A day in Paris should begin in only one way; selecting a fresh croissant from one of the city’s countless bakeries before taking a seat on a street-side terrace and observing the morning bustle from the other side of your espresso cup. Being home to the Louvre, Musée d’Orsay, Centre Pompidou and Monet’s water lilies, you’ll easily fill a day exploring Paris’ art galleries alone, ticking off landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower or the Arc de Triomphe along the way. When the clock strikes one-o’clock, wander to the Marché des Enfants Rouges covered market in the trendy Marais area to stock up on a fresh baguette, creamy camembert and a selection of charcuterie, before finding a quiet spot in the Jardin de Luxembourg to picnic like the locals. In the afternoon, refuel with a delicate macaroon or patisserie from the charming Angelina (www.angelina-paris.fr) – when in the capital, it would be rude not to enjoy a choux pastry paris-brest filled with praline cream. As the evening draws in, end on a high by dining out at one of the city’s many Michelin-starred restaurants, or head to a more informal brasserie for French classics. One of our favourite spots is the beautiful Bouillon Julien (www.bouillon-julien.com) in Strasbourg-Saint-Denis, filled with carved mirrors, painted murals and mahogany furnishings. Start with sizzling escargots in garlic butter followed by steak frites, all washed down with a glass or two of full-bodied red wine.
Stay: For a luxurious break stay in the sophisticated 1st arrondissement at Le Meurice hotel (www.dorchestercollection.com), on the doorstep of the Tuileries Gardens, or book a quirky room at Hotel Crayon Rouge (www.hotelcrayonrouge.com), perfectly located right next door to the Palais Royal.
You can’t talk of French food and drink without mentioning the city of Reims. This is the unofficial capital of the Champagne region, and as such it’s home to many of the most luxurious Champagne houses. Sip and sparkle your way around town, taking cellar tours and Champagne tastings. The impressive Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Reims, where French kings were crowned for more than 1,000 years, is also well worth a visit if you manage to squeeze in some sightseeing between those glasses of bubbles.
Stay: A château retreat seems like the only fitting way to extend the Champagne lifestyle. Our top picks would be the stunning Les Crayères (lescrayeres.com), with its classical French style and two gourmet restaurants, or Le Château de Rilly (www.lechateauderilly.com), which boasts a luxury spa.
Nestled in the northeastern corner of France, the cuisine of Alsace has inevitably been influenced by its close proximity to neighbouring Germany – in fact the regional capital Strasbourg is so close to the German city of Kehl that you can travel there by tram in just 15 minutes. The picture-perfect Maison des Tanneurs (maison-des-tanneurs.com) on Strasbourg’s riverside serves a range of traditional Alsatian dishes at a reasonable price, including perhaps the most famous dish of the region, choucroute garnie – sauerkraut, or fermented cabbage, eaten with knacks (a sausage typical of the region), smoked pork or back bacon and boiled potatoes. Flammekeuche is another popular dish, which is composed of pizza-like dough topped with crème fraîche, sliced onions and lardons. But a trip to Alsace wouldn’t be the same without sampling two of the regions specialties; Munster and foie gras. Alsations are partial to a good strong Munster cheese from La Cloche à Fromage (www.fromagerie-tourrette.com) with an odour that’ll take over your fridge, whilst the controversial production of foie gras is a long-standing tradition that has taken place in the region for hundreds of years.
Stay: In the centre of Strasbourg’s old town, Hotel Hannong (www.hotel-hannong.com) is perfectly situated for exploring the city before returning to its chic wine bar. But if you have a hire car, venture further afield and stay in the Bluets et Brimbelles B&B (www.bluetsetbrimbelles.fr). This cosy retreat in the mountains boasts beautiful gardens, a sun terrace and breakfast prepared by a trained patisserie chef.
Head south to Lyon, which rivals Paris as the foodie capital of the country. There’s a thriving restaurant scene here, bringing in a number of world-class eateries including the three-Michelin starred Paul Bocuse Restaurant (www.bocuse.fr) – you won’t miss this iconic auberge, with its bright façade and Baroque features. The city’s indoor central market is at the heart of this region’s haute cuisine. Rather than a place for everyday shopping, expect your picnic to consist of fine wine, handmade chocolates and local delicacies, which all come at a price but are worth every cent. Whilst in town, head to a typical Lyonnaise ‘bouchon’ restaurant such as the uber-authentic Café Comptoir Abel (www.cafecomptoirabel.com), which may not look very spectacular from the outside, but serves the most delicious menu of quality homemade dishes. Here you can try all the region’s traditional specialities, including quenelles de brochet (pike mousse fishcake in crayfish sauce), andouillette (pork sausage), cervelle de canut (a herby cheese dip) and rosette de Lyon (cured pork salami).
