A selection of wonderful river bike rides in France to suit all abilities. Perfect for one-day outings on two wheels, says Richard Peace.
This article is part of our rivers and canals series. See also:
France is home to some of the loveliest river bike rides in Europe. We have long rivers and famous rivers (and not-so-famous ones), and not all of them have to be ridden from one end to the other. Many can be enjoyed on day rides. Here are 10 day river rides for your next cycling in France holiday.
1. Banks of the Seine, Paris: Notre-Dame to Eiffel Tower
Distance: 10km / 6 miles circular route
From Notre Dame you can cycle west along quai du Marché Neuf then hop onto the south bank at pont Saint-Michel.
It’s now simply a case of following the south bank all the way to the Eiffel Tower and crossing the river at pont d’Iena and returning along the northern bank in a westerly direction. Ideal for a Sunday ride as the main roads along the Seine in Paris are closed to private motor traffic (a program known as Paris Réspire – Paris Breathes).
Main attractions – where to start?:
* Notre Dame cathedral ( other attractions on the Ile de la Cité include Sainte-Chappelle and the Conciergerie).
* Musée d’Orsay
* Les Invalides
* The Eiffel Tower
* The Tuileries park
* Louvre Museum
…. and much much more!
Route conditions: There are either combined bus/cycle lanes or segregated cycle lanes for just about the whole length of this route by the river Seine. But be aware these are of varying quality; from largely bus and cycle lane combos on the south bank to segregated but sometimes narrow and bumpy concrete paths on the north bank. Take particular care at junction crossings and also take care not to get split off onto motor vehicle expressways that branch off the riverside roads.
Still, it has to be one of the finest bike rides in France simply in terms of sights to see and the mere 10km can easily be stretched across a full day – or more.
Note that some of the route may well have been upgraded by the time you read / ride this as there is a plan to put cycle lanes of ‘superhighway’ standard along much of the Seine and the program begun in 2017.
Other routes in the area: See a selection of other day rides in Paris here. For longer routes, the Avenue Verte heads through north Paris to finishes at Notre-Dame whilst the Veloscenic route towards Mont-Saint-Michel heads south from here to join the TGV Atlantic Green Corridor cycle path out into the suburbs. The newer Euro Velo 3 Pilgrim's route also passes through Paris.
2. Banks of the Marne, Paris: Pont de Joinville to Lagny-sur-Marne (or Chelles or back to Pont de Joinville)
Distance: 22km / 14 miles
The big attraction of this ride really is the river itself. Tree-lined and dotted with canoeing clubs and rowing clubs, it's restful and picturesque and quite in contrast with the city centre River Seine. Getting there may be less restful, whether you use the train or cycle out of the city, but either way there's a treat at the end of it.
Getting started: To cycle to the start from the centre of Paris it's about 11 kilometres. Starting say at Notre Dame, cycle east along the north bank of the Seine to the pont de Sully, left up to place de la Bastille and then rue de Lyon to avenue Daumesnil and on to the Bois de Vincennes. Cross this to emerge on the other side of the racecourse in Joinville and pick your way to the pont de Joinville where the route starts by getting riverside just over the bridge and heading north. Alternatively, train line RER A will get you to the Joinville-le-Pont station.
Getting back: You can end the ride at Lagny-sur-Marne and get the train back to the Gare de l'Est.
You can ride back towards Paris along the north bank of the river and then alongside the canal de Vaires et de la Marne to recover the south bank over the bridge by the ruins of the mill at Chelles (about 9 kilometres).
You can also get a train into Paris from Chelles.
You can make a good, big loop of a ride by going cross country from Lagny-sur-Marne to Villeparisis and riding back alongside the Canal de l'Ourcq into Paris - cross the river at Lagny-sur-Marne and work your way east to Dampmart, find the rue du Château on the other side of the town and pursue it even when it turns to a track to find a lovely greenway - this is the Promenade de l'aqueduc de la Dhuys. There's no signage so you'll need a map. The route passes near Villeparisis - a choice of roads, none ideal, will get you into and across the town to the canal d'Ourcq and a clear run into the centre of Paris. The full loop, city centre to Lagny-sur-Marne and back along the canals is around 75 kilometres.
