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The Best Giverny Day Trip From Paris (+ Orsay)

Published 16 April 2024 by Leyla Alyanak — Parisian by birth, Lyonnaise by adoption, historian by passion

Only have one day to immerse yourself in the work of Claude Monet? I was recently invited on a fabulous full-day impressionist tour that with an Orsay Museum visit in the morning, before the crowds, and Monet's house in Giverny in the afternoon. Here's an overview of that tour. (Or you can book it yourself right here.)

One of the loveliest sights in Paris is hidden up in the hallowed halls of the Musée d’Orsay.

The Sacré-Coeur in Montmartre peeks out from behind one of the two giant clocks that look out on Paris.

As the light cascades through, it provides an “impression” of Paris, setting the scene for the Impressionists displayed just down the hall.

Clock of the Orsay MuseumFirst view of the day from the Orsay Museum's fifth floor ©OffbeatFrance/Leyla Alyanak

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It was April 15, 1874, and Monet had submitted a painting he thought to be groundbreaking. The occasion was the Salon, the informal name of the French artist's annual exhibition, which could make or break an artist's career.

Monet had every reason to believe that his work would stir the Parisian art scene.

After all, who could overlook this luminous interplay of light and shadow?

Monet Soleil LevantImpression, Sunrise is the work of art that launched the term "Impressionism". This work is usually displayed in the Musée Marmottan Monet in Paris.

Like his peers, Monet had probably spent the final evening wringing his hands, wondering whether his fresh approach to landscape painting would be embraced or rejected.

He was soon put out of his misery when art critic Louis Leroy dropped his verdict. 

"Impression, Sunrise," he scoffed. 

"Impression – I was certain of it. I was just telling myself that, since I was impressed, there must be some impression in it... Wallpaper in its embryonic state is more finished than that seascape." 

This sarcastic critique inadvertently named and launched what would become known as the Impressionist movement, one of the most beloved in the world of art.

150 Years of Impressionism

If you’re a fan of Impressionism, you’ve certainly come across Claude Monet, one of its foundational figures.

Until then, most art had been traditional and classic, focusing on the precise, the historical or mythological. What you saw on a canvas wasn’t that different from what you might expect to see in real life.

But Impressionism broke away from these forms, focusing instead on the natural play of colors and light, and on capturing fleeting moments of everyday life, including its harsher realities. Monet prioritized spontaneity, visible brush strokes, and a vibrant palette, none of which were considered positive attributes at the time.

Like many impressionists, Money would focus on the outdoors. He would paint a scene over and over, at different times of the day or month or even year, hoping to capture its essence.

His home and garden in Giverny, where he lived and worked for over 40 years, are perhaps the clearest expressions of his art, with the gardens themselves designed as living canvases that he would eventually transform into some of his most famous works.

“Water Lilies”, anyone?

Painting of water lilies by MonetOne of some 250 paintings of water lilies by Monet ©OffbeatFrance/Leyla Alyanak

The Orsay Museum: A prelude to Monet’s garden

To visualize the evolution of Monet’s work, our tour began with an early-morning visit to the Musee d’Orsay, led around the fifth floor on a private tour by a passionate Parisian-born guide, Manuel, whose face lit up each time he spotted an innovative brush stroke.

“Get closer,” he told us. “What color do you see? Closer! Can you see the tiny spots of red? That’s what gives this painting texture!”

With each successive painting, he pushed us to discover what made Impressionism so popular and Monet’s work so enduring.

The Musée d'Orsay in central Paris houses a number of Claude Monet's most magnificent works, although they come and go, on loan to other museums or taken away for maintenance. Here are just a few of my favorites.

1. Saint-Lazare Station

I've always loved this painting, so much so that a few Parisian visits ago, I made a special trip to the gare Saint-Lazare to look at it from Monet’s point of view (his eye was definitely better than mine).

St Lazare station by Monet, in the Orsay MuseumMonet's St Lazare station, hanging in the Orsay Museum ©OffbeatFrance/Leyla Alyanak

Monet’s focus on modern urban themes was part of the impressionist movement's shift towards contemporary subjects. The use of steam and light reflections captures the energy of the industrial era, a novel approach at the time.

2. Rouen Cathedral series

Monet painted the façade of Rouen Cathedral at different times of the day and year to capture varying light conditions, and a key pillar of impressionist painting is the study of light and its effects on color and structure. Each "version" shows subtle changes in color and detail, reflecting the transient nature of what we see.

One of the Cathedral series by Monet, hanging in the Orsay MuseumOne of the 30 cathedral paintings by Monet - the Orsay has 5, the rest are scattered among museums and private collections ©OffbeatFrance/Leyla Alyanak

3. The Luncheon on the Grass

This large piece is a joy of light and shadows and in a way sets up his transition from painting indoors to the open air, which would become a hallmark of impressionist technique.

