Posted by on 01 Nov 2019 , in Europe
Boulevards lined with impressive monuments, gorgeous buildings as far as the eyes can see, museums that are the best in the world, and quaint cafes and hole-in-the-wall restaurants at every turn—Paris is a beautiful and seductive hodge-podge of pretty much everything travellers seek to see and experience. From wandering the French capital’s streets to watching a movie in one of its old cinemas or just sipping on espresso at a café en terrace, Paris is a timeless feast for the senses and one lifetime is probably not enough to uncover all the wonders it has to offer.
What makes the city all the more enticing is the long list of ancient cities, medieval villages and fairytale châteaux all reachable in less than an hour or two. Being the capital of France for centuries, Paris is ground zero for prestige and power and the closer you are to the capital, the better. No wonder royals and nobles built residences a stone’s throw away from the city, and villages and towns just flourished better wherever royals and nobles were. That to the delight of today’s travellers who, more often than not, want to pack in as many destinations and activities as possible in his itinerary.
Hop on a bus or get on a train and resist the pull of Paris for a while. Here are easy, travel-worthy day trips from Paris that are sure to make for an epic French holiday.
This one’s a no-brainer. There’s no way we could talk about day trips from Paris without mentioning Versailles, and as far day trips go, France’s most famous and grandest palace goes on top of the list. Formerly an old hunting lodge of Louis XIII, Versailles became the political capital and primary seat of the French royal court in 1682 after Louis XIV transformed and extended it. Monarchs after the Sun King then proceeded to enlarge and embellish Versailles. Although much of the palace’s furnishings were stripped after the French Revolution, many pieces have been returned and several of its rooms have been restored and are now open to visitors. Today, the former residence of the Kings of France now has 2,300 opulent rooms and that’s for the Palace alone. The entire Versailles Estate spans 800 hectares and includes the Palace, the gardens, the Park, the Trianon Estate, and a host of buildings in town. Aside from the monumental Palace, don’t miss the Grand and Petit Trianon palaces and the Queen’s Hamlet where the French monarchs went to escape briefly from palace intrigue and courtly etiquette.
Versailles is located 22 kilometres southwest of the capital and easily accessible through the underground RER C that leaves from Tour Eiffel, Notre Dame and other convenient Metro stops in central Paris. Be sure to get on a train to “Versailles Rive Gauche”. Take note that several trains might arrive on your platform showing “Versailles-Chantiers” as the terminus station, which you do not want to take. The palace is just about 5 minutes by foot from the station and if you’re not sure which direction to head to, just follow the crowds and you’re sure to arrive at Versailles.
Provins doesn’t always make it into tour itineraries but this quaint medieval city southeast of Paris is a must for those who want to venture off the beaten paths and enjoy some peace and quiet away from the usual buzz of crowded tourist destinations. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2001, Provins is known for its impressively preserved city walls and medieval fortifications, such as the imposing Tour César, a watchtower erected in the 12th century on the edge of a rocky spur to guard the city and the Count’s Palace, thus becoming a symbol of the power of the Counts of Champagne. Other notable attractions open to visitors are the underground tunnels, museum and Tithe Barn. Hours vary depending on the season, so it’s best to drop by at the Office of Tourism first to grab information booklets and maps and buy tickets. Off-season, say late February, allows only for limited hours (2:00 to 5:00pm). Another thing Provins is famous for is its roses. Check out the local shops and restaurants and chances are you’ll find lots of different rose-flavoured specialties such as rose-flavoured hot chocolate and rose-flavoured candies.
One way to get to Provins is to buy a ticket from an Ile de France ticket machine and wait for the right train at the normal platforms at the Gare de l’Est. Provins is usually the terminus station so the platform to the old city will be indicated on the blue SNCF Ile de France screens which are updated 10-15 minutes before departure. Trains leave every 45 minutes.
If you’re a fan of pretty, historic towns with cobblestone streets lined with timber-framed houses, Rouen is a wonderful day trip you’ll look forward to. Situated along the Seine, the medieval port city boasts of the gorgeous gothic Notre Dame cathedral painted by Claude Monet and Le Gros Horloge, an artfully-elaborate 14th century astronomical clock and one of the oldest working clocks in Europe. The charming city is also tied with Joan of Arc, the martyr, saint and military leader who earned France its victory over the English in the Hundred Years’ War and who was later on burned at the stake in Rouen’s Old Market Square. There’s actually a Joan of Arc Tour that includes a visit to a tower where the Maid of Orléans was held.
To get to Rouen, head to the Gare Saint Lazare station where trains depart twice an hour. You can either purchase your tickets online or buy them from the one of the yellow ticket machines that take only chip-and-pin cards. Rouen is a popular day trip so expect the lines to be long. We suggest you purchase and pick up your ticket ahead of time to avoid the hassle of lining up. To validate your tickets, use the small yellow machines placed at the front of the platforms.
The Italian-designed Château de Fontainebleau is no doubt the best alternative day trip to Versailles. Its interior is as heavily-embellished as that of Versailles but there are no mass of tourists here. Fontainebleau’s extensive landscaped garden, designed by Andre le Notre, also rivals that of Versailles and its history is no less colourful. It’s not as massive as Versailles of course, but its little chimneys and steeply pitched roofs are sure to charm the castle-lover out of anyone, not to mention its magnificent staircase where Napoleon delivered his abdication speech prior to exile. Then there’s the 280 sq km Forêt de Fontainebleau that surrounds the château, offering plenty of superb opportunities for rock-climbing, walking and hiking.
Located 68 kilometres southeast of Paris, it takes only 45 minutes by train to get to the opulent château. Just go to Gare de Lyon and take the RER D which leaves from the main platforms or Grandes Lignes. You’ll see signs for the RER D pointing downstairs but don’t mind them. Trains leave every hour though so you will not be overly delayed if you get a bit turned around. Just like Provins, you can purchase tickets from an Ile de France ticket window or machine since you’ll be staying in the Ile de France region as well. Be sure to check the SNCF Ile de France screens to look for your platform. There’s also a TV monitor before the platform that shows a list of towns a train services. You’ll know you’re at the right platform if you see Fontainebleau-Avon in the list. When you get to the Fontainebleau-Avon train station, you’ll instantly spot a bus labelled Bus 1 away waiting to take passengers to the castle. The bus ticket costs €2 so be sure to have coins or small bills with you.
The mighty Gothic cathedral of Amiens is perhaps reason enough to visit Picardy’s former capital. The UNESCO-listed Amiens Cathedral is one of the tallest and most beautiful cathedrals in France, featuring a vaulted nave and an impressive quantity of remarkable Gothic sculpture from early 13th century and polychrome sculpture from later periods. The city’s astonishing floating gardens, called “hortillonnages”, are also a marvel to behold. Just imagine a rustic garden spanning 300 hectares and crisscrossed by water channels which you can navigate by boat and it’s not hard to see why a lot of visitors to Paris take a day trip to Amiens. It also doesn’t hurt that Jules Verne’s mansion turned museum is a stone’s throw away from the train station, and that Amiens is the ideal base for exploring the Somme battlefields.
To get to Amiens, depart from Gare du Nord. The journey should take less than an hour and once again, get your tickets at the Grandes Lignes ticket window, online, or from the yellow machines if you are a chip-and-pin card holder. Amiens will probably be your terminus station but the number of stops along the way varies. We suggest you get on an “Intercites” train which runs faster and skips smaller towns.