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Planning a Trip to France – Your Ultimate Guide to a French Getaway 2024

how to plan a trip to France
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France is my favorite place in the world. With a classic Renaissance style, slower pace of existence, ancient architecture, butter croissants, and stinky cheese shops – it’s a decadent wonderland for savoring the simple pleasures in life.

I’m writing the guide that I WISH someone had written for me before I spent a semester abroad and traveled through every region of France (therefore making every possible mistake in every region of France!) I’ve visited the country 7 times and have a unique perspective to help you see beyond the popularized glamour of Paris (yes, the City of Love is enchanting! But there is so much more to France than Paris).

I hope this guide encourages you to see the unique regions of France, each influenced by it’s bordering neighbors of England, Spain, the Mediterranean, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Brussels, and Luxembourg. We will cover the perfect French itinerary with a region-by-region breakdown, along with tips for getting around, Visa requirements, and much more!

Planning a Trip to France

To determine where you should visit, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What is your specific vision? – Do you picture yourself on a Mediterranean beach or in a magnificent Medieval cathédrale? Atop the French Alps skiing or drinking wine in the valleys of Bordeaux? These specifics will help you map out a game plan.
  • Do you want to visit during Peak Season or Off-Season? – Peak season (summer) will offer more crowds, more to do, and nicer weather. Conversely, the off-season (winter) will provide cheaper rates, more peace, but unpredictably yucky weather. Shoulder season is a moderate balance of the two (spring and autumn), but certain weeks and holidays year-round may reflect high-season rates because the demand is steadily going up.
  • Do your personal goals align with that season? – If seeking fun in the sun, the southern region will have stunning beaches and hikes to offer. If looking for city sightseeing – summer, spring, and autumn will provide a beautiful backdrop (I would avoid the off-season though, when it’s freezing and tends to rain very often). However, if you’re looking for snow, skiing, or want to avoid crowds, the quieter off-season months can be ideal.
  • What is your budget?– Are you traveling on a budget like a backpacker, on a moderate budget that allows for more guided tours, or a luxury tour that will involve private excursions and top-notch experiences?
  • Do you plan to city-hop? – Leave plenty of time in the itinerary to get from town to town. What looks like a 2-hour train ride can easily turn into a 6-hour journey to your next accommodation.

Keep in mind that most businesses in France are closed on Sundays. This is a period of religious homage rooted in France’s catholic faith. You’ll find some options in the morning, but other areas can feel like a ghost town.

And museums are often closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. So keep those tidbits in mind while you read this guide and plan your trip accordingly.

The Perfect French Itinerary – Region by Region

Let’s take a counterclockwise circle around this magical country, based on popular French destinations (including some hidden gems!):

Northern Region – Love, Architecture, & Beaches

Paris, Versailles, Champagne Region, Normandy, Mont St. Michelle
While the south is more Mediterranean in nature and cuisine – the north of France is more British (in culture, stoicism, and their love of creamy, buttery dishes!)

Paris

I do recommend flying into Paris, because it’s a fantastic way to start or end your trip, and you’ll find the bulk of flight options through Charles De Gaulle Airport (stay away from Beauvais Airport at all costs!)

But many people will start their trip in Paris and stay here the entire time. In my opinion, never leaving the City of Love would be a mistake, because despite its beauty, there are so many other worlds in France worth experiencing.

In Paris, be sure to hit the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre Museum. Historical monuments are scattered all over town and taking a river cruise down the Seine can be a romantic way to get a lay of the land.

Some of my go-to gems in Paris are:

  • The oldest vineyard in Paris, La Vigne de Montmartre
  • The Roman influence of the Latin District, great shopping!
  • The Parc des Buttes-Chaumont
  • Within le Jardin du Luxembourg, the Fontaine Medici
  • Life-changing brunch spot near le Jardin du Luxembourg, Treize au Jardin
  • The Montmartre and the Marais are the most artistic arrondissements (neighborhoods), both North of the Seine
  • On Rue Mouffetard, there’s a secret passage
  • The Passage des Panorama is amazing for pictures!
  • The catacombs underground hold 5+ million dead bodies… romantic right?
  • The Musée de l’Orangerie is a treat for Monet lovers, but reserve your tickets early or lines will wrap around the corner

Versailles

The former home of King Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette, the Palace of Versailles is only 1 hour outside of Paris. This Château of extravagance was built in 1661 and became the center of politics, parties, and hunting. Louis XIV moved the government to the town of Versailles to extract more control over the nobility by separating himself from the sensationalism of Paris.

