Text by Mairead Finlay
Known for its opulent royal château, the city of Versailles is equally marvelous and well worth exploring for a weekend.
Often considered the quintessential day trip from Paris (just 12 miles away by car), the city’s glittering architectural masterpiece, the Château de Versailles, takes center stage. However, while the palace is certainly the jewel in the crown of its lush surroundings, Versailles has much more to offer. Steeped in history, it boasts an inviting maze of winding avenues, exquisitely manicured gardens, quirky antique shops and charming cafés. It is also an excellent base from which to explore nearby Rambouillet, the majestic grounds of its château and its forest teeming with wildlife and wonder. Things move at a more refined, gentler pace here, away from the hustle and bustle of the capital, which makes it a wonderful destination for a long weekend break.
Of course, no trip to Versailles is complete without visiting its extravagant palace. Aim to go early to admire its astonishing decor before the bulk of the crowds descend. While on the palatial grounds, stroll over to the Trianon Estate — home to the pink marble colonnades of the Grand Trianon and mesmerizing geometric flower beds. The Petit Trianon, a mini-château that Marie-Antoinette was deeply fond of, is also located here. In addition, you can spend time discovering the Hameau de la Reine (“Queen’s Hamlet”) and relish in its total tranquility. This postcard-pretty village features quaint, thatched cottages, a working dairy and a windmill set around a miniature lake. The Queen commissioned this area in order to escape courtly life for a restful retreat.
Afterward, amble down to rue Satory in the Quartier Saint-Louis neighborhood, which is filled with an abundance of wonderful restaurants. Explore the Cour des Senteurs (“The Scent Courtyard”) and the charming Lenôtre tearoom and snap up some fragrant souvenirs from one of the boutiques.
The next morning, take a detour to the other side of place d’Armes and peruse the city’s vibrant farmer’s market, the Marché Notre-Dame, to pick up some bites for lunch. Be sure to visit rue Rameau and lose track of time wandering its passageway of antique shops. Later, for a well-earned break, indulge in a perfect pâtisserie at the nearby Au Chant du Coq.
An elegant, lively city with endless historic appeal, Versailles has everything you need for a regal weekend away.
Things To Do
The awe-inspiring splendor of the Château de Versailles — the principal royal residence until 1789 — must be explored in all its golden, shimmering beauty. Be sure to visit the Galerie des Glaces (“Hall of Mirrors”) to be amazed by the resplendent vision of gilded statues, twinkling chandeliers and 357 mirrors. The palace also has a wide range of events throughout the year, including classical concerts, fireworks and a magnificent, grand masked ball in the summer.
Across from the palace, in the horseshoe-shaped yard of the Grande Écurie (“Great Stables”), take a look at this coach gallery and its collection of ornate carriages, including those belonging to Marie-Antoinette’s children. Free to enter and only open in the afternoons (closed on Mondays), this little museum is an excellent way to spend an hour after seeing the château.
These labyrinthine gardens — a labor of love by iconic landscape designer André Le Nôtre which took nearly 40 years to complete — are open daily and free to the public, except when the impressive musical garden and fountain shows take place, accompanied by baroque music.
With almost 2,000 acres to explore, the gardens are as vast as they are elaborate. The friendly guides over at Fat Tire Tours (www.fattiretours.com) know this better than anyone, and offer informative and fun visits by bike so you can cover the most ground possible. Finish off the afternoon with a romantic boat trip on the Grand Canal.
Don’t miss out on the horticultural delight that is Louis XIV’s vegetable garden, the Potager du Roi, which has been classified as a historic monument since 1926. Take a leisurely promenade through the artful vegetable beds and fruit trees which are maintained using ancient traditions. You can even purchase fresh produce and confiture (“jam”) at the entrance — treats truly fit for a king!
73 avenue de Paris, Versailles
Stepping into the estate of Madame Élisabeth is akin to feeling worlds away from the city, despite its central location. Learn more about the fascinating story of the youngest sister of Louis XVI, who was given the grounds as a gift by the king when she was 19 years old.
54 boulevard de la Reine, Versailles
This former 18th-century hôtel particulier (“private mansion”) is now a museum, home to a captivating collection of art spanning from the Renaissance to the mid-20th century. Traverse the 35 baroque rooms and feel inspired by the array of paintings, sculptures, engravings and drawings on display.
10 rue Rameau, Versailles
Hunt for treasure in this covered passageway full of antique shops. Whether you love vintage jewelry, art deco furniture or first-edition books, one of the 40 antique experts will have something to tempt you.
This beautiful neighborhood, just minutes away from the palace, has much to see and do. Take a tour of the Salle du Jeu de Paume, the tennis court where the serment du Jeu de Paume (“Tennis Court Oath”) in 1789 was taken — a seminal moment in the beginning of the French Revolution.
18 rue des Chantiers, Versailles
For something a little off the beaten track, stop by this flour mill near the Chantiers train station. Inside the boutique, peruse the flour options made using local grain in the mill faithfully run by the Chaude family since 1905.
Place du Marché Notre-Dame
Pick from the finest produce and smell the aroma of freshly-caught herbs wafting through the air at this charming farmer’s market. Every Tuesday, Friday and Sunday morning, vendors fill the open space in front of the unique L-shaped buildings that beautifully frame the square.
Hidden within the Rambouillet forest, this former Cistercian monastery is a great day trip from Versailles. After admiring the enchanting architecture of the 12th-century abbey (guided visits are offered on Sundays), take a tour of the sprawling estate or enjoy a boat trip on the lake.
Discover this enchanting 14th-century château that has been home to some of the most prolific figures of French history, including Francis I, Louis XVI and Napoléon I. Admire the splendor of its interior design, such as the charming Chaumière aux Coquillages (“Shell Cottage”) built with shells, mother-of-pearl and tiny fragments of marble.
Where To Stay
7 rue Sainte-Anne
Enjoy a comfortable and chic stay at the Hôtel Le Versailles. Here the interiors are themed around the history of France: there are impressive wallpaper prints of Marie-Antoinette and ancient paintings of the Versailles domain in many of the suites.
1 boulevard de la Reine
The lavish Waldorf Astoria is situated on the ground floor of the iconic, 17th-century Trianon Palace. Eat like royalty after making a reservation at its Michelin-starred restaurant, or get in touch with your inner blue-blood in its fabulous Guerlain Spa — one of the largest hotel spas in Europe.
2 bis avenue de Paris
Nestled in the heart of the city, this luxurious hotel with its effortless blend of modernity and tradition is a wonderful choice if you are looking to stay close to the château, which is only five minutes away from the hotel. Sit back and relax in the cozy ambiance of L’Alcôve bar and restaurant after a day of historical and cultural delights.
Where To Eat
12 Rue du Vieux Versailles
This wonderful bistro-style restaurant, slightly hidden down a residential street in the Quartier Saint-Louis, boasts an updated menu daily, and every mouthful is divine.