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 could have come straight out of an Impressionist painting, Honfleur was the haunt of artists like Monet and Cézanne in the 1850s, and it doesn’t look like it’s changed much since.
SEE & DO: With its narrow, tall merchants’ houses and old stone salt stores, the Vieux Bassin (historic port) is the old heart of Honfleur and its most picture-perfect spot. Check out France’s largest wooden church, the Église Sainte Catherine, and take a boat trip around the port and out to the huge Pont de Normandie cable bridge. Or head along the coast to the pretty 19th-century seaside resorts of Deauville and Trouville for a day on the beach. Honfleur also has museums in honour of two local heroes – composer Erik Satie and Impressionist painter Eugène Boudin. And if you’re inspired by the town’s artistic atmosphere you can join a painting class – or leave it to the experts and just browse Honfleur’s galleries and studios.
EAT & DRINK: Watch the boats come in over a drink at a harbourside café, then head into Honfleur’s side streets for dinner for better food at lower prices. Normandy is apple country so you’ll find them in all forms from tarte tatin to Calvados liqueur, plus there’s great local seafood, cheese and butter. La Tortue is a cosy restaurant with lots of local produce and good set menu deals – don’t miss their scallops and apple délice with Calvados. Or try Cidrerie Crêperie for paper-thin pancakes served with local cloudy cider.
THE DETAILS: Spend the night in Monet’s old pad at the Ferme Saint Simeon, a smart five-star Relais & Châteaux hotel and spa in a converted farmhouse that was a hostel for artists and musicians in its previous (slightly less fancy) life. Honfleur is close to cross-Channel ferry ports at Le Havre (25km) and Caen (75km), and ferries to Portsmouth take around five hours. The nearest airport is in Paris, where you can catch a train to nearby Deauville/Trouville (1 hour 45 mins) then a local bus or taxi from there 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 some of the most famous names in Champagne, as well as great restaurants and historic sights if you need a break from the bubbles.
SEE & DO: Champagne is everywhere in this town – from the world’s best-known Champagne houses to the miles of tunnels in the cellars underneath your feet. Taittinger, Mumm and Pommery are all within walking distance of the city centre and run tours and tastings without an appointment. Or you can take a trip out into the countryside to discover some of the area’s smaller producers – Le Vigne du Roy do half- or full-day guided tours around the best of the boutique vineyards. Once you’ve had your fill of bubbles, you can check out the city’s Roman Porte Mars gate, the UNESCO-listed Notre-Dame Cathedral (and its next-door neighbour the Palace of Tau) and museums dedicated to art and Second World War history.
EAT & DRINK: Relax with a glass of your favourite vintage and watch the world go by in the cafés around the Place Drouet d’Erlon square. Le Foch is the place for a special meal in Reims, with classic fine-dining French food and a suitably epic wine list. Or try the 1930s-style Café du Palais with its Art Deco décor and hearty bistro food to help soak up the bubbly. Or for something completely different, head 15 minutes outside of town to the Perching Bar, a Champagne bar set six metres high up among the treetops.
THE DETAILS: The Best Western Premier Hôtel de la Paix is right in the centre of Reims, an easy walk (or stagger) to its Champagne houses, bars and restaurants. Inside it’s smart and modern with an indoor pool and a good bar and restaurant. To reach Reims, the nearest airport is in Paris, then it’s 45 mins by train from the Gare d’Est (a five-minute walk from the Eurostar terminal or airport train at Gare du Nord).
Why visit? France meets Germany in one of the country’s most unique regions – the Alsace. Strasbourg is a real city of two halves with postcard-pretty canalside scenes along with a contemporary European political district.
SEE & DO: Wander the backstreets of Strasbourg’s historic Petite-France district, with its canals surrounded by half-timbered houses decked with baskets of flowers. You can take a boat trip through the canals, and then sail out to the ultra-modern European Parliament district to see a totally different side to the city. There’s also a great view over Strasbourg from the top of the cathedral, where you can watch the world’s largest astronomical clock strike ‘noon’ (at, er, 12.30pm). On summer evenings catch the sound and light show which transforms the front of the Barrage Vauban bridge and the cathedral. Or in winter Petite-France turns into a winter wonderland with Christmas market stalls and steaming cups of vin chaud.
