France overland travel guide
France hardly needs any introduction; this country ranks at or near the top of many a travel wishlist and is famous for its beaches and mountains, culture and cuisine, fashion and art, museums and cafes, for its city streets and its country lanes, for its state-of-the-art transportation, for its architecture both modern and traditional… the list goes on, and according to the UN World Tourism figures, France is the most visited country on Earth. Its position at the hub of Western Europe makes it a likely candidate for most overland European itineraries, and being from England I’ve been there many times! This has included family holidays as a kid (road trips & camping), school trips to learn the war history in northern France, backpacking on an Interrail ticket, and (of course) snowboarding in the Alps.
Travel to, from, and within France overland
France has well-developed road and rail networks, both of which are easy ways to get around the country. International train services (mostly high speed) run through to Spain, Italy, Germany, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Belgium (and on to Holland), and the UK (through the Channel Tunnel). Further high speed connections are under construction (including a tunnel under the Alps from Lyon to Italy), which will reduce travel times even further. An Interrail pass (for Europeans) or Eurail pass (for non-Europeans) is a good way to travel to France overland as part of a wider European trip.
As a member of the Schengen Area, and being surrounded by fellow Schengen countries, border crossings aren’t something you have to think about much when overlanding through France (although police do sometimes board trains near borders to check IDs).
As well as the Eurostar trains through the Channel Tunnel, there are a multitude of ferry services connecting France’s northern coastline with the southern coasts of Britain and Ireland which you can book online here (a rail pass gets you a 30% discount on the ferry routes shown here). If you take a bus from London to Europe, sometimes it will cross to France inside a vehicle carriage going through the tunnel, and sometimes it will board a car ferry. I’ve experienced both, and the ferry is far, far better – the White Cliffs of Dover are the first / last thing you see of England over the horizon, and it’s nice to stroll the decks and take in the sea air, or have a beer. On the train, the bus parks inside a box and turns off the engine, and you just sit there with the lights on looking at an interior wall a few inches beyond the bus window with just the slight swayings and vibrations of the train telling you you’re actually moving; it is somewhat interesting, once, but quite weird and nowhere near as fun as the ferry.
Even more intriguingly, France has ferries from its southern ports across the Mediterranean Sea to various places in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Italy (the island of Sardinia), and Spain (Mallorca island). I’ve never done any of these, and would absolutely love to hear from anyone who has – please leave a comment below or send me a message via the contact page! You can search and book these ferries with Direct Ferries.
Things to do in France
Eat and drink. France takes its food very seriously, and while the best of it can be pretty budget-busting you can gorge yourself on cheap-yet-amazing wines and cheeses, crepes and baguettes.
Go skiing in the French Alps, home to the world’s largest ski areas.
…or, if it’s the wrong time of year for snow, visit the Alps anyway for some hiking or just to enjoy being in the mountains. Chamonix (at the foot of Mont Blanc, western Europe’s highest mountain) is the most famous summer resort (and one of the most famous winter resorts) in the French Alps.
Check out the architecture – there are handsome examples nationwide, but the most famous landmarks in Paris are the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, Notre Dame cathedral, Sacre-Coeur Basilica (atop the hill in Montmartre, the city’s highest point), and the striking glass pyramid of the Louvre Museum.
People watch from a roadside cafe. Paris’ Montmartre area is a good spot for this.
Visit the museums and palaces – the Louvre and Versailles, respectively, being the main draws.
See Mont Saint-Michel, the island-village looking like something straight out of a fairytale.
Get a bird’s eye view of Paris from the upper level of the Eiffel Tower – and also from the roof of the Arc de Triomphe. I actually preferred the view from the Arc; with Paris having few buildings of great height, looking down from the Eiffel Tower everything below looks almost flat, like a picture, whereas from the roof of the Arc de Triomphe you get a feel for the relief of the buildings.
Visit the beaches of the French Riviera for some sun and sea.
Resources and Useful Links for Visiting France
Official website for the Interrail pass
Official website for the Eurail pass
Search for hotel deals in France
World Nomads offer flexible travel insurance you can buy even if already overseas (this can be a key point, as I once found out when I got pickpocketed). Also check out their winter sports cover if you’re hitting the slopes.
Seat 61 has the schedules & fares for London to France by train
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