If you are feeling priced out of central Paris, or if you are simply looking for more space and a quieter, more verdant environment, the good news is you have plenty of choice. The communes heading out westwards from Paris range from pretty country villages to busy, self-contained cosmopolitan towns. If anything you’ll have a job narrowing down your preferences.
Choose your school first, and choose it very carefully: hard to hedge your first bet when it can be so tough navigating between neighbouring towns during peak hours.
Here, then, is the low-down on the larger centres most favoured by anglophone families. Some of them are on the international schools’ bus routes, and all of them are within reasonable striking distance of a serviceable transport link into the city. When we say “serviceable”, maybe we should qualify that: public transport here is subject to strikes, technical glitches, ongoing “timetable modifications” and other delays, some of them very lengthy. All in all, especially on the regional trains, expect frequent frustrations.
Hauts-de-Seine: The Inner Suburbs (Petite Couronne)
Even the comparatively well-off in Paris are being nudged progressively outwards by soaring prices and/or changes in their circumstances and aspirations. Still, they need not move far in order to continue living in style, and in the process they are pushing up prices and generally « raising the tone » in the already very chic inner suburbs.
The following towns have very good metro, bus and RER links to the centre of Paris.
Recently gentrified and beautifully redeveloped in parts, this was traditionally a workers’ district at the end of the metro line. Just 25 minutes from Place de la Concorde, it has a nice town square and some very good local shopping (including Auchan) plus a large mall-style “centre commercial” in nearby Vélizy.
For green spaces and sports/leisure you are very well served by Parc Henri Barbusse, Meudon forest and the Standard Athletic Club in Meudon (more about this club below).
This is a young community with lots of children, very close to the centre of Paris yet a calming place for those left feeling over-stimulated by the bright lights. Handy for Orly Airport.
Nearest expat school is the Lycée International de Sèvres, but other communes are better placed for this school.
Slightly further out, Meudon has always been known as a very green upper-class refuge from the city. Trains in to Montparnasse, or fifteen minutes to St Michel by RER. Overlooked on one side by a Benedictine Abbey and orphanage, and on the other by the Observatory. Few other old buildings remain, except the church and the medieval residence of Moliere’s wife.
Families come from far and wide to exercise and socialise at the Standard Athletic Club, on the edge of the forest. Especially popular with anglophones, it offers sports from home (eg cricket) and a organises fun events such as Guy Fawkes night.
Stick to the much prettier upper reaches, where the main street runs from the market to the forest. The lower end is a bit of a concrete jungle crossed by major roads.
Although Meudon offers good French daycare and early years schooling (public maternelle and primaire), it is not particularly handy for any of the international schools to the west (although the respected Lycée International de Sevres is do-able from here).
Very pleasant, very upmarket, and very expensive. The perfect compromise between Paris intra-muros and the suburbs, especially when it comes to proximity to good schools.
Wide leafy avenues are lined with stunning 19th Century apartment buildings and dotted with charming parks and private or shared gardens. Commuting into Paris (ten minutes on the metro) or la Défense (another ten minutes’ hop across the river) is a cinch.
Two great parks make Neuilly a popular choice for young families: the Jardin d’Acclimatation is a kiddies’ wonderland with farm animals, monkey house, bumper cars, miniature train, pony rides and merry-go-rounds, plus a great fenced-off play area with plenty of apparatus. The Jardin de Bagatelle, a 15- minute walk from Pont de Neuilly metro station, is famous for its world-class roses. In spring, there are carpets of daffodils, tulips and hyacinths, and in the summer, roses… plus live classical music.
The much-loved American Marymount School (note junior and middle school only) is here. Reasonable access great schools in Paris 16th.
Shopping is either at the terribly stylish Neuilly Market, La Défense Auchan or the Leclerc Hypermarket in Levallois-Perret. Two international hospitals are also to be found in Neuilly, the American Hospital and the British Hertford Hospital.
Metro Boulogne/Pont de St Cloud. The town is perched on a hillside and has lovely views over Paris, the Bois de Boulogne and the Parc de St Cloud. Halfway up the hill is the town centre, a compact network of narrow streets winding around the Romanesque church. Here, the usual characteristic patisseries and cafés can be found. Some streets have been pedestrianised, and there is plenty of parking space for what little traffic passes through the centre.
This is a place for young parents, school children and the elderly, many of whom seem to retain their distinctive Parisian “attitude”.
The main residential centre is not the prettiest, with rows of very modern apartment blocks, interspersed with older, red-brick private houses. The general feel is of a quiet dormitory town, well-served by roads, buses and rail.
Main pluses are the architectural marvel that is the Parc de St Cloud, dotted with charming places to eat (including the private Racing Club de France), and the American School of Paris(down the D907 on the border of St Cloud and Garches).
Also Lycée Corneille in La Celle St Cloud.
For your big weekly shop, Suresnes, La Défense, Garches ,Vaucresson and Le Chesnay are close by.
Snuggling between St Cloud and Meudon. Sèvres is extremely popular with Brits, and it’s not because of the famous national museum of ceramics. No, the widely respected Lycée International de Sèvres is a very strong draw and thus this suburb, pleasant enough without being spectacular, is worth a very close look.
