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Lonely Planet France

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Lonely Planet: The world's leading travel guide publisher

Lonely Planet France is your passport to the most relevant, up-to-date advice on what to see and skip, and what hidden discoveries await you. Climb the iconic Eiffel Tower, explore the mysterious abbey-island of Mont St-Michel, or taste Champagne amid the rolling vineyards of Reims; all with your trusted travel companion. Get to the heart of France and begin your journey now!

Inside Lonely Planet's France Travel Guide:

  • Colour maps and images throughout
  • Highlights and itineraries help you tailor your trip to your personal needs and interests
  • Insider tips to save time and money and get around like a local, avoiding crowds and trouble spots
  • Essential info at your fingertips - hours of operation, phone numbers, websites, transit tips, prices
  • Honest reviews for all budgets - eating, sleeping, sight-seeing, going out, shopping, hidden gems that most guidebooks miss
  • Cultural insights give you a richer, more rewarding travel experience - history, art, literature, cinema, music, architecture, politics, landscapes, wildlife, cuisine
  • Free, convenient pull-out Paris city map (included in print version), plus over 137 colour maps
  • Covers Paris, Lille, Flanders, the Somme, Normandy, Brittany, Champagne, Alsace, Lorraine, the Loire Valley, Burgundy, Lyon, the French Alps, Basque Country, the Pyrenees, Languedoc-Roussillon, Provence, Corsica and more

eBook Features: (Best viewed on tablet devices and smartphones)

  • Downloadable PDF and offline maps prevent roaming and data charges
  • Effortlessly navigate and jump between maps and reviews
  • Add notes to personalise your guidebook experience
  • Seamlessly flip between pages
  • Bookmarks and speedy search capabilities get you to key pages in a flash
  • Embedded links to recommendations' websites
  • Zoom-in maps and images
  • Inbuilt dictionary for quick referencing

The Perfect Choice: Lonely Planet France, our most comprehensive guide to France, is perfect for both exploring top sights and taking roads less travelled.

  • Looking for a guide focused on Paris? Check out Lonely Planet's Paris guide for a comprehensive look at all the country has to offer; Discover Paris, a photo-rich guide to the country's most popular attractions; or Pocket Paris, a handy-sized guide/handy-sized guides focused on the can't-miss sights for a quick trip.

Authors: Written and researched by Lonely Planet, Nicola Williams, Alexis Averbuck, Oliver Berry, Stuart Butler, Jean-Bernard Carillet, Kerry Christiani, Gregor Clark, Emilie Filou, Catherine Le Nevez, Daniel Robinson.

About Lonely Planet: Since 1973, Lonely Planet has become the world's leading travel media company with guidebooks to every destination, an award-winning website, mobile and digital travel products, and a dedicated traveller community. Lonely Planet covers must-see spots but also enables curious travellers to get off beaten paths to understand more of the culture of the places in which they find themselves.

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Eat & Drink Like a Local

ePub

Indulging in France’s extraordinary wealth of gastronomic pleasures is reason alone to travel here – cruising around inspires hunger, gastronomic adventure and experimental know-how. For more on food and wine, see The French Table (Click here) chapter.

Feasting happens year-round, and what’s cooking changes with the seasons.

Markets burst with asparagus, artichokes and fresh goat’s cheese, Easter cooks up traditional lamb for lunch, and the first strawberries redden.

Melons, cherries, peaches, apricots, fresh figs, garlic and tomatoes brighten market stalls. Breton shallots are hand-harvested, and on the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts, food lovers gorge on seafood and shellfish.

The Camargue’s nutty red rice is harvested. Normandy apples fall from trees to make France’s finest cider, and the chestnut harvest begins in the Ardèche, Cévennes and Corsica. In damp woods, mushrooming and the game season begins.

Nets are strung beneath silvery groves in Provence and Corsica to catch olives. Pungent markets in the Dordogne and Provence sell black truffles, and in the Alps, skiers dip into cheese fondue. Christmas means Champagne and oysters, foie gras, chestnut-stuffed turkey and yule logs.

 

Travel with Children

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Be it the kid-friendly extraordinaire capital or rural hinterland, France spoils families with its rich mix of cultural sights, activities and entertainment – some paid for, some free. To get the most out of travelling en famille, plan ahead.

Interactive museums, choice dining for every taste and budget, and beautiful green parks seemingly at every turn make the French capital a top choice for families.

Beaches, boats and some great stuff for history-mad kids and teens give this northern region plenty of family lure.

