• Leslie

Magical Off The Beaten Path Day Trips From Paris

Updated: Jan 20

the Medici Fountain in Paris' Luxemboug Gardens


If you're visiting the City of Light, no doubt you've allotted time for some day trips and weekend getaways from Paris on your geographical cure. If you're tired of Paris' tourist traps and want to get off the beaten path and avoid crowds, skip Versailles, Reims and Mont St. Michel.


Instead, try these beguiling off the beaten path day trip and weekend getaway options. These Paris day trips are just as magical and won't leave you with tourist phobia from heaving crowds.


C'est parti!

the picture perfect village of Auvers-sur-Oise on the Oise River


15 Best Off the Beaten Path Day Trips From Paris



1. Auvers-Sur-Oise: In Van Gogh's Footsteps


Auvers-sur-Oise is a lovely underrated French village, surrounded by wheat fields and set on the banks of the Oise River. The legendary painter Vincent Van Gogh described Auvers as "gravely beautiful." To him, the quiet village calmed his nerves and inspired his art.

Van Gogh spent the last 70 days of his life creating 70 paintings of Auvers-sur-Oise. He was buried in the village with his brother Theo. Common wisdom holds that Van Gogh committed suicide, as a notoriously tortured soul. But there is growing evidence that it was murder. You can read my analysis of whodunit here.


Some of his greatest masterpieces were painted here, including Crows Over Wheatfield, the Portrait of Dr. Gachet, and Church at Auvers. In Auvers, you can walk in Van Gogh's footsteps. The Roman-Gothic Church of Auvers is sober and beautiful. It was built between 1137-1227, and is instantly recognizable as the subject of one of Van Gogh's most famous paintings.

Vincent Van Gogh, Church at Auvers, 1890


If you're feeling especially arty, you can visit the studio-home of Charles-François Daubigny. Daubigny was an important member of the Barbizon school, a precursor oeuvre to Impressionism. With his friends Camille Corot and Honore Daumier, he decorated the home with paintings and massive floral murals. You can also stop by the House of Dr. Gachet, Van Gogh's friend and confidant, which is now an art gallery.

The Chateau d'Auvers is also stately and impressive. It's a 17th century Louis XIII-style building. And it features an immersive multimedia Impressionist exhibit, and has a beautiful garden.

the Chateau d'Auvers-sur-Oise

How to get from Paris to Auvers-sur-Oise:


By Train: Trains run about every 20 minutes from Gare Saint-Lazare or Gare du Nord. Check here for times.

By Car: 20+ miles north of Paris, about :45 min drive


the 14th century Chateau de Vincennes, outside Paris


2. Chateau de Vincennes: Medieval Palace


Lying in the eastern suburbs of Paris, at the end of metro line 1, is the 14th century Chateau de Vincennes. It's a super easy day trip from Paris. I'm surprised more people don't go.

Like Fontainebleau, the château began life as as a royal hunting lodge in the 12th century. King Louis VII was known to dispense justice beneath the trees. During the 13th century, the lodge was transformed into a larger, palatial estate for the French kings.

inside the Chateau de Vincennes

In the 14th century, the venerable building you see today was reconstructed, renovated, and modernized. It became a royal seat and the primary royal residence until Versailles was completed. When the 52 foot Donjon was added, Chateau de Vincennes became the tallest medieval fortified structure in Europe.

The chateau is wholly intact with a keep, dungeon, moat, and fortified concentric walls. That's pretty unique. When the royals decamped to Versailles, the chateau was used as a prison. The Marquis de Sade, Voltaire, Mirabeau, Diderot were all imprisoned there.


the nave and stained glass windows of the Sainte-Chapelle chapel of Chateau de Vincennes


The Gothic chapel Sainte-Chapelle is definitely worth a look, just for the stained glass windows and bright interior. It was founded in 1379 and updated over the centuries. The chateau is a very underrated place outside Paris. Don't miss it, if you're a history buff.


How to get from Paris to Chateau de Vincennes:


By Train: By train, RER A to station Vincennes

By Metro: Take line (1 the yellow line) from anywhere in Paris in the direction of Chateau de Vincennes to the end of the line, the "Chateau de Vincennes" stop.

