Lonely Planet reveals the most unmissable travel experiences in France
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The Ultimate Travel List ranks 500 of the best places in the world to visit, including 13 French sights and attractions in Paris and beyond
A new edition of Lonely Planet’s bestselling coffee table book, Ultimate Travel List, features 500 of the most thrilling, memorable and interesting travel experiences around the world.
According to the leading travel media company, the experiences and destinations are “a mix of knock-out new openings, sights that have upped their game, or places more relevant to the way we travel now.” In the updated second edition of the list, there are 13 destinations in France featured, with landmarks and museums in Paris scoring highly, as well as destinations in the Loire Valley, Provence and Normandy.
63 – Search out priceless treasures in Paris’ classic Musée du Louvre
While many of the 10 million-plus visitors who annually enter the Louvre head straight to the Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo, the planet’s most visited museum is no two-hit wonder. This is an intricately curated record of human endeavour and expression, housed in a 12th-century fortress transformed into a royal residence in the mid-16th century that’s as fascinating as its 35,000 exhibits. The glass pyramid main entrance is now a Parisian landmark in its own right.
79 – Prepare to be very impressed in Paris’ Musée d’Orsay
Degas’ ballerinas, Toulouse-Lautrec’s cabaret dancers, Cézanne’s still lifes, Van Gogh’s self-portraits and Monet’s gardens at Giverny (ranked #367 on the list) are just some of the instantly recognisable paintings in France’s prized national collection from the Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and Art Nouveau movements (1848 to 1914). The museum occupies an Art Nouveau showpiece in itself, the Gare d’Orsay, a former train station, with a quintessential Parisian panorama through its giant glass clockface.
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126 – Roam the regal corridors of France’s stateliest château, Versailles
You can try to imagine Versailles simply as a place where people ate, drank, worked and slept. But seriously, how many houses in the world have 700 rooms, 2,153 windows, 67 staircases, 800 hectares of garden, 2,100 statues and sculptures, and enough paintings to pave an 11km (7-mile) road? Château de Versailles is one almighty crash pad. Even more striking than its size is the ostentatious opulence. French ‘Sun King’ Louis XIV transformed his father’s hunting lodge south-west of Paris into a monumental palace to house his 6,000 sycophantic courtiers in the 17th century. It was the kingdom’s political capital and seat of the royal court from 1682 until the French Revolution in 1789. Today it’s a glittering evocation of French royal history and the conspiring, romancing and backstabbing drama that went on behind its doors. Gaze at your reflection in the shimmering Hall of Mirrors, see horses prance in the stables, and watch fountains dance to Baroque music in summer in the immaculately landscaped formal gardens.
148 – Get an intimate perspective of the Eiffel Tower
Even before arriving in Paris, the Eiffel Tower is pre-etched in travellers’ minds as the defining symbol of the city. And once you’re here, it dominates the skyline at every turn. But it’s not until you’re within it that you truly appreciate this architectural innovation designed by Gustave Eiffel originally as a temporary showpiece for the 1889 World’s Fair. After taking the lift to the 3rd floor, from where Paris spreads out at your feet, the best way to admire its wrought-iron lattice girders is descending the 720 stairs.
180 – Trace pilgrims’ paths on the island abbey of Mont St-Michel
Outside the crowded summer season, tranquillity envelops Mont St-Michel, an ethereal abbey-island off the coast of Normandy. It’s linked to the mainland by a 2014-built pedestrian and vehicle bridge designed to help preserve the island from sand and silt build-up. Tidal ranges here famously vary by up to 15m (50ft); when they’re low enough, you can take a spiritual bare-foot stroll across the rippled bay to the minuscule island accompanied by a guide (the waters rush in at a speed that’s said to be as fast as a horse in full gallop, so strolling on your own is not recommended). Centuries of Norman history seep through your soles as you trace the path of pilgrims who crossed these sands in the Middle Ages to reach the slender towers and sky-scraping turrets of the abbey, where Benedictine monks still hold regular services.
192 – Marvel over (or under) a Roman engineering marvel at Pont du Gard
The Romans knew a thing or two about grandiose engineering. Their exceptionally preserved three-tiered aqueduct Pont du Gard in Languedoc formed part of a system of channels 50km (31 miles) long built around 19 BC to transport water from Uzès to Nîmes. Archaeologists have since unearthed the extraordinary technicality and precision of the Romans’ endeavour: the soaring aqueduct’s hand-carved, locally quarried rock incorporated numbered stones, scaffolding support and the use of hoists. It descends by 2.5cm (one inch) across its length, providing the necessary gradient to keep the water flowing across the river. Using nearly one thousand men, the colossal structure was, astonishingly, completed in just five years. Floodlit in the early evening, the aqueduct straddles two bushy banks with sandy river beaches and a walking trail nearby. You can walk along the tiers, but to truly grasp its sheer scale – a whopping 275m (900ft) long and 48.8m (160ft) high – paddle out in a canoe or kayak to gaze up in awe from the water. April, May and June are best, as winter floods can make the river impassable.
