A visit to Paris would not be complete without touring the Palace of Versailles. Few places rival France’s Palace of Versailles for pure, unadulterated opulence. The splendour and grandness of the palace and gardens is unbelievable.
The Palace is located in Versailles, Yvelines, about 20 kilometres southwest of Paris city centre. If using the trains and Metro in Paris, it is relatively easy to get there. The RER C line goes directly to Versailles Rive Gauche station, which is a five minute walk from there to the palace. However, due to closures on the RER C line, we ended up taking 5 connections! Only a slight delay in getting to Versailles, but not a big deal.
When you arrive in Versailles, pay close attention to where you are. Take a GPS reading and note the street names. After a full day of walking around the palace and gardens, the large parking lot leading up to the palace will look completely different. To get to the train station, we ended up walking through a lot more of the town than we planned.
Hunting Lodge to Grand Château
The site of the Palace was first occupied by a small village and a church, and the surrounding forests were used for hunting. King Henry IV went hunting there in 1589. In 1607, King Henry’s son, Louis XIII, went there on his own hunting trip, and eventually built a hunting lodge on the site in 1624. Over the next 10 years, the hunting lodge transformed into a château. And around 1661, Louis XIV rebuilt, embellished and enlarged the château into what is now the Palace. He transformed it into a retreat for relaxation, and a venue for grand parties and ceremonies. A succession of kings continued to embellish the Palace up until the French Revolution.
The Palace of Versailles served as France’s principal royal residence from 1682, under Louis XIV, until the start of the French Revolution in 1789. Following the revolution, the palace was stripped of all its furnishings. However, many pieces have since been returned. Many of the palace rooms have been restored to the way they were before the revolution.
Buy Your Ticket in Advance
In 1837, the Palace of Versailles was turned into the Museum of the History of France. Today, it is owned by the French state and open to the public for tours. When you arrive at the Palace there will be a very, very long line of people waiting to get in. It may take 40 minutes to get to the entrance. If you don’t have a ticket, you will then have to go across the courtyard to the ticket office, purchase a ticket, and go back to the end of the line. I saw this happen with many visitors. Buy your ticket first, online or at the courtyard.
A Palace ticket, for €18.00, gives you access to the Palace, temporary exhibitions, the Coach Gallery, most of the Gardens and the Park. A Passport ticket, for €20.00, give you the same access as the Palace ticket plus admission to Trianon. Be sure you want to visit Trianon. After viewing the Palace and the Gardens, you will be very tired. Trianon is about a 30 minute walk away. There is a trolley to get there, but that will cost you another €7.50. In the end, we ended up not visiting Trianon.
While there is no bad time to visit the palace, the extensive gardens are obviously at their best in the spring and summer. During the fall season there will be fewer tourists, of course. Sundays and Tuesdays are usually busier as many of the Paris museums are closed those days. The gardens and park are accessible daily, but the buildings will be closed on Mondays.
After getting through main security, you will have to wait in another lineup to get into the main building. You can do a self-tour or an audio tour. We chose the self-tour.
The Royal Chapel
Upon entering the first of many vast hallways, we came upon the Royal Chapel. Construction of the Royal Chapel was completed in 1710 at the end of the reign of Louis XIV. inspired by Gothic architecture, the two-floor layout follows the format of Palatine chapels with imposing columns, large glass windows and buttresses. The vaulted ceiling is dedicated to the Holy Trinity with works by Antoine Coypel, Charles de La Fosse, and Jean Jouvenet.
To All the Glories of France
The tour of the first floor really consists of a gallery of the Palace history. Or rather, galleries of the Palace history depicted in larger than life paintings. There are five sets of rooms of which The Crusades Rooms and The Empire Rooms appear to have the most prominence.
Louis-Philippe, who became the King of France in 1830, transformed Versailles into The Museum of the History of France and dedicated it “to all the glories of France”. Since the creation of the Museum, numerous paintings and sculptures have been added to the collection. Today, there are over 6,000 paints and 3,000 sculptures.
Royal Opéra of Versailles
The Royal Opéra of Versailles is the main theatre and opera house in the Palace of Versailles. The excellent acoustics of the opera house are largely attributed to its wooden interior, which has been painted to resemble marble. The theatre was inaugurated on May 16, 1770 in celebration of the marriage of Louis XVI to Marie Antoinette.
