backpacking through france: two-week itinerary and top tips

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If there’s one thing I learned during my two-week solo backpacking trip through France in July, it’s that I can do absolutely anything I set my mind to. I booked the flight on a whim one evening but somehow the morning of my flight rolled around, and I didn’t have a train pass (TIP: if you want to buy a Eurrail pass, you have to buy it at least a week in advance as it is shipped to you. I tried to buy one in Paris at the airport, but was redirected to 2 other train stations and then I just gave up.), I didn’t have a phone plan, I didn’t have a travel guide, I didn’t have a plug converter, I didn’t have a sleeping sack, and I didn’t really want to go.

I had packed the night before, and squeezed everything I intended to bring for two weeks into one standard size school backpack (which I bought some six years ago, and have since sewn flags on of all 14 countries I have been to so far). My packing list was as follows:

  • 4 summer dresses
  • 1 pair shorts
  • 1 simple black tank
  • 1 long-sleeved top
  • 2 t-shirts (neither of which I wore)
  • 1 sweater (great as a pillow, too)
  • 1 rain coat (which I never wore, and was just dead weight)
  • 1 hand towel (which got smelly with dampness, so it was thrown out in a bus station somewhere)
  • Birkenstocks
  • Nike running shoes (which were never worn, except on the flight there, and mostly just hung off my backpack as an annoyance, but then again if I didn’t have them I would have wanted them)
  • Flip flops (great for disgusting hostel bathrooms, and for the beach)
  • Bathroom stuff (toothbrush, toothpaste, hair brush, contact lenses, makeup, travel shampoo, travel body wash, body lotion, sun-cream, some hair ties, makeup wipes)
  • Electronics (camera, charger, plug converter, phone charger, battery pack)
  • Sleeping sack and pillow case (which doubled as a blanket for overnight buses)
  • Shorts and t-shirt to sleep in
  • 1 sports bra (never wore it)
  • 1 workout tank (also never wore it)
  • Some socks and underwear
  • 1 bathing suit
  • My travel notebook (my other saving grace – I wrote everything, all the time) and a pen
  • A mini Sudoku book
  • A money belt for my money, ID and passports
  • Sunglasses and regular glasses
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Arc de Triomphe, Paris

Rather than give up, my mum took me to the local bookshop were we picked up a copy of Lonely Planet’s ‘Discover France’. Turns out that, while some of the locations are over-romanticized and honesty and negativity are hard to find within its pages, this guide was my saving grace. It became a way for me to read up on potential places I may want to visit, it gave me something to look at while I sat alone at a cafe, it passed the hours I ended up spending on the plane, on trains, and at bus stops, and it had an excellent map of Paris including a detailed metro map, aka a lifesaver.

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cafe in Colmar

The first thing I noticed when I landed at Paris Charles de Gaulle aiport is that everyone smokes everywhere. You will get used to the smell after a few days, so if you can grin and bear it, you’ll be just fine.

The currency used in France is the euro. Don’t ever accept an offer to pay for something in your own currency, because it’ll end up being more expensive as they’ll add additional conversion charges. Many places only accept cash, so use a credit card when you can and save your cash for those situations. The current conversion rate to Canadian dollars is about 1.5 dollars for 1 euro.

The main language of course is French. However, in Paris, you’ll be able to communicate with many people in English, or at least a form of Frenglish. The further from Paris you get into the little rural towns and villages, the less English you’ll find, so have a basic grasp of some important words and be prepared to use hand gestures!

Thank you – merci
Goodbye – au revoir
Hello – bonjour
Please – s’il vous plait
Station – gare
Cost – prix
Hotel – hôtel
Bridge – pont
Museum – musee
Menu – menu
Water – eau
Yes – oui
No – non
Breakfast – petit dejeuner
Coffee with milk – cafe au lait
Hot chocolate – chocolat chaud
Juice – jus

Being a solo female traveler will attract more attention and you will be catcalled (along the lines of being told you’re sexy, beautiful, gorgeous, etc., or being asked for coffee, ice cream, etc.). If you’re walking, just keep going and ignore them. If you’re sitting, just say no, thank you and don’t continue to entertain the conversation.

