I’ve had a few outright travel failures in my adventuring and look back and laugh at most of them. Wrong train? Easy fix. Fell asleep? It worked out in the end. Destination closed? Find another one and go back. I tend to be pretty go with the flow (much to the irritation of just about everyone I’ve ever traveled with) and pivot pretty easily. Visiting the Palace of Versailles was another matter entirely for me. Now, people have had amazing experiences there and I know it’s possible, but my day at the palace was such a cluster of disappointment. I’m going to tell you why I wanted to go (surprise, history!), a brief history of the palace itself, and what exactly went so wrong for me with tips on how to do better for your own trip.
A Brief History of the Palace of Versailles
The Palace of Versailles, home of French royals from 1682 to 1789, is an ideal day trip experience when visiting Paris. King Louis XIV built the palace as a testimony to his opulent nature and it remained in service until the start of the French Revolution. Initially used by Louis XII as a hunting lodge in the early 1620s, the property became the foundation of what would become the most luxuriant structures. Note: The Chateau de Vaux-le-Vicomte in nearby Maincy was a source of inspiration for the palace.
The Grand Canal stretches upwards of 1700 yards in length and 67 yards wide with countless fountains and sculptures. Later, in the 1670s, a second floor was added as well as the Hall of Mirrors and additional wings to the north and south.
Marie Antoinette and The Queen’s Hamlet
Over the next 100 years, additional construction took place to include both the Grand and Petit Trianon as well as the Carriage Museum. Marie Antoinette spent her time between The Petit Trianon and the adjoining farm village where she would retreat to escape politics. The Queen’s Hamlet is a short walk from the palace and a true juxtaposition against the extravagance of the palace grounds.
The Hall of Mirrors
If you think back to middle and high school world history class, you may remember learning about the Treaty of Versailles which marked the end of World War I. What probably isn’t in your memory is that this signing was actually done in the Hall of Mirrors, just one of the extraordinary sights you’ll encounter when visiting the Palace of Versailles.
Jules Hardouin-Mansart’s elaborate Hall of Mirrors expands over 200 feet in length and the ceiling reaches heights of approximately 40 feet. It is here you’ll Charles Le Brun’s paintings; King Lous XIV’s homage to himself and the whole of France. Twenty-one mirrors adorn this great hall, which was completed in 1684 where 235 years later, the Treaty of Versailles, ending WWI was signed. The following picture is a stock photo–it definitely wasn’t this empty when I was there but I did want to be able to share the grandeur.
Visiting The Palace of Versailles
Tour Options at Versailles
If you’re looking for an intimate guided tour of Versailles from Paris that feels personally curated, an after-hours tour from Take Walks allows you to experience the site’s opulence, without the crowds. Choose from a Morning at the Palace or Closing Time at Versailles small group tour with a knowledgeable guide.
For those with more of a free spirit or sense of adventure, visiting the Palace of Versailles without a guide is also an option. Self-guided tours are free but require a reservation; call: +33 (0)1 30 83 04 05. Individual tours are available without a reservation. For more information, visit the palace website.
Those with reservations will be split into groups depending upon reservation time, and remember it can be crowded, of course, because who doesn’t want to visit the Palace of Versailles? If you’re able, book your tickets in advance. In fact, if you are planning on visiting during the summer, I would recommend not trying to go if you haven’t already booked tickets.
By the time I made it to Versailles, I had been to Paris many times. Versailles had always been on my list but somehow just hadn’t happened. This particular trip wasn’t in the city proper to begin with and there was an empty day to fill, so it was finally time. We booked tickets in advance and got there at a reasonable time, but the crowds were unlike anything I had encountered before. I had assumed that since we had a timed entry ticket that they limited the amount of people in the palace at one time–very much not the case. The pre-bought tickets could skip the ticket-buying line, but there wasn’t a cap. It’s important to note that this was June–the height of European tourist season. I knew it would be more crowded than I prefer–I’ve been traveling long enough that I know how this works. But I had never experienced anything like this.
I found myself wedged into a shuffling mob. I’m 5’2″, so the only thing I got to see as we made our way through the rooms was the backs and arms of the people around me. It was so tight that I literally couldn’t lift my foot to move–it really was shuffling. It was the closest I’ve ever gotten to claustrophobia–it felt like one wrong move would result in injury. At the end of my visit, I could say I’ve been to the Palace of Versailles, but I can’t say that I’ve seen much of anything other than people. Remember that earlier stock photo of the Hall of Mirrors? This is what it looked like for me:
This was the least crowded room in the palace. All of this is to say that I’m fully aware that sometimes our only choice is to travel during busy tourist season, but it makes yet another case for heading to more off the beaten path locations instead of the big draws. I’ll go back to the Palace of Versailles at some point in the off season to experience it in a less crowded way–I still need to see the history that I love.
How to get there
As far as getting there, public transportation is available. The RER-C train to the Chateau Versailles – Rive Gauche stop is the one to look for or you can visit by way of the SNCF. If you’re coming from the Eiffel Tower area, the Versailles Express Bus will also get you there!
As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Palace of Versailles is extremely popular. Consider visiting during the shoulder season or off-season; April, May, September, and October are usually far better times to visit. And as a side note, if you’re like Elsa and the cold doesn’t bother you, on Sundays from November through March admission is free. On Mondays, though, find another way to spend your time in Paris because the palace is closed.
Touring the Gardens While Visiting the Palace of Versailles
The gardens at Versailles are exquisite. You can explore the grounds via tram, which you’ll need to have money on hand, to experience. Similarly, you may rent a golf cart or bike. This allows you to explore at your leisure. Be aware, however, that renting a bike may prove a bit more challenging. The spot for rentals is a fair walk from the palace entrance. Golf car rentals, however, are adjacent to the palace entrance. This bit of information can help as you plan your exploration of the grounds.
And of course, while there are plenty of spots to eat at the palace, it is perfectly acceptable to bring a picnic lunch. You may eat within the gardens, just not in the palace itself. When planning your day, just as you would any excursion, sunscreen and maybe a personal cooling towel or fan in the warmer months, layers when it’s cooler. Tip: Bring your own water bottles!
How to Immerse Yourself in the History of Versailles
If you’re not up on your French history, or if you’d rather just dive in and learn more about what you’re experiencing, it is highly recommended that visitors use the Audioguide or interactive app for additional insight. On its own, the palace is stunning of course, but traveling is about expanding your horizons and learning, so if presented, it’s always a smart idea to dig in and learn all you can. Or, if you’re one of those who likes to “know before you go,” Travel and Discover offers a comprehensive Palace of Versailles full tourist guide YouTube video to help you get your bearings.
How Much Time to Spend Visiting the Palace of Versailles
Even if you did have an entire full day to spend at the palace, you likely won’t be enable to see, do, and experience everything. The gardens alone are so expansive. Even with a golf cart, to see them in their full glory takes about three hours. This includes stops and breaks. You’ll want ample time to explore the palace itself, but also The Trianon Estate and of course Marie Antoinette’s hamlet.
Almost 15 million people visit the Palace of Versailles every year (and I think most of them were there that day in June), and for good reason. The stunning beauty, intricate artwork and architecture, and fascinating history make it a bucket list item for many. Hopefully, these tips for visiting the Palace of Versailles and simple breakdown will help you plan your visit and make navigating the site easy, enjoyable, and as crowd-free as possible.