Top 5 Main Rivers In France: A Short Tourist Guide

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Knowing the rivers of France is part of getting to know France. Many waterways find their ways along picture-postcard landscapes, towns and villages. This article will show you the best places to see along the rivers in France from their sources to the sea. Let’s embark on an armchair river-cruise!

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A few words before exploring the rivers in France

Before we begin our exploration of the rivers in France, it is important to understand the distinction the French make between “un fleuve” and “une rivière“.

  • Simply put, “un fleuve” is a river that empties into the sea such as the Hérault, Loire, the Orne, the Somme or the Var.
  • une rivière” or “un affluent” is a tributary which empties into another river or a fleuve. Examples: the Ain, the Aube, the Cher, the Loir, the Marne or the Sâone.

Also, there are a few words used in the topic of French rivers or Waterways in France:

  • un cours d’eau (a waterway or a watercourse) is a general term that encompasses une rivière and un fleuve.
  • un canal (a canal) is a man-built waterway, eg. le canal du Midi.
  • un ruisseau is a stream, often found in mountainous regions where it takes the name of un torrent.
  • un lac is a lake, eg. le lac d’Annecy (Lake Annecy)
  • un étang is a small lake … or a big pond, eg. l’étang des forges in Belfort.
  • une mare is a pond
  • une cascade is a waterfall, eg. la cascade de la fraîche in Pralognan-la-Vanoise.
Waterfall in the Vanoise National Park © French Moments

A Waterfall in the Vanoise National Park (French Alps) © French Moments

Where the river ends…

  • A rivière flows into another one at une confluence. (eg. at Conflans-Sainte-Honorine where the Oise flows into the Seine)
  • A fleuve meets the sea at un estuaire (estuary, eg. Le Havre Estuary) or un delta (eg. Rhône Delta)

Did you know?

Placed end to end the rivers in France would cover 430,000 km (metropolitan France, including Corsica).

The great river system of France provides a source of water power in certain regions (French Alps, Jura, Massif Central, Vosges). Over the centuries, it has provided irrigation and cheap transportation.

Rivers in France: Lake Geneva where the Rhône discharges coming from the Swiss Alps © French Moments

Rivers in France: Lake Geneva where the Rhône discharges coming from the Swiss Alps © French Moments

Indeed, with the creation of canals joining large rivers, it made it possible to transport goods cheaply by water from one region of France to the other.

At least, this was the case until the arrival of railways in the mid-19th century!


When size matters!

Promoting a river to a fleuve status may seem a matter of no importance to foreigners… but in France, this is taken very seriously.

Rivers in France: the Seine near La Défense © French Moments

Rivers in France: the Seine near La Défense © French Moments

Calling a fleuve a mere “rivière” belittles it a bit. In people’s minds, a “fleuve” means a big river.

Therefore it’s not rare to see people getting oddly emotional on whether their local river should be called a fleuve or a rivière.

Gaining a fleuve status means a lot culturally and also touristically. It means ranking amongst the major rivers in France.

It does to the regions, and the cities and towns the waterway is crossing.

Water deities in ancient France

Let’s remember that rivers were venerated as deities in Ancient Times.

For instance, Sequana was the goddess of the River Seine, to which its name derives.

Rivers have genders too. Most are feminine (la Seine, la Loire, la Garonne) and a minority are masculine (le Rhin, le Rhône, l’Escaut). Water deities were often portrayed in arts. In the past skilled sculptors created statues representing the river gods (or goddesses). This is the case for one of the fountains on place de la Concorde in Paris which represents the Rhine and the Rhône. 

Fountain of the Rivers copyright French Moments

Fountain of the Rivers on Place de la Concorde © French Moments

Thus, from this time, we have kept a certain reverence shown to our rivers, and particularly to the longest rivers of France.

And the lessons in geography taught in French primary schools did the rest.

They instilled a national binding role that the rivers play to our collective awareness.

The two French waterbodies in question

Now that we understand why a river is such an important thing to the French, let’s mention two cases.

Two rivers of France are being promoted as fleuves, despite the fact that we learnt at school they were only mere rivers…

These rivers are the Meuse and the Dordogne.

The case of the River Meuse

Rivers in France: the Meuse in Lorraine © French Moments

The Meuse River in Autumn, Lorraine © French Moments

The River Meuse is often considered an affluent of the Rhine in France. This is how it was traditionally taught in French primary schools when learning about the geography of France. We were taught the the Meuse joined the Rhine in the Netherlands, just before the sea.

By contrast, in Belgium and in the Netherlands, the Meuse is a real fleuve of major importance.

This difference of consideration is often due to the small watershed of the Meuse on its French side.

A similar case for the Dordogne River

Rivers in France: the Dordogne River at Beynac © French Moments

The view of the Dordogne River from the castle of Beynac © French Moments

The Dordogne river flows into the Gironde estuary north-east of Bordeaux. It then shares a common estuary with the Garonne. The question is:

  • whether the Dordogne flows into the Garonne at the Gironde estuary… 
  • or the Dordogne meets the Garonne at the Gironde estuary, hence making the rivers both fleuves.

