Southwest of Paris, Rambouillet will always be synonymous with its resplendent château.
Up to 2009 the estate was a home for Kings, Emperors and French presidents.
The château nestles in dazzling grounds with canals and manicured formal gardens.
There are also a couple of hidden follies to track down, including a dairy made purposely for Marie Antoinette.
The boundless forest where the kings once hunted is ripe for walks and bike rides, and is a habitat for red deer and wild boars.
You’ll never be stuck for things to do in Rambouillet, as there are animal reserves, sites with royal history, eccentric little museums and yet more châteaux all in or near the town.
Lets explore the best things to do in Rambouillet:
1. Château de Rambouillet
Although the main palace is being refurbished at the time of writing, the grounds of the Château de Rambouillet and its follies are all open.
You should still stop to take a photo of the building, which is suffused with hundreds of years of French royal and imperial history.
It will dawn on you that some of history’s most powerful people have passed through these doors.
King Francis I died at the château in 1547, Napoleon and Empress Marie-Louise lived there, and it was also a summer residence for every French president up to 2009.
2. Château de Rambouillet Grounds
The grounds are suitably magnificent, and remain open while the Château is being restored.
You could lose all track of time in the peace and cultured beauty of these gardens, first landscaped in 1699. There’s a parterre, linden tree avenues festooned with statues, a whole network of canals, an English country garden and a medieval-style kitchen garden.
The best position to take in the whole scene is on the stairs leading down to the Rondeau ornamental pond.
Here the canals are framed by the tapis vert (green carpet), a lush lawn running to the horizon.
3. Laiterie de la Reine
Marie Antoinette was another of the pivotal figures to stay at Rambouillet.
She didn’t like the château much, so in 1785 Louis XVI ordered the Laiterie de la Reine (Queen’s Dairy) to be built in the grounds.
This folly was a kind of rural hideaway for her, similar to the Petit Trianon and Hameau de la Reine at Versailles.
The dairy is a Neoclassical temple lit from the ceiling by a zenithal light, and leads to a gallery culminating in a grotto with a statue of Amalthea by the sculptor Pierre Julien.
Marie Antoinette would visit to indulge in the produce from the château’s dairy on fine Sèvres porcelain.
4. La Chaumière aux Coquillages
Before Louis XVI bought the estate in 1783 it was owned by his cousin the Duc de Penthièvre.
And in the late 1770s the duke had commissioned a cottage idyll for his daughter, the Princesse de Lamballe, which is folded into the English country garden.
This was a time when the nobility were in love with picturesque countryside and rural innocence.
But while the outside is humble, with rustic walls and a thatched roof, the interior is extravagant: The walls are graced by seashells and mother of pearl, arranged in Classical pilasters and alcoves.
5. Forêt de Rambouillet
The reason the château was here in the first place was as a lodge for Kings hunting in the royal forest that went right up to the doorstep.
This is 30,000 hectares of deep oak woodland accessed by the kings via a star-shaped network of bridleways.
Now it’s somewhere to escape to nature for a few hours by bike or on foot.
Rambouillet’s tourist board will give you inspiration for circular walks that send you to waterfalls and secret valleys.
Also roving the forest are red deer, roe deer and wild boars, while a variety of raptors patrol the skies above the canopy.
6. Espace Rambouillet
To see the forest’s wildlife up close you could call in at this animal attraction set up by the Office National des Forêts in the middle of the woods.
They have organised several trails that run through huge enclosures for deer and wild boars.
There’s also a 1.8 kilometre walking path with hides at intervals to let you observe red deer and roe in the wild.
The “Forêt des Aigles” meanwhile is an aviary with 120 raptors from 30 species, and the “Odyssée Verte” is a suspended walkway that lifts you five metres above the forest floor without needing a harness.
7. Bergerie Nationale
This working farm is sure to keep all the family diverted for an hour or two.
Youngsters will be crazy for the rabbits, goats, pigs, draft horses, ducks, cows and more than 600 sheep.
From September to February there are also lambs, while piglets and calves are raised throughout the year.
Adults will be interested in the history of the sheepfold, which was founded by Louis XVI in 1786 to keep the merino sheep he had imported from Spain.
All day long there are activities to introduce kids to the routine on a farm, whether it’s grooming or milking.
And there are also seasonal events here, like a sheepdog competition and shearing festival.
If you’re a miniature hobbyist you might wonder if you’ve died and gone to heaven at this museum.
It was established in 1984 by two model railway fanatics in a fine Louis XIII-style mansion with quoins and a mansard roof.
