Venture Outside the City
Once you've seen Paris' most essential attractions, why not get out of the city for a day and find out what lies outside its limits? Several interesting and entertaining destinations, including chateaus, natural parks, and medieval fortifications, are within close reach of the city. These are some of the best day trips from Paris—scroll down to see which places outside the city walls made the list. And if it's worth it to reserve a car to get yourself around from one spot to another. Before you do rent one, know the pros and cons of renting a car in Paris for some informed advice on the matter.
Versailles Palace and Gardens
No in-depth visit to Paris would be complete without a visit to the former seat of royal power at the Palais de Versailles. A symbol of the French monarchy and its dramatic downfall following the Revolution of 1789, the Chateau de Versailles was erected by the powerful "Sun King" Louis XIV, then later was home to the ill-fated Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, who were eventually executed. The palace, including the emblematic Hall of Mirrors, was recently renovated. Hordes of visitors throng on the palace every year.
In the spring, the palace's gardens are lush and idyllic, making it perfect for a long stroll or a picnic. Meanwhile, a visit to Queen Marie Antoinette's private quarters at Le Petit Trianon, her bucolic animal farm and cottage, can provide amusing and interesting additional perspectives on royal life at the palace.
Getting There: Take the RER C (commuter line train) from central Paris to the Versailles–Rive Gauche station; follow the signs to the chateau entrance.
When to Go: Consider visiting in the early spring and fall, when crowds are a tad thinner than in the peak late spring and summer months.
Claude Monet's House and Gardens
An excursion to French impressionist painter Claude Monet's home and gardens at Giverny is a must for those interested in art history—or for botanical enthusiasts, for that matter.
Open to the public since 1980, Monet's private gardens, immortalized in his brushstrokes, are a haven of green, shadows, and light, featuring elegant Japanese-style bridges, water lilies, and dozens of varieties of flowers and trees.
Getting There: Giverny is a town at the edge of Normandy, about an hour from Paris. From the Gare Saint-Lazare train station, buy a ticket to Vernon. At Vernon, shuttle buses regularly offer direct service to Giverny (spring to autumn only; consult the official website for a precise schedule).
When to Go: Try to go in April or May if you can; the blooms are dramatic and colorful and the weather is generally pleasant. Avoid wet days, however—this can ruin the fun, not to mention the photo opportunities.
Saint-Denis Cathedral Basilica and the Royal Necropolis
Saint-Denis Cathedral Basilica is a marvelous medieval pilgrimage site and one of the earliest French example of high gothic architecture. You can find this site in the humble, working-class community of Saint-Denis just north of Paris, and it's easily accessible on Metro Line 13.
Many tourists overlook this astounding gem, which boasts a necropolis dedicated to the kings, queens, and other royal figures of French history. Come admire their melancholy, eerily beautiful recumbent effigies and see the mysterious crypt where the remains of the famed saint are said to have been buried. Joan of Arc is even said to have made a pilgrimage here; a plaque outside honors the famed French warrior.
Getting There: Take Line 13 of the Paris Metro to Saint-Denis; follow signs to Saint-Denis Cathedral Basilica. While it's best to avoid this area after dark, during the day it's perfectly safe.
When to Go: You can visit this site year-round, but choose a sunny day if possible to enjoy the beautiful light streaming through the stained glass and onto the effigies. This is an unforgettable sight.
Chateau Vaux-le-Vicomte is a little-known 17th-century chateau east of Paris and is worth a visit, especially for history and literature buffs. Home to countless royal fetes and a place of inspiration for dramaturges including Molière and La Fontaine, Vaux-le-Vicomte today is often chosen as a setting for period-piece films, and some have even opined that it's more beautiful than Versailles.
Like its more famous counterpart—also designed by Le Notre—Vaux-le-Vicomte's luxuriant formal gardens and fountains can provide repose from the hectic cityscape.
Getting There: Take the SNCF regional train from Gare de Lyon to Melun; then take the Chateaubus shuttle, a free transportation service between the station and the Chateau. Alternatively, take the RER commuter train line D to Melun, then the Chateaubus.
When to Go: Spring, summer, and early fall are best to appreciate the formal gardens at their finest.
