Built during the reign of Louis XIV in the mid-17th century, the Palace of Versailles nearly emptied the kingdom's coffers as 30,000 workers and soldiers toiled to flatten hills, move forests, and drain marshes to create the fantastical palace and gardens that so effectively projected the absolute power of the French monarchy at the time.
The opulence of Versailles reaches its peak in the central gallery known as the Hall of Mirrors — a 75-meter-long ballroom with 17 huge mirrors on one side and, on the other, an equal number of arcaded windows looking out over the formal gardens. Designed by architect Jules Hardouin-Mansart and decorated by painter Charles le Brun, construction of the Hall of Mirrors began in 1678, and it has quite the history: this was the setting for 17th- and 18th-century royal ceremonies, and it was also the location for the signature of the 1919 Versailles Treaty that formally ended WWI.
The most acclaimed example of formal French garden design, Versailles’ vast chateau gardens are famed for their geometrically aligned terraces, tree-lined paths, ponds and canals. Spreading west of the palace, the Versailles Chateau Gardens cover 800 hectares (1,976 acres) in the style of garden landscape artist, Andre Le Notre.
One of the most special aspects of the gardens is the 50 fountains which act as focal points, enhancing the geometrical design. From late spring to early autumn, the fountains come to life as part of the annual Grandes Eaux water spectacles. Garden highlights include the horses and chariot of the Apollo Fountain, the Grand Canal stretching off to the horizon, and the detailed parterres of the Orangerie.
Wherever you stroll, you’re bound to come across a grove, colonnade, fountain or sculpture that will surprise, delight and take your breath away.
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.
Versailles’ chateau gardens are vast, laid out in formal French style and famed for their geometrically aligned terraces, tree-lined paths and, notably, their ponds.
Of all the lovely fountain pools gracing the Versailles gardens, the Bassin de Neptune is the largest.
Designed by famed landscape artist Le Notre and laid out between 1661 and 1700, the fountain features three groups of statues, including Neptune and Amphitrite.
A new fountain installed by Louis XV in the 1730s was acclaimed for the force and variety of its jets water playing over the sculptural groups. In all, the fountain boasts 99 water effects and is fronted by the lovely Dragon Fountain.
In summer, Bassin de Neptune is a focus for a display of choreographed fireworks, spectacularly reflected in the fountain’s expansive pool.
As you exit onto the back terrace of the Palace of Versailles, the breathtaking view of the royal gardens is dominated by the Grand Canal, which leads your eye to the farthest perimeter of the grounds. But although it is a spectacular feature of the park, it was designed and is used today as a practical feature of the gardens.
Constructed over the course of a decade in the late 17th century under the reign of Louis the XIV, its original name – Little Venice – came from the canal's inaugural gifts from the Doge of Venice: a full set of gondolas, complete with Venetian gondoliers. Also moored there were various ships and yachts built to the scale of the canal and used in elaborate water shows and recreations of famous battles. But the canal is also the main feature of the irrigation systems for the gardens, used to drain off water from the higher elevations and pumped back uphill to re-water them – a genius move for its time.
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 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.
There have been five chapels throughout the history of the Palace of Versailles, but today only the last of them remains – the Royal Chapel, the exterior of which can be seen from the entrance courtyard as it disrupts the otherwise symmetrical design of the palace.
Although it was officially completed in the early 18th century under Louis XIV and consecrated in 1710, there continued to be improvements and renovations well into the 20th century. However, the majority of its use took place throughout the 1700s with daily masses, royal weddings – including that of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette - and birth announcements and baptisms. Because the French monarchy was heavily entrenched in Catholicism, the chapel played a large part in Louis XIV's reign although today it is a deconsecrated space. Today classical concerts and other special events are hosted in the Royal Chapel, but it is closed for daily viewing by the public with the exception of VIP tours.
Recently renovated to its original splendor, the Royal Opera at Versailles is fit for a king, and one can imagine the spectacles performed here over the centuries. But its history is a bit rockier than you might expect from a monarchy.
Louis XIV was the first to conceive of the idea of a dedicated performance space for royal performances in the late 17th century, but the ensuing historic troubles that plagued the monarchy meant that Louis XV put a stop to its construction. But that doesn't mean there were no shows at the palace. Instead, for every concert and performance, an entire theater was built from scratch and then dismantled. Finally, faced with the spectacle that would be the wedding of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, the Dauphin's grandfather completed construction and is the Royal Opera house we know today.
Locals and foreign visitors alike are thrilled by Versailles' newest attraction, the Court of Scents (Cour des Senteurs). Located just steps away from the main gates of the city's world-famous palace, the Court of Scents 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 Court of Scents may seem like a mere oasis for shoppers, it should be noted that it 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 lovely Orangerie building was designed by Mansart in the 1680s, surrounded by ordered walkways and patterned parterre gardens.
Citrus trees were stored here over winter, and today some of the lemon and pomegranate trees are more than 200 years old.
The Orangerie’s row of arched windows look onto a circular pool and lines of potted trees, including palms, oleanders and orange trees. The statues that once decorated the walkways are now in the Louvre Museum in Paris.
There are over 30 fountains at Versailles, the most famous being the Apollo fountain, with its horses pulling the god’s chariot, and the Neptune fountain featuring the god of the oceans with his wife, some dragons and a smattering of sea life. Neptune took over a century to complete and was therefore officially opened by the next generation, King Louis XV. Other fountains represent the four seasons: Saturn for winter, Flora for spring, Ceres for summer, and Bacchus for autumn.
During the weekends from April to October, the fountains run in full play to musical accompaniment. This Grandes Eaux fulfills Louis XIV’s ambitious dream of water at play, leading you through the expansive gardens and amazing you with the height of the jets and visionary scale of the themed fountains.
In July and August this water show also runs in the evenings with the fountains spectacularly lit. There are eight paths you can follow for different musical and visual experiences.
The highlight of a visit to Versailles is entering the Grand Apartments of the king and queen, built for Louis XIV by Le Vau in the 1670s. The King’s Apartments - or Grands Appartements du Roi - are 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.