Northern and Western France has some of the most romantic beaches, breath-taking cliffs and leisurely rivers. It is deep in history and you will be tracing the footsteps of William the Conqueror, Joan of Arc, François-René de Chateaubriand, Victor Hugo, Claude Monet and many more. You will be transported back into medieval times in pristinely preserved towns, forts and ports. Enjoy fantastic wines in the greatest wine regions of the world. Indulge in sumptuous meals with the freshest of ingredients.
Below is another one of our thoroughly-researched and personally tested itinerary & travel tips. A two weeks driving road trip from Northern to Western Coast of France covering 2,974 km and 13 amazing French cities/towns.
Day 1: Getting to Rouen
Fly into Paris and pick up your rental car to begin this road trip. Drive 150 km or 2 hours to Rouen with a stop-over at Giverny (normandie-tourisme.fr), to visit where French artist Claude Monet spent the final 40 years of his life. Tour the home and painting studio of the founding father of the Impressionist movement. Enjoy the natural, lush and colourful garden that was the subject of the famed “Water Lily” series. Do note that the garden is only open from April to October.
If you are starting from the United Kingdom, plan accordingly to reach Folkestone Eurotunnel for some lunch. This will get you to your 1st stop, Rouen, a couple of hours ahead of dinner. Allowing you to checkin, freshen up and flirt with the city before sitting down for a meal.
Rouen (rouentourisme.com), the capital of Normandy region in Northern France, used to be one of the wealthiest cities in medieval times. It is a fitting start to the two weeks driving road trip. The richness from the heydays have been diligently preserved and restored in this beautiful city. Joan of Arc, Victor Hugo, Richard the Lionheart, King of England and Duke of Normandy, the Hundred Years War all have significant linkage to this magnificent city.
Make sure you fill up the tank before embarking on the driving road trip. As in the UK, petrol station along the highways in France are 20-30% more expensive than those you find in towns/cities.
Recommend to travel using Eurotunnel instead of taking the ferry as it is much quicker and less waiting time in between.
You will be spoilt for restaurant choices in Rouen, but please make sure you book in advance. For dinner, we would recommend the classy one-Michelin star Rodolphe (restaurant-rodolphe.com) or the sophisticated two-Michelin star Gill (gill.fr). You will also be well taken care of at homely, dog-friendly La Petite Auberge (restaurant-petite-auberge.fr).
Day 2: A Day of Medieval History in Rouen
Start the day at the Church of Joan of Arc at Place due Vieux Marche. This is allegedly the square where the martyr, Joan of Arc, was burned for her sins against the English. Be awe-struck with the 13 large Renaissance stained-glasses inside. From the church, walk down Rue du Gros Horloge to find the famous 14th century astronomical clock – one of the oldest clock in Europe. Spot and count the number of sheep on the tower, a tribute to wool, which was an important trading commodity for the city in medieval times.
At the end of the street, you will find Rouen’s Notre-Dame Cathedral. This is a Gothic architecture masterpiece – big and imposing with countless life-like statues and meticulously intricate carvings. With an iron spire peaking at 151m, it is the tallest cathedral in France. From there walk over to Dame Cakes (damecakes.fr) on Rue Saint Romain for some indulgent cakes and cookies. Wonder about the medieval quarter with endless rows of half-timbered shophouses. Take a break with some galette or crepe at La Crêperie Rouennaise (@crêperierouennaise) on Rue du Père Adam. The savoury galettes are fresh and crunchy.
Day 3: Magical Mont Saint-Michel and Charming Saint-Malo
Set off after breakfast to travel 255 km or 3.5 hours on the A13, passing by Caen, to arrive at the magical Mont Saint-Michel.
This is fairytale land on Earth, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The island, crowned by a sky-reaching Gothic abbey, is the inspiration behind the Rupunzel’s kingdom in Disney’s Tangled and it is just as magnificent and grand. Through the city wall, climb the uphill cobble-stoned path, with intermittent stairs towards the abbey. The street is lined with well-preserved buildings now occupied by shops, cafes and restaurants. This place gets really busy at high-season, but don’t let the crowd get to you and enjoy this marvel that is trapped in time.
