The Château of Versailles is the pinnacle of 17th and 18th-century luxury. It’s a manifestation of the excess of the Ancien Régime and is dumbfounding in its opulence, with grounds so large that you need a bicycle or golf cart to stand a chance of doing everything in a day.
Much of what you see was the work of architect Louis Le Vau, landscaper André Le Nôtre and Charles Le Brun, who painted and decorated the 17th-century interiors.
The rest of the town flows from the palace, providing sumptuous homes on elegant avenues for courtiers and contractors who needed to be close to the king.
Lets explore the best things to do in Versailles:
1. The Château’s Apartments
On a self-guided tour you’ll enter the dazzling salons and chambers where the royalty lived and went about their business.
The King’s Grand Apartment is all about Louis XIV, and the decor hasn’t changed since his reign in the 17th century.
In these seven spectacular salons he’d make himself available to visitors on his way to the chapel, and would hold court three evenings a week.
The King’s Apartment contained Louis XIV’s ludicrously grand bedchamber, while his successor Louis XV preferred the more understated King’s Private Apartment.
The Queen’s Grand Apartment is symmetrical to the King’s, but was a private space for the three queens, Marie-Thérèse d’Autriche (Louis XIV), Marie Leczinska (Louis XV) and Marie-Antoinette (Louis XVI), and so the decor was updated to suit late-18th-century tastes.
2. Hall of Mirrors
The Palace’s central gallery was built between 1678 and 1684, and connects the Grand Apartment of the King with the Grand Apartment of the Queen.
The Hall of Mirrors is as noted for its beauty (the consensus is that it’s the finest room in the palace), as it is for the historical events that have gone down in here.
The hall is 73 metres long, and lit from one side by 17 arcaded windows, the light of which is reflected by 17 identical mirrors.
Look up and you’ll see Charles Le Brun’s painted ceiling commemorating Louis XIV’s military campaigns and victories.
This of course was where the Treaty of Versailles was signed on 28 June 1919.
The Palace’s gargantuan grounds were André Le Nôtre’s time to shine.
And it was for a long time, because the gardens took forty years to finish.
Work started at the same time as the palace, and Louis XIV considered the grounds to be as important as the palace itself.
A good way to gauge the mind-boggling scale of the task is to stand on the steps outside the hall of mirrors and watch the parterres stretch past the Grand Canal and into the far distance.
You genuinely do need more than a day to see everything, but if you have to save time you could stick to the Orangery, with more than 1,000 boxed orange trees, and the parterres and bosquets directly below the Escaliers de Latone.
4. Academy of Equestrian Arts
The Grande Écurie stables were completed in 1682 and not only were they an appropriately majestic place for the King to keep his hunting horses, they contained the country’s preeminent riding academy.
On Saturdays you can visit the stables to see a show given by the academy, which was reformed in 2003 by the equestrian performer Bartabas.
The show brings together highly skilled equestrianism, fencing and dance.
If you think the last two seem out of place, it’s because the students at the academy are trained in other disciplines to improve their horse-handling skills.
On Sundays you can come to watch the academy train, while guided tours of the stables are available on request.
5. Musée des Carrosses
After a ten-year closure for restorations the museum in the Grande Écurie containing the château’s collection of carriages reopened in 2016. As with the rest of the palace the collection was made public by King Louis-Philippe I in 1833 when he opened up the château to the world.
Most of the vehicles are actually from the 19th century, as the luxurious carriages of the Ancien Régime were sold off during the Revolution.
One of the oldest is the sedan of the Dauphin Louis de France, dating to the 1780s.
After that you have gala Berlin carriages from Napoleon’s court, the hearse that carried Louis XVIII in 1824 and Charles X’s coronation coach from the same year.
6. Royal Chapel
The King would attend mass in this two-level baroque chapel at 10:00 each day.
Many historic events took place here in the 18th century, like the wedding between the future Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.
It’s the only building in the complex that rises above the palace’s flat roofline.
The King would sit on the upper floor in the royal gallery, and the configuration of the chapel makes clear that French Kings were seen as God’s lieutenants.
Of the many things to admire are the Cliquot organ in the gallery above the altar, the carvings in the spandrels between the arches, the painted ceilings and the marble floor.
7. Grand Canal
The longest arm of this immense cross-shaped body of water is 1.67 kilometres.
The canal was one of André Le Nôtre masterworks: Looking west from the Escaliers de Latone it creates a long shaft of reflected light that tapers to a sliver in the distance.
The canal was the site of all sorts of boating spectacles during Louis XIV’s reign: In the 1670s the Republic of Venice sent the King gondolas as well as gondaliers, who stayed in buildings by the water.
