10. Rent a Car Through Renault Eurodrive
While the rail system in France is known for being very good, having your own car is a must if you want to truly explore the area and the unique experiences each region has to offer. If you will be staying in Europe for more than 2 weeks, we suggest you opt for a short term lease through Renault Eurodrive. You can read more about that in our Travel Tip covering short term leases.
There is one thing in particular you need to be aware of when driving in Southern France: THE TOLLS!
- Cost: The tolls are very expensive. Expect to pay €2-4 for a short trip out of town. For longer drives, it seems to average out to somewhere around €7 per hour!
- Terrible Placement: There is seemingly no logical design or traffic flow analysis the French took when identifying where to locate their tolls. They are frequently located in bizarre places, such as 5 minutes after you get on the highway, slowing you down considerably.
- Long Lines: Likely as a result of the terrible placement of the tolls, the lines at many of the toll booths are horribly long, making what should be a short drive to the beach or the next big town take nearly twice as long as it should.
- Payment Options: That brings me to my last point on tolls... if you have an American style swipe card, it will not work at the toll booth. You will need to use cash if you only have a swipe card. Instead, make sure you read our Travel Tip about credit cards in Europe and obtain a chip and signature card. These cards are accepted at the toll booths, and the lines for the card-only lanes are significantly shorter than those that also accept cash.
9. Be Awed by Historical Nimes
Nimes, located about a half hour east from Montpellier, is home to some of the most beautiful and well maintained Roman architecture in the world. Though we spent several weeks in Nimes, you can take in all the major sights in a single day. If you find yourself in Nimes for only one day, here is a loose itinerary we suggest:
- Park along the streets on Avenue Jean Jaures near Jardins de la Fontaine. Note that parking is free between 12 and 2 PM, so factor that into your scheduling.
- Walk to the Jardins de la Fontaine and trek up the hill to the Tour Magne.
- Spend some time at the Jardins de la Fontaine. Take the kids on a pony ride, have a picnic, or just hang out on the grass. Also eat a crepe at the cafe near the entrance of Jardins de la Fontaine.
- Take a short walk along the river to Maison Carree (top off the parking meter on the way if needed), where you will see a short film on the history of Nimes with English subtitles
- Take another short walk to the Arenes, where you will see the best preserved coliseum in the world
Travel Tip: Buy a triple pass for Tour Magne, Maison Carree, and the Arenes. The combined cost is 11.5€, whereas individually it would come out to 17.6€. It is a significant money saver, and can be used at your leisure over a period of three days if you want to space out your visit.
8. Baguettes, Brie Cheese, and Crepes
Everyone knows France is well known for its food, but don't fall into the easy trap of spending too much for it!
At a typical bakery in France, a large baguette will set you back all of about €0.85, and is a great addition to most any meal. Use it for sandwiches, or enjoy it with some tomatoes and brie cheese... no matter what you can't go wrong.
Also, as I'm sure everyone knows, the crepes in France are to die for. Steer clear of the fancy creperies and just get one from the smaller stands. It will be just as delicious, and half the price. You can easily enjoy a crepe with a few toppings (chocolate and coconut are our favorites) for about €2.50.
7. Explore the Cote d'Azur
There are many beautiful cities along the French Riviera, also known as the Cote d'Azur. In addition to the big towns such as Marseilles, Nice, and Cannes, you will find many less known gems.
- First is the Calanque d'en Vau, a stunning beach surrounded by cliffs, which unfortunately we did not have an opportunity to visit. Travelers beware, during the summer months they restrict access to the region to only a few hours in the morning, due to elevated fire risks. In addition, it is about an hour hike to the beach from where you park your car, so keep that in mind when traveling with kids.
This website provides more detail on the fire risk, and links to check that risk level for every day.
- Second is the town of Saint-Raphaël, a small beach town about a half hour before Cannes. The beaches are similar to those in Cannes, but with much less crowds. Those looking for a great beach experience will find it in Saint-Raphaël.
- Third is Corniche de L'Esterel, where you will find a coastal route surrounded by red, rocky cliffs on one side and the sparking blue Mediterranean Sea on the other. We have driven a lot of coastal routes on our travels, and this is definitely not one to miss.
6. Montpellier Parc Zoologique
Located a short distance from Montpellier is a large zoo, with a great variety of exotic animals from all over the world. Oh, and did I mention it is completely free? Aside from an optional Amazon Rainforest exhibit, you don't have to pay for anything, not even the parking! While it is a very good zoo, it isn't worth coming far out of your way just to go see it. But if you are already traveling with kids near Montpellier, it is absolutely worth the visit.