Mont Saint-Michel is a vehicle-free island. Leave your car at the large open space car map (map) on the mainland. There are different sections for private cars, motorhomes, motorbikes, etc. There are clear sign-posts to guide you to relevant sections. It charges a flat day rate of €14.20.
Get a quick download about the island at the Tourist Information Centre in the carpark, which is also where you board the free shuttle to the island.
The climb to the abbey is steep. Make sure you wear comfortable sports or walking shoes. If you are travelling with older folks, make sure you plan for regular stops.
We haven’t come across an amazing restaurant here. Hence, will recommend picking up a picnic or a travelling lunch from Rouen to make the most of time given the packed schedule today.
Another 60 km later, you will be at Saint-Malo (saint-malo-tourisme.co.uk), the birthplace of François-René de Chateaubriand and the town where Jacques Cartier set sail to “discover” Canada in 1534. Saint-Malo has one of the most amazing 15th century old town surrounded by an imposing rampart. Spend time exploring the cobbled streets in the old town, wondering in and out from the shops and admiring the magnificent hotels/buildings. There are plenty of crêperies and we had an almighty pancake with ice-cream and whipped cream at Duchesse Anne (map) Cafe to carry us through to dinner.
Walk along the walkways of the rampart to soak in the panoramic view of the English Channel. Make your way up to the cathedral and to the two viewing points – Fort La Reine and Bastion de la Hollande. After all the walking, we bought some Kouign Amann (@lesdelicesdugouverneur) and found a spot on Bon Secours beach (map) just outside the wall to enjoy the seaside. Relax to the gentle lapping of the waves while the kids enjoyed themselves fishing at the rock pools. After watching the sunset, wrap up the day with a sumptuous dinner at Cafe de L’Ouest (cafedelouest.maisonhector.com).
Be sure to pack some fishing nets, shovels and buckets to maximise your time at the beach. There will be many more to come on this driving road trip in the Northern & Western coast of France.
Day 4: Long Drive to Majestic La Rochelle
Pack some lunch from Intermarché SUPER in town before a 5 hours drive covering 320 km as you move from Northern to Western France. La Rochelle (larochelle-tourisme.com) is another beautiful coastal town. Start your adventure at the old harbour, where your attention will be captured by two majestic medieval towers that have stood guarding the entrance to this historic maritime square for the last 700 years. Pay for a visit to the taller Saint-Nicolas Tower, named after the patron saint of sailors and fishermen. Learn about it’s rich past and gaze out onto Bay of Biscay from it towering top.
Admire the sunset from the rampart towards the 3rd tower, the Lantern Tower. After that, browse through handmade crafts at the Artisans Craft Market on Cours des Dames along the port (available from mid-June to mid-Sept). Satisfied, kick back and enjoy a delicious French dinner at one of the many bars & restaurants overlooking the harbour or walk further a field to try one of the many gastronomical restaurants that puts La Rochelle on the foodie map.
For dinner or lunch, we would recommend trying Le P’tit Nicolas (lafourchette.com) for some classic French-fares or try the more fanciful Ginger (ginger-larochelle.com). Alternatively indulge in seafood at the basic but friendly Le Panier de Crabe (le-panier-de-crabe). Make sure you book in advance.
Day 5: Food Market in La Rochelle and a Lazy River Cruise
If you are here on Wednesday or Saturday, spend your morning wondering the fresh food market of Marché des Halles (map) (Central Market). It is a 10 mins walk into the old town from the Old Port (Vieux Port). Immerse in the lively buzz of stallholders marketing their products and locals catching up on the week. Be fascinated by endless rows of fresh food, from oysters, lobsters, langoustines, fishes, meat to tomatoes, peppers, greens, fruits and ready-to-eat pies, cheeses, breads, charcuterie and, of course, foie gras. Breakfast and lunch sorted in the indoor market, outdoor market or one of the many cafes/restaurants around the market.
After lunch, take a little worthy detour by going east to Marais (Marsh) Poitevin (map). This is one of the highlight of the road trip. Take a relaxing and casual riverboat ride in Green Venice (Venise Verte). Float gently on the quiet river flanked by greenery. Look out for the herd of cows/bulls. Listen to the rustling of the leaves and hums from the wilderness. We would recommend taking the barge with a local guide for 1.5 hours for €52 (for 4 person).
