Outdoor adventure travel and France may not be the first thing that comes to mind, but France has an overwhelming number of trails, coastal paths, and parks to keep you busy for a lifetime. From the coast to the Alps, the South of France is rich in hiking, kayaking, rock climbing, thermal baths, and medieval village walks sure to make your heart pound. If you have planned your entire vacation around being active, or want a day trip with some exercise, I have ten must-do outdoor adventure trips in the South of France.
Wesley and I have visited the French Riviera, Provence, and the Alpes-Maritimes regions of France three times in the past five years. Obviously, it is a favorite wellness travel destination for us. We spent ten days here on our honeymoon in 2015 and have gone back twice for 7-10 day adventures each time. We haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of everything that we want to do and see in the region.
For our trips to the South of France, we base ourselves in Nice or Aix-en-Provence and take day trips. From Nice in particular, it is super easy, fast, clean, safe, and cheap to use public transportation. For just a few dollars at the most, you can travel throughout the entire region. The high-speed train also connects many of the cities in the region (and the country). From Aix-en-Provence, it is much easier to rent a car to explore the more rural Provence countryside.
Options, Options, Options
There are plenty of sightseeing opportunities in the South of France to fill any tourist agenda: museums, casinos, shopping, fresh markets, the beach, medieval churches, clifftop villages, lavender and sunflower fields, and long afternoons people watching at sidewalk cafes.
But sometimes you just want to see the more natural side of a place. The South of France is home to the largest national park in Europe, a spectacular gorge created by a turquoise-colored river, and hundreds of miles of trails and paths. Add in clifftop villages from the Middle Ages along with endless fields of lavender and sunflowers and you are surrounded by beauty and history.
Take Time for Outdoor Adventure Travel
The pace of life in the South of France is slower, calmer, and full of sunshine. It’s a perfect destination for year-round outdoor adventure travel. Here are my top ten places to experience the outdoors including trail hikes, kayaking trips, options for running, cycling, or walking, and spa destinations along with three can’t miss medieval villages and the old town section of Nice.
What to Expect
- Run, Cycle, or Walk the Promenade des Anglais in Nice
- Run or Walk Old Nice to Castle Hill
- Coastal Path from Nice to Villefranche sur Mer
- Explore the Village of St. Paul-de-Vence
- Soak in the Thermal Baths at Roquebilliere
- Explore the Village of Moustiers Sainte-Marie and Notre Dame de Beauvoir
- Hike Verdon Regional Park
- Kayak the Grand Canyon du Verdon
- Hike Mercantour National Park
- Explore the Village of St. Martin-Vesubie
Ready to get outside and start exploring the other side of the France? Me too, so let’s go!
Outdoor Adventure Travel Day Trips In or Around Nice
Run, Cycle, or Walk the Promenade des Anglais in Nice
I’ll start with the obvious and easiest choice to get some exercise while on vacation in the South of France. The Promenade des Anglais spans for miles along the seafront of Nice. In fact, there are very few buildings directly on the seaside of this beautiful city. A very wide pedestrian-only paved path meanders alongside the Mediterranean Sea. Locals and tourists use the path to walk, run, cycle, roller blade, and generally soak up the sun. The pathway runs from the Castle Hill area of Old Nice to just south of the airport with unobstructed views of the pebbled beach. Great place to people watch too!
Run or Walk Old Nice to Castle Hill
Within the city of Nice you will also find Old Nice, a network of narrow and winding medieval streets with original buildings dating from the Middle Ages still in intact and in use. You can spend hours walking or running the streets of Old Nice. There are quite a few hills along with the steep hillside paved path leading up to Castle Hill, a military citadel from the 11th century.
Once you are at the top of Castle Hill, you have 360-degree views of the Mediterranean, Nice, and the Alps. If you want to run Old Nice, I highly recommend doing it early in the morning, which in Nice is generally prior to 9 am. Except for a few suppliers and street cleaners, you will have the streets to yourself. Any later and you will have to deal with tourists and locals doing their daily shopping.
Coastal Walk from Nice to Villefranche-Sur-Mer
The next town south of Nice on the way to Monaco is Villefranche-Sur-Mer. It’s a gorgeous seaside village with its own old town, restaurant row, and beaches. From the port in Nice, you can follow an approximately 3-mile coastal path with breathtaking views. The path is rugged in some places, relies upon city sidewalks next to the main road in some sections, and contains a few sets of very steep stairs. You can walk/run the coastal path in one direction and take the public bus back to the port in Nice (bus 81 or 100) or vice versa.
Wander around St. Paul-de-Vence
A one-hour trip on bus 400 will take you from Nice up into the neighboring foothills to a village called St. Paul-de-Vence. It is one of many clifftop villages in Provence worth a visit. Its tiny cobblestoned streets take you back in time as you wander around. You can walk the outer edge and ramparts of the village and explore deep into the steep winding streets. The village is touristy but we went there during the winter months (February) and had the place all to ourselves.
