Contrary to popular belief, taking the ferry over to France doesn’t limit you to a handful of familiar destinations. Comfortable and convenient, ferries to France these days can provide access to some of the most enjoyable corners of the entire continent. Simply load up the car with all you’ll need and set sail for adventure – a rewarding holiday the whole family will love.
But assuming you only have limited time to spare, which towns and cities within easy reach of local ferry ports should you focus your attention on?
One of the most important cultural and historical cities in all of Brittany, Nantes is known for its vibrancy and as an important home for creative arts. It’s the kind of city that is inspiring simply to walk around, with one-of-a-kind attractions at every turn like the world-famous Elephant. Even if you don’t consider yourself to be a culture vulture, Nantes never fails to feed the imagination. Speaking of which, the local dining scene is as good as anywhere in France.
When choosing French regions to explore, there are few more enjoyable than Brittany. This is a region built from the ground up for explorers – a rich tapestry of countryside, medieval towns, dramatic coastline and beautiful beaches. It is a region of tradition with a culture all of its own, not to mention the kind of local cuisine you’ll want to make the most of. Brittany is famed for serving up creative crêpes, superb cider and so much more.
The dramatic history of Normandy over the centuries have resulted in the region as a whole being one of the most historically important in the world. Highlights include Mont St-Michel, the site of the D-Day landings of 1944 and some of the best museums and architectural sites to be found anywhere in France. After working up an appetite exploring the history of Normandy, just a few of the local highlights on the menu include quality seafood, dishes rich in cream and some of the best camembert in the country.
4. St Malo
The walled city of St Malo can be explored and enjoyed with even just a short amount of time to spare. If you do happen to find yourself in town with limited time available, highlights include the Chateau de St Malo which contains the town museum, the local beaches with an array of tidal islands, countless galleries and a vibrant day and night café culture.
Over in Cherbourg, you’ll find a historically important port town that has been a seafaring centre for France for many centuries. There is an excellent Titanic exhibition to check out, not to mention the opportunity to stroll around the largest submarine in the world that is open to the general public. Cherbourg also has a global reputation as home to some of the best restaurants in France. Be sure not to leave without trying local specialities like mussels, artisan cheeses and regional wines.
The university town of Caen has a dynamic atmosphere, with a comparatively young local population and a cosmopolitan vibe. Caen has its own historic importance, but today it is more about boutique shopping experiences, upmarket eateries and energetic nightspots. Should you only have time to sample one or two delicacies while you are here, veal and pre-salé lamb, reared on the salt marshes of the Mont St Michel area are local specialities.
7. Le Havre
Approximately 98% of Le Havre in its entirety was destroyed during the Second World War, but the way the region has redeveloped itself in the decades since is impressive. With much of the renovation process having been overseen by the noted architect August Perret, many of the designs to be found across the city contributed to Le Havre becoming a World Heritage site recognised by UNESCO. There is nowhere else that looks and feels quite like Le Havre. The added bonus being that there is also a 2km stretch of pebbles and sand to explore, meaning the very best of beach life and all the water-sports you could ever wish for on your doorstep.
The fishing village of Roscoff seems to have been frozen in time for a number of centuries, while at the same time escaping the often-harmful influences of mass tourism. There are still so many 16th century buildings lining the cobbled streets, building a quiet and wholly undiscovered ambience. There are plenty of museums, galleries and important buildings to check out, but the real joy comes in simply wandering around the historic heart Roscoff with no specific destination. The food and drink served up by the locals is also second to none.
Rennes is situated just a couple of hours by car away from the port of Roscoff and is worth a visit, even if you only have a short time available. It is home to one of the largest and most animated markets in France, along with a great local dining scene to dive into. Plenty of history and culture perfectly balanced with luxury retail therapy and some of France’s very finest food.
Last but not least, it’s worth bearing in mind that from both Caen and Le Havre, you are never more than around two hours and 45 minutes from the very heart of Paris. While it may not necessarily have the quaint charm and character of some of the towns and cities mentioned here, you cannot visit France without taking in one of the world’s most iconic cities. Travelling by car, you will have each and every district of this sprawling capital city open for exploration and discovery.