They are mostly located outside of central Paris, so set aside the best of a day if possible to ensure a relaxed visit with travel, queues, and extra time to explore the magnificent gardens and opulent decorations, surrounding villages and forests. Where possible, buy your tickets online in advance for a quicker and smoother entry.
Château de Versailles Place d’Armes, 78000 Versailles
Versailles began life in 1623 as a modest brick and wood hunting lodge for Louis XIII. But the palace as we know it today was the project of the Sun King – Louis XIV, by architects Louis Le Vau and Jules Hardouin-Mansart, with Charles Le Brun overseeing interiors. The layout represents the structure of the kingdom with the king’s bedroom at the centre as, like the sun, everything else revolved around his presence. The palace exhibits Italian-influenced French Baroque brilliance with painted vaults, columns, gilding and marble. The main attractions include the Hall of Mirrors, the Royal Opera, the Grand Trianon, Royal Apartments and Marie-Antoinette’s Hamlet. The Petit Trianon, a small château, represents a more simple and elegant neo-classical style, completed by Ange-Jacques Gabriel. The gardens by André Le Nôtre are magnificent with flowers, fountains, marble basins, and statues in symmetrical French garden style. There are plenty of artistic events during the year including musical fountain shows and a decadent masked ball in summer.
Place Charles de Gaulle, 78100 Saint-Germain-en-Laye
Not far from Versailles is a magnificent French Gothic castle built in 1124 by Louis VI, extended in the 1230s by Louis IX, burnt down in 1346 by Edward of Woodstock (aka The Black Prince) and rebuilt by Charles V in 1360. But it was François I who oversaw the current palace from 1539, later extended in the French Renaissance style. The symmetrical Italian-style garden was also later transformed into the ‘French’ style gardens. Today it’s the home of the National Archaeology Museum. The château is easy to access by public transport, situated directly opposite Saint-Germain-en-Laye station.
Before dashing back to Paris, visit the beautiful 1827 Saint-Germain-en-Laye church with its massive Tuscan columns, sculptures and artworks, then wander around the cobblestoned backstreets to enjoy the relaxed ambiance and quaint cafés and restaurants.
Chemin du hauts des Ormes, 78560 Le Port-Marly
Alexandre Dumas, author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte-Cristo, had this charming, small, Renaissance-style château built byarchitect Hippolyte Durand in 1846. The façade features carved flowers, angels and portraits of the likes of Shakespeare and Danté. ‘J’aime qui m’aime’ (I love those who love me) is carved under the Dumas family coat of arms and the pinnacles of the two turrets are inscribed with the author’s initials.
The first floor has a Moorish-themed salon once used for entertaining. In the grounds is the small neo-gothic Château d’If, which served as his writing studio, its façades decorated with fictional heroes and carved titles of his works. Dumas fled to Belgium and then Russia to avoid creditors, but the estate was saved and restored. Today it’s open for visits and hosts exhibitions and literary events.
Château de Fontainebleau, 77300 Fontainebleau
The palace of Fontainebleau was built from the twelfth to the nineteenth century as a royal residence (including the Valois, the Bourbons, Philippe d’Orléans and Napoleon III). Medieval features include the 1137 keep and the interior passageways and spiral staircases. François I added major developments after returning from Italy with Italian Renaissance artworks, designers and craftsmen. Of note is the finely decorated gallery connecting his chamber to the chapel. The famous horse shoe entrance staircase, reconstructed in the era of Louis XIII (by Jean Androuet du Cerceau), is one of its most significant features and a model of the Italian Renaissance style. The palace has over 1,500 rooms and 130ha. (321 acres) of French and English gardens and parks. Relax afterwards on the terrace of a café at place Napoleon, a few minutes’ walk from the entrance.
Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte, 77950 Maincy
This mid-seventeenth century Baroque masterpiece was originally the home of Nicolas Fouquet, Superintendent of Finances in France under Louis XIV. With his wealth and influence, Fouquet employed the top architects and artists of the day: the famous architect Louis Le Vau, landscape gardener André Le Nôtre and interior decorator Charles Le Brun. Sound familiar? It’s the dream team that went on to work at Versailles for Louis XIV. The château has been privately owned since 1875 but is open to the public.
Château de Chantilly, 60500 Chantilly
The Château de Chantilly with its wide moat and esplanade may be recognisable: it was the home of the James Bond villain Max Zorin (Chistopher Walken) in A View to a Kill. Constructed on marshlands, the château went through various transformations from the Middle Ages to the nineteenth century. After several bloody French dramas, it became the centre of vibrant royal society with Le Nôtre stepping in to create the gardens. Henri d’Orléans, Duke of Aumale, avpassionate collector of manuscripts and artworks, left the estate to the Institut de France in 1897 and it was opened to the public as the Musée de Condé, boasting works by the likes of Delacroix, Poussin and Raphael. The Living Museum of the Horse in the Great Stables attracts many visitors and presents impressive equestrian shows throughout the year.
Avenue de Paris, 94300 Vincennes
This fourteenth-century château on the eastern edge of Paris was originally built as a hunting lodge for Louis VII c.1150. The château became a royal residence and later a prison, where the infamous Marquis de Sade was held. The fortress has the highest dungeon in Europe, standing at over 50m high and visitors can climb the 250 stairs if keen. Guided tours by the Centre of National Monuments (Centre des Monuments Nationaux) are a great way to gain historic and architectural insights. Make sure to check their site for various events and concerts.
Château de Breteuil, 78460 Choisel
Just 35km to the south west of Paris, overlooking the Chevreuse Valley, this French Baroque château hosts interpretations of French author Charles Perrault’s fairy tales (Little Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty, Puss in Boots, Cinderella …). Wax sculptures, made by the Grevin museum, are on display. The building is thought to date back to the Gallo-Roman period. The fortified castle, with medieval square moats and a dovecote, is still owned by the de Breteuil family.
Rue Viollet le Duc, 60350 Pierrefonds
Built by Louis d’Orléans, demolished by Louis XIII and rebuilt by Napoléon III, the château de Pierrefonds has passed through various styles throughout its life, although its stand-out features are its medieval towers, large fortress and ornate decorations. It seems like a setting for a fairy tale…