nice)
Day 15: All day for Nice, and maybe Antibes (sleep in Nice)
Day 16: All day for Villefranche-sur-Mer and Monaco (sleep in Nice)
Day 17: *Morning train to Annecy (7 hours). Afternoon and evening in Annecy (sleep in Annecy)
Day 18: Morning in Annecy, midday train to Chamonix (2 hours), afternoon and evening in Chamonix (sleep in Chamonix)
Day 19: If the weather is clear, take the mountain lifts up to Aiguille du Midi and beyond (sleep in Chamonix)
Day 20: *Linger in Chamonix or take an early train to Paris (7 hours) or, closer, Lyon (4 hours); last afternoon and night in Paris or Lyon. (Or make it a 22-day tour with a night in Burgundy — stay in Beaune, a 6.5-hour train ride from Chamonix — or a 23-day tour with a scenic 6.5-hour train through Switzerland to Colmar, spend two nights there, then take the TGV back to Paris.)
Day 21: Fly home.
* Indicates TGV option — book well in advance.
When to Go
Late spring and fall are best, with generally good weather and lighter crowds, though summer brings festivals, reliable weather, and long opening hours at sights.
Europeans vacation in July and August, jamming the Riviera, the Dordogne, and the Alps (worst from mid-July to mid-August), but leaving the rest of the country just lively enough for tourists. And though many French businesses close in August, the traveler hardly notices. May weekends can be busy — many French holidays fall in this month — but June is generally quiet (outside of Paris).
Winter travel is fine for Paris, Nice, and Lyon, but you'll find smaller cities and villages buttoned up tight. Winter weather is gray, noticeably milder in the south (unless the wind is blowing), and colder and wetter in the north. Sights and tourist information offices keep shorter hours, and some tourist activities (such as English-language castle tours) vanish altogether. On the other hand, winter travel allows you to see cities through the lens of a local, as hotels, restaurants, and sights are wonderfully tourist-free.
What's Blooming When
Thanks to France's relatively mild climate, fields of flowers greet the traveler much of the year:
Mid-April–May: Crops of brilliant yellow colza bloom, mostly in the north (best in Burgundy). Wild red poppies (coquelicots) begin sprouting in the south.
June: Red poppies pop up throughout the country. Late in June, lavender blooms begin covering the hills of Provence.
July: Lavender is in full swing in Provence, and sunflowers are awakening. Cities, towns, and villages everywhere overflow with carefully tended flowers.
August–September: Sunflowers flourish north and south.
October: In the latter half of the month, the countryside glistens with fall colors, as most trees are deciduous. Vineyards go for the gold.