Pack some cocktail or a bottle of wine to enjoy along the blissful boat journey. Do bring along sun protection wear and creams if you are there on a sunny day.
From there, drive for another 200 km to get to majestic Bordeaux. Checkin and relax before putting on your best outfit for dinner at a classy restaurant.
Day 6: Laid-back Oyster Heaven in Cap Ferret and Arcachon
Today is all about oysters, fresh prawns, refreshing chilled white wine and the seaside. Your destination, Cap Ferret, is a long peninsular in between Bassin d’Arcachon and the Atlantic Ocean. Bassin d’Arcachon is a shallow bay, the heart of oyster farming and produces 2/3 of the oysters consumed in France. Cap Ferret has a sleepy fishing village feel to it and it is home to oyster farmers – some of whom have set-up fabulously relaxing oyster shacks along the coast. Spend the afternoon enjoying the succulent and juicy fresh oysters washed down with white wine chilled in a plastic ice bag. Look out into the lazy horizon of gently lapping waves.
After lunch, find a spot on the beach and enjoy a refreshing dip in the sea. Alternatively, you can head back to the car and drive over to Plage de l’océan for a bigger beach. The waves are much stronger here coming from the Atlantic Ocean. On the way back to the car from the fishing village, strike a pose and snap a few insta-worth photos against the brightly coloured homes.
Traffic can get quite busy at peak season. A one hour drive from Bordeaux can easily take two hours. Do plan accordingly.
From Cap Ferret, we drove around the bay into Arcachon town. Arcachon is like your typical Mediterranean seaside town. Manicured promenade run along the shores and it is lined with cafes, restaurants, hotels and of course, a casino. Plage Thiers in Arcachon is one of the most beautiful beach on this trip. Kick back with a cup of coffee at Grand Café Victoria (restaurant-grandcafevictoria-arcachon.com) overlooking the beach. Choose from a variety of fresh seafood restaurant in Arcachon to wrap up the day.
Day 7: More Oysters and the Out-of-this-World Sand Dunes
It will be a blasphemy not to indulge in more oysters. Hence, after breakfast and some loiter about Bordeaux, drive over to Avenue des Ostreiculteurs, which translates to Avenue of Oyster Farmers, in La Teste-de-Buch in time for lunch. There are at least a dozen of oyster huts to choose from and we would highly recommend La 12Zen (@la12zen). It is a simple place built on a platform over the edge of the lake, offering a blissful view. You will know that you have gone to the right place, when you are welcomed by a sign saying “This is not a restaurant, but an oyster farmer’s hut!”. A dozen nº2 oysters goes for €12, coupled it with 6 crevettes for €7 and chilled bottle of white wine for €10 and your lazy afternoon is complete.
Next up is a hot afternoon of trekking followed by some sand castles and a romantic sunset. A 15 mins drive from lunch will bring you to the Great Dune du Pilat (bassin-arcachon.com). It is an out of this world sight. It is as if a huge chunk of the Saharan Desert has been teleported across thousand of miles. The sand dune is massive, 110m tall, 500m wide and about 3km long – tallest dune in Europe. You have lush green pine forest on one end and deep blue of Arcachon Bay on the other. Reward yourself on the beach at the other end of the climb with a picnic and a splash in the ocean waves. Trek back to the top of the dune in time for a romantic moment at sunset. If you haven’t tried it before, this is a great place for paragliding.
Buy some food and drinks in Bordeaux in the morning for a picnic on the beach of Dune du Pilat. Don’t buy too much as you will have to carry it across the giant sand dunes. Bring a picnic map fitting for the beach.
Wear good walking shoes, bring a cap/hat, sunglasses, sunblock and bring at least a litre of water per adult for the trek. The sand is extremely soft and there are no running away from the hot sun on the dunes.
There is a large outdoor parking space, but it does get busy in peak seasons. Be patient and you will eventually find a spot.
