France is decidedly beautiful any time of year, but there are definite benefits to planning your next vacation to the City of Lights or the Côte d’Azur in the off-season. Mild weather throughout France makes even the winters accessible, and you’ll be able to experience more of what life in France is really like. In addition to the landmarks of France that we highlight below, be sure to download our top restaurant picks for each of these destinations at the end of this post.
The City of Lights can be much more fun in the off-season — fewer tourists mean you may not have to wait in line to ride to the top of the Eiffel Tower, delight in the stained glass and awesome architecture of Notre Dame or feast your eyes on the Louvre’s famous Mona Lisa. If the weather isn’t cooperating, well, just duck inside one of the ubiquitous cafés for a croissant and hot drink or one of its 130 museums!
Shopping the Sales
Laws surrounding when shops can create and advertise sales are a little more strict in France, and the result is a six-week season of sales that kicks off in early January. If your dream is to shop Paris’ boutiques and delight in finding an amazing deal on a great suit or fashion accessory, you need to visit the city in January.
Do you love vintage cars? Each February for more than 40 years, the Rétromobile fair has attracted as many as 100,000 car enthusiasts. You can see more than 500 vehicles, along with exhibitors selling parts, artwork and other car-related goods.
Starting in mid- to late November, Christmas markets spring up with artisan crafts and decorations. The Champs-Élysées Christmas market is the most well known and, as it runs for more than a mile, one of the largest; another market worth visiting is set up outside the Notre Dame cathedral. While you’re perusing the offerings, be sure to take in the Christmas lights that illuminate famous landmarks and common shops alike.
Even in winter, Nice’s location on the Côte d’Azur means its temperatures stay moderate, averaging in the mid-50s. Nice has been a resort town ever since it was founded by the Greeks centuries ago; celebrities and artists have long made it their year-round base. As an art lover, you’ll want to stop by museums dedicated to Matisse and to Chagall.
Indoor Christmas Park
During three weeks in December, an adventure park that’s entirely indoors opens in Nice’s Luna Park. Ideal for people watching with attendance numbers averaging 200,000 over the event, the park also offers rides for people of all ages set in a Christmas theme.
Monte Carlo Rally
This famed road race takes place in late January, and has been a fixture of the French Riviera since Prince Albert of Monaco started it more than 100 years ago. Spectators can observe from many points along the route, including Monaco (just east of Nice) and the steep hills of the Alpes-Maritimes to the north. Following the Monte Carlo Rally, an additional race featuring vintage cars takes place.
From Nice east to nearby Menton, the French Riviera celebrates the lemon each February. Parades, concerts and fireworks mark the occasion.
As the gastronomic capital of the country, Lyon may appeal to food and wine enthusiasts more than any other city in France. Its Old City with cobblestone streets is home to one of Europe’s largest intact Renaissance districts, the Vieux Lyon, where you can explore via traboules, or small passageways that weave through structures to quickly link the streets. Plus, Lyon is a perfect base for trips to explore the Alps and enjoy winter sports.
Musee des Beaux-Arts
Housed in an elaborate former Benedictine convent, the Musee des Beaux-Arts or Museum of Fine Arts is one of the largest outside the Louvre itself. Displays that cover everything from Egyptian antiquities to modern works mean you can spend hours here. Look for special exhibitions held during off-season months.
Fête des Lumières
The Festival of Lights is held in December and pays homage to the Virgin Mary. Residents light candles in their windows and light shows play out over some of the city’s most famed monuments, including the Cathédrale St-Jean.
Called the “capital of Alsatian wine,” the town of Colmar sits near Germany and Switzerland, along the 110-mile Alsatian Wine Route that winds through the region’s vineyards and wine production facilities. As such, it’s a great base for your trip to explore wineries, many of which hold tastings throughout the off-season. Its scenic Old Town, located on a canal, is well preserved and fun to explore.
Once a Dominican convent, the Unterlinden Museum houses the stunning Isenheim Altarpiece created by Matthias Grünewald in the 1500s as well as many more works of medieval and early Renaissance art. Newly remodeled to double its available space, the museum hosts several off-season exhibitions. Christmas Markets
Colmar’s picturesque Christmas Markets — yes, there are five markets, including one for children — are considered the best in Europe. While you shop along the fairy-tale like streets, you can sip mulled wine or snack on a tarte flambée.
Bayeux has a storied history since its founding in Roman times. More recently, as the first city to be liberated in the Battle of Normandy, the city has many ties to World War II history, including a sombre war cemetery. It also houses the centuries-old Bayeux Tapestry, with more than 50 embroidered scenes depicting the Norman conquest of England.
William the Conqueror oversaw the consecration of the original cathedral in the 11th century, and the magnificent Norman-Gothic building still wows visitors to this day. Come in December, when a sound and light show known as the “Rendez-vous à la Cathédrale” impresses locals and visitors.
International Circus Festival
Every other year in early March, Bayeux hosts an extravaganza devoted to the circus arts. Thousands come to watch the acrobatic feats and animal acts that are the best in the world.