The Ultimate Northern France Itinerary: Normandy, Loire Valley, and Paris
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Home of grand and impressive castles, spectacular cliffs, historical WWII monuments, a city built on a rock off the coast, picturesque gardens, and breathtaking cathedrals: Northern France is a must visit! This region has so much to offer and so much great food to enjoy. We spent a week driving around Normandy and Loire Valley before settling in Paris for another 5 days.
- Day 1: Giverny
- Day 2: Upper Normandy
- Day 3: Lower Normandy
- Day 4: Lower Normandy -> Loire Valley
- Day 5 - 7: Loire Valley
- Day 8: Loire Valley -> Paris
- Day 9 - 12: Paris
Day 1: Giverny
We arrived into Paris's Charles de Gaulle Airport early, grabbed our rental car and headed to our VRBO outside of Vernon. This was an absolutely unbelievable place to stay – you have full access to the grounds which includes unique sculptures, forests, llamas, horses, and an outdoor barbeque. This magical property is only a few minutes drive away from the city of Vernon and Giverny gardens.
After a couple hours settling in and exploring the property, we visited the famous Monet Gardens. Tickets to the garden are 9.50 euros and can be bought in advance online for a slight extra charge for the benefit of avoiding lines (recommended). Monet Gardens is split into two areas. One is surrounding the Monet's home – expansive flower beds, fruit trees, a central alley with iron arches.
The other is a Japanese-style water garden that is across the road from the main garden. It is accessible by a clearly marked underground walkway. This is the famous garden with the large pond full of water lilies (depending on the season) and a Japanese bridge over one side of the pond. The gardens can be quite busy, so be ready for crowds on the narrow pathways. We spent about two hours exploring, which could be definitely stretched longer.
Vernon is just a few miles away from Giverny and also has a few neat sights to visit. Vernon is right on the River Seine and has an old half-timbered mill hovering of the river. Throughout the village, there are few other half-timbered houses. There is also a small Château - Château de Bizy if you have time to kill. We also picked up food for dinner and breakfast the next day to cook at our VRBO.
Day 2: Upper Normandy
This was a fairly considerable driving day - about 4 hours in total, with regular stops along the way. The drive begins going north along the River Seine.
The first stop was the medieval city of Rouen. The old downtown has pedestrian-only cobblestone streets - filled with street performers, gothic-style cathedrals, half-timbered houses, small boutiques, and an astronomical clock. We parked on the other side of the river from the downtown (as there is more plentiful and cheaper parking) and walked across the bridge into the old town. The medieval area is easily walkable and most is along pedestrian-only streets.
Rouen is home to a beautiful astronomical clock – Le Gros Horloge, dating to the 14th century. We also walked into Rouen's Notre Dame Cathedral (free entry). We walked past St. Ouen's Abbey, City Hall, and the park adjacent to them. Next, we walked to the Joan of Arc Tower – the only part of Rouen castle that remains that imprisoned Joan of Arc. Contrasting the previous gothic style building, we visited the modern church of St Joan of Arc.
Now it was time to head for the coast. Étretat is a small town on the Northern coast of France with stunning white cliffs and a rock pillar rising from the sea. You can climb up a short steep path from the beach to dramatic views. Parking can be challenging, so be prepared to walk a bit to get to the beach. If you have time, go up the pathways on both sides of the beach. The highlight of the day!
An idyllic harbor town in Normandy, Honfleur is a 45-minute drive from Étretat. The drive there goes over Pont de Normandie, a high bridge... a very high bridge. As long as you are not the driver, there is a stunning view looking off the bridge. There is a toll to get across the bridge. Honfleur is on the mouth of the Seine River. There is a lively market on Saturdays (lots of Cheese!). Walk around the city center to find a large wooden church, named Saint Catherine's Church. This is also a great place to grab a scoop of ice cream and walk along the old Harbor/Vieux-Bassin.