EAT & DRINK: There’s a taste of Germany in Alsace’s food too, so you’ll find things like choucroûte garnie – sauerkraut served with pork and potatoes – on the menu. Au Pont Corbeau has some of the best choucroûte in town, though make sure you’re hungry as the portions are huge. Or try a flammekueche (a type of thin-crust pizza with a crème fraîche, bacon and onion topping) at Binchstub along with a glass of local Alsace wine – the area produces great Rieslings and Gewürztraminers, and a sparkling Crémant d’Alsace.
THE DETAILS: The Hotel D Strasbourg is an appropriately Strasbourg-style mix of old and new, with a historic exterior and a sleek boutique hotel interior. It’s only a few minutes’ walk from the old town and comes with sauna, spa and gym. Strasbourg has a small airport with flights from various French and central European destinations. Or by train it’s 2 hours 15 mins to Strasbourg from Paris Gare de l’Est.
Why visit? A historic city in the heart of Burgundy, one of France’s most well-known – and pricey – wine regions, Beaune is the perfect place to feast on fantastic food and drink in the midst of its beautiful surroundings.
SEE & DO: Beaune is surrounded by some of France’s most famous vineyards, but Burgundy’s appellation system takes some getting your head around. Start at the Marché au Vins to get an introduction to the region’s wine before heading to one of the town’s caves (wine cellars) like family-owned Bouchard Aîné et Fils for a tasting. 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.
EAT & DRINK: In Beaune you can eat your wine as well as drink it, with everything from beef to eggs cooked à la Bourguignonne (in Burgundy wine). Try some tasty traditional dishes at Ma Cuisine, a cosy bistro that’s a favourite of local winemakers with dishes like magnet de canard – as well as over 800 wines. Or try the Maison du Colombier for Burgundy’s version of tapas, with plenty of great wines and plates of cheese and charcuterie to share, in a lovely spot with a terrace overlooking Notre-Dame church.
THE DETAILS: The Abbaye de Maizières is a real a trip back in time, in a converted 12th-century abbey packed with original character. Look out for vaulted ceilings, arched doorways, spiral staircases and a candlelit breakfast room (though pack light as there are a lot of stairs). Beaune’s nearest airports are in Paris or Lyon, then it’s 2 hours by train from Paris Gare de Lyon or 2 hours 45 mins from Lyon airport.
Why visit? Canals, castles, a clear blue lake and snow-capped mountains – Annecy has a bit of everything. Sail, ski and hike if you’re feeling energetic, or just get lost in the old town and find your perfect canalside gelato spot.
SEE & DO: Annecy’s old town has more waterways than roads, with tiny islands linked by covered bridges and narrow passageways. The triangular Palais de l’Île is the city’s most photographed building, set between two forks of the river. Over the years it’s been a mint, courthouse and prison but it’s now a museum and is lit up beautifully at night. Up the hill at 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. In summer, set sail on Lake Annecy on a boat trip or dinner cruise, or catch the shuttle boat to one of the neighbouring villages then walk or cycle back along the lakefront path. Or head up into the nearby snowy mountains in winter.
EAT & DRINK: Stock up on local salami sausages and reblochon cheese at the old town market on Tuesdays, Fridays and weekends. Being so close to the Swiss border means Annecy’s food has a bit of a mountain feel, with lots of cheese-fuelled classics like fondue and tartiflette as well as fish from the lake. L’Etage is the place to come for raclette (where you melt your own cheese and eat with potatoes, charcuterie and gherkins). And leave room for gelato at Glacier des Alpes, with 60 delicious flavours (choc orange was my favourite).
