Paris embraces art like nowhere else on earth. Every artist travels to Paris and they get inspired by its artistic ambiance. The city is celebrated with numerous museums, music halls, opera houses, galleries, and art centers, and it’s a paradise for art lovers just to explore the array of exhibitions, concerts, opera, live shows that take place all year round. Check out My Art Tour for more information about visiting the best places in Paris with a Museum Pass.
The last time when I was in Paris (yet again), I finally took a day trip to Versailles, a historic palace that is located merely 45 minutes away from Paris’s city center, and I found it was an art pilgrimage long overdue. I guessed I have been focusing so much on the city until I realized the exuberant aesthetics that the historic palace has to offer.
Status. I don’t think I am exaggerating when I say Versailles is “the crème de la crème of palaces“. Wherever you go, you would hear someplace always claim their best palaces as “the Versailles of someplace”, such as Frederiksborg Castle: “Versailles of Denmark”, Peterhof Palace: “Versailles of Russia”, Schonbrunn Palace: “Versailles of Vienna”, Royal Palace of Aranjuez: “Versailles of Spain”… the list goes on and on. For centuries, Versailles has been the holy grail that many monarchs would want to build a palace that can rival, or worthy to be compared with it. So, shouldn’t it be “the one” that you see?
Beauty. Versailles is a masterpiece of French Baroque architecture in the 17th century. The palace and gardens are the references and inspirations of many other palaces across Europe, including that Schloss Schönbrunn in Vienna, The Peterhof Palace in Saint Petersburg, Herrenchiemsee in Munich, and even Château de Fontainebleau – Napoleon’s residence. These palaces have all shown admirations of Versailles, yet these replicas still couldn’t quite capture the essence and grandeur of Versailles uniquely possess. It was not just about the architecture and how grand it is (somehow it still is), but also the ambiance and originality that makes the site so special and unique.
The palace, the artifacts, the interior, and the chandeliers are simply exquisite and are mindfully displayed in each room. The gardens of Versailles are a celebration of art – the side of the pathways are lined with bushes and trees that are perfectly trimmed and pruned; and the groves and courtyards are decorated with fountains, flower beds, and sculptures.
History. Versailles is a place that witnesses the ups and downs of the country. Versailles became officially the seat of the government of the kingdom of France in 1682, and home of the French King Louis XIV. The “Sun King” (Le Roi Soleil) greatly augmented French influence in the world and made his kingdom one of the greatest power in Europe in his reign of more than 72 years.
Unfortunately, the later (and last) King of France Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette squandered the country’s wealth on hosting, not limited to masquerades and grand balls, but also gambling, operas, fireworks, and light shows…, which may be impressive at first, but later it led to a financial crisis and the French Revolution, and Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were guillotined eventually during the French revolution.
The legendary lives of the French kings and queens associated with this palace have been portrayed so many times in novels, movies, TV Shows, and documents. Take a moment and think about the movies or TV shows that you have seen: The Main in the Iron Mask (Leonardo Dicaprio), A Little Chaos (Kate Winslet), Marie Antoinette (Kirsten Dunst), and The Affair of the Necklace (Hilary Swank). While the palace itself is a beauty, the site also has rich stories and anecdotes to back up.
The palace is deeply associated with Louis XIV – the Sun King, until the fall of Louis XVI – the palace was only the center of power slightly over 100 years from the 17th to 18th centuries. Before that, most of the French Monarchs, from Henry IV to Napoleon III, lived in Tuileries Palace – that is today’s Le Louvre on the bank of River Seine. Versailles started off as a hunting lodge owned by Louis XIII; he bought up a piece of land in Paris’ outskirt, which is 24 kilometers south, and it was uncultivated at that time. The Royal parties came here for gaming and hunting trips.
