The Palace of Versailles, approximately 20km south-west of Paris is one of the most visited sites in Europe, and is on everybody's to-do list while in the City of Lights. It is an absolutely spectacular place, and one of my favourite sites in the Paris region, but it's not the kind of place you should just pitch up to and wing it.
Due to its size and popularity, a day in Versailles can easily descend into a disaster of long lines, bad timing, long walks in the dust and cancelled trains.
As a tour guide I've spent thousands of hours in the town and estate, and I firmly believe that preparation is the key. So read on, because I'm about to share as much advice as I can.
The trick to a successful day in Versailles essentially boils down to this: it's much bigger than you think. The castle alone contains 721,206 square feet (67,002 m2) of floor space. It also 230 acres of formal gardens, two additional smaller palaces, a farm and a huge canal. In total, the estate is 2,014 acres.
Sadly, it just isn't possible to thoroughly explore every nook and cranny of Versailles in one day. But that's OK! Accept that it's not possible, and then zero in on what parts of the estate will please you the most: the Castle? The Fountains? The woods? A picnic by the Canal? I recommend reading up as much as you can about what is on offer, and planning your day accordingly.
The best way to get to and from Versailles from Paris is by train, and you have a couple of options. The single most useful thing you can do is to buy your return train ticket at the beginning of the day, and avoid the monstrous line at the station at the end of the day.
- If taking the RER C line from Central Paris (multiple stations): take trains VICK or VITY to Versailles Rive Gauche which is the closest to the castle. This is the terminus station. The ride is about 30 minutes depending where you get on, and as it's the terminus you can't miss your stop.
- If VICK and VITY are delayed, take SLOM to Versailles Chantiers and walk about 20 minutes to the Castle. This is not the end of the line so make sure you get off at the right spot.
- If leaving from Paris Montparnasse station, take the Line N to Versailles Chantiers.
- If leaving from Paris Saint - Lazare station, take Line L to Versailles Rive Droite for a 20m walk.
- Take the Bus 171 from Pont de Sèvres (the end of the metro line 9). I’d only do this if I was already on that side of town, but it’s not a bad idea.
When returning to Paris...
- If leaving from Rive Gauche station, every single train goes back through Paris. Just jump on whatever train is leaving first. Trust me. They leave every 15 mins (10, 25, 40 and 55 mins past each hour) and till late evening.
- Be aware: during Summer the RER C system often goes down or experiences delays due to extreme heat. If the Versailles Rive Gauche station is closed, walk up to Versailles Chantiers instead.
You can buy individual tickets to each of the separate parts of the estate (the Château, Trianon Palaces and Domaine of Marie-Antoinette, Gardens) but it will take forever, so I don't recommend it. If you already have a Museum Pass, use that, but be aware that this doesn't cover the Fountain Days in the Gardens (more on that later), so you'll have to buy an additional little ticket and the lines can sometimes be horrendous.
In my opinion, the best option is Le Passeport. This guy covers your entrance to every single thing in the Estate, including the fountain shows. It's either 18€ or 25€ depending on the day.
No matter what ticket you use, it's best to buy it online before you arrive in Versailles: the easiest way to do that is from the official Versailles website.
If visiting the Estate in Summer
A zillion other people will be there, most of them in tour groups barging their way past you and jabbing you in the back with their little pointy sticks. You will hate your life, and everyone around you.
Of course I'm joking (...half joking), and you shouldn't forfeit a fabulous day just because of the season, but...
- Consider NOT going into the castle. Have you been there before? Are you likely to come to Paris some other time, possibly even in off-peak months? Then give it a miss. Devote your day to the magnificent grounds. (More on that below)
- If you will go into the castle, plan to enter at the end of the day, I'd say 2-3pm at the earliest. For the typical visitor an hour or so is inside plenty, and the crowds are less in the afternoon/early evening. In the high season the castle shuts at 6.30pm, so you have oodles of time.
- The ground floor is mostly historical displays, while the true 'palace-y' stuff (Hall of Mirrors, Queens Apartments etc) is all on the first floor. Perhaps make a beeline for that if you are tired/have small kids with you.
- Be aware that the Palace is the busiest on Tuesdays, Saturdays and Sundays.
- The Palace is like IKEA, except you can't buy the furniture at the end. There is a very clearly defined path through the castle, that will allow you to see everything, so you don't really need a map.
