A guide to visiting Versailles

Discovering Versailles at your own pace, and enjoying each sight without rushing through will assure that you enjoy this magnificent palace and its gardens in much the same way its illustrious royal inhabitants would have done during the 17th and 18th Centuries. Because of its large size and intimidating history, Versailles is best taken bit by bit over the course of a long day. Begin early in the morning when you are well rested and able to take in every extraordinary detail. Taking a guided tour will enhance this experience further. Let yourself be guided through the magnificent apartments of the king and queen, the reception rooms, and the stunning hall of mirrors.

The Chateau of Versailles

Built to impress, the Chateau of Versailles is perhaps one of the world’s largest vanity projects. Louis XIV employed a whole army of architects, builders, gardeners and artists to create this sumptuous piece of French fantasy. Building began in earnest in 1664 under the aegis of celebrated architect Louis Le Vau. The original plan stipulated that the king’s father’s hunting lodge be integrated into the overall design, Le Vau developed an innovative solution called the envelope design to get around this problem. As Le Vau extended the hunting lodge into the enormous chateau we see today, Louis XIV moved his entire court from Paris in 1682. Having the seat of power and government of France all in one place meant there had to be adequate accommodation for the hundreds of nobles and their families and all of the servants who served them. From this period until the revolution of 1789, Versailles would be added to by each successive king in a feverish stint of building works that continued unabated for decades. Incredibly, as though a gargantuan palace wasn’t enough, the king ordered the creation of separate domains and palaces within the grounds of Versailles. The largest of these, the Trianon, could easily be mistaken as the main chateau.

The Royal Chapel

The first magnificent sight which visitors will see is the Royal Chapel. The Royal Chapel is a rare example of a combination of baroque and gothic styles in architecture. It was conceived by the architect Hardouin-Mansart for Louis XIV and opened in 1689. The architect died before he saw his masterpiece completed. The chapel was a late addition to the overall building projects at Versailles and as a result Louis XIV himself was only able to enjoy the church during the last 5 years of his reign.
According to royal decree, the king ruled by divine right; God had chosen him to rule. The paintings on the chapel’s vaulted ceiling depict this ancien régime ideology quite splendidly - beginning at the nave and ending above the gallery where the king would sit each morning for 10am mass. The king would watch from the gallery, while the public and officers would sit below in the nave. The ladies of the court would sit in the side galleries. He would occasionally descend to the nave but this was usually reserved for special occasions such as the baptisms of his children or grandchildren.

The King’s grand apartment

The parade of seven spectacular rooms that leads on from the chapel was designed to be an impressive spectacle for the king’s visitors. It was therefore open to the public who came to the palace seeking favours from the king. To make the impression all the more memorable, the king’s wing is book-ended by two showstoppers: the Hercules Salon and the Hall of Mirrors. The tour of these rooms begins in the Hercules Salon. Jaw-dropping in size and decoration, one of the main features of this hall is the enormous painting by Veronese, the Meal at the House of Simon, offered to King Louis XIV by the Doge of Venice in exchange for his support against the Turkish Empire. The ceiling of the salon is elaborately decorated with an allegorical painting, titled the Apotheosis of Hercules, painted by the young Francois Lemoyne. The Hercules Salon is followed by many more spectacular rooms such as the Abundance Salon, the Venus Salon, the Diana Salon, the Mars Salon, and the Mercury and Apollo Salon.

Hall of Mirrors

The great Hall of Mirrors was Louis XIV’s most lavish creation at Versailles and it still impresses today. Its 17 arched windows, which look out onto the gardens, are echoed on the opposite side of the hall by 17-mirrored arches. Together they contain 357 squares of gilt-edged mirrors - an extraordinary amount at the time owing to their expensive fabrication. The creation of Versailles was not only a means to impress but also to demonstrate the prowess of French arts and industry. The hall of Mirrors was no exception, competing as it was with Venice’s reputation for mirror making. The rest of the room competes with a lavishly ornamented ceiling, with 30 allegorical paintings by Charles Le Brun, and a line of glittering cut-glass chandeliers.
Known at the time as La Grande Gallery, the Hall of Mirrors served as a passageway for the palace when it was not used during official ceremonies, such as weddings or ambassadorial visits. During the modern period the Hall of Mirrors was host to the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, which would end World War I and has been used by French presidents for numerous official occasions.

The Queen’s Hamlet

Marie-Antoinette met the ire of many of her subjects when she ordered a farm to be built with replica Norman village on the grounds of the Chateau. Created as a means to escape the stultifying atmosphere of Versailles and located near her private retreat, the Petit Trianon, her small farm and Hamlet provided a pared-down rustic setting in contrast with the excesses of palace life. 11 houses with thatched roofs were built around a lake. Used by the queen for various activities, such as gaming and entertaining, these houses were reserved for her use while four of the buildings were reserved for the peasants and general activities associated with farming the domain. Each house had its own vegetable garden surrounded by a hedge.

The Gardens

Andre Le Notre’s design for the gardens of Versailles was as much about spectacle as the interior of the palace proved to be. His use of water was a masterstroke that made Versailles so unique to visitors. He used it in varying forms through the creation of dazzling vistas with his artificial lakes and show-stopping water-fountains. The hundreds of water features and fountains come to life during the spring and summer with the popular musical fountain show.

The Petit Trianon

Originally built for Louis XV’s mistress, Madame de Pompadour, the Petit Trianon is more readily associated today with Marie Antoinette, due in part to the amount of time she spent there in retreat from the court of Versailles. Built in a pared-down neo-classical style known as the Greek style it was created by the architect Anges-Jacques Gabriel. Sobriety and spare embellishments would contribute to make what many would agree is a masterpiece in elegance and refinement. Walking through the high-ceilinged rooms, one can understand why Monarchs chose this elegant and comfortable setting over the sometimes gaudy and overbearing decoration of the palace. The petit Trianon is surrounded by a handsome English garden - again another nod to a desire to escape the rigorousness of the palace, which seemed to extend over everything including its gardens.

The Grand Trianon

Built by the architect Jules-Hardouin Mansart on the orders of Louis XIV, the Grand Trianon was created as a get-a-way for Louis XIV. The single story group of buildings was inspired by Italian architecture and created to be at once luxurious, elegant, and modest, providing relief from the pomp and rigidity of palace life. It was very popular with the Queen Marie Leszczynska, who occupied it during the summer months. It was also home to several of the king’s relations such as his sister and brother-in-law. Marie-Antoinette preferred the petit Trianon, however. After the revolution the Trianon’s contents were sold and its next occupants, Napoleon Bonaparte and his second wife the Empress Marie-Louise, redecorated it in the empire style of the period. Today the palace retains much of this decoration. In the 1960s president Charles de Gaulle had the palace restored as a guesthouse for the presidents of France. The northern wing became an official presidential residence.

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