Bienvenue! Here you’ll find travel tips to France, including my personal experience of travelling by car with friends during the winter. First of all, feel free to take a look at my post on preparing a safe and fun backpacking trip, which includes key organisational, packing and safety tips: https://thinkmoveeat.wordpress.com/2016/09/02/important-travelling-tips/
The following websites were useful when looking for things to do in each city, in addition to my Lonely Planet guide, Europe On a Shoestring 2017: https://www.lonelyplanet.com/france ; http://www.nomadicmatt.com/travel-guides/france-travel-tips/ ; https://www.roughguides.com/destinations/europe/france/ .
France is a beautiful country where you can find all kinds of sights, weathers and mentalities, as well as meet all kinds of people. We tried to make a “grand tour”, but obviously we couldn’t go everywhere we wanted, and cannot claim to have seen the whole country. Yet, this trip gave us a taste of France’s different sights, cultures, customs, ways of live, accents… It was definitely worth it to drive around and stop as we went, experiencing all sorts of things that make France such a unique nation. Of course, it is helpful that we speak French, not only for visiting purposes but also to be able to interact with the French and live a more authentic experience. But I recommend to travel in France even if you don’t speak the language, though you should definitely try to learn a bit of it if you’re interested.
You can see our road-trip route below; we began and ended in Paris (mostly for flight and car-renting purposes, and to be able to visit Paris without having the burden of a car). I will begin by giving general tips, then present the regions and cities where we went, as if you were following our road-trip!
We drove around in a Volkswagen golf, which we booked online a few weeks before with the company Europcar (which was cheaper than other companies for the same car, in which four bags could fit, and services, including the best insurance we could get, with zero franchise). But beware of Europcar sellers trying to make you pay more once you get there to take the car; don’t be afraid to negotiate and question them. There are many reasons why we decided to do a road-trip instead of travelling by bus and/or train:
- Price: Since we were four people, it was much cheaper to rent a car instead of travelling by bus or train. For 14 days of a Volkswagen golf with Europcar (car rental and zero franchise insurance), plus tolls, parking and gas, it cost us less than 600 CAD$ per person, which is about 420 euros (January 2017). You could never pay this little for this much travelling in France if it were by bus and train.
- Freedom of travel: We could go wherever we wanted within our fixed itinerary; we booked airbnbs a few days in advance, and had to make sure to get there in time, but other than that, we were free to travel!
- Practicability: Travelling by train or bus inevitably involves taking in-city buses or taxis from and to stations and hostels/hotels/apartments, while dragging backpacks and other luggage (which is a pain in the ass even when travelling lightly). By car, we simply had to make sure that there was a parking place (preferably free) next to where we would stay, which wasn’t hard at all. In that sense, the car made our traveling much simpler and practical.
France is a beautiful country, so even if you’re travelling alone and by train or bus, it will be amazing. However, I truly appreciated to be with friends, since we did a lot of walking around, sightseeing and eating, which you could do alone but I personally like to be with people for that. Also, we mostly stayed at airbnbs, which are amazing when you choose the good ones, way cheaper than hotels and more comfortable than hostels. If you’re two people or more it’s really worth it! We were four people and paid on average 30 cad$ per person per night, with the extra airbnb fees included. For more details on how to find the best airbnbs, take a look at my post on travelling tips (link in the first paragraph of this post). Plus, I got a French SIM card there, with the company SFR and it cost me 30 euros for the card and 20 gb for a month! It was surprisingly worth it.
Regarding the food, it is fairly easy to be vegetarian, but it’s extremely hard to be gluten-free all the time, and almost impossible to be vegan, forget vegan-and-gluten-free. It all gets easier when you can cook at home, but for that you need open supermarkets (beware that most of them close at noon on Sundays), and time (which we can sometimes miss when travelling). We managed to cook at home for supper/diner half the time (so about 9 times), but for breakfast and lunch we usually ate on the go or bought snacks. For the price, restaurants are quite expensive everywhere, especially in Paris, but you can always find cheaper options when you take some time to search around. Boulangeries are the cheapest and best place for (take away or stay in) breakfast and lunch, which would mostly be tasty croissants, quiches, and sandwiches. Regarding drinks, it’s expensive to go out but extremely cheap to buy local wines and drink at home (airbnb)!
