The Route Napoléon is a next-level road trip.
And we say this with a head full of beautiful memories from many a road trip in France (including the one where we drove 1,100 km from Cannes to Nantes in a single day — holy bajaysus is the only word I have for that).
I won’t fight anyone who says the purple fields of Provence and dramatic cliffs of Normandy are something special and road-trip-worthy — they are, by anyone’s standards.
But to us, nothing compares to the towering mountains, plunging gorges, and jewel-coloured rivers that you’ll find as you road trip down the Route Napoleon in the south of France. Oooooh mama.
From where it begins in the French Riviera all the way to the end in the foothills of the Alps, the scenery along the Route Napoleon is out of this world — and makes for an ideal day trip from the nearby city of Nice.
And that’s just part of why we love it so much; it’s also amazing because the drive has something for everyone along the way:
And adrenaline addicts of all kinds
We might even go as far as to say the Route Napoleon is the best France road trip you can do. But don’t just take our word for it… Would ya get a load of that scenery?!
In this post, we’ll share with you everything you need to know to have the most awesome France road trip possible whilst cruising down the Route Napoleon.
We’ll also share our suggested itinerary and recommendations for the best places to stop along the route itself (and in the coolest spots nearby) be it for a bite to eat, a nice glass of craft beer, a lookout from a killer viewpoint, or a casual bungee jump off Europe’s highest bridge. Yeah, that too.
Let’s hit the road! (I promise I won’t make a pun that bad again for the rest of the post…ish).
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Route Napoleon: The history (for people who hate history)
Oh HAY Napoleon you saucy minx, how’d you go and get this route named after you?
Good question, good question.
And the answer is that Napoleon Bonaparte and his army took this exact route in 1815 during their historic march from Elba to Grenoble en route to Paris, where he reckoned he’d redeem himself as Emperor of France and everything would come up totally milhouse once more. (When in reality they all went and got their asses whooped at the Battle of Waterloo. Hashtag didn’t see that coming).
You see, Napoleon was escaping exile from the little island off the coast of Tuscany that he’d been banished to following his capture and the basically disastrous collapse of the would-be French empire.
Sooo in commemoration of his ballsy antics, the Route Napoleon as we know it today was opened up in 1932 and has been making road trippers’ dreams come true ever since. Ahhh, I just loves me a happy ending. For us, that is. Not so much for Napoleon.
Route Napoleon – South of France road trip itinerary
Now that you know the history, let’s get down to the good stuff:
Where to visit along the Route Napoleon to make this the BEST road trip ever!
Keep in mind as you read the following, you don’t necessarily need to visit all of these — and likewise, this list isn’t an exhaustive account of all the towns and villages worth stopping at along the Route Napoleon. These are the ones that we stopped at and loved — and feel would make a good addition to anyone’s south of France road trip.
We’ll answer some more FAQs about the route itself (like how long it takes and where it begins/ends) after the itinerary section. But for now, let’s get down to the main course:
We suggest kicking off your south of France road trip in Antibes, which lies just 10 minutes east of the official starting point of the Route Napoleon in Golfe-Juan.
With a heaving modern port and, by contrast, a historic old town within the ancient city walls, Antibes is charming and fascinating in equal parts.
We recommend parking your car down by the Port Vauban (there’s tons of spaces and the first hour is free) and taking your time strolling past the super yachts, sports cars, and big bikes.
Then head towards the thick city walls and duck into the Old Town; grab a crusty filled baguette from La Ferme au Fois Gras, check out the Provençal market, and walk along the Promenade Amiral de Grasse for the best sea view in town. Visit the Picasso Museum and marvel at the work of the master himself (you can even take a guided tour of the museum with a local artist).
Pssst: for more ideas, head over to our complete guide on the best (and most unusual) things to do in Antibes for first time visitors.
A modest sized town clinging to the sloping hills of the Alpes-Maritimes, Grasse is famed as the town where perfume originates from. Today, many travellers make their way to Grasse just to visit the perfumeries, see how everything is made, and pick up special little bottles of authentic French perfume.
It’s not one we’ve done ourselves, but if it’s something you’re interested in you should definitely check out their mini guided perfumery tours and for a real treat, their private perfume making workshops.
Once you pass Grasse town center, you’ll want to head for the steep road and hairpin turns that take you up into the mountains overlooking a long stretch of the French Riviera. It’s a fab spot for photo ops — we once decided to Airbnb a typical Provencal cottage around here, complete with its own massive garden, olive grove, and views of the valley below. Worth doing if you fall in love with the area!
Once out of Grasse, you’ll be on the D6085 all the way up to your next destination — Castellane.
Lovers of adventure and tasty treats: this stop is for you.
The perfect place to pull in for a steaming espresso and buttery pastries, Castellane is a tiny village hidden away in the mountains. You’ll find a handful of shops and cafes skirting the town center, including an incredible boulangerie serving up the best pain-au-chocolat around.
The town itself is insanely picturesque with a stoney bridge marking its entrance from the mountains outside and the azure waters of the Verdon River running below. Crane your neck skywards and you’ll see the Chapelle Notre Dame du Roc perched on top of a soaring hill overlooking the town. Walking up to the church takes about half an hour and is where you’ll score the best views of Castellane.
For the action-seekers amongst you, you’ll want to head straight for the riverbanks:
Castellane is the starting point of an incredible river rafting journey which takes you way down the Verdon — including through the most beautiful spot we saw on this journey, the Verdon Gorge (more on that next!). Rapids, chill spots, and jumping in to swim in the white waters; what’s not to love?! See full details of the experience and book your own rafting excursion in Castellane here.
