God knows that a trip to Paris could take a lifetime. If that’s not available, whatever works will do, whether you have three months, three weeks, three days, or just enough time to hop into town between an early-morning arrival and a late-night connection. For many people, though, Paris is one part of a trip to France. But where to head for the second half?
In many ways, that answer depends on what time of year it is. No one understands the idea that “to every French destination there is a season” better than the French — so plan accordingly. Below, my choices, and pluses and minuses for all.
Without a doubt this is the most popular, since it’s also the closest, as Normandy (both Upper and Lower) share a border with the Ile-de-France, the administrative region that includes Paris and its neighboring suburbs. It’s not just convenience — this is a fantastic choice, at least during good weather. I think it’s at its best during the spring, before the crowds, and when everything’s blooming.
Pros: Are you interested in WWII? Here is where you’ll find the majority of WWII sites, including the D-Day beaches, the hugely moving American cemetery, and museums. Are you interested in other, non-WWII historical sites? Then head for Bayeux, where you can see the Bayeux tapestry, which celebrates the exploits of William the Conqueror — or Rouen, especially if you’re interested in Joan of Arc. If it’s summer — and you don’t mind crowds, head for the seaside resorts of Etretat, Fécamp, Honfleur, and Deauville/Trouville, two Channel-side resort towns that become a de facto “21st arrondissement” during the summer. Monet’s garden at Giverny is in Normandy, as well. Gardeners may also be interested in a modern private garden of some renown, le Jardin Plume. Le Havre, meanwhile, is a fascinating harbor city with a stellar modern art museum and an architectural landmark in its cathedral.
It’s easy to navigate Normandy, and even easier with a car, though all of the cities above except Etretat and Fécamp are easily reached from Paris by train. It is much easier to explore the WWII sites independently with a car; otherwise, you’ll need to take a tour.
Best for: Everyone, from history lovers to art lovers to gourmandes (the village of Camembert is in Normandy, as is the famous apple-producing region of Calvados) — it’s amazing.
Cons: It’s cold and damp outside the main season: April through October, with the high season in June and July. And then during the high season, the crowds are tremendous. And it can be more expensive than cheaper areas, like Brittany — though prices vary tremendously within the region as well: An Airbnb cabin in Calvados will be cheaper than Le Normandy in Deauville.
Occupying the westernmost arm of France, Brittany’s beautiful. And it’s at its best during the summer, when temperature (and sunshine levels) are at their highest. Even the high season rush to the coastal resorts are generally more manageable than you’ll find in neighboring Normandy.
Pros: While you’re officially still in France, you’ll certainly have the feeling of being in an entirely different culture, thanks to the region’s connection to the Celtic world. Much looks different here, from the street signs to the town names to even the desserts (if “kouign amann” doesn’t look French, you’d be right).
The big draws are generally considered to be seaside towns like Carnac, Dinan, and Pont-Aven — not forgetting the walled city of Saint-Malo, which was destroyed during World War II and treated to an elaborate and successful reconstruction. (This will definitely be better experienced before the full tourist rush in July and August). Bring your swimsuit or take a boat tour of the coastline — it’s spectacular.
Quimper isn’t on the beach, but it has a rich Cornish history and a namesake style of ceramics. It also hosts a yearly music festival in late July.
Cons: The crowds can get overwhelming on late summer weekends, but it’s worth risking it to ensure good weather — however damp and cold Normandy gets, Brittany gets more so, and many attractions offer limited hours during the off season.
Provence is beautiful any time of year, but come autumn, the Frenchies are back at school and work — most of the the vacationers as well — and the water’s still warm, but not oppressively so.
Pros: Provence is gorgeous: lavender and sunflower fields, azure-colored gorges, and ancient villages. It may be France at its best. This will especially be true if you like Provençal cuisine: think olive oil, tomatoes, basil, garlic, and other summery ingredients. Come here to relax, eat well, drink well, swim, relax, swim, relax, repeat, etc. Prices can be high in places like Avignon during the summer rush, especially during its famous festival in July; you’ll avoid the worst of this by coming in September or October.
Cons: Come earlier in autumn to get the best of the weather and before the more seasonal attractions close or reduce to winter hours.
Alsace is a fascinating part of France, with a unique history — this region has passed back and forth between France and Germany for generations — and a cuisine and culture all its own. You wanted a pretzel? Sauerkraut? A tarte flambée? This is the place. Also….
Pro: CHRISTMAS MARKETS! Strasbourg has the best Christmas market in all of France. Strasbourg is a fine destination throughout the year, but it’s an international star in the weeks leading up to Christmas.
Sure, there are plenty of other things to see in Alsace in general and Strasbourg in particular, including the nearby “Route des Vins” in Kaysersberg (sadly, this is the small village where Anthony Bourdain died). Colmar is famous for its canals. And the whole place is a fantastic jumping-off point for neighboring Germany and Baden-Baden (which, frankly, has an even better Christmas market) and is a famous spa town (I wrote about it for Hemispheres — it’s great!). It’s now easier than ever to access, thanks to a two-hour TGV train ride — including discount fares on the OUIGO service.
Cons: It gets cold? The Christmas market is only up for about five weeks. And while the run-up to Christmas is magical, January and February will be less so (in which case, decamp for the Alps, please!)