If you have time for only one daytrip from Paris, my vote would go to Versailles, Louis XIV's opulent palace about 40 minutes away by RER train. It's easy to get to and of the chateaux and palaces I've seen within a day's range of Paris, this is the one that impressed me the most. Try to pick a sunny warm day to visit, the gardens and Marie Antoinette's estate are best enjoyed in lovely weater. The fountains are only turned on certain days, I believe it's just Saturday but check the website to be sure. I've visited four times and still haven't seen them turned on. Admission is more expensive on those days.
Versailles is included on the Paris Museum Pass, if you don't have one of those, it's highly recommended to pre purchase tickets before heading out.
You can easily spend the good part of a day here, try to visit early before the crowds start forming or you'll be jockeying with 100s of people for a peek at the rooms. If the security line is long when you arrive, you can visit the gardens first and then come back and visit the interior. We presented our museum pass at the Grand and Petit trianons to gain access.
For more tips on visiting, you can visit my Versailles page
One visit is not enough to appreciate all the beauty of this palace.
From my first visit I didn't remember the ceilings, dominated by the look of everything at eyes' level.
I had to come twice, prepared to look for details, to really enjoy the diversity and beauty of the painted ceilings.
A trip to France is not complete until you have visited Versailles. Versailles is such a beautiful and grand place. The Palace is incredible in both size and in luxury. The history, artwork, the furnishings and the architecture is magnificent. The grounds with their statues and fountains are unbelievale. To think that this was once the home of Kings and Queens......what a life the Royalty lead.
Although the summer months are jam packed with tourists; it is best to see Versailles when the gardens are in full bloom. We have spent a whole day here exploring and wandering the grounds; it's just that lovely.
Versailles Chateau is the ancent residence of the Borbone dinasty. At the beginning of his kingdom, Luigi XIV could not find any palace that could satisfy him, he tried the Palay Royal, the Louvre and le touleries but was none of them satsfied him completely. Versailles for Luigi XIII was a sorto of country residence and the idea of building there the Royal palace, caused a lots of critics. Colbert in a famous letter, comlained about the fact that the king used so many resources for Versailles ignoring the Louvre that was the best palace of the world. Personally, after visiting both, I must say Colbert was correct, at least if we do not consider Versailles gardens, that make the difference. Visiting Versailles can mean really a long line, more than one hour for me and I had the ticket already but the security checks line is still long, I arrived at 9 am. I entered with the museum pass but it does not include the gardens and the ticket for them cost 9€, the gardens anyway are absolutely worth that cost. Visiting the Chateau with such crowd is instead not worth, you are practically pushed through tablets and smart phones from a room to the next one. Going back I'd just visit the gardens.
When visiting the drawing-rooms of Venus, Abundance, Diane and Mars one can imagine going back a few centuries and attend one of the evening receptions which Louis XIV offered to the Court in his Grand Apartments three times per week from 18 to 22 h. The festivities began with music, dances, parts of billiards in the Diane room (the king played billiards very well) and cards.
A light dinner was served in the Venus room on silver tables weighing more than 300 kg. These tables were covered with dishes, vases, candlesticks in silver like all the furniture. In the Abundance room were the dressers, also in silver, for fine liquors, wines, tea, coffee and hot chocolate.
The rooms were lit by thousands of candles. The Mars room was the ballroom.
The Venus drawing-room owes its name to the mythological painting of the ceiling by Houasse. The room is decorated with "trompe l'oeil" paintings which give the effect to be sculptures and of a statue of Louis XIV.
The rather small room known as "Abundance room" owes its name to the painting of the ceiling representing “Abundance and the Liberality” of the painter Rene-Antoine Houasse (1683). The room opened on the Cabinet of Curiosities which contained the royal collections.
I liked the walls covered with an emerald green and gold velvet (restored in 1955) what contrasts with other decorations of the Royal Apartments. As we can see it today the décor of the "Salon de l'Abondance" goes back to King Louis Philippe. In the Diane drawing-room stands a remarkable bust of the king by the Italian sculptor Le Bernin.
In that period all the rooms of the "Grands Appartements du Roi" were decorated with silver furniture. There remains nothing of it. In December 1689 the King had all the silver furniture of his Apartments melted down to finance his wars. That represented 20 tons of silver. All these beautiful artefacts in silver had cost 10 million "livres" (pounds) of that time; Louis XIV obtained only 2 million livres. An enormous destruction of art!
Maybe the most beautiful room in the palace (if it is possible to choose one) is the Hall of Mirrors where glass is dominant.
Seventeen large mirrors face seventeen windows, with sparkling chandeliers enhancing light and colours.
The chandeliers opened a market to lead crystal, with "Versailles" style challenging Murano or Bohemia.
In the huge, rich and magnificent complex of Versailles the statue of Louis XIV seems... poor and discreet.
The ambitious and vainglorious king would cut some heads if he could return and judge his successors.
Behind the Hall of Mirrors, symbol of the power of the King stands the remarkable project manager Charles le Brun (1619-1690).
As “Premier peintre du Roi" first painter of the King, as director of the Gobelins (royal factory of tapestries and furniture), as a chancellor of the royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, le Brun superintended all the decoration of the palace of Versailles.
