If you can only see one chateau as a day trip from Paris, should you visit Versailles or Fontainebleau?
On the face of it the above question seems pointless – almost everyone would choose Versailles, only the most famous chateau of all and the prototype that spawns dozens of imitators across Europe. Yet if you google “Versailles vs Fontainebleau” you will find a surprising amount of support for shunning Versailles in favor of its lesser known counterpart. So which one really deserves your time?
Below is a showdown between the two chateaus across four categories: History, grandeur, crowd and accessibility.
Although Versailles has come to symbolize the classic French Renaissance chateau, it actually arrived relatively late to the palace-building frenzy in France. Think of it this way, the chateau that was Louis IV’s inspiration for Versailles, Vaux-le-Vicomte, was built in 1661, seven years before the completion of the first phase of Versailles. And that’s more than a century after the construction of many of the famous chateaus in the Loire Valley such as Chambord and Chenonceau. Fontainebleau was also completed during this period.
History is not merely a matter of length, of course. It is what actually happened within the compound that counts. Versailles has Louis IV – Louis VI, the French Revolution, and the Treaty of Versailles. While Fontainebleau doesn’t have a history-altering moment like the Treaty of Versailles, it did serve as the royal residence of a much wider range of monarchs from Francis I to Napoleon III. The Sun King himself, forever linked to Versailles, had spent more time at Fontainebleau than any other monarch. The meteoric rise and abrupt fall of Napoleon were also intertwined with Fontainebleau; the Little Corporal met with Pope Pius VII at the chateau to prepare for his coronation and a decade later abdicated his throne at the very same place.
Edge: Fontainebleau by a hair
Versailles’ peak is more impressive, but Fontainebleau has a century of head start and some very important moments of its own.
Versailles wins this one in a landslide. Now, compares to most other chateaus Fontainebleau is excessively opulent, but Versailles is no ordinary palace. You know what’s really expensive in 17th century France? Mirror. So guess what item did Louis XIV use extensively to decorate his showcase gallery? Mirror, naturally. 357 of them. That’s like finding a room filled with slabs of crystal in today’s equivalent. You like huge garden? Versailles’ is larger than 1,140 soccer fields. Want some marble? Grand Trianon and its pink marble is the place for you.
Edge: Versailles in a landslide
Fontainebleau might be fit for kings and a pope, but Versailles was built for the self-anointed Sun King and his unmatched ego.
Look at the photo above. That was taken on a Sunday afternoon late June and Fontainebleau was completely empty. On the very same day I promise Versailles would be packed with people. During two previous visits to Versailles on weekdays I had to line up for more than an hour just to get through the security checkpoint. Be sure to buy a museum pass in Paris before you go to Versailles, or else another long queue to purchase ticket will be waiting for you.
Edge: Fontainebleau in an avalanche
Here’s probably the most stated reason why Fontainebleau is the preferable day trip destination. The crowd at Versailles is some of the worst I have seen anywhere. Try to arrive early and wish for the best.
Both are straightforward to get to.
For Versailles take the RER C5 line to Versailles Rive Gauche station, which is a five-minute walk away from the palace. From Invalides the ride takes about 40 mins. The round trip ticket costs €5.60.
To reach Fontainebleau, take a 40-minute train ride from Gare de Lyon on the east side of Paris. The palace is a ten-minute bus ride away. The €16.80 round trip train ticket already includes the fare for the bus ride.
Although the travel time is about the same, you can leave for Versailles from central Paris while Gare de Lyon is a bit away from the main tourist areas.
Turns out this showdown between the two chateaus is closer than expected. In fact, the Fontainebleau backers have a solid case. To me, the question boils down to this: Are you willing to see a 70% version of Versailles with none of the crowd?
For most, it would be hard to justify traveling all this distance and missing out on the cream of the crop. I too visited Versailles twice before I finally made it to Fontainebleau. The benchmark set by the former proved impossible to meet even I did enjoy having the latter all to myself. My advice to best enjoy these two is to first visit Fontainebleau, then to Versailles as early as possible on another day. If time only permits visiting one, go with the conventional wisdom and see Versailles. Despite the crowd it is still the most awe-inspiring chateau in Europe.