Those in favour to the Dordogne being a fleuve have a great argument. In fact, the Dordogne is one of the few rivers in the world that shows the phenomenon of a tidal bore. Locals call it mascaret.

The Dordogne on its way to the Gironde estuary © French Moments

The main rivers in France: the Dordogne on its way to the Gironde estuary © French Moments

The départements and the French river names

At the creation of the départements during the French Revolution, most of them took the name of famous rivers in France

For example: Ain, Aube, Dordogne, Hérault, Isère, Moselle, Orne, Bas-Rhin (Lower Rhine), Seine-et-Marne, Yonne…

In addition, 3 administrative regions bear French river names too:

  • Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes
  • Centre-Val de Loire
  • Pays de la Loire

The names of the top 5 rivers in France

There are five great fleuves in France whose watersheds cover most of the country:

  • la Garonne (feminine)
  • la Loire (f)
  • le Rhin (masculine) or in English: River Rhine
  • le Rhône (m)
  • la Seine (f)

The French rivers map

The main rivers in France by French Moments

The main rivers in France by French Moments

Interestingly all top 5 rivers in France have something in common: the growing of vine!

Other fleuves in France

In addition to the five great fleuves of France, there are a number of shorter fleuves. Here’s a list of the fleuves reaching a length of at least 100 km (62 mi):

  • la Meuse (f), 950 km, including 486 km in France – is it a fleuve? See above!
  • la Dordogne (f), 483 km – is it a fleuve? See above!
  • la Charente (f), 381 km
  • l’Escaut (m), 355 km including 98 km in France
  • l’Adour (m), 309 km
  • la Somme (f), 245 km
  • la Vilaine (f), 225 km
  • l’Aude (f), 224 km
  • l’Orne (f), 170 km
  • la Sèvre Niortaise (f), 158 km
  • le Blavet (m), 149 km
  • l’Hérault (m), 148 km
  • l’Aulne (f), 140 km
  • l’Orb (m), 136 km
  • la Vire (f), 128 km
  • le Lay (m), 120 km
  • l’Eyre (f), 118 km
  • L’Argens (m), 116 km
  • la Têt (f), 116 km
  • le Var (m), 114 km
  • la Touques (f), 108 km
  • la Dives (f), 105 km
  • l’Authie (f), 103 km
  • la Rance (f), 102 km
  • le Couesnon (m), 101 km
  • la Canche (f), 100 km

Did you know?

The shortest coastal rivers are called fleuves côtiers.

The shortest fleuve in France is la Veules (f) in Normandy with a length of 1,149 m (1,256 yd).

Other famous rivers in France

Besides the fleuves, there are many famous rivers in France that evoke holidays spent in the country. Here’s a short list:

  • l’Allier (masculine), 425 km
  • le Cher (m), 367 km
  • la Creuse (feminine), 263 km
  • le Doubs (m), 453 km
  • la Drôme (f), 110 km
  • la Durance (f), 323 km
  • l’Isère (m), 286 km
  • le Lot (m), 485 km
  • la Marne (f), 514 km
  • la Moselle (f), 314 km in France
  • l’Ognon (m), 213 km
  • la Saône (f), 473 km
  • la Sarthe (f), 313 km
  • le Tarn (m), 380 km

The Rivers in France Trivia!

Are you an ace in French geography? Let’s test your knowledge on the French rivers with these five questions… and check out the answers at the bottom of the article!

1. Which river flows in Rouen, Normandy?

  • The Loire
  • The Rhône
  • The Seine

2. This is a river in northern France

  • The Garonne
  • The Marne
  • The Lot

3. Which is the longest river in France?

  • The Loire
  • The Rhône
  • The Seine

4. What is the name of the famous river in Paris?

  • The Loire
  • The Rhine
  • The Seine

5. What is the name of the river of Grenoble in the French Alps?

  • The Durance
  • The Isère
  • The Rhône

Now, let’s start our exploration of the top 5 rivers in France in alphabetical order, starting with the Garonne.


The Garonne River

What is the river that flows in Bordeaux and Toulouse? The Garonne which, curiously, starts its course not in France, but in Spain! 

The main Rivers in France: the Garonne near the Gironde estuary © French Moments

The main Rivers in France: the Garonne near the Gironde estuary © French Moments

Place of Birth? Spain!

The Garonne River rises at an altitude of 2,600 metres above sea-level in the Aran Valley in the Spanish Pyrenees.

The river flows north towards Toulouse where it takes the direction of the Atlantic ocean to the north-west. It empties into the Gironde, a vast estuary, 80 km long.

The Garonne is 575 km long, (including 522 km in France) and crosses the cities of Saint-Gaudens, Toulouse, Agen and Bordeaux.

The watershed of the Garonne stretches from the Pyrenees to the Massif Central, and includes the towns of Albi, Auch, Cahors, Castres, Foix, Mende, Rodez.

