If you’re visiting Paris, explore beyond the Boulevard Périphérique to see what you can find in the wider Ile-de-France region.
Many attractions such as Versailles and Disneyland Paris will be well known, but some exciting discoveries may not be known.
If you can’t get enough of the chateau and formal gardens, you can spend days hopping from one stately residence to another, while the residences of various French celebrities also open their doors to the public.
You might also want to escape the hustle and bustle of Parisian streets and rejuvenate with a walk in the countryside, the good news is you never have to go very far.
Let’s take a look at the best things to do in Ile-de-France:
1. Palace of Versailles
You’ve probably read about it and seen it in the movies, but these don’t prepare you for the scale and splendor of the palace in real life.
The garden alone took 40 years to complete.
There’s so much to see that it might make your head spin, but whatever you do, make sure you get to the palace early to avoid the worst of the queues, as it does get busy.
The Hall of Mirrors is one of the many must-sees, the site of major events such as the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, and a bold symbol of the economic power that Louis XIV had in the 17th century.
One of the greatest cities in the world needs little introduction.
Paris shines with its culture, history, shopping, nightlife and landmarks etched in everyone’s mind.
An outpost tour means visiting as many of these obvious sights as possible and must include the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, the Arc de Triomphe, a walk through Montmartre to the Sacré Coeur and a Seine cruise.
But that’s just for beginners, and if you’re particularly interested in French art or history, you can indulge your curiosity in the countless museums around the capital.
3. Disneyland Paris, Marne-la-Vallee
These are two theme parks in the same resort.
First, Disneyland opened in 1992 and is the most popular theme park in Europe and the top 10 most visited theme park in the world.
It’s no exaggeration to say that the park’s five “lands” feature 49 attractions, from the high-speed Space Mountain: Mission 2 to the kid-friendly Alice’s Curious Labyrinth Fantasyland, there’s something for everyone.
Neighboring Walt Disney Studios draws nearly as many visitors and brings the filmmaking process to life with areas like “Backlot,” which features gripping action performances by stunt drivers.
4. Castle of the Viscounts of Mainseewo
This lavish domed palace and gardens are as intriguing as the architecture.
It was built for Nicolas Fouquet, a precocious young man in the court of Louis XIV who was appointed Treasurer in the 1640s.
The complex is the work of Louis le Vau, André le Nôtre and Charles le Brun who were later in charge of Versailles.
But Fouquet’s ambitions, as epitomized by the castle of Vicomte de Vaux, inspired the king’s suspicions, and he was imprisoned from 1661 until his death in 1680. Learn about his life with an audio guide as you peruse his home, the last words in 17th century opulence.
Perhaps best of all, there are no crowds at Versailles!
5. Château de Courances, Essonne
Located an hour south of Paris, the palace has one of the most beautiful gardens in France.
For centuries, the mid-17th century Renaissance water feature has attracted the admiration of visitors, with a series of rectangular ponds fed by natural water sources.
The castle and grounds are quite unusual in that they are still privately owned, but they are open to tourists on weekends.
It’s impossible not to feel different as you stroll the boulevards and pools, but don’t overlook the Japanese gardens furnished by the current occupiers’ ancestors in the 1930s, Duchêne and Mme de Ganay.
6. Dessau Winery
These are the wonderful grounds of the Château de Sesos built in the 17th century for Jean-Baptiste Colbert, the finance minister of Louis XIV.
After the Revolution, the original palace was demolished, but many of the 17th-century buildings around the park remain, including the orangery, stables and stunning pavilions.
The gardens were restored in the mid-19th century, when a more modest castle was built.
Take a leisurely stroll through the flower beds, carefully manicured and carpeted lawns.
These lovely 17th-century outbuildings have been home to the Musée d’Ile-de-France since 1973, featuring exhibitions about the history of Paris, with a special focus on the Parisian art scene of the early 1900s.
7. Le Parc de la Vallée-aux-Loups, Châtenay-Malabry
The Parc de la Vallée-aux-Loups covers over 60 hectares and is a group of parks and gardens on the southern edge of Paris.
The most photogenic part is the Botanical Garden, which was built on the Crookes family’s nursery and is full of exotic species.
Two trees in this garden have been awarded the label “Arbre Remarquable de France”, a weeping blue Atlas cedar and an extremely rare oak with oak leaves.
You can spend an afternoon by having a picnic or making a phone call in a café or visiting the home of the romantic writer Chateaubriand.
8. St. Denis Cathedral
Saint-Denis may be one of the dirtiest places on the outskirts of Paris, but it has a charming Gothic cathedral where all but three French kings are buried.
That alone makes it a must-see.
