Fontainebleau is a commune in the metropolitan area of Paris, around 55 km south of the city center. The Château de Fontainebleau is the center of the historic town and it is now a national museum and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Compared with the world-renowned Versailles, the palace itself offers nothing less but also housed an abundance of magnificent works of art and a mindfully crafted back garden. What makes me enjoy the palace most is the quietness of being away from the crowd and truly appreciate the regality of the ancient French kings in the 16th and 17th centuries (Of course, Versailles has an amazing Garden, too!).
I wasn’t very much aware of what to expect before I stepped into the museum (and also I did try to keep an element of surprise without studying too much about the interior of the palace.). In the end, I was pleased that the palace was actually richly decorated in royal and imperial symbolism – the exquisite tapestries, artistic sculptures, and bold chandeliers were just overwhelming. In fact, walking through the palace is like walking through a time tunnel as the room shifted in styles, decorated in different eras – From Louis XIII to Napoleon.
Just when you wonder why you should put Fontainebleau under your radar; Fontainebleau is, in fact, mentioned quite often alongside, or compared with Versailles. While I would compare the beauty of Versailles, with Fontainebleau, and Versailles is absolutely breathtaking, I would like to say that Fontainebleau has its own unique history and character that gives you a reason to visit, not one or the other.
First, Fontainebleau is a great Paris day trip. Fontainebleau is about 55 kilometers away from Paris city center and it only takes about an hour to get there. It is easy for a day trip, just like Versailles. We stayed overnight for a two-day experience because we visited during Fontainebleau Music Festival. We had a hot air balloon ride the morning after. You will have ample time to explore the palace and the surrounding area had you only have one day. Even better, you enjoy free access to the palace with Paris Pass or Paris Museum Pass.
Secondly, the World Heritage Site is one of the richest royal and imperial residences in the world. Fontainebleau was the sovereigns’ residence from the 12th to the 19th century – notably, it was the residence of the most important figures in French history – Napoleon I. While he originally selected Versailles, the renovation incurred such a huge cost, that eventually, he decided to move into the Château de Fontainebleau instead. There, through the heavily furnished halls and rooms, you will learn a lot about Napoleon’s past and French history.
Finally, or should I say, unfortunately, Château de Fontainebleau is much less crowded than Versailles, where you could truly enjoy the beauty of its architecture and take pictures without any interruptions. Trust me, it takes a lot of planning (and queuing) getting into the Versailles – but you could enjoy Fontainebleau at your own pace, your own time. You will be surprised to see that Fontainebleau Palace also features a Hall of Mirrors that looks different from the one in Versailles but shares a lot of similarities.
The palace of Fontainebleau dated back to the 12th century when it was a fortified castle and a residence and hunting lodge of the Kings of France – one reason was that Fontainebleau is surrounded by a historic forest with an abundant game. The area is rich in springs, as you could imagine how the area got its name “Fontaine” and “bleau”, which means “fountain of beautiful water”.
In the 15th century, Isabeau of Bavaria, the wife of King Charles VI, initiated some modifications and embellishments of the palace with a rich Renaissance flavor, done by commissioned architect Gilles Le Breton. A new Oval courtyard, apartments, and rooms were lavishly decorated, and later, the chapel of the Trinitaires was constructed. A beautiful garden was added afterward, based on the style of an Italian Renaissance garden, with pavilions and the first grotto in France.
It was the imperial residence for numerous French monarchs from Louis VII to Napoleon III. The palace was continuously expanded by the Kings (King Henry II, King Henry IV, King Louis XIII, King Louis XIV, and King Louis XVI) and Queens that follows, with new galleries, salons, chapels, and monuments; architects like Philibert de l’Orme and Jean Bullant, Martin Fréminet, Jean Androuet du Cerceau, and Jules Hardouin-Mansard had all put their hands on various structures – given today’s the impressive scale, a 130 hectares, with 1m500 rooms covered a by a roof that spans five acres, with 230 acres of lakes and gardens.
