Most of what you’ll want to see (and what is described below) is in the Grands Appartements. The Petits Appartements, a series of rooms that were Napoleon’s private residence, can only be seen on a guided tour and requires an extra ticket—though they’re very much worth the effort if you have time.
Your first encounter with the chateau will take place in the Cour du Cheval Blanc at the entrance to the palace. It was in this grand square, which is surrounded by wings of the castle on three sides, that Napoleon said adieu to his faithful imperial guards. “Continue to serve France,” he pleaded, “Her welfare was my only concern.” The main building before you dates from François I’s era; the sumptuous horseshoe staircase was added by Henri II. On the left as you enter is the Chapelle de la Trinité. When he was 7, Louis XIII climbed up the scaffolding to watch Martin Fréminet, his art instructor, paint the glorious ceiling. This is where Louis XV married Polish princess Marie Leczinska and where the future Napoleon III was baptized. Linking the chapel with the royal apartments is the Gallery of François I, a stunning example of Renaissance art and decoration. Overseen by Il Rossi, a team of highly skilled artists covered the walls with exceptional frescoes, moldings, and boisseries (carved woodwork). The paintings, which are full of mythological figures, pay tribute to the glory of the monarchy and the wisdom of the King’s rule. Throughout the gallery (and elsewhere in the castle) you will see the salamander, François’ official symbol.
The other major must-see is the Salle de Bal. This 30m (98-ft.) long ballroom is a feast of light and color; the frescoes by Primaticcio and Nicolo dell’Abate have been completely restored, and their rich hues radiate as if they were painted yesterday. Huge windows let in light from both sides of this long room; the monumental fireplace at the far end was designed by 16th-century architect Philibert Delorme.
The Royal Apartments have been decorated and redecorated by successive monarchs. Louis XIII was born in the Salon Louis XIII, a fact that is symbolized in the ceiling mural showing Love riding a dolphin. Though several different queens slept in the Chambre de l’Impératrice, its current set-up reflects the epoch of Empress Josephine (Napoleon’s first wife). The sumptuous bed, crowned in gilded walnut and covered in embroidered silk, was made for Marie Antoinette in 1787. The queen would never see it; the Revolution exploded before she could arrange a visit to the chateau. Napoleon transformed the Kings’ bedroom into the Salle du Trône, or Throne Room. Since several centuries of kings, from Henri IV to Louis XVI, slept here, the decor is a mashup of styles: The throne is Empire, the folding chairs are Louis XVI, and the ceiling murals date from the 17th and 18th centuries.
You can learn more about the Emperor at the Musée Napoléon 1er, located in the Louis XV wing, where you’ll see historic memorabilia and artwork relating to his reign, like the tent he slept in during military campaigns and a remarkable mechanical desk. Separate from the Musée Napoléon, and at the price of an additional ticket for a guided tour, you can visit the Petits Appartements, which date from Louis XV but were redecorated in Empire style for Napoleon and his Empress (first Josephine, then Marie-Louise).
Touring the Gardens
The formal gardens must have been beautiful when André Le Nôtre put his hand to them in the 17th century, but today, though well-kempt, they look a little arid. More lush is the Garden of Diane, a quiet spot of green on the north side of the castle created during the time of François I, which centers around a statue of the goddess surrounded by four dogs. The English Garden, complete with an artificial stream and lush groves of tall trees, was added by Napoleon. The vast Carp Pond, which extends directly from the south side of the Cour de la Fontaine, has a small island in the center with a small pavilion where an afternoon snack would be served to the royal residents. Surrounding the gardens and its park is the enormous Fontainebleau Forest, which, if you have the time, is definitely worth the visit.