The top cultural experiences you might not expect in France this autumn

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

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

A giant yellow cat with a cheesy grin smiles out from the red brick wall at Tri Postal... Shoals of colourful fish swim by on rooftops, across pavements, under bridges, and on garage doors... And a stone’s throw from Gare Saint-Sauveur train station, a cultural hotspot for Lille, you’ll find a giant azulejo mural by the globetrotting artist, Hervé di Rosa. Because in Lille, street art is making noise, through both official commissions and illicit depictions. Giant murals, graffiti, tags, stencils, collages... More than 600 pieces of art to discover along 20+ guided trails organised by Hauts-de-France Tourism and the Renart Collective. Eyes on the wall!

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, in Ile-de-France

From Paris, a trip to Versailles is a regal outing... just as it always has been! A masterpiece of 17th century architecture, the Sun King’s chateau is truly awe-inspiring, with its 2300 rooms and 800-hectare estate. Then there’s the King's Vegetable Garden where this autumn, cultural foodies can fill their baskets with ancient vegetables. For this culinary experience, Ore, Alain Ducasse’s restaurant on the first floor of the Dufour Pavillon, is laying on an ostentatious reinterpretation of Renaissance dining. 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 Summer Weekend in Versailles (External link)
Ducasse au château de Versailles (External link)

#3 - Slamming it 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’ll never 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, in 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... For 150 nights up until 31 December 2021, Chartres in Lights will be illuminating the city’s architectural heritage 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, on a guided tour or on your own with the dedicated app. It’s magical!

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

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

While you wait for the retrospective of his work to open at the Church of the Jacobins from 4 December 2021 to 6 March 2022, Jean Dieuzaide 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, the Allées Jean-Jaurès, the Halle aux Grains, the Augustins Museum, the Château d’Eau gallery that 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, in Bourgogne Franche-Comté

Tick-tock, tick-tock... Did you know that Victor Hugo’s birthplace is also the cradle of French watchmaking? In 2020, UNESCO inscribed the craftsmanship of mechanical watchmaking and art mechanics found along the Jura Arc, on the border between France and Switzerland, on the representative list of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity. To see if you have what it takes to be a master watchmaker, you can sign up for a fun and educational workshop with a craftsman who will show you all 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, all the 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, in Normandy

If you find war commemorations a bit too heavy, you’ll be glad to hear that the Caen Memorial Museum is nothing of the sort, with its interactive and educational curation. And 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 exhibit is an unprecedented visual and audio experience that 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 three world and European wars, without any lengthy lectures.

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

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

Bordeaux’s Cité du Vin, on the banks of the Garonne, was already an established attraction, an incredible vessel in gleaming gold whose labyrinthine curves invite visitors on a journey through winemaking history, culture, and civilizations that engages all of the senses. The tour culminates with a tasting on the panoramic terrace.
A few cable lengths away, one of the city’s new cultural flagships is nevertheless kept safe from prying eyes, 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 Lumière, opened in 2020 serve up an astonishingly immersive way to experience art, on a larger-than-life stroll through a panoramic projection of a painting.

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

#9 - Changing points of view in Arles, in Provence

Just as he did in Bilbao with the Guggenheim Museum, in Arles the American architect Frank Gehry has delivered a glistening building-come-sculpture: a 56m totem tower whose twisted façade, adorned with stainless steel panels, captures and reflects the beautiful Provence light in infinite iterations. Opened in June 2021, the LUMA Arles Tower is home to exhibition spaces, an auditorium, and art studios, and its 9th floor offers access to a hanging terrace and the best views of Arles. At its foot, the Drum, a giant glass rotunda reminiscent of an amphitheatre, references the city’s roots in antiquity. Stop by before or after taking in Arles’ famous Roman arenas.

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

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

Contemplating the Musée des Confluences, you would be forgiven for thinking that a futuristic spaceship had 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 are treated to a long tracking shot of the history of both humanity and the planet itself. The museum boasts an entire programme of scholarly and fun activities, with magnificent exhibition spaces that are as impenetrable and captivating as they come, interactive workshops, and digital spaces for inquisitive play and experimentation, all in an effort to better understand the 21st century world and the challenges facing our planet.

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

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

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

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

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

Sailing 60km down the 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. Short on time? For the price of a tram ticket, the Navibus (cyclists welcome) takes you from the city centre to the little port of Trentemoult and its colourful houses in just five minutes. As of 2020, a mini-crossing can also be made between LAB (an impressive microbrewery with bars, terraces, and restaurant), a stone’s throw from the Jardin Extraordinaire, and the Hangar à Bananes, on the Ile de Nantes. And it’s there that Daniel Buren installed his surprising series of rings, which can be seen from a unique vantage point out on the Loire.

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

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

In late 2019, Strasbourg saw the opening of an original cultural space. Its name? The 5e Lieu, named in reference to its address at 5 Place du Château, as well as to the building it inhabits, which is the fifth in the square, alongside the cathedral, Fustel de Coulanges high school, Palais Rohan and the Œuvre Notre-Dame museum. With such prestigious neighbours, you can’t miss it. On the ground floor, you will find a showcase of the cultural offering in the capital 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 past and future that’s sure to make you want to get out there and explore the city yourself.

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