Summer road trip ideas abound – but all the advice is usually about America, where the open road calls to those wanting to feel the wind in their hair. But, understandably, there is some hesitation when thinking about road tripping in a foreign country. Luckily, a France road trip is not nearly as intimidating as you may think!
It may seem like a bit of a hassle at first, so you may do best to fly into a major city like Paris or Nice, take a train to a smaller city, and then rent a car in a smaller French town. This can allow you to get used to French road signs and traffic patterns without also dealing with, say, Paris at rush hour.
That being said, renting a car in France and driving down the smaller country roads can yield some spectacular views – and, unlike a bus tour or a train ride, you can pull over to marvel at the sights, or choose the perfect tree under which to have a picnic! Here are some ideas to get you inspired to take to the autoroute this summer for a French adventure.
Note: Pick up a Michelin France road map. It’s map 721, and it’s clear and easy to read. Many of the major routes have smaller, prettier routes running roughly parallel; learn the key legend, and get off those highways.
Wait! Another note: I’m suggesting routes that in general would take three to four days, because I’m assuming you’re going to fly into/out of Paris and will want to spend at least a day or two on either end in the city. But, you could easily spend a week or more taking these trips, stopping as often as you’d like whenever your fancy is struck.
1. South of France Road Trip Along the Coast
There are two possible routes you can take: one through Provence, dipping down to the coast along the way; the other is to hug the coast the whole time. Either way, it’s pretty spectacular – it all depends on what you want to see and do.
This route is the one that hugs the coast. I’d recommend overnight stays in Arles and Marseille before ending in Nice. Here are some highlights of this route:
- Aigues-Mortes is a wonderful walled village on the sea, perfect for lunch.
- The drive from Montpellier to Arles goes through the Camargues. There are some great vineyards along this road, which goes through the protected Camargues wetlands, home of the famous wild white horses of the Camargues.
- From Arles to Marseille you could head up to Aix-en-Provence for the day, or stick to the coast and spend the day at the beach before arriving in Marseille.
- Just east of Marseille is Cassis, home to its namesake liqueur – and a beautiful little town in its own right.
- From Marseille to Nice, the drive itself is the star – but you can choose for yourself where to stop, from little-visited seaside villages to glamorous St.-Tropez and Cannes.
- I’d recommend using Nice as a final base from which to visit Monte Carlo (and its grand casino), Antibes (couldn’t be more hip), and Grasse (perfume capital of the world).
>>Want to spend the night in Marseille? Here are some great hotels near the Vieux Port.
>>Read more about Marseille and Nice to get a sense of how much time you want to spend there.
>>Beach bum? Here are our picks for the best beaches on the French Mediterranean and general info on the French Riviera.
2. South of France Road Trip Through Provence
From your start in Montpellier, head northeast to see the Arena in Nîmes before spending the night in Avignon. Then use Avignon as your base, where you could literally throw a dart at a map and choose any route you’d like – these are some of the most stunning views in France (note: I am totally partial to the South of France, in case you couldn’t tell). Ideas for this road trip:
- Within the rough triangle made by Arles, Avignon and Salon-de-Provence has lots of vineyards along those roads. Stop in any or all of them!
- On the way from Nîmes to Avignon is the Pont du Gard – stop here for a walk around the pont itself and the park grounds surrounding; it’s a great place for a picnic lunch, too.
- Between Arles and Avignon is Les-Baux-de-Provence, an unbelievable village on a hilltop. Definitely worth a side trip.
- North of Avignon is Orange, long a popular location for viewing those surreal lavender fields.
- This trip can also include Aix-en-Provence, even for an overnighter.
- You could do a rough circle of Montpellier-Avignon-Marseille-Arles-Montpellier to hit the major places.
3. Bricks, Booze and Beaches Road Trip
This road trip covers the southwest of France: The reddish-pink bricks of Toulouse’s buildings; the booze in Bordeaux; and the beaches of Biarritz. Those are your major points, creating a triangle. Within that framework, your choices are virtually endless. Here are some ideas:
- You could easily take this road trip focusing solely on regional vineyards.
- From Bordeaux to Biarritz, you’ve got two routes: the first is through the Parc Naturel Régional, dotted with camping sites; or along the Côte d’Argent, Europe’s longest beach, along the Atlantic, that’s very popular with surfers.
- Between Toulouse and Biarritz is world-famous Lourdes, destination of religious pilgrimages since the Virgin Mary appeared to Bernadette Soubirous no less than 18 times. This route also takes you along the foothills of the Pyrenées.
- From Biarritz you can skip right over the border into northwestern Spain, visiting the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao and chowing down on tapas in San Sebastian before heading back.
4. Totally Epic Road Trip
This route covers a lot of miles, has a lot of possibilities, and offers a good balance of heavily visited sights and places where you feel like the only person left on the planet. The basic route runs in a circle from Paris-Chartres-Le Mans-Rennes-Caen-Rouen-Paris.
Recommendations for maximum epicness:
- If you want to start by renting a car in Paris, then stop by Versailles on your way out of town – even if you just stretch your legs with a walk through the grounds.
- While you’re in Chartres to see not only the Cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage site, but the St.-Aignan church as well, make sure you pick up some game meat pies at the market – they’re one of the first classic French foods in history.
- It’d be a sin to miss the chance to take your car for a spin around the Circuit de la Sarthe in Le Mans, home of the French Grand Prix. Rev it up!
- Rennes has perfect examples of the wood-edifice homes and buildings of this area of France.
- Directly north of Rennes is Le Mont-St.-Michel. DO NOT MISS THIS. It is nothing short of spectacular.
- The D-Day beaches of Normandy are just above Bayeux. Another must-see, especially for Americans – including the War Memorial in Caen.
- You can cut across from Caen back to Paris to see some smaller towns, or head slightly north to Rouen, a major city and home to the famous Cathedral painted by Monet. Either way, a car is the best way to get to Giverny, nestled between Vernon and the Seine River, for more Monet goodness.
>>Further reading for this road trip:
Top 10 things to do in Normandy
Visiting Mont-St.-Michel, and awesome photos of this iconic site
The Cathedral at Rouen: The inspiration for Monet’s famous series
5. Napoleon’s Route Road Trip
The Route Napoléon is a real route, studded with large golden eagle markers, taking you from the Alps to the French Riviera. I found this jaunty map, which pretty much sums it up: