Imagine France, and you probably picture a few key sights that you want to see — the Eiffel Tower, the gardens of Versailles, the abbey of Mont St-Michel rising from the mist. But France is a place best explored with all your senses, not just your eyes.
In this slideshow, we leave the big “sights” to the guidebooks and offer instead nine experiences that appeal to your four less appreciated senses, such as making your own perfume, listening to live music, walking through a chilly ice cave and sampling locally grown honey. Read on to discover how to enjoy France the way it’s meant to be experienced — as a feast for all five senses.
1. Stroll or Bike Through a Lavender Field
Is there any place that smells more intoxicating than Provence in the summer, when a fragrant carpet of lavender blooms across the fields? Called the Routes de la Lavande, or Lavender Routes, the roads where lavender grows range from Provence into the French Alps. (See Move Your Alps for maps and ideas.)
While the easiest way to get around is with a rental car, you might want to consider biking or hiking through the area so you can breathe in the heady scent more fully. (Hint: An e-bike can help with the hills!) DiscoverFrance.com, BikeTours.com and Backroads.com are among the companies offering active tour options.
2. Shiver in an Ice Cave
Maybe you’ve seen a glacier or even walked on one, but have you ever stepped inside one? You can do just that in Chamonix at France’s largest glacier, the Mer de Glace, where a small but spectacular cave has been carved into the ice.
To get there, you’ll need to take a scenic three-mile train trip from Chamonix, followed by a gondola ride to the glacier. It’s approximately 400 steps down from there to the cave. Be sure to wear warm clothes!
3. Take a Cooking Class
If you’re looking to recapture a few of your favorite French dishes in your kitchen at home, you’re in luck; there are more cooking classes in France than you can shake a baguette at. The International Kitchen is one good place to start, with more than a dozen offerings across the country, from baking croissants in Paris to making bouillabaisse in Marseille. Alain Ducasse’s Ecole de Cuisine in Paris offers high-end classes (mostly in French, but with some English options), or you can study with Susan Herrmann Loomis in Louviers, a small town near Rouen, for three to five days.
For more ideas, see Learn to Cook Like Julia, or simply Google “cooking class” with the names of the towns or cities you’re visiting.
4. Make Your Own Perfume
Did you know that many of the world’s most famous perfumes are made in the small town of Grasse, located in the hills north of Cannes? The town is surrounded by fields of jasmine, roses, lavender and other flowers that help create the distinctive fragrances created here (including the best known of them all: Chanel No. 5).
A perfect souvenir from your trip to Grasse is your very own signature scent, which you can create at local perfumeries Galimard and Molinard. Galimard offers two-hour workshops in which you can learn about the different “notes” that go into a good perfume before you combine them into your own customized scent. Molinard has a number of workshop options ranging from 30 minutes to two hours.
If your trip won’t take you all the way to Grasse, you can also create your own perfume at Studio des Parfums in Paris.
5. Browse a Traditional Market
Just about every French town has at least one open-air market where you can see, smell and taste the wares of the local farmers. (Larger cities such as Paris have numerous markets in different neighborhoods.) Typically held one or two mornings a week, these markets offer the opportunity to rub shoulders with locals as they shop for colorful fruits and vegetables, fresh bread and cheese, and specialties such as honey or seafood.
Not sure where to start? Time Out offers a list of the best Paris food markets.
6. Listen to Live Music
A night at the opera? An evening of Celtic music at a pub? A Metro ride accompanied by a busker with an accordion? No matter which type of musical experience you’re looking for, chances are good you can find it in France.
The Brittany region is well known for its Celtic heritage, which you can enjoy at festivals or in local bars and music venues. If you enjoy opera, the spectacular Palais Garnier in Paris is a must-visit; between acts, be sure to look up at the ceiling, painted by Chagall. (Lille and Bordeaux are among several other French cities with beautiful opera houses.) To check out other types of music, get started with the listings at Time Out Paris.
7. Take a Taste
Even if you didn’t see a single famous sight, you could easily experience France one nibble at a time. A bite of brie here, a sip of Champagne there, a spoonful of honey in Corsica, a savory galette in Brittany … we’re getting hungry just thinking about it.
A few of our favorite tasting experiences include the French Cheese & Wine Workshop from Paris by Mouth, in which you learn how cheese is made and taste about nine different varieties (paired with wine, of course!); a visit to Jardin des Abeilles, a Corsican bee farm where you can sample half a dozen types of honey; and a factory tour at L’Atelier du Chocolat in Bayone, where you can discover how cocoa beans turn into delicious chocolate — and, naturally, enjoy a few samples.
8. Learn to Speak French
The most common sound you’ll hear in France is the lilting, expressive local language. Want to join the conversation? Consider taking an immersive French course during your vacation.
Accent Francais offers classes in Montpellier, located in southern France just a few miles from the Mediterranean Sea. You can enroll in the company’s general French course for as little as one week or as long as a year. Lutece Langue is a similar option in Paris.
9. Go Underground in Paris
This may not be as pleasant-smelling an attraction as a lavender field or a perfume factory, but the Paris Sewer Museum provides its own fragrant fascination for visitors. An hourlong tour takes you beneath the streets of the French capital into a network of sewer tunnels, where you can learn about how the city’s water supply is distributed and discover how cholera outbreaks and other sanitation crises have influenced the sewer system over the centuries.
It’s a quirky and intriguing place to visit, especially for travelers who are interested in experiencing a side (and smell) of Paris that most tourists don’t see. The entrance is opposite 93 Quai d’Orsay on the Left Bank.
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