An outlying southeastern suburb of Paris, Melun is a small town with a big heritage. In Melun’s backyard are the lavish, dumbounding palaces of Vaux-le-Vicomte and Fontainebleau. Not only are these properties stupendous to see, they are both steeped in enough intrigue and political manoeuvring to keep you rapt for hours.
But you can also pick from a strong assortment museums close by, charting the history of aviation or that signature French institution, the Gendarmerie . Add to this the idyllic banks of the Seine and the lush Brie countryside and Melun becomes a placid little town just 30 minutes by train from the capital.
Lets explore the best things to do in Melun:
The ambitious and ultra-rich Nicolas Fouquet commissioned this dazzling Baroque château in the mid-1600s.
Apart from its size and absurd grandeur the property is historic for being the first time that landscaper André Le Nôtre and decorator Charles Le Brun collaborated on a large-scale project.
This is where the Louis XIV style was born, and would later be perfected at Versailles.
Word is that when Louis XIV saw Vaux-le-Vicomte for the first time in 1661 he was so jealous that he invented charges against Fouquet that saw him spend the last 20 years of his life in prison.
2. Vaux-le-Vicomte Gardens
The château’s gardens are out of this world, and it’s staggering to think that three whole villages were demolished to make way for these grounds.
In its heyday the palace employed 18,000 people to tend the gardens, which for a short time were the venue for Fouquet’s extravagant parties.
There are circular topiaries lining the paths, huge arabesque patterns formed with precisely trimmed boxwood hedges, fountains and a water parterre.
Special dinner evenings are held in summer for a taste of the garden soirees Fouquet would stage here.
3. Palace of Fontainebleau
The historical value of this palace is almost impossible to sum up in a single paragraph, but we’ll try: The Palace of Fontaineblue, and the castle before it, was the residence of hundreds of years of French rulers, from King Louis XII in the 12th century up to Napoleon III in the 1870s.
This is precisely where Napoleon I abdicated before going into exile on Elba.
Beginning as a fortress, the palace came together in the 16th century at the orders of François I, and the Cour des Adieux, Ballroom and Galerie François I are all from this phase.
Prepare for room after room of gilded plaster, lavish furniture, paintings, tapestries, decorative items and awesome artefacts like the very swords Napoleon wore for his coronation.
4. Forest of Fontainebleau
Much more than a hunting ground for kings, the Forest of Fontainebleu is a place where nature and culture combine.
There are 25,000 hectares of oak, beech and pine woodland with more than 1,600 kilometres of hiking trails.
These routes are all the more exciting for the many sandstone boulders in the forest, some so tall they are used for climbing walls.
For magical panoramas head to the rocky Franchard Gorge to ponder a scene painted by Monet, Camille-Corot, Sisley and Cézanne and described by Balzac, George Sand, Flaubert and many others.
5. Musée de la Gendarmerie
The officers’ school for the French National Gendarmerie is set in Melun, and in 2015 it opened up its archives to the public.
There are 30,000 objects and 10,000 images and documents mapping out the history of this force, which goes back to 1791. If you’ve ever been confused by the distinction between police officer and gendarme, this museum will fill you in, explaining the remit of the gendarmerie and outlining a day in the life of one of its officers.
There are also riveting temporary exhibitions like the recent “Les Sciences du Crime”, putting you in the shoes of a investigator and introducing the world of forensics.
6. Musée Aéronautique et Spatial Safran
A real Aladdin’s Cave for aviation enthusiasts, this museum has assembled aircraft engines from the early years of flight to the present day.
The manufacturers represented here are the historic Gnome et Rhône and SNECMA brands, both of which are now under the Safran conglomerate.
You’ll inspect the inner-workings of piston engines, jet engines and rocket engines.
There are also some whole aircraft on show, like the SA103 Emouchet glider, a Dassault Mirage III C jet and the Blériot XI, the same model as the first heavier-than-air craft to cross the Channel in 1909.
7. Collégiale Notre-Dame
This church is far older than the Renaissance facade makes it seem; it was founded in the first decades of the 11th century by King Robert II, and the base of the towers, the nave and transept are all from this original construction.
The church is renowned for something that is actually no longer here.
The phenomenal Melun Diptych is a Gothic painting by Jean Fouquet from 1452, that was in the church until 1775 when the panels were sold off separately and are now in Berlin and Antwerp.
