Monet Day(s) If you can manage it, go to Giverny in the morning and the Musée de l’Orangerie in the afternoon or the next day. This way you’ll see Monet’s garden and his house, which are divine and were, of course, his inspiration for the “Nymphéas” (water lily) paintings. After viewing his home and the water lilies themselves you can go to l’Orangerie and see the paintings of his most famous subject and one that he painted for many many years. You’ll be following the itinerary of Linnea from Linnea in Monet’s Garden, the wonderful children’s book. If you have a young girl (5–10), read her this book before your journey and then you can do this excursion a few days into your trip. We did this with our daughter when she was about 6—and it is something you can do with anyone of any age. About an hour by train from Paris (directions on the Giverny website).
Chantilly (pictured above) This is where whipped cream was invented and it is the site of a beautiful château. On the grounds (which are exquisite) you’ll find the largest tethered balloon in the world—go up and see the fabulous view and gardens. The restaurants here are wonderful for lunch plus short boat rides are available. One hour by train from Paris.
Chartres An extraordinary and important Gothic cathedral from 1134 and an adorable medieval town. The tourism office (link above) can help you plan your trip. About an hour by train from Paris.
The Château de St.-Germain-en-Laye houses a museum focusing on archaeology. The vista of Paris as you arrive on the grounds from the ultraconvenient RER A is simply stunning. Like many other châteaux, this one comes with a small forest to stroll through. It also has a very upscale little village that’s great if you feel like lunch or a quiet shopping experience that’s far from the quicker pace of Paris but just minutes away.
Crayeres in Reims is an idyllic place to plant yourself and your friends when touring the area of Champagne. You can be pampered here for 325-600 euros per night, but you must figure in an exquisite meal by chef Patrice Willems during your stay, which of course will be extra. The hotel can help you plan champagne tastings and tours in the area.
Fontainebleau The inspiration for the garden at Versailles and a beautiful château. About 45 minutes by train from the Gare de Lyon, then about 15 minutes by bus to the palace. Driving should be less depending on traffic; consult the website. A call to the tourist office in Fontainebleau will help you get set up: 01 60 74 99 99. Or email.
Versailles is HUGE. Make sure you wake up early and have lots of energy on this day—don’t miss the petite ferme (farm village), where Marie Antoinette pretended to be a peasant. Consider staying the night to make your journey a bit less exhausting. If you can swing it, splurge and stay at the Trianon Palace; the setting and food are divine. About 30–40 minutes from Paris; easily accessible by train.
Other fascinating châteaux to visit near Paris include the privately owned Vaux le Vicomte, which inspired Louis XIV’s Versailles and the Gérard Depardieu film Vatel. There is also Pierrefonds, which still looks like a fortress from the warring days of the Middle Ages. These châteaux are harder to reach by public transportation and would best be visited by car.
Normandy and Brittany There are countless things to do in both Normandy and Brittany, the most popular with Americans being to go to Omaha Beach. Normandy and Brittany both have beautiful coastlines and spectacular food and history. Brittany is famous for oysters and crêpes and Normandy for cheese, hard cider and calvados. We love these sights and towns in Brittany: Cancale (the oyster capital of France), Dinan, Rennes, Quimper and St.-Malo. And in Normandy: Mont-St.-Michel, Honfleur, Rouen and Bayeux (of tapestry fame). This can be a long day trip or, better yet, a weekend excursion. Many tour guides offer one-day tours to Mont-St.-Michel or to Omaha Beach and the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. Tip: If you do go to Mont-St.-Michel (which is NOT to be missed), then be sure to have an omelet at the foot of the town at La Mère Poulard—and take home some of their famous cookies. One and a half to four hours by train from Paris, depending on where you go. Consult websites above for planning.
Loire Valley Châteaux Of all the fabulous Loire Valley Chateaux, we like Chenonceau the best, as well as Villandry for its incredible gardens. We recommend the spectacles in summer for the kids (and kids at heart). The performers will often dress up in period costumes and the show will sometimes end in fireworks. There are countless places to stay that are just incredible in this region—you can often find a room in a château.
It’s a 55-minute train ride and 20-minute cab ride to Villandry (directions on their website). For Chenonceau: one hour by TGV train to Tours, with a switch to a local train for another 25 minutes — please consult their website
Monaco The perfect place for anyone looking for an extra special weekend get-a-way. One of the smallest countries in the world (second only to the Vatican), it’s also one of the most luxurious ones. Surrounded by France and the Mediterranean, Monaco is the playground of the rich and famous. You’ll find everything you need for a VIP weekend: fabulous beaches, famous casinos, a world renowned racetrack and glamorous royals. If that wasn’t enough, the national drink is Champagne!
When you’re ready for a break from the black jack table head to the beach, or book a treatment at one of the many splendid spas. For a glimpse into the life of royalty, take a tour of the Prince’s Palace. Built on a fortress from 1215, the palace is a historic site, and with so many wonderful splendors inside (15th century frescoes, a Palatine Chapel from the 17th century, and a fantastic throne room, just to name a few), it’s well worth taking the tour. A center for culture, you’ll also find theaters and museums throughout Monaco. One of the most famous is the Oceanographic Museum and Aquarium, where Jacques Cousteau was one of the former directors. Perched on a 280 ft cliff, the breathtaking views outside rival the fascinating exhibits inside. Exhibits are always changing but be sure to visit the enormous basement tank, where officials have grown their own coral reef.
And if you’re looking for extra VIP treatment while in Monaco there’s Le Club Diamant Rouge de Monaco. This luxury travel club is part of the Monaco Government Tourist Office. Exclusive in benefits, but affordable in price, Le Club is the best way to take advantage of your time in Monaco. It includes a complimentary one-way helicopter transfer between Nice Côte d’Azur Airport & Monaco with drop-off or pick-up at your hotel (over $150 value) and 20% discount off additional helicopter transfers, complimentary admission to all museums and attractions, complimentary admission to the Casino de Monte-Carlo ($25 value), and more.