London may have the Home Counties, but the French capital is wrapped in something rather more exotic: the Ile-de-France, an ancient term that is now defined as the eight départements that make up the Paris region. The one in the middle is the capital itself – the Paris département that has 75 as its code – which is where most of the 45 million annual visitors to the Ile-de-France spend their time. But subtract Paris from the equation and the remaining seven districts, which together occupy an area the size of Yorkshire, have plenty to offer.
They divide naturally into the Petite Couronne (the small, inner ring), comprising Hauts-de-Seine, Seine-Saint-Denis and Val-de-Marne; and the Grande Couronne (the large, outer ring), made up of the Essonne, Seine-et-Marne, Val-d'Oise and Yvelines départments. For the average visitor, these titles will mean little – but the names of the highlights resonate: Fontainebleau and Versailles, both fine towns with a château attached; the handsome cities of Provins and Meaux, astride the Voulzie and Marne respectively; and, the main destination for UK travellers, Disneyland Paris. After a rocky start, Mickey Mouse's pied à terre east of the capital has become a success – compressing the best of Disney into a relatively small and accessible site.
Yet there is plenty more of interest. For example, L'Isle Adam is a tranquil, historic town astride the Oise and surrounded by ancient forests. It feels as though it is deep in la France profonde rather than just 25km north-west the centre of Paris, easily accessible by train or car. This is the heart of the French horse-racing world, with the Ecole Française d'Equitation nearby.
Reaching the Ile-de-France is easy, with the Channel ports of Calais, Dieppe and Le Havre providing straightforward access for motorists. The main airport, Paris Charles de Gaulle, has direct bus connections to nearby locations such as Disneyland Paris. The theme park's own railway station, Marne-la-Vallée, is the only Ile-de-France destination for Eurostar trains other than Paris Gare du Nord; there is a daily train to and from London St Pancras, Ebbsfleet and Ashford International. Beauvais airport, known to Ryanair as "Paris", is well placed for the north of the region.
The rivers provide natural corridors for exploration; the Seine is dominant, running right through the region. The upmarket river-cruise specialist CroisiEurope (00 33 3 88 76 40 66; croisieurope.com) runs a range of cruises along the Seine between Paris and the Channel. But if you stick to dry land, with Paris as the centre, travelling around the region is easy and affordable, thanks to the Transilien train network (transilien.com) that extends to the compass points and many places in between. On the main rail lines from the big Paris stations, nowhere is more than an hour away.
The most useful aid to using public transport is, perhaps surprisingly, the Paris Visite unlimited-travel ticket – ideal for exploring the Ile-de-France, much more so, indeed, than for those who are sticking to the capital. One, two, three or five days of validity across all public transport in the entire region cost €19.60, €29.90, €41.90 and €51.20 respectively, with children aged 4-11 travelling at half-price. Given that a single rail ticket can cost €8, these prices represent excellent deals to help you make the most of the Ile-de-France.
A trip to the mouse – Mickey, that is – is the main draw of the Ile-de-France. Indeed, the whole business plan of Disneyland Paris is predicated upon Brits showing up in their millions to enjoy the Disney experience with a Gallic twist. There is, of course, a dedicated UK website, disneylandparis.co.uk, and telephone number: 0844 800 8898.
After a wobbly opening, and a big financial bail-out, the site at Marne-la-Vallée, 25km east of central Paris, is thriving. Indeed, on a busy day in summer, you may feel you are a victim of Disneyland Paris's success, as you battle the crowds on Main Street USA. The rides are world class, including those in the newer Walt Disney Studios next door. The park is well run, and there are plenty of accommodation options.
To minimise queuing and maximise enjoyment, you need to adopt one of two strategies. The first is to throw money at the problem, gaining the advantages of staying at the Disneyland Hotel directly above the entrance gates. How much cash? For £1,022, you get one night in a room with two double beds (adequate for families of four with young children), plus breakfast and two days' admission passes to the park. That is the price this month; off-season, the rate can drop to £610. But at Disneyland Paris, location is everything. Your "Disney Hotel Easy Pass" entitles you to get in two hours early (at 8am rather than 10am) to both Disneyland Park and its sister park. That means you can tick off the major rides such as Space Mountain and the Temple of Peril, before the masses arrive. On day two, use the privilege to get into Walt Disney Studios for the two great adrenalin attractions, Tower of Terror and Rock'n'Rollercoaster.
The budget Disney experience version is to stay off site – perhaps at Parc de la Colline campground (00 33 1 60 05 42 32; camping-de-la-colline.com) – and travel to Disneyland by shuttle bus or on the fast and reliable RER line to Marne-la-Vallée, a few minutes' walk from the entrance gates. Disneyland's opening hours are extended for high summer to 11pm. By 7pm the crowds are dwindling, and by 9pm you can usually walk straight onto any ride. You may also qualify for rates lower than the standard £51 for adults, £46 for children that are sold for UK customers.
The short journey south-west from Paris to the pretty town of Versailles gives no hint of the magnificence that awaits. When Louis XIV decided to replace his father's hunting lodge with the Château de Versailles, he had a bold mission: to build the grandest palace the world had ever seen, and to turn the land around it from wilderness into the most exquisite grounds decorated by fountains and structure. For the last decades of the 17th century, about 36,000 workers toiled to create the pinnacle of classicism, whose chambers are drenched with art.
