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Things to Do in France

Chic. Sophisticated. Iconic. France’s cultural identity is prominent across the globe. Paris, known affectionately as the City of Lights, tops every list of romantic destinations yet offers something for every type of traveler, from dinner shows at the Moulin Rouge to world-renowned art at the Louvre Museum and Gothic architecture at Notre Dame Cathedral. In Versailles, the colossal palace exudes grandeur; fine wines beg to be quaffed in Bordeaux and Champagne; and war history enshrouds the battlefields of Normandy and the Somme. Gastronomes will find nirvana in France, where freshly baked baguettes, cheese, casseroles, and delicacies such as snails and frogs’ legs are staples on most menus.
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Louvre
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The Louvre may be the world's greatest art museum. Don't be daunted by its size and overwhelming richness; if you have even the merest interest in the fruits of human civilization from antiquity to the 19th century, then visit you must.

The former fortress began its career as a public museum in 1793 with 2,500 paintings; now some 30,000 are on display. The most famous works from antiquity include the Seated Scribe, the Jewels of Rameses II, and the armless duo - the Winged Victory of Samothrace and the Venus de Milo. From the Renaissance, don't miss Michelangelo's Slaves, Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa and works by Raphael, Botticelli, and Titian. French masterpieces of the 19th century include Ingres' La Grande Odalisque, Géricault's The Raft of the Medusa, and the work of David and Delacroix. The Grand Louvre project has rejuvenated the museum with many new and renovated galleries now open to the public. To avoid queues at the pyramid, buy your ticket in advance.

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Eiffel Tower
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Built by Gustave Eiffel for the 1889 World Fair, held to commemorate the centennial of the Revolution, the Eiffel Tower (Tour Eiffel) made headlines at the time as the world's tallest structure at 1,050 feet (320 meters). Initially opposed by Paris' artistic and literary elite, the tower was almost torn down in 1909, but its salvation came when it proved an ideal platform for the antennas needed for the new science of radiotelegraphy.

Today, the highlight of a visit is the supreme view over Paris. When you're done peering upward through the girders from the ground, head up to the three levels open to the public, one of which features the famed 58 Tour Eiffel Restaurant. Just southeast of the Eiffel Tower is a grassy expanse that served as the site of the world's first balloon flights. Today, the area is frequented by skateboarding teens and activists stating their views on the current state of France.

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Paris Catacombs (Catacombes de Paris)
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In 1785, Paris decided to solve the problem of its overflowing cemeteries by exhuming the bones of the buried and relocating them to the tunnels of several disused quarries, leading to the creation of the Catacombs, basically corridors stacked with bones. They are 65 ft (20 m) underground and contain the remains of six million Parisians. During WWII, the tunnels were used as a headquarters by the Resistance.

The route through the Catacombs begins at a small, dark green Belle Époque-style building in the centre of a grassy area of av Colonel Henri Roi-Tanguy, the new name of place Denfert Rochereau. The exit is at the end of 83 steps on rue Remy Dumoncel, southwest where a guard will check your bag for 'borrowed' bones.

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River Seine
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Paris lies 277 miles (445 km) from the river mouth and the slow-moving river is navigable up to 348 miles (560 km) inland from Le Havre, to Paris and beyond. This made it a lucrative trading route and Paris a prosperous city even back in the days of the Roman Empire.

In Paris, many bridges cross the Seine, the oldest being the Pont Neuf dating from 1607 and the newest the Pont Charles de Gaulle completed in 1996. The river forks in central Paris creating two islands: the Ile de la Cité which is one of the most expensive districts to live, and the Ile Saint-Louis. Many of Paris's famous landmarks are beside the Seine: Notre Dame, the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower and the Musée d'Orsay.

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Orsay Museum (Musée d'Orsay)
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The museum displays France's national collection of paintings, sculptures, objets d'art produced between 1848 and 1914, including the fruits of the Impressionist, Post Impressionist, and Art Nouveau movements.

The Museum fills the chronological gap between the Louvre and the Musée National d'Art Moderne at the Centre Pompidou. Austerely housed along the Seine in a former railway station built in 1900, it was re-inaugurated in its present form in 1986. Upstairs the grand salon still dazzles and there is an elegant tearoom and restaurant with a good view over the river.

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Moulin Rouge
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Opened in 1889 by Joseph Oller and Charles Zidler, the Moulin Rouge was created in a time when creativity was blooming, and people were filled with the joys of life. With a huge dance floor, mirrors, beautiful showgirls and an atmosphere of total euphoria, the Cabaret was a huge Success. Then Toulouse-Lautrec was a frequent visitor, today over 1000 people visit a night.
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Notre Dame Cathedral
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If Paris has a heart, then this is it. The cathedral of Notre Dame (Cathédrale de Notre Dame de Paris) is not only a masterpiece of French Gothic architecture, but has also been Catholic Paris' ceremonial focus for seven centuries. The cathedral's immense interior, a marvel of medieval engineering, holds over 6,000 people and has spectacular rose windows.

