Saint-Germain-en-Laye: Paris Day Trips

Next time you’re in Paris and want to avoid the typical tourist route, take a day trip to Saint-Germain-en-Laye. The town is only 20 kilometres west of Paris and 15 km from Versailles.

It couldn’t be easier to travel from the City, as it takes only 20 minutes on the RER A line from Paris direct to the terminus of Saint-Germain-en-Laye. As we live five minutes away from this Royal Burgh town, I’m finally proud to present it to start off my new series on interesting day trips out of Paris.

St Germain chateau and park

Saint-Germain-en-Laye

Not to be confused with the quarter of Saint Germain-des-Prés in Paris, the town of Saint-Germain-en-Laye is perched on the edge of a forest of 3500 hectares and today has a population of about 43,000. It’s home to the Paris Saint Germain football (soccer) team but before it was a Royal town, home to the Kings of France. Close to my Scottish roots, it was also where King James VII of Scotland (II of England) died in exile. His shrine to the Franco-Scottish Auld Alliance is in the church opposite the castle. The town even has its own tartan, such is the Auld Alliance with the Scots.
Update: I forgot to mention that the town is twinned with the Scottish town of Ayr!

Chateau and church of Saint Germain-en-Laye

This French Royal Burgh has been a market town since King François I, who decided as of 1526 that there should be two market days.  Today there are THREE legendary MARKET DAYS: on Tuesday, Friday and Sunday mornings (check out my Instagram feed, as you’ll see me regularly shop here!)

I joined Victoria’s weekly guided weekend walk, organised by the Tourist Office, tracing the influence of King François I on the town.  He stayed in Saint-Germain-en-Laye for over a thousand days – the longest for a monarch choosing between a wealthy choice of fairytale French castles. He left the town with its layout, a pentagon-shaped castle and a centre for trade.

Bread Street (Rue au Pain)

The tour (in French and English) meets up on Bread Street, at the Tourist Office which houses the Claude Debussy Museum upstairs, birthplace of the composer in 1826 (the museum is free of charge).

Rue au Pain, the town’s oldest Medieval street, supplied bread to the castle. Today it’s still home to a bakery, chocolate shop, Pâtisserie and fromagerie. As we’re taken along pedestrian-only cobbled streets, passing boutiques and mansion houses from the 17th and 18th centuries, we learn fascinating facts from taxes to the gradual increase in population. The King had put Saint-Germain-en-Laye on the map.

chateau saint Germain

Today the castle is home to the National Archeological Museum and is currently undergoing renovations. Certain parts now look so pristine, it could have been build last year!  The castle dates from Louis IX in 1235, with the oldest part of the castle that’s left, the Royal Chapel, inspired the Saint Chapelle in Paris. Look up and spot numerous reminders of François I’s (F) symbol and the invincible salamander; N for the Napoleon III empire; and R symbol of the third Republic.

The chimney-packed castle roof is open to the public for visits too, on demand, from May-September.  I wasn’t lucky this year but as soon as May appears, let’s go up together when the renovations are finished.

Birthplace of Louis XIV

Saint Germain-en-Laye Pavilon Henri IV

The Pavillion Henri IV Hotel houses the small red-brick pavilion where Louis XIV was born and baptised in 1638. It’s all that’s left of the new castle (Château Neuf) which was demolished in 1776 at the request of Louis XIV’s brother, the Count of Artois. Rather than restore the castle that had run into disrepair while Louis had moved to the new royal residence at Versailles, the Count told the King he much preferred the castle in Maisons-Laffitte. So the people of Saint-Germain-en-Laye re-cycled the “new” bricks for their mansion houses.

It wasn’t just the King that was born here; the hotel is also famous for inventing the Sauce Béarnaise and Pommes de Terre Soufflées (puffed potatoes) after it opened in 1836.

saint-germain-en-laye-park-perspectives

The Park

The Grand Terrace, designed by Louis XIV’s favourite gardener, André Le Nôtre, is over 2km long. He worked on this before Vaux-le-Vicomte and Versailles.

For lovers of architecture, there are plenty of explanatory signs in English to learn more about the history and designs of the gardens.

Saint-Germain-en-Laye Vineyards

Replanted in 1999, nearly 2000 Pinot Noir vines grow just under the Terrace to make the Vin des Grottes, although this isn’t commercialised. Instead it’s traditionally served at the harvest festival in September.

vines of Saint Germain-en-laye

Just look at this perspective, lined with lime blossom trees. Ready for a walk? Imagine in Louis XIV’s time this wasn’t paved or pathed, there was no grass and no railings with a drop of 13 metres. It was simply sanded so walkers may have felt slightly daunted…

Saint Germain-en-Laye Terrace

From the terrace, the cherry on the cake is this magnificent view of the west of Paris including La Defense: on clear days like this you can spot Sacré Coeur and the Eiffel Tower. Can you see them plus other Parisian landmarks?

view of Paris from Saint Germain-en-Laye

It’s a favourite spot for weekend walks, which leads eventually to the well-guided paths in the forest just outside the gates.

Forest of Saint-Germain-en-Laye

Let’s finish with a partial view of the park in Autumn (taken end of last October).

Add Saint-Germain-en-Laye to your bucket list next time you visit Paris. There’s so much to see just outside the City that’s within easy access. Just to whet your appetite, next up is a sweet tour of the town, including recipes, from gastronomic history to the wealth of award-winning chocolate and pastry boutiques.

saint-germain-en-laye park in autumn or fall

 

François I Tours: 3pm Saturdays (1.5 hrs) 9 April- 15 October
October-April: Various conferences, exhibitions & bigger group tours
For more information, tour reservations & visits, contact:
Tourist Office
Maison Claude Debussy
38 rue au Pain
78100 Saint-Germain-en-Laye

Tel: 01-34 51 05 12

13 replies
    • Jill Colonna
      Jill Colonna says:

      Isn’t it a lovely town? A miniature version of Paris but with different pastry and chocolate shops – as well as great walks for afterwards!

      Reply
  1. June Stobie
    June Stobie says:

    I absolutely love this place at all times of the year. The Christmas Market is really interesting too. Book me in for the roof of the castle tour next year please.

    Reply
    • Jill Colonna
      Jill Colonna says:

      Let’s do it together, Mum. Yes, the Christmas market is fun too. I’ll cover that in my next foodie post on Saint Germain-en-Laye.

      Reply
  2. Christina | Christina's Cucina
    Christina | Christina's Cucina says:

    I love this post, Jill! Thank you for taking Denisa and me there in May. I agree that it’s a perfect place to visit to get a taste of a town that’s not as huge and touristy as Paris, without having to travel for miles and miles outside the city.

    I can’t wait to spend more time in this pretty town and see more of the area nearby. Looking forward to your upcoming posts in this series, which I think is a brilliant idea!

    Reply
    • Jill Colonna
      Jill Colonna says:

      I love this place so much – it’s a little Paris with such lovely shops. There are times when people seem surprised that I’d rather be here than come into Paris at times!

      Reply
  3. Tish Tyler
    Tish Tyler says:

    Hi Jill- just got your Oct newsletter and I’m looking forward to the day trip addition. I went to Saint-Germain-en-Laye last March on a market day. I’ll be returning there when I’m in Paris this November!
    Merci!

    Reply
    • Jill Colonna
      Jill Colonna says:

      I’m so glad you came to Saint-Germain-en-Laye on a market day, Tish, and that you’re returning soon. A good sign!

      Reply

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