As one of the leading tourist attractions in all of France, Versailles gets crowded. The palace opens 9am-6.30pm (with queues starting to form from 8.30am), but the gardens remain open until 8.30pm. So you could turn up at about 4.30pm, when numbers are thinning out, enjoy the palace in relative solitude for a couple of hours and then explore the surroundings. Whenever you choose to arrive, save a good half-hour of queuing by buying a ticket (€18) for the palace online at en.chateauversailles.fr.
To reach the château from central Paris, the easy way is on RER line C to Versailles-Rive Gauche, but a more interesting journey involves taking the overground train from Gare St-Lazare, curling around the north of Paris to the Art Deco station of Versailles-Chantiers.
To see the Independent Traveller's short video on Versailles, visit independent.co.uk/Versailles.
In comparison with Versailles, the château at Fontainebleau is an oasis of calm in the midst of a forest of oak and pine, occupying a loop of the Seine. The story of the palace was almost a prototype for Versailles: Philip the Good built a hunting lodge close by in the 15th century. The following century, Francis I transformed it into a royal palace. Subsequently, it was embellished by everyone from Louis XVI to Napoleon III. Everything from the frescos to the furniture reflects good, if lavish, taste. Napoleon Bonaparte was particularly fond of Fontainebleau: he announced his abdication here, and later described it as "the true home of kings, the house of ages". The château (00 33 1 60 71 50 70; musee-chateau-fontainebleau.fr) opens 9.30am-6pm daily except Tuesday, admission €8. You can reach it easily from Gare de Lyon in Paris; after the 45-minute train trip, a 15-minute bus ride on line A from Fontainebleau-Avon station takes you to the château. The surrounding woodland is slightly less serene at weekends, when plenty of hikers, cyclists, rock-climbers and horse riders arrive. Fontainebleau tourist office (00 33 1 60 74 99 99; uk.fontainebleau-tourisme.com) has an excellent English-language website.
The Oise valley, north of Paris, attracted leading 19th-century French Impressionists, including Paul Cézanne and Camille Pissarro. An even more notable resident was Vincent van Gogh – who took his own life in the town of Auvers-sur-Oise 121 years ago this summer. Track down the sites associated with Van Gogh with a map from the tourist office, in the handsome Manoir des Colombières (00 33 1 30 36 10 06; auvers-sur-oise.com). You can visit his last residence at the Auberge Ravoux in the town centre (00 33 1 30 36 60 60; maisondevangogh.fr; 10am-6pm Wednesday to Sunday from March to October; €6). This is an inn, and once you have visited Vincent's room you can dine at the restaurant.
The town's grandest building is the Château d'Auvers (00 33 1 34 48 48 48; chateau-auvers.fr/en), which has been turned into a shrine to Impressionism. The "walk-through" Impressionist tour is open 10.30am-6pm daily, admission €12.
Direct trains run from Paris Gare du Nord at weekends; at other times go from Nord to Valmondois or St-Lazare to Pontoise and change for a train to Auvers.
At the far west of the Ile-de-France (yet slightly easier to reach by train from Paris), Mantes-la-Jolie was the place William the Conqueror died in 1087. The following century, work on the town's Collegiate Church began. Today it is second only in size to Notre Dame in Paris, and has the biggest rose window in France (00 33 1 34 77 10 30; manteslajolie.fr). Mantes is an excellent base for exploring the hub of Impressionism: Monet's garden at Giverny (00 33 2 32 51 28 21; foundation-monet.fr; 9.30am-6pm daily from April to the end of October, €8), a couple of kilometres beyond the Ile-de-France's boundary with Normandy. Rent a bike and cycle across the Seine to Giverny.
Tale of two cities
Close to Paris, and easily reached by train from the handsome Gare de l'Est, are two small cities which seem to have been bypassed by the 21st century.
Halfway up the Seine from Paris to the champagne hub of Troyes, the medieval fortified town of Provins offers a glimpse into the historic turmoil of France. It is on the Unesco World Heritage list for its beautifully preserved centre – the most notable monument is the mighty 12th-century Tour César, as painted by Turner. Provins was a commercial hub for centuries, yet now feels like a quiet backwater. Stay at a chambre d'hote, such as Le Clos de Provins, close to the centre and with a pretty garden (00 33 6 85 80 86 45; leclosdeprovins.com). A room sleeping two costs €82, including breakfast, while a suite for four is €135.
Meaux has not (yet) made it on to the heritage list – nor even to the Lonely Planet guide to France – which means you are all the more likely to have the place to yourself. The massive gothic cathedral of St-Étienne is the main architectural attraction; and the elegant Jardin Bossuet will be celebrating its centenary this summer, but gourmets may be more enticed by the town's role as the home of one of France's finest cheeses, Brie. To burn off the calories, Meaux is also a centre for outdoor activities: three-and-a-half of the nation's long-distance footpaths (GR1 and its offshoot, the GR1B, GR11 and GR14) pass through the area. It is also a good place for cyclists to base themselves. Tourist information: 00 33 1 64 33 0226; ot-meaux.fr.