From a fertile woodland to a royal hunting lodge, to a luxurious playground for the French aristocracy, to a world-renowned museum, the Palace of Versailles in the southwest region of Ile-de-France has been the site of many significant historical moments in Europe over the past three hundred years.
When the future king of France, Louis XIII (13), first visited the small medieval village of Versailles on his debut hunting trip in August 1607, he was surprised to discover that it was surrounded by meadows abundant with pheasants, boars and stags. Although he did not visit Versailles again until in 1621, Louis XIII’s fondness for the location quickly grew and in late 1623, he decided to build a hunting lodge where he could spend the night instead of travelling all the way back to the Palace of Saint-Germain-en-Laye in the west.
Construction on the site continued until 1634, and although the architectural style of Louis XIII’s original chalet was neither distinctive nor exceptionally fashionable, it laid the basis for the magnificent Palace we know today.
Louis XIII’s firstborn son, Louis XIV (14), was three years old when he was sent to Versailles to escape a smallpox epidemic in October 1641. However, Louis XIV’s next documented visit wasn’t until ten years later, after he had been crowned. The young king could see great potential in the modest chateau and the forests surrounding it, and decided to extend it beyond the hunting lodge of brick and stone built by his father.
Major work on the Palace began in 1661, and in 1682, Louis XIV moved the Royal Court and the main body of government to Versailles. The king, who was of the opinion that eternal glory was conveyed not only by victory in war but also via architecture, strived to make the Palace an expression of power and elegance. Notable additions to the Palace during Louis XIV’s reign include the forecourt in 1661, the South Wing in 1679-1681, the North Wing in 1685-1689 and the Royal Chapel in 1699-1710.
It was during this time that Versailles also developed is reputation as the location of prestigious ceremonies and grand parties.
However, following Louis XIV’s death in September 1715, Versailles entered a period of neglect when the royal court and French government relocated briefly to Vincennes, and then to Paris.
It was not until June 1722 that Louis XV (15) returned to Versailles. Although his main agenda was to complete the work of his great-grandfather, the king’s timid temperament also led to an increase in the number of smaller chambers hidden from public view. During his reign, Louis XV did not reside at the Palace, but nonetheless carried out major work both inside and outside the chateau, including a full refurbishment of the private apartments and the construction of the Royal Opera House.
Like his grandfather, Louis XVI (16) was born in Versailles; unlike his grandfather, Louis XVI spent most of his life in Versailles, where the celebration of his marriage to Marie-Antoinette in 1770 was one of the greatest events to take place at the Palace.
Over time, the young couple returned the decadence, luxury and style of bygone times to Versailles. However, by 1789, France was hurtling towards revolution due to bankruptcy caused by France’s support of the American Revolution, high food prices triggered by drought, and long-term xenophobia – among both the common population and the nobility – towards the Austrian-born queen.
Following a brief siege by the Women’s March on Versailles, Louis XVI, Marie-Antoinette and their children were forced from the Palace during the early hours of 6 October 1789 and embarked upon a fateful journey to Paris…
The monarchy never returned to Versailles.
Miraculously, the Palace escaped destruction during the French Revolution – although it did undergo a thorough ransacking of furniture, art and other valuables. Several projects were suggested for its future use, but it was not until Louis-Philippe, a distant cousin of Louis XVI, claimed the throne in 1830 that Versailles was brought back to life.
Louis-Philippe hoped to rebuild a relationship between monarchists and revolutionaries, and decided to turn Versailles into a museum “dedicated to all the glories of France”. Opening in 1837, the museum celebrated renowned events in French history from the Middle Ages through to the beginning of Louis-Philippe’s reign.
A second civil war in 1848, known as the February Revolution, would see Louis-Philippe exiled to Great Britain and France once again become a Republic, but the Palace remained unscathed and continued to host some of the most important political events in French and European history.
During World War I, Versailles escaped invasion by the enemy and the Palace was used to mobilise support and assist wounded soldiers. When it was chosen as the location for the signing of the Peace Treaty in 1919, in which Germany formally accepted full responsibility for the Great War, Versailles once again came to the attention of the world.
However, despite the resurgence of international attention, the Palace continued to suffer from a lack of maintenance, due to a shortage of money following the war. Salvation came from wealthy American businessman John D. Rockefeller, who made two separate (and considerable) donations in gestures of gratitude for France’s assistance in the American War of Independence, and implemented a system of patronage essential for proper maintenance of the site.
In 1920, Palace curators began to recover the furniture, artwork and other valuables that had been scattered during the revolutionary ransacking, and it was during this revitalisation period that Versailles once again regained the cosmopolitan image that would see the general public flock to glimpse it its artistic and historic grandeur.
Today, the Estate of Versailles spans more than 800 hectares and is composed of the Palace and its gardens, the Parks, the Trianon estate, and a handful of buildings in the township.
Since 2011, a major government-sponsored renovation project called Le Grand Versailles has seen restorations to the Hall of Mirrors, the Petit Trianon, the roofs on the central section of the palace, the north and south wings, the Royal Gate, and the Dufour Pavilion, which now constitutes the Palace’s main entrance.
Guided tours, which allow participants to see parts of the Estate that are otherwise closed to visitors, are available upon advance booking.
Special events are continuously held in the Royal Chapel, the Royal Opera House and the Equestrian Academy of Versailles, while the Grandes Eaux Fountain Displays bring the parterres in the Garden to life to the soundtrack of baroque music.
