The glories of France and beyond await.
With high-speed train routes crisscrossing the map of France like swirls in a van Gogh painting, whisking you away from the French capital to delightful destinations in no time, you can stay in your Paris hotel and spend the day enjoying Burgundy wine, Monet landscapes, World War II battlefields, even sipping a cuppa tea in London. Here are some of the best day trips from Paris, via the SNCF (Rail Europe).
INSIDER TIPParis has seven different train stations, each one serving a different part of France.
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WHERE: 3 hours 15 mins from Paris Gare de Lyon
The Provençal sun beams down as you stroll this walkable walled city, its ancient streets packed with boutiques, sidewalk cafés, and museums. The highlight is, of course, the sprawling Palais des Papes (Palace of the Popes), the backdrop of papal intrigue when the Roman popes moved here in the 14th century. Dance across the famous Avignon bridge, sample papalines (layers of dark chocolate and pink papaline chocolate with an inner cell of herby Comtat liqueur), and be back in Paris in time for a nightcap. The Gare d’Avignon TGV train station is located about 3 miles southwest of the old town; so you’ll want to take the shuttle or bus, or grab a cab.
WHERE: 60 mins from Paris Gare du Nord
A Flemish-flavored town once known for its industrial might, compact Lille has emerged with its own charms. Give a nod to the Old Masters—including Monet, Rubens, and Van Dyck—at the Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille, which possesses the country’s second largest collection of fine arts after the Louvre. Then head for the gables and cobblestones of Vieux Lille, the heart of which is the magnificent Place du Général de Gaulle.
The surrounding tangle of ancient lanes now buzz with bistros, boutiques, and galleries. Check out Cathédrale Notre-Dame, which has an art gallery in its crypt, and Musée de l’Hospice Comtesse, a museum in the former hospital. Before hopping back on the train, grab a gaufre (waffle) at Méert, the decadent chocolate shop beloved by kings and generals since 1761. From the Lille Europe train station, it’s about a 15-minute walk to the heart of Vieux Lille.
WHERE: 30 mins from Paris Gare du Nord
If you like frilly palaces, the Château de Chantilly is the place for you. Gilded trim, glittering crystal chandeliers, and acres of silk all converge to create a masterpiece of faux Renaissance beauty.
Though it’s not all about good looks. Chantilly is also famous for its Musée Condé, showcasing an impressive collection of illuminated medieval manuscripts, Old Masters (including Raphael), and tapestries. Take time to admire the library and the stables, as well as to stroll the landscaped grounds. With more time, admire the elegant town of Chantilly itself, filled with sandstone townhouses, manicured gardens, and tree-shaded parkland. It’s an easy walk from the train station to town; or take the free city bus.
INSIDER TIPSpeaking of frilly, crème Chantilly—aka whipped cream—was invented at the palace, served as the final touch on super elegant desserts. See how it’s made to perfection at the château’s La Capitainerie restaurant.
WHERE: 2 hours 40 mins from Paris Gare d’Austerlitz
Sleeping Beauty has recently woken up, transforming from a gritty port city to a gleaming, trendy metropolis. The Sts. Pierre and Paul quarter is the heart of Old Bordeaux, where you could spend the day exploring narrow lanes and picturesque squares thrumming with sidewalk bistros and chic cafés. Nearby, a promenade offers a pleasant riverfront stroll and the Miroir d’Eau, the world’s largest reflection pool. All that said, Bordeaux is no doubt most famed for its gastronomy and wine, and you can’t leave before sampling. One option is the new Cité du Vin (City of Wine), an incomparable, interactive wine museum complete with wine tasting and a fabulous restaurant. There is the LGV line leaving from Paris Montparnasse that takes only 2h04 to get to Bordeaux.
WHERE: 2 hours from Paris Gare de Lyon
The Burgundy Dukes once ruled this aristocratic city, leaving behind their ancient palace now filled with beautiful Dutch and Flemish art. That’s where you need to start your day. But the city also has made a name for itself in the foodie realm, and so you need to focus on that as well. There’s no shortage of excellent restaurants, but why not stop by Les Halles, the city’s produce market, for some of the world’s best piquenique fare, then spread your blanket at swan-dotted Lac Kir? Remember that among the super fresh products you’ll find spicy mustard made in a parade of flavors and Burgundy wine. Before leaving, be sure to sip a kir, a white wine and crème de cassis cocktail named for a former mayor. The Gare de Dijon is about 5 minutes from the town center.