Disneyland Paris Parks and Resort
If you're visiting Paris with kids, a day or two at Disneyland Paris parks and resort can be a treat—and it's only about an hour away from the city, which is easily accessible by the high-speed commuter train. The resort facilities, including a golf course, Disney Village, and Davy Crockett Ranch bungalows, can provide adults with an amusing day away from the city grind, too.
Getting There: The easiest way to get there is to take the RER commuter train line A to Marne-la-Valleé from central Paris (Chatelet-les-Halles). The park entrance is right outside. Some prefer to drive; plenty of parking spaces are generally available but may be further away from the entrance than desired, especially during peak visiting months.
When to Go: Visit year-round, but you may prefer spring through mid-fall to avoid waiting outside in the cold in long lines. Some families love to go for Halloween and Christmas when the park is decked out in thematic decor for the holiday season.
Fontainebleau Palace and Park
Steeped in centuries of royal history, the palace and surrounding forest of Fontainebleau served as a seasonal home to French monarchs starting from the 13th century onward. An excursion here will sate both history and architecture buffs and nature-lovers, who will find miles of hiking trails in the historic park and forest around the palace. Barbizon, a town which has gained fame as the home of painters such as Millet, is nestled in the Fontainebleau forest and is also worth a detour.
Getting There: Take the SNCF regional train line from the Paris Gare de Lyon train station to Fontainebleau–Avon. Follow directions or your GPS to the chateau and/or forest entrances. Bring a picnic if you wish to enjoy a hike in the area.
When to Go: Head here during all seasons, although some will find the cold in winter less pleasant. Aim for spring or summer to appreciate the gardens and their ornate landscaping fully. Avoid hiking on wet days when trails can be slippery or muddy, and always exercise caution.
Along with Notre Dame Cathedral, the Chartres Cathedral is France's most breathtaking cathedral—a true masterpiece that draws visitors from around the world to a rather sleepy town about an hour from Paris by train.
Built between around 1190 and 1220, the UNESCO World Heritage Site is considered a crowning achievement in high gothic architecture. It's been remarkably well-preserved and features dramatic flying buttresses, a breathtaking rose window, and delicate stained glass. The Chapel of Saint Piat resembles a castle from the Middle Ages, with its rounded turrets, and compared to most churches and cathedrals from the medieval period, Chartres has conserved much of its original design.
Getting There: There are more than 30 trains a day that run between Paris and Chartres, excluding some holidays. Take the regional line train from the Montparnasse station to Chartres; follow signs to the Cathedral or use your GPS to get there.
When to Go: Visit year-round, but as with the Saint-Denis Basilica, choose a sunny day to benefit from light coming through the stunning rose window and stained glass.
Proclaimed a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001, the fortified medieval town of Provins once hosted some of Europe's most extravagant fairs. Spices, silks, and other products were sold here, drawing visitors and merchants from across France and neighboring countries.
Built starting in the 11th century, this underappreciated gem of medieval history has inspired countless literary portrayals by authors including Victor Hugo and Balzac. Exploring the town's stunning stone fortifications and partaking in theatrical medieval shows and festivals there is definitely worth the trip.
Getting There: Take the SNCF regional train from Gare de l'Est to Provins. The city is about an hour from Paris by train or car.
When to Go: Visit during the spring and summer, when fields of yellow flowers blossom all around the town and roses (a regional product of note) leave a lovely fragrance on the air. In the summer, medieval re-enactments and performances are fun for kids and adults, if a bit corny at times.
One of the most breathtaking natural and architectural sites in the world, the Abbey at Mont-Saint-Michel is further from Paris than the other places on the list-- but the trip is well worth it. Towering over a bay that joins the regions of Normandy and Brittany, and whose dramatically changing ties create a poetic show of light and water few could forget, the rocky mount on which the abbey stands was first settled by an Irish hermit.
The Abbey and monastery that was built atop it starting in the 8th century are remarkably intact—one of the most impressive medieval sites in the world, with walled fortifications and winding streets leading to the church at the top. While it's almost purely a tourist site—very few "residents" actually inhabit it—it's a remarkable place. At high tide, the site is entirely surrounded by water; thanks to a new high-tech walkway, the Abbey is now accessible at all times, and previous dangers for visitors exploring the site have been reduced.
