A distant northwestern suburb of Paris, Pontoise is in the Cergy-Pontoise conurbation.
This “new town” was built in the 1980s and became a reference for urban design and cutting-edge architecture.
The cityscape showed up in several movies in the 1980s, like Eric Rohmer’s Boyfriends and Girlfriends.
And even Cergy-Pontoise can pack a punch, especially when you see Dani Karavan’s incredible Axe Majeur.
In Pontoise you can dip into the older side, where Impressionist painters like Pissarro painted the Oise and where there’s a warren of medieval tunnels under the streets.
And for day trips and nights out, Paris is always only half an hour on the train.
Let explore the best things to do in Pontoise:
1. Axe Majeur
This colossal monument is tricky to describe as it’s several things rolled in to one.
The Axe Majeur was designed by Dani Karavan at the time that the Cergy-Pontoise new town was coming together.
Beginning with a belvedere tower it’s a dramatic set of sculptures extending along a straight line more than three kilometres in length.
A laser beam from the tower points out the route that descends the slope above the Oise and crosses the river.
This line passes through 12 stations, each one with a special meaning for the town: It includes the Oise riverbanks where the Impressionists painted, and a man-made island, built in the Cergy Pond on the other side of the Oise.
2. Gare de Cergy-Saint-Christophe
A train station wouldn’t normally feature in a list of essential sights, but the Gare Saint-Christophe is special: It was inaugurated in 1985 and encapsulates the bold design of this new town.
The clock above the entrance is the largest in Europe, a humungous glass cylinder ten metres in diameter and conceived by Philippe and Martine Deslandes, collaborating with the watchmaker Huchez.
Recently the clock has been incorporated into the Axe Majeur, opening to the perspective of the Tour Belvedere.
3. Musée Camille Pissarro
The Impressionist Camille Pissarro loved Pontoise so much he lived here for 17 years.
This museum in a red brick Louis XIII mansion on the plateau above the river only has one Pissarro work.
But this piece depicts the riverside at La Roche-Guyon on the Seine so is a wonderful souvenir of the time when the Impressionists escaped Paris to paint the rivers to the west.
The rest of the works at the museum are from this period, and Cézanne, Daubigny and Paul Signac are all represented.
4. Musée Tavet-Delacour
A lovely 15th-century Gothic mansion is the venue for Pontoise’s town museum.
The building was commissioned by the Bishop of Rouen for the Vicar of Pontoise, and is in great shape, with corner turrets and dormer windows . The exhibitions inside are varied, with 20th-century art and historic artefacts.
There’s quite a large exhibition of the Constructivist painter Otto Freundlich, along with artists like Matisse, Arp, Legros and Signovert.
See also the set of medieval church sculptures and the seven painted chinoiserie canvases that once belonged to the Counts of Maupeou Ableiges.
5. Carmel de Pontoise
The oldest Carmelite convent in France was founded in 1605 just outside the centre of Pontoise but now engulfed by the streets of the new town.
The monastery is decorated with art from the 17th century, like the altar hanging made with embroidered red silk, a Spanish-style lace altar cloth and an array of paintings.
There’s also a precious reliquary that went missing after the Revolution but was rediscovered at an auction in Alençon and brought back to the convent.
The Carmel de Pontoise is a working convent, so only the church is open to the public, but there’s a small shop here selling handicrafts and postcards to raise money.
6. Tour of Old Pontoise
Next to the river Pontoise’s architecture is several centuries older, and there’s an ensemble of small sights to add to your itinerary.
Most of these are closed to the public, but should still be seen from the outside.
The Moulin des Patis is an old watermill that was painted by Cézanne.
The Hôpital des Enfermés is a historic monument with an 18th-century facade, and long since converted from a hospital to a school.
On the river you can also see where Pontoise was fortified, and there are artillery terraces stepping up the hillside.
7. Souterrains de Pontoise
Beneath the old part of Pontoise by the Oise River is an underworld of cellars, vaults, tunnels, quarries and caves.
You can get down to the see them every Sunday on a guided tour led by the tourist office.
They were first dug for chalk and limestone in the 1100s and were expanded up to the 1600s.
You’ll descend with a guide who will open up innocuous-looking hatches at street level that reveal surprising underground spaces.
As you go you’ll be clued-in on the stories behind these chambers.
