Possibly the most popular day trip from Paris, Versailles isn’t just about the palace. Round out your visit with activities that will make the day more memorable for the entire family.
POSTED BY PINKY
The first time I ever laid eyes on the palace of Versailles, I was in high school on a trip with my parents. They had taken me to see this unbelievable wonder of a place before I even got to see the city of Paris properly.
A slightly unorthodox approach perhaps, but looking back, going about it this way actually made sense. Historically, that is.
Though Paris’s history certainly didn’t begin with Louis XIV, the Sun King who was hell bent on establishing Versailles as France’s seat of power, it was he who famously took to heart the doctrine of the divine right of kings, confident that the authority to rule came directly from God, and, well, absolutely ran with it.
One look at the royal estate in Versailles and you’ll know exactly what I mean.
And the city of Paris that we’ve come to know today – one that proudly bears the spirit of liberté, fraternité, egalité – was borne out of the very revolution that came to a head with the storming of the Bastille and the Palace of Versailles, both institutions symbols of abuses by the monarchy, resulting in the capture (in Versailles) and the guillotine (in Paris) of Louis XVI and his Austrian queen, Marie Antoinette.
I’ve since had the good fortune of returning twice, each time seeing details I hadn’t noticed before, each time with a new perspective. From the magic of that first visit as a teenager came a better appreciation for its history when I returned as an adult in my 20s.
But third time’s a charm, as they say, and this final trip with my husband and our three boys proved to be the most satisfying of all. A “coming full circle” of sorts.
The Hall of Mirrors and the royal apartments remain to be the highlights of the palace, but I won’t get into it here. Instead, I urge you to make time for the other fun things to do within the palace grounds – if you haven’t done so already.
Booking our palace tickets ahead online, we took the RER C train from central Paris and got to Versailles Château/Rive Gauche early, then headed straight to Entrance A, the palace entrance assigned specifically for those who bought tickets on the internet.
Of course, you can also book a Skip-the-Line 75-minute guided tour of the palace (a 3-hour option is available if traveling with young children). Otherwise, allot about two hours for the self-guided audio tour.
Then, let’s get to the fun part…
Picnic in the Gardens
It’s always a good idea to bring your picnic essentials with you but you’ll need to check these in before proceeding to your tour of the building. The queue to the check-in counter can get pretty long by mid-morning, so getting there early is best. Make sure everything is packed properly and don’t bring anything that spoils or spills easily. Then just reclaim them after your tour.
Fortunately, there are a couple of shops by the gardens where you can buy drinks instead of lugging them with you all the way from Paris. You pay a small premium but it’s well worth the convenience, I think.
We found a quiet little spot in one of the pockets of garden located behind the restaurant La Petite Venise and the souvenir shop next to it, but there are other picnic areas in the entire estate as well. I must mention that during our visit in early May, the weather was nice and pleasant. In the summer, however, the crowds do get much bigger and securing a spot that’s cool and shady will prove more challenging.
Picnicking may require a bit of planning but, as long as weather permits, the experience will be well worth it. To this day, this is the part of our visit that our boys still talk about the most – laying out our mat on the grass, enjoying our picnic lunch, our oldest son taking a quick nap while his younger brothers chased each other in the gardens.
Note: on days with Fountain Shows and Musical Gardens, there is an entrance fee for the gardens. Tickets can be purchased directly at the desks located at the entrance to the gardens.
Rowing on the Grand Canal
After a nice picnic, what could be more idyllic than traversing the grand canal on a rowboat? But wait, that’s not all. You also get an unimpeded view of the palace, the gardens, and the amazing fountains spouting water to the rhythm of classical music.
The advantage of traveling in a group is that everyone can take turns rowing. But that’s not to say that traveling solo won’t be enjoyable either. Your arms will probably get a bigger workout, but you’ll have more time for quiet reflection as well.
Marie Antoinette’s Hamlet
Perhaps as indulgent as the palace itself in all its gilded glory is this small rural village that was built for Marie Antoinette. This was where the queen could enjoy the simple pleasures of country life. It even functioned as a working farm that supplied produce to the palace kitchen.
