Lille is the largest city of French Flanders and has a distinctive Flemish character. Known for its vibrant culture, happening ambiance, and friendly people, Lille is a surprisingly pleasant urban destination with lovely architecture.
The main town square, Place du Général de Gaulle, is lined with elegant Flemish Baroque monuments such as the Vieille Bourse (Old Stock Exchange). The nearby Rang du Beauregard buildings exemplify an ornate Lilloise Neoclassical style. The Flemish influence is also seen in the hearty local cuisine, featuring typical Belgian dishes like Moules-Frites (mussels and French fries) and gaufres (Belgian-style waffles).
Art enthusiasts will have plenty to explore in Lille at the Palais Beaux-Arts and several museums outside the city: the Musée Louvre-Lens, which shares its collection with the Louvre Museum in Paris; the Lille Métropole Musée d’Art Moderne in Villeneuve d’Ascq, which displays works by Braque, Modigliani, and Picasso; and a unique collection of fine arts and decorative arts in the town of Roubaix.
On the first weekend of September, the Braderie de Lille (Flea Market) brings together hundreds of stalls selling vintage items and antiques. Bargain hunting at the Lille Flea Market is one of the most popular things to do in the city.
The historic capital of the Artois province, Arras has the architectural heritage to prove it. Arcaded squares, high-gabled burghers’ houses, and exquisite old churches reveal the authentic character of this Flemish town.
The Cathédrale d’Arras, originally the abbey church of Saint-Vaast, was rebuilt in the 18th century in awe-inspiring Neoclassical style. Another building of the former Benedictive monastery of Saint-Vaast now houses the Musée des Beaux-Arts. This museum has a diverse art collection, from medieval sculptures to Dutch and French paintings. Highlights are the masterpieces by Jean-Baptiste-Camille, Corot, Charles Le Brun, Delacroix, and Rubens.
During World War One, the area around Arras was the scene of heavy fighting, which is now commemorated by several military cemeteries and memorials. The Vimy Memorial pays homage to the Canadian Expeditionary Force members (more than 11,000 men) who fought and died in France during the First World War. A grandiose and evocative limestone monument, the Vimy Memorial stands on the Vimy Ridge, where the pivotal Battle of Vimy Ridge took place; this 107-hectare piece of land (12 kilometers north of Arras) was granted by France to Canada for its accomplishment of capturing Vimy Ridge during the April 1917 Allied offensive.
Calais provides a gateway to England as a port on the English Channel and the starting point for Channel Tunnel (or “Chunnel”) train rides to England. The high-speed Eurostar train travels through the Channel Tunnel (crossing the English Channel’s Strait of Dover in a 50-kilometer undersea tunnel) and takes one hour to arrive in London. The English Channel crossing by ferry takes one hour and 30 minutes from Calais to Dover, England.
In this spectacular seaside location along the Opal Coast, the area around Calais boasts expansive sandy beaches, which are popular for surfing and sailing, as well as other outdoor activities like hiking and cycling.
For those spending time in Calais (rather than simply traveling through), must-see attractions are the UNESCO-listed Flemish Renaissance-style Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall) and the nearby group of Auguste Rodin’s sculptures, Les Bourgeois de Calais, which commemorate the siege of Calais in 1347 by the English, and occupation until 1558.
Next to the leafy Parc Richelieu, the Musée des Beaux-Arts displays paintings and sculptures from the 16th century to the 21st century. Among the masterpieces are works by Auguste Rodin, André Derain, and Pablo Picasso. The Cité de la Dentelle et de la Mode (on the Quai du Commerce) has a superb lace and fashion collection.
As France’s largest fishing port, it’s fitting that Boulogne-sur-Mer has a superb aquarium and sea museum. The Nausicaá aquarium is the largest in Europe, home to 58,000 sea creatures, including 1,600 different species. Nausicaá especially appeals to families with kids, who are sure to enjoy the touch pool and entertaining sea lion performances.
Near the Nausicaá aquarium is access to a wonderful sandy beach, along the Boulevard Sainte-Beuve. The beach has a yacht club and a promenade, which is ideal for taking a seaside stroll. During summertime, beach tents, lounge chairs, and parasols are available for rent; in July and August, lifeguards are on duty. The town host the Fêtes de la Mer (Festivals of the Sea) every year in July.
The oldest part of Boulogne-sur-Mer is the Ville Haute (Upper Town), a medieval walled town. This historic area brims with old-world charm, seen in its atmospheric cobblestone streets and picturesque squares. Highlights of the Ville Haute include the UNESCO-listed belfry, dating to the 12th century; the Notre-Dame Basilica, which incorporates a Romanesque crypt; and the 13th-century fortifications with four gated entrances.
Tourists will enjoy walking along the “Promenade des Remparts” (ramparts path) to admire panoramas of the city and its gardens. Another interesting spot to explore is the Rue de Lille, a pedestrian street lined with restaurants, antique shops, and small boutiques.
With its tranquil, bucolic setting; pedestrian alleyways; and charming half-timbered houses, the medieval village of Gerberoy is one of the “Plus Beaux Villages” (“Most Beautiful Villages”) of France. Many buildings throughout the town are adorned with rose vines. Gerberoy is also famous for its Fête des Roses (Festival of Roses), which has been held in the village every year since 1928.
In keeping with the village’s love of flowers, the post-Impressionist painter Henri Le Sidaner (who settled in Gerberoy) created magnificent Italian terraced gardens that he used as an outdoor art studio. Classified as a “Jardin Remarquable” (Remarkable Garden), the Jardins Le Sidaner are open every day except Mondays from April through September.
Near the garden is another must-see landmark, the Collégiale Saint-Pierre, which is adorned with 17th-century Aubusson tapestries. The church dates to the 11th-century but was renovated in later centuries.
Surrounded by remnants of medieval walls, the picturesque town of Bergues is traversed by winding canals, which lend a typical Flemish ambiance. Bergues is most famous for its belfry, considered one of the finest in France. The UNESCO-listed Beffroi de Bergues features an unusual open design, with 50 bells that chime to mark the hours. As the town’s top tourist attraction, the Beffroi de Bergues also has an exhibition space and music room.
Housed in the old Mont-de-Piété (municipal pawnshop), the Musée du Mont-de-Piété displays paintings and drawings by Flemish and French masters, including George de la Tour, Charles Le Brun, Nicolas Poussin, Anthony van Dyck, and Maerten van Heemskerck.
7. Musée Louvre-Lens
The Musée Louvre-Lens is an ultramodern museum space in a tranquil park. The Musée Louvre-Lens does not have its own collections, instead, the museum exhibits different rotations of masterpieces from the Louvre Museum in Paris. The museum’s 3,000-square-meter gallery features natural lighting and an innovative presentation of artwork. Many exhibits focus on specific themes or highlight the common denominators of artwork spanning different time periods and artistic styles.
It’s easy to get to the museum from Lille ( a 30-minute drive) or Paris (90 minutes by train). The train station in Lens offers free shuttle bus rides to the museum.
Cambrai is a quiet historic town with remnants of medieval fortifications and impressive cultural heritage. A relic of the old ramparts, the 14th-century Porte de Paris once provided an entrance into the previously walled town. The Eglise Saint-Géry is noteworthy for its blend of French classical and Dutch Baroque architectural styles, as well as the famous Entombment painting by Rubens.
Not-to-be-missed are Chapelle du Grand Séminaire, renowned for its Baroque facade, and the Cathédrale Notre-Dame, which contains exceptional works of art, including Trompe-l’oil paintings by Martin Gheeraerts and marvelous stained-glass windows.
Art lovers will appreciate the Musée des Beaux-Arts, which has an excellent assortment of 16th- to 19th-century Dutch and French paintings, and the Musée Matisse, which displays over 80 paintings by Matisse (donated to the museum by the artist).
Many cultural attractions are found just outside of Cambrai, including the Musée des Dentelles et Broderies de Caudry (Museum of Lace and Embroidery), housed in a 19th-century lace factory in Caudry (15 kilometers from Cambrai). This museum presents the local history of lace fabrication and embroidery arts along with craft demonstrations and fashion exhibits.
9. Saint-Omer and the Marais Audomarois
Cobblestone streets and stately old townhouses reveal the traditional character of this historic market town. One of Saint-Omer’s most elegant 18th-century townhouses, the Hôtel Sandelin, is now a museum with an excellent collection of European paintings, as well as decorative arts. Other must-see landmarks are the 13th-century Eglise Saint-Denis, which has a majestic Gothic tower, and the Cathédrale Notre Dame, a splendid Gothic monument built between the 13th and 16th centuries.
In the surroundings, the Marais Audomarois (marshland) is among the best places to visit in northern France for fishing (allowed with a local fishing association card) in the gentle rivers. Taking a boat ride through the marshland’s waterways is another way to discover the wetland scenery, with its lush plant life and market gardens. There are several options for tourists: traditional artisan-crafted wooden boats led by a local boatman, rowboats and canoes for rent, and guided boat tours.
For those who’d like to explore the terra firma aspects of the area, the Audomarois Forest has scenic trails for hiking and cycling.
Just 14 kilometers from the Belgian border, Dunkerque (Dunkirk) is France’s northernmost town, on the North Sea near the Strait of Dover. Dunkerque has an important commercial port, as well as ferry boat access to Dover, England. During the Second World War, Dunkerque was the scene of a dramatic military rescue as boats of Allied troops were brought to safety.
Every year before Ash Wednesday, the Dunkirk Carnival transforms the town into a wild and crazy scene of unbridled celebration. Thousands of revelers show their festive spirit, wearing colorful costumes; some carry whimsical umbrellas on long handles. The three-day carnival includes gregarious processions, musical entertainment, and joyful balls.
Douai is an old university town, originally founded by the Spaniards. The central features of the town are the UNESCO-listed Belfry, a masterpiece of Gothic architecture that dates to the 14th and 15th centuries, and the Place d’Armes, also called the Grand Place.
Douai also has a renowned museum, the Musée de la Chartreuse, housed in a 17th-century convent. The museum’s fine-arts collection includes masterpieces of Flemish, Dutch, Italian, and French painting. Highlights are the works by Véronèse, Rubens, Courbet, Renoir, Sisley, Corot, and Pisarro, as well as the precious Polyptyque d’Anchin by Jean Bellegambe (created between 1509 and 1513).
12. Abbaye de Vaucelles
The Abbaye de Vaucelles is a remarkable 12th-century abbey founded by Saint Bernard, which was one of the largest Cistercian monasteries in the world. Two of the original buildings remain the Monks’ Quarters (an 80-meter-long wing with a chapter house, oratory, and chapel) and the Palais Abbatial (Abbot’s Palace); both buildings have been beautifully restored.
Among the most prestigious historical monuments in northern France, the Abbaye de Vaucelles is open to the public from March through October. Art expositions and other events are held here throughout the year. The abbey is located 12 kilometers from Cambrai.
The Limousin region is an area of unspoiled natural beauty and rich history. This idyllic countryside of green rolling hills and lush forests surprises visitors with its magnificent medieval castles and picturesque villages, many of which are listed as “Plus Beaux Villages de France” (Most Beautiful Villages of France).
The area’s regional nature parks are a paradise for sports enthusiasts. Opportunities abound for hiking on the scenic trails, fishing in freshwater rivers, and boating on pristine lakes. Plan your trip to this beautiful region with our list of attractions and best places to visit in Limousin.
The historic city of Aubusson has been renowned since the 15th century for its intricately patterned tapestries. The city has earned a UNESCO Cultural Heritage designation for its craft of traditional tapestry. This time-consuming and labor-intensive weaving process has produced the gorgeous tapestries that were used during the Middle Ages to decorate French castles.
Tourists may visit tapestry workshops throughout the city, such as L’Espace Tapisseries (32 Rue Vaveix) and the Maison du Tapissier (Rue Vieille). Aubusson also has a fabulous tapestry museum, the Cité Internationale de la Tapisserie (Rue des Arts).
Designated a “Ville d’Art et d’Histoire” (“City of Art and History”), the capital city of Limousin has a rich cultural heritage. The Cathédrale Saint-Etienne is the most important monument in Limoges and its only Gothic building. Begun in 1273, the cathedral continued to be renovated throughout the centuries. Behind the cathedral are the Jardins de l’Evêché (Gardens of the Bishop), and to the east is the eight-arched Pont Saint-Etienne bridge built in the 13th century. Visitors should also stroll through the city’s historic quarters along the Rue de la Boucherie and the Rue du Temple to soak up the city’s old-world ambiance.
Impressionist painter Auguste Renoir began his career as a porcelain painter in Limoges, and it’s easy to see the connection between this artisan craft and the fine arts. A wonderful collection of Impressionist paintings is on display at the Musée des Beaux-Arts. To learn more about the history of porcelain, tourists should head to the Pavillon de la Porcelaine – Musée Haviland, which also has a boutique that sells the refined Haviland porcelain items.
The Musée National Adrien Dubouché highlights the beauty and variety of porcelain, the art form for which Limoges is famous. The museum has an extensive collection of pottery, faïence, glassware, and Limoges porcelain.
Uzerche is known as the “Pearl of Limousin,” because of its beautiful historic buildings and spectacular setting on a rocky outcrop overlooking the Vézère River. This medieval fortified town has many architectural treasures, including impressive old towers, atmospheric vaulted pathways, and elegant “hôtels particuliers” (mansions). Not to be missed is the Abbatiale Saint-Pierre, a marvelous Romanesque church built in the 11th century by Benedictine monks.
The countryside surrounding Uzerche offers ample opportunities for hiking and nature walks. A great place to take in views of the countryside is from the Esplanade de la Luna de. During the summer, outdoor markets, festivals, and music concerts draw many visitors.
4. Abbatiale Saint-Pierre Saint-Paul, Solignac
Solignac (15 kilometers away from Limoges) is home to one of the most important sights in the Limousin region, the Abbatiale Saint-Pierre Saint-Paul. This splendid Romanesque abbey, built by Benedictine monks in the 10th and 11th centuries, was a medieval pilgrimage destination on the “Way of Saint James” route to Santiago de Compostela. Typical of Romanesque churches, the exterior is decorated with rounded arches and sculpted figures. The spacious domed interior features awe-inspiring 15th-century stained-glass windows and columns adorned with details including griffins, palm leaves, and snakes.
The historic village of Solignac charms visitors with its pastel-shuttered old stone buildings and a pleasant ambiance along the Briance River. Spanning the river is the 15th-century Pont-Vieux de Solignac (Old Bridge of Solignac), a graceful arched masonry bridge.
5. Château de Val
Surrounded by dreamy pastoral scenery, the Château de Val looks like an image from the pages of a child’s storybook. The turreted castle stands on a rocky spur within the Lac de Bort Les Orgues, one of the largest lakes in Europe. This medieval fortress, with its grandiose Gothic rooms, is one of the best places to visit to discover the ambiance of another era. Unlike many French castles, the Château de Val is sumptuously furnished with period pieces, creating a good picture of what it was like to live here. The castle’s Saint-Blaise Chapel is listed as a Historical Monument.
The castle grounds include a courtyard by the lake and a tranquil garden planted with many flowers. All around the property are quiet spots that invite visitors to commune with nature under a shady lime tree, by a fountain, or near the old stables. During July and August, the Château de Val hosts outdoor music concerts on Wednesday evenings. The Château de Val also offers bed-and-breakfast accommodations.
6. Musée d’Art Contemporain de la Haute-Vienne
This museum of contemporary art is housed in the majestic Château de Rochechouart overlooking the Graine and Vayres valleys. The well-restored medieval-Renaissance castle houses the museum’s collection devoted to 20th- and 21st-century art. On display are over 300 works created from the 1960s to the present day, plus an assortment of 2,000 decorative arts objects, as well as unique commissioned pieces.
Equally noteworthy are the artworks found on the walls of the château, especially the 16th-century frescoes in the Salle des Chasses (depicting hunting scenes) and the Galerie d’Hercule (illustrating the labors of Greek mythological figure Hercules).
7. Parc Naturel Régional de Millevaches en Limousin
The Parc Naturel Régional de Millevaches en Limousin is a paradise of deep green forests, gently rolling hills, sheltered valleys, grassy meadows, and peaceful lakes. The regional park, which encompasses the Plateau de Millevaches, has freshwater rivers and streams that are home to river otters. The Millevaches Regional Park is dotted with charming small hamlets and traversed by nature trails. Hikers will enjoy the diverse landscape, from heathlands and oak groves to pastures where the famous Limousin cows graze.
Besides hiking and biking, other popular activities are boating, fishing, and cycling. Overnight travelers can stay at campsites or other accommodations in the park.
This quaint medieval town has a well-preserved historic center and a UNESCO-listed Romanesque church (dating to the 11th and 12th centuries) that was a stop on the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage trail. Wandering through the town’s cobblestone streets and narrow alleys takes visitors back in time. Much of the town has not changed since the Middle Ages.
The Quartier de Noblat riverside district is especially atmospheric with its old mills and 13th-century bridge. Tourists can arrive here by taking the Chemin du Pavé pedestrian path. This charming area is a delightful place for a stroll. Other things to do include fishing and picnicking.
Saint-Léonard-de-Noblat is also known for its gastronomy. During July, the Fête de la Saint-Martial, a traditional market of regional food products, is held at the place Saint-Martial by the Vienne River. Those with a sweet tooth should try the local specialty called “Massepain de Saint-Léonard,” a little almond cookie that is crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside. The recipe has a Mediterranean origin and was brought to the town by pilgrims returning from Saint-Jacques de Compostela in Spain.
Collonges-la-Rouge is a picture-perfect hamlet listed as one of the “Plus Beaux Villages de France” (Most Beautiful Villages of France). Most of the buildings are constructed from red sandstone and date back to the 15th and 16th centuries when many noteworthy citizens of the Viscount of Turenne had residences here. The unusual rosy-hued houses and noblemen’s mansions make this town incomparable to any other in France.
Another must-see attraction in Collonges-la-Rouge is the 11th-century Eglise Saint-Pierre, an exquisite church that was visited by medieval pilgrims on the “Way of Saint James” trail to Santiago de Compostela, Spain.
Listed as one of the “Plus Beaux Villages de France,“ Curemonte sits on top of a rocky mount presiding over two valleys. Three castles dominate the townscape and are visible from far in the distance. Tourists can easily imagine the formidable impression that this village must have made during the Middle Ages. Curemonte boasts a 12th-century Romanesque church, as well as two other historic churches. At the 14th-century Château Saint-Hilaire, the author Colette wrote, Journal à Rebours. The village’s perfectly preserved squares and buildings make it popular as a filming location for movie sets.
