I’m a big fan of Chantilly, an elegant town surrounded by thick forests just 55 km north of Paris. Its historic chateau dating back to the French Renaissance hold’s one of the country’s most prestigious art collections, and the thatched-roof hamlet hidden in the vast gardens designed by Le Notre are supposedly what inspired Marie Antoinette to have the same (“but bigger”) built in Versailles. The 18th-century stables – now housing a Living Horse Museum – are even bigger than the chateau itself, and serve as the backdrop to Chantilly’s hippodrome.
Chantilly isn’t only a wonderful alternative to Versailles for those who want to escape the busloads of tourists, but it’s also a nice daytrip for Parisians in need of some fresh air. Winter may seem like an unlikely time to visit, but even on a “busy” day you won’t find lines at the gatehouse ticket window nor rooms in the château so crowded that you can’t even appreciate the beautiful décor (or take “human-free” photos, as my mother calls them).
So how easy is it to get to Chantilly without a car? In theory it’s a snap (and twice as fast as the one-hour car trip): just take the 22-minute train or RER from Gare du Nord train station in Paris to the Chantilly-Gouvieux station, and then a 15-minute stroll to the château.
Except that even two Parisians — one who actually wrote a guidebook to Chantilly — almost couldn’t figure it out one wintry Sunday afternoon.
Why? Not to bore the pants off you, but each type of public transportation in France is run by a different, and sometimes competing, group. The Metro in Paris and part of the RER are run by RATP. But the rest of the RER and French trains are run by SNCF. And within the SNCF there are even regional authorities. They all want their own tickets and their own systems, too. Once you’ve figured out French trains they’re awesome. But good luck figuring them out!
Pick a Train
For Chantilly, you’ll often see websites and guidebooks mention the option of taking either the Transilien RER D or the TER Picardie train from the Gare du Nord.
For now, forget RER D. For some reason, even though the RER D map shows Chantilly (in the direction of Creil), none of the trains actually go that far, stopping one station short at Orry la Ville. This seems to be the case any day of the week, so it’s not a Sunday service issue. So either they’ve cancelled the service permanently and haven’t changed the map, or they plan on bringing it back someday. Just wipe it off the calendar of options.
That leaves the TER Picardie regional train (Chantilly is not in the Ile-de-France region like Paris, but in the region called Picardie). To get the train from Gare du Nord to Chantilly look for the destination Creil (or Compeigne, but make sure Chantilly is listed as one of the stops). There are usually at least two trains an hour running from 6am until 11pm, but there can be gaps that leave you waiting bored in the station (with some pretty dodgy characters), or stuck in Chantilly because you’ve missed the last train of the day, so check the schedule.
Get Your Ticket
Now you just need to show up and purchase a ticket. This is where your two Parisians, after wandering around confused for 20 minutes, finally had to ask for help: there are several different ticket windows and ticket machines at the Gare du Nord, and the TER Picardie has its very own! To find them, look for the red and green ticket machines (pictured here) right on platforms 15, 16 and 17 of the “Grand Lignes” (these are the trains at ground level of the Gare du Nord, don’t go downstairs). A round-trip ticket to Chantilly is currently €17.40 for an adult. Because you’re no longer in the Ile-de-France, no Navigo passes or 5-zone transport passes will work.
There is also a special offer (not sure when it expires, but give it a try), Le Pack TER Chantilly, which for €25 combines rteurn train fare plus regular chateau entrance (or just €1 for kids under 12). According to the website (sorry, it’s only in French), you can buy these passes either at the human ticket counter or at the little green ticket machine.
From the Station to the Château
The train ride to Chantilly is just two stops, 22 minutes. From the station in Chantilly you can either try and hail a cab (not easy in the countryside), wait for the free DUC shuttle (only a few times each day Mon-Sat, I wouldn’t count on it), or take advantage of the fresh air and walk to the château. You can either walk through “town”, basically consisting of two main streets with the chateau at the far end, or take the shortcut through the forest and around the hippodrome and stables (you’ll need shoes that are okay for mud and gravel in this case). Both directions are perfectly safe and scenic in their own way, but the shortcut is about 10 minutes faster. If you need a café break or want to stop in a bakery on the way, take the town route.
As there are plenty of guides to the actual château, no need to expand on that here, but it’s worth noting a small change in ticketing: a few years ago you could purchase separate tickets to each part of the “Domaine” (chateau, gardens, stables, Living horse Museum). Now there are only two ticket options: gardens only (Grounds ticket for €8), or everything (Domain ticket for €17, including audioguide). So it’s worth coming for the whole day so you have the time to see everything if you’re springing for the Domain ticket. Note you can also buy these online, but I’ve never seen lines at Chantilly for tickets, so this isn’t an absolute necessity.
Provisions and Eating
There are several places to dine at the chateau and in the town, but it wouldn’t hurt to have some snacks and a thermos of coffee with you for the trip. Thinking ahead for warmer days, reserve a spot at the Hamlet for open-air lunch or afternoon tea with strawberries and whipped cream, which is called chantilly in French because it was supposedly invested here! Picnics aren’t allowed on the chateau grounds or gardens, but you can picnic in the vast lawn facing across the street from the château.
For more info (and more exciting photos of Chantilly in nicer weather) visit their official Domaine de Chantilly website.