Each Paris Castle Walks the Line between History and Fantasy
There is an impressive collection of castles located in and around the French capital. So impressive, in fact, that one would be forgiven for being confused as to whether they were a student of history or an actor in a big-budget fantasy movie. Indeed, many a Paris castle has been the location of fantasy and historical movies or the inspiration for the fairytales and stories that these movies are based on. In this guide, you'll find a breakdown of the most unmissable attractions as well as insights into their hidden treasures and intriguing history.
Never More Than a Short Drive from the Capital
While not everything mentioned below is located within the borders of the city itself, each castle on our list is easily reachable. Whether you get there by car or bus, these castles are a great option for a day trip with friends or family.
The Palace of Versailles
Technically not located in Paris at all but instead situated in the city of Versailles, this palace is well worth the 20-kilometer drive from the center of Paris. Formerly the official seat of power for the king and the government, it has since been converted into a museum of the history of France. The building and its architecture are considered works of art in themselves, earning it a spot as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The entire complex has been influenced by great architects such as Robert de Cotte, Louis Le Vau, and Charles de Brun. Inside, highlights include the light-filled Hall of Mirrors, the Opera Theater, and the secluded Hamlet of Marie Antoinette.
The Palace of Fontainebleau
Located 55 kilometers south of Paris city center, the Palace of Fontainebleau offers stiff competition for its rival in Versailles. This palace is not quite a match for the latter in terms of size. Nonetheless, the Palace of Fontainebleau is another sumptuous feast for the eyes that is also within a short drive of the capital. Some 34 different kings and emperors have laid their heads on pillows under the opulent roofs of this castle. These include Napoleon Bonaparte, and a highlight of a visit here is the private apartments the emperor had renovated, with the addition of two adjoining apartments for himself and Joséphine. The Renaissance rooms pay tribute to the level of fresco and stucco artistry that was achieved under the patronage of the French monarchs. In addition, visitors will also have the possibly unexpected chance to peruse a collection of art from the Far East, China, and Siam. This assemblage once belonged to the wife of Napoleon III and is housed in four beautifully rendered drawing rooms that were traditionally used to entertain guests and dignitaries.
The Château de Vincennes
If you tire of the opulence and artistry of the post-medieval period palaces of the French nobility, you may want to consider the Château de Vincennes. This imposing edifice offers a little more of what many expect from a castle, featuring a fortified wall and what is known as a donjon tower. This tower stands 53 meters in height and is the tallest fortified tower in Europe. Once a hunting lodge of the king, the medieval site was gradually upgraded for defensive purposes but has also held the title of jail. In its time, the tower imprisoned famous dissidents such as the Marquis de Sade and Nicolas Fouquet, and has played the role of both barracks and arsenal. Another benefit of the Château de Vincennes is that it is actually within the city limits! It guards the eastern entrance to the city and withstood extensive damage during World War II. Currently, it is used to house the archive of the Ministry of Defense.
The Château de Breteuil
Built in the 17th century as the home of the Breteuil family, the Château de Breteuil is today still owned by this prominent dynasty. Now open to the public, this castle is a 35-kilometer drive south-west of Paris. This castle offers a good balance if you are looking for something that will keep both the kids and grown-ups happy. Inside the opulently decorated chateau, you'll find 50 beautifully recreated wax statues depicting famous residents and visitors to the building and its grounds, as well as recreational scenes. This offers a fascinating insight into the daily lives of the people, both noble and commoner, who lived during this time. But the real treat is for the children. In the buildings that surround the main chateau, famous scenes from the tales of Charles Perrault have been dutifully recreated. These include the likes of Puss in Boots, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, and Tom Thumb. Venture further still and you'll find that the natural beauty of the garden will hold the attention of both young and old alike. Centuries-old trees share space with an orangery, a garden maze, a dove tower, and a beautiful mirror lake. In honor of the long-standing friendship between the Breteuil family and the British Royal family, the gardens have been split into a French-inspired area and an English-themed garden.
The Château de Pierrefonds
The crenellated towers of the Château de Pierrefonds look like something plucked out of a fairytale as they stand head and shoulders above the already lengthy trees. Located in the idyllic setting of the Forest of Compiègne north of Paris, this is another medieval fortress that has suffered intense damage and been restored to its former glory. The castle at Pierrefonds was almost entirely demolished in the 17th century by Louis XII. It remained in a state of ruin until it was bought by Napoleon I and subsequently restored. The castle itself is made from pristine white stone and features many multi-level towers. While the exterior is faithful to the castle's 12th-century origins, the interior was recreated along the lines of the Romantic style in vogue at the time of its reconstruction. Many film directors have chosen the castle to be a part of their movie because of the immersive medieval atmosphere that is felt there.
The Sleeping Beauty Castle
Not every castle boasts a history filled with gruesome wars and political intrigue. If you want to take the kids to something that is truly about magic and wonder, then you don't have to go much further than the Sleeping Beauty Castle. Known as the Château de la Belle au Bois Dormant, this iconic castle both represents and sits at the heart of Disneyland Paris. The dungeon area includes a life-sized dragon that occasionally emits a puff of smoke. Outside in the balcony area, families have a chance to snap that memorable selfie in front of the castle. Inspired by a real castle in Bavaria, the château gives the genuine articles a run for their money, standing as it does at an impressive 167 feet.
The Château de Thoiry
If you are looking for a castle adventure with a difference, you may want to consider the Château de Thoiry and its surrounding gardens and jungles! This Renaissance castle is a beautiful building in itself and is in fact still home to the Counts of La Panouse. This doesn't mean that you can't get a glimpse of how the nobility live: Guided tours of certain parts of the interior are available. However, the real draw is some 1,000 thousand animals that live in the expansive grounds of the estate. These include everything from elephants to hippos, zebras, snow leopards, and even Siberian tigers. The castle/zoo is located about 48 kilometers west of Paris and is also home to an impressive botanical garden. Visitors are encouraged to travel by car, as this will allow them to take advantage of driving lanes integrated throughout the reserve. This way, visitors are able to see more of the grounds and the animals.
Each Paris castle offers something different in terms of historical prominence and attractions on display. There is no doubt that a visit to one of them will leave you with a sense of wonder and a profound impression of the weight of history. A day in a castle is also a way to take a break from the bustle of the busy city streets, in an oasis of calm. Any given castle is also likely to offer a trail of breadcrumbs designed to lead you back into the captivating history of this beautiful city and its people.