Saint Germain en Laye

Saint Germain en Laye

A French country town just outside Paris - the connoisseur's guide to France

 So close to Paris, yet very different

On this page A short history Sites and attractions
Location and access Where to stay 

Shopping in Saint Germain en Laye
The old town of Saint Germain is reputed for its shopping, cafés and restaurants. 
Of the millions of tourists who visit Paris each year, a large proportion visit just Paris... or maybe Paris and a coach trip to Versailles or a visit to Disneyland. But Paris, however fabulous it may be as a tourist city,  is just one small part of France, and a fairly atypical part at that. To get a taste of real France, you need to get away from the hustle and bustle and traffic and crowds of central Paris, and out into the France of small towns and countryside. Happily this is not too hard, and it takes  less than half an hour by RER from the station at Chatelet or at the Arc de Triomphe to reach Saint-Germain -en-Laye.
  In spite of its proximity to Paris, Saint-Germain-en-Laye is small-town France, a delightful historic town with its narrow streets, its squares, its castle, its shops, its gardens and its markets.
   Very conveniently the RER station is located at the central point between the three of Saint-Germain's attractions that you are likely to want to visit, the old town, the châteaux and the magnificent gardens and forest.
   Three quarters of the territory of Saint-Germain-en-Laye is occupied by green spaces, including large areas of forest. The historic centre occupies a small  part of the borough on the hill. Being an upscale suburb of Paris, Saint-Germain also has large residential quarters, away from the town centre.

A short history of Saint-Germain-en-Laye

Chateau of Saint Germain en Laye
The Renaissance royal château of Saint Germain, now the Museum of archaeology 
 Saint-Germain-en-Laye is a town with strong royal associations. It is best known in France as the birthplace of King Louis XIV, and indeed it was the Kings of France who gave Saint-Germain its great historic monuments, its castles, its gardens and its former royal forests.
  The town was founded in the Middle ages on a hilltop overlooking the valley of the Seine, some 20 km northwest of Paris.  The modern Church of Saint Germain, just above the RER station, marks the spot where King Robert 1st founded a monastery back in the year 1020. Eighteen years later, King Louis XI, known as Saint Louis, began work on a fortified castle just north of the monastery. A century later, King Charles V transformed this into a larger chateau, which was subsequently enlarged and rebuilt by King François 1st in the French Renaissance style.
  In 1556 work began on a new château perched at the top of the steep hillside that sloped down to the Seine below. The new château and its grounds eventually occupied the whole slope down to the river, in a series of terraces. The new château however had a short life, as in 1682 the French court moved to nearby Versailles, and the châteaux of Saint Germain fell into disuse
   It was however in the new château that King Louis XIV was born. In 1688, Louis loaned the château to his first cousin the deposed King James II of England, who lived there until his death in 1701. Most of the new chateau was demolished after the French Revolution, leaving only one wing standing, a building now known as the Pavillon Henri IV, now a hotel.
   In 1862, well after the revolution, Napoleon III had the old château restored , and turned into the French National Museum of Antiquities, now the national museum of archaeology..
   The town of Saint Germain grew up next to the châteaux: its development was hastened in 1847 by the building of an "atmospheric railway" from Saint Germain to Le Pecq, on the other side of the river, and thence on to central Paris. While the atmospheric railway, with trains powered by air-pressure, survived for less than 15 years, until the development of more powerful steam locomotives that could pull trains up the incline, the line still survives and is now the end of RER line A, on which visitors from Paris enter Saint Germain.   

Principal attractions and monuments in Saint-Germain

  • The old château. One of France's great Renaissance châteaux, the old château is built round an irregular-shaped central courtyard. It has been extensively restored in recent years, and work is still ongoing.  The château is home to the French National Museum of Archaeology, and contains a very rich collection of  historic items dating from the dawn of civilisation in France in paleolithic times, to the early Middle Ages
  • The Pavillon Henri IV. The only surviving part of the 16th century new château, the Pavillon Henri IV stands at the top of the scarp overlooking the river Seine and across to Paris. It is now a hotel.
Shopping in Saint Germain en Laye
View along the esplanade of the château in winter
  • The gardens and the esplanade The great park and gardens of the château of Saint-Germain are the work of Louis XIV's famed landscape architect André Le Notre. Immediately to the north of the château is an area of formal French gardens, à la française. Beyond these is a large informal area of flower gardens. The most popular feature of the gardens is however the two-kilometre-long esplanade that runs along the top of the scarp overlooking the Seine.  Beyond the gardens stretch the the former  royal forests of Saint Germain, now criss-crossed by many hiking trails. The park and gardens are open daily, and access is free.
  • The old town. the old town of Saint Germain has all the feel of a prosperous French country town. the narrow streets are bordered by small shops, cafés and restaurants, and include many outlets for popular French and international brands. There's even a Starbucks and an English pub selling real ale, as well as one of the best cheese shops in France.  On Tuesday, Friday and Sunday in the morning, there are large open air markets on Place du Marché Neuf, opposite the main post office.
  • Debussy's birthplace and museum. Saint-Germain was the birthplace of the great French composer Claude Debussy, and the house in which he was born and spent his childhood is now the Claude Debussy museum, a must-see location for music-lovers.  

► For more on Saint-Germain-en-Laye and its area, visit the Saint-Germain-en-Laye tourist information office

How to reach Saint-Germain

  • By air   Saint-Germain en Laye can be reached easily from both Paris Charles-de-Gaulle and Orly airports. Just come into central Paris on the RER train, and change at Chatelet to take the RER A line, direction Saint-Germain-en-Laye
  • By train  Saint-Germain is directly accessible on line A of the Paris RER, from central Paris, including stations at Gare de Lyon, Châtelet, Auber and Etoile. It is ealso easily accessible from the La Défense business district.
  • By car  Not recommended by visitors already in Paris; but to reach Saint-Germain from  outside Paris, just take exits 6 or 6a from the A14 Autoroute de Normandie motorway, and follow the signs for Saint Germain en Laye.
  • By Seine river cruise.  Saint-Germain / Le Pecq is a stopping point, and in some cases a terminus for Seine river cruises in the direction of Rouen and Honfleur.

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Photo top of page : the church of Saint Germain and the château. Between them the entrance to the underground RER station

Key tourist information for Saint-Germain-en-Laye:

: Ile de France.
Nearby cities: Paris
Nearest airports:  Paris CDG, Paris Orly.
Distance from Paris: 20 km (12.5 miles)
Main sites:  the châteaux, the National museum of Antiquities, the gardens, the old town. .
Nearby attractions and sites: Paris, Versailles.

Where to stay

The selection
Hotels for all budgets and all needs

The Pavillon Henri IV is part of the former Château of Saint Germain en Laye, and birthplace of king Louis XIV. It offers sumptuous classic French hospitality. Calm location with views to Paris, but 4 mins walk to RER express metro station, with direct trains to La Défense business district (8 stops) and central Paris (10 stops).  Free parking on site.

 4 mins RER station.
The Ibis Saint Germain is located in the middle of old Saint Germain en Laye, with easy access to the shops and sites.Five minutes walk from the RER express metro station, with direct trains to La Défense business district (8 stops) and central Paris (10 stops).  Private parking on site (daily fee)

 4 mins RER station.
The Mercure Saint Germain is located 500 metres from the station, and next to the gardens and forest walks, with easy access from paris La Défense business district (8 stops) and central Paris (10 stops).  Free parking on site.

Café culture - Saint Germain en Laye

Café culture - Saint Germain en Laye

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Fruit and vegetable store

Fruit store in old Saint Germain

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