Dripped in gold exteriors and lavish details, it’s a thought-provoking tour that you should experience. You can walk through the royal quarters, bedrooms, chapel, hall of mirrors, and humongous gardens, hearing stories of how the French royals once lived (just before peasants came with pitchforks and chased them back to Paris!)

Versailles
Versailles
Versailles

The Champagne Region

Another day trip that’s only 1 hour Southeast of Paris by high-speed train – the Champagne Region. This is a fantastic way to get out of the city and breath in that fresh countryside air… and sip some bubbly! The sparkling wines are made famous by the rich soil of this region; in fact, anything created outside of this area cannot be referred to as authentic champagne.

Many tours will include transport and vineyard tastings, taking you to the best spots so you can sip til the sun goes down!

Normandy

About 3 hours North of Paris, you’ll find a historic town on the coast’s edge. Normandy is a well-known World War II site with beaches such as the D-Day Landings.

If you are interested in the World Wars, sweeping landscapes, and food that warms the soul, this is a wonderful place to stop on your journey. We stopped at the cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer that honors the 9K+ American troops that died in WWII.

Mont Saint-Michelle

About 2 hours from Normandy, Mont St. Michele is one of the most special places I’ve ever seen. Perched on an island that feels forgotten in the Northwest corner of France, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is known for a few things:

First off, it has a current population of only 30 people… mostly nuns and monks. Secondly, over 30-million people visit the abbey each year to witness the expansive Gothic architecture that dates back to the late 8th century.

Third (and most wild of all), each day the tides come in so quickly around this island that they have killed hundreds of people. Whether they underestimate the speed or simply can’t outrun it, the water fills in such a short amount of time that it’s considered to be at “the speed of a charging horse.” It’s a strange and fascinating place that is worth the detour if you are up North.

Western Region – History, Castles, & Wine!

Loire Valley, Angers, Bordeaux

As you make your way South to the Western region, this quadrant of France is known for its rich history, royal residents, and a plethora of les châteaux (castles). As a neighbor to Spain, the west side reflects its influence in terracotta architecture, rich flavors, fertile soil, and abundant sunshine.

Loire Valley

The Loire Valley, also known as ‘The Valley of Kings’ and ‘The Garden of France,’ sprawls across the Western Pays de la Loire and Centre-Val de Loire. There are day trips from Paris and I recommend stopping at Château de Chambord, the most famous and impressive of Renaissance castles. Château de Chenonceau, Cheverny, and Château d’Usse are also wonderful options.

Loire Valley
Loire Valley
Loire Valley
Loire Valley

Angers

Angers is the town where I studied abroad to learn the French language and I found it to be so charming! It’s small, doesn’t have a ton of action, and basically no one speaks English.But if you’re looking for cozy pubs, calm walking parks, historic castles, and riverfront views, it really has a lot to offer. Angers is 90 minutes outside of Paris and is famous for a 13th-century château, the Cathédrale Saint-Maurice d’Angers, and riverside views. It also boasts the largest and oldest Medieval tapestry in the world.

Bordeaux

4 hours South of Angers, you will find Bordeaux, the hub for a high-tannin Cabernet wine! If you want to vineyard-hop and spend the afternoon strolling down romantic cobblestone streets, you will feel right at home in Bordeaux.

This town also has a gorgeous cathédrale and a world-class art collection in the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Bordeaux.

Southern Region – a Mediterranean Paradise & Luxury’s Finest

Marseille, French Riviera, Provance, French Alps

Moving along the Spanish border, you can take a 6-hour train or bus ride to the South of France.

This is my personal favorite part of the country, the most luscious and Mediterranean region with bright teal beaches, incredible hikes, fresh seafood cuisine, and luxury living. If you like sunshine 300 days a year and a fusion of Italian, Spanish, and French – this is the place for you.

Marseille

Marseille is for the romantics at heart. Founded in 600 B.C. by the Greeks, this is the oldest city in France and the first trading center for the French Republic. I recommend making a fresh breakfast here, exploring the old pier filled with yachts and sailboats, and making your way to a breathtaking hike. Hop on a bus towards the Calanques National Park and pack for an epic 1-hour hike to the coast.

Once you reach the edge, you will be greeted by the most magnificent views and a horizon that feels infinite. I packed a 3€ bottle of wine (not the smartest for a hike, bring water too!) and enjoyed an afternoon on a pebbly beach, swimming in the Mediterranean Sea.

Fair Warning: The water is colder than you would expect, even in the summer. And the French love nude beaches so maybe leave the kids at home, but everyone keeps their space. If you go during the shoulder or off-season, you will have plenty of privacy.