* Electric boat hire at the marina near the Pont de Joinville. Boat hire and pedaloes at Nogent-sur-Marne (there's a little ferry across weekend afternoons in the summer). Cruises from Lagny-sur-Marne.
* Parc du Tremblay. Sport and leisure park.
* On the other side of the river, just by the footbridge over to Chelles, are the remains of a mill which burnt down at the end of the 19th century.
* Château de Champs-sur-Marne. 18th century château sumptuously decorated and in 85 hectares of gardens.
* Across the next footbridge, the Lac de Vaires-sur-Marne offers a range of watersports and a sports centre with racquet sports. Intended site of rowing and canoeing events for the 2024 Olympics in Paris.
* L'Île de Loisirs de Vaires-Torcy. Watersports, loads of other sports and a beach.
* Disneyland is about 5 kilometres from Lagny-sur-Marne by road.
* Guingettes were bars and restaurants with dancing, popular because you could get a change of scenery and drink relatively cheaply. There were plenty of them around the Marne. Most of them are now gone but Chez Gegene at Joinville-le-Pont, La guingette de l'Île du Martin-pêcheur or Chez Fifi at Neuilly-sur-Marne could well give you a flavour of it.
* Bry-sur-Marne, Gournay-sur-Marne, little Noisiel and more extensive Lagny-sur-Marne (museum has neo-impressionist paintings) are all good places to take a break.
Route conditions: The ride is partly on quiet roads, often with the cycle lane segregated, and sometimes on greenway, all of it smooth and well-surfaced and normally tarmac. It passes alongside residential areas, towns and open countryside and is for the most part well shaded. You'll never be far from shops and cafes and other services and there are various route start/finish permutations.
3. River Blavet (Voie Verte du Blavet): Pontivy to Hennebont
Distance: 62km / 38.5 miles
* Pontivy is a bright market town centred around an attractive riverside. It’s home to the impressively sited Château de Rohan. Lots of intimate cobbled squares north of the main parking area of Place Aristide Briand.
* Saint Nicolas des Eaux is an attractive little riverside stopoff with cafes and bars along the river and a church and thatched cottages behind them. There is camping here at Le Clos du Blavet.
* 6km south of Saint Nicolas is the remarkable Chapel of St Gildas, nestled under a huge granite outcrop and the route gives you the best vantage point of it.
* Restaurant and campsite at the lock Sainte Barbe.
* The lock at Minazen has a small cafe.
* The Vallée Verte restaurant, just off the river on the D102 north of Hennebont gets very good reviews.
* Hennebont is an attractive historic port with some remaining ramparts and a fine basilica. Being a sizeable place there are plenty of eating opportunities too.
* There is a gap in the route at Hennebont, but if you can negotiate that, the V8 starts again south of it and takes you most of the way to L’Orient, a largely 1950’s (re)built fishing port, from where you have the option of catching a TGV back to Paris. L’Orient also hosts the annual Festival Interceltique in August, celebrating Celtic culture; a massive event with international visitors.
Route conditions: A combination of smooth tarmac and gravelly sections.
Other routes in the area: Part of the impressive-sound V8 from Saint-Brieuc to L’Orient covered in our summary article by G.H. Randall on Brittany’s voies vertes (Randall is author of the book Brittany’s Greenways from Red Dog Book publishers). There are no sizeable settlements on the Blavet between Pontivy and Hennebont but the river is a magnet for pleasure seekers so there plenty of small scale eating and sleeping opportunities along the way. See also the Nantes-Brest canal.
4. Véloroute de la Vallé du Tarn: L’Escure d’Albigeois to Trébas
Distance: 42km / 26miles one way
Here we cover the section of this route upstream of Albi – much the more attractive part as it enters the heavily wooded valley with some fine viewpoints over the Tarn.
