If you’re planning to be in Paris for any length of time, you’ll likely end up looking for day trip options to explore the surrounding areas.
Most people head to Versailles. Understandably. Known for being the historical country home to French Royals, Versailles is loved for its over-the-top opulence: carefully manicured and sprawling gardens, lush interior decor with furniture swathed in rich fabrics or gilded in gold, and art that is both stunning and priceless.
It’s also heaving with people. 10 million visitors per year kind of heaving. Which makes it difficult for many to truly appreciate their visit.
So I thought I’d follow up on my last post, Paris: Escape the Crowds, and offer a few châteaux alternatives to Versailles. Châteaux that are equally as beautiful, rich in history, and much more manageable. I’m confident that you’ll fall in love with any of them, and won’t feel like you’ve sacrificed your time by visiting.
Châteaux de Chantilly
Approximately 50km north of Paris you’ll find the beautiful Château de Chantilly, once the country home of the Duke of Aumale (son to the last King of France, Louis-Philippe). The Château is surrounded by a staggering 115 hectares, dotted with pools, fountains and specialised gardens. There’s plenty to see and do here.
One of the showstoppers is the Conde Musee, an highly regarded museum home to mainly French and Italian works. Be sure to keep an eye open for Three Graces by Rafael.
For bibliophiles, you’ll love the Reading Room. The Duke of Aumale collected a staggering 60,000 volumes during his lifetime and, of those, almost 19,000 are on public display today.
A short distance away you’ll find the Great Stables and its Museum of the Horse, which presents the centuries long relationship between horses and humans. Live performances can be seen in the Equestrian Loop throughout the day.
On your way back to the train station in town, do yourself a favour and stop in at a bakery for a delicious pastry featuring what else .. Chantilly cream!
This Baroque château is located about 55 km southeast of Paris, and is definitely worth a visit if only for the scandalous history alone!
Long story short.. Esteemed member of Paris Parliament builds this sprawling estate, hiring the best of the best craftsmen of the time. Jealous colleague convinces the King that the château was built with state funds. King believes the jealous colleague, throws the man into prison for embezzlement and seizes the estate. Jealous colleague is promoted to take over now-jailed man’s position in the government (which was his end goal all along), and the King hires the same dream team of craftsmen to build his own estate .. a little place you might have heard of called Versailles, ahem.
So in a roundabout way, a visit to Vaux-le-Vicomte is almost the same as going to Versailles. Or at least it’s an opportunity to see its inspiration.
But if that’s not enough to call you, perhaps it’s the opportunity to visit the largest private estate listed as an historic monument in France. Or climbing the stairs of the central dome and looking out across the formal french gardens that spread out for 3 km from the Chateau.
Inside, the Chateau is centred around the bright and airy Grand Salon. Each room you move through is decorated elaborately from floor to ceiling, so much so that it’s almost dizzying.
I recommend getting an audio guide when you arrive so you can feel like you’ve been transported back centuries while listening to the characters who give some life to this magnificent Chateau.
55 km southeast of Paris is where you’ll find Château de Fontainebleau, one of the largest French Royal Château and home to many Kings throughout its history.
It’s often thought of as the hunting lodge of the Royals, with the surrounding forest once being full of game. It’s also known as the location where Napoleon Bonaparte was exiled from.
Outside the Château is a large carp pond, which was used by the Royal Court for boating parties. Even today, you can rent a small boat to float along while pretending to be one of the elite.
If you prefer being on terra firma, there are lots of places to wander around the estate.
Plan ahead and bring a packed lunch to enjoy before heading inside.
If you’re hell bent on visiting Versailles, do yourself a favour and book a morning behind-the-scenes tour directly. Your small tour will give you the opportunity to learn from an expert and explore areas of the palace not seen by the public. It’s a great introduction to your day before you join the masses who, in many cases, won’t have the same knowledge of what they’re surrounded by that you will. And then prepare yourself to join a sea of people.
Of course, there are many more châteaux near to Paris that are worth visiting. If you’ve been to any not listed above, share your recommendations in the comment section below. I’m always looking for more to visit.