Essonne is often overlooked by visitors to France because it is chiefly known as a regional scientific and industrial centre. However, Essonne is conveniently close to the French capital and possesses a wonderful mixture of urban and rural areas which entices tourists that are in the know.
Located in the southernmost part of Paris, the department is one of its most densely populated areas with a population of roughly 1.2 million, but a land area of just 1,804km².
Essonne was the home of such notables as the poet Jean Cocteau, the designer Christian Dior and the footballer Thierry Henry.
Essonne is a department of the Île-de-France region of France (commonly known as the Région Parisienne). Essonne has a number of important cities including:
- Les Ulis
Essonne is typical of northern France, with generally cool temperatures compared to the rest of the country, alongside the occasional heatwave for good measure. Temperatures can reach as high as 25ºC during the summer months of June to August and drop as low as freezing around Christmas and the New Year.
Average temperature in Île-de-France
One particular boon for the tourist is that Île-de-France enjoys the lowest annual rainfall in France.
Tourist attractions & culture
The many communes of Essonne are packed with outstanding pieces of architecture with religious leanings, ranging from the medieval period to the present day. The chief example of the latter is the Cathedral of the Resurrection in Évry, produced by the famous Swiss architect Mario Botta in the late 20th century and truly remarkable in its forward-thinking design. On the other side of the scale, the Basilica of Notre-Dame-de-Bonne-Garde in Longpont-sur-Orge provides a look into the distant past, with its 11th century Romanesque façade. Equally notable are the many churches of Etampes such as Saint-Martin d'Etampes and Saint-Gilles.
Reflecting the diversity of belief in the department, you can find many other spectacular edifices such as the Mosque at Courcouronnes, one of the largest in Western Europe, and the authentic 15th century style Russian Orthodox Church in Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois, which contains the Cemetery of Notre-Dame-de-L'Assomption (recognised as a national historical monument).
The rural commune of Milly-la-Forêt is a further attraction for tourists, being part of the Gâtinais Francais Regional National Park and containing the 'Cyclop' sculpture and the National Plant Conservatory.
Essonne also enjoys a number of charming museums and galleries. One special point of interest for tourists is the Moulin de Vauboyen Arts and Cultural Centre in Bièvres, a former segment of a 17th century abbey which now hosts works by such artists as Picasso and Braque.
Also of note are the Etampes Municipal Museum, the beautiful Château de Chamarande and its contemporary art exhibitions, the Victor Hugo Literary Museum in Bièvres and the Amicale Jean-Baptiste Salis Museum at the Cerny Aerodrome, dedicated to Jean-Baptiste Salis (who, at the age of 16, became the first man to fly over Mont Blanc in 1912) and now established as one of Europe's major aviation museums. Such institutions come alongside the many local history museums like Bouray Historical Museum, as well as others on subjects ranging from photography to natural history, all of which reflect the strong and varied sense of culture in Essonne.
Family entertainment and other activities
If you happen to be in Essonne between May and September, the Dourdan Castle is an obvious choice for families. Built in the 13th century and listed as a French historical monument, the castle has plenty of culture and family activities with a medieval theme (particularly for kids).
Although Essonne may be lacking beaches, the department compensates with a number of quality Leisure Parks, such as the open-air establishment in Etampes which is especially popular with surfers due to its facilities and 70 acres of open space. However, the premier spot for water-sports is the Port aux Cerises leisure park, sprawled across some 150 hectares and hugely popular throughout the year.
If that's not enough, go-karting is also provided at both the R.K.O. Angerville International Go-Karting Centre in Angerville and the Espace Plus Circuit in Marcoussis.
You can even take to the sky at the Cerny Aerodrome, with gliding, microlites and hot air ballooning all available.
Essonne is arguably one of the best places for golf in northern France, with some fourteen courses to be found across the department, most of which are open to the public.
Essonne is blessed with over 1000 kilometres of official walkers' paths. The department is actually part of the French Ramblers Federation (FFRP) due to the wealth of beautiful routes to traverse. These include the Orge Valleys, the valleys of the Juine in Milly-la-Forêt, the Parc de Jeurre in Morigny-Champigny and the many gardens and forests of Dourdan, Sénart and Verrières.
Food and drink
Essonne is not generally reputed for its range of restaurants, with the French capital so close. Restaurants in the department emphasise local products, assisted by the 'Produits et Terroir Essonne-Île-de-France' association of 42 producers. As such, expect traditional, simple French cuisine by and large with a few foreign alternatives due to the tourist trade.
Ease of access
Transport around Essonne is excellent. Tourists can reach the department through the Paris-Orly International Airport (at one time the main airport in France) and it is well connected to the rest of France thanks to the incorporated A6, A10 and Francilienne motorways. Alternatively, if you'd prefer a train ride, there are railway networks courtesy of TGV and RER.
Value for money
There is a fairly strong tourist sector in Essonne, with over 300 companies connected to the tourist trade and some 900,000 tourists passing through according to the tourist board. As such, you will find plenty of hotels and renting opportunities if you choose to stay in the department.
That said, be warned that a holiday or a prolonged visit will not exactly be cheap, due both to the dense population and the proximity to the capital city of Paris.
Although not as well recognised as its more illustrious neighbour, Essonne provides a taste of rural France, the culture of the smaller cities and a wonderful launching point for visits to Paris if you decide to branch out. Get in while you can!