- Skip the free audio guides. I think they are pretty dry and lacking in juicy stories like how Louis XVI didn't know how to have sex, and that people applauded when The Sun King (Louis XIV) pooped.
Check your watch, so you don't miss the Fountains
Directly in front of the Castle are the spectacular formal gardens of Versailles, including water fountains which mostly date back to the time of Louis XIV. In Louis' day, the fountains used up more water in a day than the entire city of Paris!
These days, they are only 'on' 3 times a week, for a couple of hours a time. Catch them on Saturday and Sunday, from March to the end of October and Tuesdays from late May to late June. It's well worth timing your visit to see them, and I personally prefer the afternoon display (3.30pm - 5pm) to the morning (11am- 12 noon) because there are more of them on.
Grab a free map when you walk in and perhaps check out:
- Three Fountains Grove: the only grove/fountain display actually designed by Louis XIV himself. Look for the 'faces' made of shells hidden in the fountains.
- The Mirror Fountain (Basin de Miroir) if you like a bit of Las Vegas style fountain and music synchronisation. It plays non-stop on the fountain days so you can see it any time.
- Salle de Bal: this is the beautiful "Ball Room" fountain as depicted in the 2015 chick-flick-disguised-as-a-historical-film A Little Chaos with Kate Winslet, Alan Rickman and that Belgian guy.
When the fountains go off, spend time relaxing and wandering around the beautiful manicured gardens, but don't forget: they are a vast 230 acres! So if you want to see other features of the Estate, keep moving and....
The best thing about the enormous estate (2000+ acres!) is that even in high season, so few people venture beyond the castle and formal gardens, you'll have the place to yourself. I recommend hiring a bike at the estate (at the bottom of the gardens) and using it to get around.
My favourite places to visit are:
- The Grand Trianon: one of the two 'pleasure palaces' built exclusively for funsies. I sometimes prefer it to the Palace itself, because it ticks all the boxes in terms of architecture, furnishing and opulence, but without the crowds of people.
- The Petit Trianon: as the name suggests, smaller, and worth a quick look although it's pretty empty inside thanks to heavy looting during the revolution. Use it to access ...
- The Queens Hamlet: a pretend peasant village and farm built for Marie-Antoinette, to provide her with somewhere to dress up as a milkmaid and pretend that she wasn't the queen. This is escapism at its best, and utterly, utterly adorable, especially the Farm itself, now an animal sanctuary and teaching farm is also not to be missed. Keep your eyes peeled for the white peacocks... little kids and not-so-little kids will absolutely love this.
- The Grand Canal. A huge, deep man-made body of water, shaped cross that is more than a mile long. Go for a long walk all around it, or fall asleep on the grass beside it.
- The great photo-op at the end of the Grand Canal: for the keen walkers or cyclists!
Check out other stuff in town
Versailles is a beautiful and historic town in its own right. These are some nice little spots to check out while you there:
- Le Potager du Roi. Now an agricultural school and farm, was once the official kitchen gardens that serviced the Castle, and workplace for the esteemed gardener and agronome Jean-Baptiste de La Quintinie. You can visit it, and wander around the delicious produce.
- The Marché Notre-Dame. The halls of this square are full of delicious yums every day, but the outdoor markets on Tuesday, Friday and Sunday take it to another level. Pick up supplies here for a picnic in the grounds later on.
- La cour des senteurs. A perfume museum/experience space right next to the castle. A calm antidote to the crazy town that is the castle.
- The historic Salle du Jeu de Paume. This is possibly the most underrated room in the entire Paris region: it's where the first National Assembly was declared at the beginning of the French Revolution when the Assembly were denied the right to enter the Castle, and the site of the famous 'Tennis Court Oath'. It’s free, empty and right around the corner from the castle. A massive turn-on for history buffs.
- Cathedral de Saint-Louis. A beautiful big Cathedral named after France’s only King-Saint Louis IX. It's first stone laid in 1743 by another Louis, the XV.
- Eat drink and be merry on Rue Satory. Cheap beers can be had at Le Coup d’Etat. There are lots of nice restaurants along here open late.
- Pick up a gem at this vintage clothing store. They sell quality French brands, classic cuts, and have some really gorgeous stuff. I got a beautiful silk circle-skirt here once that is now my go-to wedding outfit.
Et voilà! Versailles is now yours to conquer!
How do you get the most out of Versailles? Share your thoughts and feedback in the comments :)