Swot up! France is huge, and jam-packed with great attractions for children, so it's hard to know where to start.
Paris is more child-friendly than you might imagine (although trying to get a taxi in the rain with three kids in tow might make you think otherwise). Its suburbs (banlieues) are notorious for their racial violence, and the Ile de France region in which they lie – made up of eight départements – is also France’s most densely populated. Yet it's also very wealthy in parts – and full of interesting places to take the kids. Disneyland Paris is chief among them; nearby there’s also a Sealife aquarium within a vast shopping mall.
For a slice of the great outdoors, the beautiful forest of Fontainebleau 40 minutes south of Paris has great family walks in the woods and by the Seine, while the town of Fontainebleau itself has a superb castle with boating and horse-drawn carriage rides, plus a carousel and lots of good restaurants by dint of its being the location for a huge international business school.
Then, of course, there’s Versailles, another famous castle, this one 20km southwest of Paris. The extravagant home to French kings for more than a 100 years, the palace offers family audio-guides, term-time Wednesday-afternoon workshops, and school-holiday guided tours, workshops and activities. Not far west of it, at Elancourt, your kids might find their interest in France awakened by France Miniature, with more than 150 scale models (some animated) of French landmarks spread over 12 acres, plus rides.
Head north-west of this spot and you find yourself in the Haute-Normandie region, which together with Basse-Normandie to its west forms the area we know as Normandy. With its coastline and countryside, its beaches and battlefields, and its ferries bringing you and your car from the British south coast in a matter of hours, this is an area justifiably popular among British families hoping for low-key family holidays.
Normandy has long disputed the world-famous, UNESCO World Heritage listed Mont-St-Michel with its 11th-century monastery and its beautiful bay with neighbouring Brittany, another region that’s brilliant for family holidays. Also well-served by ferries, it has an exciting coastline of weird-shaped rocks and unspoilt beaches, lighthouses galore, world-class aquariums and more traditional crêperies than you could visit in a lifetime of holidays here.
Brittany borders, to the south, the Pays de la Loire or ‘Loire Country’, although, confusingly, this is not where you’ll find the Loire Valley with its famous châteaux. (Even more confusingly, there’s also a département called the Loire in the French Alps…). The Pays de la Loire comprises five départements: the Loire-Atlantique, the Vendée (popular for its beaches), Maine et Loire, Mayenne, and Sarthe.
For the famous Loire Valley châteaux, you’ll need to head further inland, to the region of France called Centre. This is a surprisingly family-friendly area – most of the castles have mazes, children’s trails and other attractions for youngsters, and there are plenty of other regional family attractions.
South of the Pays de la Loire and of Centre lies the Poitou-Charentes, a fabulous area for families, with lots of gîtes, great beaches and resorts, and some outstanding family attractions, including Futuroscope theme-park.
Next down is the Limousin, known, rather unexcitingly, for its chestnut-red beef cattle, its oak orchards and timber, and its porcelain. Extremely rural, it’s divided into three départements, the Corrèze, the Creuse and the Haute-Vienne. The region’s capital, Limoges, is in the latter and has a small airport served by budget flights. The largest attraction for families is in the Creuse – Les Loups de Chabrières, an animal park with European grey, Canadian white and Canadian black wolves and a museum about wolves, real and mythological. Other activities and facilities in the Limousin include canoeing, treetop adventure courses, vélorails (cycling on contraptions fitted to old rail tracks), farm visits, and canoeing on the Dordogne and other rivers. For a thought-provoking glimpse into history with older kids, visit Oradour sur Glane in the Haute-Vienne. This village is preserved as it was on the day in 1944 when it was stormed by the Nazis, who killed more than 600 men, women, and children; beside it is a state-of-the-art memorial centre.
From here all the way down to the Spanish border stretches the vast Aquitaine region, a wonderful but relatively little-known setting for a family holiday – except in the case of the Dordogne département, which has long been popular with Brits. Aquitaine offers everything from a record-breaking sand dune and the world-class surfing of Biarritz to the mountains of the westernmost section of the French Pyrénées.
