Versailles was the pinnacle of 17th and 18th century luxury. It’s the excesses of the old system, with an eye-popping opulence and a venue so large that you’ll need a bike or golf cart to have a chance of doing it all in one day.
Most of what you see is the work of architect Louis Le Vau, horticulturalists André Le Nôtre and Charles Le Brun, who painted a painting for the 17th century interior.
The rest of the town flows from the palace, on elegant avenues offering luxurious residences for courtiers and contractors who need to be close to the king.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Versailles:
1. Castle Apartments
On a self-guided tour, you’ll enter a dizzying array of salons and rooms where royalty lived and conducted business.
The king’s luxury apartment is about Louis XIV, and the decor has not changed since his reign in the 17th century.
In these seven spectacular salons, he would offer his services to visitors on the way to church and hold court three evenings a week.
The king’s apartments contained the ridiculously large bedrooms of Louis XIV, while his successor, Louis XV, preferred the low-key private apartments of the king.
The queen’s large apartment is symmetrical to the king’s, but it is the private space of three queens, Marie-Theresa de Autrich (Louis XIV), Marie Leczynska (Louis XV) and Marie-Antoinette (Louis XVI), the decoration so has been updated to suit the tastes of the late 18th century.
2. Hall of Mirrors
The palace’s central gallery was built between 1678 and 1684 to connect the King’s Great Apartments with the Queen’s Great Apartments.
The Hall of Mirrors is known for its beauty (it is unanimously considered the best room in the palace), as are the historical events that took place here.
The hall is 73 meters long and has 17 arched windows on one side, and the light is reflected by 17 identical mirrors.
Look up and you’ll see the painted ceiling of Charles Le Brun, commemorating the military campaigns and victories of Louis XIV.
This is of course where the Treaty of Versailles was signed on June 28, 1919.
The huge grounds of the palace were when André Le Nôtre shined.
This is a long time, as the garden took forty years to complete.
Work began at the same time as the palace, and Louis XIV considered the grounds as important as the palace itself.
A good way to gauge the scale of the incredible mission is to stand on the steps outside the Hall of Mirrors and watch the flower beds stretch from the Grand Canal into the distance.
You do need more than a day to see everything, but if you have to save time, you can opt for the Orangery, which has over 1,000 boxed orange trees, as well as flower beds and bushes just below the Escaliers de Latone.
4. Equestrian Academy
Completed in 1682, the Grande Écurie stables were not only the appropriate stately place for the king to keep his hunting horses, but also contained the country’s preeminent riding academy.
On Saturdays, you can visit the stables for performances by the academy, which was reorganized in 2003 by equestrian performer Bartabas.
The show brings together superb horsemanship, fencing and dancing.
If you think the last two seem out of place, it’s because students at the academy are trained in other disciplines to improve their riding skills.
On Sundays, you can come to watch the Academy trains, while guided tours of the stables are available on request.
5. Carriage Museum
After 10 years of restoration and closure, the museum at the Grande Écurie, which houses the castle’s carriage collection, reopened in 2016. Like the rest of the palace, when King Louis-Philippe I opened the castle in 1833, the collection was made public to the world.
Most of the vehicles are actually from the 19th century, as the old regime’s luxury carriages were sold during the Revolution.
One of the oldest saloons is the Dauphin Louis de France saloon from the 1780s.
Afterwards, you will have the grand Berlin coach from Napoleon’s court, the hearse that carried Louis XVIII in 1824 and the coronation coach of Charles X in the same year.
6. Royal Chapel
The king will attend Mass every day at 10:00 in this two-story Baroque church.
Many historic events took place here in the 18th century, such as the wedding of the future Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.
It is the only building in the complex that rises above the flat roof of the palace.
The king will sit on the upper level of the royal gallery, and the configuration of the chapel makes it clear that the king of France is seen as God’s deputy.
Among the many things to admire are the Cliquot organ in the gallery above the altar, the carvings on the spandrel between the arches, the painted ceiling and the marble floor.
7. The Grand Canal
The longest arm of this huge cross-shaped body of water is 1.67 kilometers long.
This canal is one of André Le Nôtre’s masterpieces: looking west from the Escaliers de Latone, it creates a long column of reflected light that tapers off in the distance.
During the reign of Louis XIV, the canals were the site of various boating wonders: in the 1670s, the Venetian Republic sent king gondolas and boatmen, who lived in buildings by the water.