EU passport holders aged 18-25 can get into many attractions for free – just keep an eye on the signs and offer up your passport because the kiosk workers won’t advertise it.

18-25 year-olds from any country can get discounted train/bus/auotcar prices. Some attractions have a discount too; the Musee d’Orsay offers a 3 Euro discount off the regular adult price, for example.

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Musee d’Orsay, Paris

Breakfast at any cafe will almost always include a croissant, a glass of orange juice and either a coffee or a hot chocolate, for anywhere between 5-12 Euros. Some also include bread, and if you want what is called a full breakfast, you can also order eggs. The portions are much smaller than in North America, but just as, if not more, expensive so be wary of how much food you’ll want to eat out and how much you want to pick up at a grocery store. If your hostel provides breakfast, get it! It will likely be cheaper and all-you-can-eat while being very similar to what you’ll find at any other cafe around.

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cafe in Paris overlooking the Eiffel Tower

Don’t make the mistake of assuming that just because a route looks simple on a map that is easy or even possible. I tried to go from Paris to Giverney (easy – just a train) and then to Normandy (impossible) and then to Mont St. Michel (complicated) because it look like a half-circle route on the map. Turns out it’s much easier to be based in Paris and do day trips to these places. Lesson learned.

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Tiffany at Mont St. Michel Train Station

People in France are generally quite willing to help, but will only really answer the questions you asked. For example, in Normandy, the lady at the train station told us the next bus to Omaha Beach left in an hour, as asked, but not that the cemetery would be closed by the time we got there, nor that there were no more buses back that night.

Restaurants are not a rushed affair. In North America, a waiter/ress will push you through the stages of a meal (comes quickly to take your order, bring your food, bring your bill, bring the card machine and send you on your way). In France, you instigate everything – from waving down a waiter to get a menu, place your order, have your dishes collected, getting your bill and paying. You can sit in a French restaurant or cafe for hours, and having a cafe au lait at the end of your meal is highly encouraged.

Breakfast culture is a thing! Wandering the streets of Paris in the morning is mostly just a game of musical chairs – you’re lucky to spot a free seat at a cafe that is bustling with business people in suits all facing out onto the street enjoying their cafe au lait and croissant. Join in!

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cafe in Nice

If you’re traveling during the high season (July – August & December – January), book accommodation in advance to avoid everything being booked out. I typically booked my hostels a few nights in advance and was often stuck with limited options. Trains are much easier to book on the fly and are rarely ever full.

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window in Nimes

Start in Paris, and then make your way towards cities and towns you are fascinated by. I have provided for you here a detailed itinerary hitting some of the most beautiful spots in the country.

DAY 1 – fly into Paris Charles de Gaulle

Aim to arrive in the late morning in Paris so that you have time to get a grip on your surroundings. Sleep on the plane so you can take on your first day.

Head into the city on the metro and find your accommodations for the night. Once you’ve checked in and dropped off your bags, grab a map and go exploring! Start by taking the metro to Cite and explore the little island home to the Notre Dame and Pont Neuf. Read my detailed Paris guide here.

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Wander along the Seine and spend the afternoon exploring the Louvre, home to Da Vinci’s iconic painting of the Mona Lisa. Walk through the Jardin des Tuileries and have a hot chocolate from Angelina to fuel up before arriving on Champs Elysees for the best shopping in France and for dinner.

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DAY 2 – explore Paris

Wake up early to get the most out of your day. Hop on the metro to Charles de Gaulle-Etoile and take in the best view of Paris from the top of the Arc de Triomphe (12 Euros/adult, free for EU passport holders 18-25).

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Head down Avenue Kleber to the Trocadero, the best place to spot the Eiffel Tower. Have breakfast at a local cafe.

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Make your way to the Jardin du Luxembourg for a lazy morning with the locals, before lunch. Spend the rest of the day exploring Montmartre where you can visit the Sacre Coeur, wander fun art-filled streets and spot the Moulin Rouge.

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DAY 3 – Versailles

Get on the metro to Versailles Chateau Rive Gauche station and plan to arrive early to beat the crowds. Spend the day exploring the grandiose and highly extravagant Palace, once home to Louis XIV and his vision of the absolute monarchy. Tickets are 27 Euros per person to visit the entire grounds and gardens. Read my walking guide here.