Another one of the “Plus Beaux Villages de France,” Mortemart is a charming village with lovely architecture. Several historic religious buildings dazzle visitors, including a 14th-century Carmelite convent and the Eglise Saint-Hilaire, a humble little chapel in an Augustinian convent. Equally noteworthy is a 10th-century castle, the Château des Ducs, which was home to the Dukes of Mortemart. Stately noblemen’s mansions reflect the town’s wealthy heritage.
In the center of the city is an old covered hall that is still a hub for weekly markets, where farmers sell fresh fruits, vegetables, and other local products to villagers.
Ségur-le-Château is yet another one of the region’s “Plus Beaux Villages de France.” The village is nestled in a spot that was favored by the Viscounts of Limoges because of its safety from invasions. History is felt at every corner of the village. Visitors will enjoy wandering the ancient narrow lanes to admire handsome half-timbered houses and turreted noblemen’s mansions. On a sunny day, it’s pleasant to go for a scenic stroll along the riverside. Tourists should also be sure to visit the town’s medieval château, which requires a climb up the hill but offers the reward of a stunning view of the landscape.
An enchanting medieval city, Bourges was the capital of the historic Province of Berry and a center of trade in the 15th and 16th centuries.
The old town is replete with luxurious mansions built for merchants, side-by-side with top-heavy half-timbered houses.
The cathedral is an absolute wonder and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, looking like no other church in the world.
Bourges is also the place to get to know Jacques Cœur, a merchant who traveled far and wide and worked his way into the court of King Charles VII. And if that isn’t enough you can break out into the pastoral Marais where thousands of little garden plots are navigated by a lattice of water channels.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Bourges:
1. Bourges Cathedral
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Bourges Cathedral is extraordinary on many levels.
The first thing that might catch your eye is the lack of a transept, as there’s no break between the nave and choir.
This departure from the norm is only made possible by the rows of flying buttresses that run the length of the nave and choir.
On the inside, there’s a unique double aisle that seamlessly becomes a double ambulatory.
At this eastern side of the church, nearly all of the stained glass you’ll see is original, remarkably surviving from the 1215 and conveying bible scenes like Christ’s parables, the Passion, the Apocalypse, and Last Judgement.
2. Cathedral Tower and Crypt
These parts of the cathedral merit another listing because, while you have to pay to see them you won’t regret the small charge.
If you’re coming in summer it’s best to do this part early because the queues can belong.
Climbing the Tour de Buerre (Butter Tower) is no mean feat as there are 400 steps, but there’s a panorama of Bourges to reward you at the top.
The name comes from the means used to fund this 16th-century tower, as people would pay to be able to break their fast and eat butter during Lent.
In the crypt, you’ll be in the vestiges of the cathedral’s 11th-century predecessor and can find the tomb of the Duke Jean de Berry who was responsible for Bourges’ boom years in the 1300s.
3. Old Town
In 1487 there was a great fire in Bourges that destroyed a third of the city and stunted its development as it lost its annual fairs to Troyes and Lyon.
But it also gives us a very unified old town, with diamond-pattern timber houses, packed close together on streets like Rue Bourbonnoux, and a host of stone-built Renaissance mansions.
All you need are your own two feet and a sense of wonder and you’ll find exciting landmarks like the house where the famous merchant Jacques Cœur was born in 1395. There are also some fantastic merchants’ houses from earlier in the 1400s that survived the fire and are either attractions on their own terms or host the city’s museums.
4. Palais Jacques-Cœur
In the middle of the 15th-century the wealthy merchant and treasurer to King Charles VII, Jacques Cœur commissioned this breathtaking Gothic residence.
The Palais Jacques-Cœur came sometime before the Loire Valley’s exuberant Renaissance châteaux, but its carvings lack none of their elegance and richness.
Like its first owner, who opened trade between France and the Levant, the palace has lots of stories to tell: As you move from the galleried courtyard to the spiral staircases, steam rooms, private apartments, servants’ areas, and treasure room, video presentations with fill you in about the architecture, decoration and the people who lived here.
5. Jardin de l’Archevêché
Next to the cathedral, these gardens were laid in the 1730s for the
Archbishop of Bourges, eventually becoming the park for the town hall.
In a familiar French style, there are boxwood topiaries trimmed to sharp points, lime trees in the shape of globes as well as formal lawns and flowerbeds hemmed by paths.
You’ll also always have a privileged view of the cathedral’s awesome flying buttresses as you take your turn in these gardens.
There’s a cafe in the park, kids can hit the playground and you can stop at the romantic Belle Époque bandstand for a closer look.
6. Marais de Bourges
Just a few minutes from the Old Town is an enclave of reclaimed marshland encompassing 135 hectares.
In ancient times this boggy countryside slowed Julius Caesar’s advance in his conquest of Gaul in 52BC. But from around the 8th century, the marshes were brought under human control, and come the 17th-century they were drained and crisscrossed by a web of water channels.
Now the Marais is an outdoor escape for walkers and cyclists, not to mention urban gardening as the Marais is divided into almost 1,500 allotments that used to keep the whole city stocked with fruits and vegetables.
The channels abound with fish and waterfowl, and there isn’t a
prettier place to be on warm June day when the gardens are in flower.
7. Musée du Berry
Hôtel Cujas is yet another of Bourges’ fine old houses with a museum inside.
This Flamboyant Gothic mansion was conceived for a Florentine merchant in 1515 and is named for Jacques Cujas, a 16th-century legal expert who was a tenant for the last few years of his life.
The Musée du Berry inside used to be at the Palais Jacques-Cœur, but moved here in 1891. In the course of almost 200 years, it has amassed a riveting assortment of mosaics, ceramics, and statues.
Some excavated in the city, like the 220 Gallo-Roman Steles from
Ancient Bourges, while there are also finds from Ancient Egypt,
including a mummy from the 4th century BC.
8. Musée Estève
This museum for the 20th-century artist, Maurice Estève could hardly have a nobler home.
The building is the Hôtel des Échevins (House of the Aldermen), a Gothic mansion with ornate stonework on its tower.
Over three floors connected by the tower’s spiral staircase, the museum has the largest single collection of art by Estève, whose career lasted eight decades and took him from surrealism to abstraction via a figurative period.
In the softly lit Galerie Lejuge, you can see his sensational collages, watercolors, and drawings, which are rotated every few months to keep them conserved.
9. Les Nuits Lumière
In the evening from June to September, the town’s most beautiful Gothic and Renaissance landmarks are lit with magnificent projections.
At the Cathedral, Jardin de l’Archevêché and Hôtel des Échevins Palais these ethereal images are combined with music, and part of a walk that literally sheds new light on Bourges and its past.
The climax though is the Palais Jacques-Cœur, where you can go into the courtyard to get to know more about this merchant, his voyage to the Middle East and time in the service of the King.
10. Hôtel Lallemant
In Bourges, you won’t tire of seeing the city’s old mansions because each is as beautiful as the last.
Hôtel Lallemant is one you can lose hours gazing at because of its external decorative sculptures, which are as sharp as ever and include quirky characters, pilasters, capitals, scrolls, columns and all sorts more.
The house is a masterpiece of the French Renaissance and was built at the turn of the 16th century for a family of merchants that had originated in Germany.
Hôtel Lallemant is also built on the Gallo-Roman wall, which causes a divide between the upper and lower courtyards.
Call in for a small museum on decorative arts, which has a few rooms of miniature toys and antique furniture.
11. Promenade des Remparts
In the 4th century Avaricum (Gallo-Roman Bourges) became the capital of the Aquitaine Premièr province, and so controlled a massive tract of southwestern France.
At that time the city erected a new system of walls, gates, and towers to defend itself in what is now Bourges’ upper town.
With some help from the tourist office, you can walk the elliptical course of these defenses.
The Gallo-Roman parts are still visible throughout Bourges’ streetscape in the lowest sections of medieval dwellings, walls, and towers.
12. Jardin des Prés-Michaux
Just north of the center, on the left bank of the Yèvre just after it leaves the Marais is a calming Art Deco garden landscaped in the 1920s.
Come here to wander by an amazing array of plant sculptures: The are linden hedges, arches made from trimmed yews and all kinds of strange topiaries dotted here and there.
In between are geometric lawns edged flowerbeds next to long, straight promenades.
Art Deco-style Sculptures, fountains, stone reliefs and wisteria-draped pergolas make this a sophisticated place to idle away an hour or so.
13. Lac du Val d’Auron
A man-made body of water a mere two kilometers south of the old town, the Lac du Val d’Auron is awash with activity in summer.
There’s carp fishing, sailing, and canoeing on the lake, which has meadow and woodland on its southern shores and more of Bourges’ outskirts the further north you go.
It’s not all about watersports though, as there’s an equestrian center on the western shore while just east of the lake is the 18-hole municipal golf course, with a nine-hole pitch & putt and a driving range.
14. Printemps de Bourges
Live music fans owe it to themselves to check out this festival that happens over five days in April.
Printemps de Bourges has a format that has been copied in many places, as for these few days 13 stages at different locations around the town host some 200 artists.
It’s a week of fun and youthful energy, when some 200,000 people, mostly students, and 20-somethings, pour into the city.
For the industry, the festival is a major A&R event, and a chance to scout up-and-coming talent, especially at the fringe Les Découvertes du Printemps de Bourges shows for unsigned acts.
15. Route Jacques Cœur
You’ve seen his birthplace and the resplendent mansion that he built, but there’s even more heritage in the Bourges area relating to the city’s famous son.
Jacques Cœur was a pretty interesting character and you can find other places relevant to him on a designated route that was set up as long ago as 1954. There are 16 sites on the itinerary, taking in towns in the region like Sancerre, also beloved for its wine, and Mehun Sur Yèvre, which has the awe-inspiring ruins of a castle where Charles VII died in 1461.
The Loire Valley invites visitors to step into the scene of a fairy tale, complete with stunning castles and enchanting countryside. Known as the “Garden of France,” the entire area of the Loire Valley is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Because of its beauty, the Loire Valley was frequently visited by the French kings. The region has been strategically important since the Middle Ages and the Hundred Years’ War, but the Loire really came to life during the Renaissance.
During the 15th and 16th centuries, the French Kings dreamed up a vision of luxury and opulence and built extravagant country retreats amid the Loire’s woodlands and rivers. These lavish royal castles became legendary, and rich nobles followed suit by creating their own grand homes in the area. The sumptuous Renaissance châteaux were designed purely for enjoyment and entertaining, an extension of court life outside Paris. The grandiose Chambord is the most magnificent château, while Chenonceau is the most elegant. Find the best things to see and do in the region with our list of the top tourist attractions in the Loire Valley.
1 Château de Chambord
In a majestic location on the left bank of the Loire River, the Château of Chambord is the most emblematic Renaissance monument in France. A breathtaking sight to behold, this enormous castle provided inspiration for the building of the Château de Versailles. The estate was created in the early 16th century (at the height of the French Renaissance) for King Francis I, who spared no expense. The building was constructed on a scale of immense proportions, measuring 117 meters by 156 meters. With turrreted towers, impressive vaulted ceilings, 440 rooms, and a gigantic double-helix staircase at the entry hall, the Château de Chambord is definitely fit for royalty. Louis XIV (the “Sun King”) frequently resided here, hosting extravagant gala balls, hunting parties, and amusing soirées. The celebrated playwright Molière presented his comedy Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme while he was staying at the château as a guest of Louis XIV.
The extensive property of Chambord is encircled by a 32-kilometer wall (the longest in France), with six gates that allow access to the grounds. Of the property’s 5,500 hectares of parkland, four-fifths is pristine forests. Visitors are dazzled by the French Formal Gardens that are landscaped in geometric patterns with perfectly manicured shrubs and tidy flowerbeds. The garden’s Italianate terrace was a central feature of court life when the king was in residence. Today Chambord is a must-see destination in the Loire Valley, about a two-hour drive from Paris. Tourists can take an 80-minute train ride from Paris Austerlitz station to the Blois Chambord station, which is a 25-minute shuttle or taxi ride away from the château.
2 Château de Chenonceau
An elegant château with a distinctive feminine touch, Chenonceau was strongly influenced by the famous women who have lived here. Thomas Bohier acquired the Château de Chenonceau in 1512, and his wife, Catherine Briçonnet renovated the medieval castle by rebuilding it in Renaissance style with a spacious central entrance hall and Italianate staircase. After being acquired by the Crown Estate in 1535, the château became the property of King Henry II, who presented the château to his mistress, Diane de Poitiers, in 1547. Henry’s widow Catherine de Médicis, who took over the royal residence in 1533, was responsible for creating the most unique feature of the château, the Corps de Logis. This two-story gallery stands upon a graceful arched bridge that crosses the Cher River, giving the impression that the château is floating on water. To further impress visitors, the Corps de Logis gallery displays fine paintings and antique tapestries. With an air of both delicacy and grandeur, the château’s stately halls once provided the ideal setting for refined social gatherings.
Equalling the beauty of the interior, the château’s Renaissance French Gardens is landscaped with decorative pools and flower beds. The garden’s spacious “floating parterre” (raised terraces covered with lawn) was the creative vision of Diane de Poitiers. In the Garden of Catherine de Médicis, roses flourish on trellises of a walking path, which overlooks the castle moat, a sublime scene sure to inspire leisurely strolls. On summer weekend evenings, the gardens take on a magical glow, illuminated by hundreds of lanterns for Nocturnal Promenades (Night Walks).
Another reason to linger at the château is the property’s fine-dining restaurant, L’Orangerie, which serves gourmet cuisine in an exquisite dining room. The château also has a tea room with an outdoor patio in the Green Garden, a casual self-service restaurant, and a crêperie, as well as shaded picnic areas. Château de Chenonceau is accessible by the rapid-speed TGV train (a one-hour ride) from the Paris Montparnasse station to the Tours station. By car, it takes about two hours to reach Chenonceau from Paris.
3 Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres
The charming old town of Chartres is crowned by the UNESCO-listed Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres, an important pilgrimage destination during the Middle Ages. This awe-inspiring French Gothic church stands in an elevated position, with its soaring spires visible from a distance. Built-in the 12th and 13th centuries, Chartres Cathedral is one of the finest and best-preserved medieval churches in France as well as an important landmark of Christian art and architecture. The influence of Chartres Cathedral is seen in many other Gothic cathedrals in Europe, including Amiens and Reims in France, Westminster Abbey in England, Cologne Cathedral in Germany, and the Catedral de León in Spain. The stained-glass windows of Chartres also inspired similar workmanship at the cathedrals in Bourges, Le Mans, Poitiers, Rouen, and Tours in France, and Canterbury in England.
Chartres Cathedral features a highly ornamental facade centered around the Royal Portail (doorway) adorned with monumental Old Testament figures, an early form of Gothic sculpture. The cathedral is most renowned for its abundance of intricately detailed medieval stained-glass windows (nearly 3,000 square meters) that are perfectly conserved; most of the windows date from 1210 to 1260, an exceptional rarity in existence. Particularly breathtaking are the three immense rose windows. Other notable features in the cathedral are the Late Gothic choir screens with scenes from the life of the Virgin and the Gospels, and the terrace with a panoramic view of the lower town. During summertime (on Sunday afternoons in July and August), the cathedral presents sacred music performances (free of charge) as part of the International Organ Festival. Chartres is an easy day trip from Paris, approximately a 90-minute car ride from the city center or train ride from Saint-Lazare station.
Boasting many old palaces and burghers’ houses, the old ducal city of Bourges enjoys a picturesque setting on the Yèvre and Aveyron Rivers in the historic province of Berry. The town’s top attraction, the UNESCO-listed Cathédrale Saint-Etienne ranks among the most splendid of French cathedrals built in the 12th-13th centuries. The ornate west front, flanked by massive towers, has five doorways with rich sculptural decoration and an exquisite 14th-century rose window. The cathedral is entered through the Romanesque south doorway, over which is a figure of Christ in Majesty, surrounded by the symbols of the four Evangelists. The interior stuns visitors with its gorgeous sanctuary illuminated by 13th-century stained-glass windows. In a chapel near the choir are interesting 15th-century kneeling figures of the Duc Jean de Berry and his wife. Tourists can also climb to the top of the north tower to take in spectacular views. Another noteworthy building is the Palais Jacques Côur, a palace built in 1443-1453 by the royal treasurer Jacques Côur, exemplifying secular Gothic architecture. About a 30 minutes’ drive southwest of Bourges is the 12th-century Cistercian Abbey of Noirlac, a fantastic example of Cistercian architecture with an arcaded cloister dating from the 13th and 14th centuries.
5 Château de Cheverny
A private estate in a tranquil countryside setting near a vast forest, the Château of Cheverny dazzles visitors with its enchanting gardens and magnificent interior. Cheverny Castle claims to be the most fully furnished and decorated of the Loire châteaux. Built-in the early 1600s in harmonious Classical style, this exceptional manor house has been home to the same family for more than six centuries and opened its doors to the public in 1922. The grand halls and remarkably well-maintained apartments of the château are graced with the original furniture and decor, such as a 17th-century Gobelin tapestry and a Louis XIV chest, which provide an insight into noble life centuries ago. The entryway features an elaborately designed stairway, while the main rooms are embellished with Louis XIII boiseries (intricately carved paneling). For those more interested in French popular culture, the château has an exposition of Tintin comic strips.
One of the highlights of the Château of Cheverny is the English-style park, a bucolic expanse of tidily manicured green lawns shaded by giant redwoods and cedar trees. The more adventurous can rent an electric car to take a spin through the property’s forest path. Another enjoyable way to take in the scenery is by gliding around the lake on an electric boat. When visitors are in need of refreshments, the Café de l’Orangerie delights with its fancy pastries, homemade ice cream, snacks, and beverages, served in the 18th-century orangery building or outside on the terrace. On sunny days, the château’s open-air picnic area is another favorite spot. The Château of Cheverny is an easy (approximately two-hour) car ride or train ride from Paris. The best option by train is from the Paris Austerlitz station to the Blois-Chambord station and then a short (16-kilometer) taxi ride to the château.
