The top cultural and surprising experiences in France this autumn

A street art trail, heritage cruise, video maps, choreographed sound and light shows, open-air exhibitions, historical immersion... Culture is expanding its remit. In the great outdoors, in unusual spaces, and in small groups accompanied by artists and artisans, art is breaking boundaries for an even greater impact. Here’s the proof with 13 extraordinary artistic experiences this autumn.

#1 - Face the wall in Lille, Hauts-de-France

A giant yellow cat with a cheesy grin smiles at you from a red brick wall at Tri Postal... Shoals of colourful fish swim by on rooftops and across pavements, under bridges and on garage doors... A stone’s throw from Gare Saint-Sauveur, the former train station now a cultural hotspot in Lille, you’ll find a giant azulejo mural by globetrotting artist, Hervé di Rosa. In Lille, street art is making a splash, through official commissions as well as unauthorised images. Giant murals, graffiti, tags, stencils, collages... You’ll find more than 600 pieces of art along the 20+ guided trails organised by Hauts-de-France Tourism and the Renart Collective. Face the walls!

Hauts-de-France Tourism (in French) (External link)
Lille, a buzzing cultural hotspot (in French) (External link)
Renart Collective (in French) (External link)

#2 - An experience fit for a king at Versailles, Ile-de-France

A trip to Versailles from Paris is a regal outing... just as it always has been! A masterpiece of 17th century architecture, the Sun King’s chateau with its 2300 rooms and 800-hectare estate is truly awe-inspiring. There’s also the King's Vegetable Garden where this autumn, cultural foodies can fill their baskets with heritage vegetables. For this culinary experience, Ore, the first-floor restaurant of Alain Ducasse at the Pavillon Dufour, is laying on an ostentatious interpretation of Renaissance dining with servers decked out in livery, historical menus, Marie-Antoinette’s porcelain... And now, visitors can get the full Versailles experience by spending a night within the palace grounds at the new Le Grand Contrôle - Airelles Châteaux de Versailles Hotel. Nothing compares!

A weekend in Versailles (External link)
Ducasse au château de Versailles (External link)

#3 - Slam poetry in fine company in Rennes, Brittany

Hear-ye! Hear-ye! The history of Rennes and its iconic locations – Place des Lices, the Breton Parliament, Rue du Chapitre, Saint-Georges swimming pool, to name but a few – can also be told in the rhythmic chant of slam poetry. You’ll need to understand a bit of French if you’re to keep up with this stroll through the Breton capital’s urban heritage, but even for beginners, the vividly evocative words of Elvi, a modern-day poet, will find their mark. Along the way, you’ll cross paths with a colourful little cube by the mosaic artist, Odorico, and graffiti from the Teenage Kicks urban art biennial, which has made Rennes its home until 2022. And thanks to the history slam, you won’t be lost for words to describe your trip.

A poetic history tour of Rennes (in French) (External link)
Teenage Kicks Rennes (External link)
Odorico Mosaics (External link)

#4 - Lighting up Chartres, Centre Val de Loire

Chartres cathedral as you’ve never seen it before! Not to mention the Fine Art Museum, the Collegial Church of Saint André, the bridges and wash houses on the banks of the Eure and more... For 150 nights, until 31 December 2021, Chartres in Lights will light up the city’s architecture in a spectacular and unrivalled show. There are rhythmic choreographies with accompanying soundtracks, and bright, sparkling scenes where vibrant flora and fauna grace the contours and façades of 23 monuments and attractions. Keep your eyes peeled! You can choose from a selection of 15+ routes through Chartres in Lights, take a guided tour or go on your own with the dedicated app. It’s magical!

Chartres in Lights (External link)
Chartres Cathedral (External link)

#5 – Say “cheese!” in Toulouse, Occitanie

After the opening of Jean Dieuzade’s retrospective of his work at the Church of the Jacobins, the artist is turning heads on the streets of Toulouse to mark the 100th anniversary of his birth in 1921. Over 30 large format shots by the local boy turned photographer and reporter, provide the perfect opportunity for a bit of original urban exploration. It’s a chance to (re)discover the monuments and attractions of the ville rose and see them in a whole new light. The Capitole arcades, Victor Hugo market, Allées Jean-Jaurès, Halle aux Grains, Augustins Museum, and the Château d’Eau gallery which Dieuzaide founded in 1974, the Church of the Jacobins, Carmes market... the list goes on, each offering a beautifully fresh perspective on the familiar.

Toulouse Tourism (External link)

#6 - Travel back in time in Besançon, Bourgogne Franche-Comté

Tick-tock, tick-tock... Did you know that the birthplace of Victor Hugo is also the cradle of French watchmaking? In 2020, UNESCO added the craftsmanship of mechanical watchmaking found along the Jura Arc, on the border between France and Switzerland, to the list of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity. To see if you have what it takes to be a master watchmaker, sign up for a fun and educational workshop with a craftsman. They will reveal the secrets and inner workings of mechanical and quartz watches. Armed with this insider knowledge, you’ll find the Museum of Time, nestled within the elegant Palais Grenvelle, even more fascinating. And from the top of its tower, you can take in unbeatable views of Besançon and its citadel.