Let’s get into each city and its unique experiences, I hope you’ll enjoy :D
It’s the kind of city where you could spend a month and still have new things to see and experience, where there are people from all around the world living in different conditions and visiting for different reasons. However, if you go in the summer it’s hard to get over the number of tourists. That’s why it was great in the winter, and the weather is good (around 1 degree Celsius), at least for Canadians! I will give an overview of the city and some tips of what I love to do and see there, but YOU WILL HAVE TO CHOOSE; unfortunately, Paris is a city where you never have time to see it all.
It’s a huge city and pretty expensive, but if you do your research in advance, it’s not hard to find an not-so-expensive place to stay; we paid around 30 CAD$ per person per night, while being four people in a small but comfortable and clean apartment (airbnb, thank you Chantal!) in Montmartre. The same goes for restaurants; in the following website you can find great places to eat there for less than 10 euros! https://www.lespetitestables.com/ . There is also a good website for cheap bars: https://www.timeout.com/paris/en/bars-and-pubs/the-best-cheap-bars-in-paris .
Speaking of food, we went to great places and they were as cheap as Paris gets, but we also managed to cook in the apartment (another pro of airbnb), and groceries cost extremely little compared to going out. Around the neighborhood of Montmartre (18ème arrondissement) where we stayed, the restaurant Les Fondues de la Raclette (métro Simplon) serves diverse raclettes and fondues, which are typically French and Swiss meals with lots of cheese, bread and meats (though I found vegetarian options, fortunately). A fairly good take-out in Montmartre is Au Poulet Braisé, where they mostly serve chicken, but again I found a tasty vegetarian option. Speaking of Montmartre, it’s honestly a great place to stay (especially the 18ème) and visit (especially the 9ème); the Basilique du Sacré Coeur is beautiful especially at night, and you can have an incredible view of Paris from there. It is great to walk around and visit the Place du Tertre, but beware of pickpockets and tourist traps.
The typical tourist sightseeing places in Paris are a must, and they can be free if you walk around rather than going inside each attraction, which is mostly what we did. The Arc du Triomphe is astonishing, in the huge fancy Avenue des Champs Élysées. You can walk there for hours, going through all kinds of stores, cinemas, restaurants and cafés. In the winter, there is the amazing Marché Villages de Noël, where you can find food and drink stands, as well as handmade goods and much more. When you get to the beautiful Jardin des Tuileries, pop over to the famous Café Angelina, known to serve the best hot chocolate in the world – I can personally approve of that!
The Tour Eiffel is simply breathtaking, and it’s free to see and go under it without going all the way to the top by elevator (where the view is indeed beautiful, but the souvenir shops and sellers are annoying). Built in 1889 for the World Fair, it could also be fun to climb the (literally breathtaking) stairs of this true beauty. It’s great to walk around it too, especially in the Champ de Mars, the École Militaire, and across the Seine river to the Trocadéro, where you can find an amazing view of the tower and its park. You should also definitely visit the Louvre museum, but it’s simply huge and it can be quite pricey if you do not have an European passport (then it’s free if you’re under 25). It’s lovely on the outside, though, even at night!
Not far from the Tour, you should make your way to the Rue du Commerce, known for its stores and markets. Walk until the Café du Commerce, what is, to me, the best restaurant with an affordable price in Paris! They serve lunch between 12 and 3 pm, there’s always an amazing vegetarian option, and with a dessert and a coffee it all comes to 17 euros. Keep walking until the well-known station La Motte-Piquet Grenelle, where you can find typical bistrots and cafés. Go there on Wednesday or Sunday and experience the amazing market, where you can find fresh ingredients and all kinds of other stuff.
Close to the known Hôtel des Invalides, there are the two best museums of Paris, according to me. The Musée de l’Armée, (which is actually inside the Hôtel des Invalides along with the Tombeau de Napoléon), successfuly and dynamically presents France’s involvement in every war since the 13th century. The price of the entry ticket (around 10 euros) is 100% worth it; I could personally spend several hours in there, rediscovering France’s military history. Although, make sure to check the opening hours in their website before going, since they often close for renovations and such. The Musée Rodin is close as well, and broadly known. It amazingly presents the sculptor’s main oeuvres inside the main building as well as the beautiful gardens. It also has other temporary art exhibitions which are always very interesting!
