Magical Off The Beaten Path Day Trips From Paris
Updated: Jan 20
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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 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
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.
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.
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
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 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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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 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.
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
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?
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.