19 things you should do in France at least once

19 things you should do in France at least once
Photo: Denis Charlet/AFP
From art and culture to sport and activities, food and drink to festivals, France has such a dizzying range of things to do that it can be hard to pick. Here's a selection of personal favourites that French residents or visitors to France really should try.

1. Go to a match at the Stade de France

Whether you’re into football or rugby, an international match at Paris’ 80,000 capacity Stade de France is an experience to remember. It’s a great venue and you’ve only really heard La Marseillaise properly when you’ve heard it being roared at regular intervals by tens of thousands of sports fans. Will make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.

2. Drive across the Millau Viaduct
 
This Norman Foster designed viaduct in the south west département of Tarn is both stunning to look at and also offers amazing views of the valley as you drive over it. Pull over afterwards to take some photos.

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Photo by PASCAL PAVANI / AFP
 
3. 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 mould in the darkness and then – the best bit – taste it.
 
4. 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 centres, 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).
 

The Cathar castle of Montségur perched on the “Pog” rock. Photo by PASCAL PAVANI / AFP
 
5. Climb Montségur
 
If you’re serious about mountain climbing there are of course the Alps and Pyrenees, but a challenging walk is the 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 rumours of the Holy Grail and buried treasure, which Nazi leader Heinrich Himmler apparently took time out of World War II to investigate.
 
6. Take a boat along the Canal du Midi 
 
Of the many stunning bits of France, the south west Languedoc area is among the most beautiful. Take your time sightseeing by hiring a narrowboat and travelling 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.
 
7. 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).
 

Lyon Fete des Lumieres. Photo by PHILIPPE DESMAZES / AFP
 
8. Go to Alsace for a Christmas market
 
Thanks to the German influence on its history and culture, France’s historic Alsace-Lorraine regions really do the best Christmas in France. Strasbourg’s Christmas market is the biggest and the most famous, but lots of neighbouring smaller towns such as Colmar and Mulhouse do their own markets full of gift stalls, vin chaud and gingerbread. Guaranteed to get you into the festive spirit.
 
9. 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. 
 
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.
 
 
11. Run a marathon while drinking wine
 
Serious runners might head to Paris for the marathon, but a lot more fun is the Marathon du Médoc. The route takes you through vineyards and there are 23 official stops for wine-tasting, plus oysters on offer towards the end. One for those with strong stomachs.
 
12. Picnic in white
 
Picnics in France are generally a bit more fancy than a few ham sandwiches and a bag of crisps, but none are posher than the Diner en Blanc, which takes place in Paris every year. The pop-up picnic takes place at a secret location in the city which is only revealed at the last minute. Picnic-goers take their own furniture and are asked to wear only white for the event, which in 2018 drew 17,000 people.
 
 
13. Play a game of pétanque
 
Despite its image as a game for old men, pétanque actually has a wide following and pretty much every town and village has a pétanque court. If you are of a competitive nature there are proper tournaments where people play the sport to a high level. If you’re less of an elite athlete, the traditional drink that goes with pétanque is pastis.
 

The Diner en Blanc. Photo by DOMINIQUE FAGET / AFP
 
14. Watch a water jousting tournament
 
Head to Sète in south west France to watch the ancient sport of water jousting. Basically, two teams paddle boats towards each other and players try to knock opponents off the boat using long sticks. Expect lots of shouting and splashing.
 
15. Check out the firemen’s balls
 
Every year on the July 14th Fête nationale, fire stations around France open up their doors to the public and host a bal des pompiers (firemen’s ball). These range from family-friendly entertainment to slightly more raunchy events where the firefighters show off exactly what all those hours of training do to the human physique.
 
 
16. 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.
 
17. Melt raclette
 
Fondue is the more famous winter cheese dish, but raclette is more fun. Assemble a selection of potatoes, charcuterie and pickles and then melt the cheese on a grill or heat lamp before drizzling over your food. Accompany with white wine, as legend has it that drinking water with melted cheese dishes like fondue or raclette can be fatal. (That’s legend, not actual medical science).
 
 
18. 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.
 
19. Take part in a slightly weird tradition
 
France has lots of festivals and key calendar dates that come with their own specific traditions. To foreigners these can seem slightly odd, but it’s fun to get involved, so go ahead and leave a crêpe on a wardrobe (la chandeleur), sit under the table and slice the bean cake (galette des rois), or buy lily-of-the-valley from a trade unionist (May Day).
 
What would you put on your list of must-do experiences in France? Share your ideas at [email protected] or in the comments below.

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