The Palace of Versailles is the third most visited attraction in France.
Versailles is one of these places you want to see but dare not, as the horror stories of crowds and touts put you off. Well, fear not, it is nowhere near as bad as you may have heard!
The trick to beating the crowds is to pick the right day and time to visit. We only had half a day, so chose to go in the morning and arrived before 09:00 hrs. Avoid Sundays and Tuesdays if you can, as these are the busiest days of the week during the summer (the Louvre is closed Tuesdays, hence this being a very popular day of the week at Versailles).
Versailles is easily reached from Paris via RER Train, of which there are stops all over the city. It takes no more than 35 minutes by train to get to Versailles and a round-trip ticket is usually under 10Euro per adult. If you need to get the Metro to get to your closest RER station, you will be able to purchase a combined Metro/RER tickets at almost all Metro stations (although there are exceptions, so plan ahead). Once you get to your RER station, take any train listed as “Versailles Chateau R.G.” or “Versailles Chateau Rive Gauche”. Chateau Rive Gauche is the Versailles station closest to the Chateau, there are two others in Versailles. Once on the train, ride it to the last stop. To return to Paris take any train, as they all serve downtown Paris.
We took a train to the Rive Gauche station and on our arrival followed the crowds. If there are no crowds, because you managed to arrive early, turn right out of the station, then turn left at the first boulevard and within 10 minutes you will be at the palace. Ignore any hawkers trying to sell you guided Versailles tours and tickets, as they are not worth it. You will likely see that there is already a que of eager visitors. The trick is to get to Versailles before the tour buses arrive around 09:30hrs. Join the que and make friends with those in front and behind you. When we visited we had a great family from Australia behind us with adult kids. We ended up playing the game “Spot the que jumper”, which proved to be highly entertaining. Seriously though, there will always be people who try to jump the que with all sorts of excuses. Stand your ground and point them to the end of the line-up. In fact, on a couple of occasions we witnessed the security guards that work there intervene. Talking about these guards, they do like an orderly snake line. The line some way behind us was getting a little disorderly and wasn’t snaking the way it should, so the guards came along, shouting loudly and realigning people – quite a spectacle!
As always, assume that pick-pockets operate in crowds, so be vigilant and keep an eye on your possessions.
All in all it took us about 45 minutes to get into the palace, given the amount of people who were in front of us, we didn’t think that was too bad.
If you are visiting other attractions in Paris, please ensure you have bought a Museum Pass before getting to Versailles. I wrote some tips on this in an earlier post here. There is also a Versailles Le Passeport Pass, which is a one day pass. This one is available to buy online and will still save you money and time. Without a pass you will have to que to buy your tickets. Most people visiting Versailles have purchased a pass prior to arrival, but ticket lines can still be very long. Note that everyone has to go through the security check, except if you take a guided tour. You can book these ahead of your visit through palace’s website or when you get to the palace, there is a guided tours office in the courtyard. Your admission includes a free audio guide, which you pick up just inside the palace.
If like us you packed a picnic in a backpack you will be asked to check this in ahead of the security check point. Baby Strollers are also not allowed in the palace and need to be checked in. Just make sure you remember to pick your belongings up after you exit the palace.
The palace is huge and not all areas are open to the public, but there is plenty to see and I could have easily spent a whole day just in the palace itself. If, like us, you have only half a day, make sure you see the parts that are on your “must-see list” and if you have time left over explore some other areas. Unfortunately we did not have time to wander the famous gardens and the weather wasn’t that great, it was actually quite windy. So we ended up just sitting on the top, looking down whilst having our picnic. There are golf buggies for rent, but the waiting time was over an hour when we got there, so we gave that a miss and just enjoyed the view. So this post will be about the palace only and hopefully I will be able to visit the gardens on our next visit in a few years.
