If you’re visiting Paris it pays to venture beyond the Boulevard Périphérique and see what you can find around the wider Île-de-France region.
Many of the attractions like the Palace of Versailles and Disneyland Paris will be known to all, but some exciting discoveries may not.
If you can’t get enough of châteaux and formal gardens you could spend days jumping from one stately home to another, while the homes of all sorts of famous French personalities also open their doors to the public.
You may also want to get clear of the hubbub of the Parisian streets for restorative days walking in the countryside, and the good news is you’ll never have to travel far.
Let’s have a look at the best things to do in Île-de-France:
1. Palace of Versailles
You’ll have read about it and seen it in movies, but these can’t prepare for the size and splendor of the palace in real life.
The gardens alone took 40 years to complete.
There’s such an array of things to see that it may make your head spin, but whatever you do make sure you get to palace as early as possible to avoid the worst of the queues as it does get very busy.
Among the many musts is the Hall of Mirrors, the scene of momentous events like the signing of the Treaty of Versailles and a bold symbol of the economic power wielded by Louis XIV in the 17th-century.
One of the world’s great cities hardly requires an introduction.
Paris shines for its culture, history, shopping, nightlife and landmarks that are etched in everyone’s minds.
A whistle-stop tour means packing in as many of those unmistakable sights as possible and has to include the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, the Arc de Triomphe, a walk up through Montmartre to the Sacré-Cœur and a cruise on the Seine.
But that’s just for starters, and if you have a particular interest in French art or history you can give your curiosity free rein at countless museums around the capital.
3. Disneyland Paris, Marne-la-Vallée
These are two theme parks that are part of the same resort.
The first, Disneyland Park opened in 1992 and is the most popular theme park in Europe, and in the top ten most-visited in the world.
It’s no exaggeration to say there’s something for everyone in the park’s five “Lands”, holding 49 attractions, from the high-speed Space Mountain: Mission 2, to the kid-friendly Alice’s Curious Labyrinth in Fantasyland.
Neighboring Walt Disney Studios gets almost as many visitors and brings to life the movie-making process with zones like the “Backlot” where there’s a gripping action show with stunt drivers.
4. Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte, Maincy
There’s a story to go with this extravagant domed palace and gardens that is just as riveting as the architecture.
It was built for Nicolas Fouquet, a precocious young man in Louis XIV’s court, Appointed Superintendent of Finances in the 1640s.
The complex was the work of Louis le Vau, André le Nôtre and Charles le Brun, all later responsible for Versailles.
But Fouquet’s ambition, as epitomised by Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte, inspired the king’s suspicion and he was jailed from 1661 until he died in 1680. Hear about his life via the audio tour as you peruse his home, which was the last word in 17th-century opulence.
5. Château de Courances, Essonne
Set an hour south of Paris by road, this palace has formal gardens that are held among the most beautiful in France.
The mid-17th-century renaissance water features have drawn the admiration of visitors for centuries, with a sequence of long rectangular ponds fed by water from a natural source.
The château and grounds are quite unusual as they’re still privately-owned, but they open up to visitors on the weekends.
It’s impossible not to feel distinguished as you saunter along the boulevards and past the pools, but don’t neglect the Japanese garden laid out by Duchêne and Mme de Ganay, ancestors of the current occupiers in 1930.
6. Domaine de Sceaux
These are the fabulous grounds of the Château de Sceaux, built in the 17th century for Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Louis XIV’s finance minister.
After the revolution, the original palace was demolished, but many of the 17th-century structures around the park remain, including the orangery, stables and a stunning pavilion.
The gardens were restored in the mid-19th century when a more modest version of the château was also erected.
Take a leisurely stroll through the parterre, past scrupulously-groomed topiaries and carpet-like lawns.
Those lovely 17th-century outbuildings have housed the Musée d’Ile-de-France since 1973, with exhibitions about the history of Paris and special attention paid to the Parisian art scene in the early-1900s.
7. Le Parc de la Vallée-aux-Loups, Châtenay-Malabry
Sprawling over 60 hectares, the Parc de la Vallée-aux-Loups is a set of parks and gardens on the southern fringe of Paris.
The most photogenic part is the arboretum, which is founded on the nurseries of the Croux family and is replete with exotic species.
Two of the trees in this garden have been awarded the label “Arbre Remarquable de France”, weeping blue atlas cedar and a myrsine-leaved oak, an extremely rare variety.
You can make an afternoon of it by bringing a picnic or calling in at the cafe, or having a look around the romantic writer Chateaubriand’s home here.
8. Basilica Cathedral of Saint-Denis
Saint-Denis may be one of the scruffier parts of outer Paris, but it has an enchanting gothic cathedral where all but three of France’s kings are buried.
This alone makes it a must-see.
You can choose between a two-hour guided tour, guidebook, or handheld audio guide.