He designed the decorations, the paintings of the royal apartments, the ornaments of the woodworks, the tapestries, even the locks. He directed the many teams, and could give a unit of style to the décor.
One could say of this complete decorator that “all arts worked under him”.
From 1678 to 1684, Charles le Brun decorated 1.000 m2 of the ceiling of the Hall of Mirrors with paintings illustrating the military campaigns of Louis XIV and his actions of interior policy. He upset the codes of official painting by painting for the first time in this type of compositions the face of the King.
As what concerns the 357 mirrors it is said that Venetian glassmakers were attracted in France by Colbert. These glassmakers coming from Murano were pursued in France by Venetians who tried to assassinate them to prevent the transmission of their production secrecy. A quite profitable manufacturing as Venetian mirrors did cost much more than a painting of Rubens in that time!
Recent chemical analyzes showed that the mirrors of Versailles were indeed manufactured in France, by the Saint-Gobain company created by Louis XIV, because typical components coming from Normandy were found in these mirrors.
At the time the silvering of the mirrors was done with tin and mercury what involved a high mortality among the workmen exposed to the toxic mercury vapours.
During the recent restoration of the gallery 30% of the old mirrors had to be replaced whereas silvering with mercury is prohibited since 1850. Now, as visitors will see, the mirrors with mercury give special reflections, tonality and depth, while modern mirrors produce rather flat images.
Old mirrors were found at antique dealers and in the attics of the French Senate.
Since the silvering of these old mirrors contains approximately 19% mercury an analysis of the air of the hall of mirrors was carried out.
Be reassured the content of mercury in the air of the gallery is lower than the WHO's standards.
The comparison between the relatively modest room of the Queen at the Petit Trianon and the royal apartments of the Palace of Versailles is striking. The small dimensions of the bed of the queen in her room at the Petit Trianon show well that here she lived as a single woman away off her royal husband.
It is known that Marie-Antoinette in her married life had known a humiliating experience. Louis XVI had been unable during 7 years to consummate the marriage. This was known in France as well as from all royal courts of Europe.
The room is entirely authentic, the furniture of origin was found, repurchased and restored. It is refined furniture signed Georges Jacob. The clock of the Queen decorated with the two eagles of the house of Austria is back on its site.
Contiguous to this room is the cabinet “of the moving mirrors” who by means of a system of sliding slopes allowed the queen to shut her windows when she wanted to isolate herself.b%
In the beginning the castle of the Petit Trianon was built (1768) for the marquise de Pompadour, mistress of Louis XV. But she died before the end of the works and was replaced by, Madame Du Barry, who succeeded as favourite until the death of the king Louis XV in 1774. The castle was built in a Neo-Greek style by the architect Angel-Jacques Gabriel; it is a masterpiece which breaks with the rococo style.
However today the Petit Trianon is closely associated with the person of queen Marie-Antoinette. She received the property from her husband king Louis XVI.
She made it her intimate refuge far from the protocol and the pageantry of the court of Versailles. She had the Petit Trianon refurnished, redecorated and she refitted the gardens. The whole at a high cost.
Only her friends were invited. The excluded and jealous French nobility took umbrage at the Petit Trianon and called it “Small Vienna”.
Marie-Antoinette did not realize that her retirement and the committed expenses were going to crystallize all criticisms against her palace. While isolating herself from the French nobility the Queen would find herself without her natural supports when the revolution burst out.
On the first floor the Living room called "Salon de Compagnie", decorated with splendid woodworks carved by Guibert, is one of the most beautiful rooms of the castle. The pieces of furniture are contemporary of Marie-Antoinette.
The visit of the “Grands Appartments du Roi” begins with this splendid and large "Hercules drawing-room" at the junction of the central body and the northern wing.
This room built between 1712 and 1736 by Robert de Cotte occupies the site of a former chapel. It is remarkable by the decoration of the walls with marble of various colours, the many pilasters with the Corinthian style capitals of gilded bronze and especially by its marble chimney decorated with splendid bronzes of Antoine Vassé evoking Hercules.
On top of the chimney hangs a painting of Veronese “Rebecca and Eliézer”. On the wall opposite the chimney hangs another large Veronese “the Meal at Simon the Pharisee” offered to Louis XIV by the Republic of Venice in 1664.
Still more remarkable is the ceiling painted by François Moyne representing the Apotheosis of Hercules. This immense painting painted with oil on strengthened canvas was extremely admired in its time but the painter exhausted by his work committed suicide whereas he had received the title of “First Painter of the King”.
It is in this room that took place the ball given by Louis XV for the marriage of his eldest daughter Elisabeth with the Infant of Spain in 1739.
The festivities, there were many in this room, were lit by candles what fouled up the vault and the painting of Le Moyne whose restoration of 480 m2 at a height of 15 m was finished in 2001.
The Hercules Drawing-Room is one of the most remarkable parts of the Royal apartments and deserves a somewhat lengthier visit. The light is very beautiful as the "Salon d'Hercule" is exposed to the east and the west.
A world around the Palace, the gardens are a wide collection of fountains and lakes, surrounded by flowers carefully arranged.
Being so wide, you may use a small train to follow it, stopping in several of its more distinctive areas.
Funny, the way they use irregular measures, to compensate the errors of perspective caused by the size of the longest lake.