Peaceful, Walkable Town a Train Ride from Paris?
August 14, 2018 2:55 PM   Subscribe

I booked inexpensive impulse tickets to Paris for 10 days next May. It turns out we don't really like big city vacations that much. Instead of staying in Paris, I would like to spend our vacation in a smallish European town where we can walk, ride bikes, go to the same cafe every morning for breakfast, look at beautiful things/scenery, etc. What small town/home base within a day's train ride of Paris do you recommend?

My main goals for this town are that it is:
-easily accessed from Paris (by train)
-navigable on foot/bike/public transport (not renting a car)
-full of architectural/visual/natural/historical beauty & wonder
-on the smaller side, with enough to do that we don't feel bored within a day but not so crowded and full of options that we're exhausted by the end.

We are interested in: walking, visiting museums, shopping (me), eating (vegetarian/vegan), looking out over beautiful vistas, hiking/cycling/swimming/exploring, learning about stuff, people-watching, cafes. From my cursory research it looks like maybe Montpellier would be a good fit?

Thank you for any specific recommendations you have, search terms I should be using, or past similar questions that might have good ideas! I've looked online but it's so overwhelming I had to stop!
posted by stellaluna to Travel & Transportation (37 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
Check out Versailles. We were only there for a day trip, but it seemed like a nice small town with plenty of cultural and historical sites to see. And it had at least one nice restaurant.
posted by hammurderer at 3:14 PM on August 14, 2018 [2 favorites]

Grenoble! It's a few hours from Paris by train, and very walkable with a good tram system. There is also a bikeshare, but when I was there 2.5 years ago they would not rent to non-Europeans. Many many museums, most of them free. The Bastille is a fantastic in-town hike (or you can take the gondola to the top). It's right at the base of the Vercors, so it's quite rightly known as the town with a mountain at the end of every street. Also well connected by train/bus to other towns in the area.

I spent a month (May 2016) there, did not have a car, and used public transit for daytrips to Annecy (GORGEOUS), Vizille (chateau converted to a Museum of the French Revolution, stunning grounds), and Lyon (which would make a great home-base as well, if you want something a little bigger than Grenoble but smaller than Paris).
posted by basalganglia at 3:32 PM on August 14, 2018 [9 favorites]

Read up on Lyon a bit. The TGV goes straight there from Paris, it's not Paris-sized (so definitely walkable) despite being large enough to have a decent number of cultural attractions, and the food can be startlingly good. It's at the junction of the Rhone and the Saône and is really very lovely indeed - the parcs, especially.
posted by humuhumu at 3:37 PM on August 14, 2018 [2 favorites]

Zurich. Old town is easily walkable, plenty of culture, boat rides on the lake, views of the mountains, in-city hiking on the Uetliberg (on a tram line AND a train line), day trips anywhere you fancy on the utterly brilliant Swiss public transport system. Most of all I would say it is the quietest and most civilised city I have ever had the pleasure to visit.
posted by el_presidente at 3:51 PM on August 14, 2018

Or if Zurich is too big a city, I would recommend Lucerne as very similar on a slightly smaller scale
posted by el_presidente at 3:55 PM on August 14, 2018

Can I make an argument for renting a car? Do you drive normally? If so, it’s not that different. Renting a car is really the only way you’re going to come across any kind of village life. Everything else is still going to be some kind of city, be it small or large. Everything mentioned so far is still a city.

If you do rent a car, drive to Brittany.
posted by degoao at 3:59 PM on August 14, 2018 [4 favorites]

Nancy, then onto Strasbourg - a UNESCO world heritage site, architecture and museums to rival Paris, walkable, bicycling (even along canals in the area), pop over into the German side of Alsace for a day trip. Wonderful. Today, it was 61°F. Hotels are much cheaper than Paris and there are 2 and 3 star restaurants.
posted by sudogeek at 4:07 PM on August 14, 2018 [8 favorites]

I also want to vote for Strasbourg. One of the most beautiful cities I've been to (I saw it on a long trip through Europe a few years ago during which I visited over 40 cities). There is a stunning Gothic Cathedral where you can go to the roof to view the city from above.
posted by acidnova at 4:39 PM on August 14, 2018 [5 favorites]

Nthing Strasbourg! I lived there for a few months and it's definitely accessible by walking/public transport, and the cathedral is unbelievable.
posted by jouir at 4:45 PM on August 14, 2018 [4 favorites]

We spent a beautiful 36 hours in Amboise and the surrounding area of the Loire Valley last spring. It looks like there are some wonderful cycling opportunities between the various chateaux, and the little towns and rolling hills are picturesque. (We rented a car, but with more time, bikes would be a great option.)
posted by pril at 4:56 PM on August 14, 2018 [2 favorites]

Just jumping in on the Strasbourg and Alsace recommendations. Easy TGV connection from Paris.
posted by humboldt32 at 4:56 PM on August 14, 2018

I really liked Nîmes, although I have no idea if there's 10 days worth of things to do there. Still: Roman ruins! Mediterranean gardens! And no doubt the new Roman museum is great, although I must pause to mourn the glorious jumble store of an archaeology museum that preceded it.

