Yes there is a big palace and yes there is a very popular city a brief rail ride away, but Versailles has much more to offer than its palatial splendour and Parisian proximity. Brimming with history and charm, great markets and walled secrets, the city offers plenty of places to hide from the tour groups and get to grips with the real Versailles – beyond the royal residence.
What to do in Versailles
Learn the layout
Versailles was developed around the stately needs of the royal palace and its enormous population of up to 10,000 courtiers plus staff. It was designed to be pretty much split in two by the Avenue de Paris, with the two most important historical quarters of Saint-Louis on the left and Notre-Dame on the right as you face the palace.
Both sides have churches, shopping streets, restaurants and cafes, plenty of buildings of historical significance, and even matching train stations (Versailles Rive Droite in the north and Gare de Versailles Chateau Rive Gauche in the south – named after the sides of Paris they serve, rather than the side of the chateau they lie on, even though that works too).
Versailles is small enough to discover on foot, but if you want to get an initial overview rent a trottinette (a small electric scooter) at the train station Rive Gauche for €2 an hour.
A unique arrangement of buildings can be found in the Carrés Saint-Louis, two squares of pastel-coloured single-storey houses that started life as a market under Louis XV. Today the pretty houses hold shops, cafes and artisan workshops, with living quarters on the first floor.
Near the Cathedral of Saint Louis, you’ll find the Potager du Roi, the king’s veggie plot. Step behind the high walls and you’ll discover a large, orderly vegetable and fruit garden, complete with hen house, bee hives, strawberry patches and asparagus rows. Of the beautifully shaped fruit trees, the apple trees have long been grown with an unusual trademark: The Sun King grew apples with his effigy on them, a tradition that is still continued (although you can now also get apples adorned with everything from logos to lucky cats to the Mona Lisa).
Don’t miss the grand gate that was used only by Louis XIV himself to access his plot.
A few streets away is the Salle de Jeu de Paume. This rectangular court with roofed galleries surrounding it is where the palm game was played – a forerunner of tennis that featured tiny palm-sized racquets. This particular court is also the site of a pivotal event in the French Revolution – members of the National Assembly gathered here and vowed “not to separate, and to reassemble wherever circumstances require, until the constitution of the kingdom is established”. It became known as the Tennis Court Oath.
Visit the Espace Richaud
Through the small Impasse de l’Ancienne Maison de Charité you’ll enter a perfectly hidden courtyard belonging to the former Royal Hospital. A quiet square surrounded by what were hospital wings and charitable housing dating back to the late 1700s, it’s now been revamped into a multi-use space. The Espace Richaud, under the large dome, is now used to house exhibitions. Whatever’s being shown, the columned room under the dome with its monochrome floor is beautiful.
Where to stay
As befits Versailles’s royal status, the fabulously sumptuous Waldorf Astoria Trianon Palace comes complete with Gordon Ramsay restaurant and Guerlain spa. The hotel has attracted names such as Marcel Proust, Sarah Bernard, Marlene Dietrich and John Paul Getty III, and even just stopping by for a coffee and a macaron makes you feel like royalty. Doubles from €259, room only.
In the historic Saint-Louis quartier, the cosy boutique hotel La Residence du Berry is a perfect hideaway. There is a small bar, billiard room and hidden terrace, all set in a typically French townhouse with shuttered windows. Doubles from €95, B&B.
Hotel d’Angleterre is a cute, simple hotel in a great location: steps away from the restaurants of Rue de Satory, the Salle de Jeu de Paume and the chateau, in a quiet side street. Doubles from €82, room only.
Where to eat
Have breakfast, cake or a light lunch at Ore in the chateau. It’s the cheapest way you’ll ever get to experience celebrity chef Alain Ducasse’s food. The breakfast is lovely and the coffee good quality.
Le Trois Marches serves traditional French food with a twist. The daily set menu changes according to what’s fresh in the market, and a la carte dishes are also seasonal. Try the mushroom samosas: too good to be just a starter.
For vegetarian, vegan or simply fresh and healthy food, the adorable Positive Cafe offers dishes such as beetroot veggie burgers, grilled salmon with cauliflower risotto, and good curries.
For a treat, head to La Table du 11 in the Cours des senteurs. Chef Jean-Baptiste Lavergne-Morazzani learned under Gordon Ramsay at the Trianon Palace Hotel, then worked at Le Meurice in Paris, won his first Michelin star at 24 years of age and now cooks up delectable tasting menus at reasonable prices, considering his pedigree (tasting menus from €60).
Where to drink
To soak up the local atmosphere, A La Gaité’s terrace on the market square right by the entrance to the antiques quarter is perfect.
For a cup of tea and a cookie, head down the tiny Rue des Deux Portes and find Les Biscuits de Madame Georges, a tiny tea room in an enchanting setting.
Where to shop
On the Rive Droite, Notre-Dame is dominated by the old royal market, still going strong and without doubt one of the loveliest markets in France (every day except Monday). Four buildings dating back to Louis XIII, one in each corner of the Place du Marché Notre-Dame square, are supplemented by outdoor stalls. The mingling smells of flowers, cheese, garlic, fresh bread, roast chicken, fruit and vegetables are incredible. You can even buy wicker baskets, so there’s no excuse not to go for a picnic, which you’re allowed to do in the palace gardens.
Just off a corner of the market square lies the Passage de la Geôle, which once led to the jail. Pretty much unchanged since 1651, the crooked little cobbled alleyway is now home to myriad antique shops, selling everything from antique books to furniture and jewellery and decorative arts. Several little passages lead off the original alley, and at the back of the tiny courtyards you’ll find more shops and artisans working on restoring old treasures.
Well, there is a rather imposing chateau which, try as you might, is impossible to ignore. Be at the gate before 9am and hurry up to the Hall of Mirrors to beat the crowds. Then double back to see the rest.
Nuts and bolts
What currency do I need?
What language do they speak?
Should I tip?
Service charges and tax are included in your bill. Tipping is a choice, not an obligation.
What’s the time difference?
What’s the average flight time from the UK?
One hour and 30 minutes
Walk, or take a trottinette.
From the Apollo Fountain – you have the chateau in front of you, while behind the Grand Canal and forest of Versailles stretch as far as the eye can see.
Visit the palace on a Monday. The building itself is closed, but the gardens are open. You can hire a golf buggy and explore the vast grounds with hardly anyone else in sight.
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