When tourists take day trips from Paris, it’s usually to Versailles or Fontainebleau or maybe Giverny. But a hidden gem is the Château de Chantilly. It’s as elegant as Versailles but more intimate, and is just a short hop from Paris.
The château and its vast grounds were the main estate of the Duke of Aumale, son of the last king of France and one of the country’s richest men. He donated it to the Institut de France in 1884 and it has been a tourist attraction ever since.
What’s there to see? Lots!
There are two parts to the château. The larger building, with its grand entryway and ornate dining room, is where the duke entertained guests. The “petit château” next to it was his family’s private living quarters. Both are surrounded by water, making them look almost like they are floating. After a recent renovation project, the château is in pristine condition.
The duke was the greatest art collector of his age, and the château houses one of the most important collections in France. Rafael, Titian, Botticelli—they are all here. One giant room is packed with masterpieces, displayed just as the duke left them, one on top of the other. To the modern eye they look crammed together, but that’s how the duke liked it. While it’s an unusual way to display great art, it is fascinating to see how it was done back in the day.
The château is surrounded by gardens that were designed by André Le Nôtre, France’s greatest landscape architect—he also designed the gardens at Versailles. A point of pride here is that the grand canal is even longer than Versailles, nearly two miles! You can rent an electric boat to explore the garden’s waterways.
But that’s not all. The château and gardens are surrounded by a large forest that you can explore—the entire estate makes up almost 20,000 acres. Part of it is a public park, full of families enjoying the expansive lawns.
Chantilly is a major center for thoroughbred training, with long, sandy trails through the forest that the horses run on. It hosts important races on its world-class racetrack, and the Great Stables are a sight to behold. With high arched ceilings, they are bigger (and grander) than many mansions.
The stables host several equestrian shows a day, with horses and riders wowing the audience with their acrobatic maneuvers. If you catch one of the shows, you will walk past horses on your way in, and can pet them if you’d like.
There’s lots for kids to enjoy, like the horse shows and the electric boats. Next to the grand canal is a large kid’s play area, and there’s a little train that gives rides through the forest (check out the kangaroos!) And you can enjoy a family picnic on the grass.
Near the château is a group of rustic-looking houses where the duke’s guests would stay (they were quite elegant inside.) These houses inspired Marie-Antoinette to create her Queen’s Hamlet at Versailles. Next to them is a casual outdoor restaurant with excellent food. You can eat there, or bring your lunch, or go into town to enjoy a meal at one of its many restaurants and cafés.
The château’s contribution to gastronomy is the famous Chantilly cream, whipped cream with vanilla added. It is delicious on top of ripe strawberries or raspberries, and you’ll find excellent versions at many places in town.
There is regular train service from the Gare du Nord in Paris to Chantilly—the ride takes about 25 minutes. From the Chantilly train station, you can take a taxi or a shuttle (look for the signs), or walk about 25 minutes to the château.
Instead of a day trip, consider making Chantilly your last stop during a trip to France, and staying overnight in town—it’s only a 30-minute taxi ride to Charles de Gaulle airport
Keith Van Sickle splits his time between Provence and California. He is the author of the recently-published An Insider’s Guide to Provence and the best-sellers One Sip at a Time: Learning to Live in Provence and Are We French Yet? Read more at Life in Provence.
Photo of Grand Stables courtesy of P.poschadel