Address: Avenue de Paris, 94300 Vincennes, France

Website


a massive medieval fireplace that you can actually stand in in the Chateau de Vincennes


admiring Chateau de Vincennes with my BFF


3. Chateau de Coucy


The Château de Coucy lies two hours north of Paris, between the towns of Laon and Soissons. In the calamitous 14th century, the chateau was the greatest fortress castle in Europe, lorded over by the warrior nobleman Enguerrand de Coucy. Both the chateau and Coucy were the subjects of Barbara Tuchman's award-wining book A Distant Mirror, which is a fantastic read.


entrance to the Chateau de Coucy

The chateau is mostly in ruins now. In 1917, it was occupied by Germans. As a parting salvo, the retreating Germans detonated the imposing keep with 28 tons of explosives. The Château de Coucy Flickr account has a photo of the chateau being destroyed.

Why would someone want to visit ruins? Well, personally I have serious ruin lust -- a taste for heroic destruction and picturesque decay. Ruins are romantic and sometimes melancholy. They put your imagination to use, rather than just eyeballing an ornate gold leaf Baroque church. And sometimes ruins tell more affecting stories than a perfectly coiffed building.

fortified walls of the Chateau de Coucy

The sheer scale of the place is stunning. The south and west front of the massive lower court once boasted eight towers. The towers of the west front have dislocated from the wall due to bad foundation. It is a surreal sight to see them lying in the grass, as if the German bombing happened yesterday.

The site has extensive information placards with historical photos, reconstruction images and text in English. You will get a heavy dose of history. The Chateau de Coucy can also be combined with a day trip to the Chateau de Pierrefonds, just 45 minutes southwest.


How to get from Paris to the Chateau de Coucy:


By train: Train from the Gard du Nord, 1:20

By car: 75 miles, about 1:40 drive

Website


Château de Vaux le Vicomte

4. Chateau de Vaux-le-Vicomte: Underrated Baroque Beauty


Vaux-le-Vicomte is the prettiest privately owned chateau in France. When Princess Elizabeth visited in 1948, she pronunced it “more beautiful than Versailles!” In fact, Vaux le Vicomte was the inspiration for Versailles. Built between 1656-61, it's a fine example of France Baroque architecture.

It's situated on a 1,200-acre estate in Maincy, about 50 minutes from central Paris. There won't be nearly as many tourists here as at Versailles or Fontainebleau, and it's just as lovely.


the Summer Salon of Chateau Vaux le Vicomte

the dining room at Chateau Vaux le Vicomte

The chateau was originally owned by the ill-fated Nicholas Fouquet, Louis XIV’s finance minister. In 1661, against his friends' advice, Fouquet invited the king and his entourage to a luxurious dinner reception. Three weeks later, teeming with jealously at such grandeur, a peeved Louis XIV ordered Fouquet's arrest on embezzlement charges. After a three year trial, Fouquet spent 19 years in prison.

The beautiful chateau can be visited year round, except for an annual winter closure. You can tour the lavishly furnished château and explore private royal apartments, ceremonial salons, reception areas, staff quarters, and the basement kitchen. Tickets can be purchased on site or online.


the gardens at Chateau Vaux de Vicomte

In the summer, the gardens are lit with 2,000 candles during “candlelit evenings” every Saturday. In 2019, the candle evenings run from from May 4 to October 5. Here's the link for online tickets. There’s also theatrical shows and concerts at the chateau.


How to get from Paris to Vaux le Vicomte:


By Train: From Gare de l'Est, take the direct train Line P (in the direction of Provins). Get off at the Verneuil l'Etang train station. There is a “Châteaubus” shuttle to pick you up from the Verneuil l'Etang train station to the Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte.

By Car: about 50 minutes

Website


the medieval village of Laon France

5. Laon: a Medieval Cathedral Town


I have big love for Laon France. It's a delightful hidden gem in France, especially if your'e looking for an authentic, un-touristy town.