In these elegant confines are more than 4,000 model trains from the 19th and 20th centuries.
And snaking around the two floors is a working 1:43 miniature train network 500 metres in length.
In the garden there’s a 184mm gauge miniature steam train powered by coal and running during the Festival Vapeur Vive at the start of October.
9. Étangs de Hollande
History, natural splendour and outdoor recreation are rolled into one in the woodland north of Rambouillet.
Up to the 17th century this was marshland, but this trained to form six dammed lakes.
And their purpose was to irrigate the canals, fountains and water gardens at the Palace of Versailles several kilometres to the north.
The site was chosen because its elevation meant the water could be channelled by aqueduct to Versailles using only gravity.
Your purpose for coming today is to laze on the beach and take a dip in the largest of the lakes in summer.
There’s a whole centre here renting out pedalos, canoes and bikes, and offering a cafe and mini-golf course.
10. Réserve Zoologique de Sauvage
Near Rambouillet is a property that was once gifted by Louis XIV to his daughter Louise de Maisonblanche.
The Château de Sauvage is in a 40-hectare English park, and was rebuilt during the rule of Napoleon III in the middle of the 1800s.
In 1973 the estate was bought by the Fonds International pour la Préservation de la Nature (IWPF) and is now an animal reserve.
It’s mainly an ornithological attraction, as more than three quarters of the species are birds including pelicans, peacocks and flamingos all going where they please.
The exotic birds are kept in aviaries but the rest of the animals, like emus, wallabies, antelopes and axis deer roam in semi-freedom.
11. Palais du Roi de Rome
As you amble along Rue du Général-de-Gaulle in the centre of Rambouillet you’ll see some grand-looking gates opening onto a cobblestone side-street.
The buildings down here are splendid but they’re just a hint of the colossal project planned at this site in the early 19th century.
This was to be a residence for Napoleon’s son, whose official title was King of Rome.
The palace and its administrative quarter would have capped the entire Colline de Chaillot.
But the fall of the empire meant that work never went further than one building that you can enter for temporary exhibitions.
The exquisite gardens are also open to visitors every afternoon.
12. Église Saint-Lubin-et-Saint-Jean-Baptiste
This Neo-Gothic church can tell you a bit about Rambouillet in the 19th century.
The town had a medieval church consecrated in the 1100s, but by the mid-1800s it had become too small.
Between 1831 and 1901 Rambouillet’s population doubled and so in 1860 a competition was held to find an architect to build a new one.
This was won by Anatole de Baudot, a pupil of the vaunted architect and restorer Viollet-le-Duc.
A lot of the funding came straight from Napoleon III’s purse and the building used state-of-the-art materials like cast iron and concrete.
But there’s also lots of art to be seen too, especially in the stained glass windows by the master glassmaker, Eugène Oudinot.
13. Château de Breteuil
Rising above the Chevreuse Valley, the Château de Breteuil is from the reign of Henri IV in the 16th centry.
The refined interiors are embellished with lacquered furniture and Gobelins tapestries.
The masterpiece here is the Table d’Europe, a precious table inlaid with jewels, crafted by the German goldsmith Johann Christian Neuber.
Also here are 50 wax figures of personalities like Marcel Proust and Louis XVI, as well as fairytale characters like Puss in Boots and the Sleeping Beauty.
The grounds are an official “jardin remarquable” and have geometric lawns dotted with stone vases and a world of magical boxwood creations.
These are sheared into a labyrinth, embroideries and a dreamlike boxwood mosaic .
14. Hippodrome de Rambouillet
In a town with a royal and imperial legacy it follows that there should be racecourse.
This venue for trot tracing opened in 1880 and you can get a dose of the “Sport of Kings” during a season that runs from March to October.
In this time there are nine meets in this lovely site on the fringe of the forest.
These races are run on Sundays at 13:30, so it’s something to keep in mind if you’re at a loose end in Rambouillet.
15. Rambouillet’s Markets
If you’re in Rambouilet on a Wednesday or Saturday morning you’re in luck, as this is when the weekly markets take place.
They’re an institution that you won’t want to miss.
The one on Wednesday mornings has up to 30 stalls where butchers, fishmongers, fruit and vegetable merchants come to trade, and where you can also pick up freshly cooked food like rotisserie chicken.
But the main event is on Saturday on Rue de Gaulle and Place de la Libération.
There are 100 or so traders touting all the usual groceries, but also confectionery, leather goods, flowers and tantalising street food.