More beaches, boats, pirate-perfect islands and bags of good old-fashioned outdoor fun. Enough said.

Winter in this mountainous region in western France translates as one giant outdoor (snowy) playground – for all ages.

A vibrant arts scene, a vivacious cafe culture and a beach-laced shore riddled with seafaring activities keeps kids of all ages on their toes.

Sailing, kayaking, walking, biking, or simply dipping your toes or snorkel mask in clear turquoise waters: life on this island is fairytale belle (beautiful).

 

Outdoor Activities

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France takes outdoor activities and elevates them to a fine art. In the birthplace of the Tour de France, the cycling is world-class; in Mont Blanc's backyard the skiing is second to none. And everywhere the hiking is, ah, just magnifique – from Corsica's coastal wilds to the volcanic cones of Massif Central.

Whoop as you make a 2800m vertical descent on La Vallée Blanche in Chamonix – it's the ride of a lifetime.

Scale the wildest heights of the Pyrenees on the GR10, taking you from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic.

Cruise past turreted châteaux and trace the curves of France's longest river in the Loire Valley.

Grab your board and hit the fizzing surf on the Atlantic coast. Hossegor is big-wave heaven.

Make a splash in the astonishingly turquoise water of the Gorges du Verdon, Europe's largest canyon.

The ski season goes with the snow, running from early or mid-December to around mid-April. The higher you go, the more snow-sure the resort and the longer the season. Crowds and room rates skyrocket during school holidays (Christmas, February half-term, Easter), so avoid these times if you can. There is summer glacier skiing in two resorts: Les Deux-Alpes and Val d’Isère (Espace Killy) from roughly mid-June to August.

 

Regions at a Glance

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For the French, there is Paris and the rest of the country – yet few appreciate just how varied that ‘rest of the country’ is. The largest country in Europe after Russia and Ukraine, hexagon-shaped France is hugged by water or mountains along every side (except its northeastern boundary) – an instant win for lovers of natural beauty, the coast and the great outdoors. Winter skiing and summer hiking ’n’ biking rule the Alps in eastern France and the Pyrenees lacing the 450km-long border with Spain in the southwest. For très belle beach holidays, the coastal regions of Normandy and Brittany (northern France), the Atlantic coast (with waves surfers love), Corsica, the French Riviera (Côte d’Azur), Provence and Languedoc-Roussillon on the hot Mediterranean deliver every time. Then there is food and wine, most exceptional in Burgundy, Provence, the Dordogne, and the Rhône Valley with the city of Lyon at its helm.

Tables are jammed tight, chairs spill onto busy pavements outside, dishes of the day are chalked on the blackboard, and cuisine is simple and delicious. Such is the timeless joy of bistro dining in the capital.

 

Paris

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pop 2.2 million

Paris has a timeless familiarity for first-time and frequent visitors, with instantly recognisable architectural icons – the wrought-iron Eiffel Tower, broad Arc de Triomphe guarding the glamorous Champs-Élysées, gargoyled Notre Dame cathedral, lamplit bridges spanning the Seine, and art nouveau brasseries spilling onto wicker-chair-lined terraces.

Dining is a quintessential part of any Parisian experience – whether at cosy neighbourhood bistros, multi-Michelin-starred temples to gastronomy, patisseries, boulangeries (bakeries), fromageries (cheese shops) or street markets. Shopping, especially fashion shopping, is also quintessential in this stylish city, for discount and vintage fashion through to groundbreaking emerging designers and venerable haute couture houses. And Paris is one of the world’s great art repositories, with priceless treasures showcased in palatial museums.

But against its iconic backdrop, Paris’ real magic lies in the unexpected: hidden parks, small museums and tucked-away boutiques, bistros and neighbourhood cafes where you can watch Parisian life unfold.

 

The Seine

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La ligne de vie de Paris (the lifeline of Paris), the Seine, sluices through the city, spanned by 37 bridges. Its Unesco World Heritage Site–listed riverbanks offer picturesque promenades, parks and year-round activities. After dark, watch the river dance with the watery reflections of city lights. You are in Paris.