Garonne Watershed © Pethrus - licence [CC BY-SA 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons

Garonne Watershed © Pethrus – licence [CC BY-SA 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons

The affluents of the Garonne

The Garonne and its affluents have given their names to the following départements at the French Revolution.

  • Garonne River (522 km in France). Départements: Tarn-et-Garonne [82], head city: Montauban / Haute-Garonne [31], head city: Toulouse.
  • Ariège River (163 km). Département: Ariège [09], head city: Foix.
  • Aveyron River (291 km). Département: Aveyron [12], head city: Rodez
  • Gers River (175 km). Département: Gers [32], head city: Auch
  • Lot River (485 km). Départements: Lot [46], head city: Cahors / Lot-et-Garonne [47], head city: Agen
  • Tarn River (380 km). Départements: Tarn [81], head city: Albi / Tarn-et-Garonne [82], head city: Montauban
  • Gironde estuary (80 km). Département: Gironde [33], head city: Bordeaux

Along the Garonne River

The sources of the Garonne are situated in the Spanish Pyrenees, in the Aran Valley. The river enters France at Pont du Roi in the municipality of Fos. For 40 km or so, the river finds it way northwards across the French Pyrenees.

Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges

Just before leaving the Pyrenees, the Garonne passes one of France’s most beautiful villages. Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges boasts an archeological site from the Roman era, a former cathedral in Meridional Gothic style and a picturesque old town with arches and vaults.

Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges © Fifistorien - licence [CC BY-SA 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons

Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges © Fifistorien – licence [CC BY-SA 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons

Toulouse, the Pink City

Capital of Occitania, Toulouse is one of the largest towns in the South of France.

The city is an important industrial city for the manufacture of airplanes (Airbus!), chemicals, metals, bricks and dry goods. It is also an important market for violets.

The old town centre includes Romanesque and Meridional Gothic churches, two hundreds mansions from the medieval and Renaissance eras… One of its most famous monuments is the Capitole, the city-hall which borders the magnificent place du Capitole.

The Pink City!

Most of the buildings in the old town consist of distinctive hot-pink bricks that gave Toulouse the nickname La Ville Rose (The Pink City).

The red-brick bridge of Pont-Neuf (or Pont-de-Pierre) has spanned the Garonne River since the 16th century.

Toulouse is also the place where the Garonne meets the Canal du Midi that links the city of the Mediterranean.

Moissac

Between Montauban and Agen, Moissac boasts one of the finest cloister in Southern Europe at the Saint-Pierre-de-Moissac Abbey. A masterpiece of Romanesque and Gothic architectures, the abbey was founded in the 8th century although the present-day buildings date back to the 12th century at the earliest.

Moissac Abbey © Abxbay - licence [CC BY-SA 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons

Moissac Abbey © Abxbay – licence [CC BY-SA 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons

Agen

Halfway between Toulouse and Bordeaux, Agen is associated to the famous prunes and plums known as ‘pruneaux d’Agen’. The old town centre of Agen lies on the east bank of the Garonne and contains some fine medieval houses and churches, such as the St Hilaire church and the Agen cathedral.

The Sauternes region

The Sauternes wine region boasts some of the most highly sought-after wines in the world. 

The sweet wine is made from Sémillon, Sauvignon blanc and Muscadelle grapes. It most prestigious bottle is the Premier Cru Supérieur from the Château d’Yquem estate. 

The region is home to many châteaux, castles and beautiful villages to explore: Roquetaillade, Cadillac, Saint-Macaire, Bazas, Uzeste…

Bordeaux, capital of Aquitaine

Bordeaux is a very attractive city and a major economic centre in South-West France. The capital of the province of Aquitaine contains an exceptional old town – a Unesco World Heritage site. It comprises the magnificent neo-Classical square of Place de la Bourse, the lofty Gothic cathedral Saint-André, the tall spire of Saint-Michel, the classical Grand Theatre, and a few gates (Porte Cailhau, Grosse Coche, Porte d’Aquitaine…).

The impressive Pont de Pierre (stone bridge) spans the Garonne and offers some pretty views of the river and quays of Bordeaux.

Pont de Pierre spanning the Garonne, Bordeaux © French Moments

Pont de Pierre spanning the Garonne, Bordeaux © French Moments

The Gironde estuary

On the right bank is Blaye and its Vauban citadel from the 17th century.

Blaye Citadel © Olivier Aumage - licence [CC BY-SA 2.0 fr] from Wikimedia Commons

Blaye Citadel © Olivier Aumage – licence [CC BY-SA 2.0 fr] from Wikimedia Commons

The side bank of the Gironde includes the wine region of the Médoc. with prestigious names of châteaux: Margaux, Mouton-Rotschild, Maucaillou, Lanessan…

Chateau Margaux © BillBI - licence [CC BY 2.0] from Wikimedia Commons

Chateau Margaux © BillBI – licence [CC BY 2.0] from Wikimedia Commons

The Pointe de Grave, facing the town of Royan, is where the Gironde opens to the Atlantic ocean. Seven kilometres from the mouth of the Gironde estuary rises the 68 m tall Cordouan lighthouseBuilt from 1584 to 1611, it is the oldest lighthouse in France and the tenth-tallest “traditional lighthouse” in the world.

