Île-de-France is the name of the region that includes Paris and its surrounds. Sometimes known as the Région Parisienne, Île-de-France is the smallest region of mainland France, but also by far the most populated and most dense. It is one of the most touristic regions in all of Europe.
The city of Paris is the capital of France and its most populous city, and instantly recognisable as one of the most famous and celebrated cities in the world. Nicknamed The City of Lights, Paris is known across the world for its beautiful architecture, grand monuments such as the Eiffel Tower, and its global status as a leader in the fields of art, literature, fashion, gastronomy, science, and finance.
Outside Paris, the region is home to a number of important historical sights such as Le Château de Versailles and the Fôret de Fontainebleau, as well as the wonderfully preserved medieval town of Provins. And of course, Île-de-France is also home to Disneyland Paris, France’s most-visited tourist attraction!
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Paris is situated on a bend of the river Seine, which runs through the city and divides it into a left and right bank. While greater Paris is a large and sprawling city, the city proper is loosely defined by a ring road called the Boulevard Périphérique. The city is divided into 20 administrative districts called arrondissments, which are numbered beginning in the centre of the city with the 1st (which contains the Louvre), and spirals outwards.
Paris is known for its distinctive Haussmanian building design, instantly recognisable as elegant stone buildings with intricately carved details, ornamental wrought-iron balcony railings, angled Mansard rooftops, and clay chimneypots. Interior design features include spiral staircases, hardwood floors, interior courtyards, and small top floor rooms called chambres des bonnes. Built during the 19th century as part of a major urban redevelopment, Georges-Eugène Haussmann, commissioned by Emperor Napoleon III, tore down many of the city’s unsanitary and old medieval neighbourhoods and replaced them with long, organised boulevards, bridges, parks and squares, houses, even details such as drinking fountains.
Monuments of Paris
Throughout the history of Paris, grand monuments have been built throughout the city, celebrating moments in history, as achievements in design, or as religious centres. Top of the list for many is the Tour Eiffel (Eiffel Tower), the highest structure in Paris at 324 metres (1,063 feet), and a symbol of the city. The wrought-iron structure was completed in 1889 as a centrepiece for the Exposition Universelle (World’s Fair). The Eiffel Tower is located on the 780-metre (2460 feet) long green space called the Champ de Mars, with the École Militaire at one end, and the classic viewpoint of the Trocadéro at the other.
Another of Paris’s most recognisable and beloved monuments is the Notre Dame de Paris, a 14th century Gothic cathedral on the small island Île de la Cité. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the most visited monument in Paris. The Arc de Triomphe, located on Place Charles de Gaulle (where 12 avenues intersect) is a monument to fallen soldiers during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars.
Other monuments include the Basilique Sacré-Cœur, a Roman Catholic church in the historic artist’s quarter of Montmartre; the Pantheon, a classically-inspired building which houses illustrious figures in the crypt below; and the Palais Garnier, an opulent and extravagant opera house. Other monuments can be found in public squares, such as the July Column in Place de la Bastille, and the fountains and Luxor Obelisk of Place de la Concorde, the largest square in Paris.
Museums of Paris
For centuries, Paris has been an epicenter of fine arts, and its artist heritage is reflected in the city’s more than 130 museums. The most visited museum in the world is the Musée du Louvre, located in the Louvre Palace, one of the city’s largest monuments and former royal residence. It is home to over 38,000 objects from prehistoric to to the 19th century. Famous works such as the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo are housed here, as well as extensive Egyptian, Greek, Near Eastern, Roman and Islamic art, and paintings from Italian masters, the Renaissance, Baroque, and more.
The Musée d’Orsay was opened in 1986 in the former Gare d’Orsay railway station. It mostly contains art from 1848 to 1914, including the world’s largest Impressionist collection. Near the Louvre is the Musée de l’Orangerie, famed for Claude Monet’s 8 large Water Lilies masterpieces, housed in 2 oval rooms designed specially for them. Known for its industrial exterior of pipes and steel, the Centre Pompidou is one of the best museums of modern art. Les Invalides is a complex of buildings designed for disabled veterans, which contains a military museum, as well as Napoleon’s tomb. Other notable museums include the Rodin Museum, the Musée Picasso, and the Musée du Quay Branly, home of indigenous art from around the world.
