Château de Fontainebleau
King Francois I hired the best French and Italian artists to embellish every inch of these sumptuous interiors with gilded woodwork, virtuosic frescoes, and paintings (the royal collection once included the Mona Lisa).
Catherine de Medici, Louis XIV, and Napoleon Bonaparte all left their mark on the château, and you'll notice different styles reflecting the many royals who lived here over a period of 300 years.
The château itself is easily seen in a day, but the gardens—by royal landscape designer André Le Nôtre—and surrounding forest, as well as the charming town of Fontainebleau, make for an excellent weekend trip.
Château de Vincennes
France's largest and best-preserved medieval château, the recently restored Château de Vincennes also has the distinction of being a 10-minute metro ride from central Paris.
The fortified castle, large enough to protect a 14th-century city within its walls, houses France's tallest medieval donjon, which is as famous for the royals who lived there as for its prisoners, which included the Marquis de Sade and philosopher Denis Diderot.
The exquisite Sainte-Chapelle de Vincennes, sister to Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, was built to house a true relic of the crown of thorns.
Château de Chantilly (Musée Condé)
Dramatically set between water and elegant André le Nôtre–designed gardens, the Château de Chantilly houses France's finest collection of paintings outside the Louvre in the attached Musée Condé.
Built around 1560 by Anne de Montmorency, the Petit Château was the ancient home of the Connétables de France (constables), a high position close to the king, and contains the beautiful Apartments des Princes and a superb library with hundreds of priceless volumes, including a Gutenberg bible.
Housed in the 19th-century wing, the superb Musée Condé is not to be missed. The château's extensive grounds contain the charming Hameau, a “village” built in 1774 that was the inspiration for Marie Antoinette's village at Versailles.
Château de Malmaison
Napoleon I's wife, Joséphine, saw the potential in this charming spot located seven miles from Paris; she took advantage of her husband's Egyptian campaign to buy the ramshackle house in his absence.
He was furious at her extravagance, but slowly came around and eventually threw himself into creating a dwelling of unusual refinement, where the couple spent the happiest of their 13 years together. After the divorce, Joséphine lived here until her death in 1814, tending her famous rose garden and expanding her collection of exotic plants and animals.
Restored during the reign of Napoleon III, the house features a rich collection of artwork and furniture, and the beautiful gardens remain a testament to a woman of taste and the Empire style.
Château de Breteuil
The magnificent, privately owned Château de Breteuil has been home to the Marquises of Breteuil since the early 17th century, all of whom played an important role in the French history.
Some of this stories, along with seven fairy tales by the famous French author Charles Perrault—including Puss n' Boots, Little Red Riding Hood, and Bluebeard—are charmingly recreated in the house and around the grounds via 50 lifelike wax figures from Paris's Musée Grevin. Extensive gardens, a kids' park, and a topiary maze also add to the family fun, and a café on the grounds makes it an easy place to spend the day (picnics are also permitted).
And that elegant gentleman showing you around just may be the 12th Marquis of Breteuil, who lives here and conducts tours. The château is about an hour from Paris via the RER.
Château de Maintenon
Madame Maintenon, the second wife of Louis XIV, bought this already ancient château in 1675 with money given to her by the king. Louis oversaw its improvements, employing his staff from Versailles, including landscape architect André le Nôtre.
Although Madame Maintenon loved the castle's singular beauty and solitude, she was rarely able to visit her property, since Louis, whom she'd married in a secret ceremony sometime around 1686, was ever more reliant on her company at Versailles.
The property's picturesque aqueduct was built in 1685 to divert water from the Eure River to feed the fountains at Versailles.
Château de Rambouillet
This handsome 18th-century château was built around a 14th-century fortified castle whose remaining central tower was named for François I, who died there in 1547. The castle's elegant interiors date to the Renaissance, although Napoleon carried out important updates (he stayed here on his way to exile) for his second wife, Marie-Louise.
