The charming village of Saint-Germian-en-Laye is just over 30 minutes outside of Paris on the RER, but it’s well off the typical tourist path. So it’s a great place to spend a quiet and lovely day! Here are six ways you might want to spend your time:
1. Marvel at the chateau
Yes, there’s a chateau in town, and it’s the first thing you’ll see when you come up from the train:
This isn’t just any chateau — the Chateau Saint-Germain-en-Laye has History with a capital H. Louis VI (King Louis the Fat himself) built a castle here in 1124; then Louis IX (the more kindly nicknamed Louis the Saint) expanded it and added an architecturally spectacular Saint Chapelle.
Sadly, the Black Prince burned down everything except the chapel in 1346, but a bunch of subsequent kings built new castles on the old foundations (we have Francis I to thank for the oldest parts of what we see today). Eventually, Louis XIV set up shop here — but then he built Versailles, so he gifted the chateau to the exiled King James II of England after the Glorious Revolution.
Other fun facts: Napoleon had his officers’ calvary training school here, and a hundred years later, the Allies and Austria ended WWI their fighting with a treaty in this same place. The historical low point (the Black Prince aside) is that the Germans used this chateau as the headquarters of the German army in France during WWII.
2. Visit the Musée d’Archéologie
In 1862, Napoleon III turned the Chateau Saint-Germain-en-Laye into a museum of Gallo-Roman antiquities (this was a vast upgrade for the chateau, which had been used as a military prison from 1836 until 1855). The collection has grown to a remarkable 3 million objects, of which you can see about 30,000 — and yes, this is an exhausting proposition (though most of the objects are quite small).
The museum is arranged chronologically, so you walk through the Paleolithic up to the early middle ages (Gaul). Here’s a tiny, out-of-chronological-order sampling of what you might see:
Note that a ticket to the museum is the only way to get a glimpse into the chateau itself — but even then, your viewing options are limited. Aside from the museum rooms, which have all been modernized, the only other parts of the chateau you’ll see are the chapel and the impressive interior courtyard.
3. Walk in the park
Just next to the chateau is Domaine Nationale, a public estate that includes a traditional French garden designed by André Le Nôtre (gardener to Louis XIV)…
… and the Grand Terrace, a promenade that runs 2,450 meters along the Seine.
Turn left off of the Grand Terrace, and you’ll find yourself in the Forêt Domaniale St-Germain-en-Laye (once the royal forest); turn right, and you’ll be rewarded with views all the way to Paris itself.
4. Go to the market
If you’re lucky enough to be in Saint-Germain-en-Laye on a Tuesday or a Friday, you can pay a visit to the open-air market that takes place in the large square just outside the main post office.
Here, you can buy all sorts of things: sweaters and shoes, scallops and chevre, fresh artichokes and extravagant bouquets.
There’s plenty of other shopping to be done in town, from home goods to comestibles — cute shops abound, so even if you miss market days, you’ll find plenty of ways to spend your hard-earned Euros.
5. Take a walking tour
The local tourism office has developed a short walking tour of the town’s old quarter (available in English), which will lead you to some nooks and crannies you might not otherwise think to explore.
You’ll make your way past many historical buildings, which have housed the likes of Mme. de Maintenon (famed mistress and later wife of Louis XIV), Napoleon’s sisters, and the daughters of US President James Monroe (all of these young women went to school in Saint-Germain-en-Laye).
But the most notable residences are the birthplaces of both Claude Debussy (currently closed) and Louis XIV (now the Pavillion Henri IV hotel):
Alexandre Dumas also wrote The Three Musketeers here!
It’s worth popping into Église Saint-Germain, a neoclassical church just opposite the chateau …
… and searching for Saint-Christopher-in-a-Niche (my appellation)(hint: he’s on Rue due Gast).
6. Indulge your sweet tooth
Patisserie Grandin has been around since 1822 …
… and they’ll sell you elegant creations like this one …
… but my very favorite indulgence is the hot chocolate at La Fabrique de Louise. There’s nothing like ending a long day of walking with one of these!