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).