Over the past few years I’ve learned some hard lessons on taking day-trips in France. Here’s a bit of advice to help you avoid doing the same!
Where to go?
Whether by train or by car, you’ll want to keep your travel time to around 1-1/2 hours each way, 2-3 hours round-trip. More than this and you’ll be spending more time traveling than at your destination. Also, save yourself the hassle and buy your tickets ahead of time. There’s nothing like waiting in a long line and watching your train leave without you.
What to bring?
A copy of your passport/ID card, camera (duh), pen/paper/notebook for jotting down quick notes/train times, water bottle, cash & small coins, and an umbrella (if rain predicted).
Double check the train times and your station
Because you’ll probably be getting on one of the first trains to leave and one of the last trains to return home, you’ll want to make sure you know your departure times, departure station, and arrival station. This seems obvious, but trust me, it can be confusing. (To get to Giverny, for example, you get off at the Vernon station and take a bus the rest of the way. )
If you’re starting out from a smaller town (such as Cambrai!), it’s important that you’re at the station at least 10 minutes before the train is due to depart simply because it will only stop for a couple of minutes. Just long enough for people to get off and on. If you’re a couple minutes late, or even just on time, you could miss it.
If you’re starting out from Paris, don’t forget the time it will take you to navigate the large train stations and walking from the Metro. Even though the train station will have it’s own Metro stop, it could be a hike to the actual station.
(Also, don’t forget to stamp your ticket at the yellow machines before you board the train!)
First stop at your destination: the Office of Tourism
Even the smallest French town has an Office of Tourism and I’ve found that people there are always extremely friendly. You’ll get a free map, advice on things to do, and usually the possibly of buying tickets to the main attractions. Plus, they’ll speak English!
They’ll also usually have a decent website that will give you a good idea of the main attractions ahead of time.
Lunch – find a place once you’re there!
I don’t know how much time I’ve spent researching restaurants only to never find them. Do yourself a favor and just pick something once you’re there. Chances are you won’t need a reservation for lunch and there will be plenty of options around the main square. Don’t hesitate to ask the office of tourism if you’re really stuck!
Most places in France are not going to let you pop in for a bathroom break, so I always suggest going whenever you have the chance (at lunch, museums, monuments, anywhere you’ve paid for something). It may sound like advice for a little kid, but you’re going to be walking around a lot and bathrooms can be few and far between. Most TGV trains will have decent toilets on them and bigger train stations will have bathrooms that you pay a few centimes to use, but many smaller stations (and regional TER trains) won’t have anything at all. Don’t chance it.
Favorite day-trips from Paris
All this being said, I love taking day-trips. It’s such a nice way to see a smaller village but still be able to sleep in the comfort of your own bed at night. If you’ll be based in Paris here are a few of our favorite day-trips:
– Lille (this is my post from when I lived in Cambrai, but Lille is also just an hour from Pairs on the TGV)
– Mont Saint Michel (this one is pushing it, but can definitely be done)
There are so many quaint towns and villages in France, I’m sure you’ll have tons of options no matter where you are based!