5 of the most tantalising road trips through France

Anna Richards

Anna Richards

You could argue that France is the home of the original road trip - or at least, the original road trip guide. In 1900, the Michelin brothers, operating out of Clermont-Ferrand in Auvergne, central France, concocted a novel way to sell their tyres.

Take your car to France across the Channel by ferry
Take your car to France across the Channel by ferry © Christian Mueller - Shutterstock.com

They needed to motivate more people to get behind the wheel (more motorists = more tyres). They decided the best way was to inspire wanderlust by compiling a guidebook of the best restaurants and hotels in the country, along with road maps of how to get there.

Nowadays, Michelin is much more famous for restaurant rankings than tyres, and obtaining a Michelin star (or retaining it) is the life goal for many chefs. France's appeal as a road trip destination, however, is enduring.

The accessibility for British motorists helps too, and a short ferry hop (90 minutes between Dover and Calais) or even faster 35 minutes on the Eurotunnel, can have you speeding along the wrong side of the road with the scent of croissants tickling your nostrils in no time.

Make it happen: planning a road trip in France has never been easier with so many accommodation options for all budgets. Search deals on hotels with ALL - Accor Live Limitless*, which has properties across the country, self-catering options with VRBO* and exciting camping opportunities with Eurocamp*.

Know before you go

Holders of a British driving licence don't need an extra permit to drive in France, but check your insurance covers Europe (usually included for trips of up to 90 days). If you're taking your own car, purchase a kit that includes hi-vis vests, an emergency triangle, beam converters and a breathalyser, which are mandatory requirements for driving in France.

Be aware that many French cities have introduced the need for a Crit'Air sticker, which means that you'll only be allowed to drive in the city centre if your car reaches the city's low emissions goals. You can check the requirements and order your Crit'Air sticker.

Every French airport has a car hire outlet, as do most major TGV (high-speed train) stations. Europcar, Hertz and Sixt tend to be the most common.

Price-wise, I favour Getaround, which works a little like Airbnb for cars (you borrow an individual's car rather than a rental agency's). It only works for round trips though.

For a taste of the Med

  • Route: Fréjus to Menton
  • Distance: 98 km

A winding road loops up and down the cliff like a helter-skelter, cyclists whizzing down it so fast they look like marbles. Sun-soaked Fréjus is the terracotta colour of fake tan, except that this seaside town has spent the year lapping up rays (300 days of sunshine annually on average).

Terracotta-topped Èze, French Riviera
Terracotta-topped Èze, French Riviera © S4svisuals - Adobe Stock Image

From here, hug the coast to Cannes, Antibes, artistic hub Cagnes-sur-Mer, Nice, Èze (known for perfume), skirt around Monaco, Roquebrun-Cap-Martin, one of the earliest places where humans settled in France over a million years ago, and finally Menton.

Menton, right on the France-Italy border, is the Mediterranean rolled into one town. There are candy and pastel-coloured buildings, orange and lemon trees on every corner, and beaches with sand almost as bright as the citrus tree spoils.

Getting there: you can fly to Nice and hire a car from there or get the TGV train, which has connections to Paris (5 hours 40).

For all the cheese

  • Route: The Auvergne Cheese Route
  • Distance: 200 km

It's little surprise that many regions of France have road trips themed around an aspect of their gastronomy. Country backgrounds take you to artisan farms and vineyards to fill your car-boot and belly with goodness.

There's the foie gras route in the Dordogne, the cider route in Normandy and in Auvergne, home to five of France's AOP (designated protected origin) cheeses, there's a dedicated fromages route too.

The rolling green fields along the Cheese Route
The rolling green fields along the Cheese Route © Photo Passion - Adobe Stock Image

Tangy, hard Cantal, pungent Auvergnian blue, and buttery, crumbly Salers, the Cheese Route goes past more than 30 farms and cheese cooperatives between Clermont-Ferrand and Aurillac, crossing the departments of Puy de Dôme and Cantal.

The landscape, soft hills formed from long-extinct volcanoes, is such a vivid green it feels as though it's oxygenating your body.

Getting there: there are no direct flights to Clermont-Ferrand from the UK, so get the train from Paris (3 hours 30) and hire a car.

