According to World Tourism Rankings, France was the most visited country in 2019 − with 89.4 million tourist arrivals. Even with the pandemic, the country continues to attract visitors.
The Côte d’Azur’s iconic landmarks, rich culture and stunning beaches were on my itinerary but I was also eager to return to Paris.
The popularity of hit Netflix show Emily in Paris – now in its second season – has further fuelled the world’s desire to visit France’s already-famous capital city. I even saw a giant poster promoting the show en-route to Paris’s city centre – it seems French people are eagerly following Emily’s adventures as well.
A few weeks before my December trip, news of the new Omicron variant began to surface. At that point, Europe was already reporting Omicron cases, and a fifth wave of Covid had hit many countries.
When I visited, France had between 40,000 and 60,000 new cases per day. Throughout the first week of January, the country has been averaging about 260,000 new cases a day.
So how did the surging cases and Omicron fears affect my trip? And how is France dealing with the virus?
The numbers might sound scary, but it really was business as usual in both Paris and the French Riviera.
France allows fully vaccinated tourists to enter quarantine-free, though a travel ban on the UK has currently been imposed in response to Omicron.
Most tourist attractions, restaurants and public venues are open to travellers. Nightclubs have been closed since December 9 as part of precautionary measures, and will continue to remain shut until at least January 24.
Masks are required in all indoor venues, as well as on public transport and domestic flights. A €135 (AU$213) fine is imposed for non-compliance. And from January 3, masks will be required outdoors in all towns and city centres.
The rules are firmly enforced. We saw a tourist attempting to remove his mask for a selfie with the Mona Lisa at the Louvre. He was immediately told to put it back on by museum staff.
Even though the pandemic has affected tourism, Paris is still the famed city of light and love. The Eiffel Tower continues to enchant travellers and is particularly mesmerising when it lights up at night.
Of course, avoiding crowds is hard to do in a place like Paris. Other famous attractions such as the Louvre and Sacré-Cœur Basilica are packed with tourists, though queues to enter aren’t as crazy as they are in summer.
In December, some of the Christmas markets were in full swing, too. I visited one at the Tuileries Gardens right next to the Louvre. There was plenty of mulled wine, amusement rides and stalls selling German food.
If ditching the crowds (and viral exposure) is a priority, I recommend some unique, lesser-known activities. For example, a food tour with Eating Europe through the charming Montmartre neighbourhood. You get to chow down on French favourites such as croissants, macaroons, cheeses and wines, and tour sizes are kept small.
Visiting the catacombs was another fascinating experience. Visitors are capped at 200 at any time and tickets must be booked online. You’ll find yourself among the skeletal remains of 6 million Parisians who died during the 1800s.
If you’re visiting France during the low season (January to March), a trip to the French Riviera is a delight.
Cities such as Nice are usually swarmed with holiday-makers in the summer. But in winter, the streets of the old town were gloriously empty. As was the case in the picturesque commune of Villefranche-sur-mer, with its tranquil port and pastel-coloured buildings.
While most visitors flock to glamorous Monaco, Cannes and Saint Tropez, I opted for their off-the-beaten-path neighbours. This included Eze, a gorgeous cliff-side medieval village. For unparalleled views of the Mediterranean Sea, make a pitstop at the village’s Le Jardin Exotique.
The quiet town of Menton was another favourite. Situated right on the border with Italy, it boasts beautiful beaches, charming narrow alleys and a colourful, photogenic old town.
What you need to know before going
* Australians can visit without quarantining by producing a negative PCR or rapid antigen test taken within 48 hours of departure.
* A health pass (pass sanitaire) is needed to enter most indoor venues. You can store it as a digital vaccination certificate on the TousAntiCovid app. Australians can visit French pharmacies and convert their certs into a health pass for a €36 (AU$57) fee.
* Two doses of either the Pfizer, AstraZeneca or Moderna vaccine are needed to qualify as fully vaccinated.
* Make advance reservations for well-reviewed restaurants. Most are tiny and arriving after 7pm means waiting for a table.
* Avoid queues at popular attractions by buying skip-the-line tickets online. Try websites such as getyourguide.com.
Take me there
Fly: Flights to Paris in January start at $1300 return.
Stay: A room at the mid-range Les Jardins d’Eiffel in Paris starts at $250 per night. In Nice, rooms at Ibis Styles Nice Centre Gare start at $120.
Explore more: au.france.fr