It's July, and cycling zealots around the world are rejoicing: That's because the Tour de France is underway, and close to 200 men on wheels are making their way through Europe, one stage at a time.
Created in 1903, the three-week event brings together the best racing teams to zigzag an aggressive and adventurous route, which started this year in Dusseldorf, Germany and will end in Paris, appropriately, at the Champs Elysee.
If you're one of 12 million onlookers — or if this year's race is piquing your enthusiasm for a future visit — consider this your insider guide (and wanderlust inspo).
Best places to watch the Tour de France
Typically, the mountains provide the most exciting viewings of the race, which usually happen during the final stages of the third week. For the first time in 25 years, the Tour de France will hit all five of France’s main mountain ranges, with the most popular being the Pyrenees and the Alps. “There’s nothing like standing on a mountainside with thousands of other fans, watching the super-human efforts of the pro cyclists,” says Chris Tarlton, global marketing director for Thomson Bike Tours. “Time Trial stages are also great because you get to see the riders pass by for a longer period of time. Of course, there’s also Paris. And what part of Paris is not a pure spectacle?” Naturally, there’s many places you can watch the riders as they complete 2,175 (!!) total miles over several countries. But tour operators will agree that there’s nothing like enjoying the Tour de France with the VIP service they provide. From tons to eat and drink, private viewing areas, and access to spots traditional viewers don’t have, they make the experience worth your while.
Hey, when in France … right?
Where to stay for the Tour de France
The route will change every year, but some areas do remain in the same vicinity. Tarlton suggests staying in the Pyrenees at the Hotel Mercure in Saint-Lary Soulan this year. “It’s probably the best hotel in the area and all the stages are generally close by.” Other hotels in the Pyrenees to look into include Les Rochers Hotel, Au Primerose Hotel, Clos Mirabel Manor, and La Grange aux Marmottes. In the Alps, Trek Travel suggests checking out Chalet Mounier, Les Deux Alpes, L’alta Perya, or the St. Veran.
Where to eat at the Tour de France
Restaurants that locals and tourists alike recommend in the Pyrenees include L’Atelier de Fred ceret, Restaurant La Balette, La Galinette, and Le Clos des Lys. For quick bites to make sure you don’t miss any of the action, stop into Pa Amb Tomate for a nice variety of meats and cheeses, Cartoon’s Cafe (an American-style diner!), or La Pizzeria des Remparts. In the French Alps, try La Maison des Bois, Restaurant Jean Sulpice, Chalet de la Marine, or Le Confins Des Sens (which really offers some exceptional views). Excellent quick-bite picks include Creperie Blanc Fontaine, La Quadriglia, Elevation 1904, and Bagelstein.
Make a bigger trip out of your Tour de France visit
After the riders have whizzed by and you’re feeling laughably unaccomplished, just remember that you’re in Europe and therefore surrounded by a ton of history and beauty. In the Pyrenees region, the Fortress of Salses le Chateau was built by the Spanish in the late 1400’s strictly as a military structure. Its views of the Pyrenees and the coast is one for the storybooks. Okay, and Instagram. For a good hike with breathtaking rewards, you can’t go wrong with a trip to Fort Saint Elme Collioure. If art is more your thing, the Musee d’Art Moderne is small and tucked away, but houses the prestigious and priceless collections of Picasso, Dali, Pierre Brune and many others.
The French Alps offer more than just skiing and snowboarding. In Grenoble, the Parc Naturel Regional du Vercors provides an impressive landscape with walking paths in every direction. The scenery is stunning with panoramic views of historic beauty. La Bastille, a former military fort, offers a sensational sunset view that’s worth the walk. Lac Blanc gives you not only spectacular views, but you’ll also make newfound friends. Wildlife like chamois, choccards, and marmots keep things interesting for you along the way.
Plan in advance for next year's Tour de France
If you’re really looking to make a trip to experience any part of the three-week adventure that is the Tour de France, start planning as soon as the route is announced, between October and November every year. Hotels fill up quickly and there’s a lot to map out, so to speak, for the trip. Consider saving yourself a headache and book in advance with an affiliated tour operator.
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