France is always working to show off its rich heritage in innovative ways. You'll see some impressive changes this year.
The big news in Paris is that the extensive, multi-year makeover of the Picasso Museum is nearing completion. The museum, which will reopen sometime in 2014, is home to the world’s largest collection of Picasso works, representing the full range of the artist’s many styles (check www.musee-picasso.fr for the latest).
Also in Paris, the Rodin Museum will stay open, though some rooms will close from time to time while renovation continues through 2015; on the plus side, visitors can currently enjoy some rarely displayed pieces and temporary exhibits (included in the ticket price). The museum's gardens — one of Paris’ best deals at only €1 — also remain open.
Online reservations for the Eiffel Tower, notorious for its lines, are easy if you book at least a month in advance. You can print out a paper ticket, or have the ticket sent to your mobile phone. An attendant scans the bar code on your phone, and voila, you’re on your way up.
St. Sulpice Church is no longer allowing visits to its massive pipe organ due to space constraints. However, the church’s superb organ recitals continue as usual.
Paris is going green: The Left Bank expressway from near the Orsay Museum to the Pont de l’Alma is being converted to a pedestrian promenade and riverside park and should be completed by 2014. Modeled on the city’s popular Vélib’ self-serve bike rentals, the Autolib’ electric car program (where users can pick up a car in one place and drop in another), is a smashing success.
In Arles, the new Fondation Van Gogh facility is the talk of the town, as it's rumored that several original Van Gogh paintings will accompany its opening in early 2014 at Hôtel Léautaud de Donines. The restoration of the city’s Roman Arena (Amphithéâtre) is now complete, but the Arlaten Folk Museum remains closed until 2015.
France's second city, Marseille, is still undergoing a massive 3.5 billion-euro face-lift as part of its designation as a European Capital of Culture for 2013. The pedestrian zone around the Old Port was redesigned — it's now as wide as the Champs-Elysées — and a new tramway system is up and running.
In Nice, construction on the green parkway La Coulée Verte continues. When completed, the 30-acre parkway will extend from the sea through Place Masséna to the Museum of Modern Art, carving a people-friendly swath for biking and walking through Nice’s urban center.
In the Dordogne region, the prehistoric cave-painting sight Grotte de Font-de-Gaume currently is not taking reservations and is admitting just 80 people a day. Some visitors are camping out overnight to get a ticket. I recommend getting there by 7:30 — the ticket booth opens at 9:30. At the Lascaux II cave, reservations are strongly recommended for July and August, and accepted only three to four days in advance (in France, call 05 53 51 96 23 for ticket availability and estimated English tour times). Of the prehistoric sights in the region, only the Lascaux II, Pech Merle, and (in July and August) Abri du Cap Blanc caves take reservations; for all others it’s first-come, first-served.
In Normandy, June 6, 2014, will mark the 70th anniversary of the landings of the Allies on French soil during World War II. There will be huge D-Day commemorations around this date, so anyone planning a Normandy trip near the anniversary may find all the hotels already booked. New at the Caen Memorial Museum is the restoration of German General Wilhelm Richter’s command bunker next to the museum.
At Mont St-Michel, 2014 is the last year for the causeway that tourists have used for more than 100 years — it's slated to be demolished by 2015. Restoration of the island's ramparts may block some island walkways.
In Bayeux, the MAHB (Musée d'Art et d'Histoire Baron Gérard) has reopened, offering a modest review of European art and history in what was once the Bayeux bishop’s palace. Bayeux's three main museums — the Bayeux Tapestry, Battle of Normandy Memorial Museum, and MAHB — offer combo-tickets that will save visitors money if they plan to see more than one sight.
And, as 2014 marks the centennial of the outbreak of World War I, all will not be quiet on the Western Front. WWI buffs will find plenty of special exhibits and a surge in activity at many sites in commemoration of the battles that hit Europe in 1914.
Boasting a startling wealth of historic sights, art museums, and cultural icons, France is a mecca for travelers. From its prehistoric caves to its progressive cities, it's a rewarding destination any 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.