The riverbanks have been reborn with the creation of Les Berges de Seine. On the Right Bank, east of the Hôtel de Ville, 1.5km of former expressway now incorporates walkways and cycleways. Even more revolutionary is the completely car-free 2.3km stretch of the Left Bank from the Pont de l’Alma to the Musée d’Orsay (newly linked to the waterfront by a grand staircase that doubles as amphitheatre seating), with sporting equipment, games, events, restaurants and bars (some aboard boats) and floating gardens on 1800 sq metres of artificial islands (complete with knotted-rope hammocks where you can lie back and soak up the river’s reclaimed serenity). More than ever, Parisians flock to the Seine to cycle, jog, inline skate, stroll and simply hang-out; staircases along the banks lead down to the water’s edge.

 

Shopping

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Paris has it all: broad boulevards lined with flagship fashion houses and international labels, famous grands magasins (department stores) and fabulous markets. But the real charm of Parisian shopping lies in strolling the backstreets, where tiny speciality shops and quirky boutiques sell everything from strawberry-scented Wellington boots to heaven-scented candles.

Fashion is Paris’ forte. Browse haute couture creations in the Étoile and Champs-Élysées neighbourhood, particularly within the Triangle d’Or (Golden Triangle). For original streetwear and vintage gear, head for Le Marais, particularly the Haut Marais. Small boutiques fill St-Germain’s chic streets. You’ll also find adorable children’s wear and accessories. Parisian fashion doesn’t have to break the bank: there are fantastic bargains at second-hand and vintage boutiques, along with outlet shops selling previous seasons’ collections, surpluses and seconds by top-line designers.

But fashion is just the beginning. Paris is an exquisite treasure chest of gourmet food (including cheeses, macarons and foie gras), wine, tea, books, beautiful stationery, art, art supplies, antiques and collectables. Ask for un paquet cadeau – free (and very beautiful) gift wrapping offered by most shops.

 

Around Paris

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Whether you’re taking day trips from Paris or continuing further afield, a trove of treasures awaits in the areas around the French capital.

The Île de France région – the 12,000-sq-km ‘Island of France’ shaped by five rivers – and surrounding areas count some of the most extravagant châteaux in the land. At the top of everyone’s list is the palace at Versailles, the opulence and extravagance of which partly spurred the French Revolution, but the châteaux in Fontainebleau and Chantilly are also breathtaking. Many beautiful and ambitious cathedrals are also here, including Senlis’ Gothic wonder and the glorious cathedral crowning the medieval old city of Chartres. In Giverny, Monet’s home and gardens provide a picturesque insight into the inspiration for his seminal paintings.

But Paris’ surrounds don’t only hark back to the past. Also here is every kid’s favourite, Disneyland Resort Paris, which now has more attractions than ever.

AApr–Oct Monet’s former home in Giverny is open and its gardens are in bloom.

 

Lille, Flanders & the Somme

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pop 5.97 million

True, a tan is easier to come by along the Mediterranean, but when it comes to culture, cuisine, beer, shopping and dramatic views of land and sea – not to mention good old-fashioned friendliness – the regions of the Ch'tis (residents of France's northern tip) and Picards compete with the best France has to offer. In Lille and French Flanders, the down-to-earth Flemish vibe mixes easily with French sophistication and savoir faire. And in Picardy and Artois, WWI memorials and cemeteries marking the front lines of 1916 render overseas visitors speechless time and again with their heart-breaking beauty. On a more cheerful note, the blessedly underrated cities of Amiens, Laon and Arras will captivate culture vultures with their glorious architectural treasures, while nature lovers will get a buzz along the sublime Côte d'Opale and fascinating Baie de Somme. Whatever your inclination, you're guaranteed leave this part of France with new experiences and wonderful memories.

 

Normandy

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pop 3.3 million

From the Norman invasion of England in 1066 to the D-Day landings of 1944, Normandy has long played an outsized role in European history. This rich and often brutal past is brought vividly to life by the spectacular island monastery of Mont St-Michel; the Bayeux Tapestry, world-famous for its cartoon scenes of 11th-century life; and the cemeteries and memorials along the D-Day beaches, places of solemn pilgrimage. Lower-profile charms include a variety of dramatic coastal landscapes, lots of pebbly beaches, some of France’s finest museums, quiet pastoral villages and architectural gems ranging from Rouen’s medieval old city – home of Monet’s favourite cathedral – to the maritime charms of Honfleur to the striking postwar modernism of Le Havre. Camembert, apples, cider, cream-rich cuisine and the very freshest fish and seafood provide further reasons to visit this accessible and beautiful region of France.

AJun D-Day commemorations are held on the landing beaches.