After that, Louis XIV hired designer André Le Nôtre (known for gardening and landscaping), and architect Louis Le Vau (French Baroque architect) in 1624 to renovate the lodge. Fountains and gardens were added and a new palace was built, including a marble court in the east entrance. Jules Hardouin Mansart took over the project in 1674 and expand the site even more, with the addition of chapels, stables, and the two new wings on both sides of the palace. A theatre was added in 1770, and it was further renovated in 1820, becoming the scale and status that we see today.
Versailles officially became the political center when Louis XIV moved into Versailles in 1682. While the palace had a glorious moment with the Sun King for a few decades, it had also witnessed the fall. While the royal family, nobles, and aristocrats enjoyed an opulent (and also very expensive) lifestyle – they basically just crammed together, doing nothing but gossip, spend money, and play. This corruption eventually led to the infamous French Revolution (1789) and the army almost destroyed Versailles.
Versailles, do you know?
Versailles covers an area of 8.2 square kilometers (bigger than many town centers in France) and it won’t be a surprise that it has a lot of legends, anecdotes, and about the buildings and their occupants. While certainly, I cannot list them all, I have learned some fun facts that you may find a little bit more interesting about this national treasure.
- The palace was built almost 400 years ago, and it is truly a “made in France” masterpiece: Not only it was designed and built by the French designers and architects, but also everything used to construct and decorate was created in France. In other words, no other country can really take credit from Versailles. *Except* during that time, Venice was basically the monopoly of mirror making. It was believed that Venetian mirror makers were lured to France, made the mirrors, and then got assassinated to keep this art a secret.
- Versailles plays an important role in the world’s history because both the Peace of Paris treaties and the Treaty of Versailles (a treaty that ended World War I) were signed here.
- The garden of Versailles housed more than 400 sculptures and 1,400 fountains (that’s why the waterwork is world-famous).
- Unlike some other palaces in Europe, Versailles has converted into a Museum of the History of France, when Louis-Philippe decided to establish the museum and showcase the heritage of France to the world in 1830. It is not a functioning royal property anymore.
- Many visitors may not notice that the Royal Opera of Versailles was once Europe’s largest opera house. It was built by architect Ange-Jacques Gabriel and it was opened in 1770.
- Can you believe that Versailles may actually be the birthplace of Tennis? It was believed that tennis was invented (or at least developed) by French Monks in the 12th century, based on a French handball game called “Paume”. It was then spread like wildfire in Europe, also gaining popularity among the French royal family. At one point, tennis was part of their education program for young members of the family. There is a tennis court at Palace Versailles in the 16th to 17th centuries.
- The tennis court is also an important location that marks the commencement of the French Revolution. On 20 June 1789, an assembly took place on the tennis courts, which members of the French Third Estate took the Tennis Court Oath.
- It is, however, not difficult to imagine the upkeep of Versailles could be extravagant. It might make your jaw drop with the numbers. Studies estimated that during the expense’s peak, up to 25 percent of the French government’s income has gone to the maintenance of the palace. No wonder this huge expenditure cause starvation in the country and finally, the French Revolution.
- Versailles is also the most expensive in the world. Studies don’t have an actual amount of how much was used for the construction, due to lack of historical data, and multiple sources of funds. It was estimated that the construction cost is between US$200-300 billion with inflation. Abraj Al Bait in Mecca, the most expensive building in the modern world, costs about US$15 billion.
Going to Versailles
It is very easy to go to Versailles from Paris. Take REC C that will lead you straight to Versailles-Chantiers in about an hour. This line passes stations like Saint-Michel-Norte-Dame, Musee d’Orsay, Invalides, Pont de L’Alma, and Champ de Mars-Tour Eiffel.
If I have, by now, convinced you to plan Versailles as a day trip from Paris (you need at least a whole day or even two to cover everything), then I also strongly recommend you to pre-order your tickets online before going there because you will be pleased that pre-booking save your time in a super long queue (without shades) as the palace received a flooding number of visitors all year round.
