This article was published on Travel Awaits.
As much as there is to see and do in Paris, there are many exciting destinations within two hours of the city worth visiting. We’ve combined a list of popular favorites and a few off-the-beaten-path places. All of the destinations are reachable by the extensive and efficient train network in France, which has seven major stations.
1. Auvers-Sur-Oise (France)
After leaving an asylum in Provence, Vincent van Gogh moved to Auvers-sur-Oise on May 20, 1890, to live and paint. His brother Theo lived in Paris, but van Gogh didn’t like Paris, so he moved to Auvers-sur-Oise to at least be near his brother. Van Gogh was treated by Dr. Gachet as a patient, but Gachet also supported him financially by paying for his modest room and board at a local inn, and for his paints and canvases.
Van Gogh would go on to paint almost 80 paintings in a highly prolific time before he allegedly committed suicide on July 29, 1890.
Today, you can visit many of the places and scenes van Gogh painted in his last days, including the home of Dr. Gachet (van Gogh also painted portraits of him), the town hall, the Gothic Auvers church, and wheat fields. You can also view the cemetery where van Gogh and his brother Theo are buried next to one another. Don’t forget to visit the Absinthe Museum, a fascinating look into the infamous drink nicknamed the “green fairy,” which many artists of the time indulged in.
The Auberge Ravoux, where van Gogh lived, is now open to the public, and you can view his room, and also have a meal in the dining room, which serves dishes from the period. A video is shown and there are old photographs.
Trains to Auvers-sur-Oise leave from the Paris Saint-Lazare station at least once an hour.
2. Brussels (Belgium)
In just 90 minutes, you can be whisked away on the TGV train to cosmopolitan Brussels, Belgium.
The French-speaking city houses the headquarters of important European and international organizations including NATO, the European Union, and the European Commission.
Grand Place, the original town square dating back to the 14th century, has a host of historic buildings including the impressive Town Hall, the King’s House, and former private mansions. Part of the UNESCO heritage sites, Grand Place is considered one of the most beautiful squares in Europe. Many festivals and events are held in the square, such as The Flower Carpet in August, during which the entire surface is covered with flowers and lawn to resemble a tapestry.
Take a stroll through the Royal Gallery of Saint Hubert, a handsome, enclosed shopping arcade from 1846 with rich architectural details. The elegant shops include La Ganterie Italienne, a three-generation, high-quality glove maker, JOTT, a boutique with light-as-a-feather down jackets, and Akaso, a local, sustainable clothing and accessory brand designed by Belgian and Ethiopian artists.
When you get hungry, indulge in some of Belgium’s favorite foods such as mussels, french fries double fried and served with mayonnaise, and carbonade, a hearty beef stew made with beer. Brussels is known for its beer culture, and Moeder Lambic is a bar that has over 400 types of beer. Beware chocoholics: Belgium is world-famous for its superior chocolate and there’s a chocolate shop on almost every corner of Brussels, so pace yourself. Some of the best chocolatiers in Brussels include Pierre Marcolini, Belvas, and Passion Chocolat, which are all made by hand.
Trains to Brussels leave frequently from the Gard du Nord station in Paris.
3. Chantilly (France)
A fairy tale castle and a historic racetrack and stables are just a few of the appealing attractions in Chantilly, about 30 minutes from Paris.
The star attraction of Chantilly is the Domaine de Chantilly, one of the grandest chateaus in France. Originally built in 1358, the chateau was fully rebuilt in 1882 under the ownership of the Duke of Aumale, who amassed a superior art collection of 17th- and 18th-century works only second to the Louvre museum.
The Duke also had a passion for books, and his library, with floor-to-ceiling shelves, displays 19,000 of his 40,000-plus volumes of rare books. The opulently decorated rooms of private quarters of the duke and his wife have recently been refurbished. The chateau’s 285-acre grounds have a collection of gardens including an English garden, a French garden designed by Andre LeNotre, and an Anglo-Chinese garden.
The Great Stables of the chateau are the largest horse stables in Europe and incorporate a museum and a track for equestrian shows and demonstrations. Chantilly also has a thoroughbred racetrack and hosts the prestigious Prix du Jockey Club, also known as the French Derby.
Chantilly cream, the mother of all whipped cream, was born in Chantilly, and the chateau offers classes in how to make the dreamy cream.
Make a reservation at Le Jardin d’Hiver, in the five-star Auberge du Jeu de Paume hotel, just next to the chateau. The three-course lunch, which changes seasonally, is 49 euros per person and prepared with mostly local ingredients, under the supervision of the award-winning chef Anthony Denon. If you want the ultimate in decadence, book a Chantilly cream massage at the hotel spa.
4. Etretat (France)
A day trip to Etretat would involve very early morning and getting back to Paris late at night considering the nearly 3-hour travel time, but it’s absolutely more than worthwhile to take the journey.
Etretat, in the Normandy region, has breathtaking high cliffs made of chalk, and three natural stone archways jutting out from the Atlantic Ocean. The beauty and drama of the cliffs were a great inspiration to many artists and writers including Eugene Boudin, Gustave Courbet, and Guy de Maupassant. Claude Monet was fascinated with Etretat and painted a series of cliffs in different seasons and hours of the day.
The Etretat Gardens, designed by landscape architect Alexandre Grivko, is a recently opened garden displaying a unique collection of sculptures and contemporary art pieces nestled into lush topiary bushes, along with 100,000 other plants.
An 18-hole golf course sits atop the cliffs of Etretat, and the glorious views may distract you from your game. The course is open seven days a week, and green fees run 56 to 77 euros, depending on the season.
The delightful town square has a market in a timber-covered building with shops selling local products like calvados, an apple liqueur, and salted-butter caramels.
There are mostly casual cafes and restaurants in Etretat, and many of them have outdoor seating on the beach. Local specialties are steamed mussels served with french fries and crepes served with apple cider.
The easiest way to get to Etretat is to take the train from the Paris Saint-Lazare to Breaute-Beuzeville station, and then take the bus from the station that is timed with the train’s arrival.
Pro Tip: The beach and the water in Etretat have large stones and pebbles, so it’s best to bring rubber-soled shoes.
5. Chartres (France)
Chartres, on the way to the Loire Valley, is another treasured destination in France and was a stopover for French religious pilgrims.
Chartres Cathedral is one of the finest and most well-preserved examples of French-Gothic cathedrals in Europe. Built in the early to mid-1100s, the cathedral contains a significant artifact — a tunic believed to have been worn by the Virgin Mary during the birth of Christ. Malcolm Miller, a longtime expert and guide, gives detailed tours with historical facts about the cathedral every day but Sundays at both noon and 2:45 p.m.
A more recent architectural phenomenon is the Maison Picassiette, an arts and crafts-style house built in the mid-1900s. Raymond Isidore, who was born and raised in Chartres, bought a modest cottage in 1930, and over 24 years, he installed and crafted 29,000 pieces of glass, stone, and other recycled materials to create an eclectic series of rooms, a small chapel, and a sculpture garden with his findings.
After Isidore died in 1964, the house was declared a historic treasure, and the city of Chartres converted it into a museum.
There are trains every 30 minutes to Chartres from various stations in Paris, and the ride takes under 2 hours.