8. Église Notre-Dame
Although Pontoise’s main church was completed around the turn of the 17th century, it was built over a 13th-century basilica destroyed in the French Wars of Religion.
The replacement was endowed with a set of fine painting from the 17th and 18th centuries.
The church was restored in the 1800s, when a the floor was laid with concrete.
And to do this many funerary slabs dating to the time of the old Gothic church were ripped up.
You can spot their fragments in some strange places, like on the steps of the main portal and the stairs leading to the altar.
9. Île de loisirs de Cergy-Pontoise
If you’re sporty in July and August you need only cross the Oise to a gigantic activity centre.
On a meander in the river is a 250-hectare site with some 150 lakes.
When the weather’s good you’ll have a massive swimming area, combined with facilities for watersports like white-water rafting, canoeing and sailing.
On land there’s even more, including a mini-train for kids, tennis courts, a tree-top climbing course, hiking trails through forest, cycle hire and a mini golf course.
10. Église Saint-Christophe de Cergy
The best thing about this church next-door in Cergy is the part that will grab your attention as soon as you arrive: It’s the Renaissance portal, which is from a section of the church that was never completed.
So all that stands is a gateway leading to a courtyard that was meant to be the new church’s interior.
Rising above this is the Romanesque bell tower that was built in the 12th century.
The interior of the church has been heavily reworked over hundreds of years, but hints of yesteryear remain, like the 11th century arches and capitals under the tower.
11. Vexin Français
One of the ironic things about the avant-garde Cergy-Pontoise conurbation is that it is the capital of an ancient rural region, known for its agriculture and rolling chalk hills.
Vexin Français escaped the worst of the French Revolution and is speckled with villages with houses, churches and castles going back hundreds of years.
If you’d like ideas for a driving tour check out Nesles-la-Vallée, known for its fortified farms, Arthies and Haravilliers, which have sweet old dovecotes, and Amenucourt and Gargenville where the communal laundries have been preserved.
Vetheuil was home to Monet for a time, while La Roche-Guyon has a bulky medieval fortress cut from the chalk.
Just like Pontoise, this town a few minutes east was loved by the Impressionists who planted their easels by the river and painted scenes around the town.
None are more revered than Vincent van Gogh, who died in Auvers in 1890. You can visit the inn where he passed, as well as his grave and the house of his physician Dr Gachet, famously portrayed by the artist.
Van Gogh stayed in Auvers for some time and painted the townscape, so you’ll be able to compare his work to the streets as they appear today.
There’s a neat exhibition in the Château d’Auvers, with projections of Impressionist masterpieces in rooms with period furnishings.
13. Château de Maisons
When it was finished in 1651 François Mansart’s Château de Maisons was declared a Tour de France.
It sounds funny to say it now, but people had never seen anything like this Baroque architecture, and it became a curiosity that people travelled great distances to glimpse.
The owner was the high-living Superintendent of Finance René de Longueil, who was placed under house arrest after one extravagant party too many aroused Louis XIV’s suspicion.
The opulent Neoclassical interiors are the work of François-Joseph Bélanger, employed by the Comte d’Artois, who was Louis XVI’s brother.
14. Forêt de Saint-Germain-en-Laye
Also to the south, this immense forest begins in the east at the Château de Maisons’ grounds.
Like all the great tracts of woodland around Paris it was the reserve of royalty, who would hunt deer and boars, navigating the woods via a system of avenues.
This web of thoroughfares still traverses the forest and gives walkers and cyclists clear paths through the oak and beech forest.
In some ways this 35-square-kilometre park is better than genuine wilderness because there’s always a trace of the Royal legacy.
See if you can track down Louis XIV’s Château du Val, or the Pavillon de la Muette, a hunting lodge for Louis XV constructed over a medieval castle.
The whole time Paris will be waiting, and you’ll struggle to resist the call of its shopping, food, culture and sights that everybody knows and adores.
The RER C and the Transilien lines will deliver you to the centre of the city in around half an hour.
What you get up to in Paris depends entirely on your taste, as whatever you preference for food, music, art or nightlife, the City of Light will have something for you.
If you’re young and out for thrills go for the louche La Pigalle, the scruffy 10th Arrondissement, hip Montreuil and progressive Le Marais.
And if Pontoise’s Impressionist connection has inspired you then the Musée d’Orsay, Musée de l’Orangerie, Musée Marmottan Monet are the best museums of their kind on the planet.