France has beautiful rivers that flow through its cities and villages, giving us those unmistakable images of glorious water rippling under old bridges, and past riverside terraces and imposing châteaux. Nearly all of the French départements (the administrative level between the local communes and the national regions) are named after one or two rivers that flow through them.
There are thousands of rivers in France. You’ll come across many you’ve never heard of as you drive through; the French are very good at signposting their bridges at each river or brook you pass.
The French have two types of rivers: une fleuve which flows into the sea, and une rivière which doesn’t.
There are hundreds of fleuves, but many of them are tiny, like the Arques which is just 5 km long and flows into the English Channel.
The five major fleuves are:
Please note: This list deals only with the French section where the river flows into the sea. If you add the parts of rivers that flow partly in France and partly outside, the list would run like this: The Rhine would lead the list, followed by the Loire, Meuse, Rhone, Seine, Garonne, Moselle, Marne, Dordogne, and the Lot.
The Loire: France's Longest River
The Loire is the longest river of France at 630 miles (1,013 km). It rises in the Massif Central in the Ardèche department, high up in the Cevennes mountain ranges. The source is 1,350 meters (4,430 ft) above sea level at the foot of the bleak Gerbier de Jonc. The Loire flows through a large part of France before emptying into the Atlantic Ocean.
The river starts modestly, flowing northwest, first through Le Puy-en-Velay which was one of the main pilgrimage routes in France in the rugged, remote Auvergne where it’s really very modest, before turning north. It flows through Nevers and up through the less well-known eastern part of the Loire Valley, an area full of surprises and some wonderful gardens. It passes through some of the best-known Loire Valley wine regions, through Pouilly and Sancerre up to Orléans. The part between Sully-sur-Loire (Loiret) and Chalons-sur-Loire (Maine-et-Loire) is rightly a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
From Orléans, the Loire goes southwest through the most famous part, the glorious valley where châteaux line the banks. It was here that French history was made and Kings and Queen planned their campaigns and plotted their futures. Its riches include the attractive towns and château of Blois with its amazing sound and light show in the courtyard, the massive, impressive Chambord and charming Amboise where Leonardo da Vinci spent the last years of his life at Clos-Lucé. It’s also another great area for gardens.
The now grand river passes through Tours, at the region’s heartland in what is known as the garden of France. Here you’ll find the châteaux of Chenonceau and charming Azay-le-Rideau, the amazing gardens of Villandry and the abbey of Fontevraud.
The Loire flows through Nantes, once the capital of Brittany, and empties into the Atlantic at St. Nazaire.
The Loire is known as the last wild river of France due to its unpredictable currents which can dramatically flood the river and its surrounds.
The Seine: Second Longest River
The Seine River, the second longest river in France at 482 miles (776 km), is so much part of Paris that it is the best known of all the French rivers. It rises modestly just about 30 km northwest of Dijon in the Côte d'Or, then flows northwest to the attractive town of Troyes in Champagne, known for its medieval streets and outlet shopping malls. The mighty river then flows past the forest of Fontainebleau through Melun, Corbeil then through Paris. This is the heart of the Seine, the river that divides the city between the right and the left bank, forming the greatest element of the capital’s life and cityscape.
From here it makes its way through Mantes and Rouen where it was such a part of the 19th Century Impressionist movement, painted endlessly at all seasons and in all lights. The Seine empties into the English Channel between picture book pretty Honfleur and the industrial port of Le Havre.
The Garonne: Third Longest River
The Garonne is 357 miles (575 km) long and rises in the Spanish Pyrenees from glacial waters high up in Aragon. The fourth longest river in France, it flows north then east around Saint-Gaudens and across one of France’s largest alluvial plains. It passes through Toulouse, famous for its great artist Toulouse-Lautrec, just after the Ariège river joins it.
The Garonne is connected to the Mediterranean by the Canal du Midi which starts from Toulouse. Then it goes northwest towards Bordeaux. It’s joined by the Lot River below Aiguillon. 16 miles north of Bordeaux, it joins the Dordogne river to form the huge Gironde Estuary, the largest in Europe, at the Bay of Biscay on the Atlantic coast which has some of France's best beaches.
The river is not navigable with high springtime levels and low levels in August and September. It has 50 locks regulating its flow but can still flood.
The Rhône: Fourth Longest River
The Rhône river is 504 miles (813 km) long from its source in Switzerland to the sea, with 338 miles (545 km) within France. It rises in the canton of Valais in Switzerland, passes through Lake Geneva which marks the frontier between the two countries and enters France in the southern Jura mountains. The first city the river runs through is Lyon, where it joins the Sâone (298 miles or 480 km long).
Then the Rhône runs straight south down the Rhône valley. Once an important inland trade and transportation route, it connects Vienne, Valence, Avignon, and Arles where it divides into two. The Great Rhône empties into the Mediterranean at Port-St-Louis-du-Rhône; the Petit Rhône ends at the Mediterranean near Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. The two branches make up the delta that forms the strange marshy Camargue.
It’s a lovely region with lavender fields, olive groves and vineyards adding bright color to the background of the white limestone hills. The valley is famous for its vineyards, with Chateauneuf-du-Pape near Avignon the most famous.
The Dordogne: Fifth Longest River
The Dordogne River, the fifth longest in France, is 300 miles (483 km) long, rising in the mountains of the Auvergne at Puy de Sancy, 1,885 meters (6,184 ft) above sea level. It starts with a series of deep gorges passing through skiing country before passing through Argentat. Here in the Dordogne and Perigord region, it’s quintessential holiday country, the Brits passion for the place starting with the Hundred Years War between the English and the French a long time ago -- it ended in 1453.
It’s a gorgeous river, with châteaux on its hillsides and pretty towns on its banks like Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne. It passes near the sinkhole, the Gouffre du Padirac and through La Roque-Gageac, once an important port and now the place for a quiet boat trip along the river. For a great view of the river, visit the gardens of Marqueyssac. It goes near Sarlat-la-Caneda with its fabulous weekly market and makes its stately way through Bergerac and St. Emilion before running into the huge Gironde estuary, the biggest in Europe, at Bec d’Ambès. Here the Dordogne joins up with the Garonne at the Bay of Biscay on the Atlantic coast.
Other Long Rivers of France
All of these rivers are fleuves, rivers that flow into the sea.
- Charente, a 236-mile (381 km) long river in southwest France. It rises in the Haute-Vienne département in a small village near Rochechouart and flows into the Atlantic near Rochefort. The city has links with the U.S.A, and in April 2015 the replica Hermione ship set out for the East Coast of America reproducing the trip by General Lafayette in 1780.
- Adour, a 193 mile (309 km) long river in southwest France. It rises in the central Pyrenees south of the Midi de Bigorre Peak and flows into the 193 miles Atlantic Ocean near Bayonne.
- Somme, a 163 mile (263 km) long river in northern France. It rises in the hills at Fonsommes, near Saint-Quentin in the Aisne and continues through to Abbeville. It then enters an estuary at Saint-Valéry-sur-Somme that leads out into the English Channel.
- Vilaine, a 139 mile (225 km) long river in Brittany, West France. It rises in the Mayenne département and flows out into the Atlantic Ocean at Pénestin in the Morbihan département.
- Aude, a 139 mile (224 km) long river of south France. It rises in the Pyrenees then runs to Carcassone before flowing into the Mediterranean near Narbonne.