You could always choose a home base in that area and rent a car or take the train if you wanted to visit nearby sites.
posted by toastedcheese at 5:01 PM on August 14, 2018

Seconding Nancy and Strasbourg.
posted by songs_about_rainbows at 5:21 PM on August 14, 2018

I didn't really like Nancy but I thought Strasbourg was lovely.
posted by jeather at 5:27 PM on August 14, 2018

posted by whimsicalnymph at 5:32 PM on August 14, 2018 [2 favorites]

Came in to suggest the Loire Valley. Tours was a nice slightly larger town, with a lot of day trip options. So many castles. Some within cycling distance, others need a car.
posted by kjs4 at 5:46 PM on August 14, 2018 [2 favorites]

For a truly small, old town I recommend Sancerre. It's and old fort town up a hill, with lots of outdoor activities also in the surrounding country side.
posted by zeikka at 5:52 PM on August 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

Orvieto, Italy. It’s a 12 hour train ride from Paris. You’ll be in Umbria which is no less spectacular than Tuscany, and off the beaten path. You then take a funicular to go up the side of the gigantic tufa rock that the town sits upon (a beautiful, impressive, natural fortress enjoyed by the Etruscans who founded the town, although the Romans annexed it anyway- smh). It’s incredible, easily walkable, loaded with historic architecture and archaeological museums (not to mention the underground caves you can tour), *lovely* trattorias for dining - make sure to try the wild boar sandwiches if you’re a meat eater, insanely gorgeous views everywhere you walk, quiet, not very touristy. I always recommend it to anyone seeking a lesser known, quiet spot in Italy.

If you want a beautiful and peaceful city full of art and things to do, but doesn’t *feel* like a city (the pace is languorous), Florence is an awesome compromise. Florence is in my top 3 places to retire or return again for vacation, and I am someone who prefers slower paced, low key vacation spots like you. It is also a shorter train ride from Paris- 9 hours rather than 12. You can rent bikes and it is SUPER bike friendly. Unlike the US, you don’t feel like you’re going to get run off the road at any moment.

If you are interested, memail me and I will share hotel/restaurant recommendations.
posted by nightrecordings at 5:55 PM on August 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

Dijon was the perfect size: small enough to be quiet and manageable, large enough to have plenty of cultural attractions.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 6:01 PM on August 14, 2018 [2 favorites]

The cathedral towns of Amiens and Chartres would definitely fit the bill. Each of them is a good town for a day trip.
posted by MrBadExample at 6:12 PM on August 14, 2018 [2 favorites]

If you want to stay in France, also nthing Strasbourg. I lived there for a month several years back and it was such a memorable experience.

It juts up against Germany for a quick trip, the transport system is easy to learn, the region is lovely, and Colmar -- the "capital of Alsatian wine", with original buildings dating back to the 13th century -- is only a short train distance away.
posted by lesser weasel at 7:51 PM on August 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

Annecy's pretty nice. Not a great place for museums (though there are a couple), but otherwise meets your requirements and is a lovely and short single-train trip.
posted by eotvos at 7:57 PM on August 14, 2018 [2 favorites]

Strasbourg was my first thought when I read your question. The center is nicely small but gorgeous, and I got a kick out of just walking over a bridge and into Germany.

Grenoble-Chambéry-Annecy might be a nice fit too. I can't speak to the shopping or the dining scene, but there is some lovely nature around (the lac d'Annecy is amazingly pretty.)

Fontainebleau is quite small but has an amazing château and lots of hiking and bouldering in the surrounding forest. It's a nice day trip from Paris.

If you want to venture outside of France I might also suggest the Hague (3 h away by TGV, with one change in Rotterdam); it's in the Netherlands, so it's obviously super-bike friendly (I was able to rent a bike for €12.50 a day), and it's surprisingly close to the sea. I was immediately charmed. Very international city and so I suspect you would have no problem finding good vegetarian/vegan food. Biking to Delft and Leiden is easy should you get bored of the Hague proper.
posted by invokeuse at 8:12 PM on August 14, 2018

Another vote for Strasbourg. Easy train connection from Paris and a great small city once you get there.
posted by Betelgeuse at 8:56 PM on August 14, 2018

Jumping back in to add support to lesser weasel's suggestion for a side-trip to Colmar. I spent an afternoon there when I was staying in Strasbourg and made the mistake of going on a Sunday as it basically shuts down completely on sundays. It was still lovely to stroll around the area, though. Fortunately, there was a wine shop open so I was able to procure a couple bottles of Gewürztraminer which I recommend if you enjoy sweet white wines.
posted by acidnova at 9:01 PM on August 14, 2018

What small town/home base within a day's train ride of Paris do you recommend?
Be aware that pretty much any town in Western Europe is within a day's train ride of Paris.

