Updated: Mar 9, 2020
When you're ready for a break from the crowds of tourists in Paris, why not take a day trip into the French countryside? Although less visited than the city of lights, the region just north of Paris is dotted with picturesque towns where you can explore castles that will take your breath away, and even walk in the footsteps of Impressionist painters like Monet and Van Gogh!
Although it is possible to take a combination of trains and buses to reach these places, I highly recommend renting a car and driving yourself. Driving in France is easy once you get out of Paris. For the love of all things holy, do NOT attempt to drive in Paris unless absolutely necessary! For more details on this, see my article on how to survive Paris. Each of these day trips are only about an hour from Paris, easy to get to, and have beautiful scenery along the routes.
You can go at your own pace, leave when you're ready, and stop at other places along the way if you choose. My only other advice here is don't speed. Seriously, just don't. They have cameras and speed detection devices along the highways and you may just get a thank you card from the French Government after your trip is over in the form of a speeding ticket.
Now let's get to why you're reading this. Here are 5 awesome day trips you absolutely must take from Paris, all within about an hour's drive.
In a quiet suburb north of Paris, surrounded by the Chantilly Forrest, you will find the Chateau de Chantilly. This beautiful country estate will take you back in time! Originally built in the Middle Ages, this palace was used as a country retreat by Kings and Princes. Not bad for a weekend getaway! Chateau de Chantilly truly became a masterpiece when Henri d’Orléans, son of the last King of France, made Chantilly the showcase for his collection of precious art and manuscripts.
Just as fascinating as the palace are the surrounding grounds and walking trails. There are also some quite lovely gardens here that are perfect for relaxing with a picnic lunch, or even some cheese and wine. A trip to the French countryside would not be complete without it! If you're short on time, you can even rent a motorized cart to explore the sprawling grounds.
You may associate the name Chantilly with the delicate lace or delicious whipped cream it is famous for, but this domain is also known for horses, and even has a museum dedicated to the area's history of horse racing. Just 45 minutes north of Paris, you can easily spend half a day exploring here, and get back to Paris in time for dinner!
Sitting atop a hill outside the charming little town of Ecouen, is Chateau d'Ecouen (The National Museum of the Renaissance). This castle turned museum is an excellent add-on to your Chantilly day trip, but is also well worth a quick half day trip all by itself!
Rebuilt in the 1500's, the castle is beautiful in its own right. The decorative iron work on the outer gate and walls, inner courtyard, and remnants of an old moat will make you feel like you stepped into a fairy tale! This impressive fortress was built facing east, with the intent of shutting off possible invasion routes to Paris. It has stood the test of time and weathered wars, with scars and bullet holes from World War II scattered across its stone walls.
The only museum of its kind in France, Chateau d'Ecouen boasts an impressive collection of decorative arts from the 16th and 17th centuries. Among some of the most prestigious paintings and tapestries is the 10 piece wall hanging of David and Bathsheba. If you love art and all things Renaissance, this day trip is perfect for you!
A drive to this little village is not to be missed! Tour the house and gardens of impressionist painter Claude Monet, and stand in the field of poppies that inspired his famous painting. You can find it at the back edge of the gardens. If possible, you should arrive early to tour Monet's house. The wait in line can reach several hours, especially during peak summer travel time. There is a quaint little gift shop and cafe on site as well.
As an alternative to eating in Giverny, drive just a few miles away to the adorable little town of La Roche-Guyon. The view as you drive into the valley is spectacular, but the real treat here is the castle built right into the side of a hill! The Chateau de la Roche-Guyon is actually a castle within a castle, built around the original medieval fortress. This may not be as fancy as some other castles in France, but it is beautiful in its simplicity, and has a cool history that includes playing a role in World War II!
You'll find free parking down the street directly across from the castle, and several cafes and creperies in town. Believe me, you'll need energy to climb the 250+ steps to the top of the tower. Don't wimp out here, the view from the top is totally worth it!
Just an hour north of Paris, discover a place where another Impressionist painter lived. And died! Auvers-sur-Oise is the location of Vincent van Gogh's suicide and final resting place, as well as being the inspiration for many of his paintings. It's a sad story, but when you come here you will see why he loved this town so much. If driving, park at the cemetery outside of town first. This is where Van Gogh is buried next to his brother, who died only 6 months after him.
From here, walk down the gravel path to the wheat fields that inspired what is believed to be Van Gogh's last painting. Turn left at the sign for the painting site and walk down the dirt path. If it doesn't creep you out too much, stop at the second cluster of trees down this path. This is said to be the place where Van Gogh shot himself. The shot was not immediately fatal, as he died in town two days later.
Follow the path to the Church at Auvers, which was the inspiration for another of Van Gogh's famous paintings. Sadly, although he loved this church, his funeral was not allowed there due to his death by suicide, as well as his being a protestant.
If you want to see the original painting of Van Gogh's Church at Auvers, it can be found in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.
From the church, take the road up the hill to complete the loop back to the cemetery. Then drive back into town to see the inn where Van Gogh died, L'Auberge Ravoux. You can park on the street, or in the lot next to the square where the old town hall sits. This is directly across from the inn, and another painting location. If you've come this far, you should take time to see the actual room where he died. Go past the inn and turn down the street to the right, the entrance is about 100 meters down. There is a cafe and restaurant here, as well as a cozy little courtyard with outdoor seating.
From the Main Street, you can walk to several other museums in town if you choose. The Musee Daubigny and Musee de l'Absinthe are both a short walk from L'Auberge Ravoux. No, they don't give free Absinthe samples, but it's a neat little museum that's fun and quirky. You can also walk or drive up to the Chateau d'Auvers, a must see before you leave! Entrance to the Chateau is 15 Euro, but walking around the grounds is free and makes for some pretty awesome photos. This day trip will be one of your favorites!
Chateau de Pierrefonds is a medieval castle that was originally built in the late 14th century. It was all but destroyed in the 17th century, but was resurrected by Napoleon III in the 1800's. Although the new design was meant to recreate how it would have looked in the Middle Ages, it also reflects the Gothic style of the times. With classic turrets, a working drawbridge, and winding stairways that lead to tall towers, this place is straight out of a fairy tale!
Speaking of fairy tales, one of the coolest things about this castle is the fairy tale exhibit on the first floor, complete with dark lighting and spooky displays. Did I mention this castle has a cellar with a display of tombs and marble statues, and a hall of princesses? I never get tired of exploring castles, but this one is something extra special.
Although the Chateau is what draws people to Pierrefonds, the town is full of charm as well! Artisan shops, bakeries, and cafes, with no tourist stands in sight made this town one of our favorites! We visited this castle while staying with friends from Paris, and they were as excited to come here for the crepes as we were to see the castle. We ate at Creperie le Triskell and it definitely did not disappoint. I'm not sure what was better, the mouthwatering crepes or the gorgeous view of the castle!
Ready to venture out of the city and into the French countryside? With these must-do day trips from Paris, you can't go wrong! If you enjoyed this article, please share! As always, I'd love to hear your feedback in the comments. Happy day-tripping!