Getting There: There is no direct train to Mont-Saint-Michel from Paris, so many tourists prefer to drive. Parking is available near the Abbey; walk or take a free shuttle from the parking lot to the entrance. If you do opt to take the train, you can catch one from Paris' Montparnasse station to the city of Rennes, then take a bus called Keolis to the Abbey. The bus runs several times a day.
When to Go: Head to this site year-round: the tides, sky, and light will be different during each season, each beautiful in its own way. Sunnier days allow you to fully appreciate the play of light on the sand and the dramatic contrast between the sea, sunlit water reflecting on the sand, and the imposing presence of the Abbey.
Cellars and Towns of Champagne
Situated a little over an hour from Paris by train or car, the prestigious region of Champagne beckons visitors for a decadent day away from the city.
Visit the elegant town of Reims, a medieval city whose underground chalk quarry networks are so impressive and extensive that they've been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Sip champagne in the cellars of some of the world's most famous producers, from Dom Perignon to Taittinger. Learn about the history of how this prized white wine was first produced, the prominent families who reign over the business, and how it's transformed the region into a powerhouse.
If you don't mind renting a car or taking a guided tour, you should also consider spending a few hours in the nearby village of Epernay, famous for its prestigious champagne cellars and elegant countryside. Dom Perignon and Mercier both have tasting rooms here.
Getting There: Renting a car is probably easiest so you can get around the region and its best cellars. You can also travel to Reims by train from Paris: SNCF regional and high-speed (TGV) trains leave almost every hour from the Gare de l'Est station.
When to Go: A fall or winter visit to Champagne is something to consider. The vineyards often display beautiful foliage in the autumn, and a wintery getaway to cellars underground can be a cozy way to escape the rain.
Heading northward to the edge of the Belgian border, Lille is a humble but alluring city that attracts visitors for its unique Flemish heritage, attractive town center bustling with restaurants and shopping spots, and pretty architecture.
Hop on the train from Paris to see a French city that couldn't be more different from the capital's sometimes ostentatious vibe. On the old medieval square, admire tall, narrow Flemish-style buildings and the elegant opera house.
Visit the town's enormous, bustling flea market, and enjoy traditional Northern French and Flemish fare such as moules-frites (mussels and French fries) on a terrace somewhere. You should also spend some time at the Palais des Beaux-Arts, which is a fine arts museum filled with masterpieces and lauded as one of the most beautiful buildings in France.
Getting There: The high-speed TGV or Eurostar train will take you from Paris Gare du Nord to Lille in a little over an hour.
When to Go: The city is especially lovely in the spring and summer, but any time of year can be a charming time to visit. In the winter, spend more time at the Palais des Beaux-Arts; in the summer, enjoy outdoor meals in the old town and easy self-guided architecture strolls.
Last but certainly not least, a day-long or overnight stay in Burgundy is an ideal way to add a wine-themed trip to your Paris adventure. You might want to cheat a bit and extend this to a weekend getaway, though, to really take in the region and learn something about its history, architecture, and fine wines.
The old Duchy of Burgundy once reigned here, making the region truly distinctive since it was politically independent for much of France's history. In the medieval era, the Dukes of Burgundy were tremendously powerful; this is visible in the ornate, wealthy towns of Beaune, Dijon, and others in the region.
Beaune, symbolized by its elegant old hospices (hospital) graced with distinctive, glazed tiles and prestigious wine cellars, is a natural stop in the region. Also make sure to visit Dijon: one of the prettiest cities of France, this capital of mustard, pain d'épices (gingerbread), and lovely half-timbered houses is well worth a few hours to a day of exploration.
If time allows, make sure to venture into the vineyards to taste some of the finest local bounty. Companies offer wine tours that are affordable and accessible to many travelers. Other companies provide private tours that offer real local insight and access to some renowned cellars.
Getting There: Trains depart for Dijon and Beaune from Gare de Lyon in Paris several times a day, and the trip takes a little over two hours on high-speed trains. When traveling to Beaune via TGV, you will need to make a connection in Dijon.
When to Go: The fall is a magnificent time to visit Burgundy as you can take part in ceremonial harvest celebrations and wine tastings. You can also witness gorgeous vineyards painted in autumn colors and admire fall light hitting old buildings in Dijon.