France sits in the middle of Western Europe and also at the center of many tourists' wish lists when visiting the continent. You can spend several lifetimes seeing the sights of Paris, lounging on Riviera beaches or wandering the battlefields of Normandy. To narrow down your trip to the span of your vacation time off, focus on your top reasons for visiting the country.
Though French villages may have Internet access, ATMs and cell phone service, many still retain their historic architecture, gorgeous views and quiet pace of life. Mont-Saint-Michel (ot-montsaintmichel.com), just off the northern coast of Normandy, is an island surrounded by mudflats and connected to the mainland by a causeway. A sand-colored medieval town spirals around it until it reaches the abbey at the top, which is crowned by a spire. Strasbourg (otstrasbourg.fr), in eastern Alsace-Lorraine, combines a Shakespearean set dominated by half-timbered structures with a glam Hollywood movie through its modern glass buildings. And Aix-en-Provence (en.aixenprovencetourism.com), in the southern sun of Provence, offers people-watching in its many fountains and squares.
The delightful things you've heard about French cuisine are all true: Sauces, cheeses, bread, champagne, pastries -- there's no end to what you can sample and where to enjoy it. If it's a beautiful day, start with a café, which you'll recognize by the rows of tables and chairs clustered outside its doors. A village may have only one, while large cities have one every few meters. A cup of coffee entitles you to sit and watch the passing parade for hours. In fact, you may have to nag a waiter to bring you a bill. If you want to see a dish before you eat it, head for a street market. (Ask a local on what day it sets up.) Buy some cheese, fruit, wine and chocolate, and picnic at a nearby park or bench. If you're charming, the stall owner may let you sample the goods before you make a commitment. And you'll find the epitome of French cuisine in its bistros, brasseries and restaurants. If you can't read the French menu, ask for the "plat du jour" (plate of the day), which will serve the eatery's specialties at the best prices.
Impressionism is just one art form that blossomed in France, more so under the hand of one of its masters, Claude Monet. Pay homage to the Giverny house and gardens (giverny.org), which formed the subjects of many of his paintings. If you prefer more modern work, cities on the Riviera boast several collections. Try the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Nice (mamac-nice.org). And the Louvre (louvre.fr), as arguably the best art museum in the world, celebrates paintings and sculpture from all of Europe. Buy a Paris Museum Pass (en.parismuseumpass.com), so you can digest this history of beauty in small chunks over several days.
The French countryside is littered with castles, many with similar crenellations, towers and ancestral portraits. But only one Palace of Versailles (en.chateauversailles.fr) exists, which is also covered by the Museum Pass. This monument to excess reached its height under Louis XVI and his wife Marie-Antoinette, and it seems that the thousands who crowd its halls are equal to the numbers that populated their court. After marveling at the gold and crystal and tapestries, you can retreat to the expansive gardens, where isolated groves can shield you from visitors. Or trek toward Marie's Norman village at the other end of the grounds, where she pretended to be a milkmaid amid faux farmer's huts.