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The Students Guide to Exploring Different Regions of France

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Are you getting ready for the trip of a lifetime? For students travelling to France, you’ll be embarking on an adventure that you won’t soon forget – full of history, art, architecture, and of course food.

Every region in France is unique and features different opportunities for days of sightseeing and adventures. If you’re hopping the pond and heading to France, be sure to research the country’s most popular areas so you can make the most of your time abroad.

We’ll help you out by highlighting some of the top regions and départements (the French equivalent of an American state) that we think you should explore.

Île-de-France

Surrounded by rivers including Essonne, Epte, Aisne, Eure, Ourcq, and the region-spanning Seine which separates the two sides of Paris, the Ile de France region is where the country as we know it was born. In this temperate basin, the most popular cities for student tourists include Paris, Versailles, Fontainebleau and Giverny. With lively culture abound, you’ll find trendy bistros, quaint cafes and quirky bookshops mixed with medieval monuments and ancient landmarks around every corner. If you’re looking for old-world charm and the epitome of French culture, Ile de France is the region for you.

The Loire Valley

This region boasts two ancient provinces, Anjou and Touraine, which were adored by French royalty and nobility. Before Henry IV moved his court to Paris, kings, princes and barons built the most gorgeous castles in the Loire Valley. Some of these castles include Chambord, Cheverny, Amboise, and Villandry. Many are available to tour for a small fee.

Brittany

Extending into the Atlantic Ocean, Brittany occupies the westernmost region of the country, where rocky coastlines, celtic heritage, rainy weather and a regional language and history define the culture.

The area is home to many ancient archeological wonders. In fact, one of the oldest hearths in the world has been found in Plouhinec, Finistère, and is still standing at an age of 450,000 years old.

Carnac, the area’s most historic city, is home to one of the most extensive Neolithic menhir (ancient, massive standing stone) collections in the world. Celtic tribes inhabited the region following the prehistoric era, and ties to the Gaelic tongues of Wales and Ireland can still be heard in the local language of Breton.

This region is also a popular destination for French vacationers who visit the sandy beaches, jutting cliffs and relatively affordable lifestyle.

Normandy

Since we’re on the subject of historical places, Normandy, located in northern France, is home to one of the most famous sites of World War II: the D-Day landing beaches. But with over 370 miles of coastline and a thriving tourist industry, there’s plenty to see beyond the 1944 invasion site. It’s a favored getaway spot for those retreating from the congestion and pace of cities, and many hotels, restaurants and shopping centers are frequented by tourists year-round. A few other fantastic attractions in the region include the Rouen cathedral, the abbey of Jumièges, the island abbey of Mont St. Michel, and medieval Bayeux with its famous tapestry.

The Ardennes & Northern Beaches

Often overlooked by American tourists, this northern region is known for its beach resorts and historic sights. This region, bordering Belgium, features one of the most embattled areas in France, with its best known port, Calais being a contested military stronghold for centuries.

Today’s port is more peaceful, filled with ferries instead of battle ships for tourists to travel along its waters. If you’re interested in historical architecture, try visiting the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Amiens, the medieval capital of Picardy, featuring the highest nave in France at 138 feet high.

Lorraine

Located in the northeast corner of France, Lorraine borders Germany, Belgium, and Luxembourg. While Lorraine is the famous for being the birthplace of Joan of Arc and the countless wars it has experienced, those aren’t the only things that draws students to the region.

The peaks of the Vosges forest is the nearest thing to an extensive wilderness area you’ll find in France and offers pleasant hiking trails for the outdoorsman.

With renowned cuisine — especially the signature foie gras et choucroute (fattened duck or goose liver and sauerkraut) — wines and beers, Lorraine is a hotspot for foodies from all over the world.

Champagne

Champagne offers historical sightseeing like no other region in the country. A significant amount of France’s history is tied with the region’s holy site of Reims, where every French monarch since A.D. 496 has been crowned. Any invader wishing to take Paris would have to first go through Reims and the Champagne district. Even all the way up to World War I, the region has been exposed a large amount of brutal battles.

If you’re a student of age (legal drinking age in France is 18), here’s a fun fact: The 78-mile road from Reims to Vertus, one of the Routes of Champagne, is home to a trio of winegrowing regions that produce 80 percent of the world’s champagne.

Burgundy

If you’re looking for leisurely time off from your studies, head to the Burgundy region of France, which is filled with incredible cuisine – local specialties include dijon mustard, boeuf bourguignon, coq au vin, and wines coveted the world over.

You’ll also find stunning old-world cities, like the capital, Dijon.  Known as the “City of a Hundred Towers”, Dijon  was once the Roman crossroads between the Mediterranean and northern Europe and was home to the mighty Dukes of Burgundy.