During our visit, there were farm animals that the boys could pet, just as Marie Antoinette had probably done, one can imagine, until it was time for her to return to the drudgery of life as queen.
If our picnic lunch was what excited our boys the most about this visit, this hamlet was the one thing that made the biggest impression on them. They find it intriguing even today that in spite of all the luxury that surrounded the queen, it wasn’t enough to make her happy. So much so that she felt the need to create this alternate, make-believe world – while France’s actual peasant population were starving in villages all over the country. (And we all know how that turned out.)
Now, to the smaller, more private royal residences within the estate.
The Grand Trianon and Gardens
Used today as a guest house for visiting foreign dignitaries, this chateau was built for the Sun King, Louis XIV. This was where he could go to escape the rigours of his royal duties and live privately with his chief mistress, the Marquise de Montespan.
Evidently, the need to escape seemed to be a pattern among the royals. And who could blame them? Though they didn’t have the paparazzi then as celebrities do today, their every move was just as closely watched by the world and their subjects. Maybe even worse.
From literally the moment they rise (the Leveé was the morning ceremony wherein the entire court would witness the monarch rise and dress up) to giving birth in public (the Laying-in ceremony was intended to prevent substitutions should the infant be female as only males were allowed to rule) to the Grand Public Supper, all the way to the Coucher, a public ceremony done in reverse of the Leveé for when the King finally retired to his bedroom at the end of the day. All done in public. Every. Single. Day.
Finally, we get to the one place in Versailles where Marie Antoinette could escape to and truly be herself.
The Petit Trianon, Theatre and Gardens
A small chateau originally built by Louis XV for his longtime mistress, Madame de Pompadour, who had died just months before its completion, it was her successor instead, Madame du Barry, who got a lot of use out of it.
When Louis XVI became king, he then gave it to his young queen, Marie Antoinette, for her exclusive use. It’s said that even the king himself could not go there without an invitation from the queen.
A smaller and more intimate space, this served as her sanctuary from the demands of life in the royal court, a life made more painful not only by the fact that she could not bear the king an heir during the first eight years of their marriage (she married at only 14, after all), but she also had to suffer the humiliation of having to witness the births of each of the children of the king’s younger brothers – with every male heir born added to the list of those next in line to the throne.
She eventually produced two sons and two daughters, the oldest daughter being the only one who ever lived to adulthood.
Now that we’ve come to understand the Bourbon royals a little bit more, we end the day with …
Afternoon Tea at Angelina
Before heading back to Paris, hot chocolate and croissants, anyone?
After all the walking and running around, surely everyone deserves a treat at Angelina, the renowned tea house just outside the gates of the Petit Trianon.
Incidentally, Angelina’s main shop is along Rue de Rivoli across the Tuileries Palace, where Louis XVI and family were held under house arrest after their capture during the French Revolution, ending Versailles’ 100-year history as the seat of French monarchy and restoring the seat of power back in Paris.
Planning your Visit
You can actually stay the night in the tranquil town of Versailles if you wish to enjoy the royal estate at a much slower pace. An evening musical performance in the Hall of Mirrors, perhaps? Followed by a Fireworks and Lights Show at the fountain and gardens?
For a complete and detailed information on how to get there and around the estate, opening times, special events, tour options, visit here.
During one particular Bastille Day while staying with friends in Paris, we stood to watch the fireworks from their balcony as the whole city celebrated. It was quite a sight, seeing the sky light up from one arrondissement to another, which led me to ask my hostess if the rest of France celebrated the day in the same way.
For the most part yes, she said. But personally, in her heart, she could not celebrate Bastille Day. Why?, I ventured to ask.
Her quiet response I will never forget: She could not celebrate… because her family was among those who were guillotined.
Guillotined. Her family. Simple words, yes. But words, nevertheless, so unexpected all I could do was pause in silence.
And as my friend and I both looked back up to the evening sky, I couldn’t help but wonder. Right or wrong, with at least two sides to every story, how many generations must carry the weight of their family’s history, lest we forget the valuable lessons to be learned from them?