Photograph by Rudy Sulgan, Corbis
Site: Palace and Park of Versailles
Year Designated: 1979
Reason for Designation: Europe’s quintessential royal residence was the principal home of French kings from Louis XIV to Louis XVI.
* * *
This former home of French kings epitomizes royal elegance in the style of Old Europe. Versailles originated in 1631 as a humble hunting lodge for Louis XIII. But his son Louis XIV built the now familiar palace on the site outside Paris and moved the nation’s government and court to Versailles in 1682.
Versailles remained the epicenter of French royal power, home to government offices and courtiers alike, until 1789—when a hungry and agitated group of mostly female revolutionaries stormed the palace and essentially evicted Louis XVI and his queen, Marie-Antoinette. The mob sent the royal couple back to Paris on the first steps of a journey that led eventually to their beheadings.
Versailles’ sprawling, stunning palace is matched by the splendor of the gardens in which it is situated. A pleasurable visit can be spent simply perusing paths and admiring fountains and flowers without setting foot inside the palace or Versailles’ other notable buildings.
Marie-Antoinette enjoyed these grounds so much that she created her own private estate here, a collection of rural homes and buildings laid out along the lines of a Norman village. The queen sought privacy and escaped the pomp and hubbub of the palace court at her hamlet, which now draws crowds in its own right. The queen’s estate even operated as a working farm where peasants and livestock produced fresh product for the tables of the grand palace.
The 17th-century Grand Trianon, an incredible array of pink marble buildings and enchanting gardens, was another integral part of life at Versailles during the reign of Louis XIV and beyond. In later years Napoleon Bonaparte often stayed in the elegant but intimate palace, and Charles de Gaulle converted its northern wing into an official presidential residence, which still hosts guests of France’s head of state.
The Palace of Versailles offers visitors a chance to walk in the footsteps of royalty and visit intimate chambers, including the king’s grand apartments. But perhaps the most famous room at Versailles is the Grande Galerie, or the Hall of Mirrors, which was once haunted by courtiers playing politics or awaiting an audience with the monarch. This same room later witnessed one of the defining moments of 20th-century European history when the Treaty of Versailles, ending the First World War, was signed within its walls in June 1919.
Beginning in the 19th century, portions of the magnificent palace were put to work for the French public as the home of the Museum of the History of France. And while the monarchs are long gone today, Versailles still plays a role in the nation’s governance—the palace regularly hosts joint sessions of the French legislature.
How to Get There
Versailles is some 10 miles (16 kilometers) from Paris and easily accessible by car (parking available), taxi, bus, or train. The RER C line links central Paris with the Versailles Rive Gauche station—five minutes from the palace on foot. Trains also run from Paris Montparnasse to Versailles Chantiers and from Paris Saint Lazare to Versailles Rive-Droite—each a ten-minute walk from the palace. The RATP bus 171 runs from Pont de Sèvres metro station to Versailles.
When to Visit
There’s no bad season to visit Versailles, but its extensive gardens are at their best in spring and summer. While the gardens and park remain accessible, the buildings of Versailles are closed on Mondays.
How to Visit
More than three million people visit Versailles each year, so it pays to arrive at off-peak hours—such as soon after the 9 a.m. opening. Some days are also busier than others, including Sundays and Tuesdays, when many Paris museums, including the Louvre (another former royal palace), are closed.
2014 Traveler Photo Contest
Submit your best shots for a chance to be featured in our weekly galleries and to win a grand prize trip for two to Alaska.