Île-de-France is the compact region immediately surrounding Paris. As such, the region includes all of the metropolis, from the great French capital itself through the gritty inner banlieue right out to now far-flung suburbs and exurbs, together with several large surrounding towns that form part of the greater conurbation. All is not urban sprawl, however: the region is also known for its natural beauty, in the form of parks, forests and river lands, and also contains some of the most fertile agricultural soil in France.
The name "Île-de-France" translates as "island of France", and though this etymology is unclear, it is thought to refer to the land between the rivers Seine, Marne and Oise, a sort of pseudo-"island" at the heart of France in a historical and cultural, if not geographic, sense. The north-east of the region is equally known as the Pays de France, which is essentially an agricultural terroir known for its cereal crops, though much of it has been overtaken by suburban sprawl and Charles de Gaulle Airport.
Île-de-France is easily the richest part of France, and is also one of Europe's most economically active regions. However, it is also one of the most unequal: the western departments of Hauts-de-Seine and Yvelines are home to some of the richest places in France (with the small town of Saint-Nom-la-Bretèche having the highest median income in the whole of France), while the northern department of Seine Saint-Denis is the poorest department in the whole of metropolitan France and which is associated with most of the negative stereotypes about Parisian suburbs. The majority of the region's inhabitants (who are known as Franciliens and Franciliennes), live and work somewhere in the dense Paris conurbation, leaving much of the rest of the territory rural and sparsely-populated.
From the traveller's perspective, most of the region's interest will of course lie in Paris's mere 105 km2, and it is true that the City of Lights is a shining beacon among the world's great metropolises. Paris's icons are French icons, and many will struggle to even bring France to mind without thinking of the Eiffel Tower, of mimes working the streets of Montmartre, of Gothic Métropolitain signs, or of Haussmannian boulevards lined with chic cafés and fashion stores. So this guide won't try to persuade you to skip Paris; you absolutely must go there! But if you do decide to venture beyond the Boulevard Périphérique, you will be richly rewarded.
Île-de-France's countryside is prosperous and agricultural. Dominated by its three major rivers, well-heeled market towns-cum-dormitory communities, and great châteaux from times gone by, it is a beautiful slice of rural France without having to stray far from the big city. The east of the region, the department of Seine-et-Marne, is especially lovely and forms part of the Champagne-growing area.
And who could forget Disneyland Paris, Europe's most popular visitor attraction? For anyone who knows Disney's American parks, paying a visit to "Chez Mickey" - as the place is blithely known by the locals - will be at once familiar and bizarrely different. Seeing the pink château de Cendrillon against a moody northern French sky, rather than say Californian azure, is enough to make anyone think to herself "Ah, le monde est petit !" (It's a small world after all).
The region of Ile-de-France is divided into 8 separate départements, which can be classified into 3 main parts: inner Paris (Paris intramuros), the inner urban ring of Paris suburbs (la petite couronne) and the rural and semi-rural commuter belt hinterland (la grande couronne).
|Paris (75) |
Needs no introduction.
|Seine-et-Marne (77) |
The most rural department in the region, home to the Palace of Fontainebleau and the old mediaeval town of Provins, as well as, um, Disneyland. The easternmost part of the department is also considered Champagne country.
|Yvelines (78) |
The affluent countryside to the West of Paris, providing inspiration to a number of 19th century impressionist painters. Home to the Palace of Versailles.
|Essonne (91) |
|Hauts-de-Seine (92) |
The rich and green Western suburbs of Paris. Highlights include the commercial centre of La Défense, the Parc de Saint-Cloud, the Chateau de Malmaison and the Albert Kahn museum in Boulogne-Billancourt.
|Seine-Saint-Denis (93) |
The grittier suburbs of Paris home to a large number of poor people of immigrant background, although several areas close to Paris Intramuros (such as Pantin) are starting to gentrify. Home to the Cathedral of Saint-Denis.
|Val-de-Marne (94) |
It is home to a famous contemporary art museum and other diversions from the city.
|Val d'Oise (95) |
Cities and towns
- 1 Paris – the capital of France and focus of the region is on every traveller's wishlist, even the ones who have already been!
- 2 Fontainebleau – to the south of the metropolis lies a vast forested estate, known for its opulent château and wonderfully fresh air
- 3 Marne-la-Vallée – a large new town east of the capital, best known for Mickey Mouse's European pad
- 4 Meaux – a cathedral city with an episcopal palace and historical centre to explore, known for being the home to an eponymous variety of brie.
- 5 Provins – UNESCO listed fortified city in Île-de-France's rural heartland, famous for its medieval heritage.
- 6 Maisons-Laffitte – equestrian paradise and home to a beautiful garden city.
- 7 Montfort l'Amaury – voted one of France's best villages.
- 8 Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines – conurbation of Elancourt, Trappes, Montigny-le-Bretonneux, Guyancourt, Plaisir, Voisins-le-Bretonneux, Magny-les-Hameaux, La Verrière, Bois d'Arcy, Maurepas and Coignières. Tourists will come for France Miniature, for outdoor sports or the Haute Vallée de Chevreuse National Park; it also has an impressive array of modern and postmodern architecture.
