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Exploring France by train: Our top five train rides in France

Exploring France by train: Our top five train rides in France

Last Updated on June 17, 2022

Our favorite way to see France is by train. With one of the best rail networks in Europe, France has over 32,000 kilometers of railway, and 14,000 trains running every day. The trains are comfy and fast, especially the TGV, France’s high speed train, which hits speeds over 300 kilometers per hour, and even at those speeds it is easier to relax and take in the scenery instead of maneuvering a car and paying expensive highway tolls. Not only is rail travel more comfortable, it is also pretty cheap – you can always find great deals for the TGV. Make sure to read our tips for riding trains in France at the end of the article.

Here are our top five train routes in France:

Paris to Nice

The train ride from Paris to the Cote d’Azur in Southern France passes by some of the country’s most remarkable scenery, from the Rhone valley, quaint little villages dotting the countryside, and in the spring, the beautiful purple lavender fields in the Provence region, to the beaches of the Mediterranean. Many of the trains on this route are double-deck Duplex TGVs which offer the best views from the upper level.

riding the train in France

Nimes to Clermont Ferrand

This 5.5-hour train journey takes you through the Cevennes, a mountain range in southern France, and with 106 tunnels and 1,300 bridges (including the 41-arch Chamborigaud Viaduct) it makes for a spectacular ride. Passengers can barely put their cameras down, thanks to the magnificent viaducts and bridges.The train connection has been built in 1870 – a notable construction achievement at the time. The Cevennes Railway is also known for its popular hiking path that follows the rails.

Villefranche to Latour de Carol

This train journey through the Pyrenees – the highest train tracks in France – is covered by Le Petit Train Jaune, a little yellow train that travel high up in the mountains. In the summer months open carriages are used which offer stunning mountain vistas and passengers can enjoy the impressive gorges, river valleys and viaducts along the way.

The distance between Villefranche-de-Conflent and La Tour de Carol is only 63 kilometers long, but takes three hours – enough time to truly enjoy some of the country’s most spectacular scenery. There are two UNESCO World Heritage Sites along the way:  the historical town of Villefranche and Mont Luis – we recommend you get off at these two stops and wander around the beautiful mountain town and France’s highest fortress.

France trains

Le Petit Train des Combes

Le Petit Train des Combes is also known as the Two Valleys train and still uses steam and diesel locomotives on a 60cm narrow gauge railway. The train operators between Les Combes and Le Creusot in the Burgundy region of France. During the 1.5 hour train ride passengers can enjoy scenic views of the town and the natural park it goes through.

Nice to Digne-Les-Bains

Even though this is a very touristy train ride, it is well worth the experience since the train passes through some of France’s most marvelous scenery. It starts in Nice on the Cote d’Azur and travels 3.5 hours up the Verdon Valley to an altitude of over 1000 meters. You start with palm trees in and around Nice, later on passing through the lavender fields, vineyards and finally steep-sided mountain valleys, before pulling into Digne-Les-Bains. Most of the stations along the way are the original ones from the beginning of the 20th century, when this rail line opened.

Tips for taking the train in France

Always book your train tickets in advance

It is considerably cheaper to book your tickets in advance, instead of showing up at the train station and buying a ticket on the spot. No matter if you’re buying the tickets directly through the French railway operator SNCF (Société Nationale des Chemins de Fer), or if you use easier-to-use third-party operators like The Trainline (for discount train tickets) or Omio (which compares the cheapest and fastest routes from one destination to another – see below). Be warned though: If you book your ticket in advance and you miss that train, that money is lost. There’s no way to rebook for a later train, so you’ll have to pay for a new ticket on the spot. Plan in plenty of time to get to the train station, especially if you don’t speak the language. Signage can be confusing.

France trains

Paris has several train stations

If you’re taking the train from Paris, be aware that there are six different train stations! Make sure you know which train station your train leaves from, and look up how to get there. The six Paris train stations are: Gare du Nord (trains to the north of France, highspeed Thaly trains to Amsterdam and Brussels, Eurostar trains to London), Gare de Lyon (trains to the south of France, including cities like Nice, Marseille, Lyon, and Montpellier – but also trains to Switzerland, Italy and Eastern Spain), Gare de l’est (east-bound trains to cities like Strasbourg and Nancy, as well as international trains to Germany and Luxembourg), Gare Montparnasse (west-bound trains to cities like Rennes, Nantes and Brittany), Gare d’Austerlitz (trains to Bordeaux and Toulouse and Western Spain), Gare St Lazare (trains to the Northwest of France, including Rouen, Le Havre and Caen).

Take trains to neighboring countries, don’t fly!

It’s tempting to buy a cheap €20 flight to Berlin or Amsterdam, but compare the price to the price of the train ticket, and factor in the inconvenience of flying: you have to pay for transportation to the airport, and from the airport to the city center upon arrival, while train stations in Europe are always conveniently located right in the city center. In the example below, the flight may seem more convenient at first sight: only 1 hour and 15 minutes! But if you add on the time to get to the airport, the time to get through security at the airport, waiting at the gate, and then getting from Schiphol Airport into the city – it takes way longer than taking the train. (Side note: Taking the bus would be considerably cheaper in the example below, but take into consideration that it takes more than twice as long).