Easy breaks from Paris

Thanks to France’s high-speed trains, well-marked motorways and international airport hubs, even more charm and culinary surprises lie less than two hours from the City of Lights.

With its first-class restaurants and fantastic museums, Paris is a world capital of culture and epicurean delights, but the nearby regions have their own charm and culinary surprises worth exploring. Thanks to France’s high-speed trains, well-marked motorways and international airport hubs, Paris has a number of easy ways – many in less than two hours – to escape the City of Light and find a French adventure of your own.

By bike
Before writing off the former royal residence of Versailles as another tourist trap, bear in mind that most visitors stick to the Royal Palace and Chateau and never venture to the grounds beyond. The comparatively less-crowded outer gardens and paths along the 1,670m-long Grand Canal were once traversed on horseback, so a bicycle makes the perfect modern substitute for exploring the great outdoor expanse. The gardens and parks also open an hour earlier and stay open two hours later than the palace from April to October, making it even easier to beat the tourist rush.

The spectacular formal gardens were first developed in the 1630s, but in the 1660s, Louis XIV expanded them significantly to include the canal (where boat parties were often held) and added the garden’s numerous fountains, many relying on images of Greek god Apollo to reinforce the king’s image as a god on Earth.

The grounds underwent another expansion in 1773, when Marie Antoinette’s makeshift farm house Hameau de la Reine was built, about 3km northwest of the Grand Palace. Here, the queen would often dress in simple clothes and pretend to live as a peasant (a fact that did not endear her to the local population). To get there, cycle from the palace down the Avenue de Trianon  until hitting Avenue Petit Trianon to enter near the Petit Trianon, a small chateau also frequently used by the queen.

Cyclists can refuel at the covered Marché Notre Dame outdoor market, located just 1km northeast of the palace, where fresh fruit, cheese and pastries can be purchased from local farmers and artisans on Tuesday, Friday, and Sunday from 7 am to 2 pm. If you visit during an off-day, the indoor Halles Notre Dame is open daily from 7 am to 7:30 pm.  

Versailles is a 20km ride from Paris, but groups like Fat Tire Bike Tours and Bike About Tours begin in downtown Paris with a 10-minute metro ride before embarking on the bike part of the tour. The 75 to 80 euros trip includes bike rental, tour guide, train tickets and admission to the chateau and hamlet; the gardens and grounds are free, except during fountain shows.

By train
Normandy’s coastal retreat of Le Havre, the largest city in the region, can be reached in less than two hours thanks to France’s high speed trains. Since the city is lesser known than many of its Normandy neighbours, the museums and beaches can be enjoyed without competing with hordes of other tourists.  Explore the city’s 2km-long sand-and- pebble beach or stroll along the 4km promenade that includes France’s largest open-air skate park along with volleyball courts and playgrounds. The city has also recently expanded its marina, and visitors can book a 90-minute boat tour with TLM Beateau Ville de Fécamp to view La Havre from the sea. 

See the English Channel from a different perspective at the Musée Malraux (MuMa for short), a glass and steel building that faces the sea and is home to the largest collection of Impressionist art in France after the Musee d’Orsee in Paris.  The museum houses the world’s largest collection of works by Eugène Boudin, a marine landscape painter from nearby Honfleur who was one of the first to paint outdoors in the mid-1800s, and coastal paintings by Claude Monet, including Fécamp, bord de mer.

SNCF offers frequent direct trips from Paris to La Havre for 33.50 euros one-way. The city is easily covered on foot, but buses also frequent the train stations and major roads.

By car
Learn the difference between La Champagne (the region) and le Champagne (the bubbly) by driving 140km northeast of Paris. The famous Champagne tourist routes cover more than 500km of twisting roads, but one of the main arteries runs for 70km between the cities of Reims in the north and Epernay in the south around the Montagne de Reims regional park, taking drivers past wineries large and small, as well as ancient churches and pastoral landscapes.

Despite its name, the Champagne region also has its fair share of red wine, particular pinot noir (one of the grapes used to produce traditional Champagne). Stop in the village of Bouzy, 28km south of Reims, for a visit to the Pierre Paillard cellars. Enjoy a glass of the Bouzy Rouge, a pinor noir aged for 18 months in oak barrels.

Finish your getaway in grand style with a visit to Moët and Chandon in Epernay, the largest cellar in the region, stretching for 28km through subterranean tunnels. Daily hour-long tours are available for 16 euros, including a flute of bubbly, but book in advance as tours can sell out quickly.

Take the A4 out of Paris to Reims. From there, follow the signs for the Champagne Trail, also known as the Montagne de Reims, and stop at wineries along the way. The trail ends in Epernay, the capital of Champagne.

By air
Copenhagen often gets missed in tours of continental Europe, but the cosmopolitan capital of Denmark can be reached from Paris in less than two hours by air and offers a taste of Scandinavian culture, quite literally.

Though the waiting list for a table can be months-long, Noma makes the wait worth it with its modern take on Nordic cuisine. Chef Rene Redzepi brings in fish and produce from Iceland, Greenland and Denmark, and forages for local herbs that take centre stage in dishes such as pike perch and cabbage with verbena and dill, and wild duck and pear with kale and beech leaves. The restaurant, housed in a harbourfront warehouse across from the Royal Danish Playhouse, has been named the best restaurant in the world three years running by the UK’s Restaurant magazine annual San Pellegrino Awards.

If reservations at Noma remain elusive, check out Geranium, the country’s newest two-star Michelin restaurant serving completely organic cuisine and housed on the eighth-storey of a building in the Østerbro neighbourhood. Or, try Kadeau, which focuses its dishes around Danish ingredients and stays true to the flavours of its first restaurant on the sandy dunes of Bornholm, an eastern island of Denmark, serving entrees like monkfish, pickled squid and lamb tongue.

For a sweet end to your trip, bring home pastries like the Carl Nielsen cake with an orange buttercream and almond base and the Tree Trunk rum-soaked cake dipped in chocolate from La Glace, Copenhagen’s oldest bakery, opened in 1870.

AirFrance, easyJet, and SAS offer nonstop service between Paris’ Charles De Gaulle Aiport and Copenhagen daily. After landing, take the metro to the downtown Christianshavn stop for easy access to the city’s restaurants and attractions.