Versailles vs Fontainebleau
When it comes to taking a day trip out of Paris, tourists often find themselves spoiled for choice.
Whether or not to head east and enjoy the wonder of Disneyland Paris for the day. Or perhaps a trip out to the Champagne region to see where the worlds favorite celebration drink is made. One could even head far west and enjoy Bruges, Belgium that sits right on the edge of the French boundary.
Two of the most popular day excursions while in Paris are the chateau’s of Versailles and Fontainebleau.
Both take little under and hour to reach by commute from Paris and feature enough historic attractions to keep you and the family busy for the better part of the day.
There is endless debate amongst both locals and tourists as to which place offers the better experience. For many, the crowding at Versailles is enough to make their skin crawl. Unless you are getting there incredibly early or incredibly late you are bound to run into the masses.
Further south, the Château de Fontainebleau draws in 300,000 visitors per year. This number results in queues estimated to be 20 times shorter than those at Versailles. This number does not, however, include the winding woods that surround Fontainebleau — these attract up to 11million visitors annually.
Aside from the famous monarch-owned chateaus of each, there is much else to see and do in the neighborhoods of both Versailles and Fontainebleau. I’ve gone ahead and summaries all the important bits of each so you know exactly what to expect from your trip.
Palace of Versailles
Place d’Armes, 78000 Versailles, France
Château de Fontainebleau
77300 Fontainebleau, France
The History of Versailles
Often accurately described as the “epitome of opulence”, the palace of Versailles was the brain child of Louis XIV who ruled France for 72 years.
At the time, the royals of France lived in the small chateau on the same land by Louis XIII. They were initially attracted to the lands of Versailles due to the large amount of game that was available for their hunting excursions.
The Sun King, as Louis XIV was known, envisioned a far grander premises upon which the royals could live. He believe the government showed power through wealth and therefor only a palace of the grandest scale would suffice.
Fast forward a bit and the people of France soon saw the formation of the Palace of Versailles as we know it today; complete with vast gardens, a western and eastern wing, fountains and the crème de la crème of interior luxury.
When the resolution happened in France, King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette were removed from the palace of Versailles and taken into central Paris where they were beheaded before the people. Remember the whole “let them eat cake” debacle? If it had happened, it would have been right here in the walls of Versailles.
During this time, much of the furniture and artifacts inside of Versailles were sold off to fund further revolutionary movements. When the property came back into ownership of the state years later, curators were brought in to refurbish and refurnish the palace as closely to how it would have looking in its heyday.
Over the course of the 19th and 20th century the palace and grounds of Versailles were slowly restored to their former glory and were ready to become to national museum monument that they are today.
As you can imagine there is far more history between these time brackets and the tumultuous nature of the Versailles land holds more stories than we can imagine. This is why a day trip out here is one of the most popular tourist excursions in all of France — possibly even Europe.
Taking a tour of the grounds you’ll be able to learn the history and timelines that made both the palace and town of Versailles what it is today (Read more about Discover walking tours).
You could even make your way back to Paris afterward and visit the tomb site of Marie Antoinette herself. She lies in Basilica Cathedral of Saint Denis, an overwhelmingly beautiful church north of Paris.
Attractions of Versailles
If you’re making the trip out to the area, then the Palace of Versailles is an obviously unmissable attraction. Whether you go to learn the history or simply to bask in the unfathomable architecture and decor, the time spent queuing to get in will be well worth it.
Within the walls of the gargantuan structure there are a few places I wish I’d been told not to miss during my visit. The Hall of Mirrors would be at the top of the list; you’ll find it in the palace’s central gallery.
Marie Antoinette’s bedroom is also a wonder to behold. I enjoyed the wallpaper most but everyone seems to have their own decor element that resonates strongly in the space.
Being a museum, the palace is also home to an extensive collection of pre and post revolution art that is on display year round. Take time with these but be sure not to lose the better part of your day here like I did — much more to see!
After your visit into the royal lair, consider taking a walk through to Marie-Antoinette’s Estate, or The Petit Trianon, a smaller chateau that she had built on the property during her time there.
It’s said that she longed for a farm like space that would remind her of here home. The land is open to the public for exploration.
Finally, Jardins du Château de Versailles. Completely unimaginable.
Between the manicured lawns and the fountain shows you won’t know where to direct your attention. The shows take place daily during the warmer months in Paris and admission is usually included in your museum ticket. The gardens cover over 800 hectares of land so you’ll also enjoy a break from the crowds while here.
Arguably the most beautiful gardens in the world, a day trip to Versailles just to hang out on the grass is not an uncommon excursion for Parisian tourists. Guided walking tours are also frequently seen going by the gardens and town of Versailles.