There’s a mix of architecture here, though none of it off-putting, great sporting and leisure facilities and, ceramics museums apart, quite a thriving cultural scene. The usual claims to impressionist-history fame, though the really big names such as Renoir seem to have given Sèvres a miss.
Well served by suburban train, metro, bus and tramway, links into Paris are made very easy from a variety of stations (Sèvres -- Rive Gauche into Montparnasse and Sèvres -- Ville d-Avray into St Lazare).
Well served by Paris metro. Line 10: Boulogne - Jean Jaurès or Boulogne - Pont de St Cloud.
Also line 9: Marcel Sembat, Billancourt or Pont de Sèvres.
Encircled by the Seine, this was once an important site for the automobile and aircraft industries. It is now densely populated and houses the head offices of major multi-nationals and smaller businesses from the service sector… and their families. Quite built-up in parts, with some striking green spaces and outdoor leisure centres: you do feel very much part of Paris here. More residential on the northern edges, around the town’s historical heart and bordering on the Bois de Boulogne.
Esthetically speaking, Boulogne-Billancourt does suffer from a lack of architectural cohesion. Moving through the different quarters, you can find 19th and 20th century buildings vying with large and not very attractive apartment blocks, small brick houses being jostled by a number of “statement” homes of dubious 1930s design.
Still, nobody can take away its major pluses: great transport links, the Bois de Boulogne, and reasonable access to the choicest schools in Paris 16th. Pre-Elementary Bilingual School is here, and just across the river is the Lycée International de Sèvres.
Outer Suburbs (Grande Couronne)
The Seine snakes it way further westwards through Yvelines, whose many “communes” (towns, villages, housing developments) have become home to literally thousands of expatriates. The main attraction is the choice of international schools, plus of course an increasingly favourable living-space-to-money ratio, and relative peace and quiet.
Versailles is the departmental town for the Yvelines, and makes for a lovely historical day out, but for schools, pleasant surroundings and transport links, English-speaking families tend to cluster in the following towns:
A bustling, stylish town only 15 minutes on the RER from central Paris. Avenue Foch, passing in front of the quintessential town hall, is a reminder of the proximity of the capital.
In the quieter roads behind the station, life takes on a provincial rhythm. Young professionals cycle with studied insouciance past modern apartment buildings, stately villas and walled gardens.
Chatou caters well for its 28,000 inhabitants -- its libraries, sporting and cultural facilities and events render it totally self-sufficient for leisure, not to mention its restaurants and cafés.
Known as the “ville des impressionnistes”: across the flowery bridge is the restaurant where Renoir painted the Déjeuner des Canotiers, and the house where Alphonse Fournaise entertained Maupassant, Zola and Monet.
There is an excellent shopping area around the busy market square. Alternatively there is Carrefour at Montesson, 10 to 15 minutes away by car.
Ecole Perceval is in Chatou.
Just a 15-minute ride on the RER from Etoile, but you may also have to hop on a bus between your house and the station.
With a population of only 10,000, Croissy has the feel of a wealthy provincial town with huge green spaces. Historic Croissy is closer to the river at Grande Rue. The old Château is now a library and its garden has become a public park. Just opposite, art exhibitions are held at the 12th-century Chapelle St Leonard.
Grande Rue runs parallel to the river. For river walks, a small lane is dotted with information panels reminding you of the area’s Impressionist history. But the views have changed from Renoir’s day: goods barges have replaced the fuzzy bathers and the water looks somehow less sun-spangled.
The British School of Paris is a strong magnet, not just for the English, but for anglophones and anglophiles alike. Some people say this town has become a bit of an “expat bubble”, but those who live here are unapologetic about the size of the English-speaking community, say they feel perfectly integrated and point to a respectable number of French buddies to prove it.
Easy drive into Paris and good access to motorways heading north.
Local shopping gravitates around the Bld Fernand Hostachy, where you can buy your everyday essentials alongside luxury goods. You’ll find some very good hairdressers and beauty salons here too.
A good supermarket (Champion) and large hypermarkets and more serious shops at Montesson (Carrefour), Le Chesnay (Parly II), Plaisir (Auchan & Ikea) and Carrefour (Chambourcy).
After Croissy on the RER leaving Paris, but still just 17 minutes from Etoile. If you are looking for beautiful houses and attractive gardens along with good facilities for residents, this may well be the place for you. 19th-century mansions and manors, riverside paths and gardens, artsy and cultural events galore.
The church is at the heart of the town, surrounded by a cluster of pretty shops -- mostly chocolates and designer clothes. Le Vésinet is unapologetically rarefied and figures very high on the list of most expensive towns in France.
Expatriates flock here for the cachet and for the very good international schools in Vesinet (Ecole Internationale Malherbe) and around (eg the British School in Croissy). An active association is dedicated to welcoming expatriates and introducing them to the French language, the people and to Vesinet’s delightful surroundings. This place has been compared to the best of English stock broker belt living, but really, one imagines the locals might find that a bit insulting.
