France is the third-largest country in Europe, but is one of the most popular vacation destinations in the world— and for good reason. Officially divided into 96 départements, France is characterized by the strength and diversity of its regional identities. These differences are a reflection of the topography, which varies from beaches on the palm-fringed Mediterranean and lush farmland in the Loire Valley and Normandy, to the high Alpine glaciers and chic Parisian boulevards. The countryside is an ever-changing patchwork of landscapes and traditions and this diversity makes exploring France a delight.
Brittany is characterized by fishermen's cottages, timber-framed houses, and its subtle British influences, while Burgundy is famous for its magnificent Romanesque cathedrals. The fairy-tale like chateaux of the Loire Valley contrast with the simple, red-tiled houses in the hilltop villages of Provence.
Every region has its own food specialties, such as the foie gras of Gascony, the bouillabaisse (fish stew) of Marseilles, the crepes and galettes of Brittany, and the rich dairy products from Normandy. Lyon is considered to be the gastronomic capital of France where one must dine at a traditional restaurant, called a bouchon, and try a salade lyonnaise or the saucisson de Lyon. Regions such as Burgundy, Champagne, and Bordeaux each have their own distinctive style of wine, and almost every region has at least one namesake cheese. France is a culinary treasure and there is something new and different to try in each city, town and village.
Lifestyles vary from the fashion-conscious, fast-paced life of Paris and Lyon to the rural culture of remote mountain villages in the Massif Central and the Pyrenees. France may be wedded to its heritage, but it is an equally forward-looking nation and the progenitor of everything avant-garde. From the Eiffel Tower, the Pompidou Centre and the Pyramid at the Louvre in Paris to the galleries of works by Picasso, Cézanne, and Matisse in the south of France, there is an enthusiasm for modernity that happily coexists with a reverence for tradition.