 

Normandy D-Day Sites

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The bravery and sacrifice of Operation Overlord – the 6 June 1944 Allied landings known in history as D-Day – is still a palpable presence in Normandy, and nowhere more so than on the broad, quiet beaches: Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword. Still dotted with German pillboxes, these beaches were where American, British, Canadian, Commonwealth, Polish, Free French and other soldiers stormed ashore in the early morning, marking the start of the long-awaited liberation of France.

As you gaze out over the brilliant golden sand from the Normandy American Cemetery, a place of solemn pilgrimage, or the Channel coast’s quiet seaside villages, it’s hard to picture the death and heroism that occurred here – but a number of excellent museums help put the world-changing events of 1944 into historical and human context.

Unmissable Battle Sites

Omaha Beach Site of the landings’ most ferocious fighting, ‘bloody Omaha’ is a must-see.

Normandy American Cemetery & Memorial This vast war cemetery is extraordinarily moving.

 

Brittany

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pop 4.47 million

Brittany is for explorers. Its wild, dramatic coastline, medieval towns and thick forests make an excursion here well worth the detour from the beaten track. This is a land of prehistoric mysticism, proud tradition and culinary wealth, where fiercely independent locals celebrate Breton culture and Paris feels a long way away indeed.

The entire region has a wonderfully undiscovered feel once you go beyond world-famous sights such as stunning St-Malo, regal Dinard and charming Dinan. Unexpected Breton gems – including the little-known towns of Roscoff, Quimper and Vannes, the megaliths of Carnac, the rugged coastlines of Finistère, the Presqu'Île de Crozon and the Morbihan Coast – all demonstrate that there's far more to Brittany than delicious crêpes and homemade cider. Brittany's much-loved islands are also big draws – don't miss its two stars: dramatic Île d'Ouessant and the aptly named Belle Île.

AJun & early Jul Enjoy the beaches, outdoor adventures and sunshine before the crowds.

 

The Breton Coast

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Brittany's rugged coastline is one of the region's best-kept secrets. With brilliant sand beaches framing traditional fishing villages, rocky cliffs towering above the churning swell of the North Atlantic, and lots of outdoor activities to keep you occupied, there's plenty to discover.

Don't associate Brittany with beaches? Think again… Yes the water may be freezing, but the sand is spectacular and the backdrop sublime at St-Malo and Quiberon. Alternatively, find your own patch of sand on the beaches of Belle Île.

Get out into nature on the coastal hiking trail from Morgat to Cap de la Chèvre. For a challenge, walk the 45km coastal path on Île d'Ouessant or the 95km path around Belle Île.

Find your own quiet bliss in the village life of charming Camaret-sur-Mer, the fishing port of Roscoff, and our personal favourite, chic hideaway Cancale.

Take the ferry to Île d'Ouessant, with its rugged coastal path and great activities, or head out of season to Belle Île, the southern coast's star. To get off the beaten track head to Île de Batz.

 

Champagne

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pop 1.3 million

Champagne arouses the senses: the eyes feast on vines parading up hillsides and vertical processions of tiny, sparkling bubbles; the nose breathes in damp soil and the heavenly bouquet of fermentation; the ears rejoice at the clink of glasses and the barely audible fizz; and the palate tingles with every sip. The imagination and the intellect are engaged as Champagne cellar visits reveal the magical processes – governed by the strictest of rules – that transform the world’s most pampered pinot noir, pinot meunier and chardonnay grapes into this region’s most fabled wines.

Despite the prestige of their vines, the people of Champagne offer a warm, surprisingly easy-going welcome, both in the stylish cities and along the Champagne Routes, which wend their way through villages to family-run cellars and vineyards. All of which will, if France has its way, become a Unesco World Heritage site in 2015. Watch this space.

AJun Reims pays homage to heroine Joan of Arc with medieval re-enactments at the Fêtes Johanniques (first weekend).

 

Alsace & Lorraine

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pop 4.2 million

Alsace is a cultural one-off. With its Germanic dialect and French sense of fashion, love of foie gras and choucroute (sauerkraut), fine wine and beer, this region often leaves you wondering quite where you are. Where are you? Why, in the land of living fairy tales of course, where vineyards fade into watercolour distance, hilltop castles send spirits soaring higher than the region’s emblematic storks and half-timbered villages garlanded with geraniums look fresh-minted for a Disney film set.

Lorraine has high culture and effortless grace thanks to its historic roll-call of dukes and art-nouveau pioneers, who had an eye for grand designs and good living. The art and architecture in blessedly underrated cities such as Nancy and Metz leave visitors spellbound, while its WWI battlefields render visitors speechless time and again with their painful beauty.