From Honfleur, we drove to our hotel in Bayeux, France. We stayed in Bayeux for two days as our base for Normandy.
Day 3: Lower Normandy
This day we spent the morning visiting the Normandy beaches and D-Day sights. We visited the sights on our own, but looking back a guided tour would have been a better choice.
If you want to do a guided tour, which will provide you information on all the historical sights you are seeing – this one comes highly recommended. A guide can help you appreciate the events that occurred and the turbulent past of this area.
Pointe Du Hoc
A few miles west of Omaha Beach, is Pointe Du Hoc. Here, American soldiers coming from the English channel climbed the massive cliffs. The area was full of German gun pits and artillery. Incredibly, this was a site of great Ally victory. You can see the many craters from exploded bombs in the lunar landscape and peek inside the bunker remains. Well worth a 45-minute visit.
There are much less specific D-Day artifacts to see here than Pointe Du Hoc. This is where a guide really comes in handy to make the beach come alive with the impressive and haunting events that occurred. Even if you are not into history at all, this is a great beach to visit. There are several small places to eat near the beach – perfect time to get lunch.
Right along the water, the expansive Normandy American Cemetery is thought-provoking. It is a beautiful cemetery with 9,386 grave sites. If visiting on your own, there is a good visitor center that is incredibly informative.
After visiting the cemetery, we stopped at the Overlord Museum, which has displays for uniforms, tanks, weapons, and WWII equipment. It is relatively small and good for a quick visit, despite being a bit outdated. Admission is 7.80 euros.
Once back in Bayeux, we walked into the city center. Bayeux is known for a tapestry... yes a tapestry. A 70-meter (230-feet) long embroidered piece of cloth. It depicts conquests and battles of England from the Normans. The tapestry is located in the Bayeux museum and costs 9.50 euros to enter. Other must-see stops include a water wheel along the L'Aure River that runs through the middle of the town and a cathedral.
A bit outside of the center of town is the botanical gardens, which is a free public park with amazing trees, plants, and a very unique playground. The highlight is a huge weeping beech tree. Unlike the rest of the city, there will likely be very few people in the gardens – a hidden gem.
Day 4: Lower Normandy -> Loire Valley
We packed up our stuff and headed to the Loire Valley – but first a stop at the magnificent Mont Saint-Michel!
Wow! Breathtaking! If you skip everything else in Normandy, still make the journey up from Paris to see this. Mont Saint-Michel is a city on top of a rocky island just a short distances away from the mainland. You will be in awe of it the first time you spot it from the road. It is accessible by a bridge, but during low-tide, you could walk to it along the sand. You can walk from the (paid) parking lot or take a bus. We walked there and took the bus back. It is quite magical walking up to it, as it appears bigger and bigger. At the very top, and what you first notice when looking at the island, is the impressive Abbey. To get up to the alley, you will walk up cobblestone streets and steps. It will likely be crowded with both people and tourist traps trying to sell you cheap souvenirs. Just by-pass all of that mess and get to the Abbey.
The Abbaye du Mont-Saint-Michel has been a religious site since the middle ages. The abbey was constructed over a 1,300 year period. Just like the rest of the island: it will be crowded. If you can, get there early or later in the afternoon, before or after the large bused-in groups from Paris come. Admission is 10 euros but I would suggest opting for the audioguide for an additional 3 euros. You can learn and explore the Abbaye's past as a prison, including the shocking human hampster-wheel and other torture devices. It is worth visiting for the views alone.
For our three and half days in the Loire Valley, we stayed in the small town of Amboise. This charming village sits on the Loire Valley and has not one.. but two gorgeous castles right in town! It is centrally located between the other castles in the valley. We stayed at the affordable Hotel Chaptal Amboise, within walking distance to everything in Amboise.
Amboise Château has a lot less of the original building remaining than the other castles in the Loire Valley, but the exterior structures and the view from the castle are not to be missed. We wrote another post about our favorite castles we visited and brief descriptions of their interesting history throughout the centuries.