WHERE: 1 hour 30 mins from Paris Gare de l’Est
See how the sparkle is put into French wine in the elegant town of Reims, in the heart of Champagne country. Famous Champagne houses including Veuve Cliquot and Mumm age their wines in Roman chalk mines—all of which you can see on tour.
Here, too, you’ll find a cathedral that rivals the Gothic splendor of Notre-Dame de Paris, complete with ancient stained-glass windows (along with more modern ones by Chagall). It’s where most French kings were crowned, between the 13th and 19th centuries. The Gare Champagne-Ardenne TGV train station, located about 5 miles from Reims, is connected by tramway.
WHERE: 2 hours 30 mins from Paris Gare de Lyon
Many compare Lyon to a smaller version of Paris, filled as it is with amazing restaurants, museums, and historic sites. And as much as Parisians may not like it, Lyon is also France’s gastronomic mecca, offering plenty of brasseries, outdoor markets, and bouchons (cozy restaurants) to sample such local specialties as sausage, tripe, and salade Lyonnaise (20 restaurants boast Michelin stars!).
Beyond gustatory temptations, check out the traboules (secret pathways and staircases—the longest one runs between 54 rue Saint Jean and 27 rue du Boeuf) in Vieux Lyon, the Roman theater dating back to 15 B.C., and the Institut Lumière, honoring early moviemaking. If you still have time, peek at the futuristic architecture drawing attention in the neighborhood of La Confluence. The Gare de Lyon-Part Dieu train station is located about 2 miles from town center; get there by train, tram, metro, or taxi.
WHERE: 2 hours from Paris Gare St.-Lazare
The capital of Normandy has a famous astrological clock, a cathedral immortalized by Monet, and a fabulous interactive museum about Joan of Arc—she was tried and burned at the stake here. This is also where Julia Child tasted her first French meal, igniting her passion for cooking; La Couronne is still open for business. All of the major sites are located on or near the pedestrianized rue du Gros-Horloge, making for easy visiting. For lunch, stop by a crêperie for a buckwheat crèpe and a pitcher of cider. You can duck into the Musée des Beaux-Arts (free admission), which has some fabulous paintings including several of Monet’s depicting Rouen cathedral, on the short walk back to the Gare de Rouen-Rive-Droite train station.
INSIDER TIPThe city is undergoing some major renewal, including the recent addition of a three-plus-mile-long landscaped esplanade along the Seine River, complete with historic hangars now filled with restaurants and bars. It’s a stunning place for sunset watching.
Orléans, Loire Valley
WHERE: 1 hour 10 mins from Paris Gare d’Austerlitz
Joan of Arc’s old stomping grounds in the heart of the Loire Valley includes a re-creation of her house and a stunning Gothic cathedral lording over the medieval streets where Joan prayed during the 1429 campaign against the English. You’ll find them in the cobblestone historic district, filled with half-timbered houses, Renaissance facades, and magnificent mansions. Then stroll the Parc Floral de la Source, a magical public park with breathtaking dahlia and iris gardens. Note that the train station—Gare d’Orléans Centre—located in the middle of town serves regional trains; the Gare des Aubrais, about a mile out of town, serves the fast-speed TGV.
WHERE: 1 hour 10 mins from Paris Gare St.-Lazare
The Impressionist fandom revolves around Giverny, the village where the Father of Impressionism lived and worked in the painting-perfect Normandy countryside. You’ll learn all about Claude Monet on a tour of his home, filled with Japanese pottery and copies of his works. But it’s the enormous, bloom-filled garden that dazzles most, where you can pose for photos in scenes made famous by the artist’s paintings, including the lily-dotted pond and the sweet Japanese bridge. Note that it’s about three miles from the train station in Vernon to the historic site; you can take a shuttle, rent a bike, or walk.
INSIDER TIPThe Impressionist fanfare continues down the lane at the Musée des Impressionismes, a small art museum devoted to Impressionism; and the Hôtel Baudy, a restaurant where Impressionists once hung out.
