Paris‘ wealth of architectural icons, monumental museums and unmissable dining experiences makes it difficult for visitors to contemplate straying beyond the city limits. Yet on Paris’ doorstep are magnificent châteaux, exquisite gardens, medieval cathedrals and rambling forests, which can add a new dimension to a holiday in the French capital. Here are six of the best day-trip destinations that are within an hour or so’s travel from central Paris.
1. Château de Versailles
Why go: Roam the stately corridors of the Château de Versailles.
What to see and do: Strolling through the lavishly adorned 700-room baroque palace Château de Versailles – transformed from a hunting lodge by Louis XIV in the mid-17th century and serving as the seat of the royal court until 1789 – gives you an up-close appreciation of the French monarchy’s disproportionate wealth and power that eventually sparked the French Revolution.
The most striking examples are the opulent Grands Appartements du Roi et de la Reine (King’s and Queen’s State Apartments), and the 75m-long ballroom Galerie des Glaces (Hall of Mirrors), with 17 massive mirrors opposite 17 windows overlooking the setting sun and the formal, geometric gardens, where fountains ‘dance’ to classical music in the summer months.
Where to eat: The estate’s drinking and dining options include the elegant, palace-housed Ore, while those not on royal budgets can find cheaper options in the pretty surrounding town of Versailles, including the charming cafe La Cour near Versailles’ markets.
Getting there: Just 22km southwest of central Paris, Versailles is most easily reached by train: take the frequent RER C5 (40 minutes) from Paris’ Left Bank RER stations to Versailles-Château–Rive Gauche station.
2. Disneyland Paris
Why go: Visit the magic kingdom of Disneyland Paris.
What to see and do: While most travellers will enjoy marvelling at relics and palaces from the medieval Kingdom of France, if you’re travelling with young ones in tow, it’s safe to assume the ‘kingdom’ they’re most excited to see is the home of Mickey and Minnie et al. At the vast Disneyland Paris complex is Disneyland Park, home to five themed ‘lands’ with all the classic sights (Sleeping Beauty’s Castle, turn-of-the-20th-century Main Street USA), quintessential rides (Pirates of the Caribbean, Big Thunder Mountain…) and larger-than-life characters.
Adjacent to Disneyland Park is the separate Walt Disney Studios Park, where high-tech rides such as the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, and the delightful Parisian-set Ratatouille are complemented by cinemas, sound stages and behind-the-scenes tours. Deals abound, including tickets covering both parks, so be sure to pre-research and pre-book online.
Getting there: Disneyland Paris is 32km east of Paris. Frequent RER A trains (40 minutes to one hour) run from central Paris to Marne-la-Vallée/Chessy.
3. Chantilly and Senlis
Why go: Explore Chantilly’s storybook château and Senlis’ medieval treasures.
What to see and do: Rising up from a shimmering lake, the fairy-tale Château de Chantilly is surrounded by splendid gardens. Priceless paintings fill its Musée Condé, and you can taste the renowned crème Chantilly (sugar-whipped cream), which was invented here. The domain is perhaps best known, however, for its hippodrome (horse-racing track) and stables, the Grandes Écuries, which contain the Musée Vivant du Cheval, with riding-equipment displays, and also mount dressage shows. From here, riding and walking trails fan out into the forested former royal hunting estate, the Forêt de Chantilly.
From the refined town of Chantilly, travel 10km east (15 minutes in a taxi) to medieval Senlis, whose narrow cobblestone streets, Gallo-Roman ramparts and towers reward an afternoon’s stroll. A royal seat from the 5th century to the early 17th century, Senlis is crowned by the 1191-completed Gothic Cathédrale de Notre Dame, retaining its original stained glass and intricate stone-carved portal.
Where to eat: Opposite the cathedral, with ringside views from its terrace, Le Scaramouche serves cutting-edge bistro cuisine.
Getting there: Chantilly is 50km north of Paris. RER D (direction Creil) links Paris’ Gare de Lyon, Châtelet–Les Halles and Gare du Nord with Chantilly-Gouvieux train station (23 to 41 minutes).
Why go: Walk in the footsteps of Monet in beautiful Giverny.
What to see and do: Between April to October, when the key sights are open and the gardens are in bloom, a trip to Giverny is a must. The tiny village was home to impressionist Claude Monet from 1883 until his death in 1926. His rose-pink, green-shuttered house, and the flowering gardens he planted and painted – including his Japanese bridge and water lily pond – are now the Maison et Jardins de Claude Monet. You can also visit the painter’s final resting place, his tombstone is located on the eastern side of Giverny’s L’église Ste-Radegonde.
For more artsy activities, stroll the galleries of the Musée des Impressionnismes Giverny for an overview on all things related to the Impressionist movement, with lectures, readings and concerts taking place regularly.
Where to eat: Enchanting Michelin-starred inn Le Jardin des Plumes serves sublime modern French cuisine (which almost resemble works of art), while La Capucine Giverny has simple cafe fare and lovely garden seating.
Getting there: Giverny is 74km northwest of Paris. Trains run from Paris’ Gare St-Lazare to Vernon (50 minutes, up to 15 daily), which lies 7km to the west of Giverny. Shuttle buses link Vernon with Giverny in season; you can also walk, cycle or take a taxi.
Why go: Hike through Fontainebleau’s glorious forest.
What to see and do: Cloaking the elegant town of Fontainebleau, the 280-sq-km Forêt de Fontainebleau is an outdoors paradise, with walking and cycling trails (including mountain-biking tracks), and rock climbing on its sandstone ridges and plunging gorges. Fontainebleau’s most impressive human-made site is its château, sprawling over 1900 elaborately gilded, frescoed rooms amid formal French and free-flowing English-style gardens. The original château was built in the early 12th century, but it was radically reconstructed by successive monarchs, most notably François I’s Renaissance-style overhaul in the 16th century.
Where to eat: Fontainebleau is also awash with lively local bistros such as Le Bistrot 9, and gastronomic restaurants like terroir-based La Table du Parc. Pick up forest-picnic supplies at wonderful pâtisserie (pastry shop) Dardonville or the bustling town market, which runs on Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays.
Getting there: Fontainebleau is 68km southeast of Paris. Regular trains link Paris’ Gare de Lyon with Fontainebleau/Avon station (40 minutes).
Why go: View the dazzling stained glass of Chartres’ cathedral.
What to see and do: France’s best-preserved medieval cathedral is Chartres’ 13th-century Cathédrale Notre Dame. Built on the site of a Romanesque cathedral that was all but destroyed by the 1194 fire that ravaged Chartres, it’s topped by Romanesque and Gothic steeples, and is revered for its 176 luminescent, deep-blue stained-glass windows. The striking structure also houses a number of sacred relics, including the Sainte Voile (Holy Veil), which, it’s believed, the Virgin Mary wore during Jesus’ birth. Views of the cathedral’s flying buttresses extend from its north tower.
Nearby, you can learn more about stained glass at the Centre International du Vitrail in a half-timbered former granary, and admire the fine-arts collection at the Musée des Beaux-Arts, in the 18th-century Palais Épiscopal (Bishop’s Palace). From Chartres’ cathedral, precipitous streets lined by medieval houses descend to the western channel of the Eure river.
Where to eat: Adjacent to a narrow bridge, peppermint-green-painted restaurant Le Saint-Hilaire is a local favourite for its regional menus. In the newer part of town, bistros ring Chartres’ iron-canopied market (Wednesdays and Saturdays).
Getting there: From Paris, Chartres is 91km southwest. Frequent SNCF trains link Paris’ Gare Montparnasse (55 to 70 minutes) with Chartres’ train station.