Check out our post on the 5 most magnificent castles of the Loire Valley!
Day 5: Loire Valley
Tours is the largest city in the Loire Valley and known for its many free public gardens and parks. This can be used as your hub for exploring Loire Valley if you prefer a larger city, than the small idyllic town of Amboise. Tours has a few grand cathedrals and a nice town square as well. Even if you are not staying in Tours, stop by for a visit or eat at one of the many gourmet cafes.
Château de Chambord
The sheer scale of this place is impressive! It is the quintessential French Renaissance castle. It takes a few hours just to walk around the property.
Balloon Ride over Loire Valley
If you have never been on a Hot Air Balloon – this is the place to do it. What can be better than floating over castles and the beautiful French countryside? We took off on the opposite side of the river from Amboise Château. The take-off site can change based on the wind direction. The wind also controls where you end up, so if you are lucky you might get to fly over a few other castles as well. We went over the city of Amboise and the nearby rivers and forests. The only way you can tell you are going up is the buildings beneath you getting smaller and smaller. It truly feels like you are floating. We had a quite exciting landing into a large grass field, skidding a couple times to slow down. They have a chase van and trailer that follows the balloon to where it stops, and you can help put the balloon and basket onto the trailer. To celebrate a successful flight, you get champagne and neat certificate!
Loire Valley is one of the most popular bases for a Hot Air Balloon Ride and for good reason – splurge a little and take this once in a lifetime experience. Absolutely incredible!
Day 6: Loire Valley
Whoa! Our largest castle day. Believe it or not, you can get a bit tired of touring castles. We saw 3 castles and a massive Abbey. All were amazing, but if you wanted to go at a bit slower of a pace, I would skip Azay-Le-Rideau.
There is a Chateau here, but we came for the amazing gardens! Going in May, there were a good amount of flowers in bloom but little crowds. Acres of well-maintained fairytale gardens - full of boxed hedges, fruit trees, and fountains.
While we were there, the outside and some of the inside of Château D'Azay-Le-Rideau was being restored. Tickets were 10.50 euros per person, but as it was part of a network of other sights, we had discounted entry into Fontevraud Abbey and Villandry Chateau (and the option for others). There was scaffolding and tarps over the castle, taking away some of the charm. Compared to the other castles, it is smaller than the others in the Loire Valley. The inside rooms are well decorated and the audioguide adds to the enjoyment. One of the best furnishings of the castles we saw. We had lunch and ice cream nearby in the town.
This is Sleeping Beauty's castle and the romantic feeling of this castle is straight out of a fairytale. They use mannequins to tell the story of Sleeping Beauty and make the castle come to life. To read more about the Loire Valley Châteaux, read our post here.
Founded in 1101, Fontevraud Abbaye is the largest surviving monastery from the Middle Ages. It had a long history as a prison from 1804 to 1963. Prior to that, it was a thriving royal monastery complex that was the final resting place for King Henry II, his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine and son Richard the Lionheart. The buildings were imposing and the setting is stunning. They have several exhibits around and fascinating audioguide. The Abbaye is in a charming village, perfect to walk around in or grab a bite.
Day 7: Loire Valley
We renting bikes from a small shop in Amboise, Loca Cycle. While they were not the best bikes, they were good enough for our 32km round trip bike ride. We rode the bikes to Chenonceau Château, mostly through vineyards, forests, and fields on bike paths. We used this guide for the route, but most of it is well marked while you are riding. For the very irregular biker, this route was fairly easy with only a few hills. There are bike racks once you get to Chenonceau.
Château de Chenonceau
This is the most popular castle of the Loire Valley, an architectural marvel build over the Cher river. Mainly resided and designed by women, the history of this castle is fascinating.
Check out our post on the 5 most magnificent castles of the Loire Valley!
Day 8: Loire Valley -> Paris
Now it was time to head back to Paris. On the way from the Loire Valley, we stopped by Fontainebleau.
