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Historic French escapes an hour’s drive from Paris

The city of Paris enchants visitors with its combination of sights, world-renowned cuisine and distinct elan. Having a car will allow you to complement a city break in France’s capital with day trips to opulent palaces, medieval towns and relaxing green spaces nearby. We've picked five of the best places to visit for history just an hour’s drive away.

Versailles

The most famous room in the Palace of Versailles is The Hall of Mirrors

The most famous room in the Palace of Versailles is The Hall of Mirrors

The suburb of Versailles is only a 12-mile drive west of central Paris and it takes around 40 minutes to reach its regal château, the Palace of Versailles, by car. Louis XIV’s ultimate royal residence is one of the most popular landmarks in France and it contains an impressive 2,300 rooms. The most famous of these, The Hall of Mirrors, has elaborate vaulted ceilings and 357 mirrors, and is where the Treaty of Versailles was signed. You’ll see the estate’s meticulously designed gardens from its central window, where you can wander past sculptures, through an orangery and next to water features.

Save some time to look around the town of Versailles itself, to pick up gourmet treats from its covered food market, Marché Notre Dame. Pop in and out of the pretty shops and cafés in the Carrés Saint-Louis and to learn all about the historic Tennis Court Oath in Salle de Jeu de Paume. And Le Louis Versailles Château is less than a 5-minute walk from the Palace.

Provins

Every June, Provins holds a medieval festival with historical re-enactments

Every June, Provins holds a medieval festival with historical re-enactments

The medieval walled town of Provins is around a 55-mile drive southeast of Paris. Traffic dependent, it will take slightly more than an hour to reach this former territory of the Counts of Champagne, but the journey is worth it to reach this charming, medieval UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Admire Provins’ fortified walls and gates, climb to the top of its 12th-century Le Tour César tower to look down over the town and verdant surrounding countryside, then retreat into its series of underground tunnels. You can also learn all about the town’s famous flower, the Rose of Provins, in its fragrant rose garden. The town holds a medieval festival every June with historical re-enactments and tournaments. Capture the medieval feel at the stone cottages of Demeure des Vieux Bains.

Chateau Vaux-le-Vicomte

Visit on a Saturday evening to see the château’s gardens lit by candles

Visit on a Saturday evening to see the château’s gardens lit by candles

Head out of Paris on the A4 then drive south to the 17th-century Chateau Vaux-le-Vicomte, around an hour away. It was transformed by French finance minister Nicolas Fouquet from a manor and small castle into a lavish affair with a beautiful domed chateau and formal gardens. The beauty and design of Vaux-le-Vicomte was so impressive that Louis XIV used the team behind it for the Palace of Versailles.

The château is still decorated and furnished as it would have been when Fouquet lived here, and visitors really embrace its history by hiring a costume and exploring while dressed as a princess or king’s musketeer. Admire a collection of antique carriages, climb up to the cupola overlooking the central dome for panoramic views, and learn all about the man behind the remarkable formal gardens, Andre le Notre, in a permanent exhibition. For a magical experience, visit the château on a Saturday evening between May and October when its gardens are illuminated by 2,000 candles. Then head to the bucolic La Maison d'Emilie.

Fontainebleau

See the famous horseshoe-shaped staircase where Napoleon bid farewell to his guards

See the famous horseshoe-shaped staircase where Napoleon bid farewell to his guards

Half an hour further south from Château Vaux-le-Vicomte is the Palace of Fontainebleau, the grand home of French kings, queens, emperors and empresses for eight centuries. Spend an entire day in the town and take in the château, enjoy lunch in the well-to-do town of Fontainebleau and then ramble in the surrounding forest before a night at Aigle Noire Hôtel.

The enormous palace showcases French architecture from the 12th to the 19th centuries and has the famous horseshoe-shaped staircase where Napoleon bid farewell to his guards before being exiled. It’s also home to four museums and some fascinating items such as Marie Antoinette’s highly elaborate bed (which she never slept in), Napoleon’s throne and a portrait of Napoleon’s wife Josephine in her coronation outfit.

Domaine de Chantilly

The inside of Domaine de Chantilly looks exactly as it did in the 19th century

The inside of Domaine de Chantilly looks exactly as it did in the 19th century

Around 50 minutes north of Paris by car you’ll find the château with the largest collection of antique paintings in France after the Louvre. Domaine de Chantilly was the home of Duke of Aumale, a collector of paintings, precious books and decorative art objects, and still looks exactly as it did in the 19th century.

Head to the Condé Museum inside to wander around the Gallery of Painting where 85 gilt-framed pictures are hung due to the Duke’s taste and with rotunda at one end exhibiting masterpieces from the Italian Renaissance. The Santuario is also a highlight where you can see works by Raphael, Botticelli and Jean Fouquet. The château is inside one of the largest forests near Paris while other attractions include the Great Stables, where you can watch equestrian shows, and sprawling gardens in three different styles – a French-style Le Notre masterpiece, an Anglo-Chinese garden and a romantic English garden. Stay at the ivy-covered Manoir des Cavaliers.