The famous Catabombes are underground tunnels with human skulls and bones of previous cemeteries and such. It is extremely interesting, but it there is a long line, do not wait. We waited for 3 hours outside in the cold, and the attraction did not meet our expectations, of course the price of 12 euros and huge amount of people did not help.
Not far from it, Jardin du Luxembourg is a beautiful place to chill and have a picnic, especially in the summer. It is also a great area to walk around, and I can recommend the restaurant Crêperie de Cluny. Then, cross over the bridge to see the Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris as well as the Sainte Chapelle, both located on the Île de la Cité. They are both beautiful on the outside as well as on the inside, but if you’re on a budget it’s honestly not that worth it to go inside if you’re not that much into churches. Close by, walk around Île Saint-Louis; it’s like a tiny-Paris with shops, cafés and bistrots all around. Close by there is the restaurant La Rôtisserie d’Argent, pretty fancy and absolutely delicious, but not thaaat expensive (around 25 euros per person). It is owned by the very well-known (and expensive) restaurant La Tour d’Argent.
In the same area or not too far by, there is the Centre George Pompidou, a huge modern and contemporary art museum, very dynamic and full of free exhibitions. If you do pay to see the whole museum, go up to the last floor, where my grandfather says there is the most beautiful view of the city of Paris. Then, visit the amazing photography store in front of the museum, YellowKorner. Also very close by, there is the well-known and huge shopping center Forum Les Halles. Speaking of shopping malls, you should drop by Les Galleries Lafayette if you’re looking to experience a complete and overwhelming shopping experience, or if you simply wish to visit impressive Parisian stores!
You should visit the area of Saint-Germain-des-Près, full of trendy restaurants and bars, and lovely to walk around. At night, the Rue Buci gets very alive around its intersection with Saint-Germain. I recommend you walk around there and eat an amazing vegan ice cream (Sorbet) at the Amorino store on that Buci.
Also, the neighborhood Marais is known as the LGBT and Jewish place; it’s basically hip and cute. I love to walk around there, especially on the Rue des Rosiers. Visit the Place des Vosges, eat the best falafel at L’As du Falafel, or the best couscous at Chez Omar, and the best Eastern European desserts at Sacha Finkelsztajn. Around there, there is also the interesting and thorough Musée Picasso.
The old Cimetière du Père Lachaise is incredibly beautiful and important. It is a free attraction, and it’s lovely to simply walk around or visit graves of famous artists who were buried there.
If you have some time, you should definitely spend a day in Versailles, where you can visit the chambers of past kings and queens, as well as the seemingly infinite gardens; it’s quite worth the pricey entry (18 euros), especially in the winter when there can be less tourists. You can get there in 40 minutes from the city by train, and spend from two hours to the whole day exploring the place.
Plus, the Musée Jacquemart-André is the couple’s original home transformed into a museum of the art they owned (including Guardi, Goya, Picasso, and more). The museum’s café is also an attraction by itself; their (affordable) amazing salads and huge desserts will blow you away.
If the weather is good, walk on the Quai d’Orsay, overlooking the Seine. You’ll find there the well-known Musée d’Orsay (which I didn’t visit), as well as the underground Visite des Égoûts de Paris (which I also didn’t visit but heard great things of).
If you’re looking to get away from the city without going too far, definitely visit the Bois de Boulogne, a huge park not far from the city center. The Fondation Louis Vuitton is hidden in there, where you can admire its complex architecture, visit art exhibitions and then walk around the green area.
There are infinite things to do and see in and around Paris, here are two of them that we regretted of not being able to visit. Notably, there is Giverny, a town close to Paris where you can find Monet’s residence and gardens, open in the spring and summer.
Finally, I would recommend to stay at least four nights in Paris, and even then you will have to go back to explore the rest of it (: However, I think it’s a shame to simply visit Paris, since the rest of France has so much to offer!
In the region of Normandie, Honfleur is a small and cozy town. We stayed there for a night but it could have been more; there is not so much to see but it’s simply lovely and calm.
You should visit the cute Jardin des Personalités as well as the huge Plage Butin.
The center of the town as well as its port are great to walk around in, which is full of chocolateries, boulangeries, pâtisseries and shops selling local wine and cheese.