Versailles is known for being King Louis XIV’s play ground, but it actually started out as a small hunting lodge under his father, King Louis XIII. Under Louis XIV (1638-1715) Versailles was radically transformed into the palace we see today. The “Sun-King” believed in centralized government, with himself at the center. He moved his official seat from Paris to Versailles in 1682 thereby making Versailles the capital of the kingdom, which lasted until 1789. The king thereby ensured he had full control of everything and everybody away from the citizens in crowded Paris. It was no secret that Louis did not like Paris, he never felt well in his palaces there and the fact that he had to flee the city in 1649 to escape the Fronde rebellion did not endear it to him. Versailles at the time was a small village, which was razed to the ground in order to build the palace and a modern town with straight, wide and airy streets, which was in stark contrast to Paris’s cramped, dirty, smelly, and disease ridden streets. At the height of the building project, over 36,000 workmen were busy on site. The grounds cover a total of 830 hectares, 20km of roads, 20km of closing walls, 350,000 trees, as many flowers planted, 35km of water pipes, 13 hectares of roof, 2, 143 windows, 67 staircases and 700 rooms make up today’s Versailles palace.
Versailles in its heyday was a very busy place; as many as 5,000 nobles, plus their entourage, were here at any one time. Bizarrely, even back then the palace was open to the public and as long as you got through security and donned the right clothes you could gawk at the nobility.
Louis XIV considered himself to be a god and therefore everyone else around him was there to serve their god the Sun-King. His day was regulated like clockwork, as was the whole of the royal court. Every day, every hour, year in, year out. Every morning a hundred courtiers would be in his bedroom to wake him, wash him, and clothe him. This was a courtier’s lot if they wanted to gain the monarch’s favour. You had to be seen in, constantly, in order to be the recipient of royal pensions, financial gratifications, living quarters at Versailles and regular invitations to feasts, balls, and ceremonies. All this followed a strict hierarchy, which determined who was allowed to approach whom, and where and when. Even the use of different chairs (armchair, simple chair or stool) and the right to sit down was regulated by this.
Versailles opulence was its downfall when the French Revolution emptied the palace of its furnishings, but thankfully sparing the building itself. All the paintings left for the Louvre and the furniture, with a few exceptions, was sold. After years of neglect the building was restored by Napoleon I, then by King Louis XVIII and Charles X, who are both brothers of Louis XIV. However, Versailles was never again to be the seat of power; that privilege remained with Paris. Despite the restorations, nobody knew what to do with this vast building and for a while demolition was considered. In 1833 King Louis-Philippe, “King of the French”, made the decision to turn it into a museum; it opened in 1837.
The most famous room in the palace is the Hall of Mirrors. This hall actually functioned as the passageway to the King’s Apartment. Courtiers gathered here in the hope to see the monarch on his way to the Chapel. It also served as a reception room when the King received foreign monarchs. Lavish masked-balls and full-dress balls would be held here. The painted ceiling is all composed around one theme: the King. At the time mirrors were luxury objects, highly expensive and up until recently Venice had the monopoly on mirror production. France took that monopoly by producing 357 mirrors to be installed in this gallery on the wall opposite the windows. The effect, when the new gallery was first revealed, must have been breathtaking. The chandeliers we see today are not the originals, they are 1770 replacements, based on the originals. This is the most visited room in the palace, so be prepared for crowds and photos with lots of strangers in them! The mirrors, despite their age, still look so fabulous and the light that comes in from the windows, even on a cloudy day, bathes the whole gallery in this wonderful glow, with the chandeliers sparkling brightly.
As an aside, the Hall of Mirrors was where in 1871 the Proclamation of the German Empire was held, and in 1919 the Treaty of Versailles was signed here, ending World War I.
One other room that I really liked was the Queen’s Bedchamber. Unlike some of the other stately rooms this one felt light and bright. It did occur to me that the beds in those days were very short indeed, a testament that people were just shorter back then. Unbelievably, the Queen gave birth in this room to an audience. The moment the accoucheur announced “The Queen is about to give birth”, the crowds of spectators rushed forward to get a better view. The crowds were so disorderly that her attendants feared the Queen would perish.
I could go on and on about all the other lavish rooms, the grand staircases, the paintings displayed everywhere, the statues, the painted ceilings, but it would be overdoing it I fear. So hopefully you will enjoy the photos of some of the details.