Dejeuner sur l'herbe, by Monet, in the Orsay Museum, ParisMonet's Luncheon on the Grass (Bathing) caused a scandal when it was presented at a fringe art exhibit. Until then, nudes had been goddesses or mythological creatures, but these were real women, and the painting was judged obscene, for its subjects, but also for its style ©OffbeatFrance/Leyla Alyanak

Impressionism at Orsay

Monet’s works at the Orsay Museum showcase his development as an artist and the evolution of his use of natural light and everyday subjects. 

But Monet isn’t the only impressionist here. During our private tour, Manuel pointed out the ballerinas of Edgar Degas, the broken brushstrokes of Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and the radical politics of Camille Pissarro. And plenty more. We even snuck in a few glimpses of post-impressionists Van Gogh, Gauguin and Toulouse-Lautrec.

This collection is crucial for understanding the impressionist movement's core themes – the interplay of light while painting outdoors (a revolutionary technique at the time), the central role of nature and its landscapes (as opposed to the classical themes that preceded them), changes in seasons, and the contrast between the city and the countryside, jumping from the bucolic to the reality of industrialization – and back.

This skip-the-line guided visit to France’s premier impressionist collection was one of the highlights of our tour. We were allowed in before the crowds, and soon they would start pouring in.

Our guide Manu at the Orsay MuseumOur guide, Manuel, asks us to look at the impact of nature, at the wind, at how the umbrellas are held ©OffbeatFrance/Leyla Alyanak

Had anyone told me I could learn something at the Orsay in just a couple of hours, I would have laughed. But by being selective, our guide was able to present some of these paintings in a way both beginners and art lovers could appreciate.

But if the tour is formally called From Orsay to Giverny: Skip-the-Line Museum Tour & Exclusive Monet House Day Trip, it’s because the Orsay is only the opening act of this unforgettable day.

Paris to Giverny, the house of Claude Monet

After a few subway stops, we find ourselves in Saint-Lazare, so don’t forget to look up at the ceiling to see if you can capture what Monet saw when he painted it.

Saint-Lazare had been modernized but it’s not my favorite Paris train station, since it’s the one in which I get lost most often. For once, though, I didn’t have to worry as Manuel was handling it all.

In Monet’s era, as he rode the train for a scenic journey from the capital, the French countryside would have revealed itself much sooner. Paris, however, has rapidly built out, and its dense architecture unfurls until, finally, it delivers you into the clutches of Normandy’s open, pastoral landscapes.

From Vernon-Giverny station, you’ll ride the “Petit Train”, or tourist train, to the gardens. There’s also a bus shuttle but it doesn’t always connect with the train.

Little tourist train from Vernon to GivernyRiding this little train was fun after being cooped up in the train for an hour - I welcomed the fresh air on the way to Giverny from Vernon ©OffbeatFrance/Leyla Alyanak

We almost become impressionists ourselves during this open-air journey, leaving Vernon's shops and churches to enter a world of fields, hills and the banks of the Seine, much as impressionists did in their own search for nature.

Giverny: Monet's Living Canvas

After a 15-minute ride, we can begin to visit Giverny, whose gates are a short walk from the train. Monet’s house is relatively large, although not huge by today’s standards, considering the size of his household.

He was father of two sons from his first wife, Camille, but after her death, he married his second wife, Alice, who had six children of her own. As Manuel explained, Monet’s private life was anything but tranquil.

"He first met Alice when she was the wife of Ernest Hoschedé, a wealthy businessman," Manuel told us. Hoschedé was a patron of Monet (he was the first owner of Impression, Sunrise) and they all ended up living under the same roof while Camille was still alive.

Monet and Alice, still married to Hoschedé, would get together – relationships within artistic circles were quite liberal – after Camille's death, and there are those who believe Alice's youngest son is none other than Monet's.

During the day, Monet would paint, often from dawn to dusk, chasing the ever elusive light and shadows of his garden. In the evenings, however, the house would welcome fellow impressionist painters, along with writers and intellectuals. They would exchange ideas over long dinners flowing with conversations about art and beauty.

The Clos Normand

The Clos Normand is the part of the garden directly in front of Monet's house, his first sight of the day. 

View of the Clos Normand, in front of Monet's houseThe Clos Normand, in front of Monet's house ©OffbeatFrance/Leyla Alyanak

The garden is filled with flowerbeds of tulips, irises, peonies, roses, some for spring, some for autumn, and crisscrossed by central alleys covered in climbing plants. When it comes to color, nature here seems to have been let loose, a bit like in his paintings.

Clos Normand garden in GivernyFlowerbeds cover the ground of the Clos Normand garden ©OffbeatFrance/Leyla Alyanak

The Water Garden

After visiting the Clos Normand, find the small tunnel under a road, with a flight of stairs, and you’ll emerge near the water garden, which reflects Monet’s fascination with Japanese art.

Twice a day, as though rocked by a gentle wind, pond cleaners wield their nets, clearing away any debris that had the temerity to stray.

