What’s New in France for 2016
France has brought us so much culture and art and, at the same time, championed the modern concept of a vacation. And with the dollar about 15 percent stronger than the euro compared to a year ago, enjoying France will be particularly affordable this year. To get the most out of your next visit, be mindful of these changes and developments for 2016.
The Eiffel Tower's first level — after a $38 million renovation — is decked out with new shops, eateries, and a multimedia presentation about the tower's construction, paint job, place in pop culture, and more. The highlight is the breathtaking, vertigo-inducing glass floor that lets you experience what it's like to stand atop an 18-story building and look straight down. Just a few blocks away, the Rodin Museum is now fully open after a three-year renovation.
Elsewhere in Paris, the Carnavalet Museum — which covers the history of Paris and has a great exhibit on the French Revolution — is undergoing renovations in 2016 (it will remain open, but some rooms may be closed). The Louis Vuitton Foundation is the latest entrant to the Paris art scene. Its cool, sailboat-like glass building, set in the Bois de Boulogne park, features modern and contemporary art.
All over Paris, more museums are offering free apps that serve as an audioguide for their collections. You'll also find more opportunities to buy your sightseeing tickets online (which, depending on the museum, can help you avoid a queue).
There are also some fresh budget options for getting into Paris. A new EasyBus shuttle service runs from Charles de Gaulle Airport to Paris, with dirt-cheap fares. Uber now provides airport transport, and may save some money over a taxi, but because its drivers can't use the bus-only lanes as normal taxis can, expect some added drive time.
Up on the Norman coast, Mont St-Michel is a true island once again at high tide. It's reachable by a new super-sleek bridge rather than the old causeway that blocked the flow of water around the island. A new minivan service (Bayeux Shuttle) offers service between Bayeux and Mont St-Michel — a huge help to those traveling sans car.
Since the Loire Valley boasts more than 100 castles, it can be hard to choose which ones to visit. Here's a tip: This year, I'd skip the Château d'Azay-le-Rideau, as some wings may be closed during your visit, and scaffolding will likely cover parts of the exterior (renovation should wrap up in spring 2017).
To the east, Colmar's Unterlinden Museum has reopened after a multiyear restoration, and its masterpiece, Matthias Grünewald's gripping Isenheim Altarpiece, is back on view. While Colmar is no longer the departure point for any minivan tours of the Alsace's Route du Vin wineries, travelers based in Strasbourg can ride along with Ophorus Tours, which visit several wine villages and include wine tastings and time to wander.
This year marks a milestone in France's WWI history — the centennial of the Battle of Verdun. Just in time, the Mémorial de Verdun museum has completed its three-year renovation, and now offers the best historic exhibits on this monumental battle anywhere.
Farther south, in the Dordogne, it's become even more critical to reserve ahead for tours of the Grotte de Font-de-Gaume prehistoric caves. Sales of advance tickets (available by email or phone) usually open on January 2 for the entire year — and most slots are usually sold out by March. For Lascaux II, a replica of another prehistoric cave, reservations are easier to nab, but still highly recommended for visits in July and August, and accepted only two to five days in advance by phone.
Good news for alp-oholics: Chamonix's gondola over the Alps to Italy has opened again after years of closure (at the mountaintop Helbronner border station). The new lift, called Skyway Monte Bianco, offers an amazing ride as you head into (or from) Italy — rotating 360 degrees as you sail along. Down in the valley, Chamonix's new Mountaineering Center (part of the Espace Tairraz) showcases local ascents and has an interactive climbing simulator.
And in France's sunny south, the ancient Roman sights of Provence will also be easier to enjoy in 2016. In Avignon, a direct express bus now goes to Vaison-la-Romaine, a picturesque town chock-full of ancient ruins. At the Pont du Gard, visitors have two new options for seeing the Roman aqueduct in the summer: an after-hours program that lets visitors enjoy the sight until midnight, and (in July and August) half-hour tours through the water channel at the top of the aqueduct.
Along the Riviera, Nice's new tramline makes getting around the town center easier than ever. Nice's Russian Cathedral, long closed for renovation, opened in January after a two-year, $20 million renovation. But some changes aren't for the best: The warming of the sea has brought swarms of jellyfish to Riviera shores. Swimmers should ask around locally before they dip.
Hydraulic work around Mont St-Michel is complete, making it an island at high tide once again. (photo: Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli)
Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece is back on view at the Unterlinden Museum in Colmar. (photo: Rick Steves)