The station is for Le Pecq is “Le Vésinet-Le Pecq” on the RER line A, 25 minutes from central Paris. You may need bus, car or bike to get between your house and the station.
Much of the centre was left in ruins after World War II, but the old town survived and, despite development, Le Pecq has not lost its charm. The whole town stretches along both banks of the Seine, and consequently feels a bit split in two. The St Germain side, especially to the west, is more developed, but from the Georges Pompidou bridge, the view east is green and the areas surrounding the lake and the park behind are predominantly residential.
The bridge and its adjoining road network can become very congested, especially in the rush hours. There is a Lycée International (British Section) partner school for the primary years, otherwise your daily commute to school is likely to be by car.
Sports facilities are exceptional, particularly for water sports, with a yachting and rowing club and a municipal Olympic pool.
20 minutes from Etoile on the RER, and loved by anglophones for its extremely pleasant surroundings (residential park and woodlands) and the vibrant social scene to be had at its tennis and golf clubs.
Maisons-Laffitte is a major horse-racing centre, so the population consists of two distinct elements: the trainers/jockeys/lads, and everyone else. It’s not quite Dick Francis, but nor is it always a completely harmonious coexistence.
Alongside the hundreds of lean and flighty thoroughbreds, leisure horses are everywhere, as are riding schools and livery stables. But in case you were planning on keeping a horse here, know that none of the stables here offer any turnout, and only a few have manèges. Mostly people just tack up and ride out in the forest. For fields and better facilities, you will have to board your horse at least half an hour’s drive away.
If you’d love to live in the park but don’t think you can afford it, check out the prices towards the northern end, close to the racing stables, jockeys’ hang-outs and the Achères water purification plant.
The local bilingual school Ermitage has undergone a series of organisational and curricular changes over the last few years. It is always wise to check that the programme you are interested in will see your child through, because not all schools give advance warning before dropping a key subject or even an entire curriculum.
Switching schools from here can add a lot to your daily commute, as many Maisons-Laffitte parents have found...
The nearest GSGI schools are the Lycée International in St Germain en Laye, the The British School in Croissy and Forest International School in Mareil-Marly. None of these commutes is easy but most children seem to cope: a private bus goes to the British School, public bus to the Lycée International, and for Forest you will need a car and lots of petrol -- but again, some parents do it.
For younger children there is a playgroup at the Anglican church, All Saints.
You will need a car for the 20 minute drive to the Carrefour supermarket in Montesson. The best fresh produce is to be had in neighbouring Mesnil (les Jardins du Mesnil plus butcher plus fishmonger), or every Wednesday and Saturday at the Maisons-Laffitte market.
Mesnil le Roi
You will probably use the RER station in Maisons-Laffitte, getting there by bus or car, or, if you can manage the hill, by bike.
This is a mixture of very old and new developments situated on the side of a valley running between Le Pecq and Maisons-Laffitte. The nicest properties are on the higher ground and back onto the huge St Germain forest. From here, there are views across the Seine towards the skyscrapers of La Défense.
Housing in Maisons Laffitte and Mesnil le Roi merges together at the boundaries making Mesnil feel more like a suburb of its larger neighbour.
Swathes of land on the river bank are turned over to market gardens, supplying local markets and stores such as the excellent Jardins du Mesnil.
The village has three maternelle schools and two primaire schools. For international schools you’re talking either St Germain or Maisons Laffitte.
Your nearest hypermarket is the Carrefour in Montesson.
St Germain en Laye
The last stop on the RER A, and one of the principal towns of the Yvelines, St Germain has a bustling centre with a regular market. Life is extremely cosmopolitan here thanks to the families drawn by the Lycée International with its many different international sections.
An alternative to the Lycée International is the well regarded Institut Notre Dame (Catholic).
There are many stylish stores and boutiques, and the bars and restaurants offer a huge choice of cuisines -- there is even a British pub and an Irish bar close to the centre.
The housing options are very good and varied, with pleasant apartments or houses available in the centre as well as on the outskirts.
The beautiful and historically highly significant chateau housed a succession of monarchs stretching back to the 14th century. Now a museum, its interior and grounds are open to the public. Sunday walkers enjoy stunning views over the river (and to Paris beyond) from the two-kilometre-long elevated terrace.
Food shopping can be done in town, or at Carrefour in Montesson or Chambourcy.
Other than the RER (25 minutes into Paris) buses run to the outlying areas. You can also get into St Lazare using the suburban rail line.
If you don’t get to live here, don’t worry -- as an Yvelines resident, you will probably need to visit the Sous-Préfecture to sort out vehicle registrations and attend to any number of other administrative matters.
Beautiful, quaint and tiny (population of less than 5,000), Mareil-Marly borders on St Germain and Le Pecq.
There is a train station (on the line called la Grande Ceinture Ouest), but you will use your car... a lot.
Many families live here -- French, Dutch and British/American. The quite unique and much-loved Forest International School is up the top of the hill on the edge of the forest -- a lovely drive up a very narrow country lane.
Your amenities, shopping etc would be as for St Germain en Laye (above).