by Telegraph Travel's France experts, The Daily Telegraph, January 10, 2017
How to book the best French cultural holiday, with advice on châteaux, historical sites, and festivals, our experts' favourite places to visit, and the best tour operators. By Telegraph Travel's France experts.
France is so full of culture that it's a wonder there's room for anything else. And the French look after it with exceptional zeal. There are few walls over five years old which lack a preservation order. So there are choices to be made, whether you're on a wholly cultural break, or merely require a bit of culture to elevate an otherwise idle holiday.
For pre-history, you need the Lot or the Dordogne and, especially, the Vézère valley, which late Palaeolithic man found a particularly des res.. The museum in Les Eyzies has the story, the Font-de-Gaume cave the most moving wall art. Later, the Romans were all over the place, but I'd head south for the great arenas of Nîmes and Arles (where they're still spilling blood, in bull-fights), and the nearby Pont-du-Gard, the ancient world's finest aqueduct astoundingly intact.
Fans of medieval times will be looking for the magnificent Gothic cathedrals - Reims, Rouen, Beauvais, Chartres, the biggest of the lot at Amiens and, naturally, Notre-Dame in Paris. But they should also divert to one of France's most fascinating historical sites: Guédelon at Treigny in northern Burgundy ( guedelon.fr ). Here stout folk are recreating a 13th-century castle using only 13th-century methods.
The Loire châteaux are maybe the greatest collection of Renaissance buildings anywhere. But do read up a bit before going, and don't over-do it: two châteaux a day, max. Otherwise, monumental stone will overwhelm you. The 17th-century - France's Grand Siècle - starred Louis XIV, rigidly formal gardens and the unsurpassed Palace of Versailles. (Go off-season; in July and August, the crowds are suffocating.)
Such ancien régime excesses led to the French revolution. Essentially, a Parisianrevolution, this may be tackled, first, by visiting the Musée Carnavalet - Paris' history museum ( carnavalet.paris.fr ) - and then by a revolution-themed walking tour. Try the British-owned Paris Walks ( paris-walks.com ). The 19th-century had the Impressionists capturing movement and light in Paris, the Ile-de-France and Normandy. Alongside the Orangerie ( musee-orangerie.fr ) and Musée d’Orsay ( musee-orsay.fr ) in the capital, don't ignore the Fine Arts Museums in Caen, Rouen, and Le Havre.
Modern artists – Matisse, Picasso, Léger, Cocteau - headed south, for the light, and the flexible morality. You’ll find them in eponymous museums in, respectively, Nice, Antibes, Biot and Menton. Meanwhile, contemporary art gathers, of course, at the Parisian Pompidou centre – which now has a branch at Metz ( centre-pompidou-metz.fr ), just as the Louvre has a brand new outpost in the old mining centre of Lens ( louvrelens.fr ). This latter works brilliantly, allowing an overview of world art in two hours – rather than the two decades it would take to bottom the main collections in Paris.
Meanwhile, there is scarcely a village or town in France which doesn’t have a festival. Headliners abound – theatre in Avignon (which becomes Edinburgh-on-Rhône for the month of July), opera in Aix, cinema in Cannes, rock with the Vieilles Charrues at Carhaix – but hundreds of smaller events may be as rewarding: jazz in Marciac in Gascony, contemporary dance in Montpellier or piano at La Roque d’Anthéron. For an indication of what’s available, look at leguidedesfestivals.com .
On a practical note, many national museums are free on the first Sunday of each month – and cities have their own policies for their own, municipal museums. In Nice, for instance, they’re all free full-time. Across France, national museums like the Louvre tend to shut every Tuesday. Others close on Mondays.
Most cities and/or regions also have museum or culture passes. These require a certain amount of fine calculation, depending on how many sites you intend to see. The Paris Museum Pass, for instance, costs €39 for two days (€54 for four, €69 for six; parismuseumpass.com ). Typically, you’ll justify the two-day pass if you visit four sites – say, the Louvre, Musée d’Orsay, Arc de Triomphe and Pompidou Centre. The pass also gets you to the head of the queue, which is no mean advantage.
Tour operators offering cultural holidays in France
Most of these tours are led by experts, and in relatively small groups.
ACE Cultural Tours (01223 841055; aceculturaltours.co.uk ) Themed on art, architecture and history.
Andante Travels (01722 713800; andantetravels.co.uk ) Archaeology specialist, with new Hidden Paris and Languedoc Cathars & Crusaders tours.
JMB Travel (01242 220394; jmb-travel.co.uk ) Arranges visits to the Aix music festival and Paris opera.
The Musée d'Orsay had a wonderful rehangCredit: Alamy
Leger holidays (0844 504 6251; visitbattlefields.co.uk )
The leading battlefields specialist, with a number of new World War One and World War Two tours in 2015, including the use of tanks and special forces in Normandy.
Kirker Holidays (020 7593 1899; kirkerholidays.com ) Art on the French Riviera and Gardens of the Côte d’Azur tours are new.
Martin Randall Travel (020 8742 3355; martinrandall.com ) 17 learned, upmarket tours to France in 2015, covering history, architecture, art, gardens, ballet, music.
RHS Garden Holidays (0800 804 8710; worldwide.rhsgardenholidays.com ) A "Gardens of the Loire" tour.
This article was written by Telegraph Travel's France experts from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.