Fontainebleau is a massive palace, similarly decorated on the inside as Versailles. Being one of Napoleon's favorite palace's he was responsible for many of the design choices. While not the extremely tight crowds of Versailles, the rooms are still filled with other visitors. Admission is 12 euros per person, and it is advantageous to buy online in advance to avoid lines. Or what we did, was get the Paris Pass. This gets you free entry into most museums and attractions across Paris. Depending on how many of these places you are already going to, it can be a great deal. The price is based on the number of days you will be using it, to take into account how many places you can logistically see during your time. Fontainebleau was staggering. If I were to rank all of the castles we saw in terms of grandeur and opulence, this would come ahead of all the Loire Valley castles and only be 2nd to Versailles.
Before settling in Paris, we dropped off our rental car at the airport and took the metro into the city. We stayed at an Airbnb near the Montmartre area. Click here to get $40 off your first Airbnb stay.
sacre Coeur Basilica
From our Airbnb, we walked to Sacre Coeur Basilica. Knowing that Sacre Coeur is up on a hill does not prepare you for the number of stairs you have to climb to get up there. But man, there is a great view of the city after all those stairs. One thing you will notice, now being out of the French countryside and in a large city, is all of the people trying to scam you or sell you cheap trinkets or knockoffs.
Day 9: Paris
Paris is an extremely walkable city. For tackling Paris, we took the metro to one section of the city and walked around to all the main sights. Since we were only using the metro two or three times a day, we just bought individual tickets rather than a multi-day or single-day pass. A single ticket (at the time of writing this in 2018) costs 1.90 euros and is good for all the transfers you may make. You can get a deal on tickets if you buy 10 at a time, which is called a carnet (14.90 euros, so 1.49 euros a ticket). A single day pass for Zones 1 and 2 costs 7.50 euros. So if you plan to go on the metro more than 5 times in a day, go for the day pass (Mobilis). This day we took the metro to the Concorde stop and walked down the Tuileries Garden towards the Louvre.
There is much more to see here than the famous Mona Lisa from Leonardo da Vinci. Honestly, it is overrated. It is a relatively small painting with a huge crowd of people. Once you are in the room, turn around from the Mona Lisa and the painting opposite it – The Wedding at Cana – is way more impressive. Definitely, go see the Mona Lisa, so you can say you did, but give yourself a few hours to explore the rest of the Louvre. We are by no means art lovers or museum people, but the Louvre has so much to offer. Our two favorite sections were Napoleon's apartment and the great historical artifacts stolen from Egypt.
With the Paris Pass, you can skip the very long line to enter the Louvre. You will still have to wait 15-20 minutes to get through security, but you do not want to waste an hour or several hours in the sun outside of the Pyramid.
This is the place to go if you are even the tiniest into stained glass windows. After entering the church and going up a short spiral staircase, you enter into an amazing spectacle of stories told through colored glass that completely surrounds you. Unlike most of the other cathedrals in Europe, Sainte Chapelle does have an admission price of 10 euros (included in Paris Pass). Even with a pass, you have to wait in line to go through security, which depending on the day and time may be up to an hour.
Musee de l'Armee and the Dome Church
From Sainte Chapelle, we walked to the Army Museum, which houses many historical military objects and the tomb of Napoleon. We went because we already had the museum pass. While Napoleon's tomb was imposing, this would have been a place to skip if you had to pay for admission individually, especially if you are not a history or military buff.
Day 10: Paris
After a day break from castles and palaces, it was time to visit the best of France: Versailles. Versailles is 10 miles from Paris and is easily accessible by train. Note that you will need a metro ticket that includes zone 5. We got the metro to Balard station and got the RER C to Versailles - Rive Gauche. Versailles is a short 10-minute walk from the train station. Pretty much everyone on the train is going to the same place, just follow the direction the crowd is going and you will find the palace.
