Introduction

Ile de France is located in north central France in the gently undulating landscape known as the Paris basin. The region is the country’s most densely populated, and also its wealthiest. At its heart lies the French capital, Paris. Further afield, you’ll discover acres of forest and fertile limestone plains, fed by the Seine, Marne, Oise and Aisne rivers.

Five regions flank Ile de France. Normandy lies to the northwest border, Hauts de France to the north and Grand Est to the east. Southeast you’ll find Franche-Comte, with Centre-Val de Loire due south.

Besides its illustrious capital, Ile de France boasts two of France’s most luxurious chateaux, Versailles and Fontainebleau.

How to get to Ile de France

By air

From the UK, you can fly direct to Ile de France from London, Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol and Edinburgh. Multiple airlines including EasyJet, BA and Air France fly daily services to Paris Charles de Gaulle (CGD) and Paris Orly (ORY) airports. Flight time from London is approximately 1 hour 15 minutes.

By train

Eurostar runs several trains daily from London St Pancras International train station to Paris Gard du Nord. The quickest connection takes 2 hours 16 minutes.

By car

If you’re driving from the UK, Le Shuttle will whisk you and your car across the Channel from Folkestone to Calais in as little as 35 minutes. Once on French soil, your quickest route to Paris is via the A26 and A1. It’s approximately 293 km (182 miles) and you’ll need around 3 ½ hours, depending on stops and traffic.

Prefer a more leisurely journey? The A16/N184/A15 route meanders along the coast past Boulogne and Le Touquet, then inland towards the capital. Your route passes Abbeville and Amiens, both good bets for a lunch stop or overnight stay.

NB: Use a GPS, or make sure you’ve enough data on your phone for Google maps!

Remember, highways/motorways in France are busy and slow-going during holiday periods, particularly throughout August. Take this into account when planning your route.

Getting around Ile de France

Whilst driving in Ile de France’s bucolic countryside is a delight, I don’t recommend you take your car into Paris. You’ll face heavy congestion, baffling multi-lane auto routes plus limited (and expensive) parking. Avoid the hassle, leave your car outside of the city and make use of Paris’ comprehensive public transport system.

Metro

Paris’ labyrinthine metro comprises 17 lines and 400 stations. It operates daily from 5.30 am to 1.15 am (2.15 am on Friday and Saturday mornings). The sprawling network connects with RER (regional express railway) and suburban train lines to take you beyond the capital.

Train

Both RER and Transilien train lines link up with the Metro to serve Paris and the rest of Ile de France.

RER’s expansive rail network covers most of the region. (Note: RER trains cross Paris quicker than the metro, and make fewer stops.)

Transilien trains run from six mainline stations (Paris Nord, Est, Lyon, Austerlitz, Montparnasse and Saint-Lazare) into the region’s suburbs.

Boat

The capital’s hop-on hop-off Batobus is a scenic way to discover central Paris. Boats call at nine key visitor destinations along the River Seine, including the Eiffel Tour, the Champs Elysees and the Louvre.

Tram

Eleven tram lines currently operate across Ile de France, linking the capital’s suburbs with regional hubs.

Car

Ile de France’s extensive road network gets convoluted once you reach the capital. Major roads include the N104 (aka La Francilienne, which navigates eastern Paris), the A13, A5, and A6. If you take your car into the capital, you’ll probably find yourself on Le Boulevard Périphérique or the A86. These two multi-lane ring roads loop around the city. They’re frequently congested, especially during commuting hours.

How big is Ile de France

Ile de France spans 4,637 square miles (12,011 square km). The region is the country’s political, industrial, cultural and corporate powerhouse. Tourism is big business, with agriculture a main industry in outlying areas, especially Seine et Marne. 

Departments

Eight departments make up Ile de France. These are Val-d’Oise, Seine-et-Marne, Seine-Saint-Denis, Ville-de-Paris, Hauts-de-Seine, Val-de-Marne, Essonne, and Yvelines. Paris is the regional and national capital.

Cities

Provins

This handsome UNESCO listed city by the Voulzie River boasts a wonderfully preserved historic centre and ramparts. Provins was an important trading point during the 12th and 13th centuries, when it hosted international merchant fairs. Visit in June for the town’s annual medieval festival, a two day extravaganza of jousting, acrobats, parades and a costumed ball.  