- 9 Rambouillet – Former royal and presidential residence with castle and beautiful expansive grounds.
- 10 Saint-Germain-en-Laye - a lively suburb 30 minutes west of Paris on the RER, it is best known for its Renaissance château. Also Poissy.
- 11 Versailles – 30 minutes west of Paris on the train, and above all prized for Louis XIV's incomparable château, which set the gold-standard for palace-dwellers the world over, and still continues to thrill, enchant and, depending on the crowds, exasperate millions of travellers to this day. Don't miss the majestic formal gardens and estate, Marie Antoinette's "summer house", which is really another palace in its own right, and the city of Versailles itself, which retains a smugly aristocratic elegance two centuries after its last king and queen lost their throne (and their heads).
- 12 Boulogne-Billancourt – one of Paris's nicer suburbs, at the tip of a peninsula carved by the snakelike Seine
- 13 Levallois-Perret – perhaps Paris's wealthiest suburb, and in architecture, atmosphere and layout, very much an extension of the city. Together with neighbouring communes (Clichy and Neuilly-sur-Seine), Levallois has a large accommodation base at a slightly cheaper going rate than Paris "intra muros", without compromising on distance from attractions and the essential feel of being in Paris
- 14 Rueil-Malmaison – a town in the outer western suburbs of Paris, home to a château and domaine that offer a similar experience to Versailles and Fontainebleau, but much cheaper, far less crowded and correspondingly more low-key
- 15 Saint-Cloud, suburb west of Paris known for a beautiful park in the grounds of the former Palace of Saint-Cloud. Also covers Suresnes and Sèvres.
- 16 Sceaux, mini-Versailles without the tourists.
- 17 Bobigny
- 18 Le Bourget – hosts the biannual Paris Air Show, and France's main state-owned aviation museum
- 19 Saint-Denis – Somewhat rough-around-the edges northern Paris suburb, Saint-Denis nonetheless welcomes droves of visitors to its basilica, and to the Stade de France, France's national stadium
- 20 Nogent-sur-Marne – riverside residential town famous for its guinguettes - restaurants and bars lining the river Marne.
- 21 Vitry-sur-Seine – former industrial suburb now home to a modest street art scene and some art galleries.
- 22 Auvers-sur-Oise, former residence of Vincent van Gogh.
- 23 Eragny
- 24 Roissy – A historic city just outside its gates of Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport. It retains its small-town charm, and has several points of interest if you're staying near the airport overnight, or just have a long layover.
There are seven main stations in Paris, and most of them welcome trains from bordering countries. They are connected through the métro and RER system only (no special shuttle).
- Gare du Nord, (10th), Métro: Gare du Nord - TGV trains from Belgium, the Netherlands, west Germany (Aachen, Cologne, Düsseldorf, Duisburg, Essen) (Thalys), and the United Kingdom (Eurostar from London and Kent) and regular trains from Hauts-de-France.
- Gare d'Austerlitz, (13th), Métro: Gare d'Austerlitz - regular trains from the centre and southwest of France (Orléans, Limoges, Toulouse the long way) and the majority of night trains.
- Gare de l'Est, (10th), Métro: Gare de l'Est - TGV to and from Luxembourg, ICE/TGV from south Germany (Saarbrücken, Kaiserslautern, Mannheim, Frankfurt, Karlsruhe, Stuttgart, Augsburg, and Munich), ÖBB night train from Austria (Wien, Sankt Pölten, Linz, Salzburg) and Germany (Rosenheim, Munich, Karlsruhe).
- Gare de Lyon, (12th), Métro: Gare de Lyon - regular and TGV trains from southern and eastern France: French Alps, Marseille, Lyon, Dijon, Switzerland (Basel, Geneva, Lausanne, Bern, Zurich) and southwest Germany (Müllheim, Freiburg im Breisgau). You can also catch trains to Italy (Turin, Milan).
- Gare de Bercy, (12th), Métro: Bercy. Regular trains to Auvergne and Burgundy.
- Gare St Lazare, (8th) Métro: St-Lazare - trains from Normandie.
- Gare Montparnasse, (15th), Métro: Montparnasse-Bienvenüe - TGV and regular trains from the west and south-west of France (Tours, Brest, Rennes, Nantes, Bordeaux, Toulouse the fastest way and Hendaye near the Spanish border. Gare Vaugirard is an extension of Gare Montparnasse.
There are also three peripheral stations located on the outskirts of the Paris conurbation which welcome national and some international high speed trains:
- Gare Aéroport Charles de Gaulle 2 TGV, Paris CDG Airport, RER: Line B - Welcomes TGV trains from all over France and Belgium, all of which avoid central Paris. Helpful if you're visiting northern Île-de-France.
- Gare de Marne-la-Vallée — Chessy, Marne-la-Vallée, RER: Line A - Adjacent to Disneyland Paris, it receives TGVs travelling across France avoiding Paris, mainly on a northeast - southwest (e.g. Strasbourg to Bordeaux) or north to southeast (e.g. Lille to Lyon) route. Helpful if you're visiting eastern Île-de-France.