Phare de Cordouan © Yann Gwilhoù - licence [CC BY-SA 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons

Phare de Cordouan © Yann Gwilhoù – licence [CC BY-SA 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons


The Loire River

For many, the Loire is synonymous with the grand châteaux from the Renaissance era. However we shouldn’t overlook the upper Loire which provides some stunning sites.

The main Rivers in France: the Loire near Candes-Saint-Martin © French Moments

The main Rivers in France: the Loire near Candes-Saint-Martin © French Moments

The Loire River rises at an altitude of 1404 metres above sea-level at Mont-Gerbier-de-Jonc in the Massif Central (Ardèche).

The river flows first north, then west from Orléans until it empties into the Atlantic ocean at Saint-Nazaire.

The Loire is 1012 km long and is the longest river in France. It crosses the cities of Roanne, Nevers, Orléans, Blois, Tours, Nantes and Saint-Nazaire.

Loire Watershed © Kmusser - licence [CC BY-SA 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons

Loire Watershed © Kmusser – licence [CC BY-SA 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons

The affluents of the Loire

The Loire and its affluents have given their names to the following départements at the French Revolution.

  • Loire River (1012 km). Départements: Indre-et-Loire [37], head city: Tours / Loire [42], head city: Saint-Etienne / Haute-Loire [43], head city: Le Puy-en-Velay / Loire-Atlantique [44], head city: Nantes / Maine-et-Loire [49], head city: Angers / Saône-et-Loire [71], head city: Mâcon
  • Allier River (425 km). Département: Allier [03], head city: Moulins.
  • Vienne River (372 km). Départements: Vienne [86], head city: Poitiers / Haute-Vienne [87], head city: Limoges 
  • Cher River (367 km). Départements: Cher [18], head city: Bourges / Loir-et-Cher [41], head city: Blois
  • Loir River (316 km). Départements: Eure-et-Loir [28], head city: Chartres / Loir-et-Cher [41], head city: Blois
  • Sarthe River (313 km). Département: Sarthe [72], head city: Le Mans
  • Indre River (279 km). Départements: Indre [36], head city: Châteauroux / Indre-et-Loire [37], head city: Tours
  • Creuse River (263 km). Département: Creuse [23], head city: Guéret
  • Mayenne River (202 km). Département: Mayenne [53], head city: Laval

The Loire River has given its name to two regions of France:

  • Centre-Val de Loire and Pays de la Loire

Along the Loire River

The sources of the Loire are situated in the slopes of Mont Gerbier-de-Jonc (1551 m) in the Haut-Vivarais.

Mont Gerbier-de-Jonc © Jacques Forêt - licence [CC BY-SA 2.5] from Wikimedia Commons

Mont Gerbier-de-Jonc © Jacques Forêt – licence [CC BY-SA 2.5] from Wikimedia Commons

Le Puy-en-Velay

On its way northwards, the upper Loire borders the eastern suburbs of Le Puy-en-Velay.

The historic town is famous for its cathedral and the abrupt conical hills that even rises in the centre of town. Le Puy is also famous for its green lentils and for being a starting point for pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela, distant of 1,600 km.

Gorges of the Loire

Between Le Puy-en-Velay and Saint-Just-Saint-Rambert and between Balbigny and Roanne, the river flows through a narrow, incised valley. It is known as the Gorges of the Loire.

Castle of La Roche in the Gorges of the Loire © Michael Boudoux - licence [CC BY 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons

Castle of La Roche in the Gorges of the Loire © Michael Boudoux – licence [CC BY 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons

There are a number of beautiful spots such as:

  • the natural site of the Plateau de la Danse,
  • the ruined castles of Rochebaron and Essalois,
  • the fairy-tale castle of La Roche,
  • the fortified perched village of Saint-Jean-Saint-Maurice-sur-Loire
The Loire Bourguignonne

North of Roanne, the Loire enters the province of Burgundy and is often nicknamed: Loire bourguignonne.

The river passes by some beautiful sites:

  • The historic little town of Bourbon-Lancy
Bourbon-Lancy © AntonyB - licence [CC BY-SA 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons

Bourbon-Lancy © AntonyB – licence [CC BY-SA 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons

  • The Ducal city of Nevers, famous for its Gothic cathedral and ducal palace. Upstream Nevers, the Allier flows into the Loire. 
  • La Charité-sur-Loire and its stunning priory church (a Unesco site)
La Charité-sur-Loire © Yann Gwilhoù - licence [CC BY-SA 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons

La Charité-sur-Loire © Yann Gwilhoù – licence [CC BY-SA 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons

  • The hill-top wine-growing town of Sancerre.
Sancerre © Taxiarchos228 - licence [CC BY-SA 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons

Sancerre © Taxiarchos228 – licence [CC BY-SA 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons

  • Just before arriving to Gien and its castle, the Pont-Canal of BriareIt is a beautiful aqueduct (1896) which carries the Canal latéral à la Loire over the river Loire.
Pont-Canal of Briare © Jean-Christophe BENOIST - licence [CC BY 4.0] from Wikimedia Commons

Pont-Canal of Briare © Jean-Christophe BENOIST – licence [CC BY 4.0] from Wikimedia Commons

Gien Castle © Roulex_45 - licence [CC BY-SA 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons

Gien Castle © Roulex_45 – licence [CC BY-SA 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons

The Kings’ Valley from Sully to Chalonnes

The Loire Valley generally refers to the area between Sully-sur-Loire and Chalonnes. It encompasses the Loire River itself and the immediate surroundings of its affluents.

