Every trip to France is a chance to explore hidden or off the beaten path gems. The region around Paris, or Île-de-France, holds many treasures that don’t see the same traffic as their more famous neighbours Euro Disney and Versailles, and these can be visited in day trips from Paris.
A short drive or RER (commuter train) ride out of the city and the traditional village houses pressed around church squares and bustling, small towns replace Haussmann-style apartment buildings. Make your way down a lane to a family-run farm that supplies neighbours with eggs and aged-ripened cheese or pick up a freshly baked slice of tarte aux pommes for your afternoon goûter.
There are many discoveries waiting a world away from the brilliant lights of Paris and these discoveries are as worthwhile and beautiful as the capital. Tourists aren’t as thick on the ground and you’re as likely to rub elbows with a local craftsman enjoying a pousse-café following dinner, as cross paths with a Danish family cycling to their next campsite.
Five Day Trips from Paris
You’ll fall in love with the ice cream. Oh sure, the medieval stone bridge flanked by fortifications marking the division between former dukedoms is beautiful. And yes, the tower and portcullis are fine examples of medieval architecture. But it’s definitely Les Mille et Une Glaces and its delicious ice creams that will woo you.
Moret-sur-Loing has a long history of attracting artists to its riverbank with its pretty watermills and fortified towers, and it was a favourite of Impressionists Renoir, Monet, and Sisley. On warm, summer nights local theatre troupes perform plays on the riverbanks. We saw a retelling of The Three Musketeers several years ago. The actors fought all around us using real sword and it was as much entertainment for the parents as it was fun for the kids.
If you’re looking for a meal that will leave an impression, head through the old gates to La Gavotte, the décor is atmospheric and the food is delicious. Then maybe go back to Les Milles et Une Glaces for another ice cream.
If the idea of ducking between large tour groups through the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles is too daunting then visit the Château Vaux-le-Vicomte. It served as the inspiration for Versailles and is easily manageable for the old, young, or the just plain tired traveller who still wants a glimpse of an authentic, 17th century French château. Vaux-le-Vicomte was commissioned by Louis IVX’s Superintendent of Finances, Nicolas Fouquet. Fouquet’s political enemies conspired to have him defamed and ruined by using the lavish château as proof that he embezzled money, and he subsequently died in prison.
History lives at Vaux-le-Vicomte. Look at the worn stairs. Musketeers climbed those stairs. See the hall with its checkerboard tiles? Intrigue and dalliances happened here, and it was also the site for a lavish banquet that ended with Fouquet’s arrest. The house, its stables, and the gardens are spectacular and some of the most beautifully maintained in France. And visitors won’t feel they have to speak in hushed tones when they’re walking through; it’s welcoming. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve visited Vaux-le-Vicomte and I would go again tomorrow.
The château often hosts special events and candlelit evenings — a definite must — so check the website before your visit.
Château de Breteuil
There’s been a château on this site since the Middle Ages, and the current family has been in residence since 1712. The family was a major player in the political landscape of 18th century France and through shrewd maneuvering retained ownership despite the Revolution. Visitors are welcomed by the current Marquis who helps them discover his family’s home.
Not many châteaux are as well furnished and maintained as Breteuil. Its history, as well as that of some of the key moments in French politics and art, are on display throughout the house and grounds. There’s the option to take a guided tour or go on a solo visit. I’ve done both and I was surprised by how fun and educational the guide’s anecdotes were during a recent visit.
The site is relatively quiet all year and you can wander around the grounds, which overlook the Vallée de Chevreuse, without seeing anyone else. During the warmer months the gardens and outbuildings host art expositions, festivals, and reenactments of fables by La Fontaine and Charles Perrault – think The Tortoise and The Hare and Puss in Boots, among other stories.
La Ferté-Gaucher and the Vélo-Rail
After eating and drinking your way through the visit to Paris and its surroundings – don’t pretend that’s not what you’ll be doing – time to shake your bonbons and pedal your way down an abandoned train track on a retrofitted rail cart – the vélo-rail.
If you time your visit to a market day — Thursday and Sunday in La Ferté-Gaucher — you can rustle up a fresh basket of goods to refuel once you find a quiet spot to rest. The town itself is small enough for a quick visit and will charm you with its architecture and sleepy lanes.
The departure point for the vélo-rail excursion is reached via a tourist train, which leaves from the town center and is at the end of a dead-end lane down the hill from a horse farm. Next up is a 13-kilometer cycling trip punctuated by rolling countryside, abandoned train stations, and a glimpse of this region that wouldn’t be possible if you had stuck to well-trod paths. You must do this, it’s fun and very French and completely off the beaten path.
Once upon a time the Romans invaded France — Gaul — and only a tiny village managed to hold out against the conquerors. At least that’s history as told by the witty Asterix le Gaulois, a series of French comics, that pitted resilient Gauls against the Roman war machine. Every French home has at least one in the series of books and most families have the complete collection.
What’s a visit to France without visiting its most famous — mostly fictional — heroes? Parc Asterix is the French take on amusement parks with rides, costumed characters, and a comic-inspired, humorous view of myths, heroes, and history.
These five day trips from Paris should keep you occupied for a while, but there are so many other options, it’s almost impossible to narrow the list. Choose busy or quiet, history or modern fun, art or nature, you’ll find something to suit whatever you’re in the mood for.