One can find a France replete with gorgeous architecture, cultural gems and second-to-none Champagne without even setting foot in the City of Lights. Go beyond the charms of Paris and throw yourself into the arms of the French countryside on these five unforgettable day trips.
Le Havre: A New Architectural Capital
Inspirational Le Havre is two and a half hours from Paris. In World War II, 80 percent of this maritime city was destroyed. Le Havre was built in 1517 and is Normandy's largest city. Its postwar architecture, spurred by Auguste Perret, makes artful use of concrete and branded him a pioneer in its use.
Perret’s modern transformation of Le Havre helped it become the first modern town in France recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Due to its seaside location, water sports are popular in Le Havre; there's a mile-long sandy and pebbled beach practically inside the city's center. Les Bains des Docks is a fitness center with a sauna, hammam and multiple pools. Le Havre's skate park is also nearby, with slopes and curves for skateboarding, roller blading and BMX biking.
Monet, his mentor Boudin and other impressionist painters got their start in Le Havre. Follow in their footsteps by downloading an app that's sponsored by Le Havre's tourist office.
Chantilly: An Alternate Cultural Capital
Cultural gems lie in wait in Chantilly, only half an hour from Paris. The centerpiece of the town is the Chateau de Chantilly; it was built in the 15th century, destroyed in the French Revolution and rebuilt in the 1870s.
The chateau is home to the Musee de Condé, which houses the second-largest collection of antique paintings after the Louvre. Equestrian aficionados should head to the Grand Stables; its building was designed as a "palace for horses." Here, visit the horse museum and watch an equestrian show under the grand dome.
Versailles: A Study in Luxury
Renowned for its Hall of Mirrors and elaborate garden is the opulent Palace of Versailles. There's so much to see and do here, visitors should start with a guided tour; and discover spaces on the grounds you might not ordinarily put on your radar, such as the Grand Apartments, private dwellings for royalty where you'll find Louis XV’s rolltop desk.
Another don't-miss is the Petit Trianon, which was once Marie Antoinette's home.
Of course, the lords and their ladies loved entertainment; the Royal Opera of Versailles was built by the same architect as the Petit Trianon. Its lavish décor set a new tone for the era: it was done up in emerald green, blue and silver, more colorful than concert houses had ever been.
Rouen: Crucible of French History
Filled with Gothic architecture and myriad museums, Rouen is best known as the place where Joan of Arc died, the Place du Vieux Marché. Now a vibrant dining and shopping district, foodies shouldn't leave without checking in at La Couronne, the restaurant that introduced Julia Child to French cuisine.
Offering up one of the city's best views of and from, Gros Horloge—the Great Clock—is decorated with deities, nymphs and sheep. A climb to the top of the belfry rewards hikers with views of the clock's mechanisms, the town bells and a panorama of the city.
The Rouen Cathedral, one of the city's many Gothic treasures, has the highest spire in France. Although it was one of the many buildings damaged in France's wars, the stained-glass windows that date back to 1210 were removed in 1939 and safely returned at the end of World War II.
Rouen is less than two hours from Paris.
Champagne: Home of the World's Greatest Potion
Yes, that Champagne. This Parisian suburb—45 minutes from the City of Lights—produces some of the most prestigious wines in the world. Only bubbly produced in this region can truly be called Champagne.
The UNESCO World Heritage city has more than 370 miles of sign-posted trips on the Champagne Tourist Route. You can also head underground; a tour through luxury brand Veuve Clicquot's cellar guides you through a labyrinth of white limestone quarries. At its conclusion, hold up a glass and drink a toast to Madame Clicquot with the vintage created in her honor.
Additional celebratory experiences include Champagne school and a museum and tasting center located inside a giant steel bottle that's 40-feet tall.