7 Great Reasons to Discover France in Autumn

There’s a definite chill in the air, and the trees are turning orange: autumn is definitely here! It’s the season for mushroom picking, of incredible golden light, and major, must-see exhibitions... It’s also the perfect season for discovering France’s treasures without the crowds.

To savour seasonal produce

While summer gives us fresh fruit and vegetables at their sun-kissed best, autumn is a time for cooking up delicious meals and savouring the produce that hasn’t crossed our lips since the previous year. Autumn brings the aroma of freshly picked mushrooms, and the joy of porcini simmering away in a pan with some garlic, or a tasty girolle sauce. The stalls at the market are creaking under the weight of myriad varieties of squash, the stars of any autumn meal whether served mashed, as a soup, or as a gratin.

Autumn is also the perfect time to rediscover meals that are left to stew: head to Bourgogne to sample an authentic beef bourgignon; or to the Loire Valley, Alsace, or Provence for traditional game dishes: leg of venison in grand veneur sauce, woodcock roasted with bacon, venison or wild boar stew, roast venison with cranberries, quail with grape... the list is endless.

But France’s coastal regions are not to be outdone: in Brittany and Normandy, autumn is a feast of winkles, mussels, clams, and scallops. And as for the oysters, did you know that they are best enjoyed September to April? Tradition has it that oysters should only be eaten in months that end in “r”.

To try and fit in all the major exhibitions

In France, autumn means back-to-school time, but it’s also the time that museums choose to launch their major exhibitions. In Paris, you’re spoilt for choice: from the Louvre to the Musée d’Orsay, and on to the Pompidou Centre, the Musée du Luxembourg, the Bourse de Commerce - Pinault Foundation, the Picasso Museum, and the Louis Vuitton Foundation.

Culture is omnipresent in France: there’s the Mucem in Marseille, the Louvre-Lens in Hauts-de-France, FRAC Nouvelle-Aquitaine, MECA in Bordeaux, MuMa Le Havre, the Fondation Maeght on the Côte d’Azur, the Pompidou Centre Metz, the Modern Art Museum in Fontevraux, and the Centre de Création Contemporaine Olivier Debré in the Loire Valley, not to mention the Soulages Museum in Occitanie, the Musée des Confluences in Lyon, and the Carrières de Lumières in Provence... to name but a few of France’s iconic museums.

Must-See Exhibitions in France in 2020-2021
Must-See Exhibitions in Paris in 2020-2021

To bask in golden light

A picture is worth a thousand words: the summit of Sainte-Victoire painted gold. Immortalised by Cézanne, the autumn light in Provence is unforgettable. The painters of the Fauvism movement were right about that, as they recreated the warm shades of autumn on all their canvasses. Matisse and Derain never stopped working with that shimmering light so characteristic of the autumn season, nor did Van Gogh and Monet, for whom autumn in the garden at Giverny, between Paris and Normandy, was an endless source of inspiration.

But if there’s one place where the autumn light captures the spirit more than anywhere else, it’s on the coast once the crowds have returned home from the popular summer resorts of the Côte d’Azur, and still more along the entire Atlantic coast where the days stretch out that little bit longer. It can be seen when the shadows grow longer across a Normandy beach, when the last rays of sun warm the sands in Biarritz, and when the sun pierces through the pine forests of Les Landes or Corsica. Autumn is never in summer’s shadow.

To wander through a forest bedecked in the colours of an Indian summer

The moist earth beneath your boots releases the beautiful aroma of mushrooms. In dry weather, your footsteps crunch across crisp fallen leaves. Throughout the forest, animals are busy making their final preparations for winter. Autumn has definitely come to the forest! But the season brings a distinct feel in different French regions.

Whether in Sologne or the forests of Chambord in the Loire Valley, or in the deep forests of Rambouillet or Chantilly in Ile-de-France, autumn gets very colourful, very quickly. Each species of tree brings its own splash of colour: yellow for poplars, orange for beech trees... and so on.

On the mountainsides of the Alps, across the Vosges Massif, and in the mountains of Jura, Auvergne, and the Pyrenees, autumn is primarily a two-tone affair. At the beginning of the season, the pines still shine in dark green, while other foliage takes on more flamboyant shades, turning the hills and mountains into an ode to oranges of every hue.

In Dordogne, Bourgogne and the Basque Country, the hills don every imaginable shade in a joyous farewell to the summer sun.

To enjoy the last of the sunny terraces

The last sunny days out on the terrace have a particular air about them, reminiscent of the year’s first sunny days, in spring. Wanting to make the joys of summer last as long as we can, come autumn we don’t need much of an excuse to settle down on a terrace with a drink. We might already be wearing our warm coats, but we’ve still got the sunglasses on!

From the Channel down to the Med, French cities set up their terraces on their streets and squares, providing a perfect opportunity to soak up some vitamin D while the fine weather lasts. Whether it’s for a quick spot of lunch or a hot chocolate, there’s no wrong reason to take a seat and sip on a drink while you do a bit of people-watching. And why not get a bit closer to the sun on the new rooftop terraces that are now all the rage in Paris, as well as on the French Riviera, in Lyon, Nantes, Strasbourg, Marseille, and Bordeaux? The perfect way to squeeze the last drops of sun out of summer.

To admire the work of winemakers and see the vineyards in full colour

In most French regions, the grape harvest is just coming to an end when autumn arrives, and the vineyards are a hive of activity, as are the villages and estates around them, where they organise a whole host of parties to celebrate the end of the harvest!

It’s a dream opportunity to visit the vineyards when they are starting to quieten down and the vintners have a bit more time to share their passion. In the Côtes du Rhône, the Loire Valley, Jura, and Médoc, in Alsace and in Bourgogne, on the Côtes d'Azur, and in Provence and Occitanie, the vines turn red and gold when the winemakers are getting to work in their cellars. Pressing, treading, and barrel fermentation... autumn is when vineyards switch from working vines to making wines. And you can learn all about winemaking expertise and the processes involved along France’s various wine routes.

And just for a bit of variety, remember that Normandy has its cider route...

To dreamily drift along the canals

Autumn is also a time for taking things nice and slow. A time for watching leaves turn red and swirling in the wind, for getting out your yoga mat and saluting the morning sun, for settling down with a good book, having drinks well into the golden hour, or counting the stars come nightfall. But how can you focus on all this contemplation without getting distracted? Well, by taking a cruise along France’s rivers and canals, for starters! France is brimming with them (8500km of navigable water courses!), from the famous Canal du Midi in Occitanie to the myriad canals of Bourgogne, or from the Rhône and Marne canals and onwards to Alsace, not to mention the Seine, which takes you from Paris to Honfleur on the Normandy coast...