Day 8: Fresh Food, Wine Culture and Grandeur in Majestic Bordeaux
There is no better way to start the day in any respectable city than with a visit to the local fresh food market. In Bordeaux, that’s Marché des Capucins (marchedescapucins.com), known as the Belly of Bordeaux and it’s history can be traced back to 1525. The alleys are named after the 4 most famous wine appellations in the Medoc wine region. This place buzzes with locals and stall holders trading over fresh local meat, seafood, cheese, fruits, vegetables, charcuteries, patisseries and more. Some of the sellers have been here for generations. Nothing beats slurping some oysters and washing it down with some wine white in a fresh oyster stall. Graze on the multitude of selection as you wonder about for an early lunch.
From there, hop into a taxi and traverse the city to La Cite du Vin (laciteduvin.com) – the wine museum. It looks like a giant decanter from the outside with a mirror and metallic finish. The stunning visual continue throughout the interior. The museum employs interactive and engaging modern video and audio technology to take you through an educational history and scientific lesson of wine globally. Don’t miss the wooden replicas of the most famous chateaux and the section on different scents/smells. Finish on a high at the top-floor bar with a panoramic view of the city, though this is not the historic part of the city.
Head back to the city centre onto the most iconic building in Bordeaux – the Grand Théâtre (opera-bordeaux.com), built in 1780, for a pre-booked guided tour. With its imposing 12 Corinthian columns, majestic staircase, grand reception hall and intricately decorated concert hall, it is one of the most beautiful concert halls in the world.
Take a gentle stroll to towards the river and enjoy the Water Mirror. It is picture perfect with the majestic and symmetrical Place de la Bourse in its background. Enjoy a leisurely walk along the promenade next to River Garonne before going for dinner.
Wrap up the night with some drink at “Night Beach” on the rooftop of Intercontinental Bordeaux (bordeaux.intercontinental.com).
Most of the attractions in Bordeaux are within walking distance. You won’t be needing the car for today. The furthest attraction is Cite du Vin and that’s can be solved with a ride in the taxi.
Marché des Capucins is closed on Monday. Open from 6am to 2pm on Tuesday to Thursday, till 9pm on Friday and till 2.30pm on Saturday and Sunday. Go early in the morning if you want to beat the crowd.
Guided tours of the Grand Théâtre are available (apart from in summer months) at 2.30pm, 4pm or 5.30pm for €6. Booking through Opera National de Bordeaux’s website (opera-bordeaux.com).
Day 9: First Growth & Premier Grand Cru Classes on the Left Bank
The next 2 days is dedicated to the world famous wines of Bordeux. There are 62 appellations and more than 7,300 châteaux/wine houses. The 1st day is dedicated to the most famous of them all, on what is known as the Left Bank, as it sits on the left of River Garonne on a typical map. This is home to the who’s who of Bordeaux wine with names like Château Lafite Rothschild, Château Latour, Château Margaux and Château Mouton-Rothschild. The area is famous for it’s cabernet sauvignon and merlot grape varieties.
For the best experience, we highly recommend booking a private full-day wine tours. They have access to wine châteaux that are not open to public and tonnes of knowledge/insights. And most importantly, they will drive you around, leaving you to indulge in a few tipples.
If you do want to do-it-youself, all you have to do is head down to the scenic D2 highway, known as Route des Châteaux, just north of Bordeaux. From there, drive slowly and admire the grandeur of all the châteaux. Prebook a wine tour in a château of your choice before lunch and one after, unfortunately, you won’t have time for more than that.
One of the first you will come across is the famous Château Margaux (chateau-margaux.com). It is one of five first-growth châteaux, an honour it carried since the classification was introduced in 1855. It will be a surreal experience to come face-to-face with the grand Palladian-style château that graced the most coveted red wines in the world. The building is nicknamed “Versailles of the Médoc” and it is quintessential. It is the definition of quality and class.
Next, you will enter Haut-Médoc appellation. Pay a visit to Château Lamothe-Bergeron (lamothebergeron.fr) – generally recognised to have one of the best wine-tasting tour on the Left Bank. The château is charming with the unmistakably French conical turrets. The tasting tour includes tasting of different grapes and wine in different stages of the process. They offer 3 types of tours and we would recommend the VIP WineTour for €25/person which includes tasting of 5 vintages.