You can choose from a two-hour tour, a guide, or a hand-held audio guide.
Before you enter the west façade, built in 1130 and one of the earliest Gothic buildings in the world, you need to pause for a moment.
See funerary monuments dating back to 1250, including the Order of St. Louis, where the tombs of 16 successive kings are lined up to express the connection between their dynasties.
Later, these mausoleums were designed during the lifetime of the monarch and became very elaborate, like the Renaissance marble sculptures of Louis XII and Brittany.
9. Forest of Fontainebleau
For a breath of fresh air, take a day trip south of Paris to this 280-square-kilometer forest of oak and Scots pine.
The forest is so vast, whether you’re walking or mountain biking, it’s worth checking out the route map at the tourist office.
There are 16 different hiking routes dedicated to visitors, all depending on how long you want to walk and what kind of terrain you want to tackle.
They will take you to some cool natural sites like caves and boulders that you can climb over.
Visit the town of Fontainebleau in the heart of the forest, home to a UNESCO-listed palace that served as the residence of monarchs from the 1200s to the 19th century for Napoleon III.
10. Maison Jean Cocteau, Milly-la-Forêt
The 20th-century French cultural icon settled in the house in 1947 and remained there until his death in 1963. Jean Cocteau was known for his many influential friends, during which time some of the world’s most famous artists were welcomed as guests, most notably Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol.
Fans of Cocteau’s work will be captivated by the vast amount of material to sift through, including manuscripts, sketches, films and sound clips, as you walk through his offices, lounge areas and bedrooms.
Art from Picasso, Modigliani and Warhol is on display, and there’s a screening room where you can learn about Cocteau’s acclaimed film work.
11. The Albert Kahn Museum, Boulogne-Billancourt
In this posh suburb to the west of Paris, there is a museum where you can delve into the work of turn-of-the-century banker and philanthropist Albert Kahn.
He is best known for the “Archives de la Planète”, a vast archive of 72,000 color photographs taken around the world between 1909 and 1931. Nothing else compares to it.
If you are inspired by anthropology or vintage photography, you can spend hours reading these photos.
But you’d be remiss if you didn’t see parks that were also designed by Kahn and modeled around the world.
On certain days in summer, you can even take part in a Kyoto-style Japanese tea ceremony in these peaceful gardens.
12. Vincennes Castle
On the eastern outskirts of Paris, close to the city center and accessible by metro line 1, is a huge French royal castle, the only fully fortified castle in the area.
Surprisingly few tourists get to this landmark, but it’s full of history and a serious option for Versailles.
The castle dates back to the 12th century when it was chosen as a hunting lodge for Louis VII: in 1422 King Henry V of England died of dysentery at Vincennes and Louis XIV built Versailles in the 17th century also live here.
The tour will take an hour and you will have to go around the grounds designed in English country style.
You can recount Van Gogh’s last days in this village 35 minutes northwest of Paris.
The beloved Post-Impressionist painter spent the last 70 days of his life very productive, creating 70 works before his death. Since the village is now also within the Vexin Natural Regional Park, it is a protected area and cannot be expanded or altered, thus giving you a good look at life in the late 19th century.
In summer, there are daily tours of “Van Gogh’s Steps” pointing out major landmarks, including scenes he painted and Auberge Ravoux, where he died in 1890. His grave is a few months later next to his brother Theo, who died at the age of six.
14. Parc des Félins, Lumigny-Nesles-Ormeaux
The zoo, 55 kilometers southeast of Paris, aims to protect felines, which requires large enclosures to encourage the breeding of the park’s cheetahs, lions, lynx and leopards.
It’s a guilt-free appeal and one of the most complete overviews of felines for anyone wanting ethical animal treatment.
Of the 41 cat species in the world, 30 are kept in the Parc des Félins.
A roomy enclosure has a potential downside, as cats can be hard to spot in the bushes, but there are carefully positioned viewing windows to get you a little closer.
Smaller visitors can meet and feed goats at the petting zoo, and there is also a lemur area where these adorable primates roam freely and often approach visitors.
15. Malmaison Castle
Located in Rueil-Malmaison, the estate was the residence of Queen Josephine, who bought it in 1799 during Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt.
After her divorce from Napoleon, she remained here until her death in 1814. It was a large castle that required extensive restoration when purchased, and Napoleon was not happy with the expense! At the beginning of the 19th century, the French government was housed in Malmaison and the Tuileries, and it is now a museum dedicated to Napoleon, with many interesting objects that belonged to him, especially Josephine, such as her porcelain catering service and ornately decorated rooms .
Where to Stay: The best hotels in Ile-de-France, France
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