Although Notre Dame is regarded as a sublime architectural achievement, there are all sorts of minor anomalies, the result of centuries of aesthetic intervention. These include a trio of main entrances that are each shaped differently, and are accompanied by statues that were once coloured to make them more effective as Bible lessons for the masses. The interior is dominated by a 7,800-pipe organ that was restored but has not worked properly since.

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Arc de Triomphe
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The Arc de Triomphe, standing proudly in the circular Place Charles-de-Gaulle at the top of the Champs Elysées, is a symbol of the French nation. It stands at the crossroads of the magnificent axial avenues defining Paris, and honors all those who fought for France, particularly in the Napoleonic Wars. Written on the arch are all the wars fought by France and the names of the French generals involved. It is also the location of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier commemorating those lost in World War I.

The arch itself is huge: 160 feet (50m) tall, 148 feet (45m) wide, and 72 feet (22 m ) deep. It's so large that, after World War I ended, a joyous pilot flew his biplane through the Arc de Triomphe.

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Grand Palais
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You'll probably notice the Grand Palais before you go there; its spectacular glass roof can be seen from several points in the city, and at certain times of the day the sunlight makes it seem like a steam-punk spaceship has landed near the Seine. But if you don't go inside you would be missing out on a spectacular space.

Like many structures in the area, it was inaugurated in 1900 and since then, has hosted a wide variety of events, exhibitions and collections. From equestrian shows to Chanel fashion shows, from military hospital to a point of the WWII liberation of Paris, Parisians have always known to check out what's happening at the Grand Palais. There are also permanent exhibits, such as the science museum, National Society of Fine Arts and the Galeries nationales du Grand Palais.

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More Things to Do in France

Montmartre

Montmartre

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Montmartre is the hilly part of Paris. There are stairs galore and the crowning glory is, of course, the famous Sacré Coeur Cathedral perched at the top, looming over Paris. There is another church on the hill, the older Saint Pierre de Montmartre, which is the founding place of the Jesuits.

The area is also famous for its nightlife and artists. The Moulin Rouge is here and Pigalle is known both for being the red-light district and for its rock music venues. Artists including Picasso, van Gogh, Monet, Modigliani, Renoir and Dali all lived and/or worked in the area. The Dali Espace museum is also worth a visit.

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Avenue des Champs-Élysées

Avenue des Champs-Élysées

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The Avenue des Champs-Elysées (the name refers to the 'Elysian Fields' where happy souls dwelt after death according to Greek myth) links place de la Concorde with the Arc de Triomphe. The avenue has symbolized the style and joie de vivre of Paris since the mid-19th century and remains a popular tourist destination.

Basically a shopping strip, Avenue des Champs-Elysées is rue du Faubourg St-Honoré (8e), the western extension of rue St-Honoré. It has renowned couture houses, jewellers, antique shops and the 18th-century Palais de l'Elysée (corner rue du Faubourg St-Honoré & av de Marigny), which is the official residence of the French President.

At the bottom of Avenue des Champs-Elysées is an 11.8 ft (3.6m) tall bronze statue depicting General Charles de Gaulle in full military gear ready to march down the broad avenue to the Arc de Triomphe in a liberated Paris on 26 August 1944.

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Latin Quarter (Quartier Latin)

Latin Quarter (Quartier Latin)

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The Quartier Latin (Latin Quarter) in Paris is commonly thought to be synonymous with the fifth arrondissement, but it actually stretches to the sixth as well. It's also known as the epicenter of Parisian academic life, as it is home to no less than six universities and technical schools. In fact, it's how the Latin Quarter got its name; back in the Middle Ages, area students commonly spoke Latin, - conversationally!

The Roman ruins make the Latin Quarter, also known as Quartier Latin in French, one of the oldest parts of Paris, while the Sorbonne University gives it an intellectual and existential air. The district is tailor made for walking, its legendary cafes, historic jazz clubs, boulevards and narrow lanes capturing the essence of Paris. Today, the Latin Quarter welcomes students from all over the world, and the shops, restaurants and bars reflect this international vibe.

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Caen Memorial Museum (Mémorial de Caen)

Caen Memorial Museum (Mémorial de Caen)

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The Mémorial de Caen, a museum and war memorial, is one of the city’s most popular attractions and a must-see for anyone visiting Normandy to pay respects to the heroes of World War II. While the site specifically commemorates D-Day and the Battle for Caen, it is the overall sentiment that provides the perfect primer for those planning to see multiple memorials in the area.

The museum's exhibits take visitors through life in the 1940s during the war while specifically noting the D-Day landings and the Battle of Normandy before continuing with coverage through the fall of the Berlin Wall. The many personal accounts, artifacts and multimedia segments work to bring the war out of the past and into sharp focus. In addition, there are British, Canadian and American gardens on the grounds for strolling and picnicking.

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Palais Garnier

Palais Garnier

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It may not be the first iconic structure that comes to mind when you think of Paris, but to Parisians the Palais Garnier - Opera National is a beloved symbol of the importance placed on the arts in the City of Light. Completed in 1875 per architect Charles Garnier's specifications, it has been home to the Opéra de Paris and ballet performances since then – as well as the setting for the novel, film and musical, The Phantom of the Opera.

