If you're staying some time in Paris, then consider a day trip outside the capital. There are plenty of places to choose from, within easy reach either by train or by car from the French capital. Some are close to each other, so you can combine them to make a longer trip.
From Rouen to the northwest round to Chartres just southeast of Paris, this guide also allows you to plan a day or overnight stay if you are en route to other destinations within France.
Rouen in Normandy
The capital of Upper Normandy, Rouen is a delightful city on the banks of the river Seine. Its narrow, winding streets are lined with half-timbered houses, its old quarter dominated by one of France’s most beautiful gothic cathedrals. On a site which had seen a cathedral since the 12th century, the structure you see today was a work in progress for three centuries, making it a fascinating study in the whole of Gothic architecture. It may seem familiar even if you haven’t visited – Impressionist painter Claude Monet spent two years here painting it 28 times in the 1890s.
The surrounding streets are pedestrianized, making it a very pleasant city to stroll around. Don’t miss the splendid 14th-century clock, one of the oldest in Europe. Nearby you come across the modern, and impressive Church of Sainte-Jeanne d’Arc, shaped like a boat inside. A cross outside marks the spot where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in 1431.
Museums, including a delightful ceramic museum, a botanical garden, one of France’s oldest restaurants and good hotels make Rouen an excellent place for an overnight stay.
Compiegne in Picardy, North of Paris
Compiegne in Picardy, just north of Paris, is strangely overlooked by visitors but is well worth a visit. The impressive Palace in the middle of the city was originally built by the French Kings and was then taken over by the Bonapartes after the French Revolution. Now the palace is divided into three museums, two of them in the historic apartments showing the privileged life of the past, the third a fascinating transport museum. The vast green park stretching away from the palace is a haven for walkers and picnickers in summer.
While you're in the center of Compiegne, don’t miss the delightful battles fought out by tiny model soldiers at the Historic Figurine Museum.
When you’ve exhausted the city sights, drive out into the huge forest to the Armistice Memorial, hidden away in a glade. It’s a small but very impressive museum.
Meaux in Ile de France, East of Paris
Meaux is a cathedral city in the Ile de France and just a half-hour train journey or a 42 kilometer (26 miles) drive east from central Paris. The old quarter is set around the Gothic cathedral of Saint Etienne.
You can also see the former bishop’s palace, now a museum showing paintings and sculptures from the 16th to 19th centuries in the old town. And of course, you can’t leave without tasting the most famous thing about Meaux –- its famous Brie de Meaux cheese.
But recently a compelling attraction has been added to Meaux’s attractions, the Museum of the Great War. It's a large new museum with a huge, originally private collection put on display in a series of sections. The museum very cleverly draws the visitor into World War I and telling you the stories and lives of the people of the time, both military and civilian. It’s a major new attraction, part of the continuing exhibitions, and the opening of new museums and sights leading up to the hundred-year commemoration of the start of World War I in 1914.
Reims in Champagne
If you want a good overnight stop with plenty to see, go to Meaux then on to Reims, the capital of the Champagne region which is 143 kilometers (89 miles) east of Paris. The French kings were traditionally crowned in Reims Cathedral, a soaring structure surrounded by the old quarter of the city.
The Museum of Fine Arts and the former bishop’s palace beckon in the central area while to the south, the Musee de la Reddition (Museum of Surrender) is the place where Germany unconditionally surrendered to General Eisenhower in 1945.
Also worth visiting are the excellent Automobile Museum and the fabulous Basilique and Museum Saint-Remi.
Fontainebleau in Ile de France
If you want to escape Paris for the day, then Fontainebleau in Ile de France and just 64 kilometers (39.7 miles) south of Paris is an obvious place to make for. Set in the forest of Fontainebleau, most people visit for the green sweeps and mature trees of the forest itself and to wander around the Chateau and its extensive gardens.
The Chateau is a real history lesson in the grand and royal history of France. Originally a hunting lodge built in the 12th century, Fontainebleau became a palace for the Kings and Queens of France in the 15th century, a suitably grand, vast building to display the divine right of Kings to the ordinary people.
Troyes in Champagne
Troyes is directly south of Reims and southeast of Paris. It’s a beautiful small city, with cobbled streets and winding alleyways. It takes around 90 minutes by train from Paris and makes a good stop over if you are driving from Paris down to Dijon and Burgundy.
There are some real gems to visit in Troyes, apart from the magnificent stained-glass windows in the cathedral of St-Pierre and St-Paul. There’s an ancient apothecary with original boxes and some hints on medieval homeopathic medicine and a very accessible museum of modern art that contains some excellent paintings and glass. And finally, it has two of France’s prettiest hotels where you really do feel that you have stepped back into a different age.
Chartres in the Loire
The cathedral alone is a reason to visit Chartres. You see it from far off, its soaring spire dominating the flat landscape of cornfields around the city. The cathedral was built in an amazingly short 25 years, with the north and south porches added 20 years later. Unlike other Gothic cathedrals which either took centuries to build or which burnt down and were rebuilt, it is a remarkable example of a certain Gothic style.
Once inside, the long nave is a knock-out. But it’s the stained glass that is the true treasure of Chartres. Take a pair of binoculars so you can see the stories and details of the windows which stretch up to the top of the nave. Each summer the light show takes you around the darkened streets, showing you the life of the past.