The region is sprinkled with many medieval castles and extravagant Renaissance châteaux.

Azay-le-Rideau © Aubry Françon - licence [CC BY-SA 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons

Azay-le-Rideau © Aubry Françon – licence [CC BY-SA 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons

The Loire Valley is also nicknamed the “Garden of France” for its mild climate and the splendour of its gardens. The most famous garden being that of Villandry.

Villandry © Craig Rettig

Castle and gardens of Villandry © Craig Rettig

The major historic towns of the region are: 

  • Orléans,
  • Blois,
  • Tours, and
  • Angers (actually crossed by the Maine River).
The châteaux of the Loire: very long list!

Listing the thousand châteaux of the Loire would be a challenge here… I choose to list the most famous ones:

Nantes

Nantes is a major Atlantic port on the Loire river and the former capital of the dukes of Brittany.

The Loire in Nantes © Jibi44 - licence [CC BY-SA 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons

The Loire in Nantes © Jibi44 – licence [CC BY-SA 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons

The medieval city is found around the cathedral and is bordered by the castle of the Dukes of Brittany.

One of Nantes’ most popular attraction is the workshops of Les Machines de l’Île created in an old shipping warehouse.

The town is also home to the Nantes Fine Arts Museum which displays one of the finest collections of paintings besides Paris.

The estuary of the Loire and Saint-Nazaire

50 km west from Nantes is Saint-Nazaire, famous for shipbuilding. The industrious town marks the end of the Loire where it meets the Atlantic ocean.

The last landmark in the Loire is the Saint-Nazaire bridge, a 3.3 km metre cable-stayed bridge inaugurated in 1975. When built, it was France’s longest bridge.

The bridge of Saint-Nazaire © Pouick44 - licence [CC BY-SA 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons

The bridge of Saint-Nazaire © Pouick44 – licence [CC BY-SA 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons


The River Rhine

The River Rhine is foremost a Germanic river. It crosses middle Europe and provides the continent with one of the most populated area. The Rhine is an integral part of the “la Banane Bleue“, the European megalopolis that stretches from London to Milan.

The Rhine in Basel Switzerland © Lucazzitto - licence [CC BY-SA 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons

The Rhine in Basel Switzerland © Lucazzitto – licence [CC BY-SA 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons

Place of birth? Swiss Alps!

The River Rhine rises at an altitude of 2,345 metres above sea-level in the Saint-Gotthard massif in the Grisons, Switzerland.

The river discharges into Lake Constance and flows west to the Swiss city of Basel before heading north. After crossing 6 countries (Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Austria, France, Germany and the Netherlands), it empties into the North Sea near Rotterdam.

The Rhine is 1,230 kms longand forms the Franco-German border on 188 km. In France, the river crosses the city of Strasbourg.

In France, the watershed of the Rhine not only includes Alsace, but also Lorraine with its affluent, the Moselle.

Rhine and Meuse Watersheds © WWasser - licence [CC BY-SA 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons

Rhine and Meuse Watersheds © WWasser – licence [CC BY-SA 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons

The affluents of the Rhine

The Rhine and its affluents have given their names to the following départements at the French Revolution.

  • River Rhine (180 km in France). Départements: Bas-Rhin [67], head city: Strasbourg / Haut-Rhin [68], head city: Colmar.
  • Moselle River (314 km in France). Départements: Meurthe-Et-Moselle [54], head city: NancyDépartements: Moselle [57], head city: Metz

Along the River Rhine (in France)

The Franco-German Rhine flows northwards from Basel (Switzerland) to Lauterbourg near Karlsruhe.

Basel itself is a vibrant Swiss city with a historic cathedral. It marks the point where the Swiss, the German and the French borders meet.

The Rhine in Basel © Norbert Aepli - licence [CC BY 2.5] from Wikimedia Commons

The Rhine in Basel © Norbert Aepli – licence [CC BY 2.5] from Wikimedia Commons

Between the French town of Huningue and its German counterpart, Weil-am-Rhein, a 248 metre footbridge spans the Rhine. Called the Three Countries Footbridge (Passerelle des Trois Pays), it is to date the longest bridge of its kind dedicated to pedestrians and cyclists. It offers a fine view of the quays and the exact point where the three countries meet.

