10 unique things to do in France
From art and culture to sport and activities, food and drink to festivals, France have such a dizzying range of things to do that it can be hard to pick.
- Eat cheese in the Roquefort caves
Close to Millau, you can visit some of France’s most famous cheeses as they mature in ancient caves. Only cheese that has been aged in a particular set of caves in the town of Roquefort can style itself Roquefort, and visitors can go for a trip around, watch the cheeses slowly maturing, and growing mold in the darkness and then — the best bit — taste it.
2. Take a boat along the Canal du Midi
Of the many stunning bits of France, the southwest Languedoc area is among the most beautiful. Take your time sightseeing by hiring a narrowboat and traveling along the canal, which runs from Toulouse to Narbonne, and stopping off along the way to see local sites, shop at the markets, and sample local delicacies.
3. Drive across the Millau Viaduct
On its completion in 2001, this Norman Foster designed viaduct in the southwest département of Tarn is both stunning to look at and also offers amazing views of the valley as you drive over it. Pullover afterward to take some photos.
4. Visit the Lyon Fête des Lumières
France has lots of festivals so it’s hard to pick just one, but Lyon’s annual festival of lights is really special. Usually held in the first week of December, it sees the town transformed by hundreds of spectacular light installations. Wait until it gets dark, wander the streets with a vin chaud in hand drinking in the sights, and then go for dinner at one of Lyon’s many excellent restaurants (there’s a reason it is considered the foodie capital of France).
5. Get slightly tipsy on a vineyard tour
It seems rude not to see France’s most famous product being made and hundreds of vineyards offer tours of their premises. There are large professional operations with visitor centers, but often tours of smaller vineyards are more fun. Many vineyard owners are extremely passionate about their product and the centuries-old traditions used to make it and are happy to host visitors and then open a couple of bottles. Look out for the sign saying dégustation (tasting).
6. Go snowshoeing in the Alps
Winter sports are of course a big deal in the Alps and Pyrenees, but if you’re not a skier, why not try snowshoeing? Less technical and with less potential for broken bones than skiing, it will nevertheless give you a chance to appreciate the beautiful mountain scenery and work up an appetite for a hearty cheese-based dinner.
7. Loiter in a café
Sometimes things are clichés because they are true, and loitering in a French café, idly people-watching, is one of life’s great pleasures. It’s very much part of French culture, so you can make your €1.50 espresso last as long as you like without anyone hassling you to order more stuff. Visitors to Paris should take note that there is no need to purchase elaborate stationery and pretend to be writing your novel while in a café.
8. Spend the afternoon at a lake
Because France is pretty big, many of the population live too far from the sea to make day trips to the beach possible. But this is not a problem, because in inland areas lakes or even reservoirs have beaches added so you can enjoy an afternoon of sunbathing and swimming. Many have ice cream stalls, cafés, bars, or restaurants for a real seaside experience. The 2013 thriller l’Inconnu du Lac (Stranger by the lake) is set at a lake like these, although most of them have less cruising, nudity, and murder than shown in the film.
9. Climb Montségur
If you’re serious about mountain climbing there are of course the Alps and Pyrenees, but a challenging walk is a climb up the rocks of Montségur to the ruined castle at the top. All sorts of legends swirl around this site. Supposedly the last stand of the Cathar religious sect before all members were massacred, there are also rumors of the Holy Grail and buried treasure, which Nazi leader Heinrich Himmler apparently took time out of World War II to investigate.
10. Cycle the Voie Verte
You could pretend you’re in the Tour de France and cycle on the roads in the mountains, but France has an increasing network of green cycle paths known as Voies Vertes, which are gradually linking up around the country and provide some great off-road cycle routes, often making use of disused railway lines.