Meaux

On the River Marne, historic Meaux is known for its impressive 12th century gothic cathedral, St Etienne, and also for its Brie production! Art lovers can browse 17th to 19th century exhibits at the Bossuet museum. Meaux is a popular hiking stopover; three of France’s long distance footpaths pass the town.

Versailles

Aside from Versailles’ spectacular palace and gardens, the former French capital brims with spacious boulevards, cobbled squares, vibrant markets and bistros. Antique fans should head to Quartier des Antiquaires, a cluster of shops filled with preloved treasures.

Paris

The celebrated metropolis draws millions of visitors each year, lured by its history, architecture, fashion, and stylish panache. Paris is synonymous with culture: Picasso, Hemmingway and Van Gogh all made their home in the City of Lights.

Bring comfy walking shoes! Paris demands to be explored (at least partly) on foot. Read on for some of my favourite spots.

Le Marais: once uninhabited marshland (marais means marsh in French) Paris’ vibrant Jewish quarter mixes trendy boutiques and bars with historic architecture and fascinating museums. Visit leafy Places des Vosges, Paris oldest square, which dates back to 1612.

St Germain des Pres: a left bank arrondissement famed for its bohemian, literary connections. For decades authors and intellectuals, including de Beauvoir and Sartre, frequented the tables of Café de Flore and Les Deux Magots. Visit Paris’ oldest church, St Germain des Pres, built in 543. If it’s a sunny day, lunch like the locals, with an alfresco jambon-beurre in tranquil Jardin du Luxembourg.

Montmartre: tucked away behind the Butte de Sacre Coeur, Abbesses is a lovely district of cobbled streets, cafes and artists’ studios. It’s also home to one of Paris’ last remaining vineyards. Don’t miss the entrance to Abbesses Metro, a gorgeous Art Nouveau display of wrought iron and stained glass.

A potted history of Ile de France

Gallic tribe the Parisii settled beside the River Seine during the Iron Age.

In 52 BC Julius Caesar conquered the area, then called Lutetia.

From 476 to 750 AD the Gallic Merovingians controlled the province, which King Clovis I renamed Francia. Frankish tribes united under Clovis. In 508 he named his capital Paris, after the Parisii.

In 987, Hugues Capet became King of the Franks, and made Paris his centre of power. The House of Capet ruled Francia until 1328.

In 1164, construction began on Notre Dame Cathedral.

The Palace of Versailles was completed in 1634.

In 1682 the French monarchy and government relocated to Versailles.

The French Revolution began in May 1789. On 14 July 1789 protesting Parisian citizens stormed Paris’ Bastille fortress.

King Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette were both executed by guillotine in 1793.

After the French Revolution, Ile de France was divided into departments.

In 1853 Emperor Napoleon III commissioned Baron Haussmann to rebuild Paris. Haussmann replaced the city’s overcrowded slums with the stone mansion blocks and broad boulevards we know today.

Parisians endured siege for four months during the Franco Prussian war of 1870 to 1871.

1871 to 1914 saw France’s Belle Époque, or Golden Age. This period of innovative architecture and engineering produced the Paris metro, the Eiffel Tower and the Basilica Sacre Coeur.

Between 1850 and 1950, French and overseas workers flocked to Ile de France in search of employment. The region’s population increased fourfold as a result.

From 1940 to 1944 German forces occupied the region.

In the 1980s, President Mitterrand commissioned major building projects in Paris, including the Louvre Pyramid, the Bastille Opera and the La Defense arch.

Culture

Musee d’Orsay

Discover a fantastic collection of impressionist and post-impressionist art at this elegant gallery. The imposing beaux arts building on the Seine’s left bank was built as a railway station for the 1900 World Fair. Browse masterpieces by Van Gogh, Monet, Renoir, Cezanne and Rodin from 1848 to 1914.

Arc de Triomphe

Built for Napoleon in 1836, the ornate ceremonial arch hails French military achievement. Towering 164 feet (50 metres) the arch straddles the Etoile roundabout, fanned by a continuous stream of traffic. A dozen boulevards, including the famed Champs Elysees, radiate from its base. It’s a 284 step climb to the viewing platform. Your knees might not thank you, but the panoramic views are spectacular. At the arch’s base lies the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Each evening, officials relight an eternal flame, in tribute to French troops killed in action.

