Home to 14 French kings since François I, Fontainebleau was once a sort of aristocratic club where gentlemen of the day came to hunt and learn the art of chivalry. The town grew up around the château in the 19th-century, and is a pleasant place to visit.
The château is bite-sized compared to the sprawling grandeur of Versailles. The style adopted by the Italian artists brought in by François I is still visible, as are the additions by later rulers. The extensive château gardens, park and grand canal, all free for visitors to enter, are also worth exploring, so pack a picnic.
The 170-square-kilometre Fôret de Fontainebleau is part of the Gâtinas regional nature park, which has bizarre geological formations and diverse wildlife. It's the wildest slice of nature to be found near Paris. There are a number of well-marked trails, such as the GR1 from Bois-le-Roi train station, but more serious yompers would be better off with an official map such as the TOP25IGN series 2417-OT, which covers the entire forest, showing climbing sites, picnic areas and campsites.
You can pick up a map at Fontainebleau's tourist office (4 rue Royale, 01.60.74.99.99); and hire a bicycle (€19/day).
The Château de Fontainebleau, a former hunting lodge, is a real mix of styles. In 1528, François brought in Italian artists and craftsmen to help architect Gilles Le Breton transform a neglected lodge into the finest Italian Mannerist palace in France. This style, noted for its grotesqueries, contorted figures and crazy fireplaces is still visible in the ballroom and Long Gallery. Henri IV added a tennis court, Louis XIII built a double-horsehoe entrance staircase, and Louis XIV and XV added Classical trimmings. Napoleon and Louis-Philippe also spent a fortune on redecoration. The château gardens include Le Nôtre's Grand Parterre and a carp pond in the Jardin Anglais. There's also an informal château park, just outside.