Side note: you can continue on the bus to the larger, “newer” town of Vence where they have a fantastic fresh market. We went to Vence first, explored the market buying some cheese, cured sausage, and bread before hopping back on the bus to St. Paul-de-Vence.
Soak in the Thermal Baths at the Berthemont-les-Bains Spa at Roquebilliere
You will quickly gain altitude when you take the 730 bus from Nice into the beginning of the French Alps. Here you will see yet another side of the South of France. Craggy mammoth-sized mountains creep up on you as the bus climbs higher and higher. Get off at the small town of Roquebilliere to enjoy the healing and rejuvenating powers of thermal hot springs at the Berthemont-les-Bains Spa. Here you will find indoor and outdoor thermal baths, dry and wet saunas, an exercise pool with a current, and gym-type water classes all for 18 euros for the day. They also offer full-service spa amenities a la carte for a truly luxurious wellness retreat. Worth every penny.
Explore the Village of St. Martin-Vesubie
Stay on the 730 bus for another 15 minutes past Roquebilliere to visit St. Martin-Vesubie, an absolute gem of an alpine village. Check out my post, Wellness Travel in the French Alps, to learn everything that this 12th century village has to offer.
We spent a 3-day weekend in this village because there is so much to explore in the town and its immediate surroundings. We ran the Ultra Trail Mercantour. But if you’re not running an organized race, you can find an outdoor outfitter in the village for all kinds of tours and activities including rock climbing, canyoneering, skiing, snowshoeing, and hiking. You can also visit Vesubia Mountain Park, boasting an indoor canyoneering experience along with a rock climbing wall, large pool, sauna, and gym.
Hike Mercantour National Park
From within the village of St. Martin-Vesubie, you just need to walk a mile or so up out of town to get onto the trails in Mercantour National Park, the largest national park in Europe. Follow the road (there’s only one) up past the town to the mammoth-sized mountain in front of you. Choose between a day hike above tree line and marvel at the alpine lakes or trek from one alpine hut to another on either a loop or a point-to-point.
Wesley and I have run on the trails in Mercantour and they are gorgeous and pristine. A few words of caution: this is high altitude trekking, which really bothered my ability to breathe and gave me a touch of altitude sickness. The trails are extremely steep, narrow, and frequently cross over craggy ridgelines with sheer rock-faced drops. It’s not for the faint of heart!
Outdoor Adventure Travel Day Trips from Aix-en-Provence
For my last three suggestions, we based ourselves in Aix-en-Provence and rented a car to go explore the countryside of Provence. However, all three destinations are accessible by car from Nice. Any public transportation from Nice will take you to Aix-en-Provence first, and then require transfers taking a full day for the journey alone. Traveling through Provence at your own speed is worth the extra expense. There are many roadside pull-offs and trailheads to explore and view the incredible rural beauty of Provence as you make your way to any of the next three outdoor adventure destinations.
Explore the Village of Moustiers Sainte-Marie and Notre Dame de Beauvoir
Moustiers Sainte-Marie has been a monastic pilgrimage site since the 5th century and became an active village with residents and businesses in the 12th century. Today, it has been honored with the prestigious “Most Beautiful Villages of France” award. The village grows right out of the hillside rock and cliffs. It’s an amazing architectural feat! The Notre Dame River runs through the middle of town with stone bridges connecting the two sides. Keep climbing up through town until you get to a dirt trail to the Notre Dame de Beauvoir, a 12th century church built on the very tippy top of the mountain. It’s a short but very steep hike.
Kayak the Grand Canyon du Verdon
A popular two-day trip is to canoe/kayak the Verdon River gorge. It’s a 15-mile whitewater trip. The Grand Canyon du Verdon The turquoise-colored Verdon River cuts through the mountains forming a deep gorge similar to the more famous Grand Canyon in the United States. If the two-day trip is too much, you can also rent a boat for the day or go swimming in calmer waters. You can take an 85-mile drive around the entire gorge too. Plan an entire day for the drive, as it is slow going with extremely narrow, steep, winding roads (and no guardrails!).
Hike the Verdon Regional Park
Accessible from the road along the Grand Canyon du Verdon drive, is the Martel Trail in the Verdon Regional Park. It is 9-mile trail taking you down into the canyon and back up. Due to the steep terrain, allow 7-8 hours for the 9-mile trip. The views of the river (and boaters) are spectacular. Within the larger park, you can also find over 450 miles of trails including the much longer GR4 that crisscrosses France.
An Outdoor Adventure Travel Paradise in the South of France
There you have it…these are the outdoor adventure travel activities that we have done in the South of France. There remains numerous hikes and coastal walks on my travel bucket list. Do you have other recommendations or are you planning a trip to the South of France? Let me know in the comments!