Where do Parisians go on holiday? From Arles to Chablis, here’s the inside track

Pastel painted terraced houses in Arles, France
Pastel painted terraced houses in Arles, France Copyright Photo by LoboStudio Hamburg on Unsplash
By Harriet Reuter Hapgood
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Cut your travel carbon footprint with these nine French summer holiday destinations - all accessible by train.

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Forget Google and guidebooks: the best secret spots are those that come recommended by the people who really holiday there.

With destinations across France accessible by train, staff at Rail Europe’s Paris office share where they love to travel.

Noirmoutier-en-l'Île from the air
Noirmoutier-en-l'Île from the airRail Europe

Get salty in Noirmoutier-en-l'Île

“Noirmoutier-en-l'Île. There’s nothing like it,” says Rail Europe’s Caroline of this charming coastal gem, not far from Nantes. The island is famed for its ancient salt marshes - built by Benedictine monks in the fifth century - and offers tours of the salt harvest from June to September.

Try the ‘white gold’ alongside regional delicacies such as mussels, oysters and new potatoes, said to be flavoured by the seaweed-enriched soil. Get there from Paris, with train tickets to Nantes from €10 one way, then take a bus or taxi to the island. Once there, skip the car and rent a bike instead - Noirmoutier’s flat landscape is ideal for cycling.

View through the vineyards to the church in Chablis, France
View through the vineyards to the church in Chablis, FranceRail Europe

À votre santé in Chablis

David’s pick? “Chablis - that’s a no-brainer!” Viticulture and history entwine in this postcard-pretty winemaking village in northernmost Burgundy.

It’s accessible via RER commuter train from Paris, or head to Auxerre-St-Gervais station from the capital for €13.50 one way and plan on a taxi for the rest of the journey.

The tiny town is at the heart of one of France’s smallest and oldest wine regions, where you can accompany your drink with specialities such as gougère (a cheesy pastry made with Gruyère), endives in white wine or the oh-so iconic Boeuf bourguignon.

Boats moored on Lake Annecy, France
Boats moored on Lake Annecy, FranceRail Europe

Dive into Lake Annecy

“The crystal blue waters of Lake Annecy” in the French Alps is Atta’s recommendation for outdoor activities. Supposedly one of the cleanest lakes in Europe, the waters boast kayaking, boating, paddleboarding, snorkelling and more, while the hiking route around the lake takes around a day.

Nearby are two nature reserves (where you might spot beavers), a three-hour cycle route, and the old town. There, you’ll find cathedrals, canals and châteaux.

Get there from all over France - there are multiple trains a day and non-direct routes are almost always cheaper if you’ve got time. The journey from Paris is around four hours (€10 one-way).

Striped beach umbrellas in Nice, France
Striped beach umbrellas in Nice, FranceRail Europe

Make like Matisse in Nice

Rail Europe staffer Alexis suggests Nice: “It’s the perfect balance between Italy and France.” The ambience and turquoise waters of this city on the French Riviera have long inspired artists, so you’re in luck if you like galleries or museums: pick from Musée Marc Chagall, Musée Matisse and Musée des Beaux-Arts.

If you’re seeking a beach holiday, bear in mind these are stone shores - which does at least avoid sand in your pique-nique sandwiches. Though really it’s all about the local pissaladière - a variation on pizza topped with caramelised onions, black olives and local anchovies.

Getting there is an adventure itself (€10 one-way from Paris): grab a window seat for sun-drenched seaside views.

Sunset in Cannes, France
Sunset in Cannes, FranceRail Europe

Blow the budget in Cannes

For those with cash to splash, Kiitan suggests “elegant” Cannes, home of the annual international film festival. Stop by this Mediterranean city at the end of May to star spot, or content yourself with the stars on the Allée des Étoiles walk of fame.

Summers in Cannes are almost guaranteed sunshine, which you can soak up on sandy beaches or with a stroll and shop along the famed Boulevard de la Croisette - then cool off with a dip or try your luck in one of the many casinos. The journey from Paris takes around five hours, there are 50 a day, and tickets start from €10 one way.

Roadside sign along the Route des Grands Crus, France
Roadside sign along the Route des Grands Crus, FranceRail Europe

Follow the Route des Grands Crus

Margaux’s French summer destination of choice is the Route des Grands Crus - aka ‘road of the great wines’. This 60km stretch starts in Dijon and meanders south through Burgundy. With well-marked routes and mostly flat terrain, it makes an ideal journey by bike.

Stop off at one of the 33 towns along the way for cellar tours and wine tastings - particularly in the walled city of Beaune, Burgundy’s wine capital. You can start the route in Beaune by taking a train from Paris (€27 one way) - but it’s a little quicker and cheaper (€10 one way) to go the Paris-Dijon route.

Besançon, France
Besançon, FranceRail Europe

Clockwatch in ‘watchmaking capital’ Besançon

Michael’s pick is the eastern city of Besançon, home to French watchmaking - its Time Museum holds more than 2,000 timepieces - and birthplace of writer Victor Hugo. See how much of his Les Misérables you can read on the two-hour journey from Paris (from €20 one way).

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History buffs will enjoy wandering the old town, whose Roman fortifications are designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Take in the views from the Citadel and marvel at the ancient architecture of the Porte Noire. And of course, there’s more wine here too: Michael recommends local varieties of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Gamay.

The gardens of Château Villandry in the Loire Valley, France
The gardens of Château Villandry in the Loire Valley, FranceRail Europe

Take cocktail hour in La Loire

For Aurélie, summer is all about La Loire - the Loire Valley, known as the ‘garden of France’ for its greenery and wildlife, which can be enjoyed by bike or canoeing on the river. In summer, the Loire River also plays host to ‘la guinguette’ - local outdoor taverns for drinks al fresco, though Aurélie recommends Place Plumereau in the city of Tours as the best place on earth for apéro (cocktail hour).

La Loire is also home to literally hundreds of castles, with almost 50 open to the public around Tours alone. You can also see all the French castles at once, albeit in miniature, at the Parc des Mini-Châteaux near Amboise. Paris to Tours, from €19.50 one way is a little over an hour - you could make it for apéro if you’re quick.

The Roman amphitheatre at Arles, France
The Roman amphitheatre at Arles, FranceRail Europe

Pay homage to Van Gogh in Arles

Judith describes the Provençal city of Arles as “a walk through ancient Rome and the mind of Van Gogh”. Sitting on the Rhône River delta, Arles’ Roman ruins include an amphitheatre, church, graveyard and baths. Start your train journey from Avignon, Marseille or Paris - a four-hour journey starts at €10.

When you’ve had your fill of ancient history, you might be sensing a little art déjà vu: a familiar sight around every corner. That’s because in his year-long stay here, Van Gogh created more than 300 artworks, often depicting scenes of the city - visit Place du Forum to see the inspiration for his painting Terrasse du Café le Soir.

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