If you're looking for an easy and enjoyable day trip from Paris, look no further than the charming town of Fontainebleau and its adjacent Chateau de Fontainebleau, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You’ll enjoy all the beauty and grandeur of an iconic French Chateau, without the hordes of crowds at Versailles.
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If you've been following the blog for a bit, you know that one of my favorite parts of big European vacations is taking quick and easy day trips outside of the major tourist hubs. While I'm all about hitting the major tourist destinations, after a few days of Paris/London/Rome, everybody needs a little break, and small day trips can be a great way to help you chillax before you're back in the "skip the line" ticket line (isn't it wrong that there's a line in the skip-the-line section?)
History and culture buffs line up to explore France's stunning chateaux (French for palaces). Built by the monarchs and aristocrats of a bygone era, these magnificent architectural achievements have stood the test of time. That said, the most famous of the Chateaux, Versailles, is one of most-visited places in Europe, drawing in nearly 10 million visitors per year. Yes, you read that correctly. No, I didn't misread the numbers.
While I am certainly not going to say you should skip Versailles, I am going to argue that it won't necessarily be a relaxing trip. If, on the other hand, you are looking for a more laid back experience, without giving up the grandeur of the chateau you get to experience, I'd strongly recommend that you visit the Chateau de Fontainebleau. Truly one of the great chateaux of French history, its name is woven throughout the ancien regime of France, and beyond. With stunning gardens and a town that Belle would enjoy, it's the perfect half-day trip from Paris, on a suburban line train. So, check out these easy tips, and enjoy one of France's greatest palaces.
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Chateau de Fontainebleau from Paris by Train
The Chateau de Fontainebleau is actually surprisingly accessible from Paris, with a direct train (with stops) from the Gare de Lyon station in central Paris. That said, I find transit in Paris to be very confusing, and I do speak French. What you likely need to get from central Paris to Fontainebleau is the miraculous Mobilis ticket - these can be purchased in the metro/train stations from the machines and are not expensive (approximately 18 Euros for the zones 1-5 pass). There are, of course, a variety of other travel options in Paris, but this is what we went with, as we didn't have any of the longer-term options.
That said, if you go with the Mobilis, you should buy the Mobilis pass BEFORE you start your travel to Fontainebleau. If used correctly, the ticket covers the metro, train, and bus travel for your trip. In fact, unless the guy in front of you gets his bag stuck in the metro barrier (GRRRR), this will likely cover all of the travel you will take to and from Fontainebleau.
Ok, so buy your Mobilis, use it on the metro to get to the Gare de Lyon. Remember: Gare de Lyon is a monster - allow plenty of time to find the right trains. At the train station, don't forget to stamp your ticket before getting on the train. There are small, yellow machines in the train stations with some form of "composter" written on them (normally "compostage"). Stick your ticket in there. It'll get stamped, not recycled, which is what I thought would happen. The suburban line train, as opposed to high speed, is what you want, and it will be toward either Montargis Sens, Montereau or Laroche-Migennes. Just remember: Fontainebleau really isn't that far from Paris, so you're not going to need the TGV.
Once the train arrives in Fontainebleau, which is technically called the Fontainebleau-Avon station, you'll need to take either a short bus or cab trip to the heart of town and the Chateau de Fontainebleau. One of the things I liked most about Fontainebleau is that the Chateau is easily walkable from the town center, which is not at all common with country estates. We opted for the city bus (Ligne 1 toward Les Lilas), which met the train, and for which we could pay with our Mobilis passes. The bus was quite crowded and stopped quite a few times in a short distance, but perfectly easy, overall. I'd definitely recommend just hoping on the bus, unless you're in a huge hurry or have a stroller with you.
One reminder: don't get off the bus too early in the more industrial/residential area. Wait until the "Chateau" stop. Our bus driver literally yelled "Chateau!!!" and everyone hopped off.
What to see in the town of Fontainebleau, France
Fontainebleau is a charming, quaint, and quiet town. We reserved our first bit of time in the town just to stroll around, seeing the downtown, and taking in the fact that we couldn't hear anyone else speaking English- always fun, when it happens the first time abroad!
We then opted for a tasty and frankly, very reasonably priced lunch at La Taverne, located close to both the bus stop and the Chateau, and serving the largest salads I've ever seen. I'll admit that I felt very accomplished when two separate tables asked the waiter what I was eating and ordered it. The ultimate seal of approval in France! From there, we headed over to Fontainebleau, which is literally as close as it could be to the downtown - here we go!
