The French rail network is a gift to natural adventurers and, if you book in advance, you can get some great value tickets too. You are also cutting your carbon costs big time. As well as being very green, travelling by train is a fantastically laid back start to your walking or cycling holiday, with no luggage restrictions, no airport hassle and one that takes you into the heart of your holiday terrain. Check out our list of top French holidays by train followed by a few key pointers on how to find and book cheap train tickets. If you are travelling from the UK, then you have the added blessing of Eurostar services that take you from London to Lille or Paris, where you can connect with a vast network.
Low carbon Camino
The Chemin du Puy or Camino le Puy, also known as the Via Podiensis, is one of four ancient routes through France that eventually join up with the Camino de Santiago. Covering an epic 750km, between Le Puy-en-Velay in the Haute Loire and St Jean-Pied-de-Port in the Pyrenees-Atlantiques, just 8km from the border with Spain, you can walk the whole thing in 40 days. Trek through the Auvergne, volcanic landscapes of the Velay, wild moorlands of Aubrac plateau, the Lot Valley and Pyrenean panoramas. Most people choose to walk it in sections, however, all of which are also accessible by train. Such as between Lectoure to Aire-sur-l’Adour through the vineyard-filled Armagnac region, or the last section Aire-sur-l’Adour to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, with views of the snow-capped Pyrenees.
Ditch the plane to Provence
Provence is almost greedy in its gorgeousness, and yet it just keeps giving, and the same goes for its rail connections. From walking trails through ancient Luberon villages, to cycling tours in the Camargue, this region that stretches from the Alps to the Mediterranean has been immortalised by greats such as Cezanne and Van Gogh. Indeed you can follow in Cézanne’s footsteps through the Calanque, which starts in Marseille and ends in Aix-en-Provence, two bustling rail hubs. Or, if you are more of a Van Gogh-er, follow in his footsteps between the stations of Avignon and Arles. For viticultural vacays by train, toast Provence’s fine natural heritage by cycling or walking alongside its vineyards, with both adventures heading off from Avignon, one of the main stations on France’s high-speed network.
Breeze into Brittany
If travelling from the UK, Brittany is a breeze taking the ferry to Roscoff and then a train onwards from there. The Côtes d’Armor is one of our favourites spots and, in particular, this week long cycling holiday, which includes the famously beautiful Pink Granite Coast stretching between Trebeurden and Perros Guirec. The pink boulders can be seen at many of its naturally sculpted bays, but they are particularly outstanding at Ploumanac’h. The holiday starts in St-Brieuc, which is just under two hours from Roscoff by train, and it finishes in Morlaix, just 40mins back to the ferry. Although it’s so beautiful, you may not want to leave.
Our Dordogne Valley walking holiday starts and finishes in the region’s medieval capital of Sarlat, a week of walking that has a beautiful finale in Montignac, just 30mins by bus back to Sarlat. Sarlat is 2h 20mins by train from Bordeaux, from where you can potter through the Périgord noir area, with a plethora of medieval marvels, as well as the Dordogne and Vézère Valleys, with riverside trails but also routes through ancient chestnut forests and walnut groves. Before you head off, pack your pannier with gastronomic goodies from Sarlat’s market, which dates back to medieval times. Held on Wednesdays and Saturdays in Place de la Liberté.
A carriage to the Côte d’Azur
Our walking holiday through the divine hilltop villages of the Côte d’Azur, heading inland on a journey that starts in Sospel and ends in Menton, is topped and tailed with gorgeous gares. A quick, easy to moderate level walking tour over five days takes you to some ancient architectural delights such as Breil-sur-Roya, which wraps itself around the foot of the Roya valley, or remote hamlet of Piène-Haute where a ruined fortress still hangs on tight. Two literal highlights include the village of St Agnès, the highest hilltop village on the Côte d’Azur (800m) which you access via Mont Ours (1,239m).
Loco to the Loire
You can cycle the Loire Valley Trail between Nevers in the Bourgogne-Franche-Comté region all the way to the Atlantic coast at Saint-Brévin-les-Pins near Nantes, with an array of cathedrals and châteaux, vineyards and mellow velo moments en route. Cycle the whole route in 15 days, or choose a week-long section between Nevers and Orleans, Orleans and Saumur or Saumur to the Atlantic, all accessible by train. Bring your own bike or we can arrange rentals for you, including e-bikes.
Tour de Mont Blanc, France, Italy and Switzerland
Known as the TMB for short, the Tour du Mont Blanc does not actually conquer the great peak but circumnavigates it instead. This is one of the world’s most celebrated long-distance mountain walking trails and, although it starts and ends in France, it’s actually a multinational massif, inviting you into Switzerland and Italy en route. Check out all our Tour de Mont Blanc walking holidays, all of which are reachable by rail.
How to book French train tickets
For booking French rail tickets internationally, we recommend booking through Rail Europe and Trainline. If you are booking to travel from the UK, it is worth noting that Rail Europe allows you to book from anywhere in the UK to anywhere in the rest of Europe all on one booking. While the latter only lets you book from London’s Kings Cross International, as this is where the international part of the journey begins from the UK. Both charge a booking fee, but they will save you a lot of time. You can also book directly through France’s national rail operator, SNCF, and book your cross-channel journey at Eurostar if applicable. Train guru Mark Smith’s Seat 61’s website is excellent at holding your hand through this maze.
How to find cheap train tickets
One of the best tips is to get in early, because French rail operators release their tickets in advance (usually four months), and in phases. Another reason to get in quickly is because they release the cheap seats first. SNCF Connect has excellent information about when tickets go on sale here. You can also set up a booking alert for a specific route on Rail Europe, and they will let you know by email when tickets have been released. You can then buy them either on Rail Europe or go straight to SNCF to buy them. It’s the same thing but, as mentioned above, the former charges you a booking fee. We have gone into more details on how to book cheap train tickets in this blog.
Another great value and adventurous option is to just buy an Interrail one-country France Pass (aka Eurail Pass if purchased in the USA) and combine a couple of French walking tours over a set period of time. And Interrailing has gone multi-generational, with Senior and Youth Passes available, so jump on board, whatever your age! You could also combine countries with an Interrail multi-country Pass, and combine France with one of our many other holidays that are accessible by rail.
Get in training
Once you start opting to travel by train, you won’t look back. It gets your holiday off to such a relaxed start, you can watch the country go past as you head to your chosen destination, and you can truly embrace the ethos of slow travel, from the get-go. You may also enjoy our blogs on Travelling in Germany by train and Top walking holidays accessible by train, How to book cheap train tickets and Best train journeys in Switzerland.