Main Rivers in France: The Three Countries footbridge spanning the Rhine at Huningue © French Moments

The Three Countries footbridge spanning the Rhine at Huningue © French Moments

The Alsace Plain

The left side of the Rhine is known as the Plain of Alsace whilst its right side is the Baden Plain.

The Alsace Plain is bordered by the Vosges mountains to the West. The vineyards of Alsace stretches at the foot of the mountains. It is a popular tourist destination thanks to the Alsace Wine Route that criss-crosses the vineyards. Some of France’s most beautiful villages are found there: Eguisheim, Kaysersberg, Riquewihr, Ribeauvillé… The wine capital of the region is the very picturesque town of Colmar.

Neuf-Brisach and the Ried

Between Colmar and Freiburg-im-Breisgau is the fortified little town of Neuf-Brisach. Vauban, a military engineer of Louis XIV, drawn its plans and work began in 1698.

The stronghold was built opposite the old town of Breisach, on the German side of the Rhine.

Today, Neuf-Brisach is a Unesco World Heritage Site.

North of Neuf-Brisach lies the natural region of the Ried which was formed by the meandering Rhine and Ill rivers.

Strasbourg, capital of Alsace and Europe

Strasbourg is a major port on the Rhine river and the gateway to Germany. This important commercial centre is also the capital of Alsace and the head city of the Grand-Est region.

The old town of Strasbourg comprises a small island encircled by the River Ill: the Grande Île. There rises the Gothic cathedral of Notre-Dame with its lofty spire. The church was once the tallest building of the world.

With stunning half-timbered houses, the picturesque district of La Petite-France is a picture-perfect site for photographers (and instagrammers!).

The Imperial German District (Neustadt) contains some monumental edifices built during the German occupation of Strasbourg (1871-1918).

Strasbourg German Imperial District: the Rhine Palace © French Moments

Strasbourg German Imperial District: the Rhine Palace © French Moments

Both Grande-Île and Neustadt are Unesco World Heritage sites.

Today, Strasbourg is the seat of the Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights. In the same district (le quartier des institutions européennes), MEPs meet at the impressive building of the European Parliament.

European Parliament in Strasbourg © French Moments

European Parliament in Strasbourg © French Moments

The capital of Christmas!

Finally, each December Strasbourg hosts France’s oldest and largest Christmas market with hundreds of stalls scattered across the old town.


The River Rhône

Out of the main rivers in France, the Rhône is the only one that empties into the Mediterranean Sea. The waterway becomes an important river from Lyon where it flows south to Provence.

Rivers in France: the Rhône in Lyon © French Moments

The banks of the River Rhône in Lyon © French Moments

The River Rhône rises at an altitude of 2,208 metres above sea-level at the Rhône Glacier in the Valais, Switzerland.

The Rhône glacier in Switzerland © Unknown - licence [CC BY-SA 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons

The Rhône glacier in Switzerland © Unknown – licence [CC BY-SA 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons

The river discharges into Lake Geneva and continues to flow west to Lyon where it turns south until it empties into the Mediterranean Sea in the Rhône Delta.

The Rhône is 813 km long (including 545 km in France) and crosses the cities of Sion, Geneva, Lyon, Vienne, Valence, Avignon and Arles.

The watershed of the Rhône includes towns such as Annecy, Aix-en-Provence, Arles, Besançon, Dijon, Gap, Grenoble, Lausanne, and Sion.

The Rhone watershed © NordNordWest - licence [CC BY-SA 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons

The Rhone watershed © NordNordWest – licence [CC BY-SA 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons

The affluents of the Rhône

The Rhône and its affluents have given their names to the following départements at the French Revolution.

  • Rhône River (545 km in France). Départements: Bouches-du-Rhône [13], head city: Marseille / Rhône [69], head city: Lyon
  • Ain River (190 km). Département: Ain [01], head city: Bourg-en-Bresse
  • Ardèche River (125 km). Département: Ardèche [07], head city: Privas
  • Doubs River (453 km). Département: Doubs [25], head city: Besançon
  • Drôme River (110 km). Département: Drôme [26], head city: Valence
  • Gard River (127 km). Département: Gard [38], head city: Nîmes
  • Isère River (286 km). Département: Isère [38], head city: Grenoble
  • Saône River (473 km). Départements: Haute-Saône [70], head city: Vesoul / Saône-et-Loire [71], head city: Mâcon

The River Rhône has given its name to a region of France:

  • Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes

Along the River Rhône (in France)

The French Rhône starts its course in Lake Geneva (Lac Leman). In fact the south side of the lake is French whilst the north side is Swiss. There are a number a popular destinations on the lakeshore: Evian-les-Bains, Thonon-les-Bains and Yvoire.

On its way to Lyon and the crossing of the Jura

After Geneva, the Rhône enters France for good at the Défilé de l’Ecluse near Bellegarde where it crosses the Jura mountains.

