Last Update: July 2019. Thank you all for your feedback and comments! I'm working hard to make sure this guide is as up-to-date and useful as possible :)
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 a spectacular place, and one of my favourite sites in the Paris region, but due to its size and popularity, a day in Versailles can easily descend into a disaster of long lines, bad timing, and missed opportunities.
When I was a tour guide I spent thousands of hours in the town and estate, and I firmly believe that a little bit of preparation is the key to having a enjoyable, fun, and relaxing day.
Visiting Versailles: What to Prepare in Advance
First thing’s first: Versailles is much bigger than you think. The château 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.
It just isn't possible to thoroughly explore every nook and cranny in one day. But that's OK! Take some time to consider which aspects you will enjoy the most: historical details in the château? The manicured gardens and fountains? The quiet, rambling woods? A picnic by the Canal? Think about what your priorities are, and plan your day accordingly.
Getting to Versailles from Paris
The best way to get to and from Versailles from Paris is by train, and the single most useful thing you can do is to buy your return train ticket at the beginning of the day, and avoid the long line at the station later.
RER C: This train line serves multiple stops in central Paris, and the trains have code names depending where they go.
Take trains VICK or VITY to Versailles Rive Gauche (link to Google Maps) which is the closest to the château. This is the terminus station, so no need to worry about where to get off. The ride is about 30 minutes depending where you alight.
If VICK and VITY are delayed, take SLOM to a station called Versailles Chantiers and walk about 20 minutes to the château. This is not the end of the line so make sure you get off at the right spot.
Other train lines:
Trains on Line N leave from the Paris Montparnasse station, and serve the Versailles Chantiers stop.
Line L leaves from Paris Saint - Lazare, and you need to get off at Versailles Rive Droite, which is about a 20 min walk from the Palace.
The 171 Bus leaves from Pont de Sèvres (the end of the metro line 9), and stops very close to the Palace. I’d only use this route this if I was already on that side of Paris, as it’s quite far out, but it’s really not a bad idea.
When returning to Paris:
At the 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 that during Summer the RER C system often experiences crazy delays due to extreme heat. When it’s really bad, they may even shut it altogether, in which case you’ll be directed up towards the Versailles Chantiers station instead.
The Best Ticket Options for Versailles
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 this is not an effective use of your time, so I don't recommend it. If you already have a Museum Pass, this will get you in, but doesn't include access to the fountain displays (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 ticket 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, and the easiest way to do that is from the official Versailles website (click for link, in English).
Visiting the Versailles Estate in Summer
Be prepared! There will be a lot of other people there. You can still have a truly wonderful day even in the high season, but it does pay to do some preparation and consider these points:
Consider NOT going into the château. Have you been there before? Are you likely to come to Paris some other time, possibly even in off-peak months? Then perhaps give it a miss. Devote your day to the magnificent grounds. (More on that below)
If you will go into the château, 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 thinner in the afternoon/early evening. In the high season the château 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. 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 Château itself is like IKEA, except you can't buy the furniture at the end. There is a very clearly defined path, that will allow you to see everything, so you don't really need a map.
How to Enjoy the Versailles Fountain Display
Directly in front of the château are the spectacular formal gardens of Versailles, including water fountains which mostly date back to the time of Louis XIV. In his day, the fountains used up more water in a day than the entire city of Paris!
They are a real highlight for visitors, but these days, they are only actually turned 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.
Tuesdays from late May to late June.
There are two displays per day: Morning (11am-12noon), and Afternoon(3.30pm-5pm).
I personally prefer the afternoon display because more of the fountains are switched on.
Grab a free map when you walk in and perhaps check out these fountains, which are among my favorite:
Three Fountains Grove: the only grove/fountain display actually designed by Louis XIV himself. Look for the hidden 'faces' made of shells.
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 film A Little Chaos.
When the fountains are turned off, spend time relaxing and wandering around the beautiful manicured formal 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....