Once past Castellane, the official Route Napoleon continues N/NW along the D4085. While it’s a beautiful road, we recommend departing slightly from the official route and heading west for a little spell on the D952 (don’t worry, you’ll rejoin the main route shortly, but trust us when we say you seriously don’t want to miss the next spot on the itinerary!).
The otherworldly scenery of the Verdon Gorge more than makes up for the slight deviation from the Route Napoleon required to get here. Get your cameras out folks — or simply get ready to stand amidst one of the most phenomenal landscapes there is to see this side of the Alps (at least we think so!).
The sky-tickling mountains and plummeting valley of the gorge are mesmerising on their own, but the turquoise water of the Verdon River slicing through the landscape below really is next-level. I’d easily go as far as to say this was the highlight of our south of France road trip, and I’m confident it’d be up there for you too.
For the best views, head to the Point Sublime (there’s a sign post on the left hand side of the road which marks the start of the short trail to the viewpoint). If you’re a hiker, check out this epic Verdon Gorge hiking experience which promises to take you (safely!) through the cliffs and canyons.
Does the sight of those mountains make you feel like you just…wanna…. LAUNCH YOURSELF OFF THEM?!? Jackpot. You can do a 182 meter bungee jump right down a crevice in the gorge.
When I think of Moustiers, I think of two things:
Castles and beer.
If that ain’t good enough for ya, I don’t know what is!!
Okay jokes aside, Moustier-Sainte-Marie is an incredible town with really, really ancient history and fantastic old architecture to boot. The town is made up of steeply sloping streets and winding trails carved into the mountainside overlooking the landscape around the Verdon Natural Regional Park.
There are some great little restaurants serving local favourites, as well as a brewery that ferments and bottles its own (delicious) craft beer. Trek up to the top of town and grab a bench in the gardens of one of the indoor/outdoor restaurants and enjoy a local brewsky as you soak in the view.
After your stop here, continue along the D952 towards Digne where you’ll rejoin the official Route Napoleon.
A quiet, scenic place to stop, Sisteron sits right on the banks of the River Durance (and was a stopping point for Napoleon himself during his march to Paris). With its dramatic citadel mounted at the top of town and cliffs hanging either side, it almost looks as though Sisteron has just barely managed to squeeze itself into this corner of the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence.
Take a stroll over the Pont de la Boutonne and admire the crazy blue water below. Scale the hill leading up to the Citadelle de Sisteron and check out the architecture dating back — mega impressively — as far as the 12th century.
At 750 m above sea level, Gap is the highest town in all of France. But cast your eye around and you’ll see the town is encircled by a range of mountains — some belonging to the Southern Alps and measuring in at 3,000 meters tall.
Fun fact, Gap was actually voted the ‘sportiest town in France’ by L’Equipe Magazine; and it’s no big surprise when you realise how many awesome outdoor activities there are to do here:
Visit the Parc National des Ecrins
Hike up to the abandoned village of Chaudan in the mountains behind the town
In winter, go backcountry skiing and snowboarding in the Alps that sit less than 40km away
Try canyoning and rafting down the river
And exhilarating via-ferrata experiences on Lake Serre-Ponçon nearby.
If you’re feeling seriously ballsy, you can even do a tandem skydive from 4,000 meters which takes you soaring over the Haute-Alpes ski resorts, the mountains, and the stunning Lake Serre-Ponçon.
Grenoble marks the end of the Route Napoleon — YAY, you made it!
Stop in Grenoble for a stint of city exploration; take the iconic bubble-shaped cable car up to the top of La Bastille hill and admire the sweeping views of the city and snow-capped mountains beyond.
In the winter, the Southern Alps surrounding Grenbole are a thriving base for snowboarders, skiers, and even wingsuited daredevils. In the summer, the rivers and freshly melted mountains are filled with adventure-seekers of all kinds — you can go canyoning, rafting, and even paragliding over the Chartreuse peaks (pssst: check the latest prices and book your own tandem paragliding experience in Grenoble!).
If you feel like Grenoble might be a spot you’d like to spend longer in, you might be tempted by the city’s latest offerings: a 5 day extreme canyoning course which sees you climbing, jumping, swimming, and rappelling through the wilderness surrounding Grenoble (including a massive rappel session down France’s second highest waterfall — 50 meters, jaysus!).
FAQs about the Route Napoleon: South of France Road trip
Where does the Route Napoleon start and finish?
The Route Napoleon officially begins in the little seaside resort of Golfe-Juan — which is located smack dab in between Antibes and Cannes on the Côte d’Azur coast — and continues all the way to Grenoble.
The story goes that Napoleon came ashore right in Golfe-Juan near the Fort Carré and set off north-northwest along today’s Route Nationale 85 en route to Paris.
How long is the Route Napoleon?
While media reports differ slightly, the general consensus is that the Route Napoleon is between 314-325 km long.
How long does the road trip take?
To drive directly from the beginning of the Route Napoleon at Golfe-Juan to the end point in Grenoble takes roughly 4-5 hours.
Now, most likely you won’t be doing this drive in one straight shot; you’re bound to want to stop to explore the landscape, soak in the scenery, and grab some grub along the way.
In that case, you could expect the road trip to take up a full day (say 8 hours plus). You could even choose to stop overnight at any of the lovely little towns en route and explore the area more slowly.
That said, there’s also nothing that ties you to doing the entire route; you can easily pick just a section of it and make it into a half-day trip if that suits your schedule better. On one of our drives along the Route Napoleon, we went from Cannes to just beyond Castellane and back within a single morning (and it was no less gorgeous than the full version of the road trip!).
Keep this in mind for our suggested itinerary above — it’s totally customisable based on how much time you’ve available and how much you want to see!
Got a question on your mind about the Route Napoleon — or any other South of France road trip? Drop us a comment down there (or in our FREE facebook group) and we’ll get back to you ASAP.