Everyone knows about Paris. The City of Lights, romance, and wine with thousands of years of history, plenty of museums, and the eye-catching Eiffel Tower, visible from almost everywhere you go. There are so many monuments and Instagram picture worthy things to see. Countless hours can be spent wandering random streets. Millennia of intense (and sometimes bloody) history have made Paris a cultural center and one of the most visited cities in the world. No matter what your interests, there is something here for everyone to see.
My personal advice, however, is not to limit yourself only to this one beautiful city. Some of the coolest things to see in France lie within an hour’s short train ride of the French capital. Almost any direction you head you’ll find something of beauty or interest to experience. I find that too many people get so caught up staying within the city and forgetting or never realizing that so much is nearby. I actually spent somewhat minimal time in Paris itself because I wanted to see as much of the country as I could. I headed out and hit a handful of nearby cities and boy am I glad I did!
Before I had even bought my plane tickets, I had purchased and read a book called Paris to the Past by Ina Caro (you can find it on Amazon.com for about $15) which gives wonderful insight to the many different things you can see on a day trip from the city. Not only does she recount her personal experiences in these cities but she also details how to reach them, what kind of places to visit, and even where to find some of the best tour guides! I took this book with me and used a lot of the tips to decide where to go. I highly recommend taking a look for anyone who plans to go to Paris.
To the northeast lie Reims, Laon, and Soissons. Laon was actually one of my favorite villages I visited because the upper portion of the city is a well preserved medieval hilltop town. It’s only about an hour and a half train ride. A hike up the municipal staircase from the train brings you right into the heart of a quiet village full of historic landmarks. For a small town, there was a surprising amount of things to see!
I felt an incredible draw to Reims because of the cathedral and adjacent museum there. The kings of France were crowned here and you can stand in the spot where King Clovis of the Franks was baptized. The museum houses many royal artifacts as well as the room where the French kings spent the night before their coronation.
Soissons is stuffed full of cathedrals and abbeys that display architecture that spans over a millennium (the crypt of one such abbey dates from about the year 840!) Though much of the city was destroyed during World War I, there are still plenty of remnants or restored pieces of architecture to catch the eye.
Almost straight to the north is Amiens, a town I feel I didn’t get to explore enough of but would love to go back to see it again! Home to another UNESCO World Heritage site and the tallest cathedral in France, Notre Dame d’Amiens, as well as a really cute old town where you can sit by the canal and see the cathedral at the top of the hill while you eat.
Then, to the northwest, is another one of my most favorite towns, Rouen. Wandering down the streets to the Seine will take you past rows of half-timbered medieval houses and towering cathedral spires. If you enjoy history, especially the struggles between the English and the French (specifically the Hundred Years’ War and the fearless Joan of Arc), Rouen is the place to explore.
To the southwest is the town of Chartres which holds a special place for me seeing as it was where I spent my first night in France. The UNESCO ranked cathedral dominates the view of the town and at night the front and side of the cathedral (as well as multiple locations around the town) are lit up in a dazzling light show.
The places that I have written about thus far are only the ones that I’ve personally experienced but there are a number of other towns and monuments you can visit on a day trip such as the Palace of Fontainebleau and the Basilica of Saint-Denis. In my opinion, the time and money you would spend to leave the city would not be wasted. I experienced hundreds of years of history and architecture, beautiful light shows, new cuisines, not to mention almost everything you see will be less crowded than in Paris. While I think it is important and thoroughly enjoyable to explore every inch of Paris, if you have the time and the capital I absolutely recommend taking a quick drive, train, or bus, out to some of the other nearby cities. I promise you, you won’t be disappointed!