It had been 16 years since my last trip to France—which is way too long to spend away from the Land of Cheese. So when my friend Paige suggested that we spend a week exploring the French countryside, I was happy to oblige. Below I’ve included some of my favorite spots on our trip (mostly food and drink related), as well as a few things we learned along the way (like I’m pretty sure there’s only one automatic transmission car in all of northeastern France).
Stop 1: Honfleur
Honfleur is a colorful seaside city that couldn’t be more charming. It’s a perfect spot to recover from jet lag with an afternoon wandering down its stone streets and around its postcard-perfect harbor. Pop in and out of Normandy cider shops, French soap stores, and chic boutiques, and be sure to visit the Sainte Catherine church that was built in a way that looks like an old boat.
Our Airbnb here
was amazing. It was up a tiny staircase (you’ll need to be relatively fit to hoist a suitcase up that thing) at the top of a centuries-old building overlooking the harbor on one side and the famous church square on the other. Seriously, the best location in town. It was also spacious with a lovely shower—things you don’t take for granted in France.
First, make a stop at one of the gelato stands on the harbor for rose gelato while you wander around. There are tons of Michelin star restaurants, but we ended up escaping a rainstorm at the cozy Chez D.D.
wine bar drinking wine and eating bread, cheese, and charcuterie. The perfect French entry dinner.
Stop 2: Normandy Beaches & Mont-Saint-Michel
You’ll need a car to get around this part of the country. My advice (learned the hard way): Reserve an automatic transmission car in Deauville, near Honfleur. Then, drive down to visit the cliffs of Point du Hoc
, the wide sands of Omaha Beach
, and the poignant American Cemetery
. After a day of WWII history, drive the following morning to the picturesque Mont-Saint-Michel
, an island commune dating back to the 8th century.
Tucked in the Normandy hills about half an hour from the beaches is Le Ferme du Pressoir
, a working farm that’s hundreds of years old and run by the most kind couple you’ll ever meet. You’re greeted at the kitchen table with cold cider and crackers. The rooms inside the historic stone home offer views of the garden and fields beyond. And the family-style breakfast features fresh fruits, cheeses, herbs, and eggs from the farm. It couldn’t be more inviting.
We didn’t make it in time (see car troubles), but I’ve heard great things about Restaurant L’Omaha
on Omaha Beach—evidently it’s a perfect spot for mussels and cider on your day of sightseeing.
Stop 3: Loire Valley
This was my third trip to the Loire and it really never gets old. I mean, it’s gorgeous rolling countryside dotted with lavish chateaus, pristine gardens, and charming villages. Be sure to visit Chenonceau
(the one over the river), Villandry
(the one with the amazing gardens), and Cheverny
(the one with the dogs). Also, save some time for meandering around the historic riverside town of Amboise
, which was once home to the French royal court.
Right in the middle of Amboise is Le Vieux Manoir
, a restored 18th-century mansion that feels like walking into a fairytale with its fragrant French rose gardens, beautiful antique furnishings, and bright breakfast sunroom. It’s owned by an American couple who could not be nicer (but, fair warning, are getting a bit up in their years). Be sure to bring home a bottle of wine and snack to relax with in its secluded garden after a day of sightseeing.
We planned one serious splurge night for dinner at Chateau du Pray
and—seven courses later—it was so worth it. Set in an elegant chateau with impeccable service, every perfect dish made it obvious how it earned its Michelin star. For a more laid-back—but equally enticing—meal, make reservations at Chez Bruno
where you’ll find classic French dishes like duck and creme brule in a street-side setting that overlooks the Amboise chateau. Finally, while you’re spending a day of chateau-hopping, plan on lunch at Chenonceau, which has a beautiful restaurant
featuring a tree-shaded patio with views of the chateau.
Stop 4: Paris
What is there for me to tell you about Paris that you don’t already know? It’s magical. Some of my favorite things to do there include strolling around Ile St. Louis, sitting on the grass in front of the Eiffel Tower as it sparkles at night, picnicking in the Luxembourg Gardens (followed by a scoop of Laduree ice cream at the nearby shop), and having crepes and coffee for breakfast in Montmartre before the hordes of tourists arrive.
This was another lucky Airbnb pick. We stayed in this suite
, which is actually at the top of the luxurious Hotel Ampère
. It was amazing. There was huge balcony with views of the city, and a spacious bathroom and living space. But the bedroom was the coolest part because you could literally see the Eiffel Tower from bed. I could get used to waking up to that view.
I mean, where do you even start with eating in Paris? We had an amazing traditional French dinner at Le Pere Claude
. (It was the first time I’ve ever been so full that I left foie gras on my plate. Mark the occasion.) We also had an incredible contemporary dinner at the trendy Les Chouettes
. (I would eat that buratta every day for the rest of my life.) But honestly, my favorite dining experience was afternoon rose and bites at the Bar Vendome inside the Ritz-Carlton
. It’s a sunlit patio under a glass canopy filled with gorgeous drinks and food, and the best people-watching in Paris.
Trip takeaways: Normandy is beautiful and so worth the trip. Even the most casual meals are better in this country. Take trains wherever possible, but driving is relatively easy here compared to a lot of other countries in which I’ve rented cars—as long as you don’t drive in Paris. Leave that to the pros. Overall, to borrow—and slightly edit—the words of Audrey Hepburn, “France is always a good idea.”