The best time is to visit Versailles early in the morning (before any big tour groups arrive); and if you are visiting Paris and are planning to visit a couple of museums and tourist spots in a few days, get a Paris Museum Pass. The pass offers access to many museums in the city, and Versailles – it saves a lot of time lining up and running around for tickets everywhere you go. Most importantly, you can skip the line and enter the premises without any hassle. Check out My Art Tour with Paris Museum Pass to find out more about some of the most prestigious art museums not only in Paris but in the world.
If you have seen what happened here, pre-order your tickets now!
Pre-order online, or call FNAC:
Versailles tourism website: www.versailles-tourisme.com
FNAC website: http://www.fnacspectacles.com
Paris Museum Pass website: http://en.parismuseumpass.com
SNCF website (Train tickets): https://www.transilien.com/en
Ticket price and opening hours
The palace ticket with Timed Entry costs about 18 Euros, but to be honest, you don’t want to miss the gardens.
The Chateau tickets cost 20 Euros, and The Chateau tickets + Fountains Shows and Musical Gardens costs 27 Euros:
both give access to the whole Estate and guarantees access to the Palace within half an hour of the selected time except the Night Fountains Show.
There are other options for a single entrance to Musical Gardens, Musical Fountains Show. If you are a first-time visitor and want to see what the entire ground has to offer, I do recommend spending your whole day there and see them all.
- The palace open 9 – 6 pm (Tue to Sun), and the last admission at 5 pm.
- The gardens open 8 am – 6 pm (Daily) during the low season, and 8 am – 8:30 pm during the high season.
- Groves open from 9 am to 7 pm
- Musical displays from 10 am to 7 pm
- Water display from 11 am to 12 pm and
3.30 pm to 5.20 pm
Beating the Crowd in Versailles
A typical route is walking through the palace when you get in the palace and finish your day in the gardens. Again, both areas are huge, just pace yourself, take it slow, and soak in the beauty.
If you really need to take photos and see the place without people, the best time to visit Versailles is 8 am and 9 am – right before the garden and museums are open. The garden opens an hour earlier than the museum – get there at 8 am and you have about an hour to explore the garden with a lesser-crowd. An hour won’t be enough for you to cover everything, it is just an opportunity for you to have an overview and take awesome pictures before people flooding in.
As soon as the museum opens its doors at 9 am, head straight to the Hall of Mirror and you should be able to have the Hall to yourself. The hall faces west and somehow I think the hall golden and shiny during sunset, but you should be able to get a great amount of light on a clear day.
Versailles, Step by Step
Versailles is huge and so the day trip would probably be a whole day thing. Remember to pick up a map when entering the museum; visitors would typically start touring the palace before heading out to the gardens. The museum offers audio guides in different languages, they are very informative, giving visitors a better understanding of the rooms. If you want to have a more in-depth experience, join a guided tour, however, that means you may not be able to see the palace at your own pace. To have your guide for free, consider downloading podcasts and save them on your phone. I found a couple of podcasts on iTunes (some may need to pay) that give a rather lively commentary to the entire route of the palace, and they have enriched my experience as I walked through the structure and gardens. For an unconventional visit (mostly to avoid the crowd), it is possible to cover the gardens first; However, I found it make more sense to go through the palace before heading out to the gardens as if the gardens are a delicate dessert after an exquisite French meal. Remember to check the schedule of the fountain show though (the show opens on the weekends in summer), you don’t want to miss it. 😊
Versailles, what NOT to miss.
The highlight of the palace includes the Hall of Mirrors, the King’s Apartments, the Queen’s Apartments, and the Royal Chapel. The Grand Trianon and Petit Trianon are located on the other side of the gardens, closer to the Grand Canal.
The Royal Chapel is the first place you see. It was completed in 1710, designed by Robert de Cotte. The hall is 2-story high, yet visitors aren’t allowed to enter the hall and look at the exquisite detail closely. However, you will still appreciate the marble-paved floor, and frescoes on the ceiling from the gate.
