When my family lived outside of Paris, one of our favorite day trips was to drive to Fontainebleau, where we would run through a tunnel (memorably spray painted throughout with pigs), picnic, explore the forest, and watch my dad and his friends climb the giant boulders in the area. If you are looking for a beautiful day trip outside of Paris, including a chateau, gorgeous green forests, a charming artist community and a fraction of the crowds at Versailles, Fontainebleau is my pick.
Fontainebleau is a town about 50km outside of Paris and is best known for its chateau (formerly used as a hunting lodge by the royals and later as a meeting place for heads of state) and the forest of Fontainebleau, which surrounds the town and many neighboring villages. Oh, and there is also an international business school there. The forest is particularly popular among Parisians who want to escape the city on weekends, and with good reason. It is awesome!
When we arrived in Fontainebleau, we inspected the Friday morning market (nice) and then rented bikes from a bike shop in town. I hadn't been on a bike in, oh, 10 years, so I was a little nervous (and there were no helmets, eek!). But it was a perfect, sunny day and the forests were so lovely that I forgot all about my anxiety within the first 10 minutes. And check out John, who is so comfortable on a bike that he can take pictures while riding! Impressive.
Around lunchtime, we stopped at a clearing full of giant boulders and had a picnic of sandwiches (arugula and prosciutto on buttered baguettes) and a mess of cherries.
After lunch and a rest, we biked to the nearby artist village of Barbizon. It was so ridiculously charming! A bit of a bumpy ride, due to the (adorable) cobblestone streets, though.
After a nice ride through Barbizon, we headed back to Fontainebleau, via a series of difficult (for me and my not-so-great bike... and tired legs) uphill sections. We rode a little farther to the quiet and pretty park by the chateau.
After entertaining the idea of having an early dinner in Fontainebleau, we decided to instead get drinks, eat some candy bars (ahem, yes, we're 12), and head back to Paris. We fixed ourselves a late dinner at home and spent the next 24-48 hours trying to ignore our aching muscles. Fun day!
You can easily catch a train from Gare de Lyon; a round-trip ticket costs about 16 euros and the ride takes 35 minutes or so. I couldn't find the ticket validation machine on our platform, so I asked the nice policemen roaming around the station where to validate them. They told me I didn't have to validate -- which I'm 99.9% sure is not true, but no one ever came to check our tickets. So, my advice is to try to find the ticket validating box (it has to be there somewhere! it just wasn't on our platform, as I expected) or get ready to plead "I'm an idiot tourist" with your most charming smile.
From the Fontainebleau train station, you can walk into the center of town (30 minutes) or catch a bus at the train station.
A La Petite Reine
Tip: you need an identity document to rent the bike, e.g. a passport. Be sure to ask for a bike repair kit and locks. And note that they don't automatically offer you helmets, so either be prepared to pay extra to rent one (a good idea, but we didn't) or bring your own.
To save time, we packed our own provisions for a picnic, although there are plenty of bakeries where you could pick up a sandwich, etc. If you arrive early enough on Friday or Saturday, you could also find very decent picnic food at the farmers market. If biking, I definitely recommend bringing a day pack and plenty of water.