Azay-le-Rideau is renowned for its magnificent Renaissance château, a dreamy fairy-tale-like building that is surrounded by a moat and lovely gardens. The Château d’Azay-le-Rideau was built in the 16th century by a wealthy financier. The design of this stately château was greatly influenced by Italian architecture. The most notable features on the ground floor are the rib-vaulted kitchen and the dining room with a richly decorated chimney and numerous tapestries. Sumptuous Renaissance furniture and paintings decorate the reception rooms. In the town of Azay-le-Rideau, there is an interesting church, the Eglise Saint-Symphorien, that blends Romanesque and Gothic styles. The facade of the south aisle reveals remains of Carolingian reliefs. In the nearby Château of Saché, the famous author Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850) wrote some of his novels. The room where Balzac worked has been preserved as it was.
Only ten kilometers away from Azay-le-Rideau is another spectacular château: Château de Langeais, one of the fastest-built châteaux in the Loire Valley. The château was constructed by King Louis XI in only four years from 1465 to 1469. This striking landmark has remained unchanged for centuries; the medieval rooms with their original decorations and wall-hangings are particularly worth seeing. King Charles VIII was married here to Anne de Bretagne in 1491.
Travelers visiting this area can spend the night in regal style at the nearby Château de Rochecotte, about 20 kilometers away from the Château d’Azay-le-Rideau. This 4-star hotel was formerly the residence of the Prince de Talleyrand and the Duchesse de Dino. Ensuring a luxurious experience, the spacious, bright guest rooms feature plush decor and sensational views of the gardens, while the château’s upscale dining room serves a delicious lunch menu and afternoon tea, with desserts prepared by the restaurant’s pastry chef. The property’s 20 hectares of wooded parkland includes formal gardens, an Italianate terrace, and a heated swimming pool.
7 Château de Valençay
The Château de Valençay was built in stages from the medieval era through the Renaissance period, and for this reason, the building blends a variety of architectural styles. The main wing reveals design elements inspired by the Italian Renaissance, while the two-story side wing is Baroque. The side wing also shows the influence of Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord (Prince Talleyrand), Napoleon’s foreign minister, who acquired the château in 1803 and resided here in rooms outfitted with Empire furniture. One of the highlights of the château is the Family Portraits Gallery, adorned with paintings that depict Talleyrand’s ancestors. As a tribute to Prince Talleyrand, the château’s Salle des Trésors (Hall of Treasures) displays a collection of personal items that belonged to the savvy Lord of Valençay, who was known for his business acumen, diplomatic talents, and art of living.
Similar to many royal estates, the Château de Valençay encompasses vast grounds. Set in a 53-hectare park including lush forests, the property features immaculately manicured Formal Gardens with a profusion of flowerbeds, sculptures, decorative pools, and fountains. Ideal for relaxing, some of the grassy spaces of the gardens are designated as picnic areas. The woodland portion of the grounds features a four-kilometer path that traverses the forest for taking invigorating nature walks (alternatively electric golf carts are available).
Another exceptional estate nearby is the Domaine de Poulaines in the town of Berry (only seven kilometers away from the Château de Valençay). Nestled in a 20-hectare woodland, the Domaine de Poulaines offers 4.5 hectares of marvelous themed gardens, awarded the “Jardin Remarquable” (“Remarkable Garden”) label in 2014. A refreshing outdoor space with shady 100-year-old trees; an English landscape garden planted with roses, dahlias, and peonies; an aromatic herb garden; koi pond; and an Arboretum with 400 different varieties of trees make this property a special place.
The largest town in the Loire Valley after Tours, Orléans is a good base to begin exploring the region. Inseparably bound with the history of Joan of Arc, the city owes its survival to the 17-year-old “Maid of Orléans,” who helped lead the French to victory against the English when Orléans was besieged in 1429. A small museum in a restored 15th-century house, the Maison de Jeanne-d’Arc is devoted to Joan of Arc, who is now recognized as a saint by the Catholic Church.
Another landmark associated with Joan of Arc, where she spent time in silent prayer, is the 13th-century Cathédrale Sainte-Croix. The cathedral’s monumental exterior features twin towers (81 meters high), five doorways, and elaborate Baroque decoration. The sheer size of the interior leaves a lasting impression, while colorful stained-glass windows allow visitors to marvel at the history of Joan of Arc. For a further immersion into the city’s culture, tourists can peruse the art collection at the Musée des Beaux-Arts, which displays around 700 artworks (paintings, sculptures and decorative objects) from the 15th to the 20th century, such as pieces by Correggio, Tintoretto, Delacroix, Gauguin, and Picasso.
About 27 kilometers away from Orléans is the Château de Meung-Sur-Loire, one of the oldest castles in the Loire Valley. Set in expansive parklands, the château reveals the evolution of French architecture with its variety of architectural details, from 12th-century towers to the 18th-century facade. The castle also played a strategic role for Joan of Arc in 1429 at a crucial moment during the Hundred Years’ War.
The medieval town of Amboise was built up along the left bank of the Loire River (about 25 kilometers east of Tours) with dense forest in the background. The city’s most fascinating attraction is the Château Royal d’Amboise, where French kings resided for five centuries. Standing proudly on a rocky cliff at nearly 40 meters high, the château offers a fantastic vantage point of the Loire Valley landscape. Mostly built during the reign of Charles VIII in the 15th century, the castle exemplifies late Gothic architecture with its richly articulated facade and imposing round towers. For more royal history, tourists can visit the Chapelle Saint-Hubert, built around 1491 for King Charles VIII and his wife Anne de Bretagne who was the Duchess of Brittany. The chapel is a fine example of Gothic architecture, with intricate sculptures and gargoyles on the facade and a jewel-box interior illuminated by brilliant stained-glass windows.
Another top attraction in Amboise is the Château du Clos Lucé, where Leonardo da Vinci spent the last three years of his life. At this splendid property, visitors can learn all about the great Renaissance man. Throughout the year, the Château du Clos Lucé presents permanent exhibitions about Leonardo da Vinci’s life story and accomplishments. From April through December, temporary “Cultural Season” exhibitions focus on Leonardo da Vinci’s projects and original ideas (such as his studies of birds and his vision for creating a flying vehicle). Visitors should leave time to wander around Leonardo’s Garden, which abounds with burgeoning plant species that inspired Leonardo da Vinci’s interest in botany.
Perched on two hills above the Loire River, the historic city of Blois is full of old-world ambiance. The typical characteristics of a medieval town are all found here: narrow medieval streets, half-timbered buildings, a monumental château, and a soaring cathedral. Boasting a regal pedigree, Blois was a royal residence for seven French kings. During King Louis XII and King Francis I reigns, the town played a similar role to that of the Château de Versailles for Louis XIV. Originally a fortified citadel, the Château Royal de Blois reflects changing architectural styles of the eras it was built (13th through 17th centuries). For instance, the Francis I wing is a masterpiece of Renaissance architecture with a grandiose octagonal staircase. A short walk from the château is a former Benedictine church, the 12th- to 13th-century Eglise Saint-Nicolas, renowned for its stained-glass windows that brighten the harmonious sanctuary.
Standing on high ground in the old town, the Cathédrale Saint-Louis surprises visitors with its simple, unadorned vaulted interior and contemporary stained-glass windows. After taking a look at the cathedral, tourists should take time to admire the handsome old burghers’ houses nearby. History buffs will also appreciate the town’s Musée de la Résistance (at Place de la Grève), which chronicles the French resistance efforts, the Occupation period, and the Liberation at the end of the Second World War.
11 Domaine de Chaumont-sur-Loire
About 18 kilometers away from Blois, the Château de Chaumont appears as if it’s straight from the page of a fairy tale. This multi-towered and turreted fortress-like château was founded in the year 1000, rebuilt by King Louis XI around 1465 and acquired by Catherine de Médicis in 1550. The château’s apartments, including the Catherine de Médicis room, are beautifully appointed with historic tapestries and works of art. Many of the rooms have been recently embellished with renovated furnishings and decor, allowing visitors to appreciate the château in all its original glory. Both the château and its English-style gardens are open to the public. Adding to its tourist appeal, the Domaine de Chaumont-sur-Loire presents contemporary “Art Season” exhibits, changing annually to showcase the work of emerging artists, with artworks, sculptures, and creative installations displayed throughout the château and gardens. The château also hosts the “Festival International des Jardins,” a garden design festival that draws inspiration from concepts in literature and poetry.
This historic city is a pleasure to discover by taking a leisurely stroll. A walk through the cobblestone streets between Place Plumereau and the Place du Grand-Marché will give an impression of the character of Vieux Tours (the old town). With its tree-lined courtyard space, bustling outdoor cafés, and handsome half-timbered houses, the Place Plumereau is a particularly inviting place to stop. Tourists should plan to spend some time at the Cathédrale Saint-Gatien to admire the Flamboyant Gothic facade, as well as the glorious vaulted sanctuary, illuminated by the 13th-century stained-glass windows. To the south of the cathedral is the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Tours, which showcases masterpieces of fine art from the 14th to the 20th century, including paintings by Rubens, Rembrandt, Delacroix, Degas, and Monet. To the north of the cathedral, the medieval Château de Tours presents photography exhibitions created in partnership with the Musée Parisien de la Photographie. For another dose of culture, tourists can continue walking (about 15 minutes west of the Château de Tours) to the Hôtel Goüin, a Renaissance mansion that now welcomes visitors for art and photography expositions, as well as music performances.
Once the capital of Anjou county, Angers is dominated by the Château d’Angers, perched majestically on a 32-meter-high crag above the Maine River. Built-in the 13th century as a fortress, this vast citadel is enclosed by stout defensive walls, with 17 round towers. In the 14th and 15th centuries, court life flourished here under the Dukes of Anjou, patrons of the arts. The château is known for its tapestry collection, most notably the Tapestry of the Apocalypse, an important work of medieval art. One of the fun things to do while visiting the castle is to take a walk along the ramparts, which afford panoramic views of the surrounding landscape.
In the old town of Anger, the Cathédrale Saint-Maurice d’Angers surprises visitors with its unusual architectural details. The spacious interior features three large domes (constructed in the 12th century) known as “Angevin Gothic” or “Plantagenêt” vaulting. Another dazzling impression comes from the cathedral’s medieval stained-glass windows, in particular the “Glorification de la Vierge” window. A short walk south of the cathedral, the Musée des Beaux-Arts has a superb collection of fine art housed in a stately 15th-century hôtel particulier. Also not to be missed is the Collégiale Saint-Martin, a Romanesque church with elements dating to the Merovingian (5th and 6th centuries) and Carolingian (10th-century) eras, as well as the Gothic period. Other cultural attractions include the Galerie David d’Angers, which displays the sculptures of Pierre-Jean David in a renovated 13th-century abbey church; the Musée Jean Lurçat et de la Tapisserie Contemporaine, which showcases contemporary tapestries; and the Musée Pincé, devoted to Greek, Egyptian, Roman (and other) antiquities.
Topping the vacation to-do list for families with kids is to spend a day at Terra Botanica, an amusement park with a botanical-themed twist. (The park is a 10-minute drive outside the historic part of Anger on the Route d’Epinard.) Within the extraordinary gardens of Terra Botanica, around 275,000 diverse plant species thrive roses, dahlias, orchids, water lilies, rare vegetables, herbs, spices, tropical palms, cactuses, and thousand-year-old trees. Grown-ups will adore the beautiful Rose Garden and the traditionally landscaped Grandma’s Path, while kids will love the play area, boat rides, Butterfly Greenhouse, and the hanging gardens on Elves’ Island14 Chinon and Château d’Ussé
14 Chinon and Château d’Ussé
With its ruined castle looming from above on a steep ridge of a hill, the town of Chinon has a romantic ambiance. The old town lies between the fortress and the Vienne River. The Forteresse Royale de Chinon dates back to the 10th century and is a masterpiece of medieval architecture. Joan of Arc had an important meeting with the Dauphin Charles here in 1429. The Rue Voltaire, with its 15th- and 16th-century houses, and the 12th-century Church of Saint-Maurice is particularly worth seeing. The most important event in the history of Chinon was the meeting between Charles VII and Joan of Arc on March 9, 1429, which marked the beginning of the reconquest of French territory from the English.
A vision of a fairy-tale fantasy is found 12 kilometers from Chinon at the Château d’Ussé, the castle that provided inspiration to Charles Perrault, who wrote the “Sleeping Beauty” story in the 17th-century. Built-in stages between the 15th and 17th centuries, the Château d’Ussé shows a mingling of Late Gothic and Renaissance architecture. The rooms feature Florentine and Louis XV furniture, 16th- and 17th-century tapestries, and marble marquetry. Visitors are also impressed by the castle’s unique spiral staircase and the grand staircase designed by Mansart, the architect of the Château de Versailles. The grounds rank among the Loire Valley’s prettiest gardens, created by Le Nôtre (known as the “King’s Gardener”), who landscaped Versailles. Tucked away in a peaceful spot of the property is the Collégiale Notre Dame d’Ussé, dedicated to Sainte-Anne d’Ussé. This 16th-century chapel exemplifies pure Renaissance style. The Château d’Ussé is owned by the Duke of Blacas and has been a private home in the family for more than two centuries.
15 Le Mans
Although most famous for its car race, Le Mans is worth discovering for its cultural heritage. Surrounded by remnants of ancient Gallo-Roman walls and brimming with old-world charm, the historic section of Le Mans known as the “Cité Plantagenêt” (named after Geoffrey Plantagenet, the Count of Anjou, and Maine counties), is a delightful escape from the modern world. This historic gem of an old town covers 20 hectares, filled with cobblestone streets, half-timbered houses, and Renaissance mansions. The main thoroughfare of the Cité Plantagenêt is the Grande Rue. Tourists should stop to notice the Renaissance mansion, Maison d’Adam et d’Eve (69 Grand Rue at the crossing of Rue du Bouquet), before ambling along the Rue de la Reine Bérengère until reaching the Cathédrale Saint-Julien. First-time visitors are struck by the cathedral’s incredible facade, especially the abundance of flying buttresses and the fabulously detailed sculpting. The sanctuary is among the finest in France, with medieval stained-glass windows rivaling Chartres Cathedral, especially the Ascension window, and ceiling paintings in the Chapelle de la Vierge, which depict 47 angelic musicians. Another top tourist attraction near the cathedral is the Musée de la Reine-Bérengère, dedicated to regional history and culture. Also within the Cité Plantagenêt are two pleasant green spaces, the Bicentenary Square on the Rue de la Verrerie, which has a rose garden and benches for relaxing, and the Robert Trigger Square, with a view of the cathedral and a small garden of aromatic plants.
Just outside the Cité Plantagenêt is the Musée de Tessé, a fine arts museum that displays paintings, sculptures, and decorative objects from the 12th to 20th centuries, as well as Egyptian antiquities. Also beyond the Cité Plantagenêt is the Eglise Notre-Dame-de-la-Couture, a former Benedictine abbey church with a Virgin and Child statue sculpted by renowned Renaissance artist Germain Pilon. On the right bank of the Sarthe River, the Eglise Notre-Dame-du-Pré offers the chance to experience a serene Romanesque sanctuary. Of course, car-racing enthusiasts will want to visit the Sarthe Automobile Museum (near the Circuit des 24 Heures race track) to learn about the race and see the actual winning vehicles.
Halfway between Anger and Tours, the medieval town of Saumur is at the heart of the historic Anjou region where the pastoral landscape is dotted with woodlands, vine-covered hills, flower fields, and small farms. Saumur has one of the most impressive of the Loire Valley châteaux, built in the 14th century on a hill high above the Loire River, creating a striking impression from far in the distance. Originally, the Château de Saumur was the property of the Count of Anjou, then the Plantagenêt dynasty and later was converted into a royal residence by King Saint Louis IX in the early 13th century. In the 15th century, the castle became the royal domain of King René, who called his resplendent palace the “castle of love.” Designed around an open courtyard, the château is entered through a large and imposing doorway. Inside, the Château de Saumur contains the Musée de Saumur, which has a collection of decorative works of art, furniture, tapestry, and ceramics from the 14th to 18th centuries along with an assortment of equestrian objects. In addition, the museum presents temporary expositions throughout the year, while the château hosts (French-language) cultural events during summertime, such as open-air film screenings. Tourists can visit the castle’s gardens and the outdoor terrace overlooking the Loire Valley landscape.
Those interested in French gastronomy can discover an important culinary ingredient that’s cultivated in the area around Saumur: “Champignons de Paris” (known as “button mushrooms”). In fact, the region’s mushroom farms (champignonnières) supply three-quarters of all the Champignons de Paris mushrooms produced in France. Derived from a variety of wild mushrooms, the Champignons de Paris is now grown in mass quantities in the region’s underground cellars. The prized culinary ingredient is destined for use in Coq au Vin (chicken in wine sauce), Boeuf Bourguignon (Beef Burgundy), traditional quiches, and other recipes. The Musée du Champignon gives visitors a peek into the intriguing world of mushrooms. Within the museum’s chilly caves, several different varieties of cultivated mushrooms are on display, including Champignons de Paris, oyster mushrooms, and reishi Mushrooms. Self-guided tours (with information available in French and English) or guided group tours in French or English provide an in-depth educational experience. Adding to the fun, the museum allows visitors the chance to sample various appetizers prepared with mushrooms.
17 Château de Montreuil-Bellay
Originally designed as a citadel, the Château de Montreuil-Bellay has a fascinating history. The château earned its reputation as impregnable because it withstood a siege by the Count of Anjou in the 12th century. In the 13th century, the château was used as a hunting lodge and hosted elaborate feasts. During the Hundred Years’ War, peasants took refuge in the castle moat and neighboring monasteries. Later, when the Wars of Religion broke out, both the Catholics and Protestants turned to this location to refuel weapons and ammunition. By the late 15th century, the château served as a country manor estate instead of a fortress. As the castle’s purpose changed throughout the centuries, the architecture evolved. The original austere fortress, with its 650 meters of ramparts and 13 defense towers, was transformed into a luxurious palace.
Open to the public for guided tours, the Château de Montreuil-Bellay gives tourists access to view two levels of the building: the cellars and the fully furnished rooms of the ground floor, including the Duchess of Longueville’s bedroom; a well-preserved medieval kitchen; a beautifully decorated drawing-room; a dining room with traditional beamed ceiling; and a small music room. The castle grounds include verdant gardens, filled with shady lime trees and fragrant roses. Also on the property is the 15th-century Collégiale Notre-Dame church, decorated with the coats of arms of the château’s Lords.