Incredible little town, quiet and pleasant, especially calm in the winter. Perfect for a getaway; explore France’s corners while feeling relaxed.
Bayeux and surroundings
Also in Normandie, Bayeux is well known and visited, especially because of the D-day beaches, where the Americans (and Canadians) arrived in the end of the Second World War. The visit takes a full day (we booked one night there and it was perfect) and it’s a plus to have a car. Even though some historical centers were closed and the beaches were pretty cold, it was totally worth it and a spectacular trip.
Start in Juno beach (in the town Courseulles-sur-mer), where you can walk around and visit a historical center (which is closed in the winter).
Then, move your way to Omaha beach, where you can walk around, see the D-day monument and there is also a memorial museum (which was closed when we went).
Then, the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial is a must-see; it was open and it’s amazing, you could spend a whole afternoon there, visiting the museum as well as the cemetery and memorial outside, aside from the beautiful sightseeing. It is also close to Utah beach.
The town of Bayeux is not too special, difficult to park and completely empty in the winter; since it’s the off-season, most places are closed and it seems like a ghost town, especially at night. However, we did find a great restaurant there, with a delicious vegetarian option, though it was quite expensive for us (25 euros per person): La Taverne des Ducs.
This is the most beautiful place ever. It’s actually an island that served as fortifications for centuries, which then became a prison and a tourist attraction.
I am so glad to have gone there, it’s impressive in it’s history and architecture, as well as isolation and small price for what it is (15 euros per person for parking and visit of main attraction). You actually have to park 3 km away from it, and you can walk there (about 40 minutes) or take a free shuttle (around 10 minutes). Make sure to check their website in advance since sometimes it’s closed for visitation because of water levels.
Once you get there, you’ll be taken away by its medieval atmosphere (if you can oversee the tourists), as well as the amazing view. Walk around the village and visit the main Abbaye, but I advice you bring a sandwich. Letting history take you through the village’s little corners, you can easily spend half a day there.
After visiting the Mont St-Michel, before making our way to the South, we slept in Dinan, a small town right in our way to Amboise; it was the perfect quiet place.
In the Vallée de la Loire, Amboise is mostly known for its castles. Chambord, Chenonceau, Cheverny, Chaumont… You’ll have to choose between the many castles! The following website presents them pretty well: https://www.roughguides.com/destinations/europe/france/loire/tours-around/amboise/ .
We only stayed one night but it definitely could have been more! You should visit the Château Royal d’Amboise, in the heart of the town; it’s beautiful, and totally worth the 10 euros.
The town itself is lovely, or chouette as the French say; you must walk around, buy food in local shops and appreciate the cute little streets. The boulangerie de l’horloge is perfect for breakfast and lunch, with its delicious and inexpensive variety of choices (even gluten-free!).
Also, visiting the Clos Lucé is a must (15 euros); it was Leonardo da Vinci’s last residence before his death. There, you can see the inside of the little castle, its gardens, and a special exhibition on Da Vinci’s creations.
You should also visit the town of Blois, close to Amboise, which is also known for its main castle: https://www.roughguides.com/destinations/europe/france/loire/blois-around/
Sarlat was mostly useful for us to sleep between Amboise and Carcassonne. We didn’t really get to visit the town itself but heard good things about it.
Mostly, it was interesting to visit Oradour-sur-Glane (Centre de la Mémoire- massacre de la Seconde Guerre Mondiale), a city burned down by the Nazis and its inhabitants were killed during the Second World War, and it was kept as original. It’s impressive and quite harsh to see, but we enjoyed to literally see history. It’s free and the visit lasts for about one hour; there’s a whole village and a cemetery.
There is another place close to Sarlat where we would have liked to go but didn’t have enough time: Cave préhistorique Lascaux, prehistorical caves apparently well maintained, http://www.lascaux-dordogne.com/fr/la-grotte-de-lascaux .
Toulouse was simply a beautiful surprise. In one weekend, it went from the southern town we were passing by and looking to relax, to one of my favorite French cities. It’s a two thousand years-old, seemingly tiny but quite big and important, and as charming as it gets! It’s perfect to spend between one and three days there, and I can definitely recommend the hostel La Petite Auberge Saint-Sernin! I won’t write here specific tips on the city, because it’s lovely to just walk around and get to know it on your own; however, I will invite you to look at and follow my friend Charlie’s google maps list for Toulouse, which gives great tips on places to eat, visit, walk around, and more!
