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, maybe Versailles
- 6 days, add: Normandy
- 8 days, add: Loire
- 11 days, add: Dordogne, Carcassonne
- 16 days, add: Provence, Riviera
- 19 days, add: Burgundy, Chamonix
- 22 days, add: Alsace, northern France
- 26 days, add: Basque Country
If you have only a week and it's your first trip to France, do Paris, Normandy, and the Loire.
For a 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 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 well 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 Three-Week Tour of France by Car
Day 1: Fly into Paris (save Paris sightseeing for the end of your trip), pick up your car, visit Giverny, and head to Honfleur (sleep in Honfleur)
Day 2: Morning in Honfleur, afternoon in Bayeux visiting its tapestry and cathedral. Dinner in Bayeux (sleep in Bayeux)
Day 3: Spend day touring D-Day sights: Arromanches, American Cemetery, and Pointe du Hoc — and Utah Beach Landing Museum, if you're moving fast (sleep in Bayeux)
Day 4: Drive to Dinan and take in its sights. In late afternoon, drive to Mont St-Michel and visit its abbey (sleep on Mont St-Michel)
Day 5: Head for châteaux country in the Loire Valley. Tour Chambord, then check in to your Amboise hotel before taking my guidebook's town walk (sleep in Amboise)
Day 6: Do a day trip, touring Chenonceaux and Cheverny or Chaumont (or all three if you don't need time later in Amboise). Save time at the end of the day for sights in Amboise if you like (sleep in Amboise)
Day 7: Leave early and head south to the Dordogne region, stopping en route at Oradour-sur-Glane; end Sarlat-la-Canéda and browse the town late today (sleep in Sarlat)
Day 8: Take a relaxing canoe trip, and tour a prehistoric cave (sleep in Sarlat)
Day 9: Head to the Languedoc-Roussillon region, lunch in Albi, and spend the evening in Carcassonne (sleep in Carcassonne)
Day 10: Morning in Carcassonne, then on to Provence with a stop at the Pont du Gard aqueduct (sleep in or near Arles)
Day 11: All day for Arles and Les Baux; visit Les Baux early or late (second night at same place in or near Arles)
Day 12: Visit a Provençal hill town such as Roussillon, then depart for the Riviera (sleep in Nice, Antibes, or Villefranche-sur-Mer)
Day 13: Sightsee in Nice and Monaco (second night at same place in Nice, Antibes, or Villefranche-sur-Mer)
Day 14: Make the long drive north to the Alps (sleep in Chamonix)
Day 15: If the weather is clear, take the mountain lifts up to Aiguille du Midi and beyond (sleep in Chamonix)
Day 16: 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 17: Spend the morning in Beaune, then move on to Colmar (sleep in Colmar)
Day 18: Enjoy Colmar and the Route du Vin villages (sleep in Colmar)
Day 19: Return to Paris, visiting Verdun or Reims en route (collapse in Paris hotel)
Day 20: Sightsee Paris (sleep in Paris)
Day 21: More time in Paris (sleep in Paris)
Day 22: 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 primarily for train travel, with some help from buses, minivan tours, and taxis. It takes 12 days of train travel to complete this trip: Buy a France Flexipass with nine train days and purchase point-to-point tickets for days 5, 7, and 14 (short and cheap trips). Book any TGV train trips as far ahead as possible, particularly if traveling with a rail pass. If you only have two weeks, end your tour in Nice. 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 and evening in 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-la-Canéda (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: Train to Arles (3 hours). Afternoon and evening in Arles (sleep in Arles)
Day 13: Train to Nîmes and connect by bus to Pont du Gard. Tour Pont du Gard, then bus to Avignon and spend your afternoon/evening there (consider dinner). Return to Arles by train (some of these trains may require reservation; sleep in Arles)
Day 14: Morning in Arles or Les Baux (by taxi or tour), afternoon train* to Nice via Marseille (4 hours; 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 train 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, 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. 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. 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.