18 Château de Villandry
Built-in the 16th century for Jean Le Breton, Minister of Finance to King François I, the Château de Villandry is renowned for its gorgeous Renaissance gardens. The French-style landscaping was first laid out in the 16th century. From the upper floor of the château, a flight of steps leads down to the gardens, which cover an expansive area of five hectares. To the left is the Ornamental Garden, with four “salons” of meticulously arranged greenery. The first salon, called the “Garden of Love,” is designed in the style of gardens found in Andalusia (with four geometric beds); each bed of flowers represents a different type of love. Beyond the Ornamental Gardens is the Kitchen Garden, planted with vegetables laid out in decorative geometric forms. Reminiscent of medieval monastery gardens, the Herb Garden boasts 30 varieties of culinary and medicinal herbs, planted in circular beds to symbolize eternity. Other highlights include a maze of “charmilles” (hornbeam hedges), the Water Garden, featuring an ornamental pond, and the view of the village of Villandry and its Romanesque church in the distance.
The château’s eagerly awaited “Nights of a Thousand Lights” takes place on several evenings in July and August, when the gardens are illuminated with 2,000 candles. At this special event, visitors can take a romantic stroll through the gardens in their magical state, while enjoying entertainment and fireworks.
Listed as one of the “Plus Beaux Détours de France” (Most Beautiful Detours of France), the historic town of Loches offers old-world charm, alluring gardens, and picture-perfect scenery alongside the Indre River, a left-bank tributary of the Loire. On the hill above the modern section of Loches is the Cité Médiévale, the medieval city, fortified by a circuit of ramparts stretching two kilometers long. Tourists enter the Cité Médiévale through the 14th- to 15th-century Porte Royale, a gate once approached by a drawbridge. Within this walled city is a captivating medieval world of winding cobblestone streets, quiet pedestrian lanes, and ancient Tuffeau stone buildings. Built on a rocky spur (inside the Cité Médiévale) is the Collégiale Saint-Ours, a Romanesque church originally founded in 962 but mostly dating to the 12th century, and the Château de Loches, dating from the 15th to 16th centuries. Once the residence of King Charles VII, the château is where Joan of Arc met with Charles VII and encouraged him to travel to Reims for his coronation. The Salle Jeanne d’Arc contains a small collection of weapons and an assortment of antique tapestries.
A worthwhile detour from Loches is 18 kilometers away to Montrésor, a quaint little town on the banks of the Indre River listed as one of France’s “Most Beautiful Villages” (“Plus Beaux Villages“). Presiding over the town and the surrounding bucolic landscape is a medieval château built in the 11th century by Foulques Nerra, the Count of Anjou. The town also has a noteworthy 16th-century church, the Collégiale Saint Jean-Baptiste, which is a masterpiece of Renaissance architecture. A visit to Montrésor could easily be combined on a driving itinerary that includes the Château de Chenonceau (30 kilometers north).
20 Abbaye Royale de Fontevraud
The largest monastery in Europe, the Abbaye Royale de Fontevraud is nestled in a verdant valley near the Loire River and encompasses 13 hectares of parkland. The Benedictine abbey was founded in 1099 by an eclectic and iconoclastic preacher named Robert d’Arbrissel, considered a radical because he created a community for people of diverse social backgrounds. Another unusual fact is that the abbey was always run by an abbess, who governed both male monks and female nuns. A succession of 36 abbesses ran the abbey over the course of seven centuries. Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, wife of King Henry II of England, had strong ties to the abbey, which was her favorite place of worship. During the last years of her life, Queen Eleanor lived at the abbey, and she commissioned the effigies of herself, as well as her husband, that is in the abbey church.
furniture Fontevraud Abbey is now open to the public; visitors can tour the main priory; the Romanesque abbey church (built between 1105 and 1165); an interesting Byzantine kitchen, complete with the original fish smokehouse used to make smoked salmon; and a lush garden planted with vegetables, herbs, and fruit trees. Another highlight of visiting the abbey is its gourmet restaurant. For those who would like to spend the night at a spiritually inspiring retreat, the four-star hotel on the property pampers guests with luxurious, contemporary-style rooms in the former Saint-Lazare priory. Ron the heart of the Loire Valley, just 10 kilometers from Blois and 20 kilometers from Chambord, the Château de Beauregard is the old hunting lodge of King Francis I, who reigned during the first half of the 16th century. During the 16th and 17th centuries, the castle served as a residence for the French king’s ministers. This stately building reflects the grandeur of its rich heritage. Three centuries of France’s history are represented in the château’s portrait gallery, with 327 portraits of kings and important political figures. An expansive parkland surrounds the castle, including gardens planted with ancient cedars, cherry blossom trees, and flowering plants. Depending on the season, vibrant azaleas, camellias, rhododendrons, and a hundred variety of fragrant heirloom roses enliven the grounds. Those who spend more time wandering will come across the ruins of a 14th-century chapel, a landmark on the medieval pilgrimage trail to Santiago de la Compostela. Also on the property are vacation cottages that are available to rent for overnight accommodations. you Abbey of Fontevraud could be a good addition to a tour itinerary with Saumur (14 kilometers away) and Chinon (16 kilometers away).
21 Château de Beauregard
n the heart of the Loire Valley, just 10 kilometers from Blois and 20 kilometers from Chambord, the Château de Beauregard is the old hunting lodge of King Francis I, who reigned during the first half of the 16th century. During the 16th and 17th centuries, the castle served as a residence for the French king’s ministers. This stately building reflects the grandeur of its rich heritage. Three centuries of France’s history are represented in the château’s portrait gallery, with 327 portraits of kings and important political figures. An expansive parkland surrounds the castle, including gardens planted with ancient cedars, cherry blossom trees, and flowering plants. Depending on the season, vibrant azaleas, camellias, rhododendrons, and a hundred variety of fragrant heirloom roses enliven the grounds. Those who spend more time wandering will come across the ruins of a 14th-century chapel, a landmark on the medieval pilgrimage trail to Santiago de la Compostela. Also on the property are vacation cottages that are available to rent for overnight accommodations.
On the banks of the Loire River, this elegant historic town was an important medieval pilgrimage destination. The Abbaye de la Trinité was first built here in the 11th century. In the 13th century, the Romanesque abbey was rebuilt in grand Gothic style with an opulent facade, an impressive vaulted nave, and Flamboyant Gothic windows. The abbey gained a reputation as a stopover, close to Saint Martin’s tomb in Tours, along the pilgrims’ road to Santiago de Compostela. At the center of Vendôme is the Place Saint-Martin, and nearby is the Tour Saint-Martin, all that remains of a Renaissance church. Other noteworthy churches in Vendôme include the Chapelle Saint-Jacques, a Gothic chapel now used for cultural expositions, and the 15th-century Eglise Sainte-Marie-Madeleine, with lovely stained-glass windows.
One of France’s Most Beautiful Villages (Plus Beaux Villages), Lavardin is 18 kilometers away from Vendôme amid the rolling hills and cliffs of the Loire Valley. To arrive at the village, visitors must traverse a Gothic bridge that spans the Loire River. The ruins of an old château give this picturesque village a romantic charm. The fortified castle withstood an attack by Richard the Lionheart but was overtaken by King Henry IV’s troops. The village features a mix of architectural styles and periods, from Gothic to Renaissance, and even some cave dwellings.
Châteaudun is perched high on a rocky outcrop, the perfect defensive location during the Middle Ages. In the 12th century, the Count of Blois chose this lofty, difficult-to-access spot to build a fortress featuring a massive 31-meter tower, and that feudal castle is considered the first château of the Loire Valley. In the mid-15th century, the Château de Châteaudun became the property of comrade-in-arms and close friend of Joan of Arc Jean de Dunois, who tore down the old wing of the castle to construct the Sainte-Chapelle (a Holy Chapel designed to hold a relic, the Cross of Christ). After the Hundred Years’ War, the château was enhanced in Renaissance style to suit a more leisurely and luxurious way of life. The room decor became more refined, and large kitchens were added to prepare princely meals. On the castle’s attractive grounds, the unique hanging garden reflects a taste for the lavish. From the château’s outdoor terrace are stunning views of the Loire landscape.
Near the château is the old town of Châteaudun, a jumble of cobblestone streets and pedestrian streets enclosed within ancient ramparts. While strolling atmospheric lanes, visitors are delighted to discover many quaint half-timbered houses (mainly on Rue Saint-Lubin and Rue des Tuileries) and several historic churches, including the Eglise de la the Madeleine with a Romanesque facade. Tourists will also enjoy the town’s pleasant parks and the wide selection of shops and restaurants. Outside the medieval town, in the more modern area of Châteaudun (at 3 Rue Toufaire), is another interesting tourist attraction, the Musée des Beaux-Arts et d’Histoire Naturelle (Museum of Fine Arts and Natural History), which displays a diverse collection of archaeological objects, paintings, fine porcelain, and interior decor.
24 Abbaye de Fleury
Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire is famed for its great Benedictine abbey, the Abbaye de Fleury, which was founded in the 7th century. The abbey’s bright and beautifully proportioned basilica, built between 1067 and 1218, is one of the finest Romanesque churches in France. The most outstanding feature of the church is the porch tower, with its ornately carved capitals. Inside the 12th-century crypt are the relics of Saint Benedict, brought here from the Abbey of Monte Cassino (near Naples in Italy) in the late 7th century.
The monastic community of the Abbaye de Fleury was dissolved at the time of the French Revolution but was re-established in 1944 by a group of Benedictine monks. Today this working monastery has a community of 32 monks and nuns. Besides the spiritual aspect of the monastery, the Abbaye de Fleury has two artisanal workshops: the Atelier de Porcelaine, where monks handcraft porcelain plates, mugs, and bowls, and the Atelier de Confiserie, where specialty confections such as fruit candies, caramels, and honey bonbons are created. Although much of the abbey is reserved for use by the monastic community, the basilica is open to the public; visitors may spend time in prayer, take a guided tour, or attend a concert (classical music performances are occasionally held on Sunday afternoons).
25 Château de Villesavin
This 16th-century manor house is in the small village of Tour-en-Sologne, 10 kilometers away from the Château de Chambord. Built for Jean le Breton, the finance secretary of King Francis I, and later the residence of noble families, the Château de Villesavin was created by French and Italian master craftsmen and builders who had constructed grand royal palaces such as Chambord. Unlike many castles of the Loire Valley, the Château de Villesavin has been well maintained in its original state for four centuries and today is still a private home, owned by the Sparre family, who have kept the castle in the family for three generations.
The château’s 27-hectare property includes tranquil green space and pristine forests filled with many animals. Visitors can often see deer, rabbits, and squirrels. Families with kids will have fun at the castle’s Ferme des Petits, a miniature farm where chickens, cows, donkeys, goats, rabbits, and sheep are raised. Children are given a small bag of bread to feed the gentle farm animals. Other tourist attractions on the property include the Musée du Mariage, with a collection of vintage wedding dresses, and trousseau à la Chambre nuptials (bridal trousseau) items, and the Musée de Voitures Hippomobiles et d’Enfants (Museum of Hippomobiles and Children’s Cars), which displays a unique assortment of 19th-century horse-drawn vehicles and children’s cars that were pulled by dogs, goats, or sheep.
26 Château de Sully-sur-Loire
A remarkable piece of living French history, the Château de Brissac has been in the same family for more than twenty generations. It is currently owned by the 13th Duke of Brissac, descendants of Lord René de Cossé, who purchased the castle in 1502. The Marquis Charles-André and the Marquise Larissa de Brissac reside in the château along with their four children. Besides its prestigious heritage, the Château de Brissac has the distinction of being the tallest château in the Loire Valley, thanks to its seven stories and 204 rooms. The majestic castle is set in a landscaped park with Romantic-style gardens, many benches, and walking paths. The palatial interior features rooms with gilded ceilings, exquisite furniture, and Venetian chandeliers. One of the most delightful rooms in the castle’s 200-seat Belle Epoque opera house.
For those who’d like to feel like landed gentry for a few nights, the castle offers bed and breakfast accommodations. Guest rooms are decorated with authentic antique-style furnishings and have views of the park’s woodlands and meadows. The Château de Brissac also hosts many summertime events, as well as an Easter Egg Hunt on Easter Sunday and a Christmas market and holiday festivities in December.
Like the castles of fairy-tale imagination, the Château de Sully-sur-Loire has soaring towers and is encircled by wide moats that are filled with water. The imposing appearance reflects the original military purpose of the medieval château. When Maximilien de Béthune (the Duke of Sully) bought the property in the early 17th century, he added an artillery tower and defensive walls reinforced by canons to ensure an impenetrable fortress. The interior has been updated throughout the centuries and features a wonderful collection of paintings and tapestries. Especially interesting are the apartments of the Duke of Sully and his wife, and the Hall of Honour family portrait gallery. The château also has a large park, offering a peaceful retreat in nature.
27 Château de Brissac
A remarkable piece of living French history, the Château de Brissac has been in the same family for more than twenty generations. It is currently owned by the 13th Duke of Brissac, descendants of Lord René de Cossé, who purchased the castle in 1502. The Marquis Charles-André and the Marquise Larissa de Brissac reside in the château along with their four children. Besides its prestigious heritage, the Château de Brissac has the distinction of being the tallest château in the Loire Valley, thanks to its seven stories and 204 rooms. The majestic castle is set in a landscaped park with Romantic-style gardens, many benches, and walking paths. The palatial interior features rooms with gilded ceilings, exquisite furniture, and Venetian chandeliers. One of the most delightful rooms is the castle’s 200-seat Belle Epoque opera house.
For those who’d like to feel like landed gentry for a few nights, the castle offers bed and breakfast accommodations. Guest rooms are decorated with authentic antique-style furnishings and have views of the park’s woodlands and meadows. The Château de Brissac also hosts many summertime events, as well as an Easter Egg Hunt on Easter Sunday and a Christmas market and holiday festivities in December.
Often seen as simply a beach destination, Tunisia has a bucketful of surprising tourist attractions and things to do for those that venture off the sandy shores. This is North Africa wrapped up into one bite-sized package, with vast Sahara dunes, mammoth ancient ruins, and exotic cities that are home to a sprawling tangle of souks. Tunisia was Rome’s breadbasket, and the cultural riches the Romans left behind are more than enough reason to visit. But the history of Arab Empires has also bestowed the country with some of the region’s most beautiful examples of Islamic architecture.
When you’ve craned your neck at Kairouan’s minarets and played gladiator at El Djem, it’s time to head into the Sahara to sample the raw, empty beauty of the desert. The sun-soaked beaches of the Mediterranean coastline, fringed by palms and lapped by gentle waves, will still be waiting for you when you get back.
1 El Djem Amphitheater
The walls of the mighty Roman amphitheater of El Djem dwarf the surrounding modern town. This incredibly well preserved Roman relic is Tunisia’s big sightseeing highlight and one of the best examples of amphitheater architecture left standing in the world, reminding of Rome’s once-grand grip across North Africa. You can still walk the corridors under the arena, just like the gladiators did. Or, climb up to the top seating tiers and sit staring across the arena, imagining the battles that took place below.
If you’re looking for the picture-perfect beach escape, then the island of Djerba checks all the right boxes. The island town of Houmt Souk is the main point of interest off the beach, with an old town district that is a muddle of whitewashed houses. Houmt Souk’s shopping is an attraction in itself, with plenty of handicraft vendors for browsing and haggling opportunities off the beach. But it’s those sandy strips of shoreline out of town that is the island’s most popular highlight. Pristine and trimmed by date palms, the beaches are relaxing, get-away-from-it-all settings where summer daydreams are made.
Once Rome’s major rival, Carthage was the city of the seafaring Phoenicians forever memorialized in the Punic Wars. The atmospheric ruins of this ancient town now sit beside the sea amid the suburbs of Tunis, a warning that even the greatest cities can be reduced to rubble. The ruins are extensive but spread out, and if you’ve been lucky enough to visit ancient city sites such as Ephesus in Turkey or Volubilis in Morocco, which are well-preserved, Carthage can seem quite underwhelming at first. But these UNESCO World-Heritage-listed remnants are hugely important historically, and any tourist interested in North Africa’s ancient past shouldn’t miss a visit here.
4 The National Bardo Museum
Even non-museum fans can’t fail to be impressed at the massive haul of beautiful mosaics exhibited inside the Bardo. This is one of North Africa’s top museums, and it houses one of the world’s most important mosaic collections, all curated beautifully. It’s a showcase of the dazzling, intricate artistry of the Roman and Byzantine eras, with pieces cherry-picked from every major archaeological site in Tunisia. If you only have one day in Tunisia’s capital, Tunis, this museum should be high up on your to-do list
5 Sidi Bou Said
impossibly cute, and amazingly photogenic, Sidi Bou Said is a clifftop village of petite dimensions that seem to have fallen off an artist’s canvas. Unsurprisingly, artists have feted this little hamlet for decades. The whitewashed alleyways, wrought-iron window frames, and colorful blue doors are Tunisian village architecture at their finest, while the Mediterranean backdrop is the cherry on top. This is a place to while away a lazy afternoon, simply soaking up the laid-back atmosphere and maybe indulging in a spot of shopping at one of the many local artisans and handicraft stalls.
6 Grand Erg Oriental
Tunisia’s vast Sahara covers much of the country’s interior, and the most beautiful corner of the desert is the field of sand dunes known as the Grand Erg Oriental. These poetically beautiful dunes are a surreal and gorgeous landscape of huge waves, shaped by the ever-shifting desert sands. For many visitors, this is an adventure playground for riding dune buggies and camel treks, but nothing tops the simple pleasure of sitting atop one of these mammoth sand mountains and watching the sunset over the Sahara.
7 Bulla Regia
Tunisia has no shortage of Roman ruins, but Bulla Regia near Tabarka is the country’s most interesting and intriguing site. Here, the Roman inhabitants coped with the harsh summer climate by ingeniously building their villas underground, which has left the city houses incredibly well preserved today. For history lovers, this is a unique opportunity to walk through actual Roman houses, with their walls still intact. It’s a glimpse of the residential life of the ancient world that you often don’t see.
With mosques, madrassas, and tombs aplenty, Kairouan has more than its fair share of monuments as the fourth most important city for those of the Muslim faith. The Arabic architecture here is truly inspiring, and the skyline is full of skinny minarets and bulky domes. But it’s probably the back alleys of the city’s medina that steal the show. With narrow, maze-like lanes lined with crumbling colorful houses, Kairouan’s old town has an enchanting, lost-in-time atmosphere that is a true highlight of a visit here.
9 Sousse Medina
Overlooked by the mighty fortifications of the Ribat and Kasbah, the medina in Sousse just begs to be explored. This lovely old town district is a warren of looping lanes, rimmed by whitewashed houses, and a shopping paradise with a tempting selection of ceramics, leatherwork, and metalwork on display. Away from the stalls along the bustling souk streets, the quiet and rambling back alleys, dusted in white and blue, are a charming place to dive in and sample local life.