THE DETAILS: We stayed in an AirBnB apartment overlooking the old town, but for old-style glamour, try the Impérial Palace. It’s got a stunning location right on the edge of the lake, with bars, restaurants, a casino and spa. Annecy’s nearest airports are in Geneva (1 hour 30 mins) or Chambery (45 mins), both with bus connections. Or it’s 3.5 hours by train from Paris Gare de Lyon, or 1 hour 40 mins from Geneva.
Why visit? With its pointed towers, drawbridges, portcullises and moat, Carcassonne’s UNESCO World Heritage Site medieval walled city is like a fairytale – or a film set – come to life.
SEE & DO: Towering over the city from a hilltop, you can’t miss Carcassonne’s ancient walled city. La Cité was built in the 4th century and its 53 watchtowers and two layers of walls protected it from invaders until it fell into disrepair. It was saved from destruction and rebuilt by architect Viollet-de-Luc in the 19th century, who added a few extra flourishes. Today’s invaders are tourists, with three million visiting each year. Come in spring or autumn, or stay after sunset when the day-trippers leave and the city’s at its most magical. Away from the citadel you’ll find the city’s best cafés and shops in the newer Ville Basse lower town. Or for a change of pace, take a trip out to the nearby Canal du Midi for a boat ride or walk or cycle the towpath.
EAT & DRINK: Carcassonne is in France’s Languedoc region, known for dishes like cassoulet and Spanish-inspired crème Catalane, as well as lots of great wines. Within the city walls, the Hôtel de la Cité’s La Barbacane restaurant serves high-end cuisine in an opulent dining room with wood panels and stained glass. For something a bit more casual, Creperie Le Ble Noir does delicious sweet and savoury crepes (including some made with buckwheat so they’re gluten-free) – though book in advance or brave the queue.
THE DETAILS: For the full fairytale experience, splash out on a stay at the Hôtel de la Cité – one of just a few places you can stay inside La Cité. This luxurious medieval-style chateau has a terrace with stunning views plus an outdoor pool and spa. Carcassonne airport has direct flights from the UK, Ireland, Belgium and Portugal, or Toulouse airport is 2 hours away. Carcassonne is 5.5 hours by train from Paris Gare de Lyon.
Why visit? Those Popes had good taste – packed with impressive art and architecture, Avignon has big city-style history, culture and food in a small package, with gorgeous Provençal countryside on its doorstep.
SEE & DO: Avignon was the home of the Popes in the 14th century, and they left their legacy in the Palais des Papes. This giant fortress palace towers over Avignon with fab views from its rooftop terrace. Wander around the walled old town and explore its museums and boutiques, then do some people-watching with a coffee or glass of wine outside the city’s opera house in the Place de l’Horloge. Take a walk (or should that be dance?) ‘Sur le Pont d’Avignon’ – made famous by a catchy French kids song – though it only goes halfway across the river so don’t try to cross it. Or you can sail past the bridge on a boat along the Rhône river, with hour-long circular routes or longer trips out to Arles or the Châteauneuf-du-Pape wine region.
EAT & DRINK: Provençal food is packed with fresh produce, and you can pick up your own at Avignon’s Les Halles food market. In summer you can’t beat a local goat’s cheese salad and glass of rosé, and in winter try warming stews like boeuf en daube or bouillabaisse. For a special meal, Restaurant Christian Etienne serves Michelin-starred fine-dining dishes on a terrace overlooking the Palais des Papes. Or for something a bit more casual, Le Potard does juicy burgers in a converted chapel with a blues soundtrack.
THE DETAILS: We stayed in a lovely AirBnB apartment in the old town. Or try La Banasterie, an arty B&B with just six rooms in a historic building in the old town. Avignon has a small airport with flights from the UK, or it’s less than a hour from Nimes or Marseille airports. By train there’s a direct Eurostar from London to Avignon that takes 5 hours 49 mins, or its 2 hours 40 mins from Paris Gare de Lyon.
Why visit? A hidden gem on France’s Atlantic coast just south of the Medoc wine region, Arcachon is surrounded by unspoilt beaches, pine forests and sprawling dunes, and is home to some fantastic seafood.
