A perfume trail, a picnic by a lake, and a trip to the home of French cuisine are just some of the great experiences waiting to be had
With a church whose roof resembles an upside down boat, Honfleur is an artists’ haven, just two hours from Paris. The Church of St Catherine was built by shipwrights in the 15th century, resulting in the peculiar roof. The town has several museums—La Maisons Satie is a museum dedicated to the life of 10th century composer Erik Satie, while the Musee Eugene Boudin, was founded by maritime landscape artist Eugene Boudin, who also taught Claude Monet in Honfleur.
Lille is like Paris’ sister, chic and smart. The centre overflows with stylish boutiques, within a maze of 17th-century dollhouse-style blocks. The Vieille Bourse, or the Grand Palace, is a stunning example of baroque architecture, and an antique market is open in its courtyard every afternoon. Most tourists flock to the Musée La Piscine de Roubaix, where the pool and changing rooms have been converted into a beautiful museum.
The Côte des Iles, or the Normandy coastline, has beaches, museums and fashion to indulge in. Granville, Dior’s childhood home, has the fabulous Musée et Jardin Christian Dior. Experience the Dior Trail, a walk through the gardens dotted with posts that you flip open to smell perfumes. Also, visit the Agon-Coutainville beach for cafes, bars and its Sunday market. Stroll around the Pointe d”Agon nature reserve and watch the sunset from the lighthouse.
Joan of Arc was burned at the stake here in 1431, and a tall cross marks the spot today. Rouen is full of stunning examples of Gothic architecture: the church of St Maclou and the Aître Saint Maclou, the cemetery that dates back to the Great Plague, as well as the Notre Dame Cathedral, also known as the Rouen Cathedral, immortalised by Monet. The town was favoured by artists and writers; Monet, Marcel Duchamp and Flaubert all worked from here.
If it is picturesque views you’re interested in, head to Dinan and Dinard, two Breton towns, four hours from Paris. Dinard, the seaside town, is full of pretty villas and very trendy restaurants. Visit Chef Didier Méril’s restaurant for excellent seafood. Dinan, in contrast, is a fortress town atop a hill. Stay at the Grand Hôtel Barrière right above the yacht club marina. Plage de L”Ecluse is a busy beach, so head to Plage du Prieuré at the southern end for some quiet time.
If you want a Cote d’Azur-type holiday, head to the French Lake District. The three lakes are distinguished by their colour–Bourget is grey, Annecy is blue, and little Aiguebelette is green. Annecy is fringed by villages, alpine pastures and a beautiful eponymous town that draws the rich and famous. Bourget is more rustic, with vineyards and the beautiful monastery, the Abbey of Hautecombe. Aiguebelette is relatively tiny, but is perfect for a swim and a picnic.
The picturesque town of Arles is tiny, but you will need two days to take in all its sights. Located on the banks of the Rhone, Arles is filled with Roman ruins. The amphitheatre is still used for bullfights; for an even grislier tour visit the Alyscamos necropolis. Arles was a particular favourite of Picasso’s and the Musée Réattu houses many drawings donated by him. Arles also inspired designer Christian Lacroix, and is full of designer bistros and wine bars.
Walking down the cobbled streets of Aix-en-Provence is as romantic as a French romantic film can get. The town is full of leafy avenues, yellow stone 15th- and 17th- century town houses, and beautiful churches, all bathed in sepia at sunset. Add to this Cezanne’s studio and an adventure park, complete with abseiling and a zoo. Provencal life can be quite mellow, as amplified by Thermes Sextius, a divine spa that specialises in Provencal peels with Camargue salt.
Philippe Starck low-cost hotels exist side by side old-school fish bouillabaisse eateries. Marseille’s dramatic limestone fjords must be visited by boat, treks or via a fabulous meal—reserve a table at Le Château de Sormiou for unforgettable views. La Maison du Pastis serves 75 types of pastis and absinthe, and Une Table au Sud challenges you to a bouillabaisse shake, a blend of mascarpone, potatoes, Parmesan, and John Dory slices.
Lyon’s art collection is second only to the one at the Louvre. But its biggest draw is the food–French cuisine was essentially born here! Café des Fédérations is as traditional as it gets. With gingham tablecloths, the family-run restaurant dishes out traditional goodies including boudin noir aux pommes—black sausage poached in wine, served with stewed apples. You may also try the beef tail stew at La Meunière.