History of the Chateau de Fontainebleau
Before we dive into what to see when you're exploring the Chateau, let's do some high-level background! From Louis VII to Napoleon III, French monarchs before and after the Revolution were proud to count Fontainebleau among their impressive ranks of palaces. The Chateau began as a hunting lodge, much like Versailles, in the 12th century, with Thomas Becket performing the consecration of the earliest chapel on the grounds. It was Francis I who decided to give the palace an extreme make-over in the grand Renaissance style, and in the 16th century, his architects vastly increased the size, scale, grandeur, and gilding of the Chateau. Catherine de Medici continued the inflation of the Chateau, and if you've been to the Pitti Palace in Florence you know the Medici were not a subtle people. And...she added a moat. What chateau is complete without a good, murky, alligator-filled moat.
Part of the reason the Chateau is so impressive today is that it was not significantly damaged during the French Revolution. With the rise of Emperor Napoleon, the Chateau held a very special place in the culture of the French elite, and the Emperor himself, who wanted to preserve the palaces of the monarchy that were still...standing and use them to his advantage. And it was here at Fontainebleau that Napoleon abdicated in 1814. You can still see the table on which the deed was done.
The Germans occupied the Chateau for a time during WWII, and after that, the Chateau housed NATO envoys for a bit, more on that below, before the full restoration began in 1964.
Touring the Chateau de Fontainebleau
Walking to the Chateau de Fontainebleau, on the corner of town, is approximately a 3 minute walk. You'll enter the grounds of the Chateau through the gardens, which are stunning. Be sure to make time for the gardens either before or after your trip to the Chateau. We opted for after- more on that, below.
Buy your tickets in the entrance area. Note: there's also a restroom right outside the ticket sales area. Tickets are reasonably priced at 12 Euros/adult for the self-guided tour. Tickets are reduced to 8 Euros/person in the 1 hour before closing, which is sufficient to see the Chateau, if you did the gardens first. If you’re looking to avoid the crowds at Versailles - this will be your first of many pleasant surprises - not a line in sight! I was the only person purchasing tickets when we arrived (for those of you wondering if it was a snowy day in January, it was not! It was mid-October on a stunningly gorgeous day).
A note to my English-speaking friends regarding the self-guided tour: The signs are all in French. A "video guide" is available and maps are available in English.
Begin your tour by, you guessed it, following the map and all the other tourists. It's a one-way tour and you're clearly directed. Like most castles and chateaux, the Chateau de Fontainebleau is an amalgamation of the reigns of various monarchs, and it is interpreted as such. This means that rather than picking a specific moment in time and restoring the entire palace to that era, the curators have pieced together authentic artifacts from different eras. Therefore, you'll have Louis XIV portions right next to Napoleonic artifacts. To me, this a uniquely authentic experience, as the architecture of the building has changed over time, though I know that some visitors find this jarring and/ or surprising.
One thing to keep in mind in preparing for your tour - the curators responsible for the preservation of the Chateau have made the decision to keep the vast majority of the wooden shutters closed, to preserve the fabric and furnishings within. It does take a minute to get used to, as some of the rooms are quite dark, but once I grew accustomed to it, it certainly didn't negatively impact my experience.
Chateau de Fontainebleau gift shop
Taking the tour at our own pace, we were in the Chateau for about 45 minutes. After you've wrapped up, check-out the shop, which has a large collection of nice souvenirs, including scarves, tasteful Christmas ornaments, tea towels, which are largely Napoleon-themed. I'm now the proud owner of a Napoleon hat Christmas ornament and toile tea towel. There are additional restrooms inside nearby, along with vending machines. There is not a formal cafe/tea shop, so if you're in the market for a more "formal" snack, head back into town after exploring the gardens.
Chateau de Fontainebleau gardens and grounds
Before or after your tour of the Chateau, definitely plan to spend some quality time in the lovely, massive, and well-cultivated gardens, which are not to be missed. Employing the most famous landscape architects they could get their hands on, the French monarchs poured time, effort, and, of course, money, into creating and cultivating the stunning parkland that surrounds the Chateau.
Once you've finished in the gardens and completed your time at the Chateau, it's just a hop, skip, and a jump back to town. For us, it was time to head back to Paris, and we grabbed the bus from town back to the train station (quick and easy!). Don't forget to stamp your ticket in the scary yellow machine before boarding the train!
If you're careful about train times, this could easily be a half-day trip.
Finding Fontainebleau, by Thad Carhart
Prior to our trip, I really enjoyed reading Finding Fontainebleau : An American Boy in France, by Thad Carhart. It's a memoir by well-known Carhart about the time spent with his family when his US Air Force officer father served as a NATO envoy after WWII (whose office was actually in the Chateau itself). Carhart tells a number of interesting stories that really illuminated French culture for me - including the elaborate pre-work handshaking ritual, and an amusing vignette about the difficulty caused by his first name, along with his visits and tours of the Chateau de Fontainebleau as an adult, given special access to see the restoration efforts. I hope you'll enjoy Carhart's book, and of course the Chateau de Fontainebleau as much as I did. I count this day trip among the most enjoyable I've taken in Europe.
Happy Travels et bon voyage! xx
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