SEE & DO: Arcachon is a seaside resort town on a stretch of coastline in southwest France known as the Côte D’Argent – or silver coast – which has over 200km of unspoilt sandy beaches. Explore the historic grand villas along Arcachon’s seafront, try some of the area’s famous oysters or take a boat trip out into the bay or to a nearby bird sanctuary. You can hire a car to explore some of the surrounding area – there’s 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 clamber to the top of Europe’s largest sand dune, the Dune du Pyla, which towers 107 metres high with panoramic views out along the Atlantic coastline.
EAT & DRINK: Oysters are the star attraction in Arcachon – eat them freshly plucked from the Bassin d’Arcachon at L’Oyster Bar, a small restaurant inside Arcachon’s market, or try a local speciality where they’re steamed over pine needles. Chez Pierre at the Café de la Plage has a fantastic location overlooking the beach and serves oysters (of course) as well as other seafood like mussels, clams and lobster. Try their seafood platter with a glass of crisp white Bordeaux for the perfect summer evening.
THE DETAILS: The Hotel Le B d’Arcachon is right on the seafront with bright, modern, good value rooms, many with sea view balconies. The nearest airport to Arcachon is in Bordeaux, around 2 hours 15 mins away by train. Or it’s 5 hours by train from Paris Montparnasse to Arcachon (change in Bordeaux).
Read more: Striking silver on France’s Côte D’Argent
Why visit? The glitz and glamour of the Côte d’Azur meets 16th-century historic walled town, with a side order of golden Mediterranean beaches. If you think you know the South of France, Antibes might surprise you.
SEE & DO: Vieil Antibes is a maze of cobbled streets and pastel buildings set within the old city walls. Get lost in the narrow streets and you’ll discover tiny boutique shops and pavement cafés. The Musée Picasso has some of his works on show in the château he lived in for six months. The town’s still a favourite for artists, with studios inside the city walls and Jaume Plensa’s Nomade sculpture on top of them. Along the Antibes seafront you’ll find the Med’s largest marina – a millionaires’ playground perfect for a spot of fantasy yacht shopping. The Plage de la Gravette is right in town, or if you walk south you’ll find a string of sandy beaches, or take a walk across the headland to neighbouring Juan-les-Pins, an art-deco style beach resort.
EAT & DRINK: 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. Or try some of the local seafood at L’Oursin with fresh fish and seafood pastas and risottos on the menu and tables outside on the square. Or Le Vauban uses local seasonal ingredients to create French classics with a twist – including a good-value, six-course tasting menu for €48.
THE DETAILS: We stayed in a small but perfectly formed AirBnB apartment on the edge of town, but were also recommended the Mas Djoliba Hotel, a villa a few minutes’ walk from the beach with a pool, terrace and gardens, and one suite with a sea view roof terrace. The nearest airport to Antibes is in Nice, 15 mins by train or taxi, and Monaco airport is 50 mins 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 an old romantic or more of a food-lover, history-lover, art-lover, shopping-lover or culture-lover, you could never get bored in the French capital.
SEE & 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. You can watch the 14th July fireworks and picnic in the park in summer or ice skate and shop the Christmas markets in winter. 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 to fairground rides. And there’s always the city’s huge array of world-class boutiques, restaurants and bars to eat, drink and shop your way around.
EAT & DRINK: Each Parisian neighbourhood has it’s own character, but one of my favourites is Bohemian, history-packed Montmartre. Set beneath a windmill, the Moulin de la Galette gets its name from a cabaret on the site which was visited by artists like Renoir and Van Gogh. Now it’s an upscale restaurant serving modern French food in an ivy-draped courtyard. Or try popular Les Apotres de Pigalle for tapas-style South American comfort food with sharing plates like truffle mac and cheese or chicken quesadillas.
THE DETAILS: I’m super-lucky to be have friends with an apartment in Paris to stay in – and there are lots of rentals in Montmartre. Or if you’re looking for a hotel, Le Relais Montmartre has lots of character, really good service and a great central location. 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.
Read more: Visiting Paris on a budget
So which would you most like to visit – or do you have another favourite French weekend destination?
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