Notable Areas of Paris
Within the arrondissements of Paris, there are lots of neighbourhoods and quarters with their own distinct cultural identity and style. Montmartre is located on the city’s highest hilltop, recognisable for its Basilique Sacré-Cœur, cobblestone streets, and small village feel. The area is beloved for its strong artistic heritage, with many of France’s greatest Impressionist-era artists setting up their studios here in the 19th and 20th centuries, and present-day artists painting in the Place du Tertre. The Moulin Rouge is located nearby, in the red light district of Pigalle.
Paris’s most famous avenue is the Champs Élysées, 1.9km (1.2 miles) of luxury shops, restaurants and cafes that stretch from Place de la Concorde to the Arc de Triomphe. The avenue is the finish line of the Tour de France, and used for the Bastille Day military parade. One of the oldest districts in Paris is Le Marais, which translates to the marsh (named for the terrain on which it was originally built), a trendy district of narrow cobblestone streets, quirky shops, and famous falafels. It is home to many elegant buildings and monuments, such as the Hôtel de Sens, and the Place des Vosges.
The Seine is the city’s arterial river, an essential lifeline for Paris trade and prosperity over its history. The banks of the Seine, built up with walkways and elegant bridges, are listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and many of the city’s monuments can be seen from the water. Paris Plages is an annual event in which sand is placed along the river to form an artificial city beach. A quieter waterway is Le Canal Saint-Martin, perfect to explore on foot with its cast-iron bridges and locks.
Parks and Gardens of Paris
While Paris may often seem a city of buildings, traffic, and noise, there are many exceptional green spaces to take some time out. The Jardin du Luxembourg is a public park built for the Luxembourg Palace. Its central Grand Bassin is a popular place to launch model sailboats, and is known for its tennis courts, flower gardens, statuary, and shaded lawns. Located between The Louvre and Place de la Concorde is the Jardin des Tuileries, a lovely manicured park of ponds, shady trees, cafes, and sculptures by celebrated artists that includes Auguste Rodin.
On the eastern edge of Paris is the Bois de Vincennes, the largest park in the city. Created by Napoleon III, it borders the Château de Vincennes, and is home to Paris Zoological Park, the Floral Park of Paris, and numerous sporting centres such as the velodrome. On the other side of the city is the Bois de Boulogne, Paris’ second largest park, and features the Jardin d’Acclimatation, a children’s amusement park.
Other notable parks include the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, famed for its Temple de la Sibylle, perched on a clifftop; Parc Monceau, with strange follies such as Corinthian pillars and an Egyptian pyramid; and the Promenade Plantée, a raised park built on an old section of train line. For lovers of natural history, the Jardin des Plantes has several amazing sights, with the Grande Galerie de l’Évolution, filled with incredible animal models; The Gallery of Paleontology and Comparative Anatomy, which is filled with hundreds of animal skeletons, and even a carousel of extinct animals!
Other Interesting Things To See In Paris
Besides the grand monuments, beautiful museums, and historic quarters, Paris is filled with quirky and unusual sights. Deep underground, in former stone quarries under the city is one of Paris’ most sombre sights, the Catacombs. The bones of an estimated 6 million Parisians are on display in the ossuary, put there as a solution to overflowing cemeteries. Another slice of the long history can be seen in the Arènes de Lutèce, a 1st century Roman arena hidden between Parisian apartments.
A solemn, yet peaceful and beautiful walk is through Pére Lachaise, which is the world’s most visited cemetary. Its many famous gravestones include Edith Piaf, Oscar Wilde, Jim Morrison, and Victor Noir. In Pigalle is the Pierre Duperré basketball court, an open air court with surreal designs. Thats not all – there are plenty more unusual things to discover in Paris, from rooftop beehives to historic bookshops!
Other Cities of Île-de-France
While the small region of Île-de-France is dominating by the sprawling, famous, alluring city of Paris, the region has several other interesting and exciting destinations to see. From Versailles to Disneyland, there are plenty of reasons to take a day trip outside of Paris.