For an epic drive

  • Route: The West Coast Epic
  • Distance: approximately 1,100 km

Roscoff to Hendaye, all along the Atlantic Coast, is France's ultimate road trip. Depending on where you live in the UK, there's a little pre-road-trip road trip to get to Plymouth, where Brittany Ferries runs a service to Roscoff.

A maritime town with hotels and houses perched on the cliff wall overlooking the beach and several islands offshore, it beats views of a concrete runway and duty-free. Follow the coastal road around Brittany as much as time will allow, heading west through northern Finistère and then south along the Atlantic Coast.

Particular Breton highlights include the Crozon Peninsula, where granite tors (rocks) dot the cliff tops over a storm-ravaged coastline, and the Quiberon Peninsula, a spindly strip of land popular with surfers and kitesurfers.

Continuing south towards La Rochelle, the landscape softens and becomes flatter, and at La Rochelle itself you can drive over to the sandy island, Île de Ré (€16 return toll), crepe-like both in the colour of its beaches and the topography of the land.

Cycling on the low-lying shore of Île de Ré
Cycling on the low-lying shore of Île de Ré © Tydav Photos - Adobe Stock Image

Ditch the car when you arrive in favour of two wheels; bikes rule supreme here. From La Rochelle, continue south around the Gironde Estuary to reach the Médoc wine region, one of the most historic wine regions in France.

The tidal flats of Arcachon Bay then await you, followed by Europe's highest sand dune, Dune du Pilat.

As you approach the Spanish border, the landscape turns wilder again, particularly around surf bum paradises south of Biarritz such as Saint-Jean-de-Luz and Hendaye. Don't feel obliged to stop at Hendaye on the border, a further 25 km along the motorway takes you to San Sebastián, Spain's foodie capital.

Getting there: sail with Brittany Ferries from Plymouth to Roscoff (5 hours 30).

For a tipple or two

  • Route: The Wine Route, Bourgogne
  • Distance: 60 km

Arguably the finest of the French wine route road trips, Bourgogne's zig-zags from Dijon to Santenay, and rarely gets as saturated as its Médoc equivalent.

Draw lots for who is designated driver, there's plenty to taste! A particular highlight is Beaune, whose old hospital and town hall have tiled roofs so elaborate that they look a little like the iridescent shell of a beetle.

Beautiful Beaune, Bourgogne
Beautiful Beaune, Bourgogne © Nigel Jarvis - Shutterstock.com

Until the mid-14th century, this part of France was home to the wealthy dukes of Burgundy, who had a monopoly on the wine industry, at least in eastern France, creating rules that virtually flattened the trade in their smaller, poorer neighbours.

The legacy is age-old châleteaux, vineyards and wine cellars, many of which have been in the same family for generations. Older isn't necessarily better, of course, but it's hard not to be a little bewitched by the hundreds of years of viticultural history here.

Getting there: you can easily get the train from Paris to Dijon (90 minutes) or drive from Calais (5 hours 30).

For following history

  • Route: The Napoleon Route
  • Distance: 328 km

When Napoleon Bonaparte returned from Elba, Italy in 1815, he landed at Golfe-Juan, near Cannes, and made the epic journey on horseback from the beaches of the Mediterranean, up through the Alpes-Maritimes and Southern Alps, to reach Grenoble, creating a sea-to-summit road trip.

Over 328 km, you gain (and often lose) plenty of elevation, so there are spine-shivering drops along mountain passes and the side of canyons and ancient bridges, which cross turquoise rivers to reach medieval villages sheltered by hills and rock arches, which plunge the winding roads through the mountains.

There's plenty of variety for families, but it's also popular with motorcyclists. You can bash out the whole lot in a day, but take it slowly; Napoleon and his men took a week.

Getting there: catch the train from Paris to Cannes (5 hr 30) or fly direct from London.

Climate in France

  Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
Maximum daytime temperature °C
Hours of sunshine (daily)
Days with some rainfall

The above guide shows the climate in Paris. Find out more about conditions country-wide in our complete guide to the climate in France.

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Anna Richards

Anna Richards

Posted on Wednesday 19th June 2024 in: Adventure Europe Excursions

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