From there, head into Saint-Julien appellation, the smallest in the Left Bank. Visit top-rated “Super Second” Château Léoville Poyferré (leoville-poyferre.fr) (€10/person for a 2 wines walk-in tasting) or the grand Château Beychevelle (beychevelle.com) and its French-style garden.
Last but not least is the Pauillac appellation, home to the other three first-growth châteaux in the Medoc – Lafite, Latour and Mouton Rothschild. Pay an unforgettable visit to another “Super Second” Château Pichon Baron (pichonbaron.com) in Pauillac, where its vineyard runs alongside the more well-helled Château Latour.
Most château wine tours must be pre-booked months in advance, especially for peak seasons. They are generally open from April to October, but most are closed on the weekends, public holidays and in August.
Where you don’t have an appointment, ask politely and some of them will allow you to walk around the grounds or maybe even the main building.
Look out for Les Portes Ouvertes en Médoc. It is an open house weekend normally in April where over 70 châteaux will have their doors opened for tours/tastings with accompanying events like food, music, wine workshop and games for kids.
Day 10: Onto the Right Bank and A Day in Saint-Émilion
Day 10 is the final day in the Bordeaux and we will capped it off with a visit to the Right Bank and north of Dordogne river, to Saint-Émilion (saint-emilion-tourisme.com) wine appellation. It is home to fine wine houses like Château Ausone and Château Cheval Blanc. At the heart of it is a medieval village that is bursting with timeless character and charm – a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is 50km, about an hour, from Bordeaux. There are 147 châteaux or houses, famous for its merlot and cabernet franc grape varieties.
Begin at the sophisticated rooftop restaurant of La Terrase Rouge (laterraserouge.com) in the uber-modern Château La Dominique. It is right next to the famous Château Cheval Blanc. With it’s uninterrupted panoramic view, soak in the natural beauty of the miles and miles of Saint-Émilion and neighbouring Pomerol vineyards. The distinctively French menu is equally amazing and mandatory for it to be enjoyed with a bottle of their house wine.
After lunch, best to go to for a couple of château visits for wine tasting before heading into the village centre. You will need to book these in advance. For convenience, why not just head downstairs after lunch and join Château La Dominique’s exclusive 90-mins VIP tour of the château (€30/ person and by appointment only).
For a grand and mesmering experience, visit Chateau Soutard (chateau-soutard.com). Be awe-strucked by it’s majestic building, chandelier adorned fermentation room and enormous underground cellar. They offer 4 tour types ranging from €12 – €80/ person, depending on how in-depth you want to go. For a more intimate and personal touch, you will be right at home at Château Cantenac (chateau-cantenac.fr). It is a family-run winery and the tours are often guided by a family member – €25/person for the 90-mins prestige tour, includes tasting of 4 wines with bread and cheese.
Now as a wine expert, you are ready to head into the village centre. Start with a trip to the tourism office to pick up a map and some information leaflets. Then, pop next door to Maison du vin and scrutinise the large collection of vintages from the 250 wine growers who own this shop/museum. Head over to the Monolithic Church of Saint-Émilion for a pre-book 45-mins guided tour. After that, head over to Rue Guadet, a street lined with distribution offices of the châteaus, for more wine tasting and purchases to fill the car boot. From there, turn into Rue de la Cadène and head towards the village centre. Don’t forget to wonder about down Rue de la Porte Bouqueyre to check out more shops, wine shops and restaurants.
Wrap up the day in wine heaven with dinner at food heaven Michelin-starred Logis de la Cadène (logisdelacadene.fr), helmed by Alexandre Baumard. Book in advance and ask for a table in the wisteria-decorated terrace. Indulge in local food ingredients paired with the best wine from Saint-Émilion.
There is a small car park at the end of Grand Pontet road, 15 mins walk to the village centre. But, do make a loop into village centre to find if there is a closer car park. Car park in town has a maximum stay of 5 hours, €2/hour
Visit to the Monolithic Church of Saint-Émilion is only permissible with a 45-mins guided tour from the tourism office. Pre-book it online months in advance for peak season travel. Last tour starts at 4pm.
