France, like many European countries, is a treasure chest of (long) weekend trips, whether you want to explore charming old towns or relax at the seaside. No matter where you’re located, the TGV train system makes almost everything feel close enough to just go and return in the same day or two. Cheap it is not, true, but with a bit of advance organisation or cutting the unnecessary budget expenses elsewhere somehow still usually doable. For me, it is a matter of priorities. I’ll make my own sandwich and give up coffee that day (no, this I never do…), not use any other public transport, only my own pair of legs, and skip the hotels, so I’ll manage. And it never quite gets old, exploring this beauty of a country.
First, of course, there’s the Île de France region, with all the castles and palaces, parks and villages, from Fontainebleau to Saint-Germain-en-Laye. I, however, am aiming further out. (I’m deliberately not including Provence here which, truth be told, itself alone deserves a whole two weeks minimum anyway.) Some of the places below would with all they have to offer easily demand more than just a weekend, yet they are even if you don’t have the time still worth giving it the few hours you do have. Hope the below gives a few ideas to start your discoveries.
After a few of my own, I decided to share my personal favourites …
Normandy: The North equivalent of Provence, I’d say. And so close to Paris, too. It’s probably best to rent a car if you have the possibility and just roam from town to town along the coast. Honfleur, Deauville, Trouville, Cabourg are a few of the Riviera essentials among so many. Just be prepared for the wind… and the crêpes. Then, you have the city of Rouen with its own cathedral and Le Havre for the impressionism fans. Another classic, of course, it’s Giverny, a nice village with the perhaps most known personal garden in the world – Monet’s. This, I find a bigger must than Versailles and a far more pleasing day trip from Paris, especially in summer and spring.
Étretat : The absolute favourite among the Normandy jewels. Despite the lovely village, it’s nature that reigns here with the magnificent cliffs and meadows.
Bordeaux : This city is the nicest of surprises. You hear talking about it only because of the wine, just to realize its charm has nothing to do with it. Get a good fix of strolls, markets, bistros, history and art. What more do you need?
La Rochelle : When in need of a seaside break in-between the beach and a little town life, think of this one. Take coffee at the Vieux Port, then hit the sand and the rocks and the welcoming sunshine. Again, be prepared for the wind, it’s still the Atlantic.
You can also choose among the other big cities/towns. Strasbourg, Lille, Bourges, Lyon, Toulouse, Marseille… I’d recommend the last two the most, but then they are the furthest from Paris. There, you can easily immerse into their old quarters for a few hours, explore the history and enjoy the laid back atmosphere, in my experience much more than in the others.
Then, of course, there are the smaller ones as well, often even more appealing with their innocent charm, for the last few ideas!
Mont Saint Michel : The magical historical place that competes with Paris for the number of visitors per year.
Chartres : For one of the most beautiful cathedrals and a simple walk through its streets.
Troyes : Another medieval destination, not far from Paris.
Colmar : The least French-like among them all, but so cute.
Now, ready, steady, go! I’ll sure be on my way to a new one soon, I haven’t quite completed the list myself…