A humble royal hunting lodge in the Forest of Compiègne, this literate town quickly gained popularity in the 1800s and gained recognition from Napoleon I and Josephine.
In the First and Second Empires, Compiègne presided over the court and revolutionized it.
Your first choice should be the castle, which has been lavishly renovated at Napoleon’s request and retains its 19th century décor and furniture.
The Forest of Compiègne will also be in your plans, not only because it is a lovely natural haven, but several defining moments in the history of the 20th century took place here.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Compiègne:
1. Castle of Compiègne
This neoclassical palace has been a royal residence and hunting lodge since 1374 in the era of Charles V. Louis XIV stayed here 75 times, and Louis XV remodeled the entire estate in the mid-18th century, giving it the grand façade we see today.
But the interiors were almost entirely Napoleon’s work, and in the First and Second Empires, Compiègne became the last word of luxury.
Napoleon I spent heavily on ordering luxurious modifications, while Napoleon III and Eugenie will bring a full set of gear for the autumn hunting season.
Napoleon I’s apartment and the empress’ luxurious room are just two of the many things inside.
2. Clairière de l’Armisistice
Two major events in the history of the 20th century occurred in this clearing in the Forest of Compiègne.
In 1918, German negotiators rode on Martial Foch’s personal train to sign an armistice to end World War I.
Since 1927, the carriage has been kept on this site as a memorial. Hitler did not forget the importance of this place, he chose the same carriage to impose conditions on France on June 21, 1940.
The carriage at the site is no longer the original, as it was displayed in Berlin for the remainder of the war and destroyed at the end.
But it is an exact replica made in the same factory at the same time as the original.
3. Beaux Monts
In the early 19th century, Napoleon ordered the opening of a 5km wide woodland in the forest of Compiègne for the use of Empress Josephine.
The avenue begins in the castle’s garden and rises at the extreme end to a 122-meter-high lookout.
If there ever comes an ideal time, it might be fall, when you can hike and gaze at the russet autumn leaves.
The view extends all the way to Compiègne and the castle, and it is still satisfying to look through the canyons with straight arrows through the trees drawn over 200 years ago.
4. Palace Park
On the grounds of the castle, you can see Beaux Monts disappearing into the horizon.
Like the interior of the château, the gardens were landscaped by Louis-Martin Berhthault and replaced an earlier design by Ange-Jacques Gabriel, a respected architect known for his work at Versailles.
Marble statues along the promenade were added in stages until 1859, in various styles, reflecting the Second Empire’s taste for eclecticism.
From April to October, you can enter the rose garden, which has been restored to its 1821 layout with a small pond in the center, one of the few things left of Ange-Jacques Gabriel’s design.
5. Forest of Compiègne
To the southeast of the town is a forest where almost every king and emperor from Charles V to Napoleon III hunted.
It is also very expansive, with over 14,400 hectares of low mountains.
If you want to see it at its best, your best bet is to rent a bike for an afternoon.
You can ride for hours through ancient beech and oak forests and see no soul.
On your route you will pass the ponds and small tributaries of the Aisne and Oise rivers.
Nestled among the woodlands are the sweet little villages of Saint-Jean-Aubois and Old Moulins, both popular destinations for cyclists.
6. City Hall Hotel
As a working town hall, there isn’t much you can do here, but the building with its spired bell tower is very photogenic and worth contemplating from the beautiful formal gardens out front.
The Town Hall was built in the first decades of the 16th century and features fine stonework in the late Gothic style.
You can study the relief of Louis XII on horseback, made by the 19th-century sculptor Henri-Alfred Jacquemart during a restoration led by Viollet-le-Duc.
The bell tower houses the revered “bancloque” bell, cast in 1303, one of the oldest public bells in France.
Three automata known as “Picantins” mark the hours with their gavel.
7. Statue History Museum
Just two doors from the city hall is a museum that will appeal to miniature lovers.
Originally, this vast treasure trove of figurines was on display in the Town Hall itself, with a fantastic diorama of the Battle of Waterloo, assembled in 1931 and still in perfect condition.
Regular exhibitions started in the 1920s and now a collection of more than 150,000 pieces has found a permanent home in the Hôtel de la Cloche in the same square.
Many different historical battles are recreated here, from the Trojan War to the Normandy beachhead in 1944.