The town of Fontainebleau is located just over an hour’s drive south east of Paris. It is known for its grand medieval Château de Fontainebleau, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and its surrounding park lands. Inside, there are several museums and royal apartments for visitors to explore. The name of Fontainebleau is also synonymous with its sprawling forest, le Fôret de Fontainebleau. Occupying a huge 250 km2 (97 square miles) of pines, oaks and beech trees, the forest is home to many species of animals, such as boars, deer, and rabbits. Historically a royal hunting ground, and later a favourite location for Impressionist painters, today the forest is a hiker’s delight with over 300km (186 miles) of marked trails.
Located on the river Marne, north-east from Paris is the small commune of Meaux. The history of the commune dates back to Gallo-Roman times, as can be seen in the remains of the historic Remparts city walls. It has several notable sights to explore, such as the gothic Meaux Cathedral, and the Musée Bossuet, an art and history museum named after the bishop Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet. Meaux is also known for its famous Brie de Meaux, a creamy brie that dates to the age of Charlemagne; and a mustard known as Moutard de Meaux Pommery. The commune even has a river beach which is popular in summer!
Close enough to Paris to be reached by train (RER), Saint-Germain-en-Laye to the west of Paris is a popular day trip for visitors who want to take a trip into French history. The Château de Saint-Germain-en-Laye was built around 1124, and underwent many expansions, destructions, and renovations over the following centuries. It was a primary residence of French monarchy until the court moved to permanently to the Palace of Versailles in 1682. Later, it was used as a cavalry training school by Napoleon, was the headquarters of German occupiers during WW2, and is now an archaeological museum.
The town is also notable for the adjacent Forêt de Saint-Germain-en-Laye, a large forest once used as a royal hunting ground, and popular with walkers who traverse its many walking trails and star-shaped crossroads. A highlight is the Great Terrace of Le Nôtre, which overlooks the Seine and the landscape below.
Sometimes known as the town of medieval fairs, Provins is a historic commune near the eastern border of Île-de-France. It was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its beautifully preserved old town, as well as its role as a trading centre, especially for producers of the Champagne region. Because of its historical importance, Provins is filled with things to see.
The César Tower is the most impressive building of Provins, a 12th century watchtower. The old city walls have two excellent gates still intact, the Porte de Jouy and the Porte de Saint-Jean. The Grange aux Dimes (Tithe Barn) is a 13th century indoor market with incredible pointed arches. Other sights include the Collegiale Saint-Quiriace church, the Rose Garden of Provins, and the subterranean tunnels.
Tourist Attractions of Île-de-France
Palace of Versailles
It’s a name that conjures up the pinnacle of French royal opulence – The Palace of Versailles (Château de Versailles). Only 20km (12 miles) southwest of Paris, the incredible palace was the seat of the French monarchy from 1682 to 1789, vacated by Louis XVI when the French Revolution abruptly ended its occupation. Starting as a small moated château for hunting, it was greatly renovated to the current palace by Louis XIV to the present day palace. Today, it is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and open to visitors.
Versailles is the most visited castle in France, and the second most visited monument after The Louvre. While the whole palace is incredible to witness, Versailles is known for certain highlights such as its Hall of Mirrors, an ornate Baroque gallery; the Hameau de la Reine, Marie-Antoinette’s private residence; and the 800 hectares of the Gardens of Versailles.
By far the most visited attraction in France is Disneyland Paris, 32km (20 miles) east of Paris. Disneyland is made up of two amusement parks, Disneyland Park and Walt Disney Studios Park, as well as attached complexes for shopping, eating, hotels, a golf course, and Les Villages Nature, a family eco resort. Disneyland is easily reached by road or train from Paris.
