Chris Froome, Mark Cavendish and 174 other riders will start the epic 2,082 mile Tour de France today. Over the next three weeks the cyclists will take on the 21 stages, starting in the Vendee area in the Loire Valley, through Brittany, the cobbled highways of French Flanders before heading to the Alps, south Massif Central and through the Pyrenees.
The beautiful route shows off so much of the French countryside, pretty towns and old cathedral cities before coming to an end in Paris on the final stretch of the Champs-Élysées.
Whether you’re a cycling nut or just love the thought of indulging in wine, cheese and taking in the scenery, many parts of the route are well worth a visit.
Best for: Fine dining
The Tour de France will pass through this picturesque city in the Languedoc area on July 22. It’s famed for its medieval fortress which was restored in 1853 and later became a UNESCO world heritage site, and has three Michelin-starred restaurants – Le Table de Franck Putelat (with two stars), The Domaine d’Auriac and La Barbacane. And you won’t only be eating well, the wines of the Languedoc region are excellent so drink your way around a vineyard tour too. Make sure you take in the view from the Basilica of Saint Nazaire, an historic cathedral representing both Roman and Gothic styles.
Best for: History
For those with an interest in history, Arras in north east France is a particularly poignant location. The WWI memorials here commemorate the forces from the UK, South Africa and New Zealand who died in the area between 1916 and 1918, it includes the British army’s first black officer, Walter Tull, who also played for Tottenham Hotspur. The city is made up of Flemish Baroque-style arcaded buildings, and two squares are particularly pretty – the Grand Place and Heroes Square. You can also use the city as a base to visit the Battle of the Somme memorials.
Best for: Wellbeing
Also known as Luchon, this little town made up of 19th century buildings is one of most popular (and challenging) ski spots in the Pyrenees in winter, and a spa location in summer thanks to the natural thermal baths. Enjoy a dip in these balmy pools at Luchon Forme et Bien Etre which also has a natural underground hammam (thought to be the only one in Europe), treatments and a gym.
Best for: Architecture
An easy day trip from Paris by car or train, Chartres is famed for its grand architecture and in particular the huge 13th century Cathédrale Notre-Dame. It was built in a unique mix of Gothic and Romaneque styles with two towering flamboyant spires, flying buttresses and distinctive blue stained glass windows. Chartres’ wonderfully preserved old quarter has medieval houses with timber facades and and steep, narrow cobbled streets. Stroll down to the Eure River and cross pretty stone footbridges, and make use of the many museums – the International Stained Glass Centre, Fine Arts Museum (inside a former bishop’s palace) and the Agriculture Museum come highly recommended.
Best for: Instagram-envy
Deep in the French Basque country, Espelette has picture-perfect streets lined with traditional Basque houses, many with rows of the village’s number one export hanging from them – the Piment d’Espelette, dried red peppers. In keeping with the colour theme the majority of the houses are painted red and white, so it makes for especially beautiful Instagram photos. The red peppers are a staple in any Basque kitchen, used in many cases instead of black pepper, and also used in products like cheese and chocolate. The pepper is cultivated, picked and processed by hand and the drying process concentrates the flavour. It’s so important to this little village, there’s an annual Espelette pepper festival in celebration on the last weekend of October.
6. L’Alpe d’Huez
Best for: Hiking and cycling
It goes without saying that all of these places boast world class cycle routes for budding Chris Froomes, but up in the dizzy mountain heights here is one of the Tour de France’s most iconic climbs. The 8.5 mile stretch from Bourg d’Oisans to L’Alpe d’Huez, with 21 relentless hairpin bends, has been part of the Tour for 30 years and regularly shapes the outcome of the race. It’s a mecca for cycling enthusiasts so bring a road bike and see if you can make it to the summit too. In winter, the area boasts 155 miles of ski slopes, and when the snow melts, these southern Alps became a green paradise for cyclists, hikers and horse riders.
Best for: Families
The old military base and busy port of Brest isn’t as picturesque as many on the list (it was rebuilt swiftly after being destroyed in the war) but it’s well worth a visit anyway. The easy, affordable transport links from the UK make it the ideal summer destination for those with kids in tow, and there are lots of activities aimed at families. The Musee National de la Marine, inside a castle, makes for a fun day out with children, as does Oceanopolis with 10,000 marine animals. Brittany’s dramatic coastline has always been a draw for UK families and there are some especially picturesque beach spots not too far away, like Blancs Sablons.
If you’ve got the car with you, head down the coast to the oldest inhabited settlement in Europe, Carnac. In the heathlands just north lie mysterious parallel rows of large standing stones, believed to have been there long before the Egyption pyramids – sure to boggle little minds.