For most of the remainder of the French section of the Pyrénées mountain range, known as the Midi-Pyrénées region, see our Pyrénées guide. See also the section on France in our guide to skiing in Europe.
The other Pyrénées departément not in Midi-Pyrénées region itself is the Pyrénées Orientales or ‘Eastern Pyrénées’ – this falls into the Languedoc-Roussillon region, where you can enjoy sunny Mediterranean beaches without the expense or crowds of the South of France itself, plus stunning national parks and natural and man-made wonders galore.
Go east and you’re into the South of France proper, with the Provence–Alpes–Côte d’Azur region taking you as far as the border with Italy. It includes the département of the Bouches du Rhône, where you’ll find both the bustling and cosmopolitan port-city of Marseilles, and the national park of the Camargue, with its Gypsy heritage, pink flamingos, white horses, and uncrowded beaches.
Then there’s the département of Var, which is where the south starts to become glitzy – St Tropez is here. But it’s also home to some family-friendly resorts, including Saint-Raphaël.
It’s followed by the Alpes Maritimes, a département misleadingly named after its area of mountains (it’s the southernmost section of the French Alps) but most-visited for its beach resorts, which include flashy Cannes and Nice but also the more family-friendly Antibes and Juan-les-Pins.
Inland lies the département of the Vaucluse, full of medieval hilltop villages and rich historical remains – most notably, the incredible popes’ palace of Avignon and the Roman theatre in Orange.
The final two départements of the Provence–Alpes–Côte d’Azur region are the Alpes de Haute Provence and the Hautes Alpes. The first, though arid in summer, is a beautiful mountain area with picturesque and characterful towns and villages (including Sisteron with its dramatic ruined citadel, and the spa-town of Digne les Bains) and natural wonders (the Gorge du Verdon, Europe’s biggest, is brilliant for canoeing). There are also 11 ski resorts. There’s more skiing and summer outdoors pursuits in the neighbouring Hautes Alpes département.
The remainder of the French Alps, technically known as the Rhône-Alpes, is one of the world’s very best ski areas, with plenty of family-friendly ski resorts, but it’s also great for outdoorsy families in summer. See our guides to its départements Rhône (including Lyon, regional capital and foodie hotspot), Isère, Savoie and Haute Savoie, plus the section on France in our guide to skiing in Europe. It's also home to Ardèche, famous for its canoeing and kayaking (some of it in the Cévennes National Park) – and hence popular for family adventure holidays.
To the west, wedged in the middle of France between the Rhône Alpes, Limousin and Centre, is the Auvergne region. This is far off the tourist trail, although kids are intrigued by the fact that there are many volcanoes here (don’t worry: the last confirmed eruption was about 6,000 years ago). Most have eroded away to leave sucs (cones) and puys – rounded hills formed by plugs of hardened, unerupted magma. The Auvergne’s Haute Loire département is another good for low-key holidays based on outdoor pursuits such as mountain-biking, horse-riding and, in winter, cross-country skiing. In the Cantal département, Aurillac has a volcano museum, while its natural attractions, including the Truyère gorges, can be explored by horseback, mountain-bike and canoe, and there are lakes for watersports and both Alpine and cross-country skiing in winter.
Puy de Dôme is named after the largest of the Auvergne’s volcanoes, so it’s fitting that this département is home to Vulcania, a hands-on science centre where families can learn all about volcanoes and other natural phenomena. It’s set within the Parc Naturel Régional des Volcans d’Auvergne, about 15km from the regional capital, Clermont-Ferrand. This national park is also renowned for its pure lakes and rivers, great for swimming, canoeing and other aquatic activities. The last of the Auvergne’s départements is Allier, with more pretty villages, Romanesque churches, small châteaux, impressive landscapes to explore by horse or bike, and hearty, healthy food.
