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30 reasons to visit France in winter

PUBLISHED: 16:41 10 October 2012 | UPDATED: 17:20 07 April 2016

Fête du Citron © Dreamstime

Fête du Citron © Dreamstime

(c) Magspace | Dreamstime.com

From world-famous ski resorts to colourful carnivals, there are plenty of reasons to visit France in winter

1 France's stunning mountain ranges

Sitting at an altitude of 2,877 metres on top of the Pic du Midi de Bigorre since 1878, the Observatoire Midi-Pyrénées offers breathtaking mountain views. Cable cars whisk visitors from the base of the Col de Tourmalet to take in the sweeping panorama high above the cloud-tipped peaks.

2 The world-famous ski resorts

Plummeting temperatures can only mean one thing – it’s time for the ski season. Whether you are a first-time skier or a practised veteran, take your pick from the majestic heights of the Alps, the friendly welcome of the Pyrénées or the impressive landscapes of the Jura for a true experience of the snow lifestyle à la française. Check out our skiing features here

3 France's famous spa towns

Combine some healthy activity with leisure at any of France’s famous spa towns. With hot thermal waters at the ready to soothe aching muscles, try the Bains de Saint-Thomas at Fontpédrouse in the Pyrénées, Plombières-les-Bains in the Vosges département of Lorraine, or the classic resort of Évian-les-Bains on the shores of Lake Geneva.

4 Snow polo in the Alps

Should you prefer to watch winter sports rather than be a participant, the snow polo event held every January in the Alpine resort of Megève – once known as the Saint-Tropez of snow – combines the town’s equestrian heritage with its snowy allure.

5 Christmas markets

Winter heralds the arrival of the festive season; get into the spirit with a visit to one of France’s many Christmas markets and stroll the avenues with a cup of the obligatory vin chaud in your hand. The regions of Alsace (Strasbourg, Mulhouse and Riquewihr) and Lorraine (Metz and Nancy) are particularly happy hunting grounds for those special Christmas presents. Also check out our five top French Christmas traditions that will help you celebrate Noël like a local.

6 Children's festival in the Alps

Staged every April in the Alpine ski resort of Les Menuires, the Boule de Notes children’s music and song festival features a variety of performers and concerts for all ages, as well as impromptu street acts, workshops and hands-on activities in the jardins musicaux installation.

7 Classical music festival in Nantes

Beyond the mountains, events are taking place across the country during the winter. If you are a classical music enthusiast, La Folle Journée in Nantes at the end of January unites performers from around the world in concerts designed to challenge the conventions of the genre.

8 The amazing lemon festival in Menton

Where else would you see a giant six-metre-high carnival float made of lemons than at the Fête du Citron in the Riviera town of Menton? Beginning in the middle of February and lasting for more than two weeks, the festival pays homage to its famed export with a series of events.

9 France's winter sales 

The month-long winter sales in France run from mid-January and offer the perfect excuse for a shopping excursion. With major discounts in big-name department stores, as well as independent boutiques, you are sure to find some real bargains. Exact dates are set by the government, so keep an eye out for the start time.

10 Winter French food (usually involving cheese...)

With the cold weather comes the perfect excuse to indulge in winter food. Try oysters in Aquitaine, opt for kugelhopf fruited cake in Alsace, or dip into one of the tempting cheese-bacon-and-potato combinations in the form of raclette, tartiflette or a good old-fashioned fondue, washed down with a cheeky eau-de-vie.

11 Ice climbing

Mountain adventures beckon during the winter months – the truly intrepid might like to put ice-climbing on their seasonal tick list. Armed with crampons, ice pick and helmet, even complete beginners will find it surprisingly easy to get the hang of this pursuit once they are harnessed and linked up to an abseil point.

12 A chance to visit France's museums

You don’t have to go to Paris to visit the Musée du Louvre and the Centre Pompidou – they now each have a secondary wing in Lens and Metz respectively. While the Louvre-Lens officially opens its doors on 4 December, the Centre Pompidou-Metz has been in residence since May 2010, with each offering the chance to see key works from the main museums’ collections.

13 Snow-shoeing

For a different way to experience the snow-capped peaks of France, try snow-shoeing as an introduction to an alternative winter sport. Strap on your raquettes (snow shoes) and you will find a whole new way of looking at the mountainous landscapes from locations inaccessible on foot.

14 The release of the Beaujolais Nouveau

Wine lovers will appreciate the third Thursday in November, when the Burgundy region’s annual Beaujolais Nouveau vintage is released for the season. The Fête du Beaujolais Nouveau sees wine merchants and sellers across Paris take part in the bonhomie with tastings and demonstrations throughout the capital.

