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 Château 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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Looking for an easy day trip from Paris?
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 châteaux, Versailles, is one of most-visited places in Europe, drawing in nearly 10 million visitors per year.
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 Château 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.
How do I get to Fontainebleau from Paris?
The Château 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).
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, this will likely cover all of the travel you will take to and from Fontainebleau.
So buy your Mobilis, use it on the metro to get to the Gare de Lyon. 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.
For more tips on exploring France by Train, check out the full post!
Arriving in Fontainebleau: Getting from Fontainebleau Station to the Château
Once the train arrives at Fontainebleau-Avon station, you'll need to take either a short bus or cab trip to the heart of town and the Château de Fontainebleau.
The Château 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 crowded and stopped a lot in a short distance, but easy, overall. I'd definitely recommend just hoping on the bus, unless you're in a huge hurry or have a stroller with you.
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
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!
Where to eat in Fontainebleau
We then opted for a tasty and frankly, very reasonably priced lunch at La Taverne, located close to both the bus stop and the Château, 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 Château de Fontainebleau
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.
Part of the reason the Château is so impressive today is that it was not significantly damaged during the French Revolution. With the rise of Emperor Napoleon, the Château 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.
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 Château. Catherine de Medici continued the inflation of the Château, 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.
The Germans occupied the Château for a time during WWII, and after that, the Château 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 Château de Fontainebleau, on the corner of town, is approximately a 3 minute walk. You'll enter the grounds of the Château through the gardens, which are stunning. Be sure to make time for the gardens either before or after your trip to the Château. We opted for after- more on that, below.
Buying tickets to the Chateau de Fontainebleau
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 Château, 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.
Time to start the Chateau de Fontainebleau tour!
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 châteaux, the Château 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.
Looking for another day trip from Paris? Check out A Day Trip to Chartres and Visiting Strasbourg from Paris.
FAQ: Why is it so dark in the Chateau de Fontainebleau?
One thing to keep in mind in preparing for your tour - the curators responsible for the preservation of the Château 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
After you've wrapped up your tour, 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 Château, 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 Château.
Getting back to Paris from Fontainebleau
Once you've finished in the gardens and completed your time at the Château, 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, the round trip to and from Paris to Fontainebleau could easily be a half-day trip.
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