10 Chott el Djerid
The moonscape surroundings of the Chott el Djerid are a storybook panorama brought to life; filled with shimmering mirages on the horizon and jigsaw puzzle pieces of blindingly white cracked land underfoot. This sprawling salt pan (most easily reached on a day trip from the desert town of Tozeur) is a desolate and otherworldly scene that wows all who visit with its stark and brutal beauty. A sightseeing trip here proves that nature produces much weirder landscapes than you could ever imagine.
Hammamet is all about the beach. This is Tunisia’s top sun-and-sea resort; a dreamy place dotted with pristine white buildings set beside a bright blue sea. The relaxing charms of this town woo all who come to sunbathe on the soft, white sand, with off-the-beach pursuits usually being nothing more strenuous than gentle strolls and a spot of shopping in the restored old town souks. It’s a no-stress kind of place that sums up the pleasures of Tunisia in one pretty package.
12 Monastir Ribat
One of Tunisia’s most photographed buildings and a film star to boot, the Ribat in Monastir is a bulky walled and exceptionally well-preserved fort. Looming over the harbor, the Ribat was originally part of a string of forts that protected the coastline, but today is one of the few still standing. Its defensive purposes may have long since faded, but this golden-stoned relic is now one of Tunisia’s most recognizable landmarks (thanks to it featuring in a few famous movies), and today, tourists scramble up into its bastion tower, rather than soldiers.
Anyone familiar with cathedrals will sense something peculiar about this sublime medieval building: There are two apses, one at the west end where the portal to the nave would normally be, and another on the usual east side.
This makes the cathedral utterly unique and came about because the apse on the west end is a vestige from an earlier Romanesque church that burned down in 1308. In this older apse, there’s a fresco painted in the 1100s, and you can descend into the crypt to see an entombment from the 1400s.
The nave and the eastern apse meanwhile are Gothic and mostly from the 13th and 14th centuries
2 Palais Ducal
On the high ground where Nevers’ political and religious institutions are set is the Ducal Palace, the symbol of power for the old Counts and Dukes of Nevers.
The architecture is spellbinding; it’s a blend of Renaissance designs from the 16th and 17th centuries, with dormer windows, decorative chimneys and a central spiral staircase you can see from the front.
The man who started it was Jean de Clemency, the Count of Nevers, who wanted to live in something more stately than a fortress.
The palace is now the town hall but also houses Nevers’ tourist office and an exhibition about the city’s past.
3. Musée de la Faïence
Heaven for people with an eye for fine decorative items, this museum in a Benedictine abbey has hundreds of pieces of local faience.
You’ll appreciate the technical know-how of the Nevers Manufactories.
And this comes in all forms, including tiles, dishes, ceremonial plates statuettes and bottles, all representing more than four centuries of expertise.
But the galleries don’t end there as you can also admire almost 300 pieces of intricate enameled glass from the 17th and 18th centuries, crafted with a technique that has since been lost.
On top of all this, there’s a stash of art from the French and Italian Schools.
4. Faience Workshops
Nevers’ faience industry took off at the end of the 1500s when Italian potters settled here at the invitation of the Duke of Nevers.
Everything was just right for this craft, as the Loire promised swift export and the wood sourced from the Morvan forest could belt out the 1000°C heat to bake these ceramics.
The trade went into decline at the end of the 18th century and only one of the original 12 manufactories survived.
Since the 20th century, there has been a rebirth, and you can call in at three workshops, Faiencerie d’art de Nevers, Faiencerie Georges, and Faiencerie Bleue to see a master potter at work and make a purchase.
5. Porte du Croux
There’s a really evocative slab of medieval heritage on the west side of the old center: Looking at the Porte du Croux as you enter the city you can see the slits in the front of the gate for the chains on the drawbridge.
Back in the 14th century, this would have been lowered to allow people to cross the Passière River, which has since moved underground.
Look higher and you’ll see the machicolations and turrets that are supported by corbels.
Inside there’s a little archaeology exhibit for Nevers and its region spread over three floors.
6. Promenade des Remparts
From the Porte du Croux you can stroll down to the right bank of the Loire in a pretty garden complemented by a long sliver of the city’s old walls.
These defenses were built in the 12th century by the Count of Nevers, Pierre de Courtenay to defend the Abbey of Notre-Dame.
After the 1600s they were never needed again.
But this long stretch of the wall remained incorporated by local properties, while the land that became the garden was never developed because of its marshy ground.
So by a quirk of history and the landscape, there’s now a big chunk of the medieval wall beside pergolas, trees, a rose garden and flowerbeds, all ending with vistas over the Loire from the Quai des Mariniers.
7. Église Saint-Étienne
Although not many tourists make it to this church on the east side of the city, anyone who values historic architecture should make the short walk.
The Church of Saint-Étienne is an exceptional Romanesque building, built from a subtly golden limestone more than 900 years ago and hardly altered since then.
The great 19th-century restorer Viollet-le-Duc called it “the most perfect 11th-century monument left to France”. The architecture is sober, and there isn’t much sculpture or ornamentation, but for the purity of style and preservation, you’ll have to travel a long way to beat this church.
8. Nevers Magny-Cours Circuit
Petrolheads will be aware that the French Grand Prix was a yearly fixture at this racetrack up to 2008 when the French Motorsports Federation pulled out of the tour.
The track is only 15 minutes down the road and apart from welcoming a few minor international events, is mostly used for heritage rallies, testing and “track days”. So if you’d fancy taking a spin on a circuit graced by the likes of Michael Schumacher, Mika Häkkinen and Ayrton Senna you can book a driving experience with one of the companies putting you behind the wheel of a Ferrari, Lamborghini, Porsche or F1 car.
9. Espace Bernadette
Nevers is also a big pilgrimage site as it was where Bernadette Soubirous became a postulant and worked in a convent until she passed away in 1879. In case you’re wondering, Soubirous was the woman who witnessed the supposed Marian Apparition that turned the town of Lourdes into one of the most important places in the Catholic world.
There’s a museum here, at the Motherhouse of the Sisters of Charity,
explaining her life and routine around the former Saint-Gildard Convent.
Her apparently incorrupt body is displayed in the adjacent chapel.
10. Église Sainte-Bernadette du Banlay
If you wander up to Nevers’ northern suburbs you’ll come across a building that looks nothing like the delicate architecture in the old center.
You’ll be forgiven for thinking that you’ve found a relic from the war, as this church bears a striking resemblance to a German concrete bunker.
That is no coincidence because the functionalist designer Paul
Virilio was a big admirer of the blockhouses that were scattered around
France in the post-war years.
There are two half-shells of concrete cantilevered on a central pillar, and we can guarantee that you’ve never seen a church like it.
11. Voie Verte de Nevers
In the 19th century, along the canal was dug to run alongside the Loire to ensure that goods could still be shipped when the river flooded in winter or dried up in summer.
At Nevers, a 13-kilometer length of the canal’s towpath has been converted into a greenway.
This designated cycle lane allows riders of all ages to get out into the verdant countryside around Nevers, which is a mosaic of market gardens bounded by hedges.
And if you’re up for something more adventurous, at the Pont de Guetin the greenway connects with Loire à Vélo, a signposted and serviced trail that traces the river all the way to its estuary in the Atlantic.
12. Chapelle Sainte-Marie
Navigating the streets of the center, this extravagant building on Rue Saint-Martin should turn your head.
The Chapelle Sainte-Marie has a lavish Italian Baroque style that is unheard of in the Nivernais region and rare in the rest of France too.
It was attached to the Monastery of the Visitation and was built in the first half of the 17th century.
The future Queen of Poland, Duchess Louise-Marie de Gonzague laid the first stone.
It’s enough to pause in front and gaze at the columns and statue of Madonna with Child, but you can go into nose around on Saturdays in summer.
13. The Loire
You could also ramble next to this “Fleuve Royal” and imagine the barges shipping faience to all corners of France and Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries.
The banks around Nevers are picturesque and quiet, with little more than woodland, water meadows, hedgerows and vegetable farms.
If you sort out a fishing license you could visit these banks to catch perch, pike, whitefish, and carp.
And you could also rent a canoe or take part in a guided paddle with the Canoë Club Nivernais.
For a motorized voyage there’s a small port at Sermoise-sur-Loire where you can hire a boat for a day or more on the Lateral Canal.
The Allier River joins with the Loire a couple of kilometers west of Never, and if you retrace the course of the Allier for a few minutes you’ll come to a village that needs to be seen to be believed.
Apremont is a group of tiny settlements on the west bank of the river.
Here the Allier’s waters, the rich greenery on the riverside, the rustic stone houses and the Château d’Apremont all combine to make this an unforgettable place.
The Château’s grounds are a marvelous floral park, flowing down to the river and decorated with follies, ponds, and cascades.
15. Local Gastronomy
To order something regional when you’re at a restaurant in Nevers, go for Charolais beef, which is a cornerstone of Burgundy’s meaty cuisine.
In Nevers, this will be served as a tartare, but if that makes you uncomfortable the entrecôte steaks are fantastic.
There’s also fish straight from the Loire, and perch, pike, trout or small fry (deep-friend) are all on the menu.
At the Carnot covered market, open Tuesday to Saturday mornings you could also get to know some other local products like goats’ cheese, honey and pain d’épices, a sweetly spiced loaf similar to gingerbread. Where to stay: Best Hotels in Nevers, France Lowest Price Guarantee
If you’re visiting Paris it pays to venture beyond the Boulevard Périphérique and see what you can find around the wider Île-de-France region.
Many of the attractions like the Palace of Versailles and Disneyland
Paris will be known to all, but some exciting discoveries may not.
If you can’t get enough of châteaux and formal gardens you could spend days jumping from one stately home to another, while the homes of all sorts of famous French personalities also open their doors to the public.
You may also want to get clear of the hubbub of the Parisian streets for restorative days walking in the countryside, and the good news is you’ll never have to travel far.
Let’s have a look at the best things to do in Île-de-France:
1. Palace of Versailles
You’ll have read about it and seen it in movies, but these can’t prepare for the size and splendor of the palace in real life.
The gardens alone took 40 years to complete.
There’s such an array of things to see that it may make your head spin, but whatever you do make sure you get to palace as early as possible to avoid the worst of the queues as it does get very busy.
Among the many musts is the Hall of Mirrors, the scene of momentous events like the signing of the Treaty of Versailles and a bold symbol of the economic power wielded by Louis XIV in the 17th-century.
One of the world’s great cities hardly requires an introduction.
Paris shines for its culture, history, shopping, nightlife and landmarks that are etched in everyone’s minds.
A whistle-stop tour means packing in as many of those unmistakable sights as possible and has to include the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, the Arc de Triomphe, a walk up through Montmartre to the Sacré-Cœur and a cruise on the Seine.
But that’s just for starters, and if you have a particular interest in French art or history you can give your curiosity free rein at countless museums around the capital.
3. Disneyland Paris, Marne-la-Vallée
These are two theme parks that are part of the same resort.
The first, Disneyland Park opened in 1992 and is the most popular theme park in Europe, and in the top ten most-visited in the world.
It’s no exaggeration to say there’s something for everyone in the park’s five “Lands”, holding 49 attractions, from the high-speed Space Mountain: Mission 2, to the kid-friendly Alice’s Curious Labyrinth in Fantasyland.
Neighboring Walt Disney Studios gets almost as many visitors and brings to life the movie-making process with zones like the “Backlot” where there’s a gripping action show with stunt drivers.
4. Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte, Maincy
There’s a story to go with this extravagant domed palace and gardens that is just as riveting as the architecture.
It was built for Nicolas Fouquet, a precocious young man in Louis
XIV’s court, Appointed Superintendent of Finances in the 1640s.
The complex was the work of Louis le Vau, André le Nôtre and Charles le Brun, all later responsible for Versailles.
But Fouquet’s ambition, as epitomised by Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte, inspired the king’s suspicion and he was jailed from 1661 until he died in 1680. Hear about his life via the audio tour as you peruse his home, which was the last word in 17th-century opulence.
5. Château de Courances, Essonne
Set an hour south of Paris by road, this palace has formal gardens that are held among the most beautiful in France.
The mid-17th-century renaissance water features have drawn the admiration of visitors for centuries, with a sequence of long rectangular ponds fed by water from a natural source.
The château and grounds are quite unusual as they’re still privately-owned, but they open up to visitors on the weekends.
It’s impossible not to feel distinguished as you saunter along the boulevards and past the pools, but don’t neglect the Japanese garden laid out by Duchêne and Mme de Ganay, ancestors of the current occupiers in 1930.
6. Domaine de Sceaux
These are the fabulous grounds of the Château de Sceaux, built in the
17th century for Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Louis XIV’s finance minister.
After the revolution, the original palace was demolished, but many of the 17th-century structures around the park remain, including the orangery, stables and a stunning pavilion.
The gardens were restored in the mid-19th century when a more modest version of the château was also erected.
Take a leisurely stroll through the parterre, past scrupulously-groomed topiaries and carpet-like lawns.
Those lovely 17th-century outbuildings have housed the Musée d’Ile-de-France since 1973, with exhibitions about the history of Paris and special attention paid to the Parisian art scene in the early-1900s.
7. Le Parc de la Vallée-aux-Loups, Châtenay-Malabry
Sprawling over 60 hectares, the Parc de la Vallée-aux-Loups is a set of parks and gardens on the southern fringe of Paris.
The most photogenic part is the arboretum, which is founded on the nurseries of the Croux family and is replete with exotic species.
Two of the trees in this garden have been awarded the label “Arbre Remarquable de France”, weeping blue atlas cedar and a myrsine-leaved oak, an extremely rare variety.
You can make an afternoon of it by bringing a picnic or calling in at the cafe, or having a look around the romantic writer Chateaubriand’s home here.
8. Basilica Cathedral of Saint-Denis
Saint-Denis may be one of the scruffier parts of outer Paris, but it has an enchanting gothic cathedral where all but three of France’s kings are buried.
This alone makes it a must-see.
You can choose between a two-hour guided tour, guidebook, or handheld audio guide.
Before you go in pause for a moment before the western facade, which was built in 1130 and among the earliest example of gothic architecture in the world.
See the funerary monuments, including the Order of Saint-Louis, dating to 1250, where the tombs of 16 successive kings are in a row to express the connection between their dynasties.
Later the tombs were designed during the monarchs’ lifetimes and become very elaborate, like the renaissance marble sculpture for Louis XII and Anne de Bretagne.
9. Forest of Fontainebleau
For fresh air, you could take a day trip south of Paris to this oak and Scots pine forest covering 280 square kilometers.
The forest is so vast that it’s worth popping into the tourist office for trail maps, whether you’re walking or mountain biking.
There are 16 different hiking routes specially laid-out for visitors, all depending on how long you want to walk and what sort of terrain you’d like to tackle.
They’ll lead you to some cool natural monuments like caves and huge boulders that you can climb over.
Pay a visit to Fontainebleau, the town cradled at the heart of the forest, with a UNESCO-listed palace that was a home for monarchs from the 1200s up to Napoleon III in the 19th century.
10. Maison Jean Cocteau, Milly-la-Forêt
The 20th-century French cultural icon settled in this house in 1947 and stayed there until he died in 1963. Jean Cocteau was famed for his large circle of influential friends, and during this time some of the world’s most celebrated artists were welcomed here as guests, most notably Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol.
Fans of Cocteau’s work will be absorbed by the sheer wealth of material to sift through, including manuscripts, sketches and film and sound clips as you step through his office, lounge area, and bedroom.
Artwork by Picasso, Modigliani and Warhol are on show, and there’s a screening room where you can get an introduction to Cocteau’s acclaimed cinematic works.
11. Musée Albert-Kahn, Boulogne-Billancourt
In this posh suburb just to the west of Paris is a museum where you can delve into the work of the turn-of-the-century banker and philanthropist Albert Kahn.
He is best known for the “Archives de la Planète” a mammoth archive of 72,000 color photographs taken around the world between 1909 and 1931. There’s nothing to compare to it anywhere else.
If you’re inspired by anthropology or vintage photography you can kill hours perusing these photos.
But you’d be remiss not to see the park, also designed by Kahn and modeled on locations around the world.
Come on certain days in the summer and you can even take part in a Kyoto-style Japanese tea ceremony in these tranquil gardens.
12. Château de Vincennes
In Paris’ eastern suburbs, close enough to the center to reach via Metro Line 1, is a vast French royal castle, the only in the area to be completely fortified.
Surprisingly few tourists make it to this landmark, but it’s brimming with history and is a no-nonsense alternative to Versailles.
The castle’s roots go back to the 12th century when it was chosen as a hunting lodge for Louis VII: King of England, Henry V died at Vincennes in 1422 from dysentery, while Louis XIV also lived here in the 17th century while Versailles was being built.
The tour will take an hour, and you have to follow this up with a turn in the grounds, designed
ou can recount the last days of van Gogh at this village 35 minutes northwest of Paris by train.
The beloved post-impressionist painter was extremely productive in the last 70 days of his life, producing 70 works before he died. As the village is also now within the Vexin Natural Regional Park it is a conservation zone and can’t be expanded or altered, and so gives you a good snapshot of life in the late-19th century.
In the summer there’s a daily “In the Steps of van Gogh” tour, pointing out the main landmarks, including scenes that he painted and the Auberge Ravoux where he died in 1890. His grave is next to his brother Theo’s, who passed away six months later.
14. Parc des Félins, Lumigny-Nesles-Ormeaux
This zoo 55 kilometers southeast of Paris is all about feline conservation, and this calls for large enclosures that encourage the park’s cheetahs, lions, lynxes and leopards to reproduce.
For people who want ethical animal treatment, it’s a guilt-free attraction, and also one of the most complete overviews of the cat family.
Of the world’s 41 cat species, 30 are kept at Parc des Félins.
The spacious enclosures have a potential downside, in that it can be hard to spot the cats in the undergrowth, but there are carefully-positioned viewing windows that get you a bit closer.
Littler visitors can meet and feed goats at the petting zoo, and there’s a lemur section where these adorable primates roam free and often approach visitors.
15. Château de Malmaison
Set in Rueil-Malmaison, this manor house was Empress Joséphine’s residence, which she bought in 1799 while Napoleon was away for the Egyptian Campaign.
