The glamorous, sprawling Château de Versailles is matchless in many ways. Transformed from hunting lodge to palace by Louis XIV in 1682 (with the help of some 36,000 labourers), this is quite simply one of the most impressive royal residences in Europe, unbeatable in both physical epicness and the sheer grandeur of its décor. Feeling up to the challenge? Here’s how to get the most out of your day trip, whether you want to tick off the estate’s headline attractions or discover little-visited corners in the grounds and beyond.
RECOMMENDED: Full guide to the best things to do in Paris
Best things to do in and around the Château de Versailles
Arrive early to beat the tour groups to the State Apartments, the most famous of Versailles’s 2,300 rooms, where you’ll find the renowned Hall of Mirrors. Designed by Jules Hardouin-Mansart, the room’s intricate bronzework and statuary epitomise the palace’s excesses. It was here that the Treaty of Versailles was signed in 1919, ending the First World War, and where state guests including Queen Elizabeth II and the Kennedys have been entertained.
The suite of apartments on the ground floor traces the story of Adélaïde and Victoire, daughters of Louis XV who lived at the palace from 1752 until the revolution. The free audio guide comes into its own here, shedding light on the strict rules that governed life at court, notably the waking and sleeping ceremonies that took place each day in the Mesdames’ bedchambers; rarely were they afforded any degree of privacy.
After a morning at the palace, you’ll soon find there’s only so much gilded stucco you can take. Cute café-restaurant La Mangette (38 Rue Carnot) is the perfect antidote, with its simple furniture, concrete floors and floor-to-ceiling windows. Expect fresh, seasonal dishes such as beetroot, quinoa and goat’s cheese salad followed by chocolate mousse, and reasonably priced wines by the glass. Even better, most of the menu is available in posh takeaway boxes, ideal for a chic picnic in the gardens.
Versailles was significantly expanded by Louis XIV alongside his work on the palace. It was at this time that the avenues were laid out, with the Classical-Baroque Cathédrale Saint-Louis following at the request of Louis XV. The town is surprisingly lively and enjoyable to explore, particularly during the outdoor market (Tue, Fri and Sun, 7am–2pm), when the Place du Marché Notre Dame springs into life.
You could spend days exploring the gardens, which range from the ordered lines and fountains made famous by Le Nôtre to shady groves and extensive parkland. Be sure to admire the symmetry of the south-facing Orangery: 4m-thick walls keep the temperature above 5°C in winter, but it’s most beautiful in summer when more than 1,000 orange trees and palms decorate the terrace.
This appealing confection of pink marble colonnades makes a fascinating contrast to the palace itself. Originally commissioned by Louis XIV for his mistress Madame de Montespan, it was later home to Napoleon in the early 1800s. The tour includes Napoleon’s council chamber and malachite room, which was adapted to house a set of ostentatious sculptures gifted by Tsar Alexander I.
Looking to add a spot of romance to your day? Hire a rowing boat (from €13 for half an hour) for a gentle paddle on the Grand Canal, Versailles’s famous cross-shaped lake. From here you can admire the famous Grande Perspective in reverse, looking back through the gardens towards the château.
The Petit Trianon was presented to Marie Antoinette as a wedding gift by her new husband, Louis XVI – although it is said he never subsequently spent the night. It was in these rooms that the queen famously escaped the strictures of court etiquette, throwing lavish events for close friends. Look out for the video installations, which help bring this period to life.
As well as spending extravagantly on fashion and entertainment, Marie Antoinette also overhauled the grounds of the Petit Trianon. The Normandy-style hamlet she commissioned is still oddly out of keeping with the grandeur of the château, and fascinating to visit. Part is kept as a working farm; look out for lambs in the spring and the particularly personable pygmy goats.