Between 1952 and 1957, the Royal Opéra underwent a major renovation and was restored to its 1770 state. On April 9, 1957, the Opéra reopened in the presence of Queen Elizabeth II.
When used as a theatre, the Opéra can accommodate an audience of 712. However, the floor of the orchestra pit can be raised to the level of the stage. As such, the Opéra can be used as a ballroom and hold a total of 1200 people.
Today, with its superb acoustics and magnificent décor, the Opéra represents one of the finest 18th century opera houses in Europe.
The State Apartments
The State Apartments are a series of seven rooms mostly decorated in a lavish Italian-style composed of marble panelling and painted ceilings, which was greatly admired by the king at that time. The theme of the rooms is based on the sun gods of Greek mythology The apartments are open and aligned in such a way as to allow visitors to see the king and his royal family make their way to the chapel. Louis XIV also used the apartments in the evening for entertaining.
These rooms were definitely the most crowded on the tour. We spent most of our time in these rooms. These are the room where you actually get to see some personal possession of the kings and royal families.
The Hercules Room, originally a chapel, was the last apartment to be built by Louis XIV. The room was decorated by Louis XV with a huge painting of The Meal in the House of Simon by Veronese. In 1736, the Hercules Room was finally completed when François Lemoyne finished the ceiling painting depicting The Apotheosis of Hercules. Considered a masterpiece, it was created with scenes painted on canvas and then stuck to the ceiling. Having taken four years to complete, an exhausted Lemoyne committed suicide a year later.
The Room of Abundance is where the king kept many of the silver vases, medallions and other gems he liked to show off to his guests. When entertaining in the evening, a sideboard held coffee, wines and liqueurs were served as refreshments.
During evening gatherings in the Palace, the Diana Room was used as a billiards room, allowing visitors to watch the king play. During these events, the Venus Room was laid out with tables containing flowers, and silver bowls holding an assortment of fresh and candied fruit.
The Mars Room was used as a guard station and marked the start of the King’s Apartment. In the evening, it was also used for music and dancing.
The Mercury Room was originally the “bedroom”, although it was rarely used as such. It was used more as a games room. Once the Duke of Anjou slept here for three weeks on his way to Spain. The coffin containing the body of Louis XIV was displayed in this room for a week in September 1715 after he died. The room was once decorated in solid silver, but Louis XIV melted all the silver down to help finance the War of the League of Augsburg.
The Apollo Room, originally designed as a ceremonial room, was mostly used as a throne room. A huge, extraordinary silver throne once stood beneath a ceremonial canopy, but it was also melted down with the silver from the Mercury Room. It was replaced by a series of gilded chairs in styles that varied throughout the years.
The Hall of Mirrors
The Hall of Mirrors is a tribute to the political, economic and artistic success of France during the reign of Louis XIV. A total of 357 mirrors adorn the walls opposite the large, arched windows. The history of Louis XIV is depicted in the 30 compositions painted on the vaulted ceiling. The hall served mostly as a place for waiting and meeting dignitaries. Visitors and courtiers would cross the long hall daily. On rare occasions, the hall would be used for lavish balls, weddings and receptions.
The Treaty of Versailles was signed in the Hall of Mirrors on June 28th, 1919, ending the First World War. Since then, French presidents have used the hall to receive special guests.
The Gallery of Battles
The Gallery of Great Battles is the largest room in the Palace, covering most of the first floor of the south wing. The hall was designed for the Museum of the History of France by Louis-Philippe and displays 33 paintings depicting the greatest battles that influenced France’s history. Other paintings and busts were also created specifically for the gallery. Since its opening, the gallery has essentially remained undisturbed.
Gardens of Versailles
The Gardens of Versailles cover 2000 acres of land to the west of the palace. It is landscaped in the traditional French formal style, and surrounded by vast woodlands. The gardens took 40 years to complete, and needs to be replaced about every 100 years or so. The last time this was done was after a huge storm in 1999.
We spent a lot of time wandering through the gardens, dotted with dozens of statues, fountains, ponds, and trees and shrubs cut like angular designs. Throughout you will see gardeners busy pruning, cleaning and generally keeping the place in good shape.