Today, visitors climb up the Grand Staircase, see the Phantom's famous chandelier hanging from the Chagall-painted ceiling and learn the interesting history of one of Paris's major sites.

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Pont Alexandre III

Pont Alexandre III

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Arguably the most beautiful bridge in Paris, Pont Alexandre III was inaugurated in 1900 and crosses the Seine from Le Grand Palais to Invalides. If it looks familiar to you, that's because its elegant design and Art Nouveau elements have been featured in Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, Adele's iconic video for her smash hit “Someone Like You” and even James Bond's film A View to a Kill.

The theme of the bridge's coats of arms celebrates the alliance between France and Russia, with the Nymphs of the Seine and Neva Rivers. The four gilt statues symbolize Science, Art, Contemporary France and the “France of Charlemagne.”

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Hall of Mirrors (Galerie des Glaces)

Hall of Mirrors (Galerie des Glaces)

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Built during the reign of Louis XIV in the mid-17th century, the Palace of Versailles nearly emptied the kingdom's coffers as 30,000 workers and soldiers toiled to flatten hills, move forests, and drain marshes to create the fantastical palace and gardens that so effectively projected the absolute power of the French monarchy at the time.

The opulence of Versailles reaches its peak in the central gallery known as the Hall of Mirrors — a 75-meter-long ballroom with 17 huge mirrors on one side and, on the other, an equal number of arcaded windows looking out over the formal gardens. Designed by architect Jules Hardouin-Mansart and decorated by painter Charles le Brun, construction of the Hall of Mirrors began in 1678, and it has quite the history: this was the setting for 17th- and 18th-century royal ceremonies, and it was also the location for the signature of the 1919 Versailles Treaty that formally ended WWI.

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Port of Cannes (Port de Cannes)

Port of Cannes (Port de Cannes)

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Cruise ships dock in the bay and tenders take you to Le Vieux Port (the Old Port) from where you turn right and it is an easy walk to the main promenade along the beachfront and into town, or you can catch a taxi. The train station is also an easy walk. Local buses along the coast are also a good option for day trips as many destinations are reached for only 1 euro.

Cannes is a lovely place to spend the day if you like to stroll the beachfront promenade, shop or eat in lovely surroundings. French bakeries are famous so pop in there for a light lunch. If you fancy more sumptuous surrounds, head to the hotels along the front, such as the Sofitel Mediterranee with its top floor restaurant with lovely views. Or have a cocktail at the famous domed Hotel Le Carlton.

Up the hill in the old quarter of La Suquet is the Gothic church Notre Dame d’Esperance and 12th century Saint Anne’s Chapel plus panoramic view of Cannes Port.

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Neptune Fountain (Bassin de Neptune)

Neptune Fountain (Bassin de Neptune)

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Versailles’ chateau gardens are vast, laid out in formal French style and famed for their geometrically aligned terraces, tree-lined paths and, notably, their ponds.

Of all the lovely fountain pools gracing the Versailles gardens, the Bassin de Neptune is the largest.

Designed by famed landscape artist Le Notre and laid out between 1661 and 1700, the fountain features three groups of statues, including Neptune and Amphitrite.

A new fountain installed by Louis XV in the 1730s was acclaimed for the force and variety of its jets water playing over the sculptural groups. In all, the fountain boasts 99 water effects and is fronted by the lovely Dragon Fountain.

In summer, Bassin de Neptune is a focus for a display of choreographed fireworks, spectacularly reflected in the fountain’s expansive pool.

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Gare du Nord

Gare du Nord

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Gare du Nord is one of the six major train stations in Paris, with service to London, Brussels, Amsterdam and other destinations north of the French capital. Strictly speaking, Gare du Nord is the busiest railway station in Europe and the busiest in the world outside Japan with over 700,000 passengers every day for a grand yearly total of 190 million. Because of the role it plays in Paris’ daily transports, Gare du Nord was featured in many movies, including Ocean’s Twelve, the Bourne Identity and The Da Vinci Code.

The train station itself was built in the 1860s and comprises 36 platforms, including a separate terminal for the Eurostar trains which require security and customs checks. The U-shaped terminal is made out of cast iron and stone, including the statues that decorate the main entrance – each representing destinations outside of France.

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Versailles Gardens (Jardins de Versailles)

Versailles Gardens (Jardins de Versailles)

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The most acclaimed example of formal French garden design, Versailles’ vast chateau gardens are famed for their geometrically aligned terraces, tree-lined paths, ponds and canals. Spreading west of the palace, the Versailles Chateau Gardens cover 800 hectares (1,976 acres) in the style of garden landscape artist, Andre Le Notre.

One of the most special aspects of the gardens is the 50 fountains which act as focal points, enhancing the geometrical design. From late spring to early autumn, the fountains come to life as part of the annual Grandes Eaux water spectacles. Garden highlights include the horses and chariot of the Apollo Fountain, the Grand Canal stretching off to the horizon, and the detailed parterres of the Orangerie.

Wherever you stroll, you’re bound to come across a grove, colonnade, fountain or sculpture that will surprise, delight and take your breath away.

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