In the 17th century, King Henry IV was a great builder of this palace. He opened up and enlarged the Oval Courtyard and added the gate known as the Baptistery Gate, named in memory of the baptism of the future Louis XIII. It stands facing a new courtyard of service quarters, known as the Cour des Offices. King Henry IV also built the wing with two superimposed galleries, the Diana Gallery and Stag Gallery, as well as the Aviary and the Jeu de Paume court.
In the 18th century, Louis XV had the former Ulysses Gallery replaced by a more spacious building, and in 1750 built the Large Pavilion designed by Gabriel.
In the 19th century, the Château was stripped of its furniture during the French Revolution, but the buildings were spared. Napoleon I made it into an imperial residence and had it refurnished. the Ferrare Wing was destroyed and replaced by the current wrought-iron gate and railings. The Aviary was demolished during the reign of Louis-Philippe. The work carried out under Napoleon III was mainly on interior decoration.
Throughout history, three historical documents were signed at this place, including the revocation of the Edict of Nantes by Louis XIV in 1685, the concordat between France and Rone in 1814, and Napoleon’s act of abdication. It became a museum in 1927, but the palace was occupied by the German as a headquarter during World War II. Restoration works took place after the war and declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981.
Fontainebleau, do you know?
Now you may know that the palace is one of the largest in France from medieval times. But what else do you know?
- Truth to be told, Château de Fontainebleau has been one of the most favorite Roayl residences for centuries, that’s why King Henry and King Napoleon lived here throughout the 15th to the 16th century.
- Until today, all rooms in the palace were fully furnished and opened to the public; like Marie Antoinette’s bed, it’s a highlight of the palace and the wallpaper design was beautiful. But you will also find it amusing that Marie Antoinette was never able to use this bed-chamber; the room was still in redecoration before moving in, and she was executed by the time the bed finally arrived.
- Many decorations and belongings of the kings are still intact and could be viewed in the many rooms in the palace; from Napoleon’s household items, jewelry, to clothing. You could even see Napoleon’s son’s baby crib, toys, and books.
- Giving the scale and history of the palace, the site actually consists of four museums: The Chinese Museum, The Napoleon I Museum, the Pope’s Apartment, The Large Apartments, and Madam de Maintonon’s Apartment.
- More, there are three chapels inside: The Chapel of the Trinity, The Chapelle basse Saint-Saturnin, and The Chapelle Haute Saint-Saturnin. They are distinctively located in different parts of the palace that you will immediately recognize and just stop as you enter.
- Did I mention that Fontainebleau also has a Hall of Mirror? The Gallery of Francis I is always considered a model for the design of the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles. But look closely you will see the beautiful ornament and French renaissance art. The creation of the gallery started in 1528; Italian architect Rosso Fiorentino started work between 1533 to 1540, creating frescoes, stucco decorations, woodwork, and many more with a team of French, Italian and Flemish artists. Take a walk along the corridor of the hall as you will see twelve rectangular frescoes, surrounded by stucco frames, featuring important events and moments of imperial life.
- But back in the modern days, the palace didn’t exactly feel out on the artist’s radar. It is a popular event venue or photo shooting spots, in which couples can have their pre-wedding photos exclusively taken in the palace with celebrity photographers. The Holy Trinity Chapel was predominantly featured in Lana del Rey’s music video “Born to Die”, one of the most well-known pop songs in 2011.
Going to Fontainebleau
For a day trip from Center Paris, take the SNCF (Transilien) Train from Gare du Lyon, the train goes directly from Paris to Fontainebleau-Avon in 2 hours. The train departs every 20 to 90 minutes (Ticket €9).
The bus stops are right outside the station and Bus 1 brings you to the town center / Château de Fontainebleau in 15 minutes. If you want to take a walk, it’s a three-kilometer pleasant walk into the town in about 40 minutes.