To get into Versailles, there was a two hour or long line. We noticed many tour groups that skipped straight ahead. This was another place we wish we had a chosen to join a tour for part of our visit at least (the price for skipping the line is worth it alone, and someone to provide you valuable insight is just a bonus). Versailles is gorgeous. Complete opulence. However, it is overwhelmingly crowded. Another benefit of a guide is someone able to cut through the crowds and help you move through the hallways faster. You will be slowly shuffling with what feels like everyone else in the world.
Depending on your speed and interest, you could spend a couple hours or the whole day touring the rooms. If you can, plan to go to Versailles on a Tuesday or the weekend dates for when the Musical Fountain Shows are. At the many fountains throughout the gardens, they have speakers that play classical music that is timed perfectly with the fountains launching water.
Seine River Boat Cruise
After a mid-afternoon break back in the hotel/Airbnb, you can spend a romantic night cruising along the sights while eating dinner. A Seine River dinner boat cruise is a must-do experience in Paris. Even with a bit of rain, the atmosphere is perfect. It is a 75-minute slow boat ride, great food, and better views.
After the boat ride, we took a stroll along the Seine River near the Notre Dame. There will likely be some entertainers or artists painting the night landscape. Just magical.
Day 11: Paris
Arc de Triomphe
The Arc de Triomphe is the best place to get a view of Paris from above. But you might say... what about the Eiffel Tower? You cannot get a picture of the Eiffel Tower from the Eiffel Tower. There is a spiral staircase to take you up. If you are out of shape or get dizzy easily, you might have to take a break. It is well worth the climb for the view on the other end. Unlike the Eiffel tower, there will likely be a little to no line and the staircase will be mostly empty.
Note, there is an underground tunnel to get to the monument, do not even think about going across the extremely busy roundabout. Arc de Triomphe is at the end of the Champs-Élysées, the most beautiful avenue in the world. If you are into luxury shopping, this is the place to go.
Musee de l'Orangerie
After walking down the Champs-Élysées, we went to Musee de l'Orangerie, home to eight of the beautiful Water Lilies paintings. The Water Lilies paintings are placed into two oval-shaped rooms. There is more artwork on the lower level, but overall it is a small museum compared to the others in Paris. Easily manageable in an hour or less. Museum entry costs 9 euros or is included in Paris Pass.
Musee d'Orsay is a beautiful art museum inside an old railway station. This might be ... dare I say it .. a better museum than the Louvre. It houses many famous paintings from Van Gogh, Monet, Renoir, and Degas. It is a lot more manageable of a size than the Louvre and less crowded. Admission is 12 euros or is included on the Paris Pass.
Day 12: Paris
Notre Dame cathedral is the most well-known church in Paris and is a beautiful piece of architecture. Entry is free, but depending on the season and time of day, there might be a line to enter but it is fast moving.
Across from Notre Dame is the Archaeological Crypt of the Ile de la Cité. If you have the Paris Pass, this is a cool underground museum that shows you the origins of Paris. It is not busy at all, with most of the focus in the square on Notre Dame.
Behind Notre Dame is access to Île Saint Louis, a small island in the Seine River. It is a quiet place to walk the streets. A lot fewer tourists visit this island and it almost feels like a small French village. There are a lot of cafes for a meal and one of the best ice cream shops in the world.
After staring at it, pointing it out every chance you get; it is finally time to go up the Eiffel Tower. The perfect way to end your time in France. Buy tickets in advance! You will be so thankful you did when you see the line. Currently, tickets go on sale 90 days in advance and sell out fairly quickly after they are posted at 8:30 am Paris time. Set a reminder to book the tickets 90 days before you plan to visit so you can get your desired time.
We went about 30 minutes before sunset so we could see the city with a bit of daylight and at night. We bought tickets only to the 2nd floor, which was plenty high to see the whole city. Going all the way up to the summit is an experience, but you miss a lot of the details of Paris from up that high. On the 2nd floor, they have a section with glass floors so you can see what is below your feet, a gift shop and a restaurant.
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