She remained here after her divorce with Napoleon until her death in 1814. It’s a large château and needed a lot of restoration when it was purchased, and Napoleon hadn’t been pleased with the expense! The French government was based at Malmaison and the Tuileries at the start of the 19th century, and it’s now a museum dedicated to Napoleon, with loads of intriguing objects belonging to him and especially Joséphine, like her porcelain dining service and opulently furnished chambers.
A stroll through the quaint old streets of Rouen, in Upper Normandy, feels like a walk back in time. History awaits at every turn, from the Middle Ages to the modern era. For believers, the journey leads a few steps closer to heaven. Rouen has more than 50 religious buildings, and many of the churches are gems of Gothic architecture. Most of the top tourist attractions in Rouen lie within the city’s pedestrian zone, a charming area of winding medieval lanes and picturesque half-timbered houses. Highlights include the magnificent cathedral, the renowned Fine Arts Museum, and the remarkable Gros-Horloge clock tower. In Rouen, visitors can retrace the steps of Joan of Arc to see where she went to trial and where she was martyred. Tourists can also witness the destruction suffered during the Second World War. The exquisite facade of the Palais de Justice still has evidence of shell holes from Allied bombings
1 Cathédrale Notre-Dame
In the heart of the old town, the Cathédrale Notre-Dame is one of the largest and most impressive Gothic cathedrals in France. The cathedral’s main structure was built in the 13th century but the building was not completed until the 16th century. Viewers are dazzled by the elaborate facade, which inspired Impressionist painter Claude Monet. The cathedral’s central doorway was the subject of Monet’s famous painting series. He painted the scene at different times of day to capture the effects of various lighting. Above the facade, two towers loom over the town. The tower on the right is called the Tour du Beurre (Butter Tower) because it was paid for by offerings from the faithful, who in return were permitted to eat butter during Lent. The cathedral also boasts France’s highest spire at 151 meters. Despite damage during the Second World War, the cathedral still has some original stained glass windows.
2 Musée des Beaux-Arts
The Musée des Beaux-Arts ranks among the most important art museums in France. In a shady tree-lined square, this fine arts museum is renowned for its variety and breadth of artistic movements. The collection presents a wide range of paintings, sculptures, drawings, and objets d’art from the 15th century to the 21st century. The most notable works include the 17th-century masterpieces by Caravaggio, Diego Velázquez, Anton van Dyck, Nicolas Poussin, and Philippe de Champaigne, as well as the 19th-century works of Eugène Delacroix; Théodore Géricault; Paul Delaroche; and Impressionists Claude Monet, Alfred Sisley, Camille Pissarro, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. There are also rooms devoted to landscape art, with paintings by Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, Hubert Robert, and Gaspar van Wittel.
3 Abbatiale Saint-Ouen
This majestic 14th-century building was created as a church for the powerful Benedictine monastery of Saint-Ouen and is considered a masterpiece of Late Gothic architecture. The building’s tower is topped with a pinnacled section known as the “Crown of Normandy.” With its immense proportions, the abbey’s harmonious vaulted interior offers a peaceful space for spiritual worship. There are 80 exquisite stained-glass windows, which allow light to filter into the sanctuary. In the south transept of the abbey is the Portail des Marmousets that depicts events of the Virgin Mary. Visitors should also be sure to see the famous organ built by Cavaillé-Coll that is often used for recorded musical concerts. On the same square as the abbey stands the Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall), once used as the dormitory for the monastery’s monks. Behind the Hôtel de Ville are the former abbey gardens, now a public park.
4 Aître Saint-Maclou
One of the most interesting tourist attractions in Rouen, the Aître Saint-Maclou is a medieval building that currently houses the Ecole Supérieure d’Art et Design (Regional School of Fine Arts) in the southern gallery. The history of the site dates back to the “Black Death” plague of 1348 that killed a third of the town’s inhabitants. The space that is now a pleasant courtyard was once used for burials, and the buildings surrounding the cemetery served as the ossuary. The building’s galleries feature macabre decor depicting skulls, bones, gravedigger tools, and objects of funeral rites. The skeleton of a cat was discovered in the masonry. During the Middle Ages, cats (especially black cats) were considered to be evil spirits, and the cat would have been enclosed here (while still alive) to protect against bad luck.
5 Palais de Justice and Monument Juif
A splendid example of medieval civilian architecture, the Palais de Justice houses the Rouen Law Courts and was the meeting place of the Parliament of Normandy. This Gothic masterpiece was built by Rolland Le Roux in 1508-1509, damaged during World War II, and subsequently restored. The building is not open for tours, but visitors will be awed by the ornate detailing of the facade and especially the incredible gargoyles. The central wing features a resplendent balustrade, soaring pinnacles, and perforated buttresses. The Palais de Justice was damaged during an Allied bombing in 1944 and the shell holes are still visible in the building’s walls.
In 1976, during a renovation of the Palais de Justice, the remains of a beautiful stone building were uncovered beneath the courtyard. The building was determined to be the lower room of an old Yeshiva (rabbinical school) that dates from 1100. Once uncovered, this Monument Juif (Jewish Monument) was immediately protected by an archaeological crypt. The location, as revealed by the street name (“rue aux Juif” translates to “Street of the Jews”), was at the center of the old Jewish quarter that flourished during the time of William the Conqueror until the expulsion of the Jews in 1306. Rouen’s Monument Juif is the oldest Jewish monument discovered in France. The Monument Juif will be closed for restoration work beginning in the fall of 2017.
6 Tour du Gros-Horloge (Big Clock Tower)
One of the most emblematic sites in the historic center of Rouen, the Gros-Horloge lies just south of the Palais de Justice. From the southeast corner of the Place du Vieux Marché (where the Eglise Jeanne d’Arc is located), the Rue de Gros-Horloge leads to the cathedral. Halfway along this charming route of cobblestone streets and half-timbered houses, the Tour du Gros-Horloge adjoins a Renaissance pavilion. The Gothic belfry tower was built in 1389 for defensive purposes and the decorative clock dates from 1889. The belfry clock still serves its timekeeping functions for the city. Visitors should take a moment to admire the clock’s incredible details. The deity symbolizing the day of the week appears on a triumphal chariot at noon. A globe above the dial shows the phases of the moon, and sheep represent the wool industry. Depicted in the middle of the clock, a Passover lamb represents the arms of the city.
7 Eglise Saint-Maclou
Just a short walk east of the cathedral stands the Eglise Saint-Maclou, considered a jewel of Flamboyant Gothic architecture. The church was built in 1437 and dedicated to Saint-Malo. The twin-towered building has a decorative porch that features Renaissance-era wooden doors embellished with intricately carved Biblical scenes. A blend of different architectural styles is found throughout the church, from the Gothic staircase to the Baroque confessionals. Saint-Maclou Church was severely damaged during WWII and has been well restored. In particular, the belfry was repaired and its five church bells now resound with daily chiming.
8 Eglise Jeanne d’Arc
This surprisingly modern church allows visitors to appreciate the invincible spirit of Joan of Arc, who spent the last days of her life in Rouen. The church was built at the Place du Vieux Marché, the very site where Joan of Arc was martyred (she was burned at the stake in the center of the square). Designed to commemorate the famous saint, the Eglise Jeanne d’Arc was given a radical design. The shape of the church’s roof represents the flames of the stake. Inside the church are spectacular Renaissance stained-glass windows that were taken from the former Church of Saint-Vincent. This contemporary church provides an inspiring place for spiritual worship.
9 Musée Le Secq des Tournelles
Housed in the former Gothic church of Saint Laurent, this unique museum boasts an exceptional collection of antique wrought-ironwork. The 15th-century church building still has its stunning stained-glass windows, including the remarkable “Tree of Jesus” window. The largest museum of its kind in the world, it contains 14,000 items that date from the Gallo-Roman era to the 19th century. The collection covers a wide range and variety of ironwork, such as railings, door knockers, locks, scientific instruments, and jewelry. The collection was donated by Henri Le Secq des Tournelles.
10 Musée de la Céramique
In the elegant Hôtel d’Hocqueville, the Museum of Ceramics displays a wonderful collection of faience and porcelain. The collection includes earthenware from Rouen as well as from other cities such as Delft. Two rooms of the museum are devoted to delicate Sèvres porcelain from the 19th and 20th centuries. There are also examples of Rococo chinoiserie, ceremonial dinnerware sets, and lovely faience sculptures.
11 Tour Jeanne d’Arc
When Joan of Arc was brought to trial in 1431, she was taken to the dungeon of this tower to stand before her judges. Here she endured threats of torture by those who accused her of heresy. The Tour Jeanne d’Arc is the only remaining part of the château built by Philippe Auguste in 1207. The large and imposing cylindrical tower features three superimposed rooms and an attic.
Provence is one of nature’s most vibrant works of art. Everything is brighter here than elsewhere in France. The sunshine, the red poppies, yellow sunflowers, and deep purple lavender fields. Even the traditional Provençal fabrics feature prints of intense colors. From verdant rolling hills and quaint fishing ports to picturesque villages perched on rocky outcrops, each detail of the landscape seems designed to delight. It’s no wonder the region charmed many famous painters, including Cézanne, Matisse, Chagall, Picasso, Vasarély, and Léger.
The art de Vivre (“art of living”) is a way of life in Provence, similar to the dolce vita in neighboring Italy. A sunny climate, slow-paced lifestyle, and rustic earthiness encourage relaxation. In Aix-en-Provence and Avignon, tourists and locals alike bask on the terraces of outdoor cafés, shop at open-air markets, and admire amazing art at top-notch museums. Outside of the cities are off-the-beaten-path destinations and attractions in the Haut-Vaucluse and Luberon areas: ancient Roman outposts, walled medieval towns, and fortified castles. Throughout the region, visitors can enjoy delicious Mediterranean cuisine based on olive oil, vegetables, and aromatic herbs. Fresh local ingredients are transformed into specialties such as pistou, a basil and garlic sauce; bouillabaisse, a flavorful fish stew; fougasse, soft braided bread; and pissaladière, a pizza-like tart of caramelized onions, anchovies, and black olives.
1 Aix-en-Provence: Quintessential Provence
Aix-en-Provence has the elegance of Paris combined with the warmth of Southern France. This traditional Provençal town is distinguished by its shady tree-lined streets, historic squares, and ornate fountains. A legacy of the ancient Roman heritage, one thousand flowing monuments are found throughout the city. The hub of Aix-en-Provence is the Cours Mirabeau, a broad boulevard with outdoor cafés that are bustling on sunny days and balmy evenings. Other places that are top on tourists’ sightseeing lists are the Cathédrale Saint-Sauveur, with its flamboyant mix of architectural styles, and the Musée Granet, an exceptional fine arts museum with masterpieces by Ingres, Rembrandt, Rubens, Cézanne, Monet, and Picasso, among others. Lovers of Post-Impressionist art should tour the Atelier Cézanne (studio), on the Colline des Lauves, where Cézanne painted his “still life” pieces. Near the studio is a spot on the Chemin de la Marguerite overlooking Mont Sainte-Victoire, the landscape Cézanne cherished and that inspired him to create many paintings.
Many travelers visit Aix-en-Provence to experience the traditional outdoor Provençal markets, held at the town’s spacious squares. At the Place de la Mairie is a popular flower market that’s pictured in many tourist brochures, while fruit and vegetable markets are found at the Place des Prêcheurs and Place de la Madeleine. Aix-en-Provence’s most traditional farmer’s market is held daily at the Place Richelme; this market is considered one of the best fruit, vegetable, and gourmet food markets in Provence. Aix-en-Provence is also renowned for its local cuisine, artisanal culinary products, and specialty items such as Calissons d’Aix, sweet almond candies. For fine dining, L’Esprit de la Violette (10 Avenue de la Violette) is a Michelin-starred restaurant that prepares modern Provençal cuisine from the finest local ingredients. The legendary Brasserie Les Deux Garçons (53 Cours Mirabeau) has a sidewalk terrace where patrons can watch the world go by. Cézanne was once a regular habitué, and Picasso, Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Edith Piaf were also counted among the celebrity patrons.
2 Avignon: Medieval City of the Popes
When describing Avignon, it’s impossible to begin anywhere else than the Palais des Papes. This glorious UNESCO-listed palace was built in the early 14th century when the Catholic church moved the papal court from Rome to Avignon. The fortress-like building is the largest Gothic structure in the world, with an imposing exterior of crenelated fortifications and massive defense towers. Extravagant interior spaces hint at the lavish lifestyles of the nine Popes who lived here between 1309 and 1403. The Grand Tinel banqueting hall was once the scene of enormous feasts, and the opulently decorated private apartments suggest a luxurious approach to daily living. The private chapels of the Palais de Papes give visitors an insight into the spirituality of the Popes, expressed in the biblical-themed frescoes created by the Italian painter Matteo Giovannetti.
Beyond the Palais de Papes, the town of Avignon has plenty for tourists to explore. For those who appreciate the fine arts, the Musée du Petit Palais
is an obligatory stop. This museum displays works by the great masters
from Italy: Giovanni Bellini, Sandro Botticelli, and Vittore Carpaccio,
among others. The most acclaimed piece is Botticelli’s La Vierge et l’Enfant (Madonna and Child) painting. Avignon has two important churches: the 12th-century Cathédrale Notre-Dame-des-Doms and the Provençal Romanesque Eglise Saint-Didier. Another famous sight is the Saint Bénézet Bridge (Pont d’Avignon), a graceful half-intact structure that partially spans the river.
Farther afield, four kilometers across the river is Villeneuve-lez-Avignon, renowned for the Val de Benediction Carthusian Monastery built by Pope Innocent VI. In the countryside of rolling hills (20 kilometers from Avignon) is Châteauneuf-du-Pape, a medieval village where the Popes of Avignon built their summer palaces.
3 Ancient Ruins and Provençal Traditions in Arles
Steeped in history and drenched in sunshine, Arles has a fascinating heritage that dates back to the Classical era. The town was an ancient Greek settlement and then became an important Roman colony in 46 BC. Visitors are impressed by the well-preserved ancient buildings, including the Roman Amphitheater, the Alyscamps (a Gallo-Roman-era necropolis), the Roman Theater, the Forum, and the Baths of Constantine. Art lovers can trace the steps of Vincent van Gogh through the city of Arles to find the scenes that van Gogh painted, such as the Café de la Gare and the Café du Forum. History buffs will be wonderstruck by the Eglise Saint-Trophime, a UNESCO-listed 12th-century Romanesque church where pilgrims once stopped on the medieval “Way of Saint James” route to Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain.
A wonderful place to discover the culture of Provence, Arles exudes traditional Provençal ambiance, seen in its graceful public squares, tree-lined streets, and terraced outdoor cafés. During spring and summer, several festivals bring out townspeople dressed up in historic costumes. The Fête des Guardians, on May 1st, includes authentic dancing, a horseback parade, and bullfighting at the Amphitheater, and the Fête du Costume in July combines a costume parade and a presentation to select the “Reine d’Arles” (“Queen of Arles”) among the participating young women.
4 Saint-Tropez’s Seaside Glamour
Saint-Tropez has a reputation for glitz and glamour, so many tourists will be surprised to discover its origins as a humble fishing village. The mesmerizing turquoise waters of the harbor are graced by luxury yachts, and the town’s well-groomed streets are lined with designer boutiques. But this small Provençal village has retained much of its authentic character. La Ponche, the Old Town, is a maze of quaint pedestrian alleys and cobblestone streets lined with little shops, cafés, and restaurants. At the town’s main square, the Place des Lices, locals socialize at shaded outdoor cafés. Elderly men play pétanque, and on Tuesday and Saturday mornings, a traditional Provençal market is held here. The colorful Place aux Herbes outdoor marketplace and Halle aux Poissons fish market also give visitors a taste of everyday life in Saint-Tropez.
A beach lover’s paradise, Saint-Tropez is one of the sunniest places on the French Riviera and has an extensive, palm-fringed sandy shoreline. Some beaches are private, but many are open to the public. Hikers will appreciate the Sentier du Littoral, a seaside path with unspoiled scenery. Although the resort vibe predominates in Saint-Tropez, cultural attractions abound. The Musée de l’Annonciade has a superb collection of Impressionist art displayed in a 16th-century chapel. The old Citadel built in the 1600s houses the Musée d’Histoire Maritime illustrating Saint-Tropez’s maritime past. Visible from a distance, the 18th-century Eglise Notre-Dame de l’Assomption has an iconic Italian Baroque bell tower and a sanctuary filled with fine artworks.
5 Les Baux-de-Provence: A Historic Town in a Dramatic Setting
Perched on a rocky plateau overlooking a peaceful valley in the Alpilles natural regional park, Les Baux-de-Provence takes its name from the Provençal word “Li Baus,” which means “The Rocks.” The ruins of the Château des Baux and its citadel seem to form part of the steep limestone crag. Visitors must park in the lower part of the town and walk up to the historic village, which gives the impression of stepping back in time to the Middle Ages. Tourists can try to imagine the medieval troubadour culture of chivalry and love poetry that flourished here in the 12th and 13th centuries.
Listed as one of the Plus Beaux Villages de France (Most Beautiful Villages of France), Les Baux-de-Provence is distinguished by its delightful old stone buildings, shaded squares, and terraces full of fragrant flowers. Wandering the old cobblestone streets, tourists will find charming cafés, small boutiques, and inviting art galleries. A great place to begin a tour is at the Château des Baux and the Place Saint-Vincent, with its striking panoramas of the landscape, then continue to the Eglise Saint-Vincent, a 12th-century Romanesque church with modern stained-glass windows created by Max Ingrand. Other noteworthy attractions include the Musée des Santons with a collection of antique Christmas nativity figures; the Musée Yves Brayer (in the 16th-century Hôtel des Porcelets) featuring the artist’s finest paintings; and the Hôtel de Manville, a Renaissance mansion that is now used as the village’s Town Hall.
Les Baux-de-Provence is in the heart of the Alpilles Mountains, 20 kilometers north of Arles and 11 kilometers south of Saint-Rémy de Provence. The best view of the village is from the Plâteau des Bringasses. From here, the view extends to Mont Ventoux and the Luberon in Haut-Vaucluse, the Rhône Valley, Aix-en-Provence, and Arles. Travelers staying overnight can choose from several luxury hotel options. The five-star hotel Baumanière Les Baux de Provence is nestled at the foot of Les Baux-de-Provence village in the Vallon de la Fontaine. This Relais & Châteaux property is renowned for its restaurant with two Michelin stars, L’Oustau de Baumanière, and also has a more casual restaurant, La Cabro d’Or, that serves innovative Provençal cuisine based on fresh local ingredients.