There’s a photographic reproduction on the south aisle, but also some beautiful tomb slabs from the 14th and 15th centuries propped against the walls.
8. Château de Blandy-les-Tours
After marvelling at the splendour of Vaux-le-Vicomte and Fontainebleau it makes a nice contrast to see a hardy military fortress.
Ten minutes from Melun, this Château dates to the 14th century and dwarfs the little village around it.
There’s a moat, tall keep, hexagonal walls, five muscular towers and drawbridge.
Aftera few centuries of neglect the whole site was renovated in 1992 and is completely open to visitors.
You can climb up the five-storey keep or ponder the surrounding medieval village and Brie countryside from the battlements.
9. Église Saint-Aspais
If you know Paris well, you may have seen the Saint-Jacques Tower on the Rue de Rivoli in the 4th Arrondissement.
This lone structure, once part of a church destroyed in the Revolution was designed by the 16th-century architect Jehan de Félin.
And Félin’s only other work of note was the lovely Church of Saint-Aspais in Melun.
You’ll notice how the building has an irregular outline as it had to adapt to uneven ground.
Félin was a master mason, as you’ll tell from the filigrees on the western and eastern portals.
Inside you have to see the four sculpted stone altarpieces, blending the Flamboyant Gothic and Renaissance styles.
10. Musée d’Art et d’Histoire
Melun’s municipal museum is in the noble surrounds of the 16th-century Hôtel de la Vicomté, which is classed as an historic monument.
Nicolas Fouquet bought this property in the 17th century so that he could oversee construction of his palace at Vaux-le-Vicomte.
The museum is small but will hold your attention for half an hour or so with its paintings, ceramics and works by the allegorical sculptor Henri Chapu.
Most of the paintings are from the 18th and 19th century and record Melun’s townscape on the Seine or scenes in the Forest of Fontainebleau.
11. Abbaye Royale du Lys
Now a desiccated but bewitching ruin, the Abbaye of Lys was once a pilgrimage site for the French monarchy.
Almost every king from Louis IX in the 13th century to Louis XVI made at least one visit to this Cistercian abbey.
There are some compelling tales associated with this place: One is that Marie Mancini, who had caught the eye of a young Louis XIV, was banished to the convent here after Mancini’s mother had prohibited her from marrying the king.
In Melun you’re in a Paris suburb, and the city centre is close enough for an afternoon out or whirlwind tours.
On the train you can get to the Gare de Lyon in 30 minutes flat.
And from there you’ll have a quick connection on the Métro to the Louvre, Pompidou Centre, Place de la Concorde, Notre-Dame, the covered arcades, Champs-Élysées, the list is almost endless.
If you’re short for time, you could head straight for Pont Neuf and board an iconic cruise to see all of the sights along the Seine in one go.
13. Seine Riverbanks
More than eight kilometres of the Seine’s banks are open to the public, so you can set off on a jaunt by this mythic river.
In days gone by the banks were the centre of trade in the town, and they’re now a place to get panoramas of the town and the Saint-Étienne river island.
As you leave Melun behind the riverside becomes serene and bucolic, and you’ll see waterfowl like moorhens, ducks, swans, herons and cormorants.
Facing the river on the left bank between Melun and Samois are Les Affolantes, sprawling 19th-century villas in a romantic medieval style.
14. Brie de Melun
Melun’s brie has had its own AOC since 1980, with stringent guidelines for production.
It can only be called Brie de Melun if it’s made in a few towns and villages around the Seine-et-Marne, Aube and Yonne departments, and takes three months to age, far longer than other kinds of brie.
This makes is stronger both in flavour and aroma to, say Brie de Meaux, and it’s in season from April to September.
There’s no better way to enjoy it than with a hunk of baguette and a glass of Burgundy or Gaillac wine.
15. Miel de Melun
Melun has its own apiary run by the municipal greenhouse, producing honey for you to taste and buy.
This garden is open for educational visits and you can talk to the tourist office about an educational tour.
Kids will find out how bees turn flower nectar into honey, and you’ll learn all you need to know about the craft of apiculture.
Jars of the honey are sold at various specialty shops around the town, and also at the tourist office where you can even ask for a free sample before you buy.