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How to plan the perfect French road trip

31st July 2013 Print
Road trip

Taking a road trip through the heart of France from the rugged rural environs of the north to the dazzling sun-soaked Cote d’Azur on the south-west coast should be the journey of a lifetime. Before you decide where to go, however, you should first look into routes, distances, the kinds of terrain you’re going to be encountering and insurance.

While it might lack the desperado glamour of heading out on the highway with nothing but your instinct or mood to guide you, it’s best to have your whole route planned and mapped before you set out – from when you take the ferry to France to where you’ll conclude your trip. You should also ensure all your accommodation is booked in advance (unless of course you’re planning to take the trip in a campervan.)

If you’re going to be driving a rental car, you should be aware that if all those travelling in the vehicle are under 25, there will be a hefty surcharge for your relative youth. Also, France has toll roads and auto routes as well as byways and free highways. The former two will cost you but will make your journey between places swifter. However, part of the reason for taking a road trip should surely be appreciating the freedom of the open road – so perhaps you’d be better off saving your euros for toll roads and the like when you need to get a sudden and unexpected move on.

Crossing the Channel above ground, ferry routes to France will land you in one of the following ports: Caen, St Malo, Cherbourg, Calais, Le Havre, Dunkirk or Dieppe. From there, you can set out on your trip without a backward glance. Read on for some suggestions for major stop-offs.


The capital of Upper Normandy, Rouen is an historic marvel only an hour from Dieppe. Its past is mired in tumult and violence, but it has emerged meticulous and fascinating in the 21st century. The town is justly famous for its magnificent Gothic cathedral - an architectural masterpiece of vast proportions. It’s not all this charming town has to offer of course, and the place is chock-full of charm. The medieval quarter features original timber-framed houses enclosing a courtyard which was once a burial ground and features ghoulish wood carvings of skulls, crossbones, grave-digging implements and other such amusingly menacing things. At the other end of the spectrum is the Musée de Beaux Arts which features works by Caravaggio, Monet and Modigliani and the Place du Viex Marché hosts a market where you can buy cheese, wines and bread in the shadow of the Église Sainte-Jeanne-d’Arc, who was executed in this very square in 1431.


The City of Light, the capital city of France has at various times throughout the ages been the world’s premiere metropolis in terms of fashion, art, gastronomy and culture - and the legacy is strong in the forms of its museums, art galleries, cafés, bistros and architecture. However, one thing it has in common with nearly all capital cities is congestion and bustle: it is best to leave your engine to cool when you stop off in Paris and use public transport instead. You don’t want to spend your precious time sweltering and cursing in backed-up traffic on the Champs-Elysees.


The unofficial capital of the French Alpine region, Grenoble was once a village and later, a lowly garrison town before various industries (glove manufacture, hydropower) led to its becoming an economic boomtown and eventually the host city of the 1968 Winter Olympics.

One thing you shouldn’t miss while here is the Bastille (not to be confused with the Parisian Bastille), which comprises a series of buildings set on the vertiginous mountains surrounding the city. It is a huge attraction and can be accessed via a cable car.

The city’s museum has one of the largest collections of modern art in all Europe – an astonishing collection featuring everyone from to Ingres to Warhol. The archaeological museum is set in a 12th-centruy Benedictine monastery and is a classified monument – one of the first in France to have such an honour bestowed on it. Grenoble hosts a jazz festival in March and a short film festival in the summer, too.


A perfect place to end your trip, Nice is the jewel of the French Riviera. From the sweep of the bay and the palm-lined Promenade des Anglais to the charm of the Old Town, the city is steeped in dazzling sunlight for the majority of the year (history records one visitor raving about how almond trees flowered there in January). It is rich with cafés, restaurants and bars serving everything from haute cuisine to Mediterranean peasant dishes and seafood. There are bustling markets held in the vast squares and the architecture is a visual feast – check out the candy-pink dome of the Belle Époque-era Hotel Negresco on the Promenade and the beautiful pastel-coloured houses of the old town, which include the canary-yellow former home and workplace of Henri Matisse. 

These are major centres, and while driving between them you’ll discover everything from the verdant hills of Provence, the charming villages of Luberon, Roman ruins in Nimes and Arles, tiny market towns and villages such as Cavaillon and Nyons and of course, the wine regions. Though we recommend you wait a while before getting back on the road after visiting that particular place.

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Road trip