Fontainebleau

35 miles (60 km) southeast of Paris, the chic town of Fontainebleau is renowned for its delightful chateau and gardens. The vast oak and pine woodland that surrounds the estate is former royal hunting territory, and nowadays attracts hikers, cyclists, climbers and horse riders.

Centre Georges Pompidou

Launched in 1977, the high tech modern arts centre made headlines, both for its contemporary art collection and distinctive architecture. Escalators scale the building’s exterior, alongside vivid pipework. The museum showcases works from the 20th and 21st centuries, including exhibits by Matisse, Bourgeois and Kahlo.

Basilica Sacre Coeur

Sacre Coeur is an extravagantly ornate limestone church in Paris’ hilly Montmartre neighbourhood. Climb the 270 steps (or take the funicular) to the hill crest, where the distinctive Roman-Byzantine building graces the city skyline. The views are some of Paris’ finest, and crowds regularly gather to watch the sunset.

Weather

Ile de France typically enjoys a moderate climate of brief, warm summers and long chilly winters. Expect winter temperatures between 2oC/36oF and 4oC/39oF, with summer highs a blissful 25oC/77oF to 31oC/88oF. Note that with climate change we’re seeing more extremes in temperature. The region gets rainfall throughout the year, so pack a brolly, just in case.

Winter (Late November to March)

The chilly season brings inevitable rainfall, with December and January the wettest months in Ile de France. Temperatures plummet, and snow and ice are not unusual. Typical temperature peak at 8oC/46oF, dropping to 2oC/36oF.

Spring (March to early June)

Rainfall eases and by March the grounds begin to dry, especially in central areas. Average temperatures creep up to 15oC/59oF with lows of 6oC/43oF. May often brings further rainfall alongside climbing temperatures.

Summer (June to mid-September)

Ile de France basks in the heat of summer. July enjoys the most hours of sunshine, whilst August is usually the region’s driest month, with rainfall unlikely. Sunscreen is de rigeur, as you enjoy average highs of 24oC/75oF and rising. Typical lows are 14oC/57oF.

Autumn (Late September to early November)

As temperatures start to cool and days shorten, temperatures reach highs of 16oC/61oF, dropping to 8oC/46oF. Rain showers increase as the season progresses.

Best time to visit

For settled weather, I recommend mid-June to mid-September for your visit to Ile de France. Remember, August is peak tourism season, and temperatures and humidity can be uncomfortably high. Christmas is another popular time to visit the capital, which looks exquisite dusted in snow. Don’t forget your thermals!

Do not miss

Versailles Palace and Gardens

The extravagant 17th century palace built for Louis XIV (aka the Sun King) is an enduring reminder of the monarchy’s ostentatious power and wealth, which resulted in the French Revolution. The royal residence stands in sumptuous landscaped grounds, adorned with sculptures and fountains. Enjoy a guided tour of the palace and gardens. Don’t miss the astonishingly ornate state apartments, the dazzling 73 metre long Hall of Mirrors, and Marie Antoinette’s private estate.

Louvre Museum

The world’s most visited museum houses arguably the greatest collection of western art on the planet. Over 35,000 exhibits spanning 3,000 years include ancient Egypt, Greece, and Dutch masterpieces. The Mona Lisa is one of the star exhibits, and you’ll have to queue to pay homage to Da Vinci’s iconic work. The cavernous building incorporates different architectural styles. Visit the reflective Islamic gallery and the elaborate Richelieu Wing, former private quarters of Emperor Napoleon III.

Tour d’Eiffel

You can’t visit Paris without paying your respects to the Iron Lady, Gustav Eiffel’s legendary feat of engineering. By day the views of the Seine as it snakes through the city are superb. After nightfall, the tower is at its most enchanting, bedecked in twinkling lights. You’ll find a Michelin starred restaurant on the second floor, and a champagne bar at the top.

Markets

Paris, Marche Bastille, Boulevard Richard Lenoir, 75011 Paris. Open Thursday and Sunday, 7 am to 10.30 am. Substantial Parisian market with over 100 vendors selling fresh food, flowers, art and crafts.

