Tucked away in the northern region of Hauts-de-France lies the enchanting town of Senlis. This was once a royal city in a region known as Picardie, and its royal roots still shine through.
Senlis is most famous for being the town where Hugh Capet was elected King. His regin was the start of the powerful Capetian dynasty that only ended when France got rid of its monarchy.
With its cobblestone streets, medieval architecture, and rich history, this hidden gem has become a must-visit destination just 35 minutes from Paris.
Senlis is about 35 miles (56 km) from Paris and makes for a wonderful day trip. It is in the departement of Oise, and also very close to two other attractions in the area, the Château de Chantilly and Parc Asterix.
As you stroll through the town’s narrow alleys, you’ll feel like you’ve stepped back in time. Senlis boasts a well-preserved medieval city center, complete with half-timbered houses, charming cafés, and quaint boutiques.
The town’s compact size makes it perfect for exploring on foot, allowing you to soak up its unique atmosphere at a leisurely pace. So let’s explore what there is to see and do in Senlis, shall we? Allons-y!
Dating back to ancient times, Senlis was a vital Gallic and then Roman settlement due to its strategic location along important trade routes. It was a thriving city, and archaeological traces have been found everything from worshiping temples, protective stone walls and entertaining arenas in Senlis.
At the end of the 4th century, Saint Rieul brought Christianity to the region and became the first bishop of Senlis. In 981AD, the town became part of the property of Hugh Capet, a descendant of Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne.
It is here in Senlis that Hugh Capet was elected king by his barons in 987, before being crowned in the nearby city of Noyon. Under Hugh Capet and his descendants, the Capetian monarchs, Senlis was known as a royal town, home to the kings of France.
It was here that Queen Anne de Kiev, the wife of Henry I of France and mother of King Philip I, held court. Known for her intelligence and strong character, Anne de Kiev left an indelible mark on Senlis and her death in 1075 is commemorated in Senlis on 5 September.
In the Middle ages, Senlis flourished as a center of power and influence. During the Hundred Years’ War, Joan of Arc travelled through Senlis as she was fighting the Burgundians and the English.
Throughout the centuries, Senlis continued to evolve and thrive. Despite numerous revolutions, Senlis remained a royal town until King Charles X in the 19th century, until the monarchy in France was finally abolished.
Things to do in Senlis
1. Notre Dame de Senlis Cathedral
One of the highlights of Senlis is its awe-inspiring cathedral, Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Senlis. This architectural masterpiece, dating back to the 12th century, is a sight to behold.
Its gothic towering spires and intricate stained glass windows were built at the same time as other grand cathedrals around the France, such as the Notre Dame de Paris, Reims, etc.
In all, there were 7 Cathedrals built in historical Picardie, including Amiens, Beauvais, Noyon, Laon, Soissons, Saint-Quentin and of course, Senlis.
2. Château Royal and Jardin du Roy
Nestled within the heart of Senlis, the Parc du Palais Royal is a delightful green oasis that invites visitors to unwind and enjoy nature’s embrace.
It is here that the remains of the Château Royal stands, just across from the Senlis Cathedral. In this beautifully landscaped garden stands a Roman Gallic wall dating back to the 1st century BC.
It is here that Hugh Capet was elected King of France in 987AD. Dating back to the 5th century Merovingian Kings, it was used as a royal residence until the beginning of the 16th century.
This serene park is the perfect place to escape the hustle and bustle of everyday life and soak up the beauty of Senlis.
3. Ramparts and the river Nonette
As you wander through Senlis, you will notice the the remnants of its ancient ramparts that used to protect the city. These fortified walls offer a glimpse into the town’s medieval past and provide a picturesque backdrop for your journey.
As you walk all over town, you will reach the tiny river Nonette, which is a wonderfully tranquil place for some respite from the crowds.
4. Église Saint-Pierre de Senlis
The ancient Church of Saint-Pierre is a former Catholic church that is no longer in use as a place of worship. It dates back to at least the 11th century as a place of Christian worship, although no exact date has been established.
It was decommissioned during the French Revolution, when many catholic buildings were converted into atheist centers, dedicated to “logical thinking”.
Today it is gathered as a meeting hall in Senlis, as well as for fairs and exhibitions.
