France in Winter: 10 Places to visit when it is cold

It may be cold in France in winter, but it is the perfect time to visit. With lots of Christmas markets and attractions, here are the best things to do.
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“Grey skies are going to clear up, put on a happy face!” It is very grey and dreary in Paris ate the moment. I think the Weather channel said something like there have been 4 minutes of sunshine since Jan 1 across much of the country. (Ok maybe I’m exaggerating, but it feels like it.)

That is winter in the Northern Hemisphere for you. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t actually the perfect time to visit France and travel around the glorious City of Lights.

Journée pluvieuse, journée heureuse.

English Translation: Rainy day, happy day

In the summer, everyone (including the French) is on the grandes vacances and cities turn into empty museums. It is in winter that France comes to life. There is a very specific rhythm of life as per the calendar that the country follows, and it is in winter that streets are buzzing with locals, and the daily french lifestyle is in action.

I won’t sugarcoat things though. the weather is cold across much of continental France in winter. As a visitor, you will be walking around more than you would in your daily routine, so a warm winter jacket, scarf, hats, and gloves are advisable.

Nevertheless, the country’s top tourist attractions will be waiting, without the usual crowds, ready to welcome you into their warmth. So let’s find out where to go shall we? Allons-y!

☞ READ MORE: French Winter dishes: 8 Recipes to warm you up

1. Paris – City of Lights

Some places are very cold but have bright sunshine. The coldest I’ve ever experienced in Paris is around -5C (23F). Usually, average temperatures in Paris hover around +5C to 10C (41-50F).

On the other hand, the city is usually under cloud cover in winter. It doesn’t snow very often in Paris, but it does rain a lot so I would recommend bringing a warm pair of waterproof boots.

French christmas traditions - Galerie Lafayette in Paris

Regardless of the cold, as you can imagine, the City of Lights kicks it up a notch starting in November for the Christmas season. With decorations around the Champs Elysées and every restaurant serving vin chaud and other winter dishes, it may be cold outside but it will certainly warm your heart. (There is non-alcoholic vin chaud, but you likely won’t find that in a restaurant.)

As a tourist, you will enjoy having the city’s main attractions all to yourself. Forget elbowing your neighbour to get a closer look at the Mona Lisa, museums like the Louvre and Palace of Versailles are a whole lot less crowded in winter.

After Christmas, the lights come down but the buzz continues. There is that other great event on the horizon: Valentine’s day in the City of Love.

And if you enjoy ice-skating, there are several small rinks that open across the city, including on the 1st floor the Eiffel Tower, in Grand Palais and Galerie Lafayette. You can read more about things to do in Paris in Winter here.

2. Strasbourg – Christmas Markets

Paris has some lovely Christmas markets, but it is Strasbourg that has the loveliest in all of France. Tourists from all over the world flock to Strasbourg and Alsace over the holiday period to indulge in a few traditions. Here the traditional Christmas meal might include sausage and saukerkraut, but that is just part of the charm.

Old town in Stratford in Alsace, France

And there is plenty to do here while you are humming a few Christmas songs, from visiting Petit France to boating on the Rhine, and visiting the European Parliament, there is something for everyone.

You can also visit nearby Colmar and travel along the famous Alsacian Wine Route. Don’t forget to make a stop at Riquewihr and Ribeauvillé, while you are at it!

In terms of weather, there is not a lot of snow around Strasbourg in Alsace, though when it does, all havoc tends to break loose if you are getting around by car.

A couple of inches of snow and there tends to be complete panic where everyone forgets how to drive. French cars do not change into winter tires, and so are usually unequipped to deal with snow. (I speak in my professional opinion as a Canadian 😉 You can read more about things to do in Strasbourg here.

3. Lyon – Festival of Lights

Lyon, in the center of the country, is like Paris but a bit warmer and has the benefit of being close to the mountains if you enjoy skiing (more on that later.)

Fresque des Lyonnais
Fresque des Lyonnais

But the big event on the calendar in Lyon is the Fête des Lumières (festival of lights). During the first week of December, lights will be projected on buildings across the city after sunset. Street parties and parades are held all throughout the week, attracting visitors from all over France.

Even if you are not in Lyon during the festival, there is plenty to do in Lyon in winter and other times of the year. From its beautiful fresques, old town center and roman amphitheater, the city has plenty of offer.

And then there is the food. There is a reason that Lyon in Savoy is considered the gastronomical capital of the world.

Don’t forget to try a quenelle and a tartiflette, and wash it down with some local Beaujolais Nouveau wine for some serious comfort food. And don’t forget to save some room for some Savoy cheeses! You can read more about things to do in Lyon here.

4. Annecy – Charm by the lake

Next to the French Alps on Lake Annecy, is the charming town of Annecy. This beautiful city on the water is known as the “Venise of the Alps”. The city lights up over the winter, and becomes even more spectacular, if that was possible.

