People always ask me what fun day trips to chateaus or palaces they can take outside of Paris besides Versailles. Here are two of my favorites that have all the grandeur of Versailles but with much less crowds.
Vaux le Vicomte
Situated in the bucolic French countryside about 34 miles southeast of Paris, the Vaux le Vicomte is an impressive jewel of a chateau. It was constructed from 1658 to 1661 for Nicolas Fouquet, a Marquis and a Viscount and the superintendent of finances for King Louis XIV. Fouquet chose the crème de la crème to design the chateau and gardens: architect Louis le Vau, landscape artist Andre Le Notre, and painter/decorator Charles Le Brun; all three later worked side by side with King Louis XIV to design the palace of Versailles.
The palace is laid out on a 2.5 axis and the innovative design influenced French architecture for the next 150 years. The massive grounds span 1,235 acres with eight miles of walls and the curbs, fountains, gravel walks, and parterres make up the magnificent formal gardens, which cover 1.5 miles.
Fouquet’s ambitious vision of opulence and luxury backfired when he was arrested 1661 and imprisoned for life, under the suspicion that he embezzled royal finances to fund the building of the lavish chateau. The King confiscated much of the contents of the chateau for his own use and the King later hired Le Vau, Le Notre, and Le Brun to execute the design for the palace of Versailles.
Today the chateau is privately owned by Patrice and Cristina de Vogüé, the Count and Countess de Vogüé. The chateau is open all year round and hosts special events, including Easter egg hunts, themed luncheons with fashion shows, chocolate salons and a spectacular Christmas extravaganza.
Insider tip: From May 7 to October 1, every Saturday night the chateau is lit with over 2,000 candles. A must-go-to event.
Palace of Fontainebleau
Equidistant to Paris as Vaux le Comte, the Palace of Fontainebleau is another prime example of the grand chateaus of France.
The earliest incarnation of the Palace of Fontainebleau dates back to 1137 when it was a fortified castle. It was a favored destination of kings because the surrounding forest area contained abundant game and many springs.
Over the centuries the chateau was altered and rebuilt, with kings Henry II, Henry IV, Louis XIII through Louis XVI and Louis-Philippe residing there. In 1803 after the French Revolution, Napoleon installed a military school in the chateau and later spent his last days in power there before abdicating his throne in 1814. During WW II the Germans occupied the chateau and in 1981 it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Today one can visit the vast chateau and view the ballroom, Saint Saturnin’s Chapels, the Stairway of the King, the Turkish boudoir of Marie Antoinette, the Throne Room of Napoleon, the Apartment of the Pope and the Queen Mothers, the Chinese Museum, and the Apartments of Napoleon.
One can also spend the day just touring the extensive gardens and parks. Various styles of formal gardens can be explored including French and Italian Renaissance gardens and an English Garden. There are also parterres, a canal, a grotto, a spring and a carp pond.