Paris, Marche President Wilson, Av President Wilson, 16e, Paris. Open Wednesday and Saturday 7am to 2.30 pm. Excellent gourmet food market where Parisian chefs rub shoulders with locals. Alongside high quality game, fish, cheese, and vegetables there’s an array of international hot food stalls. Go with an appetite.

Paris, Marche Mouffetard, Place St Medard, 75005 Paris. Legendary Latin Quarter street market. Open Tuesday to Saturdays, and Sunday mornings. Browse charcuterie, seafood, pastries, and cheeses. Great for a picnic.

Paris, Marche aux Puces de St-Ouen, Avenue de la Porte de Clignancourt, 18e, Paris. Open Monday 11 am to 5 pm, Saturday and Sunday 9 am to 6 pm. Enormous, century old flea market selling everything from antique furniture to fashion to ceramics. Bring cash and be prepared to haggle (preferably in French).

What to eat and drink

If you’ve a few Euros in your pocket, you’ll not go hungry in Ile de France. Parisian bistro favourites include steak frites, hearty French onion soup and croque monsieur (the classic ham and gruyere grilled sandwich, naughtily oozing béchamel sauce).

Meat lovers should sample Paris Ham, navarin of Ile de France lamb, and Houdan chicken from Les Yvelines. Local cheeses include brie from Meaux and Coulommiers.

For the sweet toothed, you’ve got macarons, mille-feuille, rhum baba and Paris-Brest. This choux pastry ‘wheel’ topped with almonds and filled with praline cream was inspired by the 1910 Paris to Brest cycle race.

Where to eat and drink

Versailles, La Table du 11, The Cour des Senteurs, 8 Rue de la Chancellerie 78000, Versailles

Feast like royalty at this Michelin starred restaurant, a hop and a skip from Versailles Palace. Dine a la carte, or splurge on the seven course tasting menu. Bookings essential.

Paris, Le Relais Gascon, 6, Rue des Abbesses. 750018 Paris

Friendly, informal brasserie in the picturesque Abbesses quarter in Montmartre. Generous portions that won’t break the bank. Enjoy hearty traditional French faves such as tartiflette, confit de canard, cassoulet and enormous salads.

Paris, Le Jules Verne, 2nd fl, Eiffel Tower, Ave Gustave Eiffel, 75007 Paris

Book online waaay in advance for a table at this Michelin starred restaurant on the second floor of Paris’ inimitable Eiffel Tower, 125 metres above the city. Expect elegant gourmet dining and views to write home about.

Le Perchoir Marais, 33 rue de la Verrerie, 75004 Paris

Alfresco bar with a view, located on the roof of Paris’ BHV Marais department store. This hip establishment serves wines, cocktails, beers and savoury small plates with wonderful views of the city, the Seine and the Eiffel Tower. No reservations, open evenings from 7.15 pm.

Where to stay

Stay in the heart of historic Marais in this sleek contemporary studio with mezzanine, kitchen and generous bathroom. Sleeps four.

https://www.vrbo.com/6410401ha?noDates=true&unitId=1999054

Vacation in style in this elegant apartment near the Eiffel Tower on Paris’ left bank. Sleeps four in two bedrooms. Close to shops, bars, restaurants and metro. Not suitable for young children.

https://www.vrbo.com/559365?noDates=true&unitId=1106682

This spacious, three floor house with garden in a peaceful Paris suburb is great for bigger groups. You’re five minutes’ walk from shops, restaurants and the metro, and a 20 minute metro ride to Notre Dame. Sleeps ten in five bedrooms, with three bathrooms.

https://www.vrbo.com/1384643a?noDates=true&unitId=1554619

Conclusion

Well travellers, I hope you’ve enjoyed reading all about Ile de France. Until next time, a bientot!

Maria Bricheno
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Author

Maria Bricheno is a freelance writer, with a focus on independent travel. When not writing or plotting her next trip, she enjoys trail/road running, contemporary fiction, and country walks with her enthusiastic golden retriever. An ardent fan of all things Gallic, Maria spends too much of her leisure time lurking on French property websites.

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