‘Versailles without the crowds‘ was how my Grandma sold Fontainebleau to me. Located just under an hour from central Paris via public transport, Fontainebleau is home to a beautiful French Château where Napoleon commanded his troops, and where popes have stayed.
And while my Grandma hasn’t visited the Château de Fontainebleau since the late 80s; her revelations regarding the lack of crowds were surprisingly still accurate. I visited on a sunny Saturday at the beginning of October and definitely recommend a fall-inspired trip to the fairytale French château…
- Why you must visit Fontainebleau as a day trip from Paris
- A little history of Fontainebleau
- Things to do at Fontainebleau
- How to visit Fontainebleau as a day trip from Paris
- When is the best time to visit Fontainebleau?
- France Travel Information
Why you must visit Fontainebleau as a day trip from Paris
If you’re looking for a day trip from Paris that’s like Versailles, (but not actually Versailles) then Fontainebleau is the perfect option! After all, Fontainebleau is basically Versailles without the crowds (though I may well be shooting myself in the foot by revealing this little piece of the information to the rest of the world!).
Built by French Princes as a medieval Hunting Lodge, the small house grew into a grand palace over the ages. Even used by Napoleon in times gone by, the beautiful French château and its surrounding park now makes for the perfect escape from the hustle and bustle of busy city life.
A little history of Fontainebleau
Although the exact origins of the name remain unclear, one theory is that ‘Fontainebleau’ derives from the medieval French word for spring ‘Fontaine’ together with a German family name, ‘Blizwald’.
However, what is clear is that the site, as with many others such as Versailles, began life as a chapel and hunting lodge in the middle of the 12th Century. Construction of the current palace began in 1528.
Each monarch since Francois I had Fontainebleau as a royal residence and added a touch of their own. Following the French revolution, Napoleon himself added some touches to the palace and it was here that he made his final speech to his troops.
Since then, every king, queen, and French ruler from Louis VI, the fat (1081-1137) to Napoleon III (1808-1873) spent time there. Napoleon called Château Fontainebleau the ‘House of the Centuries’ and even gave his final salute to his guards at the base of the beautiful horseshoe staircase.
As is often the case with historic houses, with the arrival of each new owner came the arrival of new trends and fashions; resulting in amendments and extensions to the castle over the years.
After Napoleon, the Château fell into extensive ruin and was deemed uninhabitable. Thanks to the efforts of the French nation, the Château was painstakingly restored using memoirs, sketches and the castle’s remains. Today, you can visit the renaissance style Château, stroll the extensive gardens and explore the large wooded area that surrounds the Château.
Things to do at Fontainebleau
The Château at Fontainebleau
True enough to my Grandma’s words, when we arrived at the Château, there was a tiny queue and we waited for very little time before we were allowed to enter. None of the rooms were crowded or hot to the same extent as at Versailles. So few people were at the château, that I was even able to capture a photo featuring only three people- something unheard of at the Palace of Versailles!
The visit itself is self-guided, allowing you to explore all the rooms at your own leisure. Although I wasn’t able to visit the papal apartments as they are currently under renovation and the Chinese museum has been closed since a robbery in March, there was still plenty of things to see and do.
The work that was carried out by the French nation to restore the Château to its former glory. And you can tell. Attention has been paid to every detail; from mouldings on the ceiling to the style of the furniture. No detail of the 1500 room palace has been overlooked.
Highlights of the vast palace at Fontainebleau include the Pope’s apartments; Pius VII was imprisoned the château in the early 1800s and the papal apartments were subsequently named after him.
Another highlight of the palace at Fontainebleau is the horseshoe staircase; a particuarly quirky architectural feature. It was from here that Napoleon gave his final speech to his men.
Walk around The Grand Lake of Fontainebleau
The best part of the visit had to be rowing a boat out onto the carp lake. The entire lake is so called due to the vast amount of huge carp swimming around. On a clear day, it is possible to see right to the bottom of the lake (I even saw an unfortunate person’s credit card). The entire lake is also teeming with swans.