6 Marseilles: Cosmopolitan Seaport
Marseilles is an authentic Mediterranean port town, complete with a bustling harbor, multiethnic ambiance, and urban grit. This big cosmopolitan city is the oldest in France and the second largest after Paris. It’s not a picture-postcard scene, but Marseilles does offer a real slice of life. Tourists can wander the historic district of Le Panier to find traditional Arab souks and atmospheric Algerian restaurants or stop at a waterfront restaurant in the Vieux Port (Old Port) to sample delicious bouillabaisse (seafood stew)-a Marseilles specialty. The sea is central to Marseille’s existence, and the Mediterranean setting gives the city a special beauty and refreshing atmosphere. Many landmarks in Marseille offer views of the bay’s deep blue waters. The city’s most iconic church, the Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde stands on a hillside overlooking the bay, and the terrace offers sensational coastal panoramas. The Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée illustrates the history of Mediterranean civilization. In the museum’s lush Mediterranean gardens, visitors are awed by sweeping views of the coastline from the bridge pier above the sea. A short ferry ride from the Marseilles port, the Château d’If on the Frioul Islands lures tourists to a serene seaside destination where turquoise waters lap on pristine beaches. Another nearby nature escape is in the Calanques, magnificent fjord-like coves filled with pools of salt water connected to the sea.
7 Saint-Paul de Vence: A Picture-Perfect Hilltop Village
This dreamy medieval village is perched high on a hilltop and surrounded by well-preserved ramparts. One of the most popular tourist destinations in Provence, Saint-Paul de Vence is often crowded with tourists taking a detour from all the attractions of the Côte d’Azur. The distance from favorite French Riviera beach resorts, Nice and Antibes, is less than 20 kilometers, but the village feels much farther away in spirit. Upon entering the ancient town gates, visitors are transported to a magical place of labyrinthine cobblestone streets, tiny alleyways, staircases, and small squares adorned with gurgling fountains. Historically, a central gathering place in Saint-Paul de Vence was the Place de la Grande Fontaine, where the weekly market was held during the 17th century. Villagers drew water from the square’s well and washed laundry in the washhouse area.
The spiritual center of Saint-Paul de Vence is represented by the Collegiate Church, built between the 14th and 17th centuries. The sanctuary has a Romanesque choir, original pillars in the nave, and a Baroque Chapel containing precious relics from catacombs in Rome. The Folon Chapel is a 17th-century chapel that was used by the Pénitents-Blancs (White Penitents), a Catholic brotherhood that provided charity to the sick and needy. The entire interior is adorned with modern artworks by artist Jean-Michel Folon. The artist’s dazzling mosaics, sculptures, paintings, and stained-glass windows give the sanctuary a special ambiance.
Since the 1920s, many artists have been drawn to Saint-Paul de Vence. Marc Chagall lived in Saint-Paul de Vence for nearly 20 years. Visitors can take a guided tour to walk in the footsteps of Chagall and see the scenes that he painted. More of the village’s artistic heritage is on display at the Fondation Maeght, about one kilometer outside of the village ramparts on the Chemin des Gardettes. The museum displays mosaics by Chagall; stained-glass windows by Georges Braque; paintings by Bonnard, Chagall, Kandinsky, and Léger; sculptures by Giacometti, and ceramics by Miró. The Foundation Maeght also has a bookshop, library, cafeteria, and free parking. Throughout the year, the museum hosts temporary exhibitions and cultural events.
Besides history, culture, and art, Saint-Paul de Vence boasts several fine dining options. On a quiet street near the village ramparts, the restaurant at Le Saint-Paul hotel serves superb Mediterranean cuisine in a refined dining room or on the bougainvillea-draped garden terrace. The legendary La Colombe d’Or is a quaint hotel with a gourmet restaurant that offers traditional Provençal dishes and has outdoor seating where guests may dine al fresco on warm days.
8 Ancient Roman Ruins in Orange
Renowned for its Roman ruins, Orange lies in Provence’s Haut-Vaucluse region, an area that flourished during classical antiquity. The 1st-century AD Théâtre Antique (Roman theater) is testimony to the ancient heritage. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Théâtre Antique is extremely well preserved with the back wall and decorations still intact. During the Roman era, a crowd of more than 7,000 spectators would pile into the theater to watch comedies, tragedies, dance performances, acrobatics, and juggling acts. Today, the Théâtre Antique is used as the venue for cultural events such as the summertime music festival called the Chorégies d’Orange. Other interesting archaeological sights are the Arc de Triomphe, the triumphal arch dedicated to ancient Rome’s Emperor Tiberius, and the Hémicycle, ruins of a Roman temple adjoining the Roman theater. For a deeper understanding of the town’s ancient history and cultural heritage, visit the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire. This museum has an excellent collection of artifacts, antiquities, and artworks from prehistory to the 18th century. Be sure to see the Mosaïque des Centaurs, an impressive mosaic that was discovered in the Théâtre Antique.
9 Gordes: A Beautiful Village in a Natural Park
This characteristic village perché (perched village) is beautifully situated in the UNESCO-listed Luberon Natural Regional Park, a wild and rugged mountainous area. Because of its dramatic hilltop setting and splendid architecture, Gordes has been named one of the Plus Beaux Villages de France. Many artists, including Victor Vasarély and Marc Chagall, have been seduced by the allure of Gordes and have found inspiration for their paintings here.
Gordes abounds with all the charm of a Provençal medieval village. The 16th-century Château de Gordes is a fortified castle complete with gigantic towers and an enormous entrance doorway. Visitors can tour the château’s interior to admire the monumental fireplace (classified as a historic monument) in the Salle d’Honneur (Hall of Honor). The château also houses the Pol Mara Museum, which displays masterpieces by the Flemish painter. After visiting the château, tourists will be tempted to stop at one of the nearby cafés or restaurants.
Gordes is a 40-kilometer drive from Avignon and 17 kilometers from Cavaillon. A worthwhile detour from Gordes is the Abbaye de Sénanque, five kilometers away in a valley blanketed by fields of lavender. This 12th-century Romanesque building is considered one of the most interesting abbeys in France. The harmonious architecture reflects the Cistercian concepts of seclusion, simplicity, and spirituality. Tourists may visit the abbey by taking a self-guided tour (silence is required) or by joining a group tour led by a French-speaking guide (reservations recommended), but should keep in mind that the Abbaye de Sénanque is a working monastery. The religious services of the Eglise Abbatiale (Abbey Church) or the Chapelle de la Communauté (Community Chapel) are also open to the public; visitors must respect the abbey rules and participate in the meditation of prayer.
10 Archaeological Sites in Vaison-la-Romaine
At the foot of Mont Ventoux between the Alps and the Mediterranean Sea, Vaison-la-Romaine (30 kilometers from Orange) is an excellent stop on an itinerary through Provence. The picturesque village is known as “one of the most beautiful detours in France.” Begin exploring Vaison-la-Romaine in the Quartier de Puymin archaeological site, which reveals evidence of the ancient Roman town that thrived from the 1st century BC to the 4th century AD. On a hillside shaded with oak and cypress trees, the Quartier de Puymin is a fascinating site where ruins of ancient Roman houses, the House of the Messi and the Portico of Pompey, were uncovered. Also on this site are the remains of an ancient Temple and Roman theater (now used as an outdoor venue during the summer). Amid the archaeological ruins, tourists will find the Musée Théo Display. This archaeological museum displays the original statues that were found on the site (copies appear on the site) along with other antiquities discovered in Vaison-la-Romaine. In the Quartier de la Villas, tourists can see ancient paved streets with gutters and original mosaic floors from Roman houses.
In this slow-paced town, time seems to stand still. Narrow cobblestone streets and an abundance of fountains and leafy plane trees lend a distinctive old-world character. The Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Vaison-la-Romaine is considered “modern” but the building was constructed around the 11th-13th century. A tradition since 1483, Vaison-la-Romaine’s weekly market is held on Tuesday mornings throughout the main streets and squares of the town. This traditional Provençal market includes more than 400 stalls selling fresh fruits; vegetables; flowers; regional specialties like tapenade, fougasse, olives, and truffles; as well as linens and handcrafted ceramics. A farmer’s market offering organic produce and food products takes place at the Place Burrus on Tuesday and Saturday mornings. Summer is an especially enjoyable time to visit Vaison-la-Romaine when the markets are at their busiest and lively cultural events such as the Vaison Dance Festival and Ancient Theater Week (held at the ancient theater in July) bring the town to life.
About 31 kilometers away from Vaison-la-Romaine is a stunning nature sight, Mont Ventoux, a UNESCO-listed biosphere reserve. According to local legend, the poet Francesco Petrarch climbed the mountain in 1336. Today, the area has many hiking and biking trails. It’s worth making the trek to the Col des Tempêtes viewpoint for sensational panoramas.
11 Vence: A Picturesque Artists’ Village
Like its neighbor Saint-Paul de Vence (five kilometers away), Vence is an enchanting medieval hilltop town and thriving artistic community. Visitors enter the historic center of Vence through Porte du Peyra (close to the bus stop and tourist information office), a gateway in the ramparts surrounding the Cité Historique (Old Town). Inside the walls is an enchanting world of narrow cobblestone lanes, historic sights, delightful boutiques, art galleries, and peaceful squares. The Place du Peyra is a pleasant fountain-adorned square and the Place Godeau is a shaded square often painted by artists.
In the heart of the Old Town stands the 11th-12th-century Cathédrale Notre-Dame de la Nativité built on the site of an ancient Roman temple. The Romanesque Cathedral has an exquisite interior with precious Carolingian-era sculptural details on the pillars of the nave and remarkable 17th-century carved wood choir stalls. The cathedral’s Saint-Véran Chapel contains a Gallo-Roman sarcophagus, which serves as an altar. A highlight of the cathedral is the Baptism Chapel featuring a mosaic by Marc Chagall, which depicts Moses’ rescue from the Nile River in Egypt. Another attraction in the Cité Historique is the 17th-century Château de Villeneuve, now a museum that displays an excellent collection of contemporary art including pieces by Matisse, Chagall, Dubuffet, and Dufy.
A must-see sight on the outskirts of Vence is the Chapelle du Rosaire (Matisse Chapel) on the Avenue Henri Matisse. Once part of a Dominican convent, the chapel was elaborately decorated by Matisse in a project that he completed from 1948 to 1951. Matisse designed the entire interior, including the stained-glass window, choir stalls, ceramics, and objects of worship, using bold graphics to represent biblical stories, such as the birth of Christ and the Passion of Christ (Way of the Cross). The simple and somber sanctuary is illuminated only through a stained-glass window, creating an ethereal ambiance. For those who would like to spend more time in Provence’s artistic heartland, the Château Saint-Martin & Spa is a wonderful choice. Nestled in a secluded estate (just two kilometers outside of historic Vence), this five-star hotel overlooks a striking Provençal landscape of olive groves and rolling hills with the French Riviera coastline in the background.
12 Saint-Rémy-de-Provence: Van Gogh’s Artistic Inspiration
Saint-Rémy de Provence is a pretty village in the northern foothills of the Alpilles Mountains. The tranquility of Saint-Rémy de Provence provided solace and inspiration to Vincent van Gogh, who spent a year in the village at an asylum. Saint-Paul de Mausole is the hospital (located in an old Romanesque monastery) where Van Gogh stayed from 1889 to 1890 under the care of kind nurses. Tourists can visit the artist’s room and see copies of the paintings he created here. Other reproductions of Van Gogh’s paintings are on display at the Musée Estrine (8 Rue Lucien Estrine) along with an interpretive film that discusses the artist’s life and works. The Vincent van Gogh Trail indicates sites throughout the town that were painted by Van Gogh, although some imagination is required as the scenery has changed since the artist’s time.
At heart a traditional Provençal town, Saint-Rémy de Provence is well known for its open-air markets. On Wednesday mornings, the Grand Marché Provençal (large market) spills out onto the main squares of the old town; on Saturday mornings a smaller farmer’s market is held at the Place de la République. Tourists will enjoy blending in with the locals, wandering the cobblestone streets, and getting lost while admiring the stately old buildings. Tourists will also find many other worthwhile things to do, such as attending a mass or organ concert at the Eglise Saint-Martin, rebuilt in the 19th century in Neoclassical style, or exploring the archaeological ruins at the Glanum Excavation Site, which has a Triumphal Arch from the 1st century BC dedicated to Julius Caesar.
Gastronomic delights abound in Saint-Rémy de Provence, and tourists will enjoy sampling the regional specialties. La Roma (33 Boulevard Marceau) is an Italian restaurant and salon de thé (tea salon) known for its crêpes, ice cream, and macaroons. Chocolate lovers are advised to visit the Chocolaterie Joël Durand (3 Boulevard Victor Hugo), an upscale chocolate shop that offers tantalizing chocolate candies in delicate flavors. Le Petit Duc is a tempting shop that sells typical Provençal confections such as nougat (candy made with almonds and honey), crystallized violets, and calissons (sweet almond candies). In the nearby village of Paradou, Le Bistro du Paradou is renowned for its delicious cuisine.
Saint-Rémy de Provence is about 25 kilometers north of Arles and 20 kilometers south of Avignon, which makes the town an excellent base in the heart of Provence. Families seeking a countryside retreat near the village of Saint-Rémy will appreciate the Le Mas de l’Ange. This beautifully renovated 17th-century stone farmhouse features typical Provençal pastel-painted shutters and cozy decor. The entire property is available for rent including eight bedrooms, a swimming pool, and a private tennis court.
13 Salon-de-Provence: Historic Landmarks and Artisan Soaps
On the Plaine de la Crau northwest of Marseilles, Salon-de-Provence is a town steeped in history. In ancient times, the Romans created salt marshes on the Hill of Valdemech, and the town also has origins from the time of Charlemagne. During the medieval era, the Archbishops of Arles built the fortress-like Château de l’Empéri (“Emperor’s Castle”), which dominates the townscape. This 12th-15th century château has some of the best-preserved fortifications in Provence and a lovely Romanesque church, the Chapel of Saint-Cathérine. The Maison de Nostradamus is a historic landmark where Nostradamus spent the last 20 years of his life and is now a museum that displays original editions of Nostradamus’ prophecies and a reproduction of his study.
Salon-de-Provence is well known for its artisanal olive oil and fragrant soap products that are sold throughout Provence and other cities in France. To learn more about the history of soap production in Salon-de-Provence, tourists can visit the Marius Fabre Soap Factory and Savon de Marseille Museum. For those who want to commune with nature in the nearby Luberon Natural Regional Park, the Hostellerie à Salon de Provence is a romantic place to spend a few nights. The hotel occupies a converted 12th-century Abbaye de Sainte Croix, a marvelous example of Romanesque architecture, surrounded by 20 hectares of wild scrubland, lavender fields, and olive groves.
14 Grasse: Perfumes, Gardens, and Art
Perched on a hilltop in an idyllic landscape, this quintessential Provençal village delights all the senses. The old town of Grasse is only accessible to pedestrians because the streets are too narrow for cars. Typical of medieval villages, Grasse is brimming with atmospheric streets and babbling fountains found in hidden squares. The green rolling hills and plains around Grasse flourish with orange blossoms, roses, mimosa, jasmine, lavender, and violets, which provide the essential oils to make delicate fragrances. At the Musée International de la Parfumerie (2 Boulevard du Jjeu de Ballon), visitors learn about the history of perfumes, soaps, and cosmetics and then can stop to smell the roses (or have a picnic) in the museum’s gardens. Visitors can also tour the famous perfume factories, including Fragonard, Molinard, and Galimard. Other must-see attractions are the Villa-Musée Jean-Honoré Fragonard (23 Boulevard Fragonard) that displays a collection of Fragonard’s Rococo artworks and Princess Pauline’s Garden a verdant oasis that boasts panoramic views.
15 Sunbathing and Sightseeing in Fréjus
Fréjus is an attractive port town (about 39 kilometers from Cannes) with a sunny marina and sandy beaches that are packed with tourists during summertime. Beside resort ambiance, Fréjus has plenty of cultures. The Romanesque Cathedral of Fréjus was built in the 11th-12th centuries. While the cathedral’s exterior is now hidden by more modern surrounding buildings, its spire soars high above the cityscape as a beacon of faith. Next to the cathedral’s cloisters, the Archaeology Museum displays an extensive collection of Greek and Roman artifacts. Like many towns in Provence, Fréjus has an ancient history dating back to the Roman era. Testaments to this heritage are the 1st-2nd century Arènes (Rue Henri Vadon), an enormous amphitheater that accommodated 10,000 spectators, as well as the ruins of the Roman Aqueduct and the Théâtre Romain outside the town on the N7 Road. The Roman Theater is now used as the venue for Les Nuits Auréliennes, a French-language festival of the theater (comedies, musicals, vaudeville) that takes place under the star-studded night skies of July.
16 Cassis: A Picturesque Fishing Village
This picturesque old fishing village has the vibrant ambiance of a Mediterranean seaport combined with the traditional charm of Provence. Cassis is 22 kilometers from Marseilles, yet feels much further away in the countryside; it’s a favorite getaway for residents of Marseilles seeking an escape to an idyllic setting. The village enjoys a protected location on a semicircular bay framed by mountains. Because of its natural beauty, Cassis became an artists’ village that attracted many famous painters including Vlaminck, Derain, Dufy, and Matisse. These resident artists painted the colorful houses and small sailboats docked in the bay. Tourists will enjoy leisurely strolls along the waterfront and through the village. Lovely shaded squares and sunny terraces of outdoor cafés beckon visitors to stop and enjoy the moment. Also worth visiting are the village’s 14th-century château and the beautiful Fontaine des Quatre Nations.
17 Biot: An Ancient Perched Village with Artisan Boutiques
Built on the slopes of a steep hill (a typical village perché), Biot has many charming stepped pathways that lead up to viewpoints and reward visitors with gorgeous panoramas. Hidden wonders await those who take the time to discover the village’s narrow cobblestone streets, quiet alleyways, and pleasant little squares. Many of the squares have gurgling fountains that add a note of serenity. The village is also known for its arts and crafts boutiques that sell locally made jewelry, ceramics, glassware, and textiles.
Biot’s history is intertwined with the Crusades of the 12th century. The Eglise Sainte-Marie-Madeleine was built during this period. The sanctuary boasts an altarpiece, the Madonna with Rosary by Louis Bréa in the 16th century. The village’s more recent cultural heritage is seen at the Musée National Fernand Léger, which displays a comprehensive collection of the modern artist Fernand Léger’s works. Léger briefly lived in Biot; the museum is housed on the site of the artist’s villa.
