France is an incredible place. After numerous trips spanning from Normandy to the Loire Valley, and a variety of places in between, it has become one of our favorite countries in the world. In this post, we’ll detail some of our favorite experiences in France thus far. It’s not so much a top 10 things to do in France list, as it is our fondest memories from the country. Like a reverse bucket list, of sorts.
Our love for France is thanks to a mixture of its natural beauty, preserved architecture, and rich culture. Paris alone is my second-favorite city in the world (we cover the many reasons why in our Ultimate Travel Guide to Paris). Several of the small villages and other places we’ve visited throughout France also rank among my favorite ‘quaint diversions’ that we’ve ever done.
The whole country has an intoxicating, romantic sensibility to it, and I cannot imagine ever running out of excellent experiences in France. I look forward to our future visits, and hope we have another dozen or more that are worthy of making this list, but for now, here are the things we’ve enjoyed the most in France…
10. Finally “Discovering” Sainte-Chapelle
Located about a block from Notre Dame Cathedral, a place we had visited on almost every trip to Paris since our first, it somehow took us until last year to “discover” Sainte-Chapelle. This was a huge mistake on our part, but the upside was that it caught us totally be surprise.
When we walked into the upper chapel, we both stopped dead in our tracks and were amazed by Sainte-Chapelle, which is one of the most beautiful places you’ll ever see. As the afternoon light flittered through the resplendent stained glass windows, giving them a truly ethereal glow, it was hard not to be mesmerized. It’s now on our must-do list for every trip to Paris.
9. One Day in Etretat
Étretat is not the type of place you’ll see listed prominently as a France must-do in any guidebook. Despite its beautiful white sand cliffs and stunning natural arches, it’s a fairly sleepy oceanside town. While famous for being an artist commune that attracted Eugène Delacroix, Gustave Courbe, Claude Monet, and others, it’s not a huge tourist draw–a place where Parisians likely holiday to get away from the city, but not much else.
That’s too bad, because we loved Étretat, and envisioned the sleepy oceanside town as a place we could live. It reminded both of us a lot of the towns we love along Pacific Coast Highway if you drive a couple of hours north or south from Los Angeles. In addition to the natural beauty, it had a walkable downtown with nice storefronts, excellent restaurants, and a small-town ‘retreat’ vibe to it. We only spent one night in Étretat, but we are eager to return.
8. A Parisian Christmas
Christmas in Paris is the perfect marriage between the romanticism of the city and the vibrant cheerfulness of the holiday. There are quaint corners that feel like they could be the setting for a romantic Christmas film starring Cary Grant and Loretta Young. The stores are lavishly decorated, there are lights strung along the streets, and there are delicious holiday desserts everywhere.
Whether your personal version of an ideal Christmas is an ode to commercialism or an important religious holiday, Paris has you covered. Churches and cathedrals like Notre Dame, Sacre Coeur, and others are the perfect places to visit around Christmas. Likewise, the upscale Galeries Lafayette mall is a veritable commercial shrine to the holidays, complete with a giant Swarovski Christmas tree. Because of this joyous atmosphere, November and December are our favorite times of the year to visit Paris, and that’s despite the frigid weather.
7. Being Humbled at Normandy
Nothing prepares you for the experience of standing in the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial amidst the graves of 9,385 of our military who gave their lives during World War II, mostly during D-Day landings and ensuing operations. It was a somber and powerfully moving experience that really drives home history about which we’ve all read and seen depicted in film.
It was a surreal experience, one that made us further appreciate the freedom we have, and a strong reminder of the negative consequences of tyranny that is allowed to incubate unchecked. It was also a beautiful memorial and tribute. The exhibits inside the memorial are well-presented, and seek to pay tribute to those who made the ultimate sacrifice, and also provide perspective on the impact and loss of life that resulted from World War II. Omaha Beach was also fascinating in its own way–particularly in the stark juxtaposition between the bleak mental imagery the beach conjured as compared to the more typical beach scene that we witnessed.
6. Musee de Paris
Paris has a lot of museums. That’s not exactly breaking news given that the Louvre calls Paris home, but there are seriously a lot of museums in the city. Of course the Louvre is the one everyone visits, and it’s a true art palace, but that’s just the beginning.
There’s also Musée d’Orsay, Centre Pompidou, Musée de l’Orangerie, and countless others, each of which could be the flagship museum in another major city. These galleries house some of the world’s greatest artistic masterpieces by the likes of Monet, Renoir, Seurat, Degas, and others. There’s a reason we are such big fans of the Paris Museum Pass; even with it, I doubt we’ll ever make it to every topnotch art museum in Paris.