After walking through the gate of the palace, visitors are traveling through the universe on the first floor because all the King’s Grand Apartments are named after classical deities in Greek Legends, from Salon d’Hercule, de L’abondance, de Venus, de Diane, de Mars, de Mercure, d’Appollon, Cour de Marbre, to Chambre du Roi. Each of these Salons is decorated uniquely in different colors and materials that show magnificent craftsmanship and grandeur.
- Salon d’Hercule was themed by the Last Supper, featuring paintings: Eliezer and Rebecca on the fireplace.
- Salon de L’abondance was a showroom for Louis XIV’s collection of antiques, badges, and treasures.
- Salon de Venus was a waiting room for the ambassador, connecting to the staircase of the main hall. The most incredible art pieces in the room are the frescoes created by Jacque Rousseau, the three-dimensional effect of these paintings may trick your eyes.
- Salon de Diane is a game room with a pool table.
- Salon de Mars is themed by “wars” featuring a number of portraits created by Rene Antoine Housse and Van Loo.
- Salon de Mercure was a game room of the Royal family. It is now featuring a bed of Louis XIV. The room also showcases an antique clock – a gift from clock designer Antonie Morand.
- Salon d’Apollon was a ballroom with paintings created by Charles de Lafosse and Dominiquin.
- Salon de la Guerre was a monument to celebrate the achievements of Louis XIV.
The glittering Hall of Mirrors is probably the most famous room of Versailles. Overlooking the gardens, the hall sparkles with sunlight entering through the windows and reflecting off the mirrors; other important elements in the hallway are the crystal chandeliers and marvelous ceiling paintings that are designed to impress as if the striking light reflections from the ensemble of 357 mirror segments were not overwhelming enough.
The hallway was the passage between the King’s and Queen’s Apartments in the Grand Apartments. The latter part of the palace tour includes the Queen’s Grand Apartment, which contrasts the masculine king’s décor with a more feminine sensibility. The wall paintings and décor are filled with flowers and soft colors – a Marie-Antoinette touch.
Behind and Grand Apartments are the Private Apartments of King Louis XV and King Louis XVI. The rooms showcase the private life of the French Royal family.
The Hall of Mirrors – a grand Boraque gallery within the palace, it has a total of 357 mirrors.
I deeply enjoyed the gardens.
When most people’s focus is the architecture and art in the palace, the gardens in Versailles, to me, was truly the reason that set it apart from any other palaces in the world; Everywhere is pleasing the eye and there’s no better place to just sit on the lawn by the canal and enjoy a relaxing afternoon on a sunny day.
The Grand Trianon, Petit Trianon, and Domaine de Marie-Antoinette are located on the other side of the garden. The garden is a big, green space – one way to travel through the gardens (apart from walking) is by taking the mini-train. Since I didn’t fancy the train, I rent a bike and had a great time cycling through between the giant trees instead. Apart from cycling, fountain looking, and lawn rolling… row a boat in the grand canal, and imagine what it was like when the Kings sneaked off to their Rendez-vous with their mistresses through these canal in the past :).
Musical Fountain Shows in the Groves
You must visit and see all 15 groves in the gardens.
A grove is a small area hidden in the perfectly pruned wooded parts, separating each area as if they are outdoor mini-showrooms. Each grove contains different decorations and designs with fountains, vases, and statues, accessed by secret paths. They are originally designed by renowned landscaper André Le Nôtre, and these features had only brought so many surprises and fantasies to the audience.
That’s why the waterwork in Versailles is world-famous. Lately, the museum has also made an effort to keep the site alive and evolving – by adding modern and contemporary art displays and organizing temporary art exhibitions, mixing both old and new (Like the Carters shooting their Music Video inside Le Louvre?) in front of the French historic backdrop.
Visit their official website and download a map for the locations and introduction of the fountains.