Getting to Versailles
To get to Versailles you’ll be able to catch the RER C5 line from any central metro station in Paris.
The train will take you directly to the Versailles Rive Gauche station which is just a short walk to the entrance of Versailles. When in doubt, follow the crowds; there will be an abundance.
The trip will take around 40 minutes and will cost €16.80 for a round trip. If you are intending to return to Paris at the end of your day excursion be sure to purchase your entire roundtrip ticket before leaving Paris. The ticket machine at the Versailles station will be just another queue you’ll have to stand in before you can head home — non, merci!
The History of Fontainebleau
It is astounding to me how often Fontainebleau goes completely overshadowed by the existence of Versailles. Many people are absolutely shocked to learn that Fontainebleau actually predates Versailles by five whole centuries — yes, five!
Fontainebleau also served as a residency of the French monarchs for many years. The inception of the chateau occurred with intent to be the accommodation for the royal hunting grounds within the Forest of Fontainebleau.
Every fall, the at-the-time king of France would take up two months of residency at the chateau in Fontainebleau to enjoy his hunting in peace. And every fall when this happened the property was added to piece by piece.
To give you some perspective on the size of the property, the chateau of Fontainebleau has over 1500 rooms within its walls. The roof itself spans across five acres of land. The surrounding grounds and gardens take up an additional 230.
The first foundation of the chateau was put in place in 1137. The first chapel was added in 1169. Today there is every kind of room imaginable between the walls of this establishment. Ballrooms with furniture straight out of a daydream, galleries with artworks older than most of Paris itself and hallways that you could comfortably live in without ever seeing an end.
I cannot stress the size of this premises enough; you will not be able to do all of it in a single day excursion. I always encourage visitors of Fontainebleau to sit and map out exactly what they want to see prior to arriving.
Queues generally won’t be an issue here so you need not reserve time for this. For some reason Fontainebleau attracts just a quarter of the annual visitors that Versailles does; largely due to inaccessibility from most of Paris.
Attractions of Fontainebleau
Just like Versailles, while planning your visit there are certain attractions within the grounds that should not be missed.
Since Marie Antionette has been the theme of the day let’s not make our way to Fontainebleau without visiting her Turkish boudoir within the chateau. It was gifted to her by her husband Louis XVI in attempt to give her her own piece of solace within the grounds.
You can also visit the incredible lavish theatre that Napoleon III had constructed during his rule in the nation. This space was recently restored to be able to accommodate visitors safely, the original construction was in need of a bit of maintenance.
Once you’ve strolled… and strolled… and strolled the inside of this little “chateau” and you’re ready to face the outdoors again, the Fontainebleau forest that the property is built next to is another wonderful place for an adventure.
Some visitors to Fontainebleau like to bring a picnic lunch along to enjoy in the forest either before or after basking in the chateau. For those looking to lunch elsewhere, the town of Fontainebleau has a few restaurants to choose from.
Getting to Fontainebleau
Getting to Fontainebleau is slightly tricker than getting to Versailles; even though the trips tend to take roughly the same amount of time.
You won’t be able to hop on any old metro to take you out of town. The Gare de Lyon is the only station with routes to and from Fontainebleau. You’ll find it on the east side of Paris in the 11th arrondissement.
The train will take you from here right into the heart of Fontainebleau where you’ll climb on a bus for a ten minute drive trough to the chateau grounds. The roundtrip from Paris and back again will cost you €16.80 — that is with the bus ride already included.
Which to Visit
If word on the street is anything to go by, many people who have done both Versailles and Fontainebleau state that they would have preferred to have done Fontainebleau first, followed by Versailles.
I must agree, Fontainebleau is a great “pallet cleanser” if you will for what you’ll experience at Versailles. Being the newer of the two, Versailles’ opulence is hard to put into words and best experienced in awe-inspiring person.
Seeing both at some point in your life is definitely a must — make no mistake. But if you are forced to visit one I would say simply take into consideration how far back in history you are looking to travel; assuming of course that intellect is of particular interest to you.
If you just want to see some beautiful stuff and can’t be bothered to battle with crowds; then Fontainebleau is your first go-to.
Both Fontainebleau and Versailles are wild ride of the senses. From sigh to smell (old furniture smells, guys) to touch to sound (church bells a’rining). Both chateaus will have your head spinning in a flurry as you feel yourself slipping further and further from the reality that exists outside of the palace walls.
Neither one better nor nicer than the other; simply different. Different excursions for different days during your visit to the city of lights.