If you’re interested in religious history, head to the region’s Fontenay Abbey, where churches, cloisters, dormitories and more have been preserved for centuries. This gives visitors a chance to glimpse into what life was like in a medieval Cistercian abbey.

Wine Regions of Bordeaux

Another area that sees fewer American tourists is the wine regions of Bordeaux. While the area mostly offers flat, fertile land, it is home to towns that were pivotal in French history. Saintes, for example, has noteworthy Gallo-Roman, medieval and classical heritage, making it a popular tourist destination and a member of the French Towns and Lands of Art and History.

Active in wine and liquor production, the area’s villages also produce such celebrated libations such as Cognac, Margaux, St. Emilion and Sauternes. With abundant wine growing areas, varying widely in size and sometimes overlapping, the region is centred around the city of Bordeaux.

Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes

Occupying the lower-eastern portion of the country, Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes is a newly-formed region that features the country’s second-largest metropolitan area, Lyon. Just a short, two-hour train ride from Paris, it’s relatively easy to get to the place known as France’s “Second City.”  As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Lyon is known for its historical and architectural landmarks and its role in the history of cinema.

A good time to visit the city is during its famous light festival, Fête des Lumières, occurring every December, allowing Lyon to claim the title “Capital of Lights.” From Lyon, you can travel north to explore through the Rhône Valley toward Provence. Travel south of Lyon and you’ll be able to see medieval villages and ancient Roman ruins in Pérouges and Vienne.

The French Alps

Bordering the Rhône-Alpes and Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur regions, the French Alps offer some of the world’s best skiing. With snowcapped mountains, ancient glaciers and crystal-clear alpine lakes, the French Alps also feature some of the world’s most breathtaking scenery. While the region attracts some of the most affluent people from all over the world, if you’re a student on a budget, we’ve got some good news. Lift ticket prices are a fraction of the price that they are in the United States. Chamonix, a famous ski resort facing Mont Blanc, western Europe’s highest mountain, has one-day passes that range from $47 to $67. If you’re travelling to the French Alps during the summer, you can visit indulgent spa resorts including Evian and the relaxing 19th-century resorts at Lake Geneva.

Provence

Home of the French Alps and bordered by Italy on its eastern side, Provence has often been considered the playground of the rich and famous. With premier destinations like Aix-en-Provence, associated with Hemingway and Cézanne; Arles, the city known as “The Soul of Provence” and captured in a famous painting by Vincent van Gogh; Avignon, the 14th-century capital of Christianity; and Marseille, the country’s third largest city, after Lyon and Paris. The unknown beauties of the region include Nostradamus’s birthplace of St-Rémy-de-Provence and Les Baux de Provence.  Nature enthusiasts will find a myriad of options for hiking and camping.

Côte d’Azur – The French Riviera

The majesty of the Azure Coast makes it a tourist hotspot in the country of France. It’s an affordable option for students who want to travel to its famed beaches and coastal resorts. Nice, the region’s biggest city, is a popular destination for French tourists that want to visit the Mediterranean Sea.

Since the Renaissance, the picturesque surroundings of Nice have attracted not only those beach-goers and sun-bathers, but some of Western culture’s most notable painters like Henri Matisse, Arman and Marc Chagall. Their work is proudly displayed in the city’s many museums, including Musée Marc Chagall, Musée Matisse and Musée des Beaux-Arts.

The Dordogne

The land of delightful foie gras and delectable truffles, found in southwestern France is also home to some of Europe’s oldest settlements. Dordogne offers gourmet eating and wine-tasting, gorgeous chateaux, villages and historic sights, making it one of the most popular vacation destinations in France. In the Périgord, the cave paintings at Les Eyzies have shown traces of Cro-Magnon (first early modern human) settlements.

The Pyrénées

Located along the border with Spain between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, southwestern France features one of Europe’s most unique cultures. The region’s hidden villages, beach towns, and culinary traditions are ripe for discovery for anyone travelling through France.

Biarritz, on the Atlantic, features some of the best surfing in France. Toulouse, a major city and the regional capital of Occitanie, boasts two UNESCO World Heritage sites — the Canal du Midi and the Basilica of St. Sernin, the largest remaining Romanesque building in Europe and an important stop along the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage route.

Throughout the year, millions of Catholics make annual pilgrimages to the City of Lourdes, located on the edge of the Pyrénées. In the small mountain villages and towns, the old folkloric traditions, filled with Spanish influences, are still prevalent.

Have Fun Travelling to the Regions of France!

Crossing these regions off your travel list will give you the chance see everything France has to offer as a cultural and historical destination. There is so much history and culture to learn by visiting the towns, villages and homes of the French people. Now that you know more about these regions and départements, you can pack your bags and plan your travels accordingly.

For students travelling to France, we hope you have a fantastic trip — Bon voyage !

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