Stay: Embrace Lyon’s modern vibrancy with a stay at Mama Shelter (www.mamashelter.com). This quirky hotel is full of eclectic décor and the hottest new gadgets. Each room is different and as fun as the last, but the ‘XL Mama’ penthouse is our favourite, featuring a terrace, iMac and free coffee.
If you’re after sunshine and seafood, this is the destination for you. Head to the coast and feel the sand beneath your toes, soak up the rays and enjoy a chilled glass of rosé. Mediterranean herbs, fruits and vegetables are found on the menus in abundance here, alongside quality olive oil and heaps of garlic. In Marseille, visit the impressive Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde before buying fresh seafood from the daily catch landed at the Old Port, or try bouillabaisse, a classic Provencal fish soup served throughout the city in restaurants like Chez Madie Les Galinettes (www.madielesgalinettes.com). A couple of hours drive along the coast, Nice is the place to try a proper salade nicoise, packed with fresh greens, tomatoes, anchovies and boiled eggs, or choose an authentic Mediterranean ratatouille, made from the best of the region’s pantry. Alternatively, for a more refined dining experience, head to the two-Michelin starred Restaurant Le Chantecler based in the 18th century Le Nagresco hotel (www.hotel-negresco-nice.com).
Stay: Make the most of the sunshine with your own private villa and pool. For a really special stay, Les Beaux de Provence Villa (www.onlyprovence.com) near St Remy de Provence offers a luxurious six-bedroom base from which to explore the region.
Brittany is one of our favourite destinations in France, and travelling northwards along the west coast is stunning. We’d recommend a quick stop-off at the coastal town of Pornic or the island of Noirmoutier. Both remain under the radar to most Brits abroad, so you can get a real sense of French maritime culture here. When you reach Brittany, the best way to explore is on foot. Follow coastal paths, stroll along white sand beaches or wander through the bustling streets of the region’s capital, Rennes. Visit beautiful Breton towns; Fougères is home to a fairytale castle, Brest boasts one of France’s most picturesque natural harbours, whilst Dinan’s half-timbered houses and cobbled streets are full of charm. The region makes the most of the coast in its cuisine – here you’ll find the most delicious oysters and scallops. Right by the port in Quiberon, La Criée (www.maisonlucas.com) is a homely little restaurant which serves the freshest fish, cooked to perfection. Whilst you’re in Brittany, look out for the famous salted Breton butter, or head to a café to try traditional savoury galettes made from buckwheat flour.
Stay: Our favourite way to explore Brittany is to pitch up our tents and camp, enjoying the ultimate freedom of being able to come and go as you please. But if you’re looking for more of a glamping experience, Le Ty Nadan campsite (www.irisparc.co.uk/camping-le-ty-nadan) in Southern Brittany is home to a spa, multiple swimming pools and kevells – floating accommodation on the lake, with canoes moored to the terrace.
On the banks of the River Garonne, Toulouse is also known as la Ville Rose, due to the pinkish hue of the terracotta bricks which form the city’s unique architecture. Rich history is blended with modernity, as this university city is now the dynamic metropolitan hub of the Occitania region. After exploring, refuel in one of the many terrace cafés – you’re in the perfect place to try cassoulet, a rich slow-cooked comfort food made from Toulouse sausage, white beans and local wine. Alternatively, if you fancy a culinary treat, head to one of 11 Michelin-starred restaurants. Our favourite is the Michel Sarran Restaurant (www.michel-sarran.com), which holds two Michelin stars – try the seven-course ‘surprise’ menu for an unforgettable dining experience. Continue on northwards to Bordeaux to finish this section of your adventure on a high. Fertile soils make this the perfect spot to grow world-renowned grapes. Taste the region’s abundant harvest by booking a wine-tasting experience in a grand chateau – we’d recommend the impressive Château Margaux (www.chateau-margaux.com) to taste some of the best wines in the region.
Stay: When in Toulouse stay in the Hôtel des Beaux Arts (www.hoteldesbeauxarts.com) for modern luxury and exceptional views of the river. Whilst a wine tour of Bordeaux works best with the flexibility of self-catering accommodation. L’Autre Vie villa (www.autre-vie.com) is located in a hilltop vineyard and offers guests the exclusive use of the house, gardens and swimming pool.