15 The galette des rois

Celebrate Epiphany in France on 6 January by tucking into a slice of galette des rois, a golden flaky pastry cake filled with a sweet almond paste. Be careful, however, of the fève, a small figurine hidden within the pastry layers. Whoever finds it is crowned king for the day with a golden paper crown.

16 Mardi Gras carnivals

Mardi Gras in France doesn’t just see crêpes galore being consumed across the country. If you are on the Côte d’Azur you will be able to join more than one million revellers at Nice carnival, one of the biggest in the world. Celebrations go on for more than a fortnight and include parades of huge floats and puppets as well as the bataille des fleurs.

17 Valentine's Day in the most romantic country in the world

Whether you are a die-hard romantic or a resolute cynic, the Jour de Saint-Valentin cannot be ignored, especially in France. The village of Roquemaure in the Gard département has particular reason to celebrate as its church contains the relics of the martyred patron saint of lovers. The relics are carried in procession during the Festou di Poutoun (festival of the kiss) held on the weekend closest to 14 February.

18 Lyon's Fête des Lumières

Take a trip to Lyon for the Fête des Lumières in December as the capital of the Rhône-Alpes celebrates the Virgin Mary with the main buildings lit up in a blaze of coloured lights. Visit the basilica, Place des Terreaux and Place Antonin Poncet for some spectacular sights.

19 A turkey festival in northern France

Kill two birds with one stone with a trip to France for some seasonal poultry. The Fête de la Dinde in Licques in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region celebrates the town’s famed turkeys in December with a parade and market, while the three-day Glorieuses de Bresse in Burgundy, also in December, involves the judging of the best AOC chicken, culminating in an open-floor market.

20-25 Paris!

With the summer crowds long gone, the French capital has a charm of its own when winter sets in. Pay a visit to the Christmas tree at the Galeries Lafayette department store on Boulevard Haussmann, decked out in chic French style with golden ornaments and twinkling decorations. Should you want to take in a nativity scene French-style, the children’s charity Apprentis d’Auteuil runs the Féeries d’Auteil in December to help support youngsters in need, with a market, concerts, children’s activities and the ubiquitous crèche at 40 Rue Jean de la Fontaine in the 16th arrondissement. Alternatively, try Paris’s famous outdoor ice-rinks to blast away the winter blues at either the Hôtel de Ville or the Eiffel Tower. For a more sedate appreciation of the city, nibble on some roasted chestnuts and take a wintertime walk down the banks of the River Seine, closed to traffic on Sundays, or snuggle up under a heated café terrace and watch the world go by.

26 New Year's Eve in France

If you are in France on New Year’s Eve why not celebrate la Saint-Sylvestre French-style with a feast of champagne and foie gras? Opt for a dîner à deux in a cosy brasserie or bistro, or try your hand at some Gallic dance moves at a soirée dansante – held across France, these combine a delicious meal with the chance for guests to show their skills on the dance floor.

27 The seaside in winter

Away from the summer crowds you will find bright skies and clear crisp mornings as you take a quiet walk along the promenade. Try Deauville, further down the coast from Le Touquet, or for a milder climate, Biarritz and Cannes in the south will provide an elegant experience.

28 Husky rides

If the concept of winter sports just seems like too much hard work, let specially trained packs of husky dogs take the load with a dog-sledging experience. Either take a seat in the sledge and relax as the hounds do their work, or opt for the full musher mode and take the reins to guide them yourself.

29 Traditional santons

Santons, small ceramic figurines native to Provence, come into their own in the festive season. Take a trip to any one of the foires aux santons taking place across the region in December (the ones at Marseille and Aubagne are among the best-known) and you will see evidence of the delicate fingers and infinite care needed to create these handcrafted artisanal figures. Marvel at the traditional nativity scenes, or pick up a present for the folk back home. 

30 Splash out on a luxury hotel

With the weather on the turn, some people may prefer to stay indoors – and where better to appreciate the snowy chill outside than nestled in a classic hotel bar? Now that the Ritz in Paris has closed its doors for a two-year refurbishment, try the bar at Hôtel Le Bristol, one of the city’s palace-standard hotels. In Saint-Tropez guests can follow in the footsteps of the Rolling Stones at Hôtel Byblos, where Mick Jagger proposed to his first wife Bianca, while snow bunnies can toast the health of frequent former guest Jean Cocteau at the Hôtel Mont-Blanc in Megève.

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