257 – Survey the 360-degree Alps view from the Aiguille du Midi
A jagged finger of rock rising above glaciers, snowfields and icy crags of the mighty Mont Blanc massif, Aiguille du Midi (3842m/12,604ft) is a geographical beacon. The panorama of the French, Swiss and Italian Alps from the summit is breathtaking, especially when peering down through the aptly named Step into the Void’s glass floor. Year-round, you can float up in a cable car from the ski-resort town of Chamonix on the vertiginous Téléphérique de l’Aiguille du Midi. The dizzying views don’t end here: between late May and September, you can continue in the Télécabine Panoramique Mont Blanc to Pointe Helbronner (3466m/11,371ft) on the France-Italy border, then another 4km (2.5 miles) in the SkyWay Monte Bianco cable car to Courmayeur, on the Italian side of the mountain.
280 – Wander the windswept D-Day beaches at dawn
Strolling the shoreline of Normandy as the day breaks and the English Channel laps French sand, all seems serene. It’s a stark contrast to 6 June 1944, when Operation Neptune sent some 150,000 Allied troops crashing into this coast – landing them on Omaha, Utah, Gold, Sword and Juno Beaches – as the biggest seaborne invasion in history began. D-Day changed the course of World War II; an exploration of the bunkers and a sombre stroll through cemeteries dedicated to the fallen brings home the horrific magnitude of the soldiers’ sacrifice.
311 – Behold the Romans’ Théâtre Antique in the Provençal town of Orange
In Provence’s Vaucluse region, famed for its lavender and vineyards, the town of Orange was once one of the Gallo-Roman empire’s major settlements. Legacies from its heyday include a mighty 1st-century-AD triumphal arch commemorating Roman victories in 49 BC. But the star of the Roman show is the ancient theatre, the Théâtre Antique, once the largest in Gaul and now the best preserved in Europe, which saw it listed as a Unesco World Heritage site. Built from limestone, its proportions are typically monumental, with a stage wall stretching 37m (121ft) high, 103m (338ft) wide and 1.8m (6ft) thick (Louis XIV extolled it as the finest wall in his kingdom), and a capacity of 10,000. Not simply a relic, it hosts performances that still enthral audiences in its spectacular surrounds.
364 – Discover the multilayered history of the Château de Chenonceau
The turrets, the river-spanning archways, the impeccable formal gardens…to describe this Loire Valley castle as grand is an understatement. The Château de Chenonceau dates from the 16th century, and many a wild party was thrown here by a succession of aristocrats, including Catherine de Médicis. The pièce de résistance is its window-lined Grande Gallerie spanning the Cher river. During World War II, the Cher was the boundary between free and occupied France, and the gallery was used by escaping Resistance members and refugees.
367 – Revel in the cornucopia of colour at Monet’s garden
No matter your impression of Impressionism, you can’t fail to be moved by the loveliness of Claude Monet’s pink-hued house and flower-filled gardens at the Maison et Jardins de Claude Monet in Giverny, which he planted – and painted – while living here for his final 43 years. You’ll recognise settings from some of the artist’s most famous works, including his Japanese Bridge and water-lily-filled Jardin d’Eau (Water Garden). From early to late spring, daffodils, tulips, rhododendrons, wisteria and irises appear, followed by poppies and lilies. By June, nasturtiums, roses and sweet peas are in flower. Come September, the gardens are a riot of hollyhocks, dahlias and sunflowers.
426 – Explore the witch’s hat-turreted walled city of Carcassonne
Carcassonne’s concentric walled city (La Cité) is a fairy-tale vision of a medieval castle that has been a Unesco World Heritage Site since 1997. Perched on a rocky hilltop in the Languedoc region and bristling with battlements and conical turrets, the fortified city looks like something out of a children’s storybook. The mystical atmosphere is turned up a notch at night when the old city is illuminated and glowing. In summer, La Cité’s cobbled streets and squares spill over with souvenir shops, cafés and huge tourist crowds. To savour its charms, cross the moat to enter its main gate of Porte Narbonnaise at dawn, or linger at dusk when it belongs to its few inhabitants and visitors staying within the ramparts.
461 – Step inside artworks at Paris’ digital-art museum, L’Atelier des Lumières
Paris’ creative nerve centre, the 11th arrondissement (city district), is the home of France’s first museum for digital art, which opened in 2018. An early 19th-century foundry now forms the backdrop for dazzling multisensory exhibitions. Within this innovative space, you can take a virtual stroll through a changing array of world-renowned artworks as they’re projected on the bare stone of its 1500-metre-squared (16,145-sq-ft) exhibition hall, accompanied by an atmospheric soundtrack, providing an immersive, almost meditative experience. Programmes have included the vivid creations of Gustav Klimt and the expressive brushstrokes and intense colours of Vincent Van Gogh’s works swirling across the walls and creating a magic carpet effect on its floors, as well as the Zen-like ‘Japan dreamed: images of the floating world’.
Reproduced with permission from Lonely Planet © 2020.
Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Travel List 2nd Edition, £19.99.
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