* Nearby Albi is dominated by its utterly massive, monumental brick cathedral overlooking the well-preserved old city. The city is the birthplace of Toulouse-Lautrec and there is a museum here to him.
* L’Escure d’Albigeois is the start if the veloroute heading upstream and a small, attractive village with a small range of shops and a distinctive italianate tower.
* St-Juéry is a large fairly modern town over the river from the veloroute with all the services you’d expect from such, including a supermarket.
* The Tarn valley itself is the main highlight here; a quiet, dreamy affair on a still summer’s day.
* At Ambialet the river performs an enormous meander, looping around within around 30 metres to create a rocky isthmus. Here is perched Ambialet’s hilltop Romanesque church. Choice of cafes and a lovely picnic spot by the river where canoes are also launched. Camping over the river at Candou.
* Trébas has a small attractive centre with bar-restaurant and mini-market as well as a campsite and tourist office.
Other routes in the area: South of Albi is the pleasant Albi-Castres greenway and there numerous signed circular routes in the area, provided by the Tarn departement. For example the Circuit des Crétes visits attractive Cordes-sur-Ciel and and the amazing adventure experience of Cap Découverte.
5. Rive Nive greenway (Voie Verte de la Nive), River Adour and the Atlantic Coast:Ustaritz to Biarritz
Distance: 25km / 15,5 miles one way
After following the pretty River Nive downstream to Bayonne the views open out across the river Adour and you join the obvious cycle path route (Velodyssey) through Anglet to Biarritz – not entirely right next to the river but you often get views of its wide expanse and on the run in to Biarritz there is the chance to hop off the route to one of many fine beaches on the Atlantic coast.
* Ustaritz is an unremarkable but typically Basque village and a good hopping off point for day trips to the elegant spa town of Cambo-les-Bains and the attractive village of Espelette, best known for its dark red chilli peppers, much used in Basque cuisine (though the latter two aren’t directly on the river route).
* Bayonne has a fine old centre, full of tall, narrow half-timbered houses with brightly painted shutters. There are fine riverside cafes and restaurants and a chance to take in its Basque flavour, which mixes with Gascon culture in the form of architecture and street names.
* Biarritz was once a glamorous resort put on the map by Napoleon and now, after 1960s decline, fashionable once again. It’s main attraction is its seafront with popular beaches but beware strong tides if you fancy a dip and check local info on the best swimming spots. The interesting coastline around plateau d’Atalaya, to the west of the town centre, has interesting harbours and beaches and some fine views.
There are wilder, broader surfing beaches to the north of Biarritz at Anglet, which the route described here passes behind.
Route conditions: A flat, tarmac route (actually a road with no access to motor vehicles except residents – ‘sauf riverains’ – between Nives and Bayonne), virtually traffic-free or entirely traffic-free. There’s lovely riverside riding through a largely verdant setting before great estuary views.
Other routes in the area: Where the river Nive joins the river Adour at Bayonne you join the Velodyssey route, which we have incorporated in this day ride as it continues in a westerly direction along the Adour before turning south along the coast to Biarritz.
6. The Eure and Chartres – Chartres' Plan Vert: La Villette Saint-Prest to Barjouville
Distance: 13km / 8 miles one way
This is a fine ride along an utterly charming stretch of the river Eure passing close to Chartre’s fine city centre, and it's an easy matter to hop off the route to visit it. From the unassuming village of La Villette Saint-Prest (with rail access) to the north of Chartres, rue Jules Amiot heads down to a lovely riverside section then a road link at a sports ground as you approach the centre.
Rejoining the river at Chartres leads to splendid views of the city across the old bridges on this section – hop across one to explore the city itself.
The final section is through open green spaces towards the quiet suburbs of Luisant and Barjouville and there is a deviation possible from the official road route which keeps you near the Eure all the way to Barjouville and on tracks – currently unsigned, these can be followed by keeping east of the two small lakes here.
