Whether it's your first trip to the City of Light or your fifth, you can easily experience the French countryside in less than an hours' train ride from Paris. Day trip jaunts to charming villages, impressive châteaux, lush forests and gardens, and restaurants serving hardy regional cuisine can be planned at the drop of a hat, without the hassle or expense of renting a car.
It's hard to imagine skipping Château de Versailles—but you can skip the typical tourist experience (and a long line) by arranging a private tour of the State Apartments, which will include a walk through the Hall of Mirrors and stops at other notable rooms. Be privy to the most intimate life at court as you're led along narrow passageways and up winding staircases to the chambers and antechambers of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Afterward, do as the royalty did when the Chateau felt as busy as Paris and flee to the expansive Parc de Versailles, the Grand and Petit Trianon palaces, and the tucked away lakeside village and farm of the Domaine of Marie-Antoinette, with its thatched-roof cottages and water mill. While at the Queen's Hamlet, don't miss taking a peek inside the recently restored Theatre de la Reine. Note that the Petit Trianon has been closed to visitors since 2006, but it's still worth the walk over to see the outside.
30-40 minutes from Paris by train; take the RER C to Château de Versailles; (6 euro round-trip).
Best Bets for Lunch
If you're starved after touring the Château and are headed out to the Trianon palaces and the Hamlet, stop at La Petite Venise, a great little brasserie and tea room with outdoor seating located between the Apollo Fountain and the Grand Canal. (Open Mon.-Sat. for lunch and dinner; brunch on Sun. Closed Mon.; 01-39-53-25-69). If you happen to be visiting on Friday or Saturday, treat yourself to brunch at Gordon Ramsay au Trianon. (1 Boulevard de la Reine; Brunch from 12:30-2. 01-30-84-55-56).
If you're at all outdoorsy, spend time hiking in the dense Fontainebleau forest, just on the outskirts of the town, where the French Royalty once held elaborate hunts. In the town of the same name, you'll find the Château de Fontainebleau, a 16th-century château that was a primary residence of Napoleon, with its luxurious 100-foot-long ballroom. Nearby is the incredible 17th-century Vaux le Vicomte, considered the precursor to Château de Versailles, built by Nicolas Fouquet, designed by Louis Le Vau, and decorated by the prolific Charles Le Brun. A must-see in this area is the lesser-known gem, Barbizon, a village that became an artists' hamlet for Jean-Francois Millet, Theodore Rosseau, and the gaggle of landscape painters known as the Barbizon School in the 17th century. Here, you'll find the Musée de l'École de Barbizon (Barbizon School Museum), with artists' sketches covering the walls and furniture.
To get to Fontainebleau, take 40 min. train ride from Gare de Lyon to the Fontainebleau-Avon station; (about 8 euro one-way); a taxi into the center of town costs about 10 euro, but there's also shuttle bus service to the Chateau for 3 euro round-trip. To get to Vaux le Vicomte, take a 25 min. train ride from Gare de Lyon to the Melun station (about 8 euro one-way); If you're visiting from mid-March to mid-November, Vaux runs a shuttle from the Melun station for 7 euro round-trip. If you're here off-season, you can take a taxi from the Melun train station to Vaux in about 15 min. (about 30 euro each way). Staff at the chateau can call a cab back or arrange a pick up with your driver. To get to Barbizon, take the train to Melun and a 20-min bus ride (line 9, direction Cornebiche) to town.
Best Bets for Lunch
Most menus here are a bit game-heavy, given the area's hunting tradition. In Fontainebleau, Chez Arrighi has a balanced menu (fish is always an option) and an Art Deco décor. In Barbizon, you'll have a splendid meal at the new Hôtel Les Pléiades ( 21 Grande Rue; 01-60-66-40-25), in a cozy room with a fireplace. If you're visiting Vaux, your only choice is the château's self-serve cafeteria, L'Ecureuil, which is pricey and average. Grab something here to tide yourself over until dinner.
This small, royal town is the perfect destination for those who want to spend the afternoon breathing in country air while ambling along hilly cobblestone streets lined with boutiques filled with crafts, local fabrics, and antiques. It was a getaway for Louis XVI, who invited guests to his castle for hunts in Marly's royal forest. The castle was destroyed, but the famous Marly Horse statues that were here survived and are at the Louvre. The tremendous English-style park still exists as well; take a stroll across the expansive lawns to build up an appetite for lunch or to walk it off before heading back to Paris.
25 min train ride from Paris's Gare St-Lazare (about 8 euro round trip).
Best Bets for Lunch
The obvious choice is the much talked about Le Village Restaurant (3 Grande Rue, 01-39-16-28-14) for French haute cuisine prepared by the renowned Japanese chef Tomohiro Uido. For a fabulous traditional English tea served daily, check out Cottage (7 Grande Rue, 01 39-16-34-89).
For more great advice on planning a trip to Paris, consult our just-published Paris 2009 guidebook.