Ticket price and opening hours
The opening hours changes in different months, and
Nov-Feb 9:00 am – 6:00 pm
Mar-Apr and Oct 9:00 am – 7:00 pm
May-Sep 9:00 am – 5:00 pm
The park is open every day 24 hours and it’s free
The general ticket includes entrance to the Grand Appartments, the Napoleon I Museum, and temporary exhibitions.
Prais Pass and Paris Museum Pass offer free access. Tours are available every day: The Second Empire at Fontainebleau – visit of the Imperia Theatre, Chinese Museum, Empress Eugenie’s Lacquerwork Salon, and Emperor Napoleon III’s study. The Small Apartments – these are the private apartments of the Emperor and of Empresses Josephine and Marie-Louise. Josephine’s private life – a tour to discover the private apartments and the Turkish boudoir to which the Empress liked to retreat.
There are various private guided tours available as it could be a little bit overwhelming to explore the entire site without knowing exactly what to see. The prices ranging from €50 to €200.
Fontainebleau, Step by Step
I am been focusing on the Palace (of course, it’s the star of the show!), but it doesn’t mean that the town has anything. Just have a stroll in the town and sample the local specialties like their signature cream cheese Le Fontainebleau, which has been for over a century. For an afternoon tea, head to a local tea room or patisserie and sit beside the street and do some people watching. Frédéric Cassel is an upscale patisserie that originated in Fontainebleau, now with branches internationally from Tokyo to Berlin.
The natural and historic Fontainebleau forest is also incredibly beautiful. Hop on a hot air balloon and glide through the farmlands, farmhouses, and forest quietly in the early morning and enjoy a glass of champagne in the field after a breathtaking ride.
If you are there during the Django Reinhardt Festival in summer, you are in for a treat! It is a highly respected jazz music festival with a long and rich history in Fontainebleau. The festival takes place in July – if you are in town during that time, soak into the festivities with the locals, dance to the music, and celebrate with some good food and fine wine!
Fontainebleau, what NOT to miss
Fontainebleau is a nice weekend getaway to Parisian; The historic Château de Fontainebleau is actually a hidden gem to tourists – the UNESCO World Heritage Site offers nothing less but also houses an abundance of magnificent work of art and a beautifully crafted Italian Renaissance garden. The palace was served as a residence for many French monarchs from Louis VII to Napoleon III. Check out the Gallery of Francis I, three impressive chapels, and the Turkish boudoir designed especially for Marie Antoinette.
The Empress’ chamber: From Queen Marie de Medici to Empress Eugenie, all of the queens of France occupied this room. The current decor dates from different periods. The glided wood ceiling is from the 17th century and its extension above the alcove from the 18th century. the doors and door lintels were made for Marie Antoinette. The furniture is that which Empress Josephine used. The balustrade, from the Empire period, is a relic of Ancien Regime etiquette. It was used to demarcate the sovereign’s private space.
Le Sacre: Declared Emporer of the French by the Senate on the 18th of May 1804, Napoleon sought to consolidate his power through a crowning and coronation, which took place on the 2nd of December 1804 in the hour of Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral. Few objects have survived from this ceremony: the tunic, belt, sword, and a gold leaf from the laurel wreath. The painter Francois Gerard received a commission for a Full-length Portrait of the Emperor in Coronation Robes, in several copies, and a Portrait of Empress Josephine depicted seated on a throne with a bee motif. His relationship with Pius VII soon turned sour due to Napoleon’s encroaching on the Italian peninsula. Rome was occupied, and Pius VII was detained at Savona and then Fontainebleau, at the golden jail.