5. Pont du Gard
Right outside one of our favorite towns in Southern France, Avignon, is the magnificent Pont do Gard aqueduct. For those that are fans of history and Roman Architecture, you will be amazed to learn how this bridge was part of a massive aqueduct which supplied water to Nimes, some 20 km away, and was built 2,000 years ago. For kids, or those that could care less about the history, you'll still enjoy splashing around and jumping off rocks in the river that runs under the aqueduct. For those that could care less for the water, perhaps you'll enjoy the night-time light show, which illuminates the bridge with stunning animations accompanied by music. The light show runs every night after sundown (when we went in August, it started at 10PM), though I cannot find if it is only during the summer or if it is year round. The Pont du Gard website also features what appears to be annual pyrotechnic shows which run for a few days each year. This year (2014) it was in June, so we had already missed it. It would be worth checking out to see if your visit overlaps with one of those shows, which are sure to impress.
4. Take in the Avignon and the Palais des Papes
Avignon is considered to be the gateway to Provence, a region in southern France known for its beautiful landscapes and distinct culture. The first thing you'll notice about the town center is that it is still surrounded by the ancient city walls and ramparts. They are massive, and incredibly impressive. Once inside the walls, you'll be treated to a very charming town that you'll absolutely enjoy just being a part of. The most impressive sight you'll find in the town is the Palais des Papes, which for a period of time in the 14th century was the home of the Papacy and the seat of Western Christianity. Today, it is just a historical monument, and tickets for adults are 11€, and are free for children under 8. It is definitely worth a visit, as the building is as beautiful inside as it is outside. For an additional 1.50€, you can get a combination ticket for Palais des Papes and Pont d'Avignon. Pont d'Avignon (also known as Pont Saint-Bénézet) is essentially a bridge to nowhere, as several hundred years back half of the bridge collapsed into the Rhone River. Due to the cheap cost, it is worth checking out the half of the bridge that is still open to walk on.
3. Be a Movie Star in Cannes
I'm sure everyone has heard of the Cannes Film Festival, but what is not as well known is that Cannes is a beautiful city that is home to a long stretch of very picturesque beaches. In addition to the beaches, you can hike your way up the San Francisco'esque hills to the top of the old town, where you'll find some lovely views of the town and the sea. It's a short walk from there to the Claude Debussy theater, where you will find no shortage of people trying to look their best on the red carpets. If you're there around the time of the festival, chances are you'll see some real celebrities instead of all the wannabes. While I probably wouldn't suggest Cannes for a long duration stay, it is definitely worth checking out.
2. Nice - Explore Vieux Nice and Colline du Château Overlook
Nice is our favorite town in Southern France, and for that reason it gets the honors of having the top two positions in our list. Vieux Nice (the old town) is a series of charming little streets that are equally as interesting during the day as they are at night. During the day, you'll find a wonderful market in the main square. Most days it is a flower market, but on some days it is an antique market. You'll also find very cute little stores, art workshops, bakeries, and the likes as you walk around the snaking streets. At night, you'll find the same streets transformed into a happening restaurant scene, with lots of outdoor eating and drinking.
While in Vieux Nice, you'll find the best way to truly take in the beautiful city of Nice. From this area, you can climb up the long and winding hill to Colline du Chateau Overlook. Once at the top of the hill, you will be treated to breathtaking panoramic views of the city and the sea.
1. Nice - Lounge on the Rocky Beaches
No trip to Southern France would be complete without a trip to their rocky beaches. While it sounds like it might be terrible, lying on the warm round stones is like being at an upscale spa. There is no sandy mess either, which is always the worst part of the beach when you have kids. On top of that, the water, once you get past the somewhat steep descent and a couple waves close to the shore, is so pristinely calm, beautiful, and clean.
There are a few items you will want to have for a visit to the rocky beach, so either plan ahead and bring them from home or just grab them from some nearby beach shops:
- The first item is a bamboo mat, to create a smooth surface to lie on. Don't worry if you don't have one, you can pick one up for 5€ at stores near the beach.
- The second item is water shoes, as those rocks can be painful to walk on, especially when getting in and out of the water. You can also purchase these at the beach stores, though they are not very cheap, so you may want to bring a pair from home if you have them.
- The final item are some floatation devices (mats, tubes, etc). The water is so calm that you can just lounge around in the water and not worry about the waves taking you away. These can also be purchased pretty cheap at the nearby beach shops.