Summer in France is the seasonal manifestation of the phrase “joie de vivre.”
And while the luxury lifestyle of the south coast epitomizes a certain ideal of what summer in France is—with its superyachts, beaches freckled with parasols, and the foam of a freshly cracked bottle of Dom Perignon—it’s only a single facet of this country’s summery delights.
Elsewhere, you’ll find offshore breezes laden with the scent of herbs, opera performed in palatial gardens beneath star-filled skies, and macarons of every hue waiting to have their crisp shells cracked open. Here is a list of the ways to make the most of summer in France.
People Watch on the French Riviera
In between tangy mouthfuls of salade niçoise, jumping in the warm waves of the Mediterranean Sea, and soaking up the sunset from mountain-top cafe terraces, you’ll want to take time to people-watch when visiting the French Riviera. Cannes is one of the best places for this essential activity, like at the gently curving Boulevard de la Croisette, the main artery for its beach life.
A listed cultural heritage site in France, La Croisette is hemmed in between broad-chested luxury hotels on one side and the sandy border of the shoreline on the other. As you wander beneath the fluttering palms, the steely balls of nearby petanque games catching the light, you’ll see all facets of life intersecting along its nearly mile-and-a-half length.
The equivalent in nearby Nice is the handsome Promenade des Anglais. A longer proposition, be sure to choose your starting point wisely, or hire a bike and cycle its entire four-and-a-half mile length. After you’ve had your fill of people-watching, head to Nice’s vibrant Old Town or the botanical gardens at Phoenix Park.
Rather have people watch you? Hire a Ferrari or Lamborghini and take to the sizzling asphalt of the dynamic Middle Corniche roadway. Watch the riviera speed past your window on this winding-hill road as you embody the high-end glamor of this classic summertime destination.
Dive into the Mediterranean
While several significant bodies of water have helped sculpt the cliffs and dunes of France’s coast, it’s the mild waters of the south that attract the majority of those seeking sea and sun in the summer months.
French Riviera beaches on offer are many and varied, and with a little research, it’s easy to find a beach that seems almost undiscovered. However, there are some beach destinations whose names have become clad in an everlasting bronze tan of allure.
St. Tropez is preeminent among these. This fishing village, with its lemon-yellow bell tower and busy harbor, is emblematic of summer in France for the wealthy set. Its famous three-mile-long Pampelonne Beach is a roomy swathe of soft sand, its deeper waters just offshore resembling a superyacht buying guide in high summer.
Prefer somewhere a little less high beam? Follow the coastal path around the headland (and past Brigitte Bardot’s home) to find the translucent waves lapping at Plage des Salins.
While it’s hard to go wrong when finding a beach on the Cote D’Azur, Cannes’ La Bocca and the Plage des Marinières, subsiding into Villefranche-sur-Mer’s spectacular deep-water bay, are perennially popular.
After all the salt, swimming, and yacht-ogling, you’ll need some sustenance in the style that you’ve become accustomed to. Enjoy a wine tasting at Nice’s historic Château de Crémat followed by a decadent repast at Le Grand Balcon restaurant afterward. Or duck into the 17th-century vaults of Cave Bianchi for an atmospheric wine tasting with a local producer.
Picnic in the Gardens of Versailles
When a high summer haze stifles the avenues and boulevards of Paris, one of the first places Parisians think of is the baroque Fountains of Versailles pumping out their spray on the breeze.
The Palace of Versailles, on the western outskirts of Paris, is not only a historic monument of surpassing beauty, but it’s also 800 hectares of parkland for those wanting a summer picnic with a generous dollop of grandeur.
With your baguette protruding purposefully from your picnic basket, find a spot amid the handsome topiary, serenely ordered borders, and otherworldly sculptures. A popular spot is near the edges of the Grand Canal by the palace itself. If you’d prefer a little more privacy, then this extensive garden is your gilt-edged oyster.
Picnics are not the only pleasure available in the gardens come summertime. The schedule of events at Versailles gushes forth during the hotter months. Among the masked balls and alfresco operas, look out in particular for the Saturday Fountain Night Show that comes complete with a program of historical reenactments, including a Royal Serenade in the Hall of Mirrors.
On Fridays during the summer, they pipe classical music throughout the gardens. Feel free to bring your own UV-resistant powdered wig.
Stay Cool With Pastis in Marseille’s Vieux Port
France’s second city blends shimmering Provençal coastline with bags of culture and an irresistible Mediterranean insouciance. Its buzzing heart is the Vieux Port, surrounded by bars and restaurants at which to refresh yourself with a cloudy glass of pastis, the aniseed-flavored local specialty and an icon of summer in France.
Pair it with a plate of traditional snacks such as panisse, soft wedges of chickpea with a papery, salty batter. For a loftier perspective, try Chez Gigi—the rooftop terrace bar/restaurant of the Marseille Rowing Club—which has panoramic views over the Vieux Port that pair perfectly with its squid and aioli starter.
Once you’re refreshed, strike out into the city. You don’t have to go far—much of the attractions and things to do in Marseille congregate around the Vieux Port, such as the St. Nicholas Fortress guarding the harbor mouth or the futurist Ricciotti-designed MuCEM museum.