Before you go in pause for a moment before the western facade, which was built in 1130 and among the earliest example of gothic architecture in the world.
See the funerary monuments, including the Order of Saint-Louis, dating to 1250, where the tombs of 16 successive kings are in a row to express the connection between their dynasties.
Later the tombs were designed during the monarchs’ lifetimes and become very elaborate, like the renaissance marble sculpture for Louis XII and Anne de Bretagne.
9. Forest of Fontainebleau
For fresh air, you could take a day trip south of Paris to this oak and Scots pine forest covering 280 square kilometers.
The forest is so vast that it’s worth popping into the tourist office for trail maps, whether you’re walking or mountain biking.
There are 16 different hiking routes specially laid-out for visitors, all depending on how long you want to walk and what sort of terrain you’d like to tackle.
They’ll lead you to some cool natural monuments like caves and huge boulders that you can climb over.
Pay a visit to Fontainebleau, the town cradled at the heart of the forest, with a UNESCO-listed palace that was a home for monarchs from the 1200s up to Napoleon III in the 19th century.
10. Maison Jean Cocteau, Milly-la-Forêt
The 20th-century French cultural icon settled in this house in 1947 and stayed there until he died in 1963. Jean Cocteau was famed for his large circle of influential friends, and during this time some of the world’s most celebrated artists were welcomed here as guests, most notably Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol.
Fans of Cocteau’s work will be absorbed by the sheer wealth of material to sift through, including manuscripts, sketches and film and sound clips as you step through his office, lounge area, and bedroom.
Artwork by Picasso, Modigliani and Warhol are on show, and there’s a screening room where you can get an introduction to Cocteau’s acclaimed cinematic works.
11. Musée Albert-Kahn, Boulogne-Billancourt
In this posh suburb just to the west of Paris is a museum where you can delve into the work of the turn-of-the-century banker and philanthropist Albert Kahn.
He is best known for the “Archives de la Planète” a mammoth archive of 72,000 color photographs taken around the world between 1909 and 1931. There’s nothing to compare to it anywhere else.
If you’re inspired by anthropology or vintage photography you can kill hours perusing these photos.
But you’d be remiss not to see the park, also designed by Kahn and modeled on locations around the world.
Come on certain days in the summer and you can even take part in a Kyoto-style Japanese tea ceremony in these tranquil gardens.
12. Château de Vincennes
In Paris’ eastern suburbs, close enough to the center to reach via Metro Line 1, is a vast French royal castle, the only in the area to be completely fortified.
Surprisingly few tourists make it to this landmark, but it’s brimming with history and is a no-nonsense alternative to Versailles.
The castle’s roots go back to the 12th century when it was chosen as a hunting lodge for Louis VII: King of England, Henry V died at Vincennes in 1422 from dysentery, while Louis XIV also lived here in the 17th century while Versailles was being built.
The tour will take an hour, and you have to follow this up with a turn in the grounds, designed
ou can recount the last days of van Gogh at this village 35 minutes northwest of Paris by train.
The beloved post-impressionist painter was extremely productive in the last 70 days of his life, producing 70 works before he died. As the village is also now within the Vexin Natural Regional Park it is a conservation zone and can’t be expanded or altered, and so gives you a good snapshot of life in the late-19th century.
In the summer there’s a daily “In the Steps of van Gogh” tour, pointing out the main landmarks, including scenes that he painted and the Auberge Ravoux where he died in 1890. His grave is next to his brother Theo’s, who passed away six months later.
14. Parc des Félins, Lumigny-Nesles-Ormeaux
This zoo 55 kilometers southeast of Paris is all about feline conservation, and this calls for large enclosures that encourage the park’s cheetahs, lions, lynxes and leopards to reproduce.
For people who want ethical animal treatment, it’s a guilt-free attraction, and also one of the most complete overviews of the cat family.
Of the world’s 41 cat species, 30 are kept at Parc des Félins.
The spacious enclosures have a potential downside, in that it can be hard to spot the cats in the undergrowth, but there are carefully-positioned viewing windows that get you a bit closer.
Littler visitors can meet and feed goats at the petting zoo, and there’s a lemur section where these adorable primates roam free and often approach visitors.
15. Château de Malmaison
Set in Rueil-Malmaison, this manor house was Empress Joséphine’s residence, which she bought in 1799 while Napoleon was away for the Egyptian Campaign.
She remained here after her divorce with Napoleon until her death in 1814. It’s a large château and needed a lot of restoration when it was purchased, and Napoleon hadn’t been pleased with the expense! The French government was based at Malmaison and the Tuileries at the start of the 19th century, and it’s now a museum dedicated to Napoleon, with loads of intriguing objects belonging to him and especially Joséphine, like her porcelain dining service and opulently furnished chambers.