When my mom visited me in Paris in April she told me she’d always wanted to visit The Palace of Fontainebleau. I knew there was a fancy hotel in Miami by the same name, but a palace about 50 minutes outside of Paris not so much.
The reason many visitors, like me, don’t know much about Fontainebleau is because it gets overshadowed by Versailles. Fontainebleau sees a fraction of the visitors as the palace built by Louis the XIV, but that’s part of the reason you should go. You can avoid hordes of tour groups and long lines and the château’s history is arguably even more fascinating. The only royal and imperial château to be continuously habited for seven centuries, the sprawling palace is a showcase of French architecture from the 12th to the 19th century and almost every French monarch from Francis I to Napoleon has left their mark.
The palace is located in the town of Fontainebleau, also famous for its large scenic forest and for horseback riding. We brought our fold-up Bike Fridays on the train ride from Gare de Lyon and when we arrived at the train station in Fontainebleau we hopped on them and road the mere 1-2 miles to the palace (you can also walk or take the bus).
Fontainebleau has over 1500 rooms and just like at Versailles, it would be a fool’s errand to try to see everything on a single visit. There’s a good chance some rooms or an entire wing will be closed on your visit as they’re continuously restoring the structure and certain sections like Napoleon and Josephine’s private apartments can only be visited via guided tour (currently only offered in French).
There’s plenty to see on your own and highlights include the horseshoe-shaped staircase from the reign of Louis XIII at the entrance to the palace, the ballroom, the Papal Apartments and the Francis I Gallery with its stucco framed frescos like the Royal Elephant fresco meant to celebrate the virtues of the king. The Grand Apartments are also impressive and include Marie Antoinette’s Boudoir, a grand bedroom redecorated by the Empress Josephine in the elaborate floral motif you see today and the small room where Napoleon abdicated power. Don’t leave without strolling the impressive gardens including the Grand Parterre, the largest formal garden in Europe.
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