Visit to the Bell Tower of the church must be booked at the tourism office, but likely to be sold-out for the day in the morning. It is unfortunately not available for pre-booking online.
Day 11: 600 km North to Paimpol
This is the longest driving day in the whole trip as you track back north to Brittany.
Day 12: A Tail in the Channel, White Sandy Beach & Giant Pink Boulders at Perros-Guirec
As Britanny is all about the coast, start the day with a leisurely stroll on the quiet bay at Loguivy. There isn’t much here. Walk out toward the little lighthouse and climb up the yellow mustard colour rocks. It gives you a perfect vantage point to admire the channel and relax. Walk back to the car park and stop by the creperie hut for a mid-morning snack.
Hop back into the car and drive 28 km to Sillon de Talbert (brittanytourism.com), one of the most extraordinary natural landscape on earth. It is a 3 km narrow stretch of sand and rocks, like a tail, extending into the Channels. Unreal to the eyes and surreal to be walking on it. Continue back on the car to beautiful Perros-Guirec (tourisme.perros-guirec.com) to meet the most beautiful beach (Plage de Trestraou) this side of France. The cove is home to a long stretch of sandy white beach with gentle waves. But before that, wonder around the hilly town centre before the shops close at 6pm. Grab some lunch, make a dinner reservation and pop into some of the shops on Boulevard Georges Clémenceau near the Tourism Office.
Plage de Trestraou is lined with a modern promenade of restaurants offering alfresco cheese burger and beer lunch while enjoying the calming sea breeze. Alternatively, grab a spot on the beach, lay out your picnic map and relax for the afternoon. If you are feeling active, like we did, rent a canoe or a dinghy from the Nautical Centre of Perros-Guirec (nautisme.perros-guirec.com) and take it out to admire the big pink boulders at Côte de Granite Rose. €18/hour for a two-seater canoe or €39/hour for a double-handed dinghy. It is a good one-hour roundtrip to the Phare de Men Ruz (lighthouse) on the canoe. If you are even more adventurous, hike along the coastlines to the lighthouse. It takes an hour each way.
We have not found an amazing restaurants here, but found Les Calculots Creperie lively for lunch and Le Bleu Marin Restaurant (restaurant-le-bleu-marin.fr) a good option for a seafood dinner.
Day 13: Paimpol to Dinan to Caen
The 2nd last stop on this driving road trip of Northern and Western France is the most beautiful city in Brittany, Dinan (britannytourism.com). It is 100 km from Paimpol. The old town is one of the most well preserved medieval village with rows and rows of half-timbered houses/shops, cobble-stoned streets and fortified ancient ramparts dating back to the 13th century. Park at Place du marché and start at Rue Sainte-Claire. Walk up Rue de l’Horloge and climb up the 46m fifteenth century clock tower (Tour de l’Horloge) for a panoramic view of this village that is trapped in time.
Continue to be marvelled on Place des Merciers and then onto Rue du Jerzual toward River Rance. Here half-timbered houses give way to stone houses, thinner crowd and you will find a couple of art/sculpture galleries. By River Rance is the old port of Dinan and there is now a stretch of gorgeous riverside restaurants. Perfect place to grab lunch before the climb back to the village centre. Make sure to grab some biscuits from La Mère Poulard before you head off.
Start the 175 km or 2 hours drive to the final stop at Caen to get there for check-in/ dinner.
Day 14: Caen back to the UK
Spend the final morning in Caen (normandie-tourisme.fr), the final resting place of William the Conqueror and his wife Matilda. Most of the town was destroyed in the world wars but three monumental architecture still stand. Pick one as the finale of trip. William’s remains is buried in the grand Abbaye aux Hommes. Next to it is the Château de Caen – William’s 11th century masterpiece which is now a museum. A stone’s throw away is Abbaye aux Dames where Matilda’s remains lie.
After lunch is the final 350 km or 3.5 hours drive back to Calais enroute to the United Kingdom or 260 km or 3 hours back to Paris’ airport.
Please do share what you think about the exhaustive itinerary above. As always, love to hear from your experiences of travelling in the region.
For additional reading on this epic journey, you may want to check out my selection of top books on Northern and Western Coasts of France from my Amazon Associates links below.