With over 200 museums and monuments, parks, and attractions around every corner, you could spend a lifetime in Paris and never run out of things to do. But France, with its fascinating heritage and rich regional diversity, is much more than just its famous capital city. Glimpse another side of “The Hexagon”—France’s nickname comes from its roughly geometric shape—with a day trip out of the metropolis.
At low tide, Mont St. Michel sits perched on a seemingly endless swath of sand, a whipped cream dollop of a village topped by a monastery that stretches skyward. At high tide, it emerges from the water like something out of Lord of the Rings, a fantastical, mountain-like palace surrounded by a natural moat. Any time of day, it’s one of France must-see monuments—and UNESCO agrees. It’s tricky to reach by train, so if you don’t want to rent a car, a bus is the quickest and most hassle-free way to get there. Once you cross the bridge and step through the medieval ramparts, you’ll be transported to another time. Mont St. Michel sits on the edge of the Brittany region, known for its apple cider, crêpes, and caramel. You can even put those three together and get cup with a caramel crêpe, the ultimate Breton combo and the perfect snack for sitting on a terrace, taking in the view, and imagining life in a different era. In this perfectly preserved monument to the past, it’s easy to do.
Nothing says “festive” quite like a glass of bubbly, and the French (arguably) are the ones that make it best. Spend a day in the region that produces the world’s most celebrated sparkling wine with a day trip to the charming villages and rolling vineyards of Champagne. Trains run daily and frequently between Paris and the towns of Reims and Epernay, both great starting points for exploring the region. You can stick to the town centers and visit tasting rooms, or opt to tour the area via car or bus to get further into the fields for a closer look at the cellars and a chance to learn: Just how do they get those bubbles in there?
Normandy and the D-Day Beaches: “/>
The site of one of World War II’s most dramatic, violent, and tumultuous battles, the D-Day beaches in Normandy are, today, unexpectedly serene. It’s hard not to be moved here, and the flags flapping in the sea breeze above the peaceful shoreline are enough to make your heart swell with patriotic pride. The Normandy American Cemetery, with its rows upon rows of tidy white crosses, is both dignified and poignant, and the thoughtful and informative memorials in the area paint a powerful picture of events that took place on these shores and shaped 20th century history. Again, getting here and making your way between the sites using public transportation is tricky, so renting a car or joining a bus tour are the best ways to go.
You know what’s great about Europe? Being able to hop on a train and step off in another country just a short while later. Leave Paris’ cosmopolitan grandeur behind and cross the border into Belgium, France’s next-door neighbor to the east. In Bruges—nicknamed the Venice of the North for obvious reasons—you can stroll cobblestone lanes along tree-shaded canals and walk beneath the soaring steeples and clock towers of fairy-tale Gothic churches. Don’t miss a chance to tuck into the hearty Belgian fare on offer at street stands, cafes, and watering holes around town. Waffles, French fries, steamed mussels, and—of course—an endless array of Belgian beers are all gustatory treats not to be missed.
Have you ever seen Monet’s paintings of water lilies? Of course you have. Well, in Giverny you can see the actual ponds, bridges, and blooming flower gardens that Monet studied when he painted his famous impressionist works—all in the garden behind his home and studio. Tour his house, stroll through the gardens (they’re open and redolent between April and October), and visit the Musee des Impressionnismes for a look at the history of the movement and more contemporary works. The village itself is as charming as can be, a picture-perfect postcard of a French village with its flower-bedecked doorways, stone houses, and cobbled alleys. You can reach Giverny by car, or take the train from Paris to Vernon and then continue the final 4 miles (7 km) to Giverny by taxi, shuttle bus, or on foot.