The main rivers in France: the Rhône at the Defilé de l'Ecluse © French Moments

The Rhône at the Défilé de l’Ecluse © French Moments

After that mountainous experience, the Rhône borders the Dombes region and passes by the medieval hill-top village of Pérouges with its sun-kissed cobbled streets (also one of France’s most beautiful villages).

Pérouges © Peter Broster - licence [CC BY 2.0] from Wikimedia Commons

Pérouges © Peter Broster – licence [CC BY 2.0] from Wikimedia Commons

Lyon, France’s second largest city

Lyon is a major confluence where the Saône merges into the Rhône. This is France’s second largest urban area after Greater Paris.

Lyon is an ancient city which has kept amazing remains from its Roman past, particularly on Fourvière Hill.

Fourvière Hill in Lyon © French Moments

Parc des Hauteurs, Fourvière Hill in Lyon © French Moments

From the Vieux-Lyon to the Presqu’Île

The remarkable old town of Lyon at the foot of the Fourvière Hill is a Unesco World Heritage site. With its medieval and Renaissance houses, it is the old part of town where you’ll find the famous traboules, narrow public lanes which connect one street to an other.

The Presqu’Île, sandwiched between the Saône and the Rhône, contains some iconic landmarks and monuments of Lyon: place Bellecour, the City-Hall, the Fine Arts Museum and the radically redesigned Lyon Opera House.

Finally, Lyon is reputed for being the French capital of Gastronomy!

The Rhône Valley

From Lyon to Avignon, the Rhône Valley has been a strategic route since the Ancient Times. It has kept a great number of touristic sites scattered along the river, a patchwork of industrious plants, vineyards and fruit orchards.

The main sites of interests in the Rhône Valley are Tournon-sur-Rhône, Valence, Montélimar (famous for its nougat), the beautiful villages of Viviers and La Garde-Adhémar, the medieval bridge in Pont-Saint-Esprit.

Avignon, City of the Popes

Avignon is a major stage along the course of the Rhône. The town has been for centuries one of the major artistic centres of France. The old town contains amazing monuments and museums, including the fantastic Popes’ Palace (Palais des Papes), the cathedral Notre-Dame-des-Doms and its charming garden, without forgetting the famous St Bénézet bridge, canonised in the famous song “Sur le pont d’Avignon”.

Above the west bank of the Rhône rises Villeneuve-lès-Avignon up a rocky spur where stands the vast St André fort.

Beaucaire and Tarascon

20 km south of Avignon are the two towns of Beaucaire and Tarascon, facing each other. Beaucaire on the west bank of the Rhône and Tarascon of the east bank.

Both touristic destinations have kept their medieval castles and typical Provençal old towns.

Arles

Arles is one of these places you cannot miss… particularly if you’re found of Provence. The historic town owes its fame to the well-preserved Roman arena, Les Arènes.

The Amphitheatre (Roman arena) in Arles - Stock Photos from Gerhard Roethlinger - Shutterstock

The Amphitheatre (Roman arena) in Arles – Stock Photos from Gerhard Roethlinger – Shutterstock

The ancient monument is backed by an great number of other monuments and edifices, both Roman and medieval such as the Roman theatre, the Constantin Roman baths, the Roman burial site of Les Alyscamps, the cathedral of St Trophime from the 12th century…

The Camargue

The Rhône meets the Mediterranean sea in a delta, known by the French as “le Delta du Rhône“. It gave its name to the French départements Les Bouches du Rhône (the mouth of the Rhône).

This is where the Camargue stretches. It is a natural area where land, lagoon and sea meet.

There’s so much to see and do in the Camargue: birdwatching (April to June are the best months to observe a multitude of flamingos), walking on paths and sea dykes, horse riding… and visiting the little town of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer.


The River Seine

What is the famous river in Paris called? – The River Seine bien sûr !

The main Rivers in France: the Seine between Rouen and Le Havre © French Moments

The main Rivers in France: the Seine between Rouen and Le Havre © French Moments

The River Seine rises at an altitude of 446 metres above sea-level at Source-Seine in the Langres Plateau (Burgundy).

The river flows northwest in a winding course until it empties into the English Channel at Le Havre.

The Seine is 776 km longand crosses the cities of Troyes, Paris, and Rouen.

Beside being known as the river that flows through Paris, the watershed of the Seine also includes provincial towns such as Rouen, Le Havre, Reims, Troyes, Beauvais, Auxerre, and Evreux.

Main Rivers in France: Topographic map of the Seine basin © Paul Passy - licence [CC BY-SA 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons

Topographic map of the Seine basin © Paul Passy – licence [CC BY-SA 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons

The affluents of the Seine

The Seine and its affluents have given their names to the following départements at the French Revolution.

