When a town’s claims to fame include an impressive Renaissance castle, one of the world’s most delicate and luxurious fabrics and the best accompaniment for a hot chocolate, you know you’re in for a divine stay. Get the most of a visit to Chantilly with our list of the 10 best things to see and do in this elegant town.
Undoubtedly Chantilly’s best-known feature is the opulent castle that bears the town’s name. The domain is made up of two attached buildings. The first, known as the Petit Château (small castle), was built in around 1560 for the French noble, Anne, the Duke of Montmorency. The second, the Grand Château (large or grand castle), was largely destroyed during the French Revolution and reconstructed by architect Honoré Daumet for Henri d’Orléans, Duke of Aumale in the 19th century. Nowadays, this opulent estate is home to several museums, a spectacular garden (said to be famous French gardener Le Nôtre’s best work) and the largest horse stables in Europe.
One of the museums inside the Domaine de Chantilly is the Musée Condé, considered to be one of the most prestigious art galleries in the country. Designed in the 19th century by Henri d’Orléans, Duke of Aumale, to display his extensive art collection, the layout of the paintings remains unchanged since. After the Louvre, the Musée Condé houses the second-largest number of antique paintings in the country.
Upon a visit to Chantilly, you’ll quickly notice its love of horses. Horseracing has been famous here since 1834 and the town is one of the principal training centres in France. Discover the history and role of this beloved animal at the Musée du Cheval (Museum of the Horse), found in Les Grandes Écuries (The Great Stables) at the Chantilly Castle. Here, visitors will learn about this symbol of prestige and power through a collection of paintings, sculpture and ethnographic objects.
The Pavillion de Manse, also known as the Moulin des Princes (Prince’s Mill), has been using water from a canal off the Nonette river to produce energy since 1678. Another invention of the Duke of Aumale, its inception was initially to provide vast amounts of water to Domaine de Chantilly to use in the fountains and jets in its gardens, as imagined by Le Nôtre. Visitors will get an in-depth look at the evolution of the generator inside this Pavillon, located in a classical French building designed by architect Jules Hardouin-Mansart, the same man behind the Grand Trianon and the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles.
Situated beside the stables at the Domaine de Chantilly, the Church of Notre-Dame of Chantilly is another work by the architect Jules Hardouin-Mansart. Construction of this French classical structure began in 1687 and finished in 1691, making it the first church in Chantilly. The original building was too small and didn’t match the town’s increasing population, so it was enlarged between 1724 and 1734. The unique quality of its architecture, not seen elsewhere in the region, earned it the title of Historical Monument of France in 1965.
Thanks to a song made famous by The Big Bopper in the 1950s, lace may well be the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word Chantilly. At the Musée de la Dentelle (Museum of Lace), begin the tour with an introduction to the history of lace in Chantilly and learn about its difference from other famous lacemaking towns like Puy and Alençon. The museum then goes on to demonstrate bobbin lace, the style of lacemaking used in Chantilly, with a presentation on its tools and process. Lastly, the focus shifts to what makes lace from here so unique, including its signature black colour and pattern.
The Potager des Princes (the Prince’s Vegetable Garden) is a garden and animal park found in the heart of the city, on the banks of the Canal Saint-Jean. The grounds comprise a Japanese garden, a bamboo maze and a wide array of exotic plants alongside friends from the animal kingdom, which include peacocks, hens and parakeets. It also contains a small theatre, Théâtre de la Faisanderie, which holds plays and concerts throughout the summer.
Chantilly is surrounded by 6,344 hectares of woods, doubling the historic town as a nature lover’s dream. The forest has many paths perfect for meandering and is used as grounds for horse training and hunting as well. Part of the area belongs to the Domaine de Chantilly, with parts beautifully designed per the plans of Le Nôtre.
While in the English-speaking world it’s known as simply ‘whipped cream’, in France, it’s the word Chantilly you’ll see on dessert menus at creperies and cafes. While whipped cream dates back to the time of Catherine de Medici, it was the recipe born in Chantilly that added sugar to the mix, making the delicacy that much better. For a list of the best spots to taste Chantilly cream in its hometown, visit the tourism website’s top picks here.
Just six kilometres outside of Chantilly lies a neighbourhood with a unique heritage and charming homesteads. In the town of Gouvieux, a row of cave-like houses on the Impasse des Carrières feels like a time warp to an ancient era. Dug into the limestone cliff, these homes served as housing for low-income families up until the 19th century. Many of them are still inhabited today and are quite practical works of architecture, with naturally cooler temperatures in the summer and warmer ones in the winter.