North of the Auvergne is Bourgogne, better known to Brits as Burgundy. It’s not an obvious choice for a family holiday – Renaissance castles, Romanesque churches and abbeys, and great regional wines won’t keep the kids entertained for long. But close inspection reveals a number of attractions: in the southernmost Saône et Loire département, for instance, you’ll find two treetop adventure parks, the Touroparc amusement park and zoo, and the nature-themed leisure park Diverti’Parc.
Bourgogne’s other départements are very rural: the Nièvre, the Yonne, and the Côte d’Or. The latter is most famous for the mustard named after its main city of Dijon. In all of these areas you can take leisurely boating trips on the Canal du Bourgogne, join in outdoor activities in the Parc Naturel Régional du Morvan, enjoy tree-top adventures on special courses, horse-ride and more.
To the east, bordering Switzerland, is Franche-Comté, a lovely, underrated region that is a good place for a ‘green holiday’ – quite literally, since it remains verdant even in the heat of summer, making it the scenic backdrop for mountain-biking, lake-sailing, and river-cruising (for winter there are two resorts offering cross-country and downhill skiing). Except for the tiny and quite industrialised Territoire de Belfort, its départements (Doubs, Jura and Haute-Saône) are very rural. The regional capital Besançon is worth visiting for its UNESCO listed citadel and its art museum (so good it’s nicknamed the ‘Petit Louvre’).
To the north, small but highly populated Alsace is home to Strasbourg (in the Bas Rhin département), seat of the Council of Europe and its European Court of Human Rights plus various other European institutions. Strasbourg’s medieval centre was the first to be proclaimed a World Heritage Site, while its family attractions include one of France’s oldest natural history museums and Le Vaisseau, a children’s hands-on science and technology centre.
Scenically dotted with castles, churches, villages and vineyards, Alsace as a whole has several family attractions, including Le Bioscope, a themepark with the mission to teach kids about the environment, and in the same départment (the Haut-Rhin) the Ecomusée d’Alsace, an open-air museum recreating an Alsatian village from days gone by.
Often mentioned in the same breath as Alsace, Lorraine to the northwest is made up of the departments of Vosges, Meuthe-et-Moselle, Moselle and Meuse. Bordering three other countries (Germany, Luxembourg and Belgium), it’s known as France’s ‘green lung’ because of its unspoilt landscape of forests, hills, valleys, rivers, and lakes dotted by medieval towns.
Between here and the Ile-de-France (see above) surrounding Paris lies Champagne-Ardenne, best known for its bubbly, and one of France’s most sparsely populated areas, given over to farmland and vineyards. Though most tourists come here to go on wine trails and see the old architecture of towns such as Troyes (in the Aube) and Langres, the forests and lakes make it good for those who enjoy the great outdoors.
The Champagne-Ardennes département of Haute Marne is good for cycling, with lots of ‘green routes’, some beside the canal. Meanwhile, the département of Marne is centred on Reims, with its cathedral in which French kings were traditionally crowned, but there’s plenty of alfresco fun to be had too, including mountain-biking in the Parc Régional de la Montagne de Reims. The Champagne-Ardennes’ last département, the very wooded Ardennes, is most familiar for its pâté, but it’s also the name of a region of forests, hills and ancient mountains shared between France, Belgium and Luxembourg.
North again and we’ve nearly come full circle to the English Channel. Picardy, famed best for the battlefields of the Somme, is a good region for families to get close to nature.
It's bordered to the west by Normandy(see above) and to the east by the densely populated Nord-Pas-de-Calais region, divided into the two départements of Nord and Pas-de-Calais, the latter offering classic French seaside fun within easy reach of the UK (ferries run to Calais and Boulogne). The Nord département, bordering Belgium, is France’s northernmost and most heavily populated, with a second official language, French Flemish (a Dutch dialect). Most visitors venture only as far as the capital Lille, for a city break or to change from the Eurostar to the French TGV network, although walking and cycling is also popular.
Lastly, don’t forget, down in the Med, south of Marseilles, the French island of Corsica, a great destination for family holidays mixing beach loafing with adventurous activities.