Ooh-la-la! Get ready for a journey like no other. We don’t know what it is about France — the lilting accent or the timeless art, the most beautiful mountains or the headiest wines — but somehow visitors always leave feeling worldlier than when they arrived.
You can take your France experience even further with unique activities you may not have even known existed.
For instance, did you know you can measure your painting skills against Monet’s during an art class in Giverny? Or that within a few hours from Bordeaux you can marvel at some of humanity’s oldest cave paintings and climb up Europe’s largest sand dune? You can also get your steampunk on in Nantes, where Jules Verne first cooked up fantastical stories about giant creatures living under the sea, or test your courage during a wind-powered paraglide flight high above the Alps.
Whether you’re still dreaming about your first glimpse of Paris or you’ve been to France many times over, IndependentTraveler.com has you covered. Click through our slideshow to see all the astonishing experiences you can have on your trip to France.
Learn to Paint Like Monet
Stepping into the gardens at Giverny is like stepping into a Claude Monet painting. There are the water lilies he so famously painted. There, the Japanese bridge spanning the pond. Every year thousands of visitors come to the Monet home and gardens to step where stepped, photograph the lush gardens and try their hand at painting the same scenes he did.
Want to test your artistic skills against Monet’s? Give Giverny.org’see-hour Chinese painting class a try, or join one of several multi-day artist retreats from Art Colony Giverny or ArtStudy Giverny. Don’t have an artistic bone in your body? Not a problem. Skip the paintbrush and check out day tours to Monet’s home from Giverny.org, www.Day-Trips-from-Paris.com and City-Discovery.com.
Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There
Cruising the Seine from Honfleur to Paris by Bob W.
“Although we had seen the bright water lilies and Japanese bridges in Monet’s paintings of the water garden, we were still awestruck by the incredible peacefulness and enchanting beauty of the place. The setting is made idyllic by the red and white flowers of the water lilies and the profusion and great variety of colorful flowers that ring the pond. It is easy to feel the inspiration that led Monet to paint the beauty of the garden so often, as the changing light and seasons altered its appearance.” Read more!
Climb Europe’s Largest Sand Dune
Beautiful, amazing, bizarre, spectacular, an absolute must. These are just some of the words used to describe Europe’s largest sand dune, the Dune du Pilat (also referred to as Dune of Pyla), by TripAdvisor users who’ve been there. Nearly two miles long, a third of a mile wide and rising to a height of 360 feet, the massive dune overlooks the Atlantic Ocean on the southwest coast of France, about 37 miles from Bordeaux, and continues to grow farther inland each year.
Visitors to the dune can climb the sandy swells or paraglide above them, hike through the adjacent pine forest, or take a dip in the ocean on the nearby beach. Some visitors have even been known to lug along their snowboards in order to give sandboarding a try. To get to Dune du Pilat, you can rent a car, take the train or join a group tour, like the half-day Arcachon tour from Viator or the full-day Arcachon and Dune tour from Ophorus. Trains and guided tours depart from Bordeaux.
Embrace Your Inner Prehistoric Artist
What’s a visit to France without time spent marveling at some of the greatest works of art ever created? While you’re there, don’t forget to check out some of humanity’s oldest art. Discovered in 1940, the Lascaux Cave in Dordogne contains nearly 2,000 prehistoric paintings dating back some 15,000 years. Sadly, the cave is under attack from fungus and black mold and can no longer be visited; efforts to combat the damage are slowly failing. But the good news is that artists have been able to recreate two of the most impressive cave halls about a tenth of a mile away in Montignac.
You can visit Lascaux II on your own, though you’ll need to buy tickets from the Montignac visitor center or online (at Lascaux.fr) and then enter with a guide. Visitors are limited to a set number per day, so spots go quickly. Unless you have rented a car and are prepared to get there early, your best bet is to prebook a guided tour from Get Your Guide, Ophorus or France.com.
Capture Paris on Film
Paris is undeniably picturesque. But how do you ensure that your photographs of the City of Light are equally pretty? How about hiring a photo instructor and hitting les rues de Paris? While the cost of personal lessons might be a bit steep, you can get all the instruction you need as part of a small group tour.
To kick your photography skills into high gear as they pertain specifically to Paris’ unique charms, check out Local Paris Tours’ Latin Quarter and Notre Dame half-day photo tour or the half-day “Passages, Galeries and Grands Boulevards” offering from Paris-Photo-Tours.com. For a more personal experience, Paris Photography Tours offers private three-hour daytime or nighttime tours.
Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There
The Real Paris by Padraig
“I’ve been living and working in Paris for over twenty-five years and I wouldn’t change it for the world. Paris is as exciting as it is beautiful, wandering aimlessly through its wide, elegant boulevards and its narrow, cobblestone streets is an experience few other cities can offer on such a varied scale. It has more monuments and museums than any other city in the world and despite the proliferation of McDonalds and Starbucks there is still an abundance of wonderful, traditional Parisian brasseries and bistros on every street corner.” Read more!
Step into the World of Jules Verne
Jules Verne left an indelible mark on the science fiction genre with novels like “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” and “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” and in Nantes, the city where he was born, his imaginative spirit lives on. Visit the Machines de L’Ile and you’ll encounter scenes that seem like Jules Verne fantasies come to life — such as an 82-foot-high carousel where squid, crabs, fish and other mechanized sea creatures “swim” their way around an imaginary ocean. (Kids can ride the creatures on select weekends and holidays.) Nearby is a giant steel elephant that carries up to 50 passengers on a lumbering route around the Ile de Nantes. And don’t miss a trip to the Machine Gallery, where the latest fantastical creatures are built and displayed in a greenhouse filled with both real and manmade plants. Overhead, a 26-foot mechanical heron flies delighted visitors across the greenhouse.
You can learn more about the author’s life at the small Jules Verne Museum (3 Rue de l’Hermitage), which offers a collection of furniture, artifacts, photos and other Verne memorabilia.
Learn to Cook Like Julia
Mention French cuisine, and Julia Child’s deep-voiced “bon appetit” rings through our heads. It’s inescapable; France and good food go hand in hand. But unless you’re planning on moving to the country, the only way to ensure you’ll be able to enjoy good French food for years to come is to learn how to cook it yourself.
Et voila: For a half-day class check out the International Kitchen’s Provence course, which starts with a market visit in the morning and ends with a leisurely lunch. Cuisine de Chef offers a day of shopping, cooking and eating alongside a professional chef and culinary school teacher at his home in Provence, either as an individual or in a small group. For full-day or multi-day options, check out options from the International Kitchen and Active Gourmet Holidays.
Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There
Provence Walking Tour by Vic Garcia
“Overall GAT provided a very diverse schedule with many varied activities within the Provence ‘walking’ tour. Specially good were the visits to businesses, a few churches, many hill towns, seaside walks, strolls through many village markets, participating in wine tasting, see natural oddities, take an excursion to Monaco, visits to Roman ruins, and to see architectural masterpieces.” Read more!
Explore Brittany’s Celtic Heritage
Celtic crosses. Wailing bagpipes. Traditional dances. No, this isn’t the British Isles — it’s Brittany, a region in the northwest of France where the legends of the Celts live on. Although the region became part of France in the 1500s, it was a Celtic duchy for centuries before that, and is still considered one of the six Celtic nations (along with Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, Ireland and the Isle of Man).
During your time in Brittany, you might hear locals speaking Breton, a language more closely related to Cornish and Welsh than to French. You might also find yourself dancing at a fest-noz (night party), which, like an Irish or Scottish ceilidh, features lively traditional music. (For help finding these, check out BrittanyTourism.com.)
Two annual festivals show the region’s Celtic culture at full flower. The Festival de Cornouaille in Quimper is held in late July and showcases traditional Celtic pipe bands, dancers, musicians and artisans. The Inter-Celtic Festival in Lorient casts a wider net, featuring Celtic performers not only from Brittany but also from around the globe. It’s held in August.
Drink or Bathe in Blessed Waters
Water from the Grotto of Massabielle in Lourdes has been considered blessed since 1858, when a miller’s daughter claimed to have seen a vision of the Virgin Mary there. Since then, the Catholic church has officially recognized 69 Lourdes-water-related miracles, and millions have flocked to the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes to drink and bathe in the waters. Though the grotto itself is now closed off, underground pipes divert some of the water to public baths, as well as to several drinking points. Visitors can tour the area with a guide, take a dip in the chilly waters or follow the Water Walk, which consists of nine drinking and prayer stations.
For a guided tour of the Sanctuary, as well as the town of Lourdes, try a full-day guided walking tour from GetYourGuide.com.