18 Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux: Culture, Cuisine, and Nature
The quaint old streets of Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux invite visitors to take a walk back in time. Wander around the medieval lanes and discover the hôtels particuliers (elegant historic mansions). At the heart of the village, the Cathedral Notre-Dame et Saint-Paul soars high above the town. This 12th-century church exemplifies Provençal Romanesque architecture, characterized by its simple layout and majestic spaces. The facade features intricate bas-reliefs and a porch with pillars that reference classical Roman columns, and the grandiose nave has vast dimensions. Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux also has evidence of a Jewish community from the 12th to the 15th century. The Rue Juiverie is testimony to the medieval Jewish quarter. Here, the vestiges of a 15th-century synagogue-a stone arc that was used to hold the holy text – was discovered. To learn about the village’s ancient Gallo-Roman heritage, visit the Archaeology Museum at Place Castellane.
Tourists can soak up the local culture by visiting the traditional open-air market held at the Place du Marché on the first and third Sunday mornings of the month. Other cultural events include the Saint-Paul Soul Jazz Festival (soul and jazz music festival) in July and the Festival du Film in October. The Tricastin area surrounding this medieval village has an abundance of French truffles, which the locals call “black diamonds.” Truffle purveyors take their prized culinary goods (Tuber Melanosporum) to the Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux Truffle Market on Tuesdays and Sundays (from November through March). The Tuesday market is open to the public; the Sunday market is reserved for restaurateurs and private individuals. A Truffle Festival takes place in Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux the second Sunday in February.
For those staying overnight, the Villa Augusta offers luxurious accommodations in a wooded parkland surrounded by lavender fields. The four-star hotel is a converted Ancienne Maison (historic Provençal villa) with impeccably decorated deluxe rooms and an upscale restaurant that serves the finest cuisine of the terroir.
19 Tarascon: Provençal Festivals and Fabrics
Rich in cultural heritage, this distinctive Provençal town is known for its traditions and festivals. Tarascon exemplifies the art de Vivre (lifestyle) of Provence, with its relaxing ambiance and weekly gourmet market featuring regional products. Visitors will enjoy exploring the old cobblestone lanes and arcaded streets while admiring little chapels, cloisters, and historic mansions. The town’s Château de Tarascon is considered one of the best-preserved medieval fortresses in France. The château is open to the public for self-guided and guided visits.
Tarascon’s rich cultural heritage comes to life during the Fêtes de la Tarasque in June. This UNESCO-listed festival dates back to the 15th century. Following the centuries-old traditions, townspeople dress up in medieval costumes and a dragon-like mascot, La Tarasque, is paraded on a procession through the town.
Tarascon is also known for its industry of Provençal printed textiles. The Musée Souleiado (39 Rue Charles-Deméry), housed in a 17th-century mansion, has an extensive collection of Provençal fabrics, as well as exhibits explaining the history and process of textile production. Provençal textiles are called “indiennes” (Indians) because they were originally imported from India to Marseilles in the 16th century. Now, these brilliant polychromatic fabrics are synonymous with Provence; they’re sold in shops and markets throughout the region. Souleiado sells its brightly printed Provençal cotton fabrics and designer-quality clothing at boutiques in Aix-en-Provence, Arles, Avignon, and other cities in Provence, as well as in Paris.
20 Mougins: Picasso’s Favorite Hilltop Village
Mougins is an enchanting Provençal hilltop village with an exceptional artistic heritage. Tourists delight in exploring Mougins’ charming streets, little boutiques, galleries, and artists’ ateliers. Picasso lived in Mougins from 1961 to 1973 and left a lasting mark on the village. The artist was drawn to the town’s beauty, especially the Chapelle Notre-Dame de Vie, a humble Provençal-style church approached by a cypress tree-lined path reminiscent of landscapes in Tuscany. The chapel was originally built in the 12th century and then rebuilt in the 17th century. In 1961, Picasso purchased the chapel and converted it into his art studio. Another noteworthy religious building, the Chapelle Saint Barthélémy is a unique octagonal structure with a rare semicircular apse. The village’s parish church, the Eglise Saint-Jacques-le-Majeur (dating to the 11th century) is found near a pleasant courtyard with a calming fountain.
For such a tiny village, Mougins has a surprising number of gourmet restaurants. The local Mediterranean cuisine is based on olive oil, vegetables, and aromatic herbs such as rosemary, thyme, fennel, and tarragon. The village has several renowned culinary establishments: La Place de Mougins restaurant with a seasonal menu based on fresh ingredients, Le Moulin de Mougins that has an outdoor patio dining area, the refined and contemporary Paloma Restaurant, and the Michelin-starred Restaurant Le Candille, which offers classic French cuisine in its sumptuous dining room or on a terrace overlooking the Provençal countryside.
21 Logue: A Small Town with Grand Gastronomy
Off-the-beaten tourist path, Logue is a typical Provençal town with a historic church, gently flowing fountains and the main square that hosts a weekly market. The town is nestled in a fertile countryside of lush woodlands and a patchwork of small farms. It’s an ideal place to spend a quiet holiday, enjoying nature and gourmet cuisine. There are many historic attractions nearby, including the village of Flayosc, known for its 11th-century church and ancient olive-oil mill surrounded by flourishing groves of olive trees.
Tourist highlights in the area include several renowned restaurants/hotels. The Château de Berne (Route de Salernes) is a luxurious five-star Relais & Châteaux hotel with a renowned restaurant, L’Orangerie. The Château de Berne also has a casual brasserie, tennis courts, a swimming pool, an upscale spa, and a cooking school for tourists. Nearby, in a beautiful garden setting, is the famous truffle restaurant Restaurant Bruno (2350 Route des Arcs, Le Plan Campagne Mariette, Logue), which also has accommodations. This elegant restaurant is run by Chef Clément Bruno, who is known as the “Empereur de la Truffe” (Emperor of Truffles). This Michelin-starred restaurant features classic French dishes made with seasonal truffles of the region and imported from regions such as Piedmont and Umbria in Italy where white truffles are found.
22 Seillans: A Beautiful Perched Village
Listed as one of the Plus Beaux Villages de France (Most Beautiful Villages of France), Seillans is a classic village perché (perched village). The medieval village has a traditional Provençal ambiance with many historic mansions grouped on the hillsides around the ancient feudal castle. Typical in Provence, the village hosts traditional weekly markets, and locals play pétanque at the main town square (Place de la République). Visitors delight in exploring the village’s narrow streets that lead to fountain-adorned squares, arcaded passageways, and viewpoints of the vine-covered hills and olive groves. The painter Max Ernst admired the beauty of Seillans and spent the last years of his life here; his work can be seen at the Tanning-Ernst Collection. The village has two noteworthy churches: the 11th-century Romanesque church, Eglise Saint-Léger, and the Cistercian Provençal style Chapelle Notre-Dame de l’Ormeau, four kilometers outside the village. Seillans is just seven kilometers away from Fayence, another pretty little medieval hilltop village.
23 Bargème: A Peaceful Countryside Retreat
Bargème is a sleepy country village and visitors who find this out-of-the-way village (one of France’s Plus Beaux Villages) will be delighted by its charm and beauty. Clinging to a promontory over 1,000 meters above the rural landscape, Bargème has the distinction of being the highest elevated town in the Var department. Originally surrounded by ancient fortifications, the village’s winding cobblestone streets and vaulted passageways lead to hidden treasures, such as artisan boutiques, art galleries, and ateliers. As an old feudal village, Bargème once had a magnificent castle, the Château Sabran de Pontevès, which was built in the 13th century and destroyed during the War of Religions. The ruins are an evocative site located on an elevated plateau with splendid views.
Several interesting churches are found in the village, including the 12th-century Eglise Saint-Nicolas on the highest point in the village and the 17th-century Chapelle Notre-Dame des Sept Douleurs (also known as the Chapelle Notre-Dame d’Espaïme) near the château’s esplanade. Vestiges of the old ramparts lie around the southern and eastern edges of the village.
24 Château de Rochegude
Surrounded by the vine-covered rolling hills of the Côtes-du-Rhône, the tiny medieval village of Rochegude is a picture-perfect retreat in the heart of Provence. The main tourist draw is the Château de Rochegude, a 12th-century fortress, restored by Viollet-le-Duc, which was once the summer residence of the Marquis de Rochegude. The château has been converted into a four-star hotel, part of the prestigious Relais & Châteaux association. The area around Rochegude is renowned for its cuisine, including dishes made with the local delicacy of truffles. The nearby Haut-Vaucluse area also has many historic attractions, including two ancient towns with amazing Roman ruins: Orange (14 kilometers away) and Vaison-la-Romaine (27 kilometers away).
25 Aureille in Les Alpilles Mountains
Aureille is a small and remote country town with a captivating Provençal ambiance. Visitors are charmed by the distinctive old stone buildings featuring pastel-painted shutters, flower-bedecked homes, and fountains tucked away in quiet squares. The historic parish church is also worth visiting. Aureille is a good stopping point on the way to Les Baux de Provence or Saint-Rémy de Provence (both about 20 kilometers away). The village is in the heart of Les Alpilles Mountains, an appealing pastoral region that boasts unspoiled nature, an array of hiking trails, and ancient traditions. In mid-August, the locals celebrate during a traditional Saint’s Day festival, complete with authentic costumes.
In northwest France, Brittany is a region with an identity, landscape, and even a language, all of its own. It is one of the six Celtic Nations and has a maritime climate that can sometimes make it feel more like Ireland than mainland France.
On the coast, the scenery is at turns awe-inspiring and quaint, but always beautiful. At its most epic there are gigantic headlands lashed by the Atlantic and cliffs as you’ve never seen on the Pink Granite Coast. We could be here all day if we had to list the historic towns and villages around the region, some so diligently-cared for that they have barely changed at all in centuries.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Brittany:
1. Coastal Scenery
The region pushes out boldly into the Atlantic and has physical geography so raw and beautiful that you could spend years visiting the oceanfront around Côtes-d’Armor, Finistère, Ille-et-Vilaine, and Morbihan, and feel like you’ve never come close to seeing every heart-rending sight.
Rightfully celebrated is the Pink Granite coast in Côtes-d’Armor, where the rocks have a mysterious tint that makes them seem not quite natural.
The Sentier des Douaniers trail and the granite lighthouse at Ploumanac’h will take your breath away.
Honorable mentions also have to go to Pointe du Grouin near Saint-Malo, Pointe de Pen-Hir in the Parc Naturel Régional d’Armorique and Cap Fréhel together with the redoubtable Fort la Latte.
2. Prehistoric Monuments
Anyone who reads Asterix books as a child will know that the forests of Brittany’s interior are littered with prehistoric menhirs, dolmens, and cairns.
These were erected 7,000 years ago and sit either alone on a hillside or in woodland, or as part of highly-significant complexes that have left generations of inheritors and visitors scratching their heads in amazement.
The village of Carnac in the Morbihan department is a kind of El Dorado for prehistory nuts, with more than 3,000 monumental stones, the largest collection in the world.
But this is just the gateway for your trip through Neolithic Brittany, with loads more to see, including cairns at Barnenez and Gavrinis, and a stunning passage grave at Roche aux Fées.
It isn’t sacrilegious to draw comparisons between the old part of this port city with nearby Mont-Saint-Michel.
Saint-Malo’s medieval walls are majestic, and you can walk along every inch of the ramparts and either look down at the labyrinthine streets or out over the cinematic beaches to the north and west.
On clear evenings you’ll be overwhelmed by the sight of the sun setting behind the solemn grey stone buildings of the old town.
Check out the tomb of the romantic writer, Chateaubriand, and when the weather’s good beaches like Plage du Sillon, with its rocky islands and clear, lagoon-like pools are a good bet.
Even if the water might be a bit chilly for swimming.
4. Huelgoat Forest, Finistère
In the hilly inland part of the Parc d’Amorique is the lakeside village of Huelgoat swathed in the woodland that conceals wondrous natural rock formations and caves.
If you pop into the village’s Office de Tourisme you can get hold of route maps, for hikes ranging from anything between hour-long circular tours to intrepid quests through the mossy deciduous forest.
Locally the best walk begins behind the old watermill on the lake, leading into a world of bizarre and outsized granite boulders.
Take the steep stairway down into the Grotte du Diable, a cave 10 meters below the lake, with walls lined by these rounded rocks.
5. Old Centre of Dinan
Even in a region lauded for its picturesque towns, Dinan stands out.
Most people have it down as the prettiest in Brittany, and the upper part, within the walls, has cobblestone streets with houses dating as far back as the 1200s.
As you step down Rue de la Cordonnerie you’ll be wondering whether you’re actually still in the 21st century! The upper floors of these rickety half-timbered buildings hang almost perilously over the street.
The river port is just as atmospheric, with restaurants by the quay and a 40-meter-high railway viaduct to add drama.
Make for the 13th-century castle to begin a tour of the ramparts or to learn about the history of this wonderful town.
6. Oysters, Cider and Crêpes!
Order a plateau de fruits de me and you’ll be presented with a mountain of shellfish and crustaceans accompanied by slices of crusty bread and melted butter.
Unique gastronomic experiences abound in the region, like the waterside oyster market in Cancale, where you can eat them there and then.
Cider is the regional drink, and in Finistère, there’s a designated Route du Cidre, through the AOC Cournouaille cider region.
And finally, you can hardly make it down a single Breton street without finding a crêperie.
These will produce the classic crêpes we all know and love, but also galettes, buckwheat pancakes usually with a savory filling like a fried egg.
One of France’s “plus beaux villages”, Locronan blows everyone away.
It’s a tiny place, with only several hundred inhabitants and a totally pedestrianized old center that is a true delight to discover.
If it feels a bit like a film set to you then it will come as no shock that several French movies and TV shows have been shot here.
The largest and most palatial homes in Locronan are from the 1700s, belonging to the owners of sail-weaving businesses who did roaring trade not just with the French navy but also the Spanish and British.
8. Quimper Cathedral
Like many of Brittany’s churches, this marvelous gothic building is a real joy to investigate, but it also has a few quirks that make it special.
One is the way it tapers in the middle, to adapt to its natural setting.
That was to avoid a swampy bit of land when it was built in the 13th-century.
The cathedral is Quimper’s most beautiful piece of heritage and is a French National Monument.
Those marvelous spires are 75 meters in height and stand on either side of a sculpture of Gradlon, the semi-mythical 5th-century King of Cournouille.
9. Remparts de Vannes
In the Breton War of Succession in the 14th century, Vannes came under siege four times from both the English and French forces.
Its bloody past has endowed it with a complete system of defenses, which enclose an old quarter with half-timbered houses and add charm and a sense of authority to the town.
Nowhere is this truer than at the Jardin des Remparts on the east side of the walls.
It’s an elegant formal garden with topiaries and flowerbeds through which the River Marle flows, all with the medieval curtain and towers setting the scene.
There’s a market on Tuesday and Saturday mornings at Place des Lices, a square that hosted jousting tournaments in the middle ages.
10. Île de Batz, Roscoff
Opposite the town of Roscoff, once a haven for pirates and smugglers, is an island that is a little slice of rural paradise.
The ferry takes about 15 minutes and you should spend at least half a day on Batz seeing the coast and countryside.
Many people rent bicycles for the day and pedal off along coastal trails next to small beaches with nothing more than farmland on the foreshore.
The island catches the warm currents of the gulf stream, so many of the fields are dedicated to potato farming, and they say that Batz potatoes are the finest you can eat.
The warmer air also nourishes the island’s botanical garden created at the turn of the century with 2,000 species, like palm trees that are normally found at far more southern locations.
11. Brittany’s Canals
The region’s countryside is laced with a system of canals that totals 600 kilometers.
This, of course, opens up a world of possibilities for outdoor tourism.
On the Canal de Nantes à Brest in the south and the Canal d’Ille-et-Rance in the north, you’ll be able to hire a narrowboat.
You won’t need a license for one of these as they travel at a glacial speed, giving you the chance to take in the historic sights on the banks and 19th-century engineering that made these waterways possible.
On land, you could follow the “Voies Vertes”, where the canal’s towpaths are now walking trails, with a gentle slope that makes them great for even the littlest members of the family.
Another village selected as one of the most beautiful in France, Rochefort-en-Terre in Morbihan transports you back at least a century in time.
It’s not just the historic houses, but the entire structure of the old medieval village is still in place: The well and drinking troughs are still here and now decorated with geraniums.
Indeed the whole of Rochefort is alive with florid color in the summer, with flower boxes on windowsills and wisteria creeping up the granite walls.
The village took shape over several centuries so there’s also an arresting blend of styles, from rustic half-timbered houses to stone renaissance palaces with conical roofs on their turrets.
On summer nights the entire village is illuminated as if couldn’t get any more romantic!
13. Château de Fougères
Not far from the border with Normandy the small town of Fougères has a brooding fortress that rises up sharply on the western section of the walls.
It’s considered one of the greatest castles in Europe and is a compendium of historical military architecture.
The castle as we recognize it first went up in the 1100s, but there were a host of reinforcements and additions over the coming four centuries.
The towers are in great shape considering their age, and you can enter and climb three of them.
The best of these is probably Mélusine Tower, built in the 1300s by Raoul II, the Count of Eu.
From the 17th to the 19th century this port was one of the busiest in Morbihan and saw some pretty momentous events.
One was the arrival of Benjamin Franklin in 1776 to request French assistance in the War of Independence.
The port doesn’t handle that kind of traffic today and instead is a charming spot for a walk in the sunshine, with half-timbered houses dating to the 1400s, lots of boutiques and art galleries, and restaurants with outdoor seating next to the water.
After pottering around Saint-Goustan you can cross the medieval bridge to visit the town Auray, which holds a fantastic market on Mondays.
15. Zoo and Botanical Garden of Branféré, Le Guerno
Few zoos will have locations as dignified as this one in Morbihan: The park is set in grounds of a château from the mid-19th century.
In the early 1900s, the estate’s owner was inspired to create a game reserve where the animals are able to roam free and pulled in zoologists to work out how to bring his idea to life.
It opened to the public in the 60s and has evolved into this popular attraction.
There are 1,000 animals, with zebras, hippos, antelopes, and yaks, in 150 hectares of carefully-designed parkland that includes waterfalls and prairies.
If you like to see zoos that create a suitable environment for their animals then you won’t be disappointed here.