The Palace of Fontainebleau or Château de Fontainebleau, located 34 miles southeast of the center of Paris, in the commune of Fontainebleau, is one of the largest French royal châteaux. The medieval castle and subsequent palace served as a residence for the French monarchs from Louis VII to Napoleon III. Francis I and Napoleon were the monarchs who had the most influence on the Palace as it stands today. It is now a national museum and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Far less familiar to travelers than Versailles, and drawing fewer than one-seventh the number of visitors who flock to the Sun King's domain, Fontainebleau, 45 miles south of Paris, isn't exactly unknown. But given its centuries of history at the center of the French monarchy, and the richness and variety of its buildings, inside and out, its relative obscurity is something of a mystery. No site in France can compare as a royal residence: It predates the Louvre itself by 50 years, and Versailles by five centuries.

Nor is it a simple 'chateau' as that term has come to designate a great country house held by a noble family. Fontainebleau’s singular attraction to an unbroken line of French kings spanning eight centuries was originally as a hunting lodge, perfectly situated at the edge of the ancient Forest of Fontainebleau - in effect, a royal game preserve.

But as each king took up residence for two months of hunting every fall, the relatively modest medieval structure was added to, then added to again, by the sovereigns who brought their court with them to the vast forest. They developed a succession of structures and styles that span many centuries and yet - magically, convincingly - cohere in a pleasing whole.

Some of France's greatest architects — Philibert Delorme, Ange-Jacques Gabriel and André Le Nôtre among them — fashioned buildings, courtyards, interiors and elaborate grounds, adding to what they found while resisting the impulse to replace or destroy. What greets the visitor today is the single greatest assemblage over time of French architecture and décor still in its original state.

Fontainebleau is immense, and immensely varied. The roof alone has a surface area of five acres, and covers more than 1,500 rooms. The gardens and outer grounds extend over 230 acres. Rather than trying to 'do it all' in a single day, plan your time depending on your interests, which parts of the chateau are open on the day of your visit, and the weather. In the morning, ask about the special guided tours available that day; they vary considerably, and can include Marie Antoinette's Turkish boudoir, the imperial theater of Napoleon III, the private rooms of Napoleon I and Josephine, and others.