* Chartres cathedral is one of the oldest and best preserved in the whole of France
* Porte Guillame – the route passes close by this ancient entrance to the city; though partly destroyed by the Germans in WWII there are plans to restore it.
* L’Odyssée is one of France’s largest swimming and diving pools, with aquatic rides and much more. Found to the east of the route as it passes Chartres centre.
Route conditions: Largely tarmac on the northern section with more frequent crushed stone surfaces the further south you head. Be aware though, as you pass alongside Chartres itself, there are some narrow roadside cycle lanes and paths that need care in negotiating. Note the current route means negotiating the busy and bike-unfriendly place Drouaise to the north of Chartres centre, though a quiet, riverside bypass is planned which involves heading off avenue d’Aligre before you get to Drouaise.
Other routes in the area: This is part of Veloscenic (national véloroute 40) which heads on to Paris with the option of a Versailles stop off. To the north it heads onto the interesting village of Illiers-Combray, with Marcel Proust associations, and ultimately to Le Mont Saint Michel.
7. Pontorson to Mont Saint Michel along the Couesnon: Pontorson to Le Mont Saint Michel
Distance: 10km / 6 miles
If you have an MTB you can extend the ride by riding east along the bay, to the incredible viewpoint of Le Roche Torin, then back along minor roads using the Veloscenic route which gives more elevated views over the bay. This would give a circular route of 37km / 23 miles.
* Le Mont Saint Michel. An abbey atop a village surrounded by a tidal bay that itself is an equally stunning spectacle as the sea sweeps over it and recedes. There are guided walks and even fat bike rides around the bay itself – but of course beware the tides – some of the quickest in the world.
* Young cyclists will love Alligator Bay
* The Moulin de Moidrey, just off the greenway to Le Mont Saint Michel, is a working windmill dating from 1806
* Roche Torin Viewpoint. Superb views across the bay to the abbey.
* Pontorson is a smart tourist-orientated town and an attractive base from which to visit Le Mont Saint Michel.
* If you take the Veloscenic road route back from Roche Torin then you have the chance to visit the sombre but impressive Ossuaire Allemand du Mont D’Huisines – a German war cemetery that houses 12,000 dead and is also a viewpoint over the bay and the Mont.
Route conditions: The Pontorson to Mont Saint Michel greenway is a mixture of tarmac and good quality unsealed surfaces. Sandy MTB tracks along the coast.
Other routes in the area: This is the end section of Veloscenic (national véloroute 40) while to the west you can continue into Brittany and follow the Tour de Manche along the northern Brittany coast with the possibility of taking a ferry to the UK from St Malo or Roscoff.
8. Quercy-Périgord Greenway and River Dordogne: Return route starting at Sarlat-la-Canéda
Distance: 59km / 36.5 miles
Simply one of the country’s finest rides starting in one of the most picturesque towns in one of the most popular and picturesque regions of France.
* Sarlat-la-Canéda is the main town of Périgord Noir (the landscape is darker in colour than that of Périgord Blanc) and has a famously well-preserved old town centre of winding streets often used as a setting in films. The central church houses an indoor food market and has a glass elevator in the bell tower offering views over the town. Absolute host of things to see, loads of accommodation and as far as eating is concerned, Sarlat is something of a gastronomic Mecca.
* If you’re without a bike it’s not a problem – there’s plenty of hire available including Liberty Cycles at the beginning of the trail and Périgord Vélo part way along it at Carsac-Aillac.
* There are eating opportunities along and near to the trail. Stoke up right at the beginning at Snack le Grezal or wait for Le Snack du Bois de Bontemps a little way on. There’s a cafe, restaurant , bakery and shops at Carsac-Aillac and a bakery and cafe bar await you at tiny Cazoulès. Souillac has loads of opportunities. The gourmet cyclist may like to visit the specialist foie gras shop at Calviac-en-Périgord or indeed a number of others. The area is renowned for its foie gras, its nuts and its truffles.