Laon is an ancient medieval village, perched high on a steep limestone rock. It's encircled by walls with formidable gates, and is one of France's oldest historical centers. There are more than 80 historic monuments in what was once the capital of the Carolingian Empire in the early middle ages.

the pedestrianized Rue Châtelain in the medieval village of Laon France

Begin with a leisurely stroll down Rue Châtelain, Laon's pedestrianized main drag. The quaint signs may remind you of the Musée Carnavalet in Paris. Poke in and out of the quaint artisan and antique shops. Eventually, you'll arrive at the stunning main attraction of Laon, it's massive Gothic cathedral.

From miles away, you can see the towers of the beautiful Cathedral of Notre Dame de Laon. It is one of the earliest and finest Gothic cathedrals in France, dating to the 12th century. It's known for its six imposing towers and is a key stop on the pilgrimage route to Santiago in Spain. It's unspoiled by modernity or excess adornment and a bit endearingly grimy.


the menagerie on the towers of Laon Cathedral in Laon France

But what most enchanted me, and what sets Laon Cathedral apart from its cathedral brethren, is the nature of the adornment that does exist. There is a veritable farm on the upper towers -- 16 oxen in total. Local legend holds that the sculptures are a tribute to the animals who hefted the granite up the steep hill. The accompanying adorable menagerie of animal gargoyles also demands your attention.

the medieval village of Crépy-en-Valois near Paris


If you leave for Laon early enough, on your journey back you might consider stopping to see Crépy-en-Valois. It's a tiny medieval village on the same train line. It's quite adorable with a 12th century chateaux, abbey ruin, quaint streets, and a nice park.


How to get from Paris to Laon:


By Train: From the Gard du Nord, fastest train 1:30, check here for times.

By Car: about 1:50 drive

The Vieille Bourse, or Old Stock Exchange, of Lille and the Belfry in Lille on the Grand Place. You can climb to the top of the Belfry at 104 meters to get a panoramic view of the city.


6. Lille: Where France Meets Belgium


Are you wondering if Lille is worth visiting? My answer is most definitely, yes! Lille is one of France's best kept secrets. It may be one of the most underrated cities in France.


Lille is France's fourth largest metropolis, but still eminently walkable. Lying close to the Belgian border, Lille offers visitors a plethora of historical, architectural, gastronomic, and outdoor attractions. It's an amazing and eminently likable French city. I wasn't prepared to like it so much.


Place aux Onions, a delightful small square in Lille France

cobblestone streets of Lille

Vieux Lille, the old city, is striking. It has two gorgeous squares: Le Grand Place and Le Place du Theatre. It has winding cobblestone streets and quaint shops and restaurants. The Place aux Oignons is especially lovely. There is beautiful Flemish architecture, different from other places in France.

Lille also has a splendid museum, the Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille. Inaugurated in 1892, Lille's Fine Arts Museum has France's second largest collection after Paris' Louvre.

Its cache of 15th to 20th century paintings is sublime, including works by Rubens, Van Dyck, Manet, and a host of other artists. The Belle Époque-style museum itself is a work of art, decorated with even more works of art.


Palais des Beaux Artes museum in Lille

Lille also has a hopping craft beer scene, some seriously pungent Maroilles cheese (also called Gris de Lille), and restaurants galore. I stopped in at La Capsule, and it was a hip, stylish watering hole. I usually stay in Air Bnbs. But, in Lille, I stayed at the boutique hotel L'Esplanade Lille, and adored it.


How to get from Paris to Lille:


By Train: super convenient high speed TGV from the Gard du Nord, about 1 hour duration, check times here.

By Car: about 2:20 drive

medieval town of Provins

7. Provins: A Medieval UNESCO Village


Provins is an utterly quaint medival walled city and a perfect, easy day trip from Paris. Like many medieval towns, Provins has an older "upper" city and a slightly more modern "lower" city. You arrive in the lower city, or ville basse. As you start climbing, you'll see the ramparts and Tower de Caesar.

the ramparts in the picturesque UNESCO village of Provins France outside Paris

The atmospheric Provins is filled with historic and architectural gems, including no less than 58 listed monuments. It is a designated UNESCO site and was once home to a great medieval fair. If you're on the UNESCO trail in France, this is a must see site and incredibly easy day trip from Paris.

