Paris offers so much to see and do, you’d be forgiven for never setting foot outside of the city, particularly if it’s your first visit. However, if you’re visiting for the second or third time, I strongly encourage you to take a day trip. Paris is surrounded by beautiful countryside and château with stunning architecture and intriguing history. While Versailles is popular for a reason, you can avoid the crowds by visiting the following sites (with the exception of Giverny which is quite popular). Breathing in the country air, strolling through magnificent gardens and getting lost in the stories behind these incredible places will leave you refreshed and ready to tackle the city once more.
This sprawling château about 45 minutes south of Paris is nowhere near as famous as Versailles, but it offers several centuries more history. Fontainebleau was first built in the 12th century, but much of what you see today dates to the 1500s when François I, the king who brought the Renaissance and Leonardo DaVinci to France, renovated the palace. The gallery that bares his name with allegorical frescos by Rosso Fiorentino, white stucco figures, and gold leaf detailing is a highlight. Because the château is so large, many rooms are only visible on a guided tour including Marie Antoinette’s jewel box Turkish Boudoir and the Imperial Theater of Napoleon III. The rooms that you are able to visit on a self-guided tour include the Ballroom and the State Apartments, kept much the way they would have appeared when Napoleon III and Eugenie left in 1868.
From Gare de Lyon, take a Transilien train for either Montargis Sens, Montereau or Laroche-Migennes, getting off at Fontainebleau-Avon station. Take the Ligne 1 bus heading for for Les Lilas and get off at the Château stop.
Claude Monet’s home and gardens, where he painted for over 40 years, is the main reason people visit this village in the Normandy region of France. Indeed, the entire town seems to capitalize on its ties to the Impressionist painter. There’s a wonderful Museum of Impressionism and the main road is lined with art galleries. While it can feel a bit touristy, it’s still authentic. During Monet’s lifetime, the town became a pilgrimage point for artists hoping to meet and study with the famed painter. Fondation Monet includes Monet’s country home where you see firsthand how important color was for the artist from the Kelly green shutters on the outside to the brilliant blue kitchen and the sunny yellow dining room decorated with Japanese prints (a major inspiration for Monet). But the highlight may be the Water Garden, the pond surrounded by bamboo forest, and topped with water lilies that starred in Monet’s most famous paintings. From Paris take the train from Gare Saint Lazare to Gare de Vernon. It takes 45 minutes. From here you can walk or ride a bike to Giverny. It’s 7 km and bike rentals are available in front of Vernon Station. Shuttle buses from Vernon to Giverny also leave 15 minutes after each train arrives.
I believe Josephine and Napoleon’s château nine miles west of Paris may be the most worthwhile, but overlooked tourism site in Île de France. This means you should definitely go because it’s fabulous and never very crowded. The first thing you need to know about Malmaison is that it was Josephine’s refuge. The future Empress reportedly purchased it in 1799 without telling Napoleon and she lived there permanently after their divorce in 1809. She died there, sadly, just five years later. Josephine’s soul emanates from every corner including the elegant dining room with black and white floor tiles (Josephine was a legendary entertainer) to the gardens where rare roses still bloom. A passionate botanist, during her time at Malmaison Josephine grew 250 varieties of roses and she also had a greenhouse where she cultivated nearly 200 new plants in France for the first time. Napoleon’s presence can be felt in the masculine library with arched ceilings and in his military tent-inspired bedroom. Take a moment to examine the family tree in the stairwell. The royal families of Belgium, Sweden, Norway, and Denmark are all descendants of Josephine.
To get to Malmaison take the RER A train to “La Defense,” then take Bus 258 and get off at “Le Château.” Another option is to take the RER to Rueil-Malmaison, but it’s about a mile walk to the chateau.
Outside the town of Melun, lies one of France’s most stunning château. Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte was built by Nicolas Fouquet, Louis XIV’s Superintendent of Finances, in the 17th century. After attending a lavish party there, Louis XIV was reportedly so jealous he commissioned the architect, painter, and landscaper to create Versailles and he had Fouquet arrested and thrown in jail, accused of embezzling money. Fouquet died in prison in 1680, but the Baroque château endures. The interior including an oval salon with domed ceiling is impressive. For an extra three euros you can climb into the château’s dome for a spectacular view of the grounds. The best part about visiting is strolling the one-and-a-half-mile-long garden designed by André le Nôtre, which reveals canals, grottos, and other hidden treasures as you meander through.
Sill privately owned, several popular films have been shot at Vaux-le-Vicomte including The Man in the Iron Mask and The Pink Panther. From May to October the château stays open until midnight on Saturdays, when 2,000 candles illuminate the castle and the gardens in remembrance of the estate’s ill-fated creator. Picnics are allowed on the grassy lawn at the back of the property.
From Paris Gare de l’Est take Line P towards Provins. Get off at Verneuil l’Etang train station. A Châteaubus shuttle picks visitors up and takes them to the château everyday during high season. Check this page for the latest info.