I've been to France twice, but never outside of Paris! In February, my husband and I are going for two weeks, flying in to Paris and flying out of Marseille. Seeing Versailles is high on my list. Aside from that, I don't know a lot about France and I'm not sure which towns between Paris and Marseille would be good to see on this trip (and in the winter). We will be renting a car and basically driving south from Paris. I would consider a jog north to see Giverny, Rouen and possibly Bayeux and its famed tapestry -- but not sure whether that might be better on another trip devoted to the north of France at a warmer time of year. I appreciate help from others who know France better than I do! Thank you!
I would strongly recommend Lyon!
I quite enjoyed Nice both times we were there, and tho it was in Autumn and quite warm, I think it could be a little more temperate in February (if you are adverse to cold - looks like average 49F in Feb)...also of course Monaco, Villefranche, Antibes...and all the little villages along the coast...we also really enjoyed St Paul de Vence which isn't too long a drive.
The most direct route will take you through Burgundy, Lyon, and Provence, which would be on anyone's list of great areas to visit. After whatever time you want to spend in Paris, you could rent the car in Versailles and drive from there. The scenery won't be at its best in February but the driving should be fine unless it snows. Fontainebleau, Auxerre, Beaune, Lyon, and Avignon are among the interesting and historic towns/cities that will be right on or very close to the direct route. And you should have time to branch out if you want. If bad weather plagues you, Lyon is a big city with a lot to see and do. Though I haven't been to Provence, I'd make sure to allow enough time for Arles and some of the smaller villages in that area.
Given the time of year, I wouldn't think you need to make hotel reservations ahead unless there's some special place you really want to stay. That means you can be flexible to allow for driving conditions and sightseeing weather. You could plan ahead a day at a time while you're moving, if you can access wifi. Better to spend two or three nights in places like Beaune or Lyon or Avignon than try to move every day.
Edit -- By all means visit Giverny for the Monet paintings but don't expect too much from the garden in February. As for Normandy, it's wonderful but one of the coldest wettest parts of France in winter. Perhaps better to save for another trip, given that you'll be heading south anyway this time.
You'll probably want to research the typical February weather in various parts of France.
Know before you make your plans.
Giverny closes for the winter on November 1 and doesn't reopen until the end of March. I'd save your Giverny and Normandy touring for another time during the summer or shoulder season.
The suggestions for a mix of cities, towns and coastal France to the south, weather depending, can be the beginning of a good flexible plan.
I have spent quite a bit of time in France in all seasons, so my choice in winter would be to head south of Lyon, where the sky becomes more and more luminous as you move south. It's quiet at that time of year: some attractions, hotels, restaurants and cafes will be closed or not have outdoor seating, even in southern touristy areas, but it's still more active and cheerful than the north, which can be damp and gray until April or May, depending on the year. I'd start driving and not stop until Lyon, Orange, Avignon, Aix, then swing east around Cezanne's Mt. St. Victoire and on to the coastal towns along the Riviera, before backtracking to Marseille for your plane. Of course the Beaune cheerleaders will disagree, but you can see the highlights there in two hours, then start sipping some good Rhone wines under clearer skies a couple hours later. Nothing against Auxerre, a wonderful, very old town, but Burgundy and the north are best is summer.
A detailed French guidebook, such as the Michelin Green Guide can give you details on the sights. The RS has a lot too, but is more limited.
Do take into account two things in your planning: February is school ski vacation time, so the autoroute could be crowded on a Friday or Saturday between Paris and the turn off for the Alps. Second, a strong, cold wind comes down the Rhone Valley about every third day, particularly at that season, making sightseeing challenging. Bring your wool coat, hat, and gloves, along with your sunglasses. The sky is crystal clear but it's not southern California!
I have another question. Does it make sense to see Versailles in the winter, or would it be better to wait for another trip when the gardens will be in bloom? I am mainly interested in the palace itself, but I am aware that the grounds are supposed to be beautiful and I'm not sure whether I would be missing something spectacular going there in the winter.
I've been to Versailles in the winter and there is green because of the hedge rows but the flower beds around the fountains will be gone/dead and the fountains will all be shut off. One of the two times we went in the winter it was so foggy we couldn't see much, the other time it was cold and clear. The positive side is that the crowds will be lighter.
After two December visits to Versailles I insisted that we go in the summer so the next time we were in Paris it was during the great heatwave of 2003! That time we used the tall hedge rows to slink along in the shade and barely ventured out in the intense sun and heat to see the few flower beds up close...
Take your pick. I think it's worth it to gamble on fewer crowds and decent cold weather in the winter over throngs of people in the summer.
I agree with Mona about Versailles. See the palace in winter if you can, when it's less crowded. Also the Trianons and Hameau if you have time. Check out the gardens and see whether you'd want to come back another time when they're flowering/blooming/leafing/whatever.
And I agree with Bets about Beaune, though it may surprise her. The old hospital (Hospices de Beaune) is the best sight there, and a couple of hours is enough, unless you want to explore Burgundy countryside for another day or two (not at its best in winter). Probably best to get south as soon as you can, and stay away from the Alps if you're not skiing!
I visited Paris/France in June and July of this year. While not the same time of year that you are going, we used the RS Paris Guide Book and his France Guide Book exclusively. They had lots of great information that we used daily. If you already have it (them) good for you. If you do not and want to get it (them), they can be purchased elsewhere on this RS web site. This was our 5th time in Paris and I would go back in a minute.
Paris (3nts) >> Burgundy (3nts) >> Lyon/Annecy (3nts) >> Provence (4nts) >> Marseille (1nt)
Paris (3nts) >> Loire Valley (3nts) >> Bordeaux (2nts) >> Carcassonne (1 nt) >> Provence (4nts) >> Marseille (1nt)