WHERE: 45 mins from Paris Gare du Nord (transfer at Pontoise)
The village where many Impressionists lived and painted still looks exactly as they knew it (and we know it, through their paintings). Spend the day strolling the picturesque streets, where placards of paintings have been set up showing where artists stood to create some of the world’s most memorable works, including van Gogh’s “Church at Auvers” and Cézanne’s “Hanged Man’s House in Auvers.” Van Gogh spent three months madly painting here in 1890, until he was shot, either by himself or others; he’s buried at the village church. You can visit the inn where he stayed and the home of Dr. Gachet, one of the artists’ patrons. There’s also a museum devoted to French artist Charles-François Daubigny and his contemporaries. Auvers is a little tricky to get to—you normally need to transfer at Pontoise—but it’s worth it.
WHERE: 2 hours from Paris Gare St.-Lazare
The D-Day invasion onto Normandy’s beaches is legendary (and commemorated its 75th anniversary in 2019), but you can’t comprehend the courage of the Allied soldiers, the sheer tenacity of the plan, until you’re standing on the very edge of the same precipitous cliffs they scaled in a shower of German gunfire. Start at the splendid Mémorial de Caen (Caen Memorial Museum), where you could spend the entire day pouring over exhibits detailing every aspect of events leading up to the invasion, along with the invasion itself. You also can pick up a couple-hour tour of the nearby landing beaches, the American cemetery, and the Pointe du Hoc cliffs. A taxi is the easiest option to get from the Gare de Caen to the museum.
WHERE: 2 hours 20 mins from Paris Gare du Nord
Give a nod to Big Ben on a speedy dash across (er, under) the Channel and a whirlwind tour of London. You’ll get off at St. Pancras station, where a quick trip on the Tube brings you to Trafalgar Square and its iconic monument to Lord Nelson. Breeze through the National Gallery (free admission), then stroll along the Mall road toward Buckingham Palace for the Changing of the Guard (the Queen is home if the flag is raised). Alas, you probably won’t have time to take a tour, but know that there are various options to visit the opulent abode. After, you’ll want to see Houses of Parliament along the River Thames and the Gothic Westminster Abbey, London’s oldest religious building. Here you’ll also find Elizabeth Tower, most famous for the Big Ben bell inside.
INSIDER TIPIf you still have time, cross the river for a bird’s-eye view of London via the London Eye, especially spectacular at sunset.
Brugge (Bruges), Belgium
WHERE: 3 hours 20 mins from Paris Gard de Nord (transfer in Lille or Brussels)
In this medieval jewel box of a village, you’ll want to spend the day strolling its cobbled, canalside lanes edged with boutiques, brasseries, and cafés (a bowl of steamed mussels and frites is the signature fare, served with a pintje of beer). Check out the Grote Markt (market square), where you can climb the 13th-century Belfry Tower; Groeningemuseum, filled with van Eycks, Memlings, and the like; and the glorious mansions of the Hansa Quarter. Note that the Gruuthusemuseum (the lords’ extravagant palace) is reopening after an extensive renovation and worth a peek. Canal rides are also popular. It’s an easy 20-minute walk from the train station to the town center; or take the number 3 or 12 bus, direction “Centrum,” getting off at the “Brugge Markt” station.
INSIDER TIPYou’ll find a Madonna and Child by Michelangelo in the beautiful Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk (Church of Our Lady).
WHERE: 1 hour 20 mins from Paris
The Belgian capital offers more than you may think. Start off at the famous Grand’Place, encircled with gabled, highly decorated, 17th-century buildings. This is a great place to grab an espresso or one of those famous Belgian waffles; try Maison Dandoy (one minute off the place on rue Charles Buls). Then wander the warren of surrounding lanes harboring chocolate shops, small museums, and the Mannequin Pis—“little pee man” in Flemish, the city’s unofficial symbol for its rebellious nature (yes, it’s really a statue of a little boy relieving himself). With more time, stop by the Palais du Coudenburg, which burned down in 1731 and now features a fascinating archaeological dig site dating back to the Middle Ages.
INSIDER TIPThe Palais Royal—the royal family’s official residence—was built on the site of the former Palais du Coudenburg and is open for tours in the summer months, when the family is away on vacation; if you’re lucky enough to be here during that time, you’ll see opulent rooms filled with art, tapestries, and antiques.