A couple weeks ago one of my best friends from grad school visited with her husband, and she said she wanted to see somewhere fancy. Pas de problème—France has so much history that sometimes it seems like every large building used to be a palace of some sort. When she asked about Versailles, though, I told her absolument non. Versailles is indeed quite fancy, but you can hardly see it for all the tourists. And since she and her husband had come to Paris to get a break from their three young kiddos, I didn’t think she’d appreciate all the shouting and elbowing in that particular palace.
Instead, I suggested we check out a new-to-me palace that came highly recommended by Parisian friends: the château at Fontainebleau. Compared to Versailles, Fontainebleau is similarly accessible by train (about 40 minutes from Gare de Lyon) and has the same fancy rooms and formal gardens. The major difference, though, is that there’s never a crowd at Fontainebleau. You can listen to the audioguide and take photos in peace. You may even – gasp! – be the only person in a room.
Luckily my friend was game, so one morning we hopped on the Metro to Gare de Lyon, bought tickets to Fontainebleau-Avon, and took the next train headed that way. And when we arrived at the château, what did we see?
Such a glorious sight: no line.
We had bought tickets online to be safe, but since we wanted to rent audioguides, we headed to the ticket counter anyway. There were maybe three people ahead of us. Within five minutes, we were on our way inside.
And, wow, the inside! It sounds impossible, but I actually found Fontainebleau more impressive than Versailles. At Versailles, it seemed like there were a handful of really fancy rooms (like the iconic Hall of Mirrors) mixed in with some plainer rooms, but at Fontainebleau every room seemed to be gilded, fresco-ed, tapestried, and chandelier-ed. Plus, I cannot overstate how nice it was to be able to walk through the palace without feeling like a unwitting participant in a mosh pit.
Fontainebleau also had a literal throne room (Napoleon’s, if you couldn’t tell from the gilded N):
I will admit, I still preferred Versailles’ gardens. I know it’s not fair to compare a sunny day in April to a drizzly one in October, but the Fontainebleau gardens felt less grand.
So, my recommendation: If you want to see a fancy palace, go to Fontainebleau, hands down. If you just want to spend an afternoon in fancy gardens without visiting a château, go to Versailles. And if you’re still feeling bad about missing the palace at Versailles, go to the Louvre—Versailles was literally built in its image, and the crowds at the world’s second-largest art museum are nothing compared to the crowds at Versailles.