Wealthy and classy, Maisons-Laffitte is a northwestern suburb of Paris where you’ll almost be tripping over mansions and châteaux. True to this image of old money, the commune is a centre for equestrianism, with the largest horse training facility in the Paris region.
You can live a life of leisure as a lady or gentleman might have done in the 19th century, watching horseracing, going for a round of golf and taking turns in the same immense parks where royalty used to hunt. As well as the trailblazing Château de Maisons there’s a choice of palaces a few minutes by car, while Paris is never more than a brief train ride away.
Lets explore the best things to do in Maisons-Laffitte:
1. Château de Maisons
François Mansart’s majestic Château de Maisons is a milestone in French cultural history as one of the first Baroque palaces in the country.
Nobody in France had seen anything like it, and after the château was completed in 1651 people would travel long distances just to get a glimpse.
It was commissioned by René de Longueil who lost his job as Superintendent of Finances in 1651 after putting on an excessively lavish party here, arousing the suspicion of Louis XIV. The interiors were refitted in the 1700s by the Comte d’Artois, and are an opulent fusion of the prevailing Classicism and Mansart’s Baroque style.
There’s also a museum inside tracing the château’s ties with horseracing and the Hippodrome de Maisons-Laffitte.
2. Parc de Maisons-Laffitte
It wasn’t just the château that was spectacular, as the park’s design was also overseen by René de Longueil.
In its day this park had stables to rival Versailles and Chantilly, but when Jacques Laffitte acquired the estate he divided up the 300-hectare grounds and sold plots off to for stately housing estates.
Only the gardens closest to the château were kept, and re-landscaped in the English style.
It’s now a historically-charged environment for a restful walk or bike ride, with two long, tree-lined avenues connecting at right angled in front of the château.
3. Forêt de Saint-Germain-en-Laye
Maisons-Lafitte is on the eastern reaches of this enormous 3,500-hectare forest.
The deep oak and beech and woodland here was once a royal hunting ground: Kings from Henry II in the 16th century to Charles X in the 1800s would ride these trails for sport.
Today, from June to August you could come for the Fête des Loges on the eight-hectare Promenade des Loges.
This is essentially a six-week funfair with 160 rides and amusements, involving anything from old-school carnival games to white-knuckle rollercoasters.
The Allée des Cuisines is also set up for the event, with specialities from Bavaria, Brazil, Spain, Switzerland and India.
4. Hippodrome de Maisons-Laffitte
It’s only natural that a town accustomed to nobility and equestrianism should have a racing track.
But the Hippodrome de Maisons-Laffitte from 1878 is out of the ordinary; it’s a 4.68-kilometre course on the flat, longer than any in France.
The main straight is two kilometres in length, making it the longest in Europe along with Newmarket in Suffolk.
If you’re into horseracing there are three big races to put in your diary: The Prix Robert Papin, and the Prix Eugène Adam are both in July, while the Critérium de Maisons-Laffitte is run in October and November.
All three are high-profile Group II races.
5. Villas Remarquables
It’s well worth poking around the many intersecting avenues that were plotted in the old Parc de Maisons-Laffitte from the late-19th century onwards.
These are traced by jaw-dropping villas, most of which are protected as French historic monuments.
Among them is the Maison Doulton, which was designed by England’s Royal Doulton pottery company for the 1878 Exposition Universelle in Paris and moved here after the show.
If you love decorative architecture you can download a list of mansions or consult the tourist office for a comprehensive list.
6. Château de Saint-Germain-en-Laye
For more than 700 years French Kings and Emperors called this “château” home.
It was a favourite residence for Francis I, who married his queen Claude de France here in 1514. Each resident left his mark on the property, and the many different renovations has left layers of history to pore over.
This also makes it the ideal venue for the National Museum of Archaeology, with galleries starting in the Palaeolithic Age and ending in the Merovingian Period in the 8th century.
There’s a ton of vital artefacts to see, like the gold tableware in the Gallo-Roman Trésor de Rethel and the astonishing Venus of Brassempouy, a 25,000-year-old ivory carving of a woman’s head.
7. Chapelle Saint-Louis
Set close to the château is this masterful Gothic chapel built on the orders of Louis IX in 1238. If you know Paris well you might spot the similarity with the Saint-Chapelle on the Île de la Cité, and that’s no coincidence as both buildings were designed by the same man, Pierre de Montreuil.
It has a nave with a single aisle, and an apse with windows that span the floor to the vaults.