The vestibule of the chapel: Located at the end of the famous horse-shaped staircase built under Louis XIII, it was once of the main entrances to the château. It was also used by the King to gain access to the gallery of the chapel. The vestibule features beautiful sculptures oak doors surrounded by a rich stone frame. Surviving from Louis XIII’s reign is the chapel door and its frame, both decorated with religious motifs (angels, crowns of thorns, etc.) as well as the door of the Francis I gallery and its frame which features military motifs, heads of Hercules, and the King’s monogram. On the terrace side, only the frames are from the period (the other doors were copied in the XIXth century from the one which leads to the Francis I gallery). The oak furniture was made during the Second Empire, inspired by the decoration of the doors. The armchair and table were for the bailiffs.
The Guard room: This is the first of the King’s apartment, and it was occupied by the soldiers of the guard. The decoration of the ceiling and the frieze at the top of the walls is early (end XVIth and XVIIth centuries); that of the walls dates from Louis-Philippe. The monumental fireplace is decorated with a bust of King Henry IV and the Sevres case is made “in the Renaissance style”.
Saint Saturnin chapel: The first chapel of the château was founded in 1169, under the reign of Louis VII, dedicated by Thomas Becket to the VIrgin and to Saint Saturnin. This building disappeared without a trace and its original location was not known when it was decided, during the reign of Francis I, to build the Saint Saturnin chapel over two levels, which was completed in 1546. In the upper chapel, the organ gallery was constructed from the plans of Philibert Delorme, the architect of King Henry II. The famous painting The Holy Family by Raphael was once hung on the high altar, and now shown in Le Louvre.
The Louis XIII salon: The King was born here in the salon and it was redecorated to celebrate his birth. The paintings on the walls and ceiling, by the Flemish painter Ambroise Dubois, illustrated a Greek novel, translated and set in the 16th-century fashion: the Loves of Theagene and Chariclee. The furnishing is characteristic of the mixture of styles that were current in the 14th century.
The Council chamber: In the 18th century, King Louis XV made this room the Council Chamber and entirely renovated its decoration. The ceiling, painted by Boucher, represents The Chariot of Apolo, surrounded by groups of children posing as The Seasons.
The Diana gallery: it is formerly the Queen’s Gallery, and the room is 80 meters long and 7 meters wide. Constructed under King Henry IV, its decoration recounted the story of the goddess Diana. By the 17th century, it was very dilapidated and was restored under Napoleon I and Louis XVIII, and converted into a library under Napoleon III. The Globe was made for Napoleon I.
The Throne room: Back to the former King’s apartment, the room was the King’s chamber from the 17th century until the revolution, and represented the very seat of royalty. It was state bedroom that commanded the deepest respect from courtiers, even in the king’s absence. Napoleon I maintained this function as a symbolic place of power by converting it into a Throne room. The room was furnished in accordance with the commands of imperial etiquette, seeking a revival of the ceremonial style of the Ancien Regime. The throne, raised on a dais, dominates the room in which the folding chairs and table where oaths were taken are arranged. Nowadays, this room is the only Throne room in France existing with its original furniture.
The Château Gardens
The English Garden (Jardin Anglais), also called the Pine Garden during the reign of Francois I and comprising many smaller gardens, was redesigned in the reign of Luis XIV before being remodeled by Hurtault under Napoleon I. It features picturesque landscapes thanks to its river and winding pathways, its ornamental rock, and above all its remarkable collection of exotic trees.
The Diana Garden (The Jardin de Diane) is the smallest of the gardens and owes its name to a statue, Diana with a Doe, that adorns the fountain.
It used to be the sovereigns’ private garden. In the 17th century, it consisted of box hedge parterres dotted with statues. It was transformed into an English-style landscaped garden during the Empire period, whose features still remain.
The Grand Parterre is the largest French-style formal garden in Europe and has retained the geometric layout designed by Le Notre, Louis VIX’s gardener, though its box hedge ’embroidery’ no longer exists. in the summer you can admire its 45,000 flowering plants.
Beyond the Grand Parterre stretch the Park and the canal which prolongs the perspective. It is 1200 meters long and was dug during the reign of King Henry IV.