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10 Reasons to visit France in Winter

Winter is a great time to visit France

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Planning a trip to France in the winter? It’s a great time to visit, so here’s what to expect. Check out all you need to know from cheaper airfares to winter sports, fun, festivals and Christmas fairs during the French holiday season.

1. Airfares and Hotel Rates in Winter

lasivext
© La Sivoliere

Generally airfares are much lower during winter, with the exception of the Christmas holiday season in December. Hotels also have great bargains so check them out for deails like 3 nights for the price of two, and special themed packages.

In December you will find that airfares rise to normal levels, but in November, January, February and most of March there will be special prices on offer. The price rises begin about a week before Easter.

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2. Christmas Markets

noelmarketnancy
© Ville de Nancy

Christmas markets sparkle with lights and fill the air with the scents of Provencal soap and spicy wine. They fill the streets with the sights and sounds of the Christmas season and are great places for finding gifts you can’t get anywhere else, often from local producers and artisans. The surrounding shops get in the mood as well with jolly windows full of tempting items; there are often skating rinks attached to the markets, and many have carousels and entertainment for children.

Christmas markets are all over France, but the best known ones are in large cities like Lille and Strasbourg. Small towns like Castres in the Tarn also have delightful markets.

Most markets open either at the end of November or beginning of December. Some close on Christmas Eve or continue until the end of December.

3. Winter Food

crillonlebtruf
Truffle hunting near Crillon le Brave hotel, Provence © Andrea Gaillard

French food in winter takes on a heartening, earthy feel. And nothing is earthier than those famous black truffles. You can go on a truffle hunt yourself, or just buy the black riches at places like Carpentras in the Var where the weekly Friday truffle market lasts from mid November to early March. Mushrooms in all forms are sold in markets and shops and appear on menus; November festivals in Brittany and Normandy bring the harvest of the sea to coastal towns; and at Christmas shelves in shops from large supermarkets to small local epiceries froan under the weight of festive foods like foie gras, smoked salmon and divine chocolates.

4. Winter Sports

serre chevalier
©Zoom Images

France has some of the largest and greatest ski areas in the world like Les Trois Vallees, Paradiski Espace Killy and more. It offers challenges to the world’s top skiers and slopes suitable for the smallest person; luxury resorts like Courchevel and family-orientated places such as Flaine near Mont Blanc.

Transport links are very good as the French airports of Chambery, Grenoble, Lyon Bron and Lyon St Exupéry are close to each other and the surrounding ski areas. If you’re coming from the UK, there are plenty of cheap flights on low cost airlines.

All the resorts have English-speaking instructors and those from the Ecole du Ski Français are trained to teach children from the age of three as well as blind or disabled people.

The apres-ski scene is pretty lively in most resorts and many of them hold spectacular festivals throughout the winter from snow sculpture competitions to classical music and jazz concerts.

5. Winter Sports with a Difference

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© Laurent Salino/OT Alpe d’Huez

In the past few years, French ski resorts have invested in winter sports other than downhill skiing. Many now offer showshoeing and skiddoing, toboganning and skating, as well as cross-country skiing and ski jeering where you’re pulled along on skis behind a horse. More extreme sports are gaining in popularity from ice diving to learning how to drive on ice.

6. Warm up (and stay healthy) at a Spa

normandychataud
© Chateau d'Audrieu

During the cold weather, try the leisure facilities at any of France’s famous spa towns. Towns like Vichy in the Auvergne are world-famous, but there are hot thermal waters with public access in towns like Pombieres-les-Bains in the Vosges in Lorraine, Bourbon-l’Archambault in the Auvergne, Aix-les-Bains in Savoie, and Evian-les-Bains on the shores of Lake Geneva, known the world over for the water it produces. If a town’s name ends in ‘les-bains’ you can bet there are thermal waters and a spa there.

Indulge yourself during the winter months when spa hotels offer great packages. Check out top hotels like the Chateau Audrieu in Normandy and most of the Relais et Chateaux group of hotels which are top of the range, and have great deals in the off season.

7. Winter Festivals

limouxmen
© Service Tourisme de Limoux

Start the winter round of festivals with the annual celebration of the arrival of nouveau Beaujolais at midnight on the third Thursday of November. During the winter, music and jazz festivals move indoors but keep coming, while events like the Cheval Passion horse show brings fabulous equestrian acts to Avignon in January. Watch out for local festivals honoring St. Vincent in wine-growing areas, particularly Champagne and Burgundy, traditionally on January 22nd. The south of France defies the winter with events like the Limoux Carnival which begins in mid January, while the Lemon Festival in Menton heralds the end of winter and the start of Spring.

8. Mediterranean Warmth

oldnicemarketstall
Cours Saleya Market in Nice © H. Lagarde

While winter can be cold, you’re more than likely to get delightful warm sunny days though chilly nights along the Riviera and the Cote d’Azur. The temperatures are balmy during the day, so go for a brisk walk beside the sea, then sit in front of a roaring fire for an aperitif in the evening. You can get the best of both worlds in Nice, and swim (if you’re moderately hardy) in the morning in the Mediterranean, before driving the 90 kilometers up to Isola 2000 in the Mercantour National Park for a day’s skiing.

9. Paris in Winter

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© Mike Hewitt/Getty Images News

Paris takes on a different dimension in winter. There’s nothing more magical than walking in the crisp air along the river Seine looking at the grand buildings in the clear winter air. When the summer tourists are gone, you feel the city is your own. Must-dos include dropping into Galeries Lafayette to see the Christmas tree with its fabulous gold ornaments. The holiday lights that line the Champs-Elysees are some of the most beautiful in the world; the Christmas markets sell everything that is seasonal, chic and covetable. Disneyland Paris of course puts on a marvelous show and there are plenty of ice skating rinks around to help you work off all those extra holiday calories.

Buy a packet of roasted chestnuts to keep you going, or just sit in a heated terrace in one of the great sidewalk cafes, order the best hot chocolate and watch the world go by.

10. Bargain Shopping and the Sales

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Au Bon Marche Department Store, Paris © Mary Anne Evans, licensed to about.com

The sales season in France is government controlled and in most French regions the winter sales start in mid January and run to mid February. Sales in France are proper sales, with shops selling off out-of-season stock rather than with sub-standard stock bought in. As all good French women reckon that if you're out of season you might as well drop out entirely, it means great bargains for foreign visitors who don't care a toss about the season but want good clothes at good prices.

If you miss the sales, don't worry. There are bargains to be had in France throughout the year, particularly in the discount malls and shopping centers around the country.

Luxury Paris Shopping (not a bargain in site)

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