If you’ve planned it well, your Paris itinerary is packed with romantic dinners, the world’s best museums (save like four days for the Louvre), historic sites, Seine-side picnics and boutique shopping. And, if you’ve built in the time for a quick escape, we dare you to think outside the box.
Sure, Versailles and Disneyland are obvious choices, but the following spots will spare you the long lines and inflated admission; best of all, you’ll have something unique to recommend to fellow travellers. Here are five places where the locals go when they want a day’s escape.
Just 38km north of Paris, Chantilly is home to nearly 3,000 horses. Yes, 3,000 horses. The town hosts 70 percent of France’s horse races, and nearly one-fifth of its 11,000 residents work for the racing industry. Head to the Henson-Chantilly Equestrian Center for your own private lessons, then check out the Living Museum of the Horse to learn about the history of the industry and its many loyal steeds.
And you can’t leave without visiting the world’s largest stables – the 18th-century marvel located alongside the Domaine de Chantilly (which itself is a 19th-century marvel). Peruse the Domaine’s exhibits and suites before taking to its jaw-dropping grounds. No surprises here: the gardens were also designed by André Le Nôtre, the same architect behind Vaux-le-Vicomte, Fontainebleau and Versailles.
Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte
Trade Versailles for this 17th-century chateau, located 55km southeast of Paris. Vaux-le-Vicomte was a cultural hub at the time – and home to Louis XIV’s financial superintendent, Nicolas Fouquet, who hosted plays by Molière, fantastic fireworks shows and elaborate feasts. Fouquet was imprisoned (for apparently using public funds to finance his property), and many years later, his wife sold the property. It changed hands until 1875, when it was acquired and soon refurbished by the Sommier family; they still own the grounds and opened it to the public in the early 1900s.
You’ll feel like royalty as you tour the stone chateau – don’t miss the carriage museum or its exhibition on the landscape architect André Le Nôtre (Louis XIV’s gardener who also designed the grounds of Versailles) – then head past the moat and onto the breathtaking 3-km-long garden. You can picnic on the grounds, or dine at any of the three onsite restaurants and cafes. Come by between late November and through Christmas to see Vaux-le-Vicomte decorated for the holiday, with horse-drawn carriage rides offered along with fresh gingerbread from the in-house kitchen. And, between May and October, stay into the evening for a 2,000-candle display, plus live theatre and poetry performances.
Paris is wonderful, but those banks of the Seine can’t compare to a proper beach. Point yourself 200km northwest of the capital for a day of horse races, sandy picnics and a seafood supper. The town hosts the annual Deauville American Film Festival each year, bringing Hollywood A-listers and on-the-rise auteurs for a week in early September.
You can also drive along the coast to some of Normandy’s other famous beaches, tracing history as you visit the famous D-Day landing points, like Utah, Omaha, Sword, Juno and Gold Beach.
Between the 11th and 19th centuries, thirty-four consecutive sovereign French rulers resided part time at the Chateâu de Fontainebleau. (Its inhabitants included Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, Henry IV, and Napoleon). Just 56 km southeast of Paris, Fontainebleau now has 16,000 residents, and is also the site of the famous Forest of Fontainebleau, a 280-sq-km deciduous woods that provides scenic hiking and overlooks. Once your outdoor excursions end, spend the afternoon touring the palace – with its galleries, theatre, chapels, apartments and gardens (also designed by André Le Nôtre) – in addition to the onsite galleries. It’s a day-long lesson in French history, which you know is nothing short of dramatic.
Roughly 80km northwest of Paris, this small commune has only 500 residents. It is best known for being the home of impressionist painter Claude Monet. His property, dense with wildlife, was the subject of many of his famous garden paintings, including the four-seasons Water Lilies series that hang in the round at Paris’ Musée de L’Orangerie. His home is now a museum – and your main attraction for the day – open between late March and early November each year. The home and grounds are both enormous – Monet wasn’t shy for cash – meriting a private tour, though standard self-guided admission is just €10.20. The other main attraction in town is the Giverny Museum of Impressionism, a wonderful complement to the Monet tour that features the works of other Impressionist artists who resided in the commune or defined the movement. Its two rotating exhibits run in that same March-November timeframe, in 3- or 4-month intervals.
Featured image is Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte; photo by Lourdel Chicurel