Things to Do in Versailles
Louis XIV’s Palace of Versailles takes the award for the most visited château in France, and the magnificent Versailles Gardens (Jardins de Versailles) are world renowned. A series of beautifully landscaped gardens, show-stopping fountains, and tree-lined pathways covering 800 hectares (1,976 acres), the gardens center on the cross-shaped Grand Canal.
The opulence of the Palace of Versailles reaches its peak in the Hall of Mirrors (Galerie des Glaces)—a 240-foot-long (73-meter-long) ballroom with 357 mirrors adorning 17 huge arches on one side and 17 arcaded windows overlooking the formal gardens on the other. It was also the location of the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, which formally ended World War I.
Laid out in formal French style and famed for their geometrically aligned terraces, tree-lined paths and ponds, the gardens of the Palace of Versailles are worth a visit on their own. And of all the lovely fountain pools in the gardens, the Neptune Fountain (Bassin de Neptune) is the largest and most grand.
The pink-colonnaded Grand Trianon was built in 1687 by the famous architect Mansart, as a tranquil getaway from court life for Louis XIV.
Setting the benchmark for Italianate garden conservatory design, the elegantly long and low palace of pink marble and porphyry features geometrically ordered rows of columns and windows, topped by a balustrade roof.
The original furnishings were plundered during the Revolution. Today, the palace is furnished in Empire style, reflecting the decoration installed by Napoleon, who was particularly enamored of the building. Surrounding the palace is a lovely flower garden.
While the Grand Trianon is open to the public, it is also an official residence of the French President.
Marie-Antoinette left a mark on Versailles larger than any other left by the queens of the French monarchy, and the physical embodiment of her maverick ways can be found at her estate on the grounds of the Gardens of Versailles.
The Marie-Antoinette's Estate is comprised of several elements. There is the Petit Trianon, which served as her palace away from home. Often frustrated by the politics of her husband's court, Marie-Antoinette would escape to her royal residence, where no one could enter without her express invitation – not even the king himself.
There are also Marie-Antoinette's personal gardens, through which visitors can stroll today and see that they are much unchanged from the time of the queen's reign. She also had a hamlet–a glamorous, picturesque take on the rustic country homes that the aristocracy at the time had on the grounds of their own estates – with a kitchen garden and a working farm in addition to its mill, decorative gardens and charming lake.
The Grand Canal, a highlight of the 2,000-acre (800-hectare) Park at the Palace of Versailles, leads the eye to the farthest perimeter of the grounds. Designed by Andre Le Norte, the canal extends for nearly a mile and is the largest body of water on the palace grounds.
There have been five chapels throughout the history of the Palace of Versailles, but today only the Royal Chapel remains. The majority of its use took place throughout the 1700s with daily masses, royal weddings (including that of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette), birth announcements, and baptisms.
More than 30 fountains dot the gardens of Versailles, the most famous being the Apollo fountain, with its horses and chariot, and the Neptune fountain featuring the god of the oceans with his wife. Built in the 17th century, when water was a scarce commodity, the Versailles Fountains (Les Fontaines) were a lavish show of Louis XIV’s wealth and power.
The Orangery at the Palace of Versailles (Orangerie de Versailles) ranks among the crowning achievements of architect Jules Hardouin-Mansart. Built between 1683 and 1685, the architectural jewel features a large gallery with vaulted ceilings, used to house citrus trees during the winter months. Several notable sculptures line the space.
An opera house fit for a king, recently renovated to its original splendor, the Royal Opera at the Palace of Versailles was built for the wedding of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Upon its completion in 1770 under the direction of architect Ange-Jacques Gabriel, it was the largest concert hall in all of Europe.
More Things to Do in Versailles
The highlight of a visit to Versailles is entering the King's State Apartment (Grand Appartement du Roi), built for Louis XIV by Le Vau in the 1670s. The King’s Apartment is a succession of salons dedicated to the gods and planets, used for court functions.
The opulent Queen’s Apartments include the private rooms and the golden queen’s bedchamber, whose hidden door was used by Marie-Antoinette to escape the Paris mob during the early days of the Revolution.
The most spectacular room in the entire palace is the glittering Galerie des Glaces (Hall of Mirrors). The baroque mirror-lined hall was designed by Mansart in 1678, and features mirror-lined arched windows and gilt sculptures holding aloft crystal chandeliers.
The Treaty of Versailles was signed in the Hall of Mirrors at the end of World War I.
Following the age-old traditions of French classical dressage, the Academy of Equestrian Arts hosts performances in the former Royal Stables of the Palace of Versailles. The horseback spectacle is a modern-day equestrian ballet, featuring a mix of haute école, fencing, kyudo (Japanese archery), and performance art.
Locals and foreign visitors alike are thrilled by Versailles' newest attraction, the Scent Courtyard (Cour des Senteurs). Located just steps away from the main gates of the city's world-famous palace, the courtyard opened in 2013 in Saint-Louis, the oldest neighborhood in Versailles.
Inside the courtyard is an immersive experience for the senses. From the orange blossom-perfumed fountain and Maison des Parfums to the garden paths and shopping spots, it's another world entirely.
While the Scent Courtyard may seem like a mere oasis for shoppers, it should be noted that it is the home of rarities. The Guerlain store here, for example, is the only one in France outside Paris' Avenue des Champs-Élysées, and court's Maison Fabre is the only place in the world to purchase exact replicas of Marie Antoinette's two-toned, perfumed gloves. The Lenôtre combines perfumery and gastronomy for food lovers, and Diptyque, the final shop here, is a uniquely French brand that brings a bit of Versailles home with the visitor.