On your visit, inspect the Tower Cesar, a well preserved medieval tower. Then, walk the ramps and the moat, take in the world's most charming medieval bookstore, and visit the underground tunnels, Les Souterrains. Provins is famous for its roses, so you'll find rose everything in its tiny shops.


delightful medieval bookshop in the picturesque UNESCO village of Provins


How to get from Paris to Provins:


By Train: Take the SNCF Transilien Line P from Gare de l'Est. Trains leave every hour, and the journey takes about 1:20.

By Car: about 1:15 drive

cobbled streets of Rouen France

8. Rouen: Joan of Arc's Haunt


Medieval Rouen is 2000 years old. It's one of Normandy’s most engaging and historically rich destinations. Rouen has a turbulent history. It was devastated by fire and plague during the Middle Ages and occupied by the English during the Hundred Years War.

Rouen's central square is where Joan of Arc, the teen who rallied France to drive out the English, was tried for heresy and burned at the stake in 1431. During WWII, Allied bombing raids laid waste to the city. A lot to endure, non?


the Great Clock Tower of Rouen

But Rouen is still lovely and its cobbled old town is a joy to wander.

Stroll the length of the Rue du Gros Horloge, the pedestrianized main drag, to Notre-Dame Cathedral. Along the way, take in all the colorful half timbers, the Place due Vieux Marche, the Great Clock, and the Joan of Arc Church. If you have time, climb the clock tower's 100 steps for panoramic views.


detail from the Flamboyant Gothic facade of Rouen's cathedral, the Notre-Dame cathedral

Rouen's Notre Dame Cathedral is a landmark of art history, one of Europe's best cathedrals. Today, you still see what Claude Monet painted more than a century ago, constructed between the 12th and 14th centuries. The cathedral is free to visit. Built on the foundations of a 4th century basilica, the cathedral rises 151 meters tall, making it the tallest in France.

Inside, many of Normandy’s most famous citizens are buried, including Richard the Lionheart and early Norman rulers Rollo and William I. But it's the cathedral’s lacy Flamboyant Gothic facade that made it enduringly famous. Claude Monet painted 30 versions of it.

1 of 30 studies Claude Monet made of Rouen's cathedral in the 1890s. One is in the Rouen Museum of Fine Arts

Rouen also has a wonderful museum, the Musée des Beaux-Arts. It has masterpieces from the 15th century to the 21st century, including works from Velasquez, Van Dyke, Delacroix, Gericault, Delaroche, and the Impressionists.

Depending on how fast you move and your agenda, it's also possible to combine Rouen with a day trip to Giverny to see Monet's gardens, about an hour away.


How to get from Paris to Rouen:


By train: nearly hourly trains, 1.5 hours ride, check online

By car: about 1:45 drive


Rue aux Flageards in the medieval village of Senlis outside Paris

9. Senlis: An Authentic Medieval Village


Historic Senlis will appeal to medievalists and history-architecture buffs. Although it's a tad larger than Sarlat in the south, it has a similar vibe. You can also combine a visit to Senlis with a visit to the nearby Château de Chantilly, just 15 minutes away.

Senlis has a rich history. It's a royal town and was the cradle of the Capet Dynasty. Hugh Capet was the Lord of Senlis before becoming King in 987. Senlis was a royal seat from the time of Clovis in the 5th century to Henri IV in the 16-17th century.


cobblestone street and stone house in Senlis France


Senlis is bursting with ancient buildings and relics from the 10th to18th centuries. A large portion of its ancient Gallo-Roman walls are intact and you can admire the 16 lookout towers. Then stroll the winding cobblestone streets and admire the stone houses. Senlis is the kind of town you can get lost in. Many streets still sport names from the middles ages, signifying the occupation of their residents.

There's also a historic abbey, a medieval cellar, and the ruins of a Roman arena that you can visit. Opposite the cathedral are the 12th century remains of a royal castle, now part of an open air garden.


Cathedral Notre Dame de Senlis in Senlis France


Senlis’ cathedral, the Cathédrale de Notre Dame is a imposing highlight of Senlis. Built between 1150 and 1191, it's an impressive reminder of Senlis’ past power. It has a 78 meter tower and a magnificent carved-stone Grand Portal that is thought to have inspired the one in Chartres' cathedral.


