Rich with history and brimming with fascinating tales of times long gone by, Versailles is famous the world over. Once home to one of the richest kings in history, Louis XIV commissioned the Palace that would have cost over $2 billion to build in today’s money. Here’s a guide to Versailles on what to see, when to visit, and the best time to go to Versailles!
So large is the palace, that the King would often be forced to eat his meals cold, owing in part to the distance between the kitchens and King’s dining quarters. Now a UNESCO world heritage site, millions of visitors flock annually to explore the wealth of riches contained within the Château and its surrounding grounds.
In more recent years, the site has been used as a film location for Coppola’s movie ‘Marie Antoinette’ and the backdrop for the Anish Kapoor’s exhibition highlighting chaos amongst the pristine gardens at Versailles. Parts of a recent BBC TV drama series, known simply as ‘Versailles‘, and all about the reign of the Sun King was also filmed here. Last but not least, that wedding between Kim Kardashian and Kanye West was held here.
Château of Versailles
Home to the coveted Hall of Mirrors, the Palace of Versailles is a gold gilt, jewel-encrusted, velvet lined display of opulent wealth in every sense of the word. The original palace was divided into around 350 living quarters. This ranged from small cupboards behind stairwells for servants to the King’s palatial chambers.
Every room conveys a sense of divine entitlement; Louis XIV heralded himself as ‘the Sun King’, often commissioning tapestries and frescos depicting him as the sun god Apollo. One such example of this can be found at the National Trust property, Castle Drogo in Devon.
Gardens of Versailles
Sprawling as far as the eye can see, neatly trimmed topiary, grand boulevards, and pretty lakes a plenty span the vast planes surrounding the Château. I can hardly begin to imagine the maintenance costs… Don’t believe me as to how beautiful the gardens of Versailles are? Here are photos of Versailles which prove the palace is worth another visit!
Highlights of the gardens of Versailles, which were designed by Le Notre (yes, the same man who designed the gardens of Vaux-le-Vicomte) include the Bassin d’Apollon (Apollo Fountain), parts of which were made in the Gobelins Factory, as well as plenty of stunning topiary.
If you thought that the Palace at Versailles was stiflingly busy today, this is nothing in comparison to how it was during the reign of the French monarchy. After all, the main château of Versailles was conceived by the Sun King as a place where nobles would have to venture to with the specific goal of seeing the king.
Deodorant hadn’t yet been invented and toilet facilities were in no way up to today’s hygiene standards. People would take baths once a year, if that, and due to the lack of toilets in the palace, courtiers would go behind curtains and statues. The floors were only cleaned twice a year.
Any old commoner (that’s us) was allowed to visit the palace in order to ask for various favours and allowances from the royal court. The palace became a melting pot of diseases and unpleasant odours. The court smelt so bad that everything was covered in rose and orange water perfume.
The King used to retire to the Grand Trianon when he could no longer stand the hustle and bustle of the castle; not a bad escape plan… The Grand Trianon is complete with its own gardens and fountains; tiled courtyards are complimented with flowering borders and magnificent views over a grand lake.
Marie Antoinette was by far the most famous occupant of the Petit Trianon. She lived there during the late 1700s. At the young age of 14, the young Austrian archduchess was married off to the dauphin, Louis XIV’s 17-year-old grandson, and next in line, in a bid to end tension between France and Austria.
By the age of 19, Marie Antoinette was Queen of France and likely out of her depth. Continuously being accused of being out of touch with the French people, she actually likely never said ‘let them eat cake‘. Instead, however, she was involved in the French Revolution and died just aged 37.
The gardens for the Petit Trianon are complete with a series of winding pathways exploring lakes, woodland, and follies alike. One particular highlight of the extensive gardens is the Belvédère. Created in the late 1700s for Marie Antoinette, it was originally intended as a summer dining room.
Hameau de la Reine
The incredible excess of wealth enjoyed by the French bourgeoisie is thrown into sharp relief by a single visit to the ‘Ferme’. Marie Antoinette commissioned the farm, also known as the ‘Hameau de la Reine‘ during her time at the Petit Trianon in order to give the impression that she resided in the countryside.
An entire mock hamlet was constructed; thus ensuring that the Queen never felt too ‘metropolitan’. Complete with grain towers, a large lake, and stables, everything was kept in pristine condition. The animals wore bows around their necks and the eggs were collected and cleaned before being redistributed.
Tales of her visits recount how animals and produce alike were thoroughly washed before her arrival in order to ensure that she didn’t ‘dirty’ her outfits; heaven forbid she got chicken poo on her hands… In the past decade, the hamlet has been completely renovated, allowing visitors to get a glimpse of how the farm would have looked during Marie Antoinette’s reign.
Practical tips and tricks for first-time visitors to Versailles
Pickpockets frequent the site due to the number of tourists and packed nature of the palace- watch your belongings at all times. This is true of both the palace itself, the town of Versailles, and of the RER train en route to the château. For other common tourist scams, read this post about Parisian tourist scams.
Although food onsite is expensive, there is plenty of space to bring your own picnic and eat it in the gardens. After all, what better way to soak up the ambiance of the gardens than to enjoy a picnic, Parisian style, en plein air! For those who wish to eat on site, it’s worth noting that there are cafés and restaurants dotted around the grounds of Versailles; including in the gardens and main palace.
Everyone under the age of 18 and EU citizens under the age of 26 can visit the palace for free with valid ID. During certain times of the year, i.e. when a special exhibition is on in the gardens, everyone has to pay to visit them. While in the gardens, there’s the opportunity to rent rowboats to paddle on the lake and rent golf buggies to get around the enormous site.
As with most things in France, there is a queue to visit the Palace and by midday, it is not uncommon to have to wait for over two hours to be allowed entry. As such, it’s best to arrive earlier in the day rather than later. While at Versailles, be sure not to miss the beautiful Versailles town. Home to countless cafés and boutiques, there are also several museums to explore, including one which relates to the origins of tennis.
Best time to visit Versailles Palace and Gardens
The Castle and grounds are closed on Mondays. Visiting hours during the rest of the week are between 10:00 – 18:00, though these times often change during holiday seasons etc. For those who love gardening, the best time of the year to visit Versailles is in the summer months when everything is in full bloom.
However, a visit during the warmer months will also mean that it’s peak season at Versailles. If you’re more interested in good weather with fewer crowds, then a trip during the shoulder seasons (i.e. spring and autumn) is an absolute must. Finally, if you’re planning to visit Versailles during wintertime, be sure to wrap up warm and bring a cosy pair of gloves!
How to visit Versailles as a day trip from Paris
Although the castle is around 15 miles away from Paris, it is easily accessible by the RER line A from Invalides (there is also a metro station here). The journey takes about 50 minutes. Once in Versailles, there are clear directions pointing towards the palace (or you could simply follow the crowds)!
In order to truly make the most of your time at Versailles, which also happens to be the best-known day trip from Paris, I highly recommend setting aside a full day. For those who have just half a day to visit, be sure to squeeze in a trip to the main palace, grand gardens, and the Hameau de La Reine- you won’t regret it!