In winter it freezes and is used for sledding and ice skating.
Today, in summer, you can rent a paddle boat and spend a stately half-hour on the water, just as Louis XIV did over 300 years ago.
8. Royal Opera House
The palace’s opera house was completed in 1770, ending more than a century of construction.
It was unveiled for the future wedding celebration of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.
The acoustics are superb, thanks in part to the hall’s wooden structure, with panels carved and painted to look like stone.
The entire design was well ahead of its time: it was the first oval opera house in France, while the King’s Loft and Boudoir were early examples of the Louis XVI style (though built during the reign of Louis XV). This design would prevail in France for the next 20 years until the death of Louis XVI.
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 escape from the courtroom and relax with her friends.
This small village has 12 quaint cottages and farmhouses, half-timbered and some with thatched roofs, all by the lake.
There is a dairy farm, a small boudoir, a mill with a waterwheel, a farmhouse, a fairy tower and a barn.
All have their own flower or vegetable garden, and the dairy farm even produces milk and eggs for the queen.
The Queen’s Cottage, its twee spiral staircase is a favorite.
10. Grand Trianon
Decades ago, Louis XIV attempted to escape court life, although his escape was much larger than that of Marie Antoinette.
The Grand Trianon was a pavilion designed by Louis Le Vau for the king to be alone with his chief mistress, the Marquise de Montespan.
After the original building showed signs of wear and tear, the king commissioned Jules Hardouin Mansart in 1687 to build a new building made of pink marble. It has its own geometric garden and is only one storey high, which is lovely and grand at the same time.
11. Church of Our Lady
Jules Hardouin-Mansart also provided the design for the church, which was completed in 1686. It was built under the command of Louis XIV to accommodate the growing population after Louis XIV moved the royal family to Versailles at the beginning of the century.
In 1684, the king himself laid the first stone. The church is an early example of neoclassicism, with roof lamps on the dome illuminated from above.
Most fascinating is that it is a parish church, so its records contain all the details of royal baptisms, marriages and deaths that took place at Versailles.
12. Potager du Roi
You better be sure that the king’s vegetable garden is no ordinary vegetable garden.
It was painted by Jean-Baptiste de La Quintinie, the gardener, for five years, until 1673.
The Potager du Roi is still spread over 9 hectares, in almost the same layout as the one that fed Louis XIV. But now there are more varieties, there are more than 400 kinds of fruit trees.
Attached to the French National Institute of Landscape Architecture, the garden produces more than 30 tons of vegetables and 50 tons of fruit each year.
The melons, figs and asparagus that once served the king are now sold in the Versailles market or in the school’s own store.
13. La Ferme de Viltain
To be fair, walking around palaces and gardens all day may not be fun for kids.
In that case, you can drop by this dairy farm a few kilometers south of Versailles.
They have about 600 cows and you can see them milking, or better yet, meet their calves in the summer.
Foodies interested in provenance and more will host a dance party at the farm shop, which sells its own cheese, milk and yogurt, as well as homemade jams and charcuterie.
Depending on your time here, you can also pick your own seasonal flowers or fruit from the fields.
14. Lambinette Museum
If there’s one downside to Versailles, it’s queues and crowds, so if you’re overwhelmed, you’ll be glad to know that there are some quiet corners like this one to escape.
The Musée Lambinet is located in a mansion on Boulevard de la Reine, built in 1751 for Joseph-Barnabé Porchon, the building contractor of Louis XV. More than 550 objects are on display, showcasing the history of Versailles through ceramics, musical instruments, furniture and paintings by artists such as Alfred Sisley.
There is also a fascinating display of the Revolution, enriched with original artifacts and portraits of the two main characters, Jean-Paul Marat and Charlotte Corday.
15. Marché Notre-Dame
The Versailles market has the largest outdoor farmers’ market in the Ile-de-France region.
This is set on Tuesday, Friday and Sunday, while in the same square, the permanent indoor market is open for the rest of the week except Monday.
Outdoor stalls sell produce such as fruit and vegetables, flowers, cheese, spices, nuts and dried fruit, all beautifully presented.
Inside you can buy meat, wine, fresh bread, and more cheese, fish, pate, and take-away hot food like grilled chicken.
Like the best French markets, it’s a feast for the senses and a perfect window into local life.
Where to Stay: Best Hotels in Versailles, France
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