Cleaners in the water garden at GivernyCleaning the pond is a twice a day task at Giverny ©OffbeatFrance/Leyla Alyanak
The lily pond at GivernySpring is wonderful for flowers, but not the best season for water lilies... yet even so, they're stunning. These water lilies inspired some 250 paintings in the "Nymphéas", or Water Lilies series. Typical Monet, seeking to capture the interplay of light, water, and atmosphere under various conditions at different times of day. ©OffbeatFrance/Leyla Alyanak

While it’s easy to imagine how Monet would have found the atmosphere contemplative, idyllic even, reality is a bit different, more one of crowds jostling to capture their best Instagram photograph. 

But back then, there were no crowds and these gardens were a perpetual source of inspiration. Monet created his surroundings just as he would a painting and by choosing the flowers as he did, he would ensure he would have something to paint, whatever the season.

This was his garden, his muse and canvas, his outdoor atelier, the genesis of the works you would have seen at the Orsay earlier in the day.

View of Clos Normand from Monet's houseView of the Clos Normand from the first floor of Monet's house, which we could explore at our own pace ©OffbeatFrance/Leyla Alyanak

Monet's house

Monet was quite the character. According to Manuel, he even managed to get the River Epte – which once ran through his property – diverted so he could build his pond. 

We can glean a lot about his daily by visiting the house in which he lived from 1883 until his death in 1926. It is remarkably preserved, and inside, you’ll find replicas of his artworks, along with his personal collection of Japanese prints. The rooms may reflect the period's typical rural Normandy style, but they do so mixed with a dash of the artist’s genius. 

Exterior of Monet's house at Giverny
Kitchen at Giverny
Yellow dining room at Giverny
Living spaces at GivernyMonet's house, reflecting his love of light and color ©OffbeatFrance/Leyla Alyanak

After our look at his private apartments, we’ll have some free time to admire Monet’s home from the outside and give the stunning flower gardens of Giverny a final whirl if we so wish. I chose to stop at the gift shop and buy yet another book about Monet and the last years of his life...

Things you should know

Nothing is perfect, but awareness is half the battle. 

  • If you come during the tourist season (which seems to no longer have a beginning and an end), you’ll find crowds. 
  • My visit took place during the school holidays, and travel during holidays in France is particularly crowded. For a better experience, check schedules and try to avoid visiting at the same time as half of France’s schoolchildren.
  • The Orsay is huge, and a few hours can't do it justice. But not everyone can spend days in Paris admiring art, so if all you have are a few hours and a love of Impressionism, a well-organized tour will save you a few precious hours by having someone else handle arrangements and guide you to the essentials.
  • This is a long day, and most of it – except for the one-hour train ride to Giverny – will be spent standing, so wear appropriate shoes or sandals, bring a hat and sunscreen, and make sure you’re mentally prepared.
  • Listen carefully to your guide’s instructions, whether inside Paris, on the train or at Giverny. Transport schedules in France can be erratic and if you miss your bus, you may miss your connecting train back into the city.
  • My personal take on Giverny: entries should be timed, and the number of visitors limited. The property is too small to accommodate the hundreds, or possibly thousands, who visited the same day I did. Plenty of major sites in France have a scheduling system, which just requires a bit of planning – and provides greater enjoyment for all.
  • I was relieved to have taken the tour, because handling all those long lines and transport changes would have been tricky within the time frame – I was glad someone else took care of it all for me, even though I’m French and speak the language fluently.
  • Also, the presence of a guide in the Orsay itself was inestimable, as he pointed out particularities of paintings we would not have seen on our own.
  • Bear in mind that lunch is not included but there IS a stop in a nearby boulangerie, where you can grab a sandwich and salad, which you’ll eat on the train.

Was Giverny worth it? Absolutely! Combined with the Orsay, this was one of the more beauty-filled days I've experienced.

While I was delighted to have someone take care of everything for me, you can absolutely do all this on your own, without a tour, but your organization and time would have to be impeccable – buying your various tickets to the Orsay and Giverny, getting yourself to the train station and onto the bus and back, and doing plenty of research beforehand to know what you are seeing.

However, I’d rather spend my day viewing art rather than searching for the right train track. Schedules are tight and you’ll be fighting everyone for your place in line. So if you’d rather leave it all to someone else, Or you can just leave it all to someone else.

This Giverny day trip from Paris ends with a return to the capital, and during the train ride, I have a thought that makes me smile.

What would Louis Leroy, the sarcastic critic, have said upon hearing that “Meules”, one of Monet’s haystack series, was auctioned off by Sotheby’s for more than US$ 110,000?

Impression, indeed!

Before you go…

To better understand Monet’s work around light and seasons, explore his series of 30 paintings of the western façade of Rouen Cathedral, several of which are in the Orsay Museum.

Or if you’d rather push further, the train to Vernon continues to Rouen, where you’ll find plenty of impressionist paintings – it's called the capital of Impressionism for a reason.

And if you cannot take a full day and must sadly give Giverny a miss, at least book a skip-the-line-ticket to the Orsay Museum and spend a couple of hours being guided around its highlights.

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