* Just a few kilometres out of Sarlat and only 200 or 300 metres from the voie verte, the water gardens at Saint-Rome have superb displays of water lilies and a walkway maze to see them from.
* Réserve Zoologique de Calviac. Small animal zoo for endangered species.
* The voie verte passes through little Rouffillac where there is a memorial to the Resistance and to other locals. Hotel/bar/restaurant and above the village a viewpoint, the Pech du Gard, offers magnificent views over the river and valley and over the elegant Château de Rouffillac, now luxury holiday accommodation.
* Souillac. Delightful town with a beautiful abbey and many other visitable goodies including a museum of automata. The Quercyland water park (swimming pools, canoeing etc.) is just outside the town on the riverside.
* Saint-Julien-de-Lampon is about halfway back along the south bank. It's a bit under a kilometre from the river, has a shop, bakery, butcher, cafe/bar, bank etc set around the town square. There's a road bridge here across to Roufillac.
* The Château de Fénelon is a couple of kilometres off the ride, straddling the centuries in its commanding position and welcoming visitors to its rooms full of fascinating history.
* Next stop is Groléjac, which has a spur down to it from the voie verte over a viaduct across the Dordogne. From Groléjac a signed cycle route goes down to the Roc Percé leisure lake (nice beach, swimming, pedalos etc.) and on to Saint-Cirq-Madelon (6.5km). From here a véloroute, the promenade de la Bouriane which is to all intents and purposes a voie verte, takes you to within 2 kilometres of medieval Gourdon, with its winding streets and half-timbered houses. 32 kilometre return trip to Groléjac.
Route conditions: The ride is all on wide tarmac greenway from Sarlat-la-Canéda to Peyrillac-et-Millac. It does go near the river on occasion but for the most part it's a bit away. It's followed by quiet signed road to tiny Cazoulès where a bakery and cafe/bar await you and then 3 kilometres of fairly busy road route to Souillac, south of which you cross the river on the D255 towards Cieurac .
A return via the quiet and pretty D43 and D50 get you to Groléjac where you then take the voie verte spur up to the river and then back on to Sarlat. To get the maximum amount of riverside riding on the south bank, a map would enable use of very tiny roads. There is a huge number of campsites in the area and plenty of other accommodation.
Sarlat has a direct train service from Bordeaux and Périgueux that only needs one change. Souillac has direct trains from Paris and Toulouse.
Other routes in the area: This section is planned to be part of national route V91 which will run along much of the length if the lower Dordogne valley. We also have this article summarising riding opportunities in the area north of the Dordogne and this on the Dordogne itself.
- Sarlat voie verte
- 10 chateaux loop from Sarlat
- Sarlat to Domme and Le Roque Gageac
- 50km touring loop in the Dordogne
- 70km touring loop in the Dordgone
9. Isere and Drac Velleys: Grenoble to Saint-Gervais
Distance: 68 km / 42 miles return (train return possible at western end – see below)
From the city centre this route follows the north bank of the river Isere. Starting at Grenoble’s Pont de la Porte de France head along the riverside greenway on the north bank to its end near Saint-Gervais (handy bar-restaurant here, on the south bank, the well-reviewed La Régalade). Return is along the same route to the road bridge carrying the D3. Cross and come down the voie verte on the south bank of the Isere and the River Drac to the Pont des Martyrs. Cross this and head back into the city centre on the cycle track along the south bank of the Isere.
A rail return is possible from Vinay, about 4 kilometres beyond Saint-Gervais.
* Grenoble is a historic city but probably best known for hosting the 1968 winter Olympics and for the ski resorts that surround it. Three hours from Paris by TGV or about 7 hours from London if you use one of the direct Eurostars to Lyon. Good for cycling; surprisingly flat and with an extensive network of cycle lanes. Probably the most popular thing to see is the Bastille, a hillside fort with breathtaking views over the city and an equally breathtaking cable car ride up to it. If you didn’t like it, there’s a nice footpath through some nice gardens back down.