French Riviera

Nicknamed the Cote d’Azur (blue coast) in the 19th century, the French Riviera is an area known for being a playground for the wealthy. There are large penthouses, seaside resorts, and tons of casinos to choose from. The French Riviera encompasses cities like Cannes where the international film festival is hosted each year, Cassis which is known for its Calanques, and charming beach towns like Nice, St. Tropaz, Saint-Raphaël, Monaco, and gambling-central, Monte Carlo.

You could easily dedicate a week or two to strictly exploring this region or jaunting down to Italy. Take your time and taste your way through every Mediterranean flavor this part of the country has to offer!

Provence

Provence lies on the Southeastern coast of the French Riviera, but it falls into a separate category (for me at least) due to its vast landscapes and rolling lavender fields. You’ll find this nook curled up between Italy, the French Alps, and Camargue Plains.

This area is similar to Bordeaux since you will find lush vineyards and pine forests. From the saffron fields to olive groves, you can become one with nature and live in a scenic escape that almost resembles a painting.

Eastern Region – a Picturesque Fairytail Land

French Alps, Strasbourg, Lyon

Lastly, the Eastern handle of the country, also known as Le Grand Est, is an absolute delight for the senses!

Each region of France mirrors its closest border and takes on cultural aspects due to proximity and boundary lines that have gone back and forth for centuries. The East takes on influence from its next-door connections of Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, and Switzerland.

From towns like Strasbourg that looks like a Disney fantasyland, to the glaciers and mountain peaks of the French Alps, to the Vineyards of Burgundy – you will find no shortage of activities in Le Grand Est.

The French Alps

The Alps are Europe’s largest extending mountain range, split between France, Switzerland, Monaco, Liechtenstein, Austria, Germany, Slovenia, and Italy. The French portion is located 7 hours from Paris, heading Southwest by car. The main cities you can stay in are Chamonix, Chambéry, or Grenoble. Mountains surround each and will offer you outstanding hiking, skiing, snowboarding, and even river rafting in certain valleys. The area changes a lot depending on the time of year you’re visiting, so consider the seasonal activities you aim to do.

Lyon

2 hours West of the French Alps lies the capital city of the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region, Lyon.

During the Renaissance period, Lyon was at the heart of a gastronomy revolution (an increasing love of food and a developing understanding for cuisine between the 15th-17th century). Since this period (known as the ‘rebirth’ of Europe), Lyon has been respected for its welcoming ambiance and ancient landmarks that date back to 1 B.C.

Be sure to check out the Roman Amphithéâtre des Trois Gaulesm and UNESCO World Heritage Site, Basilica “Notre-Dame de Fourvière,” which was built to thank the Virgin Mary for sparing their city during the French-Prussion War. The church is constructed on top of a Roman Site that was once believed to be a public forum.

Strasbourg

Last but certainly not least… Strasbourg is a slice of Disney’s ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ carved into reality. It’s so picturesque that it almost doesn’t look real. I visited this town for 2 nights, escaping my studies for a quick fairytale moment in the Alsace (swoon!)

The Alsace-Lorraine region is known for its blend of German and French culture, owned by Germany until ownership reverted to the French in 1920 within the Treaty of Versailles agreement.

To be honest, there isn’t much to do here unless it’s the holidays and you’ve got Christmas markets in centre-ville. And everything is desolate on Sundays for religious reverence.

But the shops are chic, the wine is fine, and you won’t find another place quite like it! Tour the staggering Cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-Strasbourg and visit Le Petite France for photo-worthy backdrops. For dinner, check out options like Restaurant Le Kuhn for legit Alsatian food, including flammkuchen and cordon bleu.

If you love this vibe and want more, visit nearby towns like Colmar, Eguisheim, Kaysersberg, and Riquewihr. You can make a week out of it and live in artwork, all at arm’s reach from Paris!

Getting Around France

Utilize the well-developed network of public transportation at your disposal. Taxis and Ubers are useful options to have as a backup in larger cities, but they may not be as available in smaller towns (and can really add up fast against your budget!)

I use the Rome2Rio app to find the easiest method of transport from Point A. to Point B. Often, it’s complex (take this plane, walk 5 minutes, hop on the E bus, walk 10 minutes to a train station, take the RER high-speed train, walk 15 minutes, etc.), but you’ll have a step-by-step outline of multiple route options (best, fastest, cheapest, etc.)

If you plan to use the train throughout your travels, you can save money on accommodations by booking overnight train rides to far away destinations (6-9 hours+). You may also consider the Rail Europe Pass, which may help you to reap the benefits of savings and convenience (not having to buy a ticket for every individual trip).