5. Market days
The town of Senlis holds outdoor food markets twice a week in the city center. The food markets of Senlis take place on Tuesday and Friday mornings, place de la Halle and in the surrounding streets. The area within the perimeter of the market is pedestrianized.
6. Local Specialties
One particular speciality around Senlis is orange chocolate. It is named after a 19th French painter, Séraphine Louis, who became known as Séraphone de Senlis. She was orphaned at 7 years old and worked as a maid in Senlis, before finding some renown for her paintings of oranges.
Eventually, local chocolatiers in Senlis stared making orange-shaped chocolate and named it after her as a tribute. You can find her paintings at the local local Musée de Senlis, and the orange chocolate at chocolatiers around Senlis.
The nearby town of Meaux is famous for its cheese, the brie, which is one of the most famous cheeses in France. And you of course can’t forget about creamy chantilly, which is a very popular topping on desserts in the area.
7. Musée de l’Hôtel de Vermandois de Senlis
For history enthusiasts, a visit to the Musée de l’Hôtel de Vermandois is a must. Housed in a former mansion, just footsteps away from the Senlis cathedral.
It was built by the Raoul de Vermandois, a grandson of Capetian King Henry I. and the museum today offers a fascinating glimpse into Senlis’ past from medieval silverware to paintings and engravings, and other liturgical objects from the Cathedral and royal palace.
8. Château de Mont-l’Évêque
The Château de Mont-l’Évêque is a small privately castle about 2.5 miles away from Senlis. It is a former royal castle that dates back to the 13th century.
It is here that the Bishops of Senlis used to reside, after being awarded the castle in 1214 by French King Philippe Auguste.
The French monarch awarded the Bishop the castle as a reward for his help against a larger army consisting of of Holy Roman Emperor Otto IV, King John of England, and their allies in the Anglo-French War of 1213–1214.
Today the castle is open on a limited basis for guided tours, but its grounds are accessible freely during 9-19h.
9. Chateau de Chantilly
Château de Chantilly is a château situated in the north of Paris and it is quite an architectural marvel. It is located about 6 miles (9km) from Senlis.
The initial fortress here was actually built in the 11th century on marshland to protect the road to Senlis, the ancient city of the French Kings. It was also the home of the son of the last King of France, Henri d’Orleans who dedicated his life to it restoring and preserving it.
Inside the Château is the 2nd largest collection of antique paintings in France, after the Louvre Museum in Paris. In addition, the Château’s library holds over 60,000 volumes, second only to the National Library of France.
Amongst its treasures are over 1,500 manuscripts and 17,500 printed documents on all sorts of subjects, dating from as early as the 11th century.
10. Parc Asterix
Based on the French comic books, Asterix, Obelix, and their friends roam around the theme park, ready to greet visitors while they ride various rollercoasters and merry-go-rounds.
Combining history and kitsch, the park is divided into areas featuring the land of the Gauls, ancient Egypt, the Roman empire, and more.
It is located at Parc Asterix, 60128 Plailly, about 30 minutes outside of Paris. You will have to catch a shuttle or hire a private car to get there. You can read more about visiting Parc Asterix here.
How to get to Senlis?
Senlis does not have a train station, so the only way to get to Senlis is by car or bus.
Public transport: From Gare du Nord station in Paris, you can take the TER to get to “Chantilly-Gouvieux” stop within 25 minutes. From here you can take a bus 645 that will take you directly to Senlis.
How easy is it getting around?
It is quite easy to walk around Senlis and get to all the major tourist attractions, but I should note that the center of town is not pedestrianized. There are several parking lots sprinkled all over town, but with narrow streets, you are better off walking if you are able.
How many days should you spend?
If you are coming from Paris, a day trip is probably enough to explore Senlis. However, you may want to stay in Senlis or nearby Chantilly in order to explore the Château de Chantilly and Parc Asterix as well.
Where should you stay?
Senlis has some wonderful places to stay in and around the center of town:
- €€€ – Fab House – Les Maisons Fabuleuses
- €€€€ – Le Grand Pavillon Chantilly (3 miles outside of Senlis)
If you enjoyed this article, you may like to read more about Ile-de-France. A bientôt!