I’ve spent more time in France than anywhere else in the world – from childhood holidays in Normandy to house-sitting in Paris and a winter skiing in the Alps. And one of the things I love most about the country is its diversity. Whatever kind of trip you fancy you can find it in France – museum hop around a city, laze on a sandy beach, taste wine from the vineyard, live it up in a luxurious château – the possibilities are endless. So to get you started here are ten of my favourite, tried-and-tested French weekend break destinations.
Why visit? A Normandy harbour town that’s straight out of an Impressionist painting, Honfleur was the haunt of painters like Monet and Cézanne, and it doesn’t look like it’s changed much since.
What can you see and do? The Vieux Bassin, or historic port, is the heart of Honfleur, surrounded by narrow, tall merchants’ houses and old stone salt stores. Watch the boats come in over a drink at one of the harbourside cafés, and make sure to try some local seafood or Normandy apples – used in everything from tarte tatin to Calvados liqueur. You can take a boat trip around the port and out to the Pont de Normandie – one of the world’s largest cable bridges. Also check out the wooden church of Saint Catherine, and the museum dedicated to Impressionist painter Eugène Boudin. If you’re inspired by the artistic atmosphere you can join a painting class – or leave it to the experts at the town’s art galleries and studios.
How do you get there? Honfleur is close to cross-Channel ferry ports at Le Havre (25km) and Caen (75km), with ferries to Portsmouth taking around five hours. The nearest airport is in Paris, where you can get a train to nearby Deauville/Trouville (1 hour 45 mins) then a local bus or taxi to Honfleur.
Read more… An artistic weekend in Honfleur, Normandy
Why visit? Gallons of bubbly – need I say more? The capital of France’s Champagne wine region is home to big-name Champagne houses as well as plenty of great restaurants and historic sights.
What can you see and do? Champagne is everywhere in this town – from the famous Champagne houses to the pavement bars around the Place Drouet d’Erlon, to the miles of tunnels in the underground cellars beneath your feet. Taittinger, Mumm and Pommery are all within walking distance of the city centre and run tours without an appointment, or you can take a trip out into the countryside to discover some of the smaller producers. When you’ve had your fill of bubbles, check out the city’s Roman Porte Mars gate, the UNESCO-listed Notre-Dame Cathedral and the museums dedicated to art and Second World War history.
How do you get there? The nearest airport is in Paris, then it’s a 45-minute train trip from the Gare d’Est (a five-minute walk from the Eurostar terminal at Gare du Nord) to Reims.
Why visit? France meets Germany in one of the country’s most unique regions – the Alsace. Strasbourg mixed postcard-pretty canalside scenes with a contemporary European political district.
What can you see and do? Wander the backstreets of historic Petite-France, where half-timbered houses decked with baskets of flowers surround the canals. It’s the perfect spot for a glass of Alsace wine and a flammekueche (thin-crust pizza with crème fraîche, bacon and onions). Take a boat trip along the canals and out to the ultra-modern European Parliament. You can also get a great view over the city from the top of the cathedral, and watch the world’s largest astronomical clock strike ‘noon’ (at, er, 12.30pm). On summer evenings catch the sound and light show at Barrage Vauban and the cathedral, or in winter Petite-France turns into a winter wonderland of Christmas market stalls and steaming cups of vin chaud.
How do you get there? Strasbourg has a small airport with flights from various French and central European destinations. Or by train it’s 2 hours 15 mins from Paris Gare de l’Est to Strasbourg.
Why visit? A historic city at the heart of Burgundy, one of France’s most well-known – and pricey – wine regions, where you can feast on fantastic food and drink in beautiful surroundings.
What can you see and do? Start at the Marché au Vins to get an introduction to Burgundy wine before heading to one of the town’s caves – or wine cellars – like family-owned Bouchard Aîné et Fils. You can also follow the 60km-long Routes des Grands Crus (‘route of great wines’) by bike or on a tour to discover the Côte d’Or and Côte de Beaune wine-growing areas. Visit the ornate Hôtel Dieu des Hospices de Beaune, a hospital-turned-museum where you can see how former patients lived (four-poster beds and velvet curtains included). It now hosts an annual wine auction and festival each November. And you can eat your wine as well as drink it with everything from beef to eggs cooked à la Bourguignonne (in Burgundy wine).
How do you get there? The nearest airports are in Paris or Lyon. You can reach Beaune by train from Paris Gare de Lyon in just over 2 hours or from Lyon airport in 2 hours 45 mins.
Why visit? On France’s Atlantic coast just south of the Medoc wine region, Arcachon’s a hidden gem with unspoilt beaches, pine forests and sprawling dunes, along with great seafood.
What can you see and do? Arcachon is part of a stretch of coastline called the Côte D’Argent – or silver coast – which has over 200km of sandy beaches. Explore the historic grand villas along Arcachon’s seafront and feast on local oysters from the Bassin d’Arcachon, which come steamed over pine needles. Hire a car to get out and explore some of the surrounding area – like the Caribbean-style white-sand beaches of Cap Ferret, the vineyards of Bordeaux’s Haut Medoc, and the surfing beaches and sailing lakes of Carcans and Lacanau. Or you can clamber to the top of Europe’s largest sand dune, the Dune du Pyla, which towers 100 metres high and has panoramic views out across the Atlantic coastline.