Bourgogne Franche-Comté Tourism, in French (External link)
Besançon Museum of Time, in French (External link)

#7 History from every angle in Caen, Normandy

If you find war commemorations a bit dry, you’ll be glad to hear that the Caen Memorial Museum, with its interactive and educational curation, is nothing of the sort. To feel the full weight of history, the new immersive 360° exhibit: “Europe, Our History”, places you in the eye of the storm for 19 minutes as pivotal events from the 20th century are shown on 11 screens around you. The exhibition is an unprecedented visual and audio experience which is as dynamic and innovative as it is impressive, screening priceless archive footage held by the Memorial Museum. It provides a way to understand the sequencing of the two world wars and the conflict in Bosnia – without any lengthy lectures.

Normandy Tourism (External link)
Discover Caen (External link)
Caen Memorial Museum (External link)

#8 - Drenched in wine and art in Bordeaux, Nouvelle-Aquitaine

Bordeaux’s Cité du Vin, on the banks of the River Garonne, is an established attraction. The incredible labyrinthine curves of this gleaming gold vessel engage all the senses as it invites visitors on a journey through winemaking history, culture, and civilizations. The tour culminates with a wine tasting on the panoramic terrace.

A few cable lengths away, one of the city’s new cultural flagships is rather more hidden, nestling within the confines of a former submarine base. Like the Atelier des Lumières in Paris and the Carrières de Lumières in Provence, Les Bassins de Lumières, which opened in 2020, is an astonishingly immersive way to experience art with a stroll through larger-than-life panoramic projections of paintings.

Bordeaux Tourism (External link)
Culturespaces (External link)
Bassins de Lumière (External link)

#9 - Changing points of view in Arles, Provence

In Arles American architect Frank Gehry has delivered a glistening building-come-sculpture - just as he did in Bilbao with the Guggenheim Museum. The 56m high tower with its twisted façade adorned with stainless steel panels, captures and reflects the beautiful light of Provence in infinite iterations. Opened in June 2021, the LUMA Arles Tower is home to exhibition spaces, an auditorium, and art studios. On the 9th floor there is a hanging terrace – from which you can enjoy the best views of Arles. At its feet, the Drum, a giant glass rotunda reminiscent of an amphitheatre, references the city’s roots in antiquity. Pop in before or after admiring the famous Roman arena of Arles.

Arles Tourism (External link)
Luma Arles (External link)

#10 - Quench your thirst for knowledge in Lyon, Auvergne Rhône-Alpes

Contemplating the Musée des Confluences, you would be forgiven for thinking that a futuristic spaceship has landed at the confluence of the rivers Rhone and Saône. And yet, once inside, it invites visitors to explore the past. Within its two strangely entangled wings – Cristal and Nuage – visitors can discover the history of humanity and Earth. The museum boasts a superb programme of educational and fun activities, with magnificent and extraordinarily captivating exhibition spaces. There are interactive workshops and digital spaces for inquisitive play and experimentation designed to help visitors better understand the 21st century world and the challenges that our planet faces.

Auvergne Rhône-Alpes Tourism (External link)
Musée des Confluences (External link)

#11 - The soul of Corsica laid bare in Bastia, in Corsica

Among the narrow lanes of Terra-Vecchia, the oldest part of Bastia, in Haute-Corse, you’ll get a glimpse of Corsica’s soul. Baroque oratories, majestic churches where the voices of the choir resonate beautifully, the picturesque old port, and the market square which tempts you to linger and sample scrumptious regional produce... The joy of good eating flavoured by the maquis (aromatic shrubland) can be explored further along the Strada di i Sensi producers and artisans agritourism route. It wends its way through Bastia backcountry, from Cap Corse to Nebbiu, linking 68 producers and artisans. Along the way there’s ample time to meet livestock farmers, beekeepers, olive farmers, chestnut growers, winemakers and market gardeners... the best way to understand Corsica is through its producers, artisans and traditions.

Visit Corsica (External link)
Bastia Tourism (External link)

#12 - Take an artistic cruise along the Loire, Nantes

Sailing 60km down the River Loire to the Saint-Nazaire estuary in the fine ocean light is one of the highlights of a trip to Nantes. Cruises run until late October, taking in 30+ works of art installed by A Journey to Nantes. If you’re short on time, for just the price of a single tram ticket, the Navibus (cyclists welcome) takes you from the city centre to the little port of Trentemoult with its colourful houses, in just five minutes. A mini-crossing can also be made to get to LAB (an impressive microbrewery with bars, terraces, and a restaurant). It’s a stone’s throw from the Jardin Extraordinaire, and the Hangar à Bananes, on the Île de Nantes. It’s here that artist Daniel Buren installed his surprising series of rings, best viewed from the River Loire.

Nantes Tourism (External link)
Estuary Cruise (External link)

#13 - A different way to discover the heritage of Strasbourg, Alsace

In late 2019, Strasbourg saw the opening of a very original cultural space. Unusually named The 5e Lieu, which refers its address at 5 Place du Château and the fact that it is the fifth building in the square, sitting alongside the cathedral, Fustel de Coulanges high school, Palais Rohan and the Œuvre Notre-Dame museum. With such prestigious neighbours, it’s a must-see. The ground floor showcases the cultural offerings of Alsace. On the first floor, the “Trip through Strasbourg” permanent exhibition reveals the city’s architecture and heritage through cutting edge interactive and fun installations. Quizzes, animated models, video maps… It’s a journey through Strasbourg’s past and future – and guaranteed to inspire you to explore the city for yourself.

Visit Alsace (External link)
5e Lieu Strasbourg (External link)