Route conditions: The ride is on a good, wide smooth path, well-shaded, especially when you get further out from Grenoble. Beautiful scenery, in places quite stunning. Sadly, a main road also follows the river so noise can be an annoyance. Services are few and settlements tend to be just a little bit away from the route, although Voreppe is nice with shops, cafes and restaurants and there’s a voie verte spur off the riverside path right into the town centre.
Other routes in the area: This route is part of national route V63 and if you carry on beyond Saint Gervais you’ll reach the ViaRhona and Valence. Beyond St-Gervais though, the route includes many roads and steep climbs up to some ridges, though there are still some elevated views over the river and panoramas of the Vercors mountains.
10. Gave de Pau River Greenway at Pau: Pau to Tarsac
Distance: 20km / 12.5 miles one way with the option of a train return
This route is a great excuse to visit exotic and picturesque Pau and to venture south into the truly spectacular Pyrenees.
* Pau. Once a favoured Pyrenean destination for rich people coming south for the winter. Pau is now an up to date centre for aerospace companies (not that new in fact - the Wright brothers had a flying school here) and other scientific enterprises. There's a large university. Pau still attracts good numbers of visitors coming to see the views from the boulevard du Pyrenees of palm trees with a lovely backdrop of snow-covered mountains, the attractive architecture and gardens or even the casino. The magnificent Château de Pau in its commanding setting was used by Napoleon as a holiday home - it's a national museum and has stunning collections, especially of tapestries. Public transport ranges from the 1908 funicular to a small self-service bike hire system including electric bikes and the planned introduction next year of hydrogen cell-fuelled buses.
* The Gave de Pau is a 183 kilometre river rising in the Pyrenees and joining other rivers to flow into the sea near Bayonne having passed through Lourdes, Pau and a host of small towns and villages. It's main tributaries are the Beez and the Neez.
* The footbridge at Laroin leading to the the nearby lakes is elegant and technologically noteworthy in having carbon fibre cables. The lakes themselves have a 4 kilometre path round them suitable for mountain bikes. Good views of the bridge from the lakes.
* The route is well supplied with services in that the villages along it, Laroin, Artiguelouve and Arbus each have a bar, a shop and a bakery and there's a butcher's at Laroin and a pharmacy and a restaurant at Artiguelouve. Tarsacq, a kilometre or so from the end of the route along a quiet road, is quite small and just has the restaurant Le Neptune.
* Jurancon is probably the best known wine grown in the area. For a visit and degustation, try the cave de Gan at the Domaine de Cinquau just up the road from Artiguelouve.
*If you fancy a train ride up into the hills, the line from Pau to Bedous can be very picturesque. Up to 1970 it went on into Spain and it is still possible to get off the train at Oloron and get the bus over into Spain.
*You can get to Pau from Paris by train in 4 hours 20 minutes if you get one of the direct TGVs. Direct trains also to Bordeaux, Bayonne and Toulouse. As far as the cycle ride's concerned, the railway station at Artix, about 5 kilometres on from Tarsacq and over the river has regular trains back into Pau.
Route conditions: It generally has a good smooth surface 2.5 metres wide but there can be the odd hiccup due to flooding. It's well furnished with picnic tables and access points and is signed, including the nearby villages. Formerly, it started at Laroin but recently 7 kilometres of voie verte alongside the river between Mazeres-Lezon and Billere were added, mainly on the south bank and linking to the existing greenway at pont voie Nord-Sud. NB The footbridge at Mazeres-Lezon has steps which may be a problem with trailers etc. Some of the other access points from the town may be more usable.
Other routes in the area: This is part of the yet to be completed veloroute down to Bayonne which in turn will be part of national route V81 from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean.
About the Author
Richard Peace is the author of the official English-language guidebook to the Veloscenie Paris-Mont-Saint Michel bike route and the Sustrans guide to the London-Paris Avenue Verte. He also contributes to A to B magazine, Bike Europe and Eurobike Show Daily.