How do you get there? The nearest airport is in Bordeaux, around 2 hours 15 mins away by train. Or from Paris Montparnasse it’s 5 hours by train to Arcachon (change in Bordeaux).
Read more… Striking silver on France’s Côte D’Argent
Why visit? Originally an elegant seaside resort for holidaying French aristocrats, Biarritz has had a new lease of life as a surfing mecca come luxurious coastal spa destination.
What can you see and do? Nicknamed France’s California, the fantastic Atlantic waves have made Biarritz Europe’s surfing capital – try out the waves yourself with a surf lesson or watch the pros from one of the city’s six beaches. But originally the city’s visitors were more European royalty than surfer dudes, and you can join the promenade along the seafront past Belle Époque mansions from its glamourous heyday. As it’s only 15 miles from the border, Biarritz mixes in Spanish influences so you can feast on pintxos (Basque tapas), or take a day trip to the Spanish gastronomic hotspot San Sebastián, an hour away by train.
How do you get there? Biarritz has its own airport, with direct flights from France, Spain and the UK. Or it’s 5.5 hours by train from Paris Montparnasse to Biarritz.
Why visit? With its pointed towers, drawbridges, portcullises and moats, Carcassonne’s medieval citadel could have come straight out of a fairytale – or a film set.
What can you see and do? Towering over the city from a hilltop, you can’t miss Carcassonne’s ancient walled city. Its 53 watchtowers and two layers of walls protected it from invaders until it fell into disrepair and was reconstructed in 19th century. Today’s invaders are tourists, with four million visiting each year. Come in spring or autumn, or stay after sunset when the day-trip hoards leave and the city’s most magical. Away from the castle you’ll find the best cafés, restaurants and shops in the Ville Basse lower town. Or for a change take a trip out to the nearby Canal du Midi for a boat ride or to walk or cycle the towpath.
How do you get there? Carcassonne airport has direct flights from the UK, Spain, Portugal, France and Belgium, or Toulouse airport is 2 hours away. Carcassonne is 5.5 hours by train from Paris Gare de Lyon.
Why visit? Canals, castles, a clear blue lake and snow-capped mountains – Annecy has a bit of everything. Sail, ski, hike or just get lost in the old town and find your perfect canalside gelato spot.
What can you see and do? Annecy’s old town has more waterways than roads, as the river splits to create tiny islands linked by covered bridges and narrow passageways. Set between two forks of the river, the triangular Palais de l’Île is the city’s most photographed building. Over the years it’s been a mint, courthouse and prison but it’s now a museum and is lit up beautifully by night. Up the hill in the Château d’Annecy there’s another museum with information on the city’s history and the lake’s ecology as well as panoramic views from the terrace. Set sail on Lake Annecy on a boat trip or dinner cruise, or catch the shuttle boat to one of the neighbouring lakeside villages and then cycle or walk back along the lakefront path.
How do you get there? The nearest airports are in Geneva (1 hour 30 mins) or Chambery (45 mins), both with connections by bus. It’s 3.5 hours by train from Paris Gare de Lyon, or 1 hour 40 mins from Geneva.
Why visit? Côte d’Azur glamour meets 16th-century historic walled town, with a side of golden Mediterranean beaches. If you think you know the South of France, Antibes will surprise you.
What can you see and do? Within the city walls, Vieil Antibes is a maze of cobbled streets and pastel buildings. Visit the Musée Picasso, where his work is on show in the château he lived in for six months. The town’s still a favourite for artists, with studios in the city walls and Jaume Plensa’s Nomade sculpture on top of them. Call in at the Marché Provençal to stock up on cheeses, olives and charcuterie then grab a bottle of local rosé for a beach picnic. The Plage de la Gravette is right in town, or if you walk south you’ll find a string of sandy beaches, or head north for a spot of fantasy yacht shopping in the Med’s largest marina.
How do you get there? The nearest airport is in Nice, 15 minutes away from Annecy by train or taxi, and Monaco airport is 50 minutes by train. Or its 5 hours 15 mins by train from Paris Gare de Lyon.
Why visit? Because Paris is always a good idea. Whether you’re a romantic or just more of a food-lover, history-lover, art-lover or culture-lover, you’ll never get bored in the French capital.
What can you see and do? What can’t you do – Paris has something for everyone. You can focus on the classic Parisian experiences and climb the Eiffel Tower, watch the painters in Montmartre, visit the Mona Lisa in the Louvre and take a boat trip down the Seine. Or you can uncover some of the city’s more unusual attractions like the ornate cemeteries, the Promenade Plantée railway line-turned-park and the quirky museums dedicated to everything from the sewers and perfume-making to fairground rides. Or you can just eat, drink and shop your way around the city’s huge array of world-class boutiques, restaurants and bars.
How do you get there? Paris has two main international airports – Charles de Gaulle and Orly – with flights from across the world. Or it’s 2 hours 20 mins by Eurostar from London St Pancras.
Which would you most like to visit – or do you have another favourite French weekend destination?