Started in 1903, the Tour de France is the most prestigious bicycle race in the world. The 2,000-mile route takes riders on a grueling journey across the country, up the Alps and the Pyrenees, through scenic valleys and sleepy medieval towns. Though the exact route changes yearly, there are two constants: the riders will endure a brutal three-week assault on their bodies, and the viewers will delight in the fairytale vistas of the French mountains and countryside.
For many, the Tour is a chance to witness world-class athletes test the limits of human endurance. For others, though, the bikers are a purely incidental aspect of a panoramic journey across the world’s most-visited country.
Enough with the wistful sighs at the television as the camera sweeps past Alpine resort towns and picture-perfect vineyards. This year, go see them for yourself! Here are 10 of our favorite cities along the 2019 Tour de France route:
Épernay & Reims
Stages 3 & 4
Épernay is all about the Champagne. In fact, it’s got nearly 70 miles of underground cellars devoted to the aging and preservation of this bubbly drink. Plundered by the Germans in WWII, the cellars are back to their full glory. Tour the vineyards and cellars Moët & Chandon or simply climb in a car and take a scenic drive past rows of perfectly aligned grape vines.
If you’re looking for entertainment of a non-alcoholic variety, check out the neo-renaissance Town Hall at the western end of the Avenue de Champagne. The façade itself is splendid, but the adjacent gardens alone are worth the visit. Other notable Épernay sights include the Chateau Perrier and the Portail Saint-Martin—the last remnants of the 16th-century Abbey of Saint Martin.
Reims is the 2,000-year-old Champagne capital of France. Heavily bombed during World War I, the city still houses a collection of ancient Gallo-Roman monuments and medieval architecture. Throughout history, 29 kings of France were crowned inside the city’s Gothic crown jewel: the 13th-century Notre-Dame de Reims Cathedral.
Just 90 miles northeast of Paris, Reims is a popular day trip from Paris. Aside from its vast selection of Champagne wineries, the UNESCO-listed Palace of Tau attracts its fair share of visitors. Sip on some coffee at an art-deco café, wander the stalls of the Halles du Boulingrin food market, or admire the offerings of the Musée des Beaux-Arts.
For colorful half-timbered houses and cobbled lanes that look straight out of the pages of a fairytale, you’ve come to the right place. Take a rowboat down the canals of Little Venice or check out the medieval stone statues housed in the Musée d’Unterlinden. With centuries-old monuments, unique culinary traditions, and shops selling made-in-Alsace products, Colmar is charming destination for any traveler.
Mâcon sits quietly on the banks of the Saône River, inviting visitors to partake of its wine and medieval attractions. Don’t miss a stop at the 18th-century apothecary at the Hôtel-Dieu or a visit to the Maison de Bois (the Wooden House), the oldest house in the city. And then, of course, there are the wines. Set out on the Route des Vines Mâconnais for a journey through the vineyards and wineries of the area.
Albi & Toulouse
Stages 10, 11 & 12
When it was built in the 13th century, Albi’s Cathédrale Sainte-Cécile was the largest brick structure in the world. Though it no longer claims this title, the building is no less worthy of a visit. While you’re in Albi, pop into the lauded Musée Toulouse-Lautrec, which showcases an extensive collection of works by post-impressionist artist and illustrator Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Take a stroll through the historic city center, take in views of the 11th-century Pont Vieux, or marvel at manicured landscape of the terraced Jardins de la Berbie.
From its 17th-century Canal du Midi to the buildings of pink clay bricks that earned it the nickname “The Pink City,” Toulouse is a gem of a French destination. Its focal point, the Capitole de Toulouse, is a favorite among visitors. Grab a drink at one of the square’s sidewalk cafes, take in an opera performance at the Théâtre de Capitole, or tour city hall’s collection of Renaissance art. Add to that a host of medieval churches, one of France’s largest universities, and a park museum dedicated to human endeavors in space, and you’ve got yourself a fascinating vacation.
Though it began as a mere colony, Nîmes became an important city in Rome’s province of Gallia Narbonensis. Today visitors travel to Nîmes for its stunning historical sites. At over 2,000 years old, Maison Carrée is one of the best-preserved Roman temples in the world. The Jardins de la Fontaine feature a breathtaking landscape and panoramic views of the city. The double-tiered Roman Arena once hosted gladiator games and now holds bull fights and other events. If you’ve got a car, take a short drive northeast to the UNESCO-listed Pont du Gard—one of the most famous Roman aqueducts in the world.
Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azure Region
This medieval town in the southern Alps is a maze of pedestrian streets, pastel-colored facades, turrets, and hidden fountains. In the heart of Old Town, the Notre Dame du Réal is the largest religious monument in the French Alps and a marvel of Gothic architecture. Aside from a collection of other centuries-old structures (the Brown Tower and Maison des Chanonges, two name two), the gardens of the Archbishop’s Palace are certainly worth a visit. The grounds provide exquisite views of Durance Valley.
St-Jean-de-Maurienne & Val Thorens
Stages 19 & 20
St-Jean-de-Maurienne is an Alpine jewel of southeastern France. Notable among its attractions is the 11th-century St-Jean-Baptiste Cathedral, which contains the tombs of three of the first princes of the House of Savoy. For incredible views of the town and surrounding mountains, hike up to the Chapelle de Bonne-Nouvelle.
While swamped with skiers and snowboarders in the winter, the resort town of Val Thorens enticing visitors just as easily in warmer weather. Spend your visit fishing, mountain biking, or exploring mile after mile of scenic hiking trails. Want to ride a donkey or head out on a rafting excursion? Go for it.