How to get from Paris to Senlis:


By Train: Take the train from Gard du Nord from Paris to Chantilly, then take a bus to Senlis. Check train times here.

By Car: about 1 hour drive down the A1 highway, with free parking outside the town center

the medieval village of Troyes france with its romantic half timbers

10. Troyes: A Gorgeous Village Bursting With Romance


Visitors to France's Champagne region usually make a beeline for the more famous Reims. But Troyes, further south, is a delightful medieval village in France, just bursting with romance. I definitely preferred it over Reims. And there are plenty of champagne houses to visit nearby.

Troyes is unpredictably pronounced "twa." But it rolls off the tongue in a languid chic French kind of way. Troyes also has a big heart. I mean, literally, it has a big heart imbeded along the Canal du Trevois. The two ton metal sculpture is the symbol of the romantic town.

The main activity in contemporary Troyes, one of which I wholly approve, is simply strolling around the well preserved historic center. There is no need to seek out romance. It will assault you from all angles and, unless you are a complete skeptic, you'll be entranced.


a picturesque lurching half timber in Troyes France

Everywhere, there are multi-colored half-timbered houses in pastel palettes with vertical, horizontal, and diagonal stripes. The buildings lurch and slouch with an engaging lack of symmetry.

Troyes is known as the village of "ten churches," so there's plenty to see. Be sure to at least take in the Gothic Cathedral of Saint Peter and Saint Paul and the slightly grimier, Basilica of Saint Urbain. And there is some cultural heft to go along with all the Gothic splendor.


pedestrianized cobblestone street in Troyes france

Tucked behind the cathedral is the Musee d'Art Moderne. It's an unexpectedly good museum housing a private collection in the bishop's palace. It has an abundance of modern art, especially Fauves, including works by Degas, Rodin, Matisse, Picasso, Modigliani.


How to get from Paris to Troyes:


By train: from Gare de L'Est, about 1:40, check times here.

By car: about 2 hours



the Chateau de Sceaux outside Paris


11. Chateau de Sceaux



Sceaux Castle is a dreamy little chateau-castle that be reached easily from Paris. The chateau was originally built in 1670. But it was demolished during the French Revolution.


In 1856, it was re-built by the Duke of Treviso. The castle lies in a beautiful estate with a cherry blossom orchard and Orangery, which makes a spring visit enticing.

Like Versailles and Vaux-le-Vicomte, the gardens of Sceaux were designed by master landscaper André Le Nôtre. There are fountains, green spaces, and trees galore. And the grounds are free to visit.



Louis in front of the Chateau de Sceaux


Sceaux was one of the filming locations for the BBC series Versailles. If you want to avoid crowds and still see some beautiful architecture, Sceaux makes a perfect day trip from Paris.



How To Get To Sceaux from Paris:


Address: Chateau de Sceaux, 92330, Sceaux

By train: RER B to Bourg-la-Reine, Sceaux ou Parc de Sceaux; Bus: lines 192, 197

By car: 35 minute drive



Château de Monte-Cristo in Le Port-Marly outside Paris


12. Chateau de Monte-Cristo: Dumas' Gaudy Pleasure Palace



Literature lovers should day trip to the swishy pleasure house of the famed novelist Alexandre Dumas. In 1847, with characteristic panache and elan, Dumas unveiled a dashing new estate to his coterie of friends and fans. It was one of the greatest architectural follies of its time -- a miniature Renaissance chateau and a Gothic house set in Le Port-Marly outside Paris.


Naturally, Dumas christened the chateau the "Chateau de Monte-Cristo" and the Gothic house the "Chateau D'If." The novelist Honore de Balzac once described the duo as “one of the most delicious follies ever created … the most royal sweetbox in existence.”



Chateau D'If at the Chateau of Monte Cristo, Dumas' writing studio

gardens on the grounds of the Chateau de Monte Cristo


The Chateau de Monte-Cristo was an over the top palace for an over the top man. And it ultimately became Dumas' undoing, as it bankrupted him. It's now a house museum dedicated to Dumas' life and novels. And it’s chock full of mementos of the writer. If you’re a super fan of Dumas' novels, this is the place to be. Here's my complete guide.