Fontaineblea or Chantilly:”/>
The Loire Valley (see below) is famed for its turreted, ramparted, and moated splendor, but right outside of Paris—read: accessible without a car—are easier-to-reach castles with just as much fairy-tale pomp. Take a regional train from the Gare du Nord to Chantilly, walk across manicured parkland framed by elegant mansions, pass the Grand Stables—this palatial equestrian residence could only be considered a barn through a real stretch of the imagination—and, if you’re lucky, catch a glimpse of thoroughbreds galloping around the track at the Chantilly Racecourse. Finally, arrive at the Château de Chantilly. This storybook castle is perched on the edge of an artificial lake, filled with paintings by Renaissance masters and medieval manuscripts, and is so extravagantly pretty that it only seems right that something as luscious and fanciful as whipped cream was invented here. On the opposite side of Paris is Fontainebleau, easily reached via a 45-minute train ride from the Gare de Lyon followed by a short walk or shuttle ride. This UNESCO World Heritage Site was a royal residence from the 12th century all the way through to the reign of Napoleon III, and it owes its impressive sprawl to the numerous additions made by various monarchs throughout the centuries. Walking trails through the forest offer a chance to get some fresh air in green surroundings, and touring the castle’s grounds and lavish interiors can keep you busy for hours.
If you only leave Paris’ city center once during your stay, make the short journey to Versailles, the massive royal playground of the Sun King, Louis XIV. The opulent palace and its extensive gardens will be in competition for your attention—you could spend days exploring both. From the gilded and glimmering Hall of Mirrors to the Grand Canal, from the lawns that hosted some of Europe’s most over-the-top parties to the whimsically quaint hamlet of the ill-fated queen, Marie Antoinette, there are treasures here around every corner. Buy your tickets in advance—this is the third most popular attraction in France, after all—and plan to stay a while. You can bike around the grounds or while the afternoon away with picnic supplies purchased in the town’s fantastic local market, the Carré du Marche Notre Dame.
The Loire Valley:”/>
Visiting the Loire Valley is like stepping into the pages of a storybook. It’s easy to imagine Cinderella leaving a slipper on the steps of one of these splendid castles, or Rapunzel leaning from the tower of a turreted palace built to span an entire river. Today renowned as one of France’s finest winegrowing regions, the Loire Valley was, for centuries, the favorite retreat for royals, dukes, princes, and the like, who from castle to castle on horseback between hunting expeditions and banquets in tapestried halls. With hundreds of castles in the green hillsides and along the riverbanks, one day here isn’t enough to see it all, but you can certainly get a good taste of it. A car is necessary to shuttle between castles like Chenonceau, Chambord, and Chinon. Alternately, you can join a tour that takes care of the transportation and gets you tickets in advance, so you spend less time in line and more time channeling your inner medieval monarch as you stroll along the stony ramparts.
Only 2 hours of high-speed train and a little over 30 miles (50 km) of underwater tunnel separate the French and English capital cities. Hop on the Eurostar at the Gare du Nord and step off in St Pancras International. Public transportation makes touring London on your own a breeze, but an organized tour can make sure you don’t miss the highlights—particularly on a day trip. Take a river boat up the Thames, ride a classic double-decker bus, and snap a photo in a red phone booth for the classic souvenir shot. History buffs can walk in Anne Boleyn’s ill-fated footsteps at the Tower of London, and those interested in a brush with Kate or William should keep their eyes peeled for the royal fam at Kensington Palace during a British break from the City of Light.
Avignon and Provence:”/>
Dreaming of sunnier locales? Thanks to France’s high-speed TGV, you can be whisked from the gray skies of Paris to the lavender fields, country wineries, and Mediterranean charm of Le Sud (the South) in just about 3 hours. Do a little dance on the famous bridge in Avignon (if you don’t know the French song about it, a local or your tour guide will be happy to oblige you with a ditty) or tour the pope’s palace (remember that Papal schism thing from high school history? Pope #1 stayed holed up in Rome; pope #2 reigned from Avignon). You can also spend time wandering through the tiny hilltop villages that Provence is famous for, with their narrow cobbled streets, stone buildings, easy pace of life, and plentiful stocks of rosé and pastis.
For more day trip ideas and other things to do in Paris, click here.