The acronym PACA refers to Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, sublime regions in the south eastern corner of France paradoxically lumped together and often visited together for their vivid contrasts and outstanding variety of landscapes. Côte d’Azur (the French Riviera) delivers exactly what it says: a coast of impossibly blue water, with exquisite sun-kissed hills, and exquisite sun-kissed elite.
Don’t miss France’s still-kept secret – Languedoc-Roussillon is a dream of sun-baked southern France made a reality.
Dip into sensual Provence – sunshine and art; lavender and sunflower fields, world-class wine and a quintessentially Mediterranean lifestyle.
Then there’s the Pyrenees and the Alps: well, those iconic mountains are great for skiing, and perhaps just as good for hiking, canyoning, horse riding and kayaking during the summer months.
Unsure where to start? Work your way through our pick of stop-offs, hostels and experiences for an unforgettable summer.
Feel the fusion of Spain, North Africa and France radiate from the city of Perpignan in the Pyrenean foothills.
Don’t miss: The Têt Valley on the Petit Train Journe
The ‘little yellow train of the Pyrenees’ is a 20th century engineering marvel built to link the higher Pyrenean villages with Perpignan, but has become a spectacle worth travelling for: now, in its antiquated carriages, you’ll find skiers, cyclists and tourists seeking the especially beautiful section of the ride of the upper Têt Valley, between Olette and Mont Louis which treats you to rocky summits, trundles across huge chasms, and snakes between forests, gushing streams and precariously perched villages and fortresses. In summer, you can hop on and off, leaving whole natural paradises ripe for exploration.
Stay at: Perpignan hostel
Discover the tiny, unspoiled Mediterranean coastal town of Sète – unpretentious, full of character and utterly beautiful. The best French town you’ve never heard of.
Don’t miss: Mediterranean views from the Veranda
Of course go and explore the bustling port – the town and its energy are a main attraction in themselves, without any specific monuments to tick off, gawk at for a few seconds or take a requisite photo of. Daily life here is at its most atmospheric, and landscapes are at their most photogenic from our hostel’s veranda, where you can dine on something delicious whilst scanning or snapping the coastal panorama.
Stay at: Sète hostel
Peruse one of Europe’s richest collections of art in seaside town Montpellier.
Don’t miss: cycling to Musée Fabre
Montpellier is surging into an innovative student hub with high-speed trams transporting it into a future as one of southern France’s vital organs. The best way to see Montpellier is by bike, so hire one of thousands available to make use of the 150km of cycling paths. Perhaps the crowning jewel of provincial museums, Musée Fabre has reopened its doors and offers one of France’s richest collections of European art from the 16th century onwards.
Stay at: Montpellier hostel
Reach the heart of Nîmes, where the echoes of the Roman Empire still resound from more than two millennia ago.
Don’t miss: the Roman Amphitheatre
If France does classical buildings well, Nîmes is one of its biggest advocates: visit the city’s Roman amphitheatre for the greatest example of architectural preservation, a stadium built around AD100 to seat 24,000 spectators of man-lion-bear fights and gladiatorial combats. Today, actors in full gladiator get-up slugging it out in the arena are the closest you’ll get to Roman barbarism.
Stay at: Nîmes hostel
Make for Marseille and feel the tangible gritty energy – with its own distinct brand of brash and beautiful.
Don’t miss: feasting on Bouillabaisse
Bouillabaisse is historically the soupy Provençal stew originated among Marseilles’ fishermen who would throw the small, useless catch into the cooking pot. Now, embrace a real treat of a dinner: this rich, saffron-infused broth is loaded with juicy and tender pieces of fish and is bursting with history and flavour. Want to enjoy Bouillabaisse in Marseille like a local? Try it with pieces of red scorpion fish (rascasse).
Stay at: Marseille – Bonneveine
Nice awaits travellers of all tastes, the relics of a golden age of history shining as brightly as the year round sunshine.
Don’t miss: Matisse’s take on Nice
Henri Matisse, master of colour, spent over forty years of his life in Nice, Côte d’Azur. During this period of life, he moved back from modern art to landscapes and still life, capturing the beauty and light of the Côte d’Azur in works like The Open Window (1918) and The Bay of Nice (1918). Gain an artist’s perspective by walking down the Promenade des Anglais, lined with palm trees, where the faded, dated glamour offers a window into what makes Nice so special.
Stay at: Nice Camélias
7. Verdon Gorge
If you are visiting the south of France to seek languor and glamour, look away now. The Verdon gorge is (er…) gorgeous, but this is not a beauty best appreciated from afar.
Don’t miss: the Balcons de la Mescla for spectacular views, and a hike along the 9 kilometre Sentier Martel
The canyon itself is huge, inevitably labelled ‘France’s Grand Canyon’, but the comparison couldn’t be worse in terms of colour. This is a land of pine-green trees and Turquoise River, of towering blue-grey cliffs and azure reservoirs, stunningly beautiful and full of life.
If the opportunity to hike arises, take it. There are several famous and beautiful routes, but the most iconic is the nine kilometre Sentier (pathway) Martel, which wends from pebble-beach river-bank to rocky mountain top, by footpath, stairway and tunnel.
Stay at: La Palud-sur-Verdon
Spend a day in St Tropez, the most famous resort in Europe – and chosen summer playground for the continent’s rich and famous.
Don’t miss: people watching at the port for a snapshot of this hedonistic lifestyle
This originally-tiny fishing village grew to fame through its artistic connections, in the 1880s the high-living novelist Guy de Maupassant arrives, into the 20th century we have painters Matisse, Dufy, Dérain, Vlaminck, Seurat and Van Dongen (that’s about a billion dollars of art right there), and then in the 1930s the writers are back: Cocteau, Colette and Anaïs Nin. In 1956 Brigitte Bardot and Roger Vadim added movie glamour to the bohemian sunshine, and the mix was complete: the stereotype of sun, sex and celebrities was set in stone, and St Tropez has been staggering under the sheer weight of eager visitors ever since. Saint-Tropez is still irresistibly glamorous with its impracticably oversized yachts and hedonistic lifestyle, and still has the feeling of a party that the average person is not invited to. Visit for a day. Look around. Leave.