The Palace of Versailles is a monument to the Sun King, Louis XIV. More like a town than a château, Versailles was the seat of French power for more than 100 years and kept members of the royal family safely cushioned from their subjects in Paris until the invasion of the bloodthirsty revolutionary mob.
It’s ambitious to try to see everything in one visit so you may prefer to limit yourself to the majestic, fountain-filled gardens and the Grands Appartements, which include the Appartement du Roi (King’s State Apartment), the Galerie des Glaces (Hall of Mirrors) and the Appartement de la Reine (Queen’s Apartment). The Hall of Mirrors, 73m long, was designed by Jules Hardouin-Mansart.
The Treaty of Versailles was ratified here in 1919, ending World War I. More than 350 mirrors catch the light pouring in through the huge arched windows, which in turn give spectacular views of the gardens and canal. The gardens were tamed by the king’s preferred landscape architect, André Le Nôtre, and form part of the largest palace grounds in Europe, at 247 acres. The fountains are renowned, and it is a pity that on most days they remain still. To catch them in full flow, visit during one of the Grandes Eaux Musicales. Louis XIV sailed a flotilla of ships and gondolas on the 1 mile Grand Canal, nowadays, you can hire rowing boats.
If you have more time, other parts to visit include the Petits Appartements, the Grand Trianon and Petit Trianon, and the Chambre du Roi.
Versailles had relatively humble beginnings, as a hunting lodge for Louis XIII. In 1661, Louis XIV decided to move his court to the deserted swamp, 12.5 miles southwest of Paris, an astute way of isolating the nobility and his ministers while keeping an eye on his not-too-distant capital. Building work continued right up to his death in 1715. The smaller palaces of the Grand Trianon and the Petit Trianon were later created as a royal love-nest.
The building project put a severe strain on France’s finances but the palace remained the seat of power until 1789, when a revolutionary mob seized Louis XVI and forced him to return to Paris.
Tip: The busiest days at Versailles are Tuesdays, Sundays, and holiday weekends. A Carte Musées-Monuments or a combined rail/palace passeport allows you to avoid some of the queues.