8. St Jacques Church
The town’s largest church is on the St. James Pilgrimage Route, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
It was originally completed in the 13th century with an early Gothic design, while the church, bell tower (the tallest in Compiègne) and the upper part of the nave were completed in the late 15th and 16th centuries.
Some trivia about the building is that Joan of Arc prayed here on the morning of her arrest in 1430.
As a royal parish church in the mid-18th century, the interior was renovated during the reign of Louis XV. At this time, the columns of the nave are covered with fine wood carvings, while those of the choir are covered with rich marble.
9. Antoine-Vivenel Museum
The Museum of Fine Arts and Archaeology in Compiègne is named after the person who donated the first collection in 1839. Later, the museum moved to the refined surroundings of the Hôtel de Songeons-Bicquilley, and the collection was developed through further donations, government deposits and local excavations.
Antiquarians will be fascinated by the largest collection of Greek ceramics since the Louvre, along with Gallic arrowheads and Roman marble sarcophagi.
In the art gallery, you can browse Charles Le Brun’s sketches for the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles in a small selection of Italian and French schools.
10. Jardin des Remparts
From the 1100s to the 1600s, the walls that surrounded Compiègne ceased to exist, as they were torn down when they were no longer needed to allow the town to develop.
But in a small secret garden on Rue des Fossés, they left a beautiful trace.
Located in the front ditch, the garden was built in the early 19th century by Ferdinand Barker, Napoleon’s illegitimate nephew.
He created intricate boxwood mazes that children still love to solve today.
11. Empire Theatre
Napoleon III ordered the construction of this theatre in 1867 to entertain his court.
But within three years, the Franco-Prussian War broke out, and the site remained unfinished for more than a century after the French were defeated.
Work didn’t resume until 1987, when the theatre was finally inaugurated in 1991 as Picardy’s only opera stage.
Anyone who wants to experience high culture should check the list before coming to Compiègne.
Because the 800-seat hall is not only spacious and luxurious, it also boasts world-class acoustics, even considered better than Vienna’s acclaimed Golden Hall.
12. Royal Camp
On Avenue des Martyrs de la Liberté was a detention and deportation camp during World War II.
Most of those detained here were Communists, Jews, trade unionists and members of resistance groups who were about to be sent to concentration camps in Germany and Eastern Europe.
You can enter three well-preserved buildings, which were barracks built for the army in 1913 and first used as a camp by the Germans in June 1940 to handle British prisoners of war.
In 2008, sculptor Georges Muguet installed a poignant monument on the site.
13. Grosse Tour du Roi
Sandwiched between Rue d’Austerlitz and Rue Jeanne-d’Arc is another faint trace of medieval Compiègne.
The tower is the last decaying castle ruin dating back to the Carolingian dynasty around the 9th century and was given an innovative circular shape around the 1100s.
It was built to protect the old bridge, the remains of which are close by.
It was no longer needed from the 13th century and has been rotting ever since.
Another name for this monument is Tour de Jeanne-d’Arc, because the medieval heroine would pass the tower before crossing the river before being arrested in the river on May 23, 1430.
14. Pierrefonds Castle
On the other side of the forest of Compiègne is a romantic castle, which became one of the models of Disney’s Cinderella Castle.
The fort was built in the 1100s, but the evocative towers, spires and gables were built in the 19th century.
So while not all buildings are truly medieval, Viollet-le-Duc, who was in charge of the renovation, is now regarded as a genius, and you will appreciate his picturesque vision here.
You won’t be shocked to learn that the castle has been featured in many movies and TV shows, such as The Man in the Iron Mask and the BBC’s Merlin.
15. Local Food
The best alcoholic beverages in Picardy are made from apples: cider is often made by small family-owned businesses in the region, just like wine, which means the drink can have different accents depending on where it’s made.
Many cider makers also make Calvados, an apple brandy that is aged in oak barrels for two years.
Rabbit in cider is a perennial dish for lunch, and is of course also made with cider, but also with dried fruit and spices to give it a sweet and sour taste.
But if there’s a signature dish, it’s probably Ficelle Picardie, a gratinated ham and mushroom crepe rolled up and covered in melted cheese.
Where to Stay: Best Hotels in Compiègne, France
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