In the winter it froze over and was used for sleighing and ice-skating.
These day, in summer you can hire paddle boat and spend a stately half-hour on the water like Louis XIV might have done more than 300 years ago.
8. Royal Opera
Completed in 1770 the palace’s opera house brought to a close more than a century of construction.
It was inaugurated for the wedding celebrations of the future Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.
The acoustics are top-notch and this is partly down to the hall’s wooden construction, with panels carved and painted to look like stone.
The entire design was well ahead of its time: It was the first ovular opera house in France, while the King’s Loge and Boudoir are early examples of the Louis XVI style (despite being made during the reign of Louis XV). It’s a design that would become prevalent in France for the next 20 years, until Louis XVI’s demise.
9. Hameau de la Reine
You could almost describe Marie Antoinette’s private retreat as a medieval theme park built in the 18th century; she would come here to get away from the court and relax with her friends.
The hamlet has 12 quaint cottages and farm buildings, half-timbered and some with thatched roofs, all around a lake.
There’s a dairy, a tiny boudoir, a mill with waterwheel, a farmhouse, a fairytale tower and a barn.
All had their own little flower or vegetable garden, while the dairy even produced milk and eggs for the queen.
The Queen’s Cottage, with its twee spiral staircase is a favourite.
10. Le Grand Trianon
Several decades earlier Louis XIV had sought his own escape from court life, although his getaway was a fair bit grander than Marie Antoinette’s.
The Grand Trianon is a pavilion designed by Louis Le Vau as a place for the King to be alone with his chief mistress, the Marquise de Montespan.
After the initial building showed signs of wear, the king commissioned Jules Hardouin Mansart to build a new one made from pink marble in 1687. It’s set with its own geometric gardens, and at just one storey high manages to be cute and grand at the same time.
11. Church of Notre-Dame
Jules Hardouin-Mansart also provided the design for this church, which was finished in 1686. It was built at the command of Louis XIV to accommodate the growing population of Versailles after Louis XIV had moved the royal court there at the start of the decade.
The king himself laid the first stone in 1684.The church is an early example of neoclassicism and is lit from above by a roof lantern in the dome.
Most fascinating of all is that it’s a parish church, and so in its records are all details of the Royal baptisms, marriages and deaths that took place at the Palace of Versailles.
12. Potager du Roi
You better be sure that the King’s kitchen garden was no ordinary vegetable patch.
It was plotted over five years up to 1673 by gardener-supreme Jean-Baptiste de La Quintinie.
The Potager du Roi is still spread across nine hectares and is almost identical in layout to the one that fed Louis XIV. But now there’s much more variety, with more than 400 different kinds of fruit tree.
The garden is attached to the French National School of Landscaping, and produces more than 30 tons of vegetables and 50 tons of fruit each year.
The melons, figs and asparagus that fed the King back then are now sold at Versailles’ market or at the school’s own shop.
13. La Ferme de Viltain
It’s fair to say that a whole day walking around a palace and gardens might not be a kid’s idea of fun.
In which case you could drop in at this dairy farm a few kilometres south of Versailles.
They have a herd of some 600 cows, and you can see them being milked or, even better, meet their calves in summer.
Foodies interested in stuff like provenance will have a ball in the farm shop, which sells its own cheese, milk and yoghurt, alongside homemade jams and charcuterie.
Depending on when you’re here you can also pick your own seasonal flowers or fruit in the fields.
14. Musée Lambinet
If there’s a drawback to Versailles it would have to be the queues and crowds, so if you ever get overwhelmed you’ll be pleased to know there are some quiet corners like this to escape to.
The Musée Lambinet is on Boulevard de la Reine, in a mansion built for Joseph-Barnabé Porchon, who was a building contractor for Louis XV in 1751. There are more than 550 items on show, revealing the history of Versailles through ceramics, musical instruments, furniture and paintings by the artists like Alfred Sisley.
There are also enthralling displays about the Revolution, enriched with original artefacts and portraits of two protagonists, Jean-Paul Marat and Charlotte Corday.
15. Marché Notre-Dame
The marketplace in Versailles holds the largest outdoor farmers’ market in the Île-de-France region.
This sets up on Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays, while in the same square the permanent indoor market is open for the rest of the week except Monday.
The outdoor stalls sell produce like fruit and vegetables, flowers, cheese, spices, nuts and dried fruit, all beautifully presented.
Inside you can get meat, wine, fresh bread, yet more cheese, fish, pâté and also hot food to take away such as rotisserie chicken.
Like the best French markets it’s a feast for the senses and a perfect window on local life.