You don't have to visit the Loire Valley to see some of France's great châteaux. Here is a selection of châteaux that you can reach easily from the center of Paris by train or train and bus. Some even just require a metro ride.
Think of a château in France and most people come up with Versailles, the glorious, totally over-the-top extravaganza built for the young Louis XIV after seeing the delightful Vaux-le-Vicomte. Using the same architect Le Vau, painter Le Brun, and gardener Le Notre, the young and envious King created a city within a building, a place for 3,500 nobles to posture and simper in the hopes of attracting the King’s attention.
Versailles is very grand, with 700 rooms, 67 staircases, and 352 fireplaces. For a glimpse of the lifestyle of the monarch, walk through the Grands Apartements which include the extraordinary Galerie des Blaces (Hall of Mirrors) where the Treaty of Versailles was signed after World War I.
The park and gardens are equally glorious, and don’t miss the Domaine de Marie-Antoinette, with its Grand and Petit Trianon Palaces.
Location: 20 kilometers southwest of Paris.
How to get there: Take the train from Gare Montparnasse to Gare de Versailles, which takes about 28 minutes and leaves regularly. Or take the RER local rail service C5 to Versailles-Château (free with the Paris Visite transit pass), and then it's an eight-minute walk.
Château de Rambouillet
This handsome 18th century building dates back to the 14th century. The old central tower of the castle remains; all the rest is pure Renaissance with the requisite beautiful interiors filled with works of art. It made a fitting setting for the likes of Louis XVI who built the pretty Laiterie de la Reine (Queen’s Dairy) for Marie Antoinette after she had expressed her dislike of the château, calling it a ‘gothic toadhouse’, and the folly (Chaumière aux Coquillages or Shell Cottage) with an interior made entirely out of seashells. There’s a huge forest and a lake to wander around, just as the Presidents of France did when using Rambouillet as their summer residence.
Location: Around 62 kilometers west of Paris
How to get there: Take the train from Gare Montparnasse, which takes 34 minutes and departs around every 15 minutes, direction Chartres to Chateau de Rambouillet. From there, it’s a 14-minute walk along the park and the lakes.
Château de Monte-Cristo
Alexandre Dumas, a best-selling author, built himself a château just outside Paris to the west between St-Germain-en-Laye and Le Port Marly. The château, completed in 1847, is a delightful, rather cozy place, which Dumas decorated with panache. He brought his many lovers here, seducing them with his fame and the house. It’s full of mementos of the writer, so if you’re a fan of The Man in the Iron Mask and those swashbuckling heroes, the Three Musketeers, this is the place to see more.
Location: Between St-Germain-en-Laye and Le Port Marly, west of Paris
How to get there: Take a train from Gare Saint Lazare to Marley-le-Roi SNCF station or on the RER line A to Saint Germain-en-Laye. Take Bus 10 from the station, signed to Saint Nom la Bretèche. Get out at Les lampes. Walk down the avenue Kennedy, then take the first right on the Chemin des Montferrand.
In the heart of the nearest great forest to Paris, Fontainebleau was ideally placed to become a favorite of the French monarchy. François I (1494-1547) took over the original 11th century keep and had a very grand, rambling château built. The main attractions are the lavish interiors of the grand apartments where leading Italian artists covered the walls with painted panels depicting noble and heroic events, clearly intended to boost the prestige of the king. Where there are no paintings, gorgeous rich inlaid wooden panels line the walls, suitable for the royal inhabitants.
It’s a fascinating château with plenty of stories to hold your interest, and the gardens are spectacular.
Location: 60 kilometers south of Paris
How to get there: Take the train from Paris Gare de Lyon direction to Montargis or Montereau, taking 39 minutes and leaving every half hour at 16 and 46 minutes past the hour. Get off at Fontainebleau-Avon station, then take the ‘Ligne 1’ bus direction Les Lilas, getting off at the ‘Château’ stop. Return trains to Paris leave at 3 minutes past the hour hourly, with some additional trains at 33 minutes past the hour. Check rail journey times here.
Standing peacefully in its own glorious gardens and seemingly a world apart from the fevered intrigue of the court of France, Vaux-le-Vicomte was the start of a building revolution. Nicolas Fouquet might have been the financial genius to the young Louis XIV, but he completely misjudged the king when he invited him to visit his outstanding new château. The king admired and envied in equal measure, leading to the downfall of Fouquet and the start of Versailles, which the king built using the same experts but which was so much grander and larger.
Vaux-le-Vicomte is a delightful place, particularly during the summer holidays when there are different activities, and at Christmas when the richly decorated rooms are bright with thousands of candles truly transporting you back to the gilded age.
Location: southeast of Paris
How to get there: B Trains leave Paris Gare de l'Est hourly on Line P (direction Provins) to Verneuil l'Etang train station, taking 34 minutes and leaving 46 minutes past the hour every hour. At Verneuil, there is a regular shuttle bus to the Château (10 euros return). The return is hourly at 32 minutes past the hour.
Château de Vincennes
The château stands conveniently just outside the Peripherique to the east of Paris; today Vincennes is one of the Parisian suburbs. It has the tallest medieval keep in Europe, perfect as a look-out tower for the hugely fortified château that guarded the gates of the city. The Middle Ages remain in the keep, the towers, and Sainte-Chapelle. It was the work of Charles V, King of France, who in 1365 transformed his family manor house into the principal royal residence outside Paris mainly to house his art and manuscripts. It was used as a prison up to the 19th century, housing the likes of Nicolas Fouquet, Louis XIV’s disgraced finance minister whose downfall came through his fabulous Vaux-le-Vicomte chateau and the notorious Marquis de Sade. In 1682, Louis XIV moved to his new blockbuster palace of Versailles. Today, Vincennes houses the museum of the French armed forces.
Go here for a view of the huge medieval castle and walls, to escape Paris particularly during the hot summer months, and for a walk in the nearby lovely park.
Location: Vincennes, Paris
How to get there: By train, RER Rer A to station Vincennes, direction Marne la Vallée or Boissy-Saint-Léger. By subway, take Line 1 to Château de Vincennes.
Château d’Écouen, National Museum of the Renaissance
Surprisingly few people visit the Château d’Écouen, tucked away on the eastern edge of the splendid Foret de Montmorency north of Paris. Built by the powerful Constable of France, Anne de Montmorency, in a mere 17 years, it was a stunning declaration of the power, wealth and artistic knowledge of his family. It was superbly decorated with stained glass windows, wood panelling, mosaics and paintings and filled with enamels, pottery, tapestries, rare books and the best furniture money could buy.
Today the Musée National de la Renaissance majors on the 16th and 17th centuries, showing a wonderful collection of Renaisssance art, from weapons to fine goldsmiths’ work, stained glass windows to textiles, from a wonderful collection of lace to tapestries, which include the stunning 10 panels of the David and Bathsheba wall hangings dating from the 1520s and made in Belgium.
Location: 20 kilometers north of Paris
How to get there: Trains leave the Gare du Nord on line H (platform 30 or 31) direction Persan-Beaumont/Luzarches via Monsourt, taking 22 minutes. Get off at the Gare d’Écouen-Ezanville stop, then take bus 269 in the direction of Garges-Sarcelles (5 mins). Get off at the Mairie/Église stop. Or make your way to the museum on foot from the train station (20 minutes) through the forest.