The art of the French picnic
By Izzy from our France team
Is there anything more quintessentially French than a picnic on a river bank, sipping a glass of rosé in the afternoon sun and watching the boats glide past? Young and old, families, couples and groups of friends all gather on sunny days to indulge in the pleasures of good food and conversation enjoyed in the fresh air.
I always suggest that visitors to France do the same. And one of the great joys of a French picnic is how accessible it is to everyone. All you need to do is visit a market to pick up a few provisions and then find a pretty spot outdoors. If you want an authentic experience, I have a few suggestions garnered from my years living in France.
What to eat
Because the French always eat locally and seasonally, parts of a picnic menu will vary based on when and where you are visiting. But the basic components are always available at markets across the country.
Begin, of course, with a baguette from a local boulangerie — at mid-morning, you should be able to find one that’s still warm from the oven. If a whole baguette seems like too much, ask for a demi-baguette (half a loaf) or consider buying a ficelle, which is a shorter and thinner variation on the traditional shape. You can also get them studded with olives or bacon (pain aux lardons).
From there, head to a fromagerie for a few small cheeses. I always buy at least one soft variety — often a Camembert — and scoop up small bites with the end of my ficelle.
Briny, tiny cornichons add a bright note to the meal. Paté or jambon (ham) from a charcuterie adds some heft to your menu, or you can visit a rotisserie for a juicy leg of chicken, its skin crisped to a rich golden brown.
A bunch of parsley or other herbs adds a simple but indulgent touch to the cheese. A few small salads round out your lunch — I’m particularly fond of salade de carottes râpée, a modest dish made of grated carrots, lightly dressed.
For dessert, visit a patisserie to pick up whatever catches your fancy: sunny and luscious tarte au citron (lemon tarts), classic eclairs or just a few macarons. Visit a fruit seller to supplement that with whatever is in season at the moment.
The most essential ingredient, however, is a bottle of wine. Choose whatever appeals to you, but if you want to live like the French do, know that rosé is the wine of choice for sitting in the sun.
Where to buy your food
Shop as the French do — at the daily markets. There, you will find tables and baskets heaped high with the reddest strawberries, the most succulent melons and the crispest apples. It’s also home to all the small producers that stock the food you need: fragrant boulangeries, well-stocked fromageries and charcuteries staffed with trained butchers who will cut the preserved ham into translucent slices marbled with veins of meltingly rich fat.
The French believe in lunch, and shops shut down promptly at noon to allow workers to enjoy their own meals. As such, you should plan ahead a bit to pick up your picnic provisions.
Where to eat…
Picnicking is perhaps most popular in Paris. The city’s parks and the banks of the Seine fill each summer at midday with Parisians enjoying their meal alfresco. Over the years, I’ve found three locales that I return to, time and time again, when I’m enjoying a Paris picnic.
Sprawling and impeccably manicured, Luxembourg Garden is the classic setting for a picnic in the city. You can sit on one of the benches or spread out on the lush lawns in the shade of one of the carefully manicured topiary trees — you’ll never see a ‘Please stay off the grass’ sign in Paris. And there’s no need for a blanket.
No matter where you eat, your meal is likely to be accompanied by scenes of French life — buskers performing, artists painting en plein air and locals playing boules or chess. Children sail toy boats on the central pond, especially on Wednesdays, when the schools are out.
The outskirts of the Île de la Cité and Île Saint-Louis are also popular among picnickers. And for good reason — it’s hard to improve on the view from here. Sitting on the Seine’s stone embankments, you can dangle your feet over the water and admire Notre Dame from afar.
Or, you can cross one of the many bridges to one of the islands’ parks. You can see the Pont Neuf from the Square du Vert-Galant, a small park on the northwest tip of Île de la Cité. At the other end, Square Jean XXIII offers interesting views of the cathedral’s less-photographed southeast side. On Île Saint-Louis, Square Barye is almost entirely enclosed by trees, providing a quiet retreat.
However, as popular as the garden and the islands are, I think I prefer Place des Vosges, the oldest planned square in the city. At the heart of Le Marais, the square is lined with red-brick town houses instead of the classic Haussmann apartments, giving it a feeling of a village removed from the rest of the city. Get there early — I’m not the only one who likes to eat there and spots in the shade can fill up quickly.
Conveniently, Place des Vosges is close to two of the best markets in Paris. In the 12th arrondissement, the Marché d’Aligre reflects a richer mix than many of the other markets in the city, with venerable stands mixed in freely alongside newer ones. Similarly, the Marché des Enfants Rouge in the 3rd arrondissement is a lively market that nonetheless respects its history as the oldest covered market in Paris.
After a lingering lunch, I spend the afternoon wandering through Le Marais. The crooked medieval lanes of the district are crammed with fashionable boutiques, chic galleries and au courant cafés where Parisians come to see and be seen.
…in the Loire Valley
The fertile lowlands of the Loire Valley are densely dotted with stately chateaux, their blue-slate turrets and gardens carefully preserved for posterity. At most of the state-run chateaux the exquisitely manicured grounds are a delight to explore — especially at Château Villandry — but that’s not where I turn when I want to picnic in the region.
Instead, while driving between Villandry and Château d'Azay-le-Rideau, I suggest you stop at Château de l’Islette. It’s a sweet little chateau that is privately owned, where family photos still hang in the kitchen. It’s also the nid d'amour where Rodin conducted his tempestuous affair with fellow sculptor Camille Claudel in the 1890s.
You can bring your own picnic or pick up a basket at the chateau and fill it with local produce. Chèvre and rillettes (a rich and tender pork spread) are regional delicacies in the Loire Valley, and I strongly suggest you include some in your picnic. You can also choose a bottle of Loire wine — the region is known for its 4,000 wineries which produce every sort of wine, though I prefer the sweet, sparkling variety.
The grounds here are less formal than the Renaissance masterpieces at Villandry, filled instead with casual drifts of wildflowers. You can have your picnic at one of the tables in the gardens, or you can take a rowboat out to one of the small islands that stand in the river’s wide curves and enjoy your lunch on the grassy bank, shaded by a silver-leaf willow.
The rounded hills of Provence are topped with small villages that date back to the Middle Ages or even the Roman era. Each has its own personality and charms, but they all share a few things in common: crooked medieval lanes, golden limestone buildings and a weekly market featuring produce from the surrounding countryside.
To me, food in Provence always seems more vibrant than everywhere else. It’s as if the region’s endless golden sunshine had been coalesced into scarlet tomatoes, cheerful orange carrots and fragrant, delicate apricots. Because of this, Provençal market days are the perfect opportunity for a spontaneous picnic.
I like to wander past all the stalls, each shaded by a bright umbrella, and pick up a bit of anything that catches my eye. Here, you’ll find crocks of glistening olives, baskets heaped with herb-flecked saucisson and sun-warmed melons that perfume the air with their sweet floral scent.
Like the Loire Valley, Provence is known for its chèvre and you’ll find plenty for sale, often formed into truncated pyramids and rolled in spices. You can also pick up the usual picnic fare — bread, ham and the rosé that the region is known for.
When I have access to a car, and the season is right, I head out of town to the nearest field of lavender or sunflowers and enjoy my meal accompanied by the humming of the bees. When the flowers aren’t blooming, I suggest you find a nearby river bank instead.
If I am staying in town, I will head to the main square, which is inevitably lined with cafés. On a busy market day, their tables spill out into the square under the arcade (a covered gallery around the perimeter). As long as you order drinks from the café, many will allow you to enjoy your feast at one of their tables, offering a shady respite from the heat as well as a good vantage point for people watching.
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