The numerous dining options at Versailles all uphold the highly-regarded reputation of French cuisine. Casual takeaway food services available include baked potato stands, sorbet stands, and freshly squeezed orange juice vendors, as well as a selection of sophisticated cafés, delicatessens and restaurants, and picnics are permitted in the park between the Palace and the Trianon estate.
Since its aristocratic origins, the Palace of Versailles has been steadfast in its support of artistic creation and the preservation of the finest works by the most gifted painters, sculptors and craftsmen. In the spirit of this obligation, the Palace has played host to the exhibit of a famous contemporary artist every summer since 2008, and the museum currently boasts a collection of over 60,000 works that includes original, copied, and specially-commissioned sculptures and paintings dating back to the 16th century.
The chateau and its exquisitely decorated rooms, the art collections, the unique landscaping of the gardens, the overwhelming history, the delicious French food and the luxurious ambience of the Palace all combine to reflect Versailles’s dual identity as both the residence of French nobility and as a museum committed to presenting the glories of France to the world.
A singular symbol of extravagance, the Palace’s tempestuous past may be a cautionary tale against royal absolutism, yet its intricate opulence and architectural dominance is truly a testament to the supremacy of French creativity and style.
Pricing & Admission
There are several different pricing options for admission to the Palace of Versailles, with each ticket offering access to different parts of the Estate.
For example, the Palace ticket gives visitors access only to the Palace of Versailles and costs 18€, whereas the Passport ticket gives visitors access to the entire Versailles Estate and costs 20€, or 27€ on days of the Musical Fountains show. Access to the Palace and the estate of Trianon is free for visitors under 18 years old and visitors with a disability (plus one companion).
All tickets can be purchased online at the official Palace of Versailles website (http://en.chateauversailles.fr/). Tickets can also be purchased on site, at the Palace ticket office which is located around the Courtyard of Honnour; however, due to nightmare queues, it is strongly recommended that visitors purchase their tickets beforehand.
How to Visit
Located approximately 40 minutes southwest of Paris, the suburb of Versailles is accessible via a number of transport options.
Motorists are advised to take the A13 motorway and exit at no.5 Versailles Centre. Follow the road signs for the Palace of Versailles. GPS coordinates for the Palace of Versailles: 48.48’17N and 2.07’15E.
There are several pay car parks available, and parking for disabled drivers is free upon presentation of proof of disability. The car park at the Neptune Gate is also reserved for disabled drivers, or alternatively disabled visitors can be dropped off near entrance B in the Main Courtyard.
– RER line C arrives at Versailles Château – Rive Gauche train station, which is a 10-minute walk to the Palace;
– SNCF trains from Gare Montparnasse arrive at Versailles Chantiers train station, which is an 18-minute walk to the Palace;
– SNCF trains from Gare Saint Lazare arrive at Versailles Rive Droite train station (link is external), a 17-minute walk to the Palace.
Purchase two tickets (two-way trip) from point of departure to the Versailles train station, or use a pass (Navigo, Mobilis or Paris Visite) covering zones 1 to 4 if travelling from Paris. T+ tickets cannot be used for this journey. Schedules are available on http://www.transilien.com
The RATP bus line 171 runs between Pont de Sèvres (terminus of the Paris metro line 9) and the Palace of Versailles in 30 minutes without traffic. T+ tickets can be used for this journey. Times and routes available on the RATP website.
The TRI bus of the Versailles Phébus network runs between the Versailles Chantiers train station, Versailles Château Rive Gauche train station, the Palace of Versailles, the Versailles Rive Droite train station and the Palaces of Trianon (terminus “Les Trianons”). Schedules available on http://www.phebus.tm.fr
The Versailles express shuttle offers transport to the Palace from the Eiffel Tower in Paris every day except for Mondays. One departure per day at 2pm, return at 6pm.
When to Visit
Avoid visiting on Tuesdays and Sundays, which are the busiest days.
Palace of Versailles
9am to 5:30pm
*closed on Mondays
Estate of Trianon
12pm to 5:30pm
*closed on Mondays
Gardens & Park
8am to 6pm
12:30pm to 5:30pm
*closed on Mondays
To assist with the vast size of the Estate, there are small transport options available for hire on site, such as small electric vehicles and Segway’s, while visitors to the Park can hire a bicycle or catch a ride on the Little Train. Additionally, row boats are available for hire in the Grand Canal.
Tourists are encouraged to remember their visit by purchasing a souvenir from one of the many gift shops on site, including the Librairie des Princes which offers a range of objects celebrating the art of French style, such as crystal ware and scented candles, and the Gardens shop which offers a large selection of gifts based on the gardens or Marie-Antoinette, such as stationery, leatherwork, candles and incense, T-shirts, books, gardening equipment and more.
For visitors wanting to extend their stay and immerse themselves in Versailles, there are a range of accommodation options available. L’ Hôtel Le Versailles is a four-star hotel nearest to the Palace. The Trianon Palace Versailles is ideally located between the Palace of Versailles and the Trianon Estate, and L’ Hôtel la Résidence du Berry is a three-star hotel in the heart of the historic Saint Louis district. Consult your travel agent or the official Palace of Versailles website for pricing and booking details.
Lonely Planet: Discover France, May 2013, Lonely Planet Publications Pty Ltd