When most tourists think of traveling by car, they think of driving between destinations, but what fun would a road trip be without leisurely stops and sightseeing along the way? France, home to 41 UNESCO World Heritage sites, mountain ranges, world-famous wine regions, and beaches galore, is ideal for this sort of travel. Which scenic drive is right for you depends on the landscape (or regional cuisine) you crave.
Route des Abbayes
History buffs love Normandy for its high concentration of abbeys. The region has so many, in fact, that there's a driving route—aptly named Route des Abbayes—that showcases them. It winds around Cotentin, Le Havre, Bayeux, Mortagne-au-Perche, and Rouen, the capital of Normandy, highlighting all sorts of monastic landmarks along the way. This northern region is home to a slew of impressive abbeys such as Mont-Saint-Michel Abbey (16th century), Valmont Abbey (18th century), and La Trappe Abbey (12th century). Some can be visited in clusters while others are spread far enough apart to allow for picnic breaks and side trips in between. Abbayes de Normandie features an interactive online map of the route.
Le Route du Cidre
Besides abbeys, Normandy is also known for its butter and apples. A culinary-centered alternative to the abbey trail is Le Route du Cidre, a 25-mile (40-kilometer) drive that winds through quaint villages and showcases the hard cider (just cider to the locals) that kept these colonies fueled for quite a while. The clearly marked Cider Route passes through Beuvron-en-Auge, Victot-Pontfol, Cambremer, Saint-Ouen-le-Pin, Bonnebosq, and Beaufour-Druval, all teeming with picturesque orchards, chateaux, and beautiful manor houses. You might also be able to taste Pommeau de Normandie, the apple brandy that locals call Calvados.
La Route des Grandes Alpes
If it's mountainous terrain you crave, then this 425-mile (684-kilometer) route puts the famous French Alps on full display. It was conceived by the French Touring Club in 1911 and finally realized in 1937. La Route des Grandes Alpes runs from the shores of Lac Léman (aka Lake Geneva) to Menton on the French Riviera, climbing over a total of 16 passes—including some of the highest in Europe—along the way. Because it's so mountainous, the road is only open between June and October, and shouldn't be driven in inclement weather. It normally takes travelers a couple of days (at least) to drive it, and if you're extremely fit, you can even do it without a car. Cyclists tour this route all the time.
Les Routes de la Lavande
The primary symbol of the Haute Provence in southeastern France has to be the lavender plant, the native variety of which came to be used in the emerging perfume industry during the 19th century. The lavender industry nearly went entirely under until it was promptly rescued by buzzy wellness applications (like aromatherapy) as practiced at places like the castle at Simiane la Rotonde. In addition to their aromatic properties, lavender plants are stunning to look at, especially when joined by thousands of other lavender plants in sweeping purple fields. That's what you'll find along the Lavender Route (Les Routes de la Lavande).
Along this route, you'll pass through Carpentras, Venasque—plus the cherry orchards between them—Sault (the so-called capital of lavender), Valensole, Digne-les-Bains, the Verdon, and, finally, Grasse. Altogether, the drive is about 200 miles long (320 kilometers) and is most scenic when driven during the summer. Factor in plenty of time to stop at distilleries, farms, apiaries, and the many lavender vendors along the way.
No list of great French road trips would be complete without mentioning at least one wine route. There are many—the Route des Crêtes, the Val de Loire Wine Route, the Champagne Trail, and so forth—but Alsace (in northeastern France) is quite special, especially because of the fine cuisine that has evolved from the quest for a good wine experience. Not to mention the scenery is spectacular.
The entire route from Marlenheim to Thann is about 75 miles (120 kilometers) long, but factor in plenty of time for frequent stopping. Features along the route include Ribeauville, one of the oldest medieval towns in Alsace, and then just a couple miles down the road, Riquewihr, honored by France's Association of the Most Beautiful Villages. The many boutiques, hotels, restaurants, and winstubs (wine bars) make Riquewihr a good place to stop mid-route. Wines of the Alsace region are primarily white, such as riesling and pinot gris.