Road trips are a vacation tradition, but it’s understandable if first-time Europe road trippers are a little hesitant. It’s not like you can just roll up and ask anyone for directions because you won’t understand them. And what about traffic signs, tolls and driving laws? Parking rules? Diesel? Manual transmission?!
Don’t worry! When it comes to France, your road trip is in good hands. Unless you are on rural road in the back woods, the country’s highway infrastructure is pretty great. Highways are clearly marked; note that the brown signs show nearby historic or worthy sites. Secondary roads are well paved and perfect for stopping for a photo op. And yes, you can rent a car with automatic transmission.
Speaking of renting a car, remember that there is also a fantastic national train network, too. So if you’re in Paris and want to take a road trip in the South of France, don’t spend the time, money and energy on driving all the way down; take the super-fast TGV train to your starting point, and rent a car there. They’re usually rented from an office/lot at or near the train station, so it’s convenient.
As for our GPS-dependent culture, it’s understandable that you may be worried about not being able to use your phone to give you directions. But in fact, you can – just download an app called HERE. Once you have it, download the map of France, or even just one region, and it loads and gives you turn-by-turn directions, live, even when you’re offline. It’s a godsend for people traveling in a foreign country.
And as I like to say, when in doubt, roundabout! Most of France’s secondary and tertiary roads are littered with roundabouts (traffic circles, if you’re from New Jersey) and they are a huge help in letting you know you’re going the right way. And if you’re not sure? Just keep going around until you are! Everyone does.
Your driver’s license is valid while on vacation here, and as long as your bank/credit card has a chip in it, you can use it for tolls. So throw your luggage in the trunk, pack a picnic, and hit the road – you’re about to spend a perfect week in the South of France!
South of France road trip itinerary
For this road trip, you’ll start in Montpellier, the capital of the Languedoc region, and finish in Nice on the Côte d’Azur. (Trains go to and from Paris and Montpellier, and Paris and Nice, so you can actually do this trip in either direction.)
Montpellier is about 3.5 hours from Paris by TGV, so you can get started in the morning and arrive by lunchtime. Try one of the restaurants in the shadow of the Tour de la Babotte, a medieval tower that’s now an observatory, then walk around this vibrant, funky student town before heading to the Gare St-Roch to pick up your rental car.
From Montpellier, drive west along the coast to Aigues-Mortes, a beautifully preserved medieval walled city whose foundations may go back to the turn of the first millennium. But these aren’t ruins; it’s a fully functioning town, and if you want to take it slow, feel free to stay the night.
After Aigues-Mortes, drive through the Camargue, preserved coastal wetlands that are home to wild white horses as well as flamingoes, sea lavender, and gorgeous wetlands. There are also vineyards tucked away here, so stock up.
Head up to Aix-en-Provence for an enjoyable break from the road. Here you’ll want to stroll along the Cours Mirabeau, the main drag, to get the lay of the land. Make sure to stop at the cafe Deux Garçons, serving coffee to locals since the 18th century. Don’t miss the Cathedral of the Holy Savior with its peaceful cloisters, the 17th-century Hôtel de Ville, and the town’s many fountains. And get lost down the smaller streets, making sure to peek into artists’ studios and cute shops.
Your next stop is Marseille. Still basking in its role as a European City of Culture in 2013, there is so much to see and do in this ancient mosaic of a city. Its 30,000-year-old history, multicultural vibe and quietly exciting arts scene make Marseille a fantastic base for this leg of your trip. Don’t forget to fuel up on bouillabaisse, the fish stew of the gods; and pastis, an anise drink that was invented when wormwood, the thing that makes absinthe so powerful, was banned in the mid-20th century.
Besides touring the city’s many sights, while in Marseille you’ll want to take two quick side trips. First is Cassis, just 12 miles (20kms) east of Marseille. This fishing village first made its mark as a Roman-era port; the Cap Canaille headland has been maritime landmark for thousands of years.
Between Cassis and Marseille are calanques, absolutely stunning inlets that can be seen from the sea (you can take a boat tour if you’d like), or from the vertiginous heights of the coastline’s cliffs. Hidden beaches, azure waters and chic yachts abound, and you’re sure to find your little piece of paradise among limestone folds.
After Marseille, the rest of the Riviera is up for grabs until you get to Nice. See how the other half lives in St-Tropez. If you’re up for an outdoor challenge, head for the 1800-foot (600m) Roche Taillée cliffs near Fréjus. Bask in the sun on the famous beaches of Cannes. Visit the market at Antibes, or maybe get in a round of golf at Juan-les-Pins.
If you prefer to go inland a bit, you can drive up to Tourrettes for a stroll with a view, and unique gift shopping. Visit the International Perfume Museum in Grasse, the perfume capital of the world – it’s a fascinating look at why your olfactory sense is so important. And you can make your own perfume at Fragonard, a perfumer in town! And the views from Gourdon, a mountaintop village, are not to be missed. St-Paul-de-Vence is ever so charming; check out the cliffside cemetery, where Marc Chagall is buried, and ask the locals to teach you pétanque at the entrance to the old town.
Finally, there’s Nice. Shop at the market of the Cours Saleya, and head up to the Colline du Château at the far end of the Old Town for a picnic with a view. Spend time at one of the many outdoors bars, cafes and restaurants. Rent a chaise longue from a beach club and live that Riviera life. And before you take the car back, go for a quick drive to Monaco along scenic mountain roads!