France has brought us so much culture and art and, at the same time, championed the modern concept of a vacation. To get the most out of your next visit, be mindful of these changes and developments for 2016.
In Paris, 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. While it will remain open, some of its rooms may be closed. The Louis Vuitton Foundation is the latest entrant to the Paris art scene. Its glass, sailboat-like 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 audio guide for their collections. There’s also more online ticketing (which, depending on the museum, can save time in line).
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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 (www.easybus.com). Uber now provides airport transport and may save some money over a taxi, but because they can’t use the bus-only lanes as normal taxis can, expect some added drive time.
In Normandy, 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. In Bayeux, a new minivan service (Bayeux Shuttle, www.bayeuxshuttle.com) offers service to and from Mont St-Michel, which is a huge help to those “sans” cars.
While there are more than 100 castles you can visit in the Loire Valley, you might want to skip the Chateau d’Azay-le-Rideau, which is under renovation until spring 2017. It remains open, but some wings may close temporarily and scaffolding may cover parts of the exterior.
To the southwest, in the Dordogne, some of the Grotte de Font-de-Gaume prehistoric cave tours can be reserved in advance by email or phone, but space is extremely limited. Sales of advance tickets open on January 2 for the entire year – and everything is usually sold out by March. For Lascaux II, a replica of another prehistoric cave, reservations are highly recommended in July and August and accepted only two to five days in advance by phone.
For those who want to get above it all, Chamonix’s gondola over the Alps to Italy has reopened after years of closure (at the Helbronner stop). The new gondola, called Skyway Monte Bianco, offers an amazing ride as you head into Italy – it rotates 360 degrees as you sail along. A new museum in Chamonix, the Mountaineering Center (part of Espace Tairraz), showcases local ascents and has an interactive climbing simulator.
In Alsace, the Unterlinden Museum in Colmar has reopened after a multiyear restoration, and its masterpiece, Matthias Gruenewald’s gripping “Isenheim Altarpiece,” is back on view. Minivan tours of Route du Vin wineries are no longer offered from Colmar, but an alternative is Ophorus Tours (www.ophorus.com), which leaves from Strasbourg. Its tours visit several wine villages and include wine tastings and time to wander.
This year also marks a milestone in France’s WWI history – the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Verdun. The Memorial de Verdun WWI museum is scheduled to complete its renovations in February and will offer the best historic exhibits on this battle anywhere.
In 2016 it will be easier to see ancient Roman sights in Provence. In Avignon, a direct express bus now goes to Vaison-la-Romaine, a picturesque town chock-full of ancient ruins. And at Pont du Gard, there are two new options for seeing the Roman aqueduct in the summer. There’s 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 are offered six times a day in both French and English.
In the Riviera, Nice’s new tramline makes getting around the town center easier than ever. Nice’s Russian Cathedral, long closed for renovation, hopes to reopen early this year. But some changes aren’t for the best: During summer, swimmers should watch out for swarms of jellyfish, which are becoming more prevalent due to the warming sea. Ask before you dip.
And with the dollar about 15 percent stronger than the euro compared to a year ago, enjoying France will be particularly affordable in the coming year.
Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow his blog on Facebook.