My Favorite Spots on the Grounds of Versailles
The best thing about the enormous estate (2000+ acres!) is that even in high season, very few people venture beyond the château and formal gardens, so you can 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. This is one of the two 'pleasure palaces' built exclusively for the Kings and Queens to enjoy themselves and escape the pressures of formal court life. If you do give the main château a miss, this building has many of the same opulent architectural and decorative elements, but without the crowds of people.
The Petit Trianon. As the name suggests, this is a smaller building, 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. This is a pretend peasant village and farm that was built for the famous Marie-Antoinette during a time that it was quite fashionable to pretend to be poor. She escaped here to dress up as a milkmaid, and pretend that she wasn't the monarch. This idylic little hamlet is pure escapism and utterly, utterly adorable.
The Queens Farm. Attached to the Hamlet, this farm was built for fun, but today is an animal sanctuary and teaching campus for vetenarian students. Keep your eyes peeled for the white peacocks, tiny goats, and fluffy lambs. Young and young at heart will absolutely love this.
The Grand Canal. A huge, deep man-made body of water, shaped crucifix that is a mile long and a kilometer on the shorter axis. There are paths all around it, and you can walk or cycle all around (the far end of the canal is a great photo spot), or you can just plonk down on the grass for a picnic or snooze.
General Tips and Advice
There are now extensive security checks throughout the Estate, so be ready to open up your bag at each step. It’s not totally clear if you’re allowed to bring picnic supplies like wine and pocket knives into the estate, so consider tucking them out of site if you have them. There are also bag check facilities here and there.
Wear comfortable shoes for walking and standing, and bring sunscreen and a hat in the summer. In the winter, don’t forget your umbrella.
Pack snacks to keep you going, even if you intend to buy lunch on the grounds or in town.
Take a big water bottle and stay hydrated! You can drink tap water in France (and should, bottled water is the worst). You’ll find a fountain or tap in every building, but you can also fill up from the faucet in the bathrooms, as I have on many occasions.
Buy that return train ticket in the morning!
Take your time, and enjoy yourself in this magnificent site.
Other Noteworthy Sites in the Town of Versailles
Versailles is a beautiful and historic town in its own right. These are some nice little spots to check out while you there; click the name for a link to the location:
Le Potager du Roi. Now an agricultural school and farm, was once the official kitchen gardens that serviced the château, and workplace for the esteemed gardener and agronome Jean-Baptiste de La Quintinie. Take a visit, and wander among the delicious produce.
The Marché Notre-Dame. Every day of the week, the permanent halls of this covered market are filled with delicious food (think cheese, pastries, wine, fresh fruit, crêpes, cold cuts, bread, and more) but on Tuesday, Friday and Sunday , it is home to a big, bustling French outdoor market. This is considered one of the best markets in all of France. Enjoy! Pick up supplies here for a picnic in the grounds later on.
La cour des senteurs. This perfume museum/experiential space is calm antidote to the busy energy of the château.
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 château, and the site of the famous 'Tennis Court Oath'. It’s free, empty and right around the corner from the château. A massive turn-on for history buffs.
Cathedral de Saint-Louis. This beautiful big Cathedral named after France’s only King-Saint Louis IX. It's first stone laid in 1743 by another Louis, the XV, and it still has an active congregation today, so you might catch a wedding on the weekends!
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.
Take a guided tour…
Does all of this still sound a bit hard? If you’d rather have someone else take care of the details, I can personally recommend the following two bike tour companies, both of whom I was employed by for years! Bike About Tours is a lovely, small, family-owned tour guide company that does tours in multiple places in the Paris region (including Versailles of course); and Fat Tire Tours, who got me started on my tour guiding journey, are now present in multiple cities around the world! For a really bespoke experience, please check out April in Paris, which is the brainchild of my good friend, and very experienced tour guide and entrepreneur April Pett.
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!
I lived in France for 7 years, and it has become my second home. Click here to read more of my travel and adventure writing from this beautiful country.