The centrepiece of Disneyland Park is the magical Sleeping Beauty Castle, inspired by Germany’s Neuschwanstein castle. Starting with the fantastical restaurants and shops of Main Street USA at the park’s entrance, the park is divided into themed zones. Frontierland is a wild west zone (with Phantom Manor haunted house and Big Thunder Mountain rollercoaster); Adventureland is pirate, jungle and adventure themed (containing Indiana Jones and Pirates of the Carribbean rides); Fantasyland has some of Disney’s classic characters and rides (such as It’s a Small World and the Mad Hatters tea cups), and Discoveryland is space and technology themed (with Buzz Lightyear and Space Mountain rides).
The Walt Disney Studios Park has a movie studio theme, with zones broken into the Front Lot, Toon Studio, Production Courtyard and Backlot. Some of the fastest and most exciting rides include the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, Rock’n’Roller Coaster, but still with plenty for small kids, such as the Flying Carpets over Agrabah.
Eating and Drinking in Île-de-France
Drinking in Île-de-France
The region of Île-de-France is not a large alcohol producing region (although Paris does have a very small, curious vineyard). Paris is perhaps better known for its cocktails, several of which were invented in the city. One of the most famous drinks historically is absinthe, originally from Switzerland, but grew in popular in late 19th and early 20th century, particularly with writers and artists. The highly alcoholic drink became associated with addiction and crime, and was outlawed in 1915.
The Sidecar cocktail, made with cognac, orange liqueur and lemon juice, is thought to have originated from the Hotel Ritz in Paris at the end of WW1. The French 75 was also invented around this time, a mix of gin, champagne, lemon juice and sugar, and was named for its kick, compared to a ’75’ cannon. Other Parisian cocktails include the Rose (Vermouth, Kirsch, and strawberry syrup), and the Mimosa (Champagne and orange juice).
Dishes of Île-de-France
France is famous for its incredible cuisine, and Paris is one of the country’s gastronomic centres. There is a wide variety of wonderful food to be found in Paris, from local boulangeries selling pastries and breads; brasseries serving steaks, fries, salads and soups; and the more than 110 Michelin-starred restaurants (the second highest number in the world, after Tokyo).
So, what foods is Paris famous for? Typical cafe and brasserie food always has croque monsieur on the menu, a ham and cheese sandwich, often served with béschamel sauce (or with an egg, and called croque madame). Steak frites (steak and fries) is a national favourite, an entrecôte beef cut often served with béarnaise or hollandaise sauce. Steak tartare is a dish of raw beef, spiced and served with an egg yolk, with sides such as fries. Other classic bistro and brasserie dishes include soup a l’oignon (French onion soup), confit de canard (duck confit), and escargots á la Bourguignonne (snails in butter and herbs).
Desserts of Île-de-France
Paris is the birthplace of some of France’s most delicious desserts. Among the most famous are macarons, a small pair of crispy meringue shells that sandwich a flavoured ganache. Originally from Italy, macarons gained widespread popularity with French bakers such as Laduree. The Paris-Brest is a wheel-shaped choux pastry, sliced in two and filled with praline cream and topped with chopped almonds. It was created to promote the Paris-Brest bicycle race.
A delicious cake commonly seen in the windows of patisseries, the Opéra is a made with coffee syrup-soaked almond sponge, layered with chocolate ganache, coffee buttercream, and rich chocolate glaze. It was named after the Palais Garnier. Another classic is the baba au rhum, based on a Polish cake. First created in 1835, it is a small sponge cake soaked in rum, with raisins inside, and topped with crème Chantilly. There are also chouquettes, millefeuille, flan – there are many more cakes to discover in the windows of French boulangeries and patisseries!
Île-de-France is the birthplace of one of France’s most famous and beloved cheeses, Brie. It is a soft-ripened cow’s cheese, and was the model for Camembert from Normandy. Originating from the region of Brie (modern day Seine-et-Marne), brie was first produced around the 7th century by monks of Meaux and Melun. It is said that the Emperor Charlemagne himself stopped at the Priory, and loved the cheese so much, he had it regularly sent to his castle in Aachen. Some of the most celebrated varieties are Brie de Meaux, and Brie de Melun.
Other local cheeses include coulommiers and boursalt, both soft cheeses similar to brie. Brie noir is a highly aged version of brie, left to age for over 2 years and giving it a very strong, mushroomy taste.