On the château grounds, you'll find the charming Laiterie de la Reine (Queen's Dairy), Louis XVI's surprise gift to Marie Antoinette, who hated the château, and the Chaumière des Coquillages, a classic folie whose interior was fashioned entirely of seashells.
The château functioned as the summer home for the presidents of France, and the 36,000-acre forest, flower-bedecked façade, and lakeside setting all contribute to its unusual serenity.
Château d’Ecouen (Musée National de la Renaissance)
This little-known gem was built in 1538–1551 by the powerful Anne de Montmorency, Constable of France and a famous aesthete who used his vast wealth to build this masterpiece of Renaissance architecture.
Since 1977, the château has been home to the Musée National de la Renaissance, the only museum in France dedicated to this period, with an outstanding collection of Renaissance paintings, furniture, glassware, enamels, silverware, weaponry, and stained glass, as well as its famous ten-panel tapestry, “The Story of David and Bathsheba.”
The château also houses one of the most comprehensive collections of lace in the country. Close to the quiet town of Écouen, about 19 miles from Paris, the château is surrounded by the lush Écouen forest, perfect for a stroll or hike.
Château de Compiègne
An island of calm, this stately Neoclassical château sits at the edge of the enormous Compiègne forest, a favorite royal hunting ground since the Middle Ages. Built for Louis XV, the château was extensively redesigned in the early 1800s by Napoleon Bonaparte, and again by Napoleon III and the Empress Eugénie, who made it their autumn residence.
A spectacular example of Second Empire style, the gorgeous apartments are a delight to behold, as are the exhibits of costumes and portraiture of the day, part of the Musées de Second Empire.
The château also houses the wonderful transport museum, with examples of horse-drawn vehicles and hippomobiles (the first motored vehicles) from the 17th to the early 20th centurie
From the château gates to the imposing statue of Hercules at the edge of Vaux-le-Vicomte's classic French gardens, the impression is one of pure harmony and elegance.
Louix XIV thought so, too, since he arrested the owner, Nicholas Fouquet, on trumped-up charges and hauled him off to prison before taking everything in the palace for himself and appropriating Fouquet's architect, interior designer, and landscape gardener to build Versailles.
The privately owned, beautifully restored château and gardens still stand as a testament to the unfortunate Fouquet's exquisite taste and refinement. On candlelight evenings (Saturdays from May–October), the château glitters inside and out with 2,000 candles and a special dinner is served on the terrace followed by a spectacular fireworks display.
Château de Saint-Germain-en-Laye (Musée d’Archéologie National)
Like Fontainebleau, this château also dates back to the reign of François I, but the similarities end there. As austere as the other is flamboyant, Saint-Germain-en-Laye was in a state of disrepair when Louis XIV (who was born there) gave it a facelift using his star team taken from Vaux-le-Vicomte. Louis continued to shuttle between here and the Louvre while Versailles was under construction.
The stunning 12th-cenutry Sainte-Chapelle, precursor to its famous Parisian counterpart, is worth the trip alone. But the château also houses the wonderful National Museum of Archeology, chronicling the history of France from prehistory to the Middle Ages.
This elegant château's museum and gardens, plus its views of Paris, make for a wonderful day trip, just 20 minutes from the city via the RER (the station is just across the street from the château).
Château de Courances
This unique 17th-century château is one of the few castles in Île-de-France that you can visit even though it’s still a private residence. Constructed between 1622 and 1630, the estate was abandoned in the 19th century until it was saved from ruin in the 1870s by Baron Samuel de Haber, a wealthy Swiss banker.
He’s responsible for a number of enhancements, including a replica of Fontainebleau’s horseshoe staircase and the red-brick facade. The castle was later sold to the Ganay family, who have now owned it for four generations.
It sits within a moat on a 200-acre park, featuring Le Nôtre-inspired gardens, weather-worn statues, cascading fountains, and gentle pools of water. End your meander through the park in its Japanese garden, where you’ll find a charming tea room.