The main event though is the lapidary collection inside, which has carved plaques believed to portray Louis IX and members of his family, which would make them the earliest portraits of a French king.
8. Grande Terrasse de Saint-German-en-laye
The most unforgettable element in the estate is this terrace overlooking the Seine Valley.
This walkway is 2.4 kilometres long and 30 metres wide, with an avenue of newly replanted lime trees.
One side is the deep Forêt de Saint-Germain-en-Laye and on the other is the skyline of La Défense and beyond that you can make out Paris landmarks like the Eiffel Tower.
The terrace was built by the vaunted landscape architect André Le Nôtre for Louis XIV in the 1670s.
This is also one of the last surviving vestiges of the former Château Neuf, demolished in 1770.
9. Villa Savoye
In nearby Poissy there’s astounding architecture from another era.
Villa Savoye is an early-1930s masterpiece by the Modernist Swiss architect Le Corbusier.
It encapsulates Le Corbusier’s design philosophy as summed up by his seminal “Five Points”, and is the building most experts pick as the epitome of his Internationalist style.
Like many modernist wonders this UNESCO site, commissioned by a wealthy Parisian couple, was up for demolition until it was rescued and restored in the 80s and 90s.
The interiors have mostly been kept clear to let you appreciate the villa’s incredible spaces bathed in light by the window walls.
10. Château de Malmaison
If you head south and follow the bend in the Seine round towards Paris you’ll arrive at the Château de Malmaison.
It’s impossible to overstate the significance of this property, which was bought by Napoleon and Joséphine de Beauharnais in 1799 and would be the home of the Empress for the rest of her life.
The French Government sat here several times between 1800 and 1802, and after Joséphine passed away it became Napoleon’s last home in France before he went into exile at Saint Helena.
The interior is an enthralling museum with the couple’s possessions, and Joséphine’s lavish apartments kept as they were when she lived here.
This palace complex remains the last word in royal luxury and excess, and is a relatively simple drive from Maisons-Laffitte.
Leave early to avoid the traffic and plan a whole day trying to get through as much of the palace and its grounds as possible.
It’s a place of intrigue, momentous historical events like the signing of the Treaty of Versailles and a grandiosity that can still knock you off your feet today.
Marvel at Le Brun’s dazzling interior decoration in the Hall of Mirrors, and masterful landscaping by Le Nôtre in the gardens.
There’s also the Grand Trianon, which was Louis XIV’s love nest and the bucolic Hameau de la Reine, a kind of rustic retreat for Queen Marie Antoinette.
12. La Défense
Heading into Paris you’ll pass through the Metropolis-style cityscape of La Défense.
It’s a modern business district that first came together in the 1960s and continues to add new towers.
In the forest of skyscrapers are strange edifices like the Grand Arche de La Défense, which is on axis with Arc de Triomphe a few kilometres to the east.
Beyond gazing at the futuristic architecture and street sculpture you can make for Les Quatre Temps, the gargantuan shopping mall.
More people visit this mall than any other in the country, and there are 230 shops representing every high street brand you can name.
13. Paris Culture
Whether by RER or Transilien commuter train the capital is yours to explore.
In this entry we’ll remind you about a few of the many world-beating museums in the capital.
If you have a soft spot for French art you’ll be head over heels with the collections at the Louvre, Musée d’Orsay, Musée de l’Orangerie, Musée Marmottan Monet, the Petit Palais and the Musée Jacquemart.
But there’s also sensational modern art at the Pompidou Centre and a the new Fondation Louis Vuitton.
And for even more high culture book well in advance to for the Opéra National and ballet at the Palais Garnier.
14. Paris Sights
If there’s ever a regret about visiting Paris it’s all the things that you won’t be able to fit into a visit.
First-timers need to do things like scaling the Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe, pottering around the regal shopping arcades, taking a cruise on the Seine, clambering up to the Sacré-Cœur and staring awestruck at the Notre-Dame Cathedral.
But that would leave out the many parks, the catacombs, cemeteries for artists, writers and film-stars, and mythical neighbourhoods like Le Marais, La Pigalle, Montmartre and many more.
Despite the upscale ambience in Maisons-Laffitte you’ll be pleased to know that the local golf course is open to all.
Even if your swing’s a bit rusty you should come for a round just to admire the location, right next to the hippodrome in lush woodland.
There are nine testing holes here, complemented by practice facilities including a greens and a driving range.
Much more exclusive is Golf de Saint-Germain nearby, which is members only on weekends but allows guests onto its two hours from Tuesday to Friday.