From my cursory research it looks like maybe Montpellier would be a good fit?
I lived in Montpellier for a while and would absolutely recommend it. City centre all reachable on foot and fun to explore, interesting old/new cultural and architectural mix, sunny, possible to rent bikes to go around city and out to coast, day trips to coastal and more highland locations all possible. Many students so veggie diet catered for. Interesting small shops.

If you wanted to go north then Lille is a very easy to reach: again this is small, interesting and has a vibrant feel to it.
posted by rongorongo at 11:12 PM on August 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

If you're up for a bit more of a bike trek you could go to Strasbourg and do a portion of the route du vin. You should be able to hire bicycles and get a train to somewhere along the route and then just spend a few days going from village to village sampling winery to winery stopping to sleep whenever you're ready. Otherwise you could limit your trip to Strasbourg and Colmar (although try to get to Eguisheim when they are having a wine festival. There are a lot of small vinyards producing some really nice wines and they sell them by the glass. While I wouldn't want to spend 45 euro on a bottle of vendage tardive I would happily spend 4 euro on a glass of it and really be able to sample the different flavours from different vintages and vines. Plus you get to eat lots of Tarte Flambee.
posted by koolkat at 1:18 AM on August 15, 2018

Amboise, in the Loire.
A small, pretty, quiet place with a nifty castle, pretty historic architecture, lots of nice cafes, and a river. Tons of castles/palaces nearby. Very walkable and I think there is a bike path on the Loire. Good train access.

Other options:
Troyes, in Champagne -- lovely and historic feeling, but a bit bigger (pop. 100,000?) and I'm not sure about biking in the area.

Auxerre, in Burgundy. The old city, which winds uphill from the river, is like a miniature course in French architecture. The Burgundian countryside nearby would be great for biking and walking. Easy enough to get to, but local transit isn't great.

Dijon might be good (I don't remember it as well).

If you want to go further: Aix in Provence is lovely

People are suggesting Strasbourg but it really felt like quite a big city to me! (As is Lyon!) Zurich is ungodly expensive (as is the rest of Switzerland).
posted by mkuhnell at 2:01 AM on August 15, 2018

I suggest Bourges, about 2,5 hours by train and so lovely. I spent holidays in Berry / Bourges region for several years and would go back any time.
posted by 15L06 at 2:08 AM on August 15, 2018

Consider Clermont-Ferrand. Has a spectacular cathedral constructed out of black volcanic rock, and a nice old quarter. Very walkable, with good public transit. In the middle of the Chaîne des Puys world heritage area (and there are frequent busses running from the city centre to some of the natural beauty sites). A smaller city, but still quite cosmopolitan due to the presence of the university.
posted by penguinicity at 2:14 AM on August 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

If you do end up in the Strasbourg area, check out Colmar and some of the other villages on the Alsace Wine Route (Riquewihr and Eguisheim are particularly nice). You can cycle between villages or use taxis. There are a lot of tourists, but I didn't find the area uncomfortably crowded. The architecture and countryside are lovely.
posted by neushoorn at 2:47 AM on August 15, 2018

Seconding Lyon - all that humuhumu said and more. Technically a large city, but has a very small, local feel. A Mecca for foodies. Some stunning murals, both along the river(s) and up the hill at Croix Rousse (biggest in Europe) on the blvd des Canuts (silk-workers). Totally walkable and bikeable in the centre. A 20-minute train ride away is Vienne, delightful provincial town, Roman ruins galore - museum, amphitheatre, temple and more - good for a day- or multi-day side trip.
posted by aqsakal at 5:33 AM on August 15, 2018

Strasbourg! In addition to everything already mentioned, I went all over France and they had my favorite history museum hands down.

Dijon was also lovely, with a historical walking trail, very pretty flowers, and, not surprisingly, DELICIOUS food and mustard.
posted by clarinet at 6:25 AM on August 15, 2018

The Canadian War Memorial is two hours from Paris in Vimy. It’s quite spectacular and the nearby town of Arras is lovely I believe.
posted by Iteki at 11:32 AM on August 15, 2018

I'd head for the Nimes-Arles-Avignon triangle, plenty to see and do, all very walkable towns, and interconnected by public transport.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 11:55 AM on August 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

We always visit Saint-Rémy-de-Provence.

- Farm stands
- Scenic walks
- Roman ruins
- Van Gogh
- Les Alpilles
posted by lukez at 1:39 PM on August 15, 2018

Reims is about an hour by TGV. There's the huge, beautiful cathedral where the kings would be crowned. It totally blew my mind. There's the museum in the building where the Allies had their headquarters and accepted the surrender of the Germans. There are also champagne caves, but they might be difficult to get to without a car. The town is also pretty in general.
posted by starfishprime at 10:55 AM on August 16, 2018

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