By Rick Steves and Steve Smith
Late spring and fall are best, with generally good weather and lighter crowds, though summer brings festivals, animated villages, reliable weather, and long opening hours at sights.
Europeans vacation in July and August, jamming the Riviera, the coast of Brittany, 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. Weekends in May can be busy — many French holidays fall in May — 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. Snow is generally not an issue except in the mountains. 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 much calmer.
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.
Steve Smith is the co-author of the Rick Steves France guidebook.