5. Visiting Versailles
It’s hard for me to believe we haven’t returned to the Palace of Versailles since our first trip to France. It was such an assault on the senses (I mean that in as good of a way as possible) and there was so much we wanted to see during other seasons that it sure seems like a return visit is overdue.
From the stunning Hall of Mirrors to the exterior gardens and everything in between, the Palace of Versailles is something special. Ostentatious, but special, nonetheless. It’s hard to articulate what makes the Palace of Versailles so mesmerizing…but imagine the art of the Louvre mixed with the most grandiose castle in the world, and you’ll have a rough idea.
4. Wandering Paris
I’ll never forget our first night in Paris. It was my first “real” international trip (meaning not Canada and not a Caribbean cruise). We spent over three hours just wandering around the city, with no real agenda aside from eventually making our way to the Eiffel Tower and having dinner. I was awestruck my the beauty, grandeur, and history of Paris. It felt more like a movie set than it did a real place. In only a few hours, we had already fallen in love with Paris.
Strolling through the City of Light is still our #1 thing to do in Paris. (Well, strolling and finding a place to eat.) From the Champs-Elysées, “la plus belle avenue du monde” to Place de la Concorde to the Arc de Triomphe to Avenue Victor Hugo to Victor Hugo Place–a 3 km stroll–is my favorite, but there are countless other neighborhoods to explore and exquisite architecture to enjoy. Paris still reminds me a bit of a movie set, if only movie sets had this much detail and charm.
3. Sunset at Chenonceau
The first time we visited the Loire Valley, stopping at as many locations from the film Impressions de France was a top priority. Without knowing much about it (other than that it was featured in the film), we arrived at Château de Chenonceau an hour before it closed. We walked through the tree-lined path leading to the chateau and entered into a brilliant garden kissed by the glow of late afternoon light. After taking photos of this beautiful scenery for a few minutes, a trio of hot air balloons slowly rose from behind Château de Chenonceau. To call this postcard perfect would be an understatement–it was more like a beautiful, vivid dream.
Ironically, one of the scenes in Impressions de France features hot air balloons in the Loire Valley, with the following passage from The Voyage: “Dreaming of faraway places yet unseen, we say in the words of our great poet Baudelaire…’leave for the sake of leaving and without knowing why, they always say we must go.’” Both the scene we witnessed and that passage are great summations of why we travel.
We love to eat, and we’ve spent plenty of time exploring the rich culinary scenes of Los Angeles, Kyoto, Tokyo, and Hong Kong. As great as those all are, none of them compare to Paris. In France, a meal is not just about decadent, beautifully-plated cuisine–it’s about the experience. Sitting in a quaint Parisian cafe with friends, sipping on a café crème while enjoying a light meal. All while sitting facing the street, soaking up the setting, enrapt in good conversation, and thought.
The cafe culture of France is special, a welcome real-world respite with real people–a break from the constant screen-time. (When did the real world become a respite?!) Of course, there’s also the food. We don’t know how these chefs do it, but it seems like the French have unlocked a ‘secret level’ when it comes to cuisine, and even the more modest restaurants serve up dishes that are divine.
1. Mont Saint Michel
You can’t go home again. Not that Mont Saint-Michel is home, but it’s an experience that left such an impact that I cannot imagine a follow-up visit living up to that. As much as I’ve wanted to revisit Mont Saint-Michel since our first and only visit there, a big part of me wonders if it’s best left to memory. Seeing Mont Saint-Michel’s rising tide at sunset and then the following morning at sunrise remains one of my all-time top travel experiences, and one that remains as vivid in my mind as if it were yesterday.
As excited as I was to visit Miyajima Island in Japan–a “Friendship City” of Mont Saint-Michel, and as great of an experience as that was, it was not as special as Mont Saint-Michel. I’m sure we will go back again at some point, as there is a real magic to see the rising tide transform Mont Saint-Michel to an island and wandering the quiet grounds at night. For those reasons and so many other ones, Mont Saint-Michel is #1 on this list by a pretty wide margin. If you’ve never been, this is a worthy travel bucket list destination–as are many of the other entries onto this list. Hopefully, this list has given you some wanderlust for France. It’s well worth the trip.
Planning your own trip to France? Check out our France posts, which cover a variety of places, from Normandy to the Loire Valley. In addition to these posts, I recommend planning with the Rick Steves France and Loire Valley Eyewitness guidebooks.
If you’ve visited France, what would be your #1 experience? Anything we’ve listed here that you did not enjoy? If you’ve never been, are any of these things on your bucket list? Any questions? Hearing from readers is part of the fun (and is helpful to others), so please share your thoughts in the comments below!