Carcassonne is known for its medieval city, or Cité Médiévale, which is extremelly well kept and totally takes you back in time. It is the second most visited tourist attraction in France, right behind the Eiffel tower. It’s very interesting to walk around in the cité and learn its history. There are also shops and restaurants, although most of them are extra-expensive.
You can also visit the cité‘s castle, which is impressive and worth the 10 euros. There is also a religious building, Basilique, that is beautiful on the outside and open for visitation, though we didn’t go in.
Also, the city of Carcassonne itself does not have a lot to see or do, and in the winter especially on a Sunday, most of the stores and restaurants are closed.
Unfortunately, we only had a few hours to spare in Arles, but the rest of it seems great to visit! We went to the Amphithéâtre, an impressive Roman building that you can walk around; we did not think it was worth it to pay to go inside.
It’s a charming walk along the river in this pleasant city. Definitely worth it!
If you do have the time, stay in Arles for at least a night, also visiting the close cities of Aix en Provence and Avignon. And don’t forget about Marseilles!
We simply fell in love with Cannes! Even in the winter, this famous beach city is charming. Walk in the Croisette and contemplate the water, while thinking of all the famous and rich people who have walked that walk!
Plus, we found an amazing restaurant there; Steak ‘N Shake is originally American but exists throughout France, and it has the best vegetarian burger. Surprisingly, even though it’s in the film-famous town, it only cost us 7 euros!
We have also heard great things about the sightseeing and old town of Antibes, which is close to Cannes, but could not visit it.
Nice is a friendly and lovely city! Although it’s quite a big one, it doesn’t really feel like it. We only stayed two nights (we spent one day in Nice and the other in Monaco) but it could have easily been more!
You should walk in the city center and old town, as well as along the beach. Since the terrorist attacks there, the Promenade des Anglais is as safe as can be, with policemen guarding it all the time. It also has the most beautiful view of the sea, day and night.
Take a look at the following blog for more tips on Nice: http://www.nomadicmatt.com/travel-guides/france-travel-tips/nice/
Monaco is a tiny country, so expensive you should visit from Nice instead of staying there (30 minutes by train or car). It is known for the royal family as well as the extremely rich people living there, hence the yachts and fancy stuff. But since it’s so small, you can walk all around. It’s amazingly clean and pretty; beside the casinos and expensive stores, there are beautiful gardens, squares and streets.
It is definitely a highlight of the South of France, even though it is technically a separate country!
We went through Italy when going from Nice to Annecy; it was a curvy but beautiful road, and a nice experience. We slept there three nights and it was great; cheaper than Chamonix, but calm and nice.
Annecy is actually a small city but absolutely lovely. Even though it gets pretty cold in the winter, it’s fun to walk or scooter around (trotinettes are a normal means of getting around over there!). The old town is very pretty, and the Annecy lake is simply breathtaking. There are ducks and other animals there even in the winter, and you can walk beside the lake, through the Pont des Amours and to another nice part of town.
Food tip: Order in or eat out Yatta Ramen, really good, okay price and vegan option!
Chamonix, an hour from Annecy, is worth the day visit. It’s a ski town in the winter, but even if you don’t wish to ski (we didn’t) it’s a great place for sightseeing!
The famous Aiguille du Midi is known for the beautiful sight of the Mont Blanc, but it costs 60 euros to go up. So instead, we went up the Brevent, which was 17 euros and also had a stunning view!
The other attraction in the town is the Mer de Glace, or sea of ice, and the 30 euro ticket includes the train, cave and museum visit. Unfortunately though, it depends a lot on weather of that day, and when we went to visit it was closed. It was a shame, but we got to walk around Chamonix and actually see the cute town full of skiers and snowboarders, fondues and hot chocolates.
Other places worth seeing- I will go back!
A few places we did not have the time to visit but you should definitely visit: Lyon, Marseille, Aix en Provence, Avignon, Strasbourg, Colmar, Bordeaux, and Lille.
Go explore this big beautiful country, and if you already have, please leave a comment on your experience below! :D