Western Europe’s second largest country by area France has a fascinating and varied landscape include mountains, river valleys and coasts.
Many of the best Grande Randonnée (GR) long distance paths are in France though some other hikes and less formal hikes such as the Tour du Mont Blanc are better for taking in popular sites.
Where you are following a formal GR path be aware markings are often not as clear or accurate as in some countries such as the UK and it is advisable to always take a map with you. Some of these hikes are also suitable for cycling or horse-riding in parts but do check first and respect other users.
The Pyrenees (via the GR-10)
Cutting across the Pyrenees mountain range from the Atlantic in the north to the Mediterranean in the south. This is a fairly hard going but rewarding trail of 538 miles. If you have the time you can do it in one go with plenty of refuges and gites along the way but unsurprisingly most people do it in stages, some returning every year to make a few days more progress.
The Gavarnie region, through which the GR10 passes, is a world heritage site and so if you only have a few days and won’t be returning you may want to head for here. In the Gavarnie you can visit the Cirque de Gavarnie, a natural Amphitheatre looking like a fairytale landscape with its lush valley surrounded by cliffs over which waterfalls cascade.
Alsace Wine Trail, France
If you love wine you probably love France and Alsace creates some of the best French whites. The walking isn’t hard and you should be able to fit in two or more vineyard visits each day along the Rue de Vin. Start in Marlenheim and head along the road south towards Thann via Turckheim.
Tour du Mont Blanc France
One of the world’s best hikes as well as probably France’s best the Tour du Mont Blanc actually circles Western Europe’s highest peak. Snow capped peaks, green lush valleys, clear blue alpine lakes and glaciers, they’re all here. There are plenty of Refuges and Gites along the route so you can travel light but you still shouldn’t take this hike lightly at any time of year.
GR 11 in Ile De France
Paris, itself a beautiful city, is located in an area of France that is itself piteresque: where you can get away from the suburbs of Paris. You may want to consider the GR 11 trail through the Ile de France then either along with a trip to Paris or as a separate trip. The trail loops right around Paris meaning if you do the entire route you will end up where you began, which can be handy, having taken in the Royal Palace and hunting Grounds of Fontainebleau and historic Lace making town Chantilly as well as other sites.
Provence, to Frejus (along GR 49)
The GR49 route comes down from the foothills of the Alps to the coast at historic Frejus with its Roman ruins and medieval old town. Not the easiest hike with the Alps at one end and the Esteral mountain range at the other the hills and forests along the way do make it a beautiful one. Tourettes overlooking the plateau from the Alps to the Esteral Massif is a highlight along the route.
Brittany (via GR 34)
For those wanting to walk in Brittany the GR 34 or parts of it is ideal and once here this quiet corner of France won’t fail to enchant. Starting at Vitre you can walk towards the coast reaching an area with fantastic long sandy beaches when you get there, where you may choose to stay. Others start from Saint Malo and work along the coast coming inland at one point to Dol de Bretagne: a traditional and historic Breton town with a Cathedral famous for its unfinished tower.
Le Havre to Dieppe or Treport (GR 21) Normandy
A quick trip over from the UK with ferry ports conveniently at Le Havre at one end and Dieppe close to the other the GR21 is very popular with British and French hikers but should certainly not be ignored by those from other parts as well.
There are plenty of good places to stay along the way and many pleasant towns and villages with cafés and bars for breaks. Much of the route is right by the coast as well taking in chalk cliffs and beaches of sand or shingle.
Lake Geneva to Nice (part of GR 5), Alps
Starting by the border with Switzerland at Lake Geneva the route goes right through the French Alps and is one of the most difficult trails in Europe; you should always walk this route in a group with the right equipment and may want to consider hiring a qualified mountain leader as a guide.
The extra preparation for this walk is well worth it as you cross the alps under your own steam and take in the beautiful wilderness far from any major town or city for days at a time.
Known as the King’s valley many hikers will also wish to visit the castles close to the Loire and a good walk to take in several Chateau and several old French towns and Cities starts in Blois, with its own Royal Chateau, and goes on to Amboise or even on to Montlouis.
If it wasn’t for its history this area of France would be rather undistinguished, the area is relatively flat and primarily farm land, certainly pleasant countryside the towns and villages are generally pretty sleepy places.
Most people though walk the Somme as a history tour to see the sites from the First World War. Many of the best hikes start from Picardy and then head down the Somme valley staying close to the river and taking in Albert a small city devastated by the action that took place in and around it in the First World War, Ham with a similar history and Medieval castle and actual battlefields as well still pock marked by high explosive shells and with trenches still traceable.
These walks through France all take in beautiful landscapes, towns and cities but the people you meet along the way can be another great part of it and many of these routes are walked by people from all over the world. Staying in Gites and Refuges especially you will have great chances to meet new people and practice your language skills.