Find cheap flights overseas through Skyscanner or Hopper. I also set a Google Flight alert so it makes me aware of any sudden drops in airfare rates.

Do You Need a Visa for France?

If you are a U.S. citizen with a passport, you are not required to obtain a visa prior to your departure for France. The only exception is if you are visiting for 90 days within a timeframe of 180 days.

Travelers are also no longer mandated to present proof of a negative COVID-19 test or undergo a screening upon arrival in France. While all requirements are subject to change, you can reference the France International Travel website for up-to-date information.

We hope this guide has been helpful to you in planning the trip of a lifetime! Be sure to peruse our 2 Days in Paris – Bucketlist Itinerary and France Packing List.

Here are some final but crucial tips for traveling to France:

  • Start planning 3 months early – It can take months to nail down all of the details.
  • Give yourself 2-3 days minimum per city – I’d recommend 5 days in Paris if you have the time. Traveling between cities can take 2-12 hours.
  • Book travel insurance – We use Faye Travel Insurance to protect our vacation investment against cancelations, delays, baggage loss, theft, and medical emergencies that could cost a fortune overseas.
  • Purchase a VPN to prevent hacking – When utilizing public, free networks at cafes, airports, hotels, Airbnbs, etc., you are putting your private data at risk. Protect yourself with a virtual private network, adding a layer of encryption to all of your passwords, credit card numbers, and personal identity information.
  • Fly in on a Tuesday or Wednesday for cheaper airfare tickets – November, January, and February are the cheapest months to fly to France.
  • Convert your cash a few weeks in advance – Sometimes banks have to order it or you have to go to a larger location that carries multiple currencies.
  • Call your phone company to set up an international plan – Or get a European SIM card for your phone.
  • Bring jet lag relief – I truly notice a difference when I travel internationally with or without these. Natural jet lag relief supplements use chamomile and botanicals instead of uppers like caffeine to keep you energized through 10+ hour flights, layovers, time changes, and exhausting travel days.
  • Bring activated charcoal in case of food poisoning – Food or impure tap water can cause bouts of nausea and stomach pain. We pack activated charcoal as a natural detoxifier that will remove pathogens that cause distress, minimizing the time wasted during a precious vacation. Remember that the French don’t typically offer ice in soft drinks or water (unless requested), but ice can lead to food poisoning.
  • Consider the pros and cons of each region – The north has chilly beaches, and the south doesn’t have Paris… Weigh your priorities.
  • Day trips are the best part of an extended trip – There are plenty of ways to bounce from different regions without having to pack up your bags or constantly find new accommodations. You can easily get from Paris to the Loire Valley, the Champagne Region, Mont St. Michelle, and Strasbourg. Or from Marseille to Provence, Monte Carlo, and Monaco. You can even take the high-speed train underneath the English Channel to nearby cities like London and Amsterdam.
  • Don’t behave like a loud American – The French are a modest, quiet, and classy people. They will not be rude, unless you are drawing unnecessary attention to yourself or acting out of sorts. Americans have a reputation in Europe for being loud, proud, and saying whatever they feel all the time. While speaking out is more customary in the U.S., try to be respectful of the French culture, reflecting their volume levels and moderate temperaments. Let’s undo this unfair reputation, one low-key tourist at a time!
  • Be patient at restaurants – Customer service is not the same in Europe as throughout the States, Australia, or many Asian countries. Servers may take 20 minutes to bring you water and may not check on you at all. Try not to take this as an insult and come prepared with patience. It is simply a cultural norm to let people dine in peace without checking on them constantly; it is seen as respecting your space and not intended to be rude. Rather, they are not rushing you out so you can enjoy your experience. Simply wave at a server if you wish to grab their attention.
  • Don’t overbook or underbook yourself – This is the mistake I’ve made time and time again because I want to see it ALL when I’m abroad! But this can leave you rushing around, overbooked, and not able to be as present as you would like because there’s not enough time. If anything, do less and do it well. Come back to see more on future trips without cramming it all into one vacation.
  • Plan your trip around a festival or event – My personal favorite is The Fête de la Musique on June 21st, where all of France breaks out into song and takes to the street for dancing, live music, drum lines, and beautiful community connection. I jumped in a drumline down the plaza, hung out with a group playing Nirvana classics, found an EDM band by the pub, then Beatles and Elvis impersonators on the next corner. It’s a wild time!

Even focusing on one region at a time will give you a lifetime worth of sights to see.

Ç’est tout et bon voyage à vous!

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