- 1 Gare de Massy TGV (Massy, roughly 14 km south of Paris (Porte d'Orléans), RER (Massy — Palaiseau): Lines B, C). On the LGV Atlantique line which links Paris Montparnasse and eastern/northern France to the west and southwest. Helpful if you're visiting southern or western Île-de-France.
There are many cycle lanes on routes into Paris, but be careful as you also share the road with motorists who can be inconsiderate.
There are several free autoroutes and 4-lane roads for getting round Île-de-France, however on weekdays there is a lot of congestion between the hours 08:00-09:30 and 17:30-19:30, and it is really not advisable to travel then. This congestion becomes a lot less worse the further away from Paris you are.
- Le Boulevard Périphérique: a ring road which marks the limit of "Paris intra muros" (essentially the central city as distinct from its suburbs). This is essentially a motorway as there are no roundabouts or intersections, however it is famous for its traffic jams. Be careful though, as the cars entering onto the road from the right have priority over vehicles already on the Périphérique.
- A13: (direction Rouen) Western Autoroute
- A6: (direction Lyon) Southern Autoroute
- A5: (direction Lyon) South eastern Autoroute
- A86: Very useful road that nearly completely circles Paris. The tunnel between Rueil-Malmaison and Versailles is tolled (fairly expensive) and is open to cars only (trucks and motorcycles prohibited).
- A14: Toll road, fairly expensive.
- N104 La Francilienne: A half-circular road around the eastern side of Paris. As it is further out than the A86, there is considerably less congestion.
- N118: Connect western Paris to A10 and N104.
A network of regional trains (RER) takes you in and out of Paris. The RER has 256 stops in and around Paris, and runs on over 587 km (365 mi) of track. There are 5 lines, (A, B, C, D and E) that cross Paris, connecting suburbs on opposite sides. The stations are marked with blue signs with a white RER. The rest of the regional network, called "Transilien", departs from the main train stations (Lyon for line R, Est for line P, Nord for lines H and K, St-Lazare for lines J and L, Montparnasse for line N) and La Défense (line U). Trains can run up to every 5 minutes during rush hour, and you will never have to wait for more than 1 hour between two trains, even on the least served lines in the evening or on the weekend.
Tickets are only valid for the trip purchased, while passes use a 5-zone system. Check when purchasing, timetables, fare information, and maps for both systems can be found in on the English version of the Transilien website.
If you arrive on Thursday or before is may be worth investigating the Navigo Découverte card which can be loaded with a weekly pass valid for all Île-de-France (inc Paris) travel zones on almost all methods of public transport, see Paris "Using the métro and the suburban train" section
Trains run from 04:45 to 01:30. Smoking is not allowed in the stations or on the trains.
The suburbs and countryside around Paris are filled with wonderful palaces, gardens and parks that are almost unknown to tourists outside France. Although the palace of Versailles is by far the best-known, other palaces offer a similar experience and draw far fewer crowds, including the Parc de Saint-Cloud, the Parc de Sceaux and the Châteaus of Malmaison, Fontainebleau and Rambouillet. Head over to Saint-Germain-en-Laye and walk along the Grande Terrasse for a great view of the West of Paris.
Although there are a number of traditional scenic villages and towns to explore in the countryside, including the mediaeval towns of Provins and Montfort l'Amaury as well as the 18th- and 19th-century garden cities of Maisons-Laffitte and Le Vésinet, the suburbs and new towns around Paris also offer a whole host of more modern architectural gems. The suburb of Boulogne-Billancourt is well-known for its Art Deco architecture from the 1930s, while the new towns of Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines and Noisy-le-Grand/Val d'Europe host an array of surreal postmodern architecture from the 80s to the present day that may be of interest to some, not to mention the transport and economic hub of La Défense.
Some of the best museums outside the périphérique ring road include the Albert Kahn Museum, the Museum of aviation and spaceflight, the MAC VAC Museum of Contemporary Art and the Musée Fragonard.
For the kids, there's the France Miniature theme park and, of course, Disneyland Paris.
The region is filled with nice parks and forests with some pleasant and easy hiking/cycling trails, including the Coulée Verte and the Ceinture Verte (Green Belt).
Most of the roughest suburbs of Paris are located in the northern departments of Seine Saint-Denis and Val d'Oise as well as in some suburbs in the south-east along the Seine. Examples of suburbs with a particularly bad reputation are Saint-Denis, Bobigny, Grigny and Sarcelles. By contrast, the western departments are generally more affluent and very safe, with the main exceptions being Trappes, as well as some of the post-industrial towns downstream of the Seine (e.g. Mantes-la-Jolie, Les Mureaux) and in the extreme north of Hauts-de-Seine (e.g. Gennevilliers and parts of Nanterre).
Within the confines of the Périphérique, tourists should be wary in parts of the 18th and the 19th arrondissements and generally stay clear of areas close to the Périphérique and the Petite Ceinture at night, particularly around Stalingrad and Porte de la Chapelle.