  • River Seine (776 km). DépartementsSeine-Maritime [76], head city: Rouen / Seine-et-Marne [77], head city: Melun / Hauts-de-Seine [92], head city: Nanterre / Seine-Saint-Denis [93], head city: Bobigny. Until 1968, Paris (a city and a département) was known as Seine [75]. There was another département known as Seine-et-Oise [78] which mainly consisted of today’s départements of Yvelines and Hauts-de-Seine. 
  • Aube River (248 km). Département: Aube [10], head city: Troyes.
  • Essonne River (101 km). Département: Essonne [91], head city: Evry-Courcouronnes
  • Eure River (228 km). Départements: Eure [27], head city: Evreux / Eure-et-Loir [28], head city: Chartres
  • Marne River (514 km). Départements: Marne [51], head city: Châlons-en-Champagne / Haute-Marne [52], head city: Chaumont / Seine-et-Marne [77], head city: Melun / Val de Marne [94], head city : Créteil
  • Oise River (341 km). Département: Oise [60], head city: Beauvais / Val d’Oise [95], head city: Pontoise
  • Yonne River (292 km). Département: Yonne [89], head city: Auxerre

Along the Seine River

The sources of the Seine are situated in the village of Source-Seine in Burgundy. There, the Seine River “takes its first steps”… And here’s the very first bridge spanning the Seine!

The grotto at the Source of the Seine © Thesupermat - licence [CC BY-SA 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons

The grotto at the Sources of the Seine © Thesupermat – licence [CC BY-SA 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons

Châtillon-sur-Seine

Châtillon-sur-Seine is situated 40 km from the sources of the Seine.

The little town very interesting as it has a number of historical monuments such as the old church of Saint-Vorles (10th and 12th centuries).

Châtillon-sur-Seine [Public Domain]

Châtillon-sur-Seine [Public Domain]

Troyes

Troyes lies in the Champagne wine region. This is the former capital of Champagne where famous annual fairs took place during the Middle-Ages.

The old town centre boasts historic mansions that reveals the former opulence of the city. The old streets are lined with several half-timbered houses with pointed gables.

Troyes is also noted for its beautiful churches of Gothic architecture typical of the Champagne region such as the cathedral of Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul.

Approaching the East Region of Paris

Before crossing Melun, the Seine borders the famous forest of Fontainebleau.

At Melun, the Seine enters the suburbs of Paris, not far from the stunning château of Vaux-le-Vicomte and the picturesque fortress of Blandy-les-Tours.

Paris, the City of Light

The crossing of the Seine in Paris offers one of the most romantic sites in France.

Main Rivers in France: Along the Seine River in Paris © French Moments

Along the Seine River in Paris © French Moments

The course of the Seine is marked by a series of iconic Parisian monuments: Notre-Dame cathedral, the Louvre, the Invalides, the Eiffel Tower… and 37 bridges connects the Right Bank to the Left Bank, without forgetting the islands of Ile de la Cité and Ile Saint-Louis.

In 1991, the banks of the River Seine became a Unesco World Heritage Site.

The West Region of Paris

The Seine passes by the western suburbs of Paris with some amazing vistas, châteaux and parks: Saint-CloudSaint-Germain-en-Laye, Maisons-Laffitte, Conflans-Saint-Honorine to name a few.

The Seine in Normandy

In Normandy the Seine Valley offers a dramatic landscape with magnificent white cliffs of chalk. There lies the little town of Vernon, the ruined castle of Château-Gaillard, the gardens of Claude Monet in Giverny…

Rouen

The Seine flows through Rouen. The capital of Normandy boasts a stunning old town with half-timbered houses and lofty Gothic churches. 

The Notre-Dame Cathedral of Rouen is a masterpiece of Gothic architecture and the tallest church in France (151 m). Other beautiful churches includes Saint-Ouen and Saint-Maclou.

The old town contains hundreds of beautifully restored half-timbered houses and a famous clock known as the Gros Horloge.

Along the Seine River West of Rouen

From Rouen to Le Havre, the Seine forms great meanders which encompass a few iconic sites such as:

  • the romantic ruins of Jumièges Abbey,
  • Notre-Dame church in Caudebec-en-Caux,
  • the Marais-Vernier,
  • the harbour of Honfleur, and
  • the Unesco-listed town of Le Havre.

Inspired by the Rivers in France? Pin it for later!

A Short Tourist Guide of the Rivers in France © French MomentsA Short Tourist Guide of the Rivers in France © French Moments


Answers to the Rivers of France Trivia

1. Which river flows in Rouen, Normandy?

  • The Seine

2. This is a river in northern France

  • The Marne

3. Which is the longest river in France?

  • The Loire

4. What is the name of the famous river in Paris?

  • The Seine

5. What is the name of the river of Grenoble in the French Alps?

  • The Isère

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About Author

Pierre is a French/Australian who is passionate about France and its culture. He grew up in France and Germany and has also lived in Australia and England. He has a background teaching French, Economics and Current Affairs, and holds a Master of Translating and Interpreting English-French with the degree of Master of International Relations, and a degree of Economics and Management.

4 Comments

  1. Wonderful article! So much detail and history. I can’t wait to get back to France and explore the 2 big rivers I haven’t seen.

    Thank you for sharing!

    Lisa
    Monalisi Travel

  2. Gayle Sprague on

    Excellent post…very informative….thank you for posting….plan on going back to France when there is a vaccine for the Corona Virus…

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