Annecy by the water
Palais de l’Isle and Old Town Annecy

With a lovely Old Town, take a walk by the Pont des Amours (lovers’ bridge) and take it all in. Visit Chateau in Annecy and pick up a few items at the local market.

With festive lights, ice-skating, exhibitions and hand made local goods, this is the quintessential version of winter in Europe. You can read more about things to do in Annecy here.

5. Bourg St. Maurice – Skiing

From the foot of the French Alps in Annecy, into its heart at Bourg St. Maurice. The gateway to the French Alps, this small town has several internationally renowned ski stations in its vicinity, such as Les Arcs in Paradiski and Val d’Isere in Espace Killy.

Bourg St Maurice ski mountains in the French Alps

In winter, high-speed TGV trains from Paris, London, Amsterdam, and other major European cities carry skiers and other winter sports aficionados to Bourg St. Maurice.

IF you can, try to avoid going skiing doing the school holidays as the slopes do get quite crowded. You can read more about Bourg St. Maurice and the top ski resorts in France here.

6. Nice – Carnival

You might think that the French Riviera would have a bit of sun, but in Nice average temperatures range between 9-14C° (49-57F°). As an aside, did you know that Toronto, Canada is actually more south than Nice? 

  • London – 51°
  • Paris – 48°
  • Monaco – 44°
  • Toronto – 43°
  • Nice – 43°
  • Boston – 42°
  • New York – 40°
  • Madrid – 40°

While the weather in Nice in winter will be nicer than Toronto, I have to honestly point out that Nice is not south enough to bring your swimsuit, (unless you are swimming in an indoor pool).

Nice

Luckily for us, there are other things to do in Nice in winter, top of the list being the famous Carnival de Nice which is held over two weeks in February. With several parades on the city’s boardwalk Promenade des Anglais, this is one of the top carnivals in the world. You can read more about visiting Nice here.

Briançon in the French Alps

7. Briançon – Mountain Charm

While Bourg St. Maurice in the Northern Alps is a cute little town, it is Briançon in the Southern Alps that has the historical charm.

Set high in the mountains, this UNESCO World Heritage site is surrounded by old forts high in the mountains. The walled citadel is filled with cobblestone streets and old-world charm. Nearby are the ski resort villages of Serre Chevalier which are themselves UNESCO world heritage sites.

With excellent ski facilities and natural thermal waters, Briançon in Serre Chevalier is a wonderful destination for a winter holiday. You can read more about Briançon here.

8. Provence – Spas

Just as Nice on the French Riviera is not very warm, Marseille on the Mediterranean also goes through a weather phenomenon known as “the mistral“.

It is basically a corridor of wind, that is freezing and can be quite violent. (I made the mistake of not taking my Canada-issued winter jacket to Provence one year, and deeply regretted it.)

Vieux Port Marseille in Provence

Nonetheless, winter is an excellent time to visit Marseille and travel around Provence. In summer, the heat can be stifling at over +35C° (95F°), especially since there is little air-conditioning in France.

In winter, you can happily visit the best the city has to offer, and even take in a football match at Olympique de Marseille’s famous Velodrome stadium.

And why not visit some of the nearby natural thermal spas in Aix-en-Provence and Gréoux-les-Bains that are less than an hour away? You can read more about Marseille and Visiting Provence here.

9. Loire Valley – Châteaux

You may not necessarily think about visiting the Loire Valley in winter, but what better time than when the summer tourists are away? The formerly royal city of Amboise is a great base, having hosted everyone from Mary Queen of Scots, Ann Boelyn, and François I.

Chateau at Amboise in the Loire valley, France
Panoramic view of the Chateau at Amboise in the Loire valley, France

And of course, you cannot forget the grandmaster Leonardo Da Vinci who spent his last years here and is buried in a local chapel.

You can visit several châteaux in the area, including Chateau d’Amboise, Clos Lucé and Château de Chenonceau.

Prices tend to be lower in the winter, so why not splurge and stay at a nearby private Chatêau yourself. You can read more about visiting Amboise here.

10. Saint-Malo – High Tides

Winter may not be beach weather, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take a trip out to Saint-Malo. Located on the coast of Brittany (Bretagne), this fortress city used to be a haven for pirates and explorers headed to the New World to find their fortune.

Saint Malo on the coast of France

This historical town was the home of Jacques Cartier and an important base during WW2. From the ramparts, you can watch the high winter tides flow in and out for miles, turning nearby forts into islands.

In addition, about an hour away is UNESCO heritage site Mont Saint Michel, the rocky island where archangel Michael is said to have appeared. With pilgrims and tourists crowding its narrow alleys in the summer, you will be able to enjoy this beautiful marvel all by yourself in winter. You can read more about visiting Saint-Malo here.

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So where will you be headed this winter? Any favorites? To hear more about France, read my article on France facts here. Enjoy your travels! A bientôt!

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