Experience History in the Making
There a few things more memorable than being a part of history, and there’s no easier way to do that than by attending some of the world’s most well-known sporting events. Two such events, the French Open (also known as Roland Garros) and the Tour de France, both take place in France. All of the tennis action occurs in Paris, while the bikers in the Tour de France range all over the country — though the finis line is also in the City of Lights. The itinerary for the Tour de France changes every year, but you’re guaranteed at least one sighting if you plan part of your stay in the Rhone-Alpes area during the race.
For a behind-the-scenes Tour de France trip, check out Active4TourdeFrance.com, which offers two- to five-night spectator packages. The same company also features full-day, one-of-a-kind experiences like following the race in a caravan and access to the departure village and finish line. Tennis fans should visit Tours4Tennis.com for tickets to French Open matches or complete French Open-themed travel packages.
Follow the Cider Route
Sure, France is famous for its Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne wine regions, but did you know that the country also has a thriving cider industry? Normandy, best known for the beaches stormed on D-Day, is replete with apple orchards. So after you’ve spent a day or two hitting the region’s World War II historic sites and you’re ready to lighten it up, take to the area’s 24-mile Route du Cidre. The route begins some 12 miles east of Caen and meanders through small villages and past 20 cider producers where you can stop to tour the facilities and sample the wares.
To visit the Route du Cidre, rent a car and watch for the marked signs (they have a picture of an apple on them). The region is also commonly included in multi-day Normandy tours, including biking tours.
Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There
The Beach (Omaha Beach, Normandy by Bill B.
“Paris was great. Loved it. But I really wanted to go to Normandy and see the beaches where the soldiers of America, Britain and Canada came ashore in 1944. I was surprisingly unprepared for the emotional wave that enveloped me.” Read more!
Paraglide Over the French Alps
It’s true that hikers and skiers in the Alps are treated to majestic views that can, literally, take their breath away. But who actually has the best vantage point to see the full scope of the mountains around them? The birds do. Strap on a pair of synthetic wings, and you too can see it all as you paraglide off of mountaintops and glide over valleys far below.
Primarily a summer activity, tandem paraglide flights are offered over several ski areas in the Chamonix region, including Planpraz and Grands-Montets. The more adventurous can ascend a few of the peaks, like Mont Blanc, by foot first and then paraglide down. Companies include Summits.fr, PeakExperience.me and Fly Chamonix.
Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There
Alpine Delights by Joann Kniola
“We stayed in Chamonix for 4 hours. We had a lovely raspberry tart and cafe au lait at an outdoor table while others went to the top of Mt Blanc for 45 euro! We visited a tiny church with a skier and hiker stained glass window, then sat on a stone bench outside and ate our sandwiches enjoying the sun and people watching.” Read more!
Live It Up in Cannes
Unless you’re rich and famous, chances are you’re not going to get invited to the Cannes Film Festival, but that doesn’t mean you can’t hang out on the fringes and get a taste of all the glitz and glamour. For instance, the public is welcome to attend Cinema de la Plage (Cinema on the Beach), which screens out-of-competition and Cannes classic films. You just need to visit the Cannes Tourism Office to get tickets. They’re free, but get there early — they go fast. Other screening opportunities are the Cannes Cinephiles and Directors’ Fortnight. If you’re looking to rub elbows with a star or two, you’ll need to don your fanciest togs and head to the swankiest hotel bars.
Don’t have the patience to wait around on the edges? Join Smithsonian Journeys on an eight-night Cannes Film Festival tour that includes behind-the-scenes access to the festival.
Best Time to Go to France
It’s said that Paris has no low season, as the city draws an impressive number of visitors year-round and winter temperatures in the city are rarely unbearable. If you’re traveling to Paris, no matter what the season, it’s a good idea to book your accommodations well in advance. Summers in Paris are packed with tourists, and it’s best to avoid the warmest season of the year if you’re crowd-averse. Beyond the City of Lights, different regions in France, which has a temperate climate, have varying weather conditions. The Mediterranean Coast of France is warmer and dryer than, say, the Northwest corner of the country. Research the local weather in the region you’re planning to visit before you book your trip.
France on a Budget
Travelers seeking cut-rate flights to France should consider a winter trip. From November through February, airfares to the country are at their cheapest (except for the Christmas and New Year’s holidays). Those planning a multi-destination itinerary within France should consider rail passes, which offer transportation to several destinations for one flat price within a specified time period. Accommodations in the French countryside can be quite affordable — and rather fantastic (think chateaux and charming cottages). But the city-bound French tourist should expect steep prices for the choicest accommodations in places like Paris or Marseilles, especially during warmer months.
–written by Dori Saltzman and Sarah Schlichter
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