AJul Fireworks, street parties and cathedral illuminations at L’Été à Strasbourg.

 

Route des Vins d'Alsace

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Bien sûr, the Route des Vins d'Alsace is one of France's loveliest drives, the French will tell you – and right they are. Corkscrewing through hills ribboned with vines, half-timbered villages straight out of a children's picture-book and the mist-enshrouded Vosges, it is nothing short of beautiful, whether seen from behind the wheel or with your bum on a bicycle saddle. Every twist and turn reveals dinky hamlets, dreamy views and caves (wine cellars) with sylvaners, pinots and rieslings at the ready for tastings.

2 days

From the gateway town of Marlenheim, a well-marked lane leads through bucolic countryside to medieval Molsheim, centred on a square dominated by the step-gabled Renaissance Metzig (butcher's shop). Continue south to Rosheim, where the striking Romanesque Église St-Pierre-St-Paul raises eyebrows with its, ahem, copulating gargoyles! Step inside for a moment of quiet contemplation before swinging south to pretty, half-timbered Obernai to explore the market square and château-topped vineyard trail. Views of the forest-cloaked Vosges unfold as you meander south to the sleepy hamlet of Mittelbergheim, pausing to taste the local grand cru wines at award-winning Domaine Gilg. Even higher peaks slide into view as you cruise south to cellar-studded Dambach-la-Ville, embraced by 14th-century town walls, and catch your first tantalising glimpse of the turrets of 900-year-old Château du Haut Kœnigsbourg. After detouring for an astounding panorama from the castle ramparts – which reaches to the Black Forest and Alps on cloudless days – rewind time roaming the cobbled streets in half-timbered Bergheim. Winding alleys hide cosy winstubs (wine taverns) in tower-speckled Ribeauvillé nearby. You'll definitely see storks in Hunawihr at the Centre de Réintroduction Cigognes & Loutres (come in spring to coo over hatchlings). Allow time for serendipitous strolls in fairest-of-them-all Riquewihr - pure fairy-tale stuff with its procession of half-timbered houses painted pastel colours as bright as the macarons they sell. Contemplate the Renaissance town hall and the house of Nobel Peace Prize winner Albert Schweitzer in riverside Kaysersberg, then wend your way south to little-known Katzenthal for organic wine tasting and vineyard walks at family-run Vignoble Klur. Wrap up your tour with culture and Michelin-starred dining in canal-woven Colmar, the enchanting Alsatian wine capital and birthplace of Statue of Liberty creator Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi.

 

The Loire Valley

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Pop 2.9 million

In centuries past, the River Loire was a key strategic area, one step removed from the French capital and poised on the crucial frontier between northern and southern France. Kings, queens, dukes and nobles established their feudal strongholds, country seats and, later, their posh playhouses along the Loire, and the broad, flat fertile valley is sprinkled with many of the most extravagant castles and fortresses in France. From sky-topping turrets and glittering banquet halls to slate-crowned cupolas and crenellated towers, the hundreds of Loire Valley châteaux, and the villages, vineyards, and agriculture surrounding them – all an enormous Unesco World Heritage Site – comprise 1000 years of astonishingly rich architectural, artistic and agrarian treasures. If it’s pomp and splendour you’re looking for, the Loire Valley is the place to explore. And don’t forget: it’s also a modern-day wine region dotted with lively cosmopolitan cities like Orléans, Tours, Saumur and Angers.

 

Châteaux of the Loire Valley

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French history is written across the landscape of the Loire. Every castle traces a tale: of wars won and lost, romances embarked upon or destroyed, alliances forged and enemies vanquished. From the shockingly grand to the quietly subdued, there should be a castle to match your own mood.

Château de Chambord gets all the hype for a reason: it’s stunning. Visit in the early morning to see it rise, all towers and turrets, from the mist – just as it would have done in the days of François I.

Like an elegant lady, Chenonceau effortlessly occupies its beautiful surroundings. The impressive arches that span the calm Cher River draw you in, while the exquisite decor and the fascinating history keep you captivated.

Over the centuries châteaux change hands and alterations are made… But in the case of Langeais, the details are intact. The 10th-century keep and the intricate medieval interior take you to a time of valiant knights and mysterious ladies.

A cypress-lined drive leads to this comparatively discreet and certainly romantic castle beautifully reflected in its still, broad moat. Fantastic views of the château from the lush park are lit up at night.

 

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