How To Get to the Dumas Chateau from Paris:



Address: Château de Monte-Cristo 78560 Le Port-Marly

By Bus: Take Bus 10 from [what] station. Get off at Les lampes. Walk down the avenue Kennedy, then take the first right on the Chemin des Montferrand.

By Car: It's a 25 minute drive. Take the autoroute A13. Exit at Saint-Germain-en-Laye onto N186. There is an automatic gate giving access to the chateau's car park. Ring the bell for access.



An aerial view of the historic center of the city, with Notre-Dame church, in Dijon


13. Dijon: an Adorable Medieval Foodie Town



When you hear the word "dijon" you think of mustard, right? But Dijon France is so much more than just its culinary specialty. It's an adorable hidden gem, southeast of Paris and resembling a mini-Paris. Dijon is the capital of Burgundy and designated a UNESCO site for its vineyards. A little known fact is that Dijon was the birthplace of Gustav Eiffel, of Eiffel Tower fame.


Dijon is sophisticated, and filled with medieval architecture, cobbled lanes, and elegant shops. Its main attraction is the Palace of the Dukes of Burgundy, an incredible architectural ensemble. The palace also houses a nice museum, the Musée des Beaux-Arts.


The symbol of Dijon is the owl, and you'll see owls adorning its architecture and footpaths. The Owl’s Trail, or Parcours de la Chouette, guides you to the main attractions in Dijon. Try to spy the owl on the facade of Notre-Dame Church.



Palace of the Dukes of Burgundy in Dijon

stone owl on the face of Notre-Dame church in Dijon

my adorable little antique mustard pot from Dijon


How To Get To Dijon From Paris:


By train: TGV Trains leave regularly from the Gare de Lyon and take 1:45.

By car: It's slower to go by car, almost 3 hours.




Epernay on the Marne River in France's Cghampagne region


14. Epernay: Champagne Day Trip



Epernay lies in the Champagne region, about an hour outside Paris. It's a laid back alternative to Reims, where you'll be swamped by tourists sipping bubbly and gawking at the magnificent Reims cathedral. Though quaffing champagne is always glamorous, prepare for uneven cobbled roads on your walkabout.


In Epernay, you'll find some of the most famous champagne houses -- Moët & Chandon, Perrier Jouët, Mercier, and Pol Roger. Some of Pol Roger's fame derives from the fact that it was Winston Churchill's champagne of choice. He had it for lunch every day.


If you're staying in the Champagne region for a long weekend, Epernay makes a fantastic base. It's very central to all the champagne houses.



Statue of Dom Perignon outside the Moet & Chandon house in Epernay. I forgot to strike a pose.


How To Get To Epernay From Paris:


By car: 1:40 drive

By train: The train takes 1:15 from the Gare de L'Est

By tour: If you want to sample the champagne without worrying about driving, consider signing up for a tour.



Flemish houses in Arras France


15. Arras: a UNESCO Belfry



I liked Arras more than I expected too, actually. It's quiet and charming -- full of lovely squares and grand 17th and 18th century Flemish-Baroque architecture. Its two main squares are the Grand Place and the Place des Heros. From Arras, you can also visit the Battle of the Somme memorials.


Plus, the Belfry of Arras was designated as a UNESCO site in 2005, along with 56 other belfries in France and Belgium. Construction began in 1463 and took almost a century to complete. And the top of the belfry offers amazing views. You can take an elevator most of the way, with a few additional steps to hike up.


Arras also has a series of underground passages, called Les Boves, dating from the 10th century. They were originally chalk mines. But were later used by the Allies in WWI as they prepared for the Battle of Arras, a major British offensive. If you want to re-live history, you can take a guided tour.



the UNESCO-listed belfry of Arras

my BFF looking dashing in Arras on the Grand Place


How To Get To Arras From Paris:


By car: 2 hour drive By train: TGV from the Gare due Nord, 50 minutes



If you'd like to day trip from Paris, pin it for later.










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