The endless delights of Paris are certainly enough to keep a traveler in sightseeing bliss for as long as any vacation may last. But just outside the city is a world of unforgettable day trip experiences that go beyond the traditional treks to Versailles or Disneyland. From Impressionist gardens and medieval villages to the birthplace of a classic French dessert, an hour’s journey away from the capital can enrich your vacation and offer a glimpse into the magic of France’s countryside. Here are a few ideas to get you started.
Giverny: When a locomotive carrying Claude Monet barreled through the raspy fields outside Paris, the view from the artist’s window was a revelation: he would purchase a cottage home and build acres of gardens to inspire his paintings. Visit the fruit of his labors in the form of a colorful home and vibrant flower beds, as well as picture-perfect lily ponds and Japanese bridges made famous in his Impressionist masterpieces. A follow-up stroll through the village of Giverny offers picturesque cottages, pastoral country lanes, and a museum dedicated to Impressionism. Access is via car or train from Paris Gare St-Lazare to Vernon (50 minutes). In Vernon, rent a bike or hop in a taxi the 5 miles east to Giverny.
Vaux-le-Vicomte: This chateau’s original owner made two fatal mistakes: 1) building the fanciest palace in France and 2) inviting the king to come see the place. The upstaged king soothed his ego by throwing the owner in prison and outdoing him with another swanky abode: Versailles. Today many prefer the proportions and cohesiveness of Vaux-le-Vicomte to the impersonal enormity of Versailles. See the grand rooms and manicured gardens that sparked a royal rivalry and marked the beginning of over-the-top French extravagance. Located 35 miles southeast of Paris. Access to the chateau is by car, train, or bus. There are direct trains from Paris Gare de Lyon to Melun every 30 minutes, and the train time is 30 minutes. In Melun, take a taxi the six kilometres to the chateau, or jump on the shuttle bus on weekends and public holidays from spring-late November. Roundtrip bus transportation from the city center of Paris is also available via Cityrama-Parisvision.
Chantilly: No castle visit is sweeter than Chantilly, offering not just a renowned art collection and spectacular interiors but a chance to taste whipped cream where it was invented. After admiring the chateau’s works of Raphael, Botticelli, Ingres and Delacroix, explore formal French gardens and quaint country village pavilions until you reach The Hamlet, an outdoor restaurant serving mounds of original hand-whipped Chantilly cream over gingerbread or fresh strawberries. Tip: Chantilly is located remarkably close to CDG international airport, north of Paris, making it a great place to overnight before an early flight. Access is by car or RER/SNCF trains from Paris Gare du Nord (30-45 minutes).
Rouen: Not far north of Paris lies a medieval city frozen in time, allowing visitors to wile away an entire day without stepping foot in the 21st century. Original half-timbered cottages, shop-lined cobblestone alleys and a towering Gothic cathedral all set the mood. Stand in the very spot where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in 1431, then dine across the street at La Couronne, the restaurant so good that it convinced Julia Child to devote her life to French cuisine by the time she got up from the table. Tip: Don’t miss the new museum devoted to Joan of Arc. Access is by frequent train from Paris Gare St Lazare (70 minutes).
Reims & the Champagne region: Many visitors aren’t aware that just a stone’s throw from Paris is the famed wine region of Champagne. Fans of the bubbly won’t want to miss a visit to one or several of the area’s producers that offer tastings and guided visits of their facilities. The city of Reims also boasts a historic cathedral where the kings of France were crowned before making their grand entrance into Paris. Access is by car or high-speed train from Paris Gare de l’Est (45 minutes).
Lead photo credit : The gardens at Giverny/ Corey Frye