Already done Versailles and Monet's Gardens? Then look into these five excursions about an hour from the City of Light.
The chateau houses France's largest collection of Renaissance paintings after the Louvre, though in a much more intimate setting. The outdoor 18th century hamlet is the spot to get a bowl of strawberries and whipped cream—called, appropriately, Chantilly—when the weather permits. The most striking feature of the chateau, however, is actually the stable, which many mistake for the castle. It contains the Horse Museum and also sports an arena for dressage demonstrations featuring well-trained ponies, dogs, and horses.
One of the best ways to discover the area is to take a bike tour. Consider booking a personalized one with French Mystique to explore the domain more thoroughly.
ChartresA short train ride from Gare Montparnasse leads to the tiny town of Chartres, known for its UNESCO listed cathedral. Begun in the 12th century, the church continues to be a site for pilgrims, with its mismatched spires and largely original stained glass windows adding to its unique appearance. Ask about any English-speaking tours at the gift shop inside the cathedral before wandering on your own. And if possible, visit between April and October, when the light show illuminates the cathedral each night.
The main focus of Chartres is the gothic cathedral, but there is also an art museum within the former bishop's residence, as well as the Maison Picasiette, an early 20th century house covered in glass mosaics. The streets around the cathedral host small shops and bakeries selling local specialties like the Cochelin, a chocolate-filled pastry in the shape of a man.
Despite its tiny size, Chartres also can be a culinary destination. The Grand Monarque Hotel, dating to the 17th century, is home to Chez Georges, another Michelin-starred restaurant that's worth the trek. The discovery menu, at just $87, is driven by seasonal market produce, while the exhaustive wine list features more than 2,000 bottles. Your best bet? Ask the waiter for a suggestion.
LilleTake the train from Gare du Nord to the town of Lille, an under-appreciated industrial part of France that contrasts nicely from Paris—at least for a day. With its distinctive Flemish influences in the architecture and with numerous beers on tap at each bar, Lille feels more Belgian than French. Stroll the Grand Place before heading to the tangle of streets north of the train station, called Vieux Lille.
The local institution is Meert, a confectionery shop that sells pricey yet delicious gauffres, flavored cream sandwiched between paper-thin waffles. For lunch, don't expect anything light and dainty. Head to A Taaable for a welsch, bread covered in ham and melted cheese served with a massive bowl of fries. Wash it all down with a local or seasonal beer.
Afterwards, grab a coffee at Tamper! Espresso Bar, proof that the hipster-driven Paris coffee scene isn't alone in France. If words on the menu like "siphon" and "Hario V60" don't mean anything to you, then just keep it simple and order a filtered coffee. The caffeine will fuel a few more hours of wandering the shops and boutiques of Vieux Lille before heading back to Paris.
OrleansTake the train from Gare d'Austerlitz and arrive in the tiny city of Orleans in just over an hour. Just south of Paris, the city was a home and battleground for France's most famous leading lady, Joan of Arc. She led the French army to victory over occupying English forces in 1429.
In Orleans, visit a reconstruction of her house before strolling the medieval streets and stunning cathedral where Joan herself would have prayed. The stained glass windows inside retrace her life. Nearby, enter the 16th century Hotel Groslot, which once housed royalty like Catherine de Medici, and today hosts local weddings.
While sightseeing options and museums are limited, consider spending a few hours overlooking the Loire River while dining at Le Lièvre Gourmand. This Michelin-starred restaurant offers a culinary adventure led by head chef Tristan Robreau. The seven course tasting menu, with dessert and cheese, only costs $80—a steal compared with anything similar in Paris. It's worth the day trip just to experience whatever Chef Robreau has to offer.
RouenFrom Gare Saint Lazare, most people will take the train and get off to go to Monet's Gardens at the station called Vernon. Instead, stay in your seat and continue on to Rouen. This medieval town, the capital of Normandy, is another spot associated with Joan of Arc: it's where she was burned to death.
Wander the streets lined with colorful half-timbered houses for a taste of medieval France, when the astrological clock, or gros horloge, was one of the town's claims to fame. The iconic cathedral is immortalized in a series of paintings by Claude Monet, some of which are on display back in Paris at the Musée d'Orsay. With botanical gardens, museums, and countless other churches to explore, be sure to plan some time to experience local cuisine.
For dining, La Couronne is a local institution since 1345, serving up gourmet French fare. For a more relaxed meal, head across the Place du Vieux Marché (where Joan was burned) and pop into the Poissonnerie des Halles for fresh seafood.