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DAY 4 – Claude Monet’s Garden in Giverney

Catch a TGV to Vernon station from Paris from where you can take either a shuttle bus or the Petit Train to Giverney, home to the gardens of Claude Monet. It was these exact gardens that provided Monet with his ongoing inspiration for the gorgeous lily paintings that now frequent museums around the world. Read about our day in Giverney here.

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Trains from Paris run at a hefty price of 90 Euros one-way, but is well-worth the trek. I suggest making your way here the night before (so return to Paris after Giverney then hop on the train to Rennes). Spend the night either in Pontorson or Rennes.

DAY 5 – Mont St Michel

The next morning, take the shuttle to Mont St Michel and spend the day exploring the nooks and alleys of the bustling island and grand abbey. Read my detailed guide to the mount here.

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Return to Paris from Mont St Michel and take an overnight bus to Avignon, Provence. Many companies run here like Flixbus and Ouibus.

DAY 6 – Provence

Spend the morning exploring the heart of Provence in Avignon. In the afternoon, join a tour company to explore the surrounding lavender fields with: aim for highlights like Gourdes, Sault, and the rolling landscapes accessible only by car. Find my Provence guide here.

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DAY 7 – Nice

Trains run straight from Avignon to Nice along the gorgeous coastline of southern France. Once you have arrived in Nice, visit the Market which is at its peak in the early morning. Then spend the day on foot wandering the busy Massena Plaza, the old town alleys and the promenade, particularly exciting at night.

Climb the stairs to the top of Le Chateau de Nice for the best view over the town and end your day by watching sunset from the #ILoveNice ledge overlooking the bay. Nice was my favourite place in the whole country, and you can read why here.

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DAY 8 – Monaco & French Riviera

Catch a bus early the next morning that winds high above the incredible French Rivieran coast into Monaco. Spend the day exploring the tiny country of Monaco – visit the Monte Carlo casino and ogle at the incredible super yachts in the harbour. Follow my walking guide to Monaco here.

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On your way back to Nice, stop along the way at some of the sights on the coast: Plage Mala (the prettiest beach in the French Riviera), Villefranche-sur-Mer and the medieval little town of Èze.

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DAY 9 – Sailing in the French Riviera

This was coordinated through my hostel, and your accommodations should be able to assist you with this adventure, too. I spent the most incredible sun-filled day on the azure waters of the south of France aboard a yacht diving and swimming and tanning. One of the most memorable experiences of the trip.

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jana meerman nice sailing french riviera-2

Once you’ve returned from the most epic day of your trip, climb aboard a bus for departing from Nice Airport to the bus depot in central Strasbourg. Flixbus and Ouibus run this route frequently.

DAY 10 – Strasbourg & Colmar

Wake up in Strasbourg, grab a map from the bus depot, and head straight for the train station. As you walk through town, catch sight of restaurants opening their shutters for breakfast and the locals strolling through the streets. For my Strasbourg guide, click here.

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At the train station, take a 30 minute train for 9 Euros to Colmar. Spend the bulk of your day exploring what has been dubbed ‘the cutest town in France’ and has me convinced that Beauty and the Beast was based off this place. A walking route of Colmar is included here.

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Once you’re ready to head back, catch a return train to Strasbourg and spend the early evening exploring using your handy map. The central shopping street comes alive at night with twilight dinners lit often by candle.

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From here, return to the bus depot for an overnight trek to Paris.

DAY 11 – Paris

Spend your last day in Paris, exploring any spots you may have missed on your first few days here. There is enough to do in the city to keep you going for a lifetime, but maybe pick a museum or a cafe you particularly wanted to see such as the iconic Musee d’Orsay home to some of the world’s best painters (Van Gogh, Monet, Degas, and the likes). Stop off in Laduree on the Champs Elysees for high tea.

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Then head to the airport for your flight home after a whirlwind trip!

If I had more time, I would have also dearly loved to spend time in the Alps and Chamonix, as well as more places along the south coast including St. Tropez. I also dearly wanted to spend some time in the Loire Valley visiting the incredible chateaus of the land. Next time!!


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