Just behind the Vieux Port is Le Panier, the oldest part of the city and now one of the trendiest. Wander its network of honeyed stone alleys, popping into quirky boutiques, finding to-die-for Japanese at Tako-San on Rue de Petit Puits, or taste-testing the various pastis brands on offer at hip Barjac on Place de Lenche.
With 35 miles of coastline, a visit to Marseille insists that you consider the wealth of possibilities nearby. Hire a pastis-stocked boat from Barque Hugo or rent a kayak and explore the stunning coves and inlets of Calanques National Park, cruising shallows as green and inviting as freshly sliced lime.
Or take a culinary day trip to the specialty food shops and farmers’ markets of Aix-en-Provence, tasting macarons, lavender honey, French espresso, and, of course, the iconic rosé wine.
Tour Timeless Inland Provence
If you can tear yourself away from the south coast, you’ll discover that inland Provence is a miraculous terracotta and stone hinterland dotted with timeless villages and atmospheric ruins.
It’s little surprise that it’s acted as a muse for innumerable artists over the years. The village of Saint-Remy served as inspiration for Vincent Van Gogh when he was there receiving treatment at the local Saint-Paul de Mausole (you can visit his paint-splattered room there). He managed to produce no fewer than 150 paintings while staying there, including Starry Night.
And while it’s still retained a village feel, Saint-Remy is hardly a backwater, with Michelin-starred restaurants, lively markets, and a ruined Roman city to explore just nearby.
Just south of Saint-Rémy is Les Baux-de Provence, one of the best small towns in France. Often described as an open-air museum, this remarkable place is part ruin, part quintessential Provençal village sited on a rise that delivers panoramas of the rugged Alpilles mountains.
Formerly a stronghold in the Middle Ages, the locals keep the history alive with a program of historical events throughout the summer. Keep your fingers crossed you arrive during a catapult demonstration, and be sure to ask for a glass of the highly-rated local organic wine.
A drive east past vineyards, silvery olive tree orchards, and stretches of attractively disheveled nature scented with thyme will bring you to Lourmarin. Provence does it again, you’ll think, admiring this well-appointed town with its French castle, quaffable wine, and constellation of small squares with water gurgling from fountains.
Read: What to Eat in Provence
Seek Art (and Shade) in the Louvre
A summer visit to Paris isn’t complete without paying a visit to the Louvre. The French landmark, an architectural masterpiece with its juxtaposed modernist glass pyramid and 12th-century baroque embrace, never fails to offer something new and spectacular that you missed previously.
If you’re visiting for the first time, know that there are around 40,000 other extremely worthy artifacts held within besides the Mona Lisa. Other high-profile works include The Raft of the Medusa, the Venus de Milo, and Vermeer’s The Lacemaker.
Summer is a popular time to visit Paris, so if you can, try to visit the Louvre on a Wednesday or Friday evening. The crowds have dispersed and the grand galleries have more breathing space within which to exert their extraordinary ambiance. Additionally, there’s less of a wait time for ice cream from the Amorino stall in the nearby Tuileries Garden.
If you only have one day in the city, try to tick off the big sites, like Notre Dame, Arc de Triomphe, and the Champs-Élysées, one of the best places to shop in France.
Make the experience stand out with little upgrades, such as dining at the Eiffel Tower’s sumptuous restaurant, Le Jules Verne, or drifting along the Seine on a riverboat cruise, spotting the sights without having to move from your dinner table.
Decide on Corsica’s Best Side
Whatever your opinion on Napoleon Bonaparte, you can’t help but feel for him ending up on the rather craggy Atlantic outpost of St. Helena after having been born on an island nicknamed the l’Ile de Beauté or “Isle of Beauty”.
And it isn’t just the visuals: Corsicans speak about how they smell the unique shrubland as they approach home over the sea, like an herb garden that’s broken free and populated the entire island, a sagey, minty, rosemary-tinged breeze that’s undeniably Corsica. For many who return to Corsica again and again, it’s the scent of summer in France.
Corsica is endlessly enchanting and makes for a divine summer visit. Its coast offers handsome vertiginous cliffs slipping beneath miraculously turquoise waters. Corsica’s beaches are widely considered the best in France, with options at almost all points of the compass.
If you’re visiting the capital, Ajaccio, and don’t want to tackle the scenic, winding, occasionally white-knuckling roads, make a beeline for St. Francois Beach, tucked beneath boulevard Lantivy and its line of waving palms. The best of the city beaches is a sandy cuff shooting out from Ajaccio’s historic sea wall that gets progressively roomier as you head towards the citadel, with views across the azure waves towards Sardinia.
Discover the Isle of Beauty’s other side: its majestic, rugged interior. A superb introduction is the Prunelli Gorges, where blush-colored limestone descends dramatically towards the gentle sapphire passage of the Prunelli River, bordered on each side by the deep green of the woods. And if you didn’t smell the signature maquis shrubland on your overseas approach, once you step down into the heart of Corsica, prepare to be enveloped in it.
Experience all of these unforgettable adventures and more on a cruise to France. From glamor-soaked beach life and ancient cities to incredible natural vistas, France is a magnificent place to visit during summer.
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