It is possible to rent a boat to the left-hand side of the castle. The boats were a bit weird as it was impossible to turn the oars and so difficult to navigate. However, once out on the lake, it is possible to see the house reflected in all its glory (and so the struggling with the rowing is definitely worth it 😉 ).
The Royal Gardens at Fontainebleau
Landscaped in a typically French fashion, rigid topiary lines are complemented by smooth fountains and tree-lined boulevards. Originally created to rival the great gardens of castles and country houses in Italy, it certainly doesn’t fail to impress.
Commissioned by King Francois I in the mid 16th century, although the gardens went major renovations in the 19th Century, a lot of the original layout survives. One tale certain to make the more modest among us blush is that of James V. Legend has it that he was strolling through the gardens when he spied his future wife bathing naked in a grotto!
The Fontainebleau Canal
October was most definitely the best time to visit the canal. The autumnal colours popped bright against the blue sky. The canal is 1200 metres long and was commissioned by Henri IV in the early 1600s.
King of France between 1589 and 1610, Henri IV survived 12 assassination attempts before his assassination in 1610. Husband to Catherine de Medici, he was responsible to many important changes in Paris; including great additions to the Louvre Palace and the construction of Pont Neuf, thus connecting the left and right banks of the Seine.
Henri IV was also one of the first French Kings to finance expeditions which would later claim French Canada. One of the other major players in
The Forest (Domaine de Fontainebleau)
Up to 11 million people visit the forest every year. So integral is it to French history that it is now a protected National Park. Originally intended as Royal Hunting Grounds, the forest surrounds dozens of nearby villages and hamlets.
The forest of Fontainebleau is deceptively named because it doesn’t just surround Fontainebleau but a number of other towns and villages as well. It is so large that it has been named a National Park by the French government.
The forest is also known for its peculiar rock formations; including rocks in the shapes of tortoises and elephants! The forest also happens to be the perfect place to spot some fall colours. Recently, I wrote an article about how to change the colour of the leaves in your photos using a smartphone app.
How to visit Fontainebleau as a day trip from Paris
For those looking to escape the crowds of Paris, there is no better day trip from the City of Light than that of Fontainebleau. The journey takes about 50 minutes. From there, it’s a pleasant walk through woodland and the town to reach Fontainebleau itself.
The easiest way to get to Fontainebleau is by train. There are multiple trains a day to and from Fontainebleau from Paris’ Gare de Lyon. The Château is closed on Tuesdays and on bank holidays. If you want to have everything ready ahead of your day trip, then be sure to book this Priority Entrance Ticket for Fontainebleau.
When is the best time to visit Fontainebleau?
The best time to visit the French Château is probably late spring or early autumn (i.e. the European Shoulder season) when the crowds are at their fewest but you’ll still benefit from improved weather and later opening times. And while Fontainebleau is never as busy as Versailles, it can get a little busier during the summer months rather than at other points of the year.
France Travel Information
France uses the Euro (€)
The main language spoken in France is French. Though you can get by with English is more touristic places, it’s always a good idea to learn some of the local language. Bring along a simple phrasebook like this one to help make your travels easier.
The capital of France is Paris. For more information and inspiration, check out our best Paris travel tips.
France uses plug types, types C and E. As such, if you’re travelling from the UK, USA, Canada, and many other destinations, you’ll need to buy an adapter. I recommend buying a universal travel adapter that you can use for multiple destinations (rather than buying a new adaptor for each place you visit).
As one of the most popular destinations in the world, you should always consider booking your accommodation well ahead of time. Check out this website for price comparison details and detailed reviews.
Be careful with your belongings. I also highly advise to avoid wearing a backpack and to instead opt for a crossbody bag like these ones. I personally use a crossbody bag by this brand and love its shape, size, and versatility.