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21 things you should do in France at least once

Emma Pearson
Emma Pearson - [email protected]
21 things you should do in France at least once
Water jousting in the French southern city of Sète. Photo by PASCAL GUYOT / 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.

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1. Go to France's biggest farm show

The Salon de l'Agriculture, held every year in Paris in late February/early March, is a key part of the French political calendar but it's also a great day out.

The huge show features prize-winning cattle, sheep, pigs, goats and donkeys from all over France plus a dizzying array of local food and drink specialities (with free tasters on offer).

It lasts for 10 days and usually the first weekend is the time to spot a politician petting cows and pretending to be 'of the people', the mid-week is when the serious judging of the agricultural classes is done and the final weekend is when the farmers let their hair down and things get distinctly convivial. 

5 things to know about France's most famous farm show

2. 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.

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3. 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 (if safe to do so) to take some photos.

4. 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.

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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 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).

9 tips for enjoying a French vineyard tour

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6. 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.

7. 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.

8. 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.

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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 expensive 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.

READ ALSO Vineyards to canals - 7 of the best cycle routes in France

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.

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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. Visit the Fête de l'Humanité

The largest left-wing festival in Europe - attracting about 400,000 people every year - the Fête de l'Humanité brings together serious events like book-readings, Q&As with politicians and workshops with a massive festival of music and food.

The three-day September event always has lots of good bands but the real secret is the food - regional communist parties from all over France have stands and they lure the punters by offering the best of their local food and drink. Always popular are the Champagne Communists (by which we mean the Communist party of the Champagne region) with their €4 glasses of the local tipple.

It attracts a broad spectrum from the political left, most of whom are just there to have a good time, so creates a great atmosphere.

14. 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.

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.

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16. 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.

Discover France's best inland beaches

17. Visit the Lyon Fête des Lumières

France has lots of festivals so it's hard to choose, 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).

18. Go to Alsace for a Christmas market

Thanks to the German influence on its history and culture, the historic Alsace-Lorraine regions in the north-east 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.

19. 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).

READ ALSO Rules of raclette - how to make the cheesy French classic

20. 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 (and more accessible if the pistes are closed) it will nevertheless give you a chance to appreciate the beautiful mountain scenery and work up an appetite for a hearty cheese-based dinner.

21. 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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Comments (7)

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Bru WHITHAM 2024/02/26 11:44
How about Carnival in Nice. Or the Lemon Festival in Menton
WILLIAM 2024/02/23 07:51
Rent a medeval castle with your friends in the off season. Yes, it is affordable if you know where to look and you will be warm with modern convieniences and fireplaces.
John 2024/02/22 21:30
Will The Local be providing daily coverage of the Salon de l'Agriculture?
  • Emma Pearson 2024/02/23 08:23
    Not quite daily, but we'll certainly be picking up anything interesting that happens this year
James Seaward 2024/02/22 17:40
Register a vehicle imported from the UK. The sense of achievement when/if eventually successful is truly cathartic.
Anonymous 2022/11/24 20:52
Visit the Marché Provençal in Antibes ( every morning until 1pm). Enjoy the noise and bustle whilst discovering a bewildering variety of fruit and vegetables sold without fuss by local farmers, or honey straight from the beekeeper’s stall ( Saturday mornings only). And whilst enjoying the colourful displays expect to be assailed by the strong scents of the Riviera :lavender, soaps, herbs, spices etc…once you’ve managed to extract yourself from the market do walk up a few yards to the city walls directly overlooking the sea. With views of the distant chain of the Alps at one end and the pine covered peninsula jotting out into the sea at the other you may find it quite difficult to leave….
Anonymous 2022/11/24 17:21
Visit the Very Excellent (and free!) “Capitales” Art Urbain (street art) exhibit at Hotel de Ville in Paris before it closes. Download the Flash Invader app and start “capturing” Franck Slava’s 4,067 (& counting) “Invader” mosaic urban art installations (in 80 cities worldwide, mostly in Paris but plenty in London! A great excuse for flaneuring to all parts of Paris & other towns!
Anonymous 2021/07/10 12:56
After driving across the Millau viaduct, overfly it in a gyrocopter. Fantastic experience. https://www.dailymotion.com/video/xn512k

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