Back 1789 the French Revolution was in full swing when an angry mob of women descended on the royal estate, demanding bread. This was essentially the end of the French monarchy and the last time a royal would ever live at Versailles. But, no French king could have ever predicted the palace would one day attract ten million visitors each and every year.
Today, as our luxury eurovan parked at the Versailles VIP entrance, we caught a glimpse of the long lines of visitors stretching from the palace entry, across the courtyard, to the golden entry gates, and right outside the grounds. Luckily for us the crowd wasn't waving pitchforks as they did in 1789, and we slipped into an exclusive side entrance with our guide. No lines here. Here's what we discovered about the Versailles VIP tour, along with nine fascinating facts about one of the most royal places on earth. First, though, let's talk about how to get to Versailles.
We had arrived at our meeting point near Place de la Concorde in central Paris, where Julien, our driver and guide, greeted us warmly and ushered us inside the luxury air-conditioned eurovan until all the guests had arrived.
On the drive to Versailles, Julien regaled us with a short, lively version of the complicated history of France, and of Versailles, From him we learned that only three French kings ever lived at the famous chateau — Louis XIV (the Sun King), Louis XV, and Louis XVI.
It's a straightforward drive from the center of Paris to the pleasant suburb of Versailles. The tree-lined streets are filled with boulangeries, cafes, and all the essentials necessary for a pleasant French life. Of course, we could have got to Versailles on our own steam: first the Metro, then the RER, but being careful to choose the right RER station at the end — Versailles Chateau-Rive Gauche, not Versailles-Chantier or Versailles-Rive Droit. Tricky.
There are times when DIY travel makes sense and times when a splurge is necessary to ensure you arrive at your destination fresh with energy for the main event. First-time visitors to Versailles will be astounded at the vastness of the palace, the size of the gardens, and and the huge crowds. Also to consider is context. There are 2300 rooms in the palace and choosing where to go and what to see can be a confusing task. In our case, the professional Versailles guide would lead us to the creme de la creme of Versailles, without having to battle the crowds.
At the royal estate we entered the grounds through a private side gate and were led to a comfortable lounge where we waited a few minutes for our guide. We followed her through a short security line and — pop! — there we were in the Palace of Versailles. No lines. No waiting.
What makes this tour "VIP" are the rooms you see that are off-limits to the normal visitor. And it was this access to restricted areas that also made the tour so special — private places like the Royal Apartments of Louis XV and Louis XVI and the Royal Opera House. It's a wonder to stroll through Louis XVI's favorite room, his private library, and touch his famous mahogany cylinder desk. And not battling crowds while doing so.
Another highlight was the blue royal dining room. Back in royal days, only esteemed guests would be lucky enough to get a chair here. The rest of the court would stand along the walls and watch, or wait in the antechamber where a buffet was served. Around the corner from the dining room was Louis XVI's Games Room, originally called the Cabinet of Curiosities. You can almost see guests sipping coffee by candlelight and playing games after a long formal dinner. Although the original furniture was sold after the French Revolution, most has been rediscovered and restored.
There are a few times where the Versailles VIP tour intersects with the general public, and the Hall of Mirrors is one of them. It's there we got a real understanding of how large the Versailles crowds are.
The famous Hall of Mirrors was magnificent (as was the King's Bedchamber) but it was a relief to slip back into the private areas (our guide had large, old-fashioned keys to the rooms) and head to another highlight of the VIP Versailles tour — the Royal Opera House. In fact, seeing this theater is reason enough to go on the Versailles VIP tour. This opera house was built for the wedding of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI. It's considered the best work by famed architect Ange-Jacques Gabriel (he also designed the Petit Trianon and the Place de la Concorde in Paris). It's a magical place and has retained its original splendour and charm. You can see the influence of Italian opera houses in the oval plan, staggered seating, and painted ceiling fresco. For its time the opera house was a technical masterpiece, with movable floors that could transform it from theatre to ballroom to banquet hall.
At the end of the tour, we were led to the courtyard to enter the gardens of Versailles (tickets to the gardens were included with the tour) where we were free to explore. (Since it was a Sunday, we got to enjour thee weekend, summertime musical fountain show.) It was made clear when to rendevous at the secret parking spot to be whisked back to Paris. We took the opportunity to stroll around some of the fountains and to have a pleasant lunch at an outdoor cafe.
At one of the busiest places you're ever likely to visit, this tour does make you feel like a VIP. The great thing about seeing the restricted areas is that you are away from the crowds, in a group of about a dozen people, with a private guide explaining the rooms to you. It's an oasis in a sea of visitors.
The eurovan makes for pleasant transportation and having time to wander the gardens is another plus. If you choose the morning tour (we went in the afternoon), you're at Versailles when it first opens, and you get priority access to rooms like the Hall of Mirrors before the crowds arrive. That's our top recommendation.
According to the official site, nearly ten million visitors walk through the Hall of Mirrors each year. It's as popular as the Louvre or the Eiffel Tower, making it one of the most popular historic sites on the planet. Translation: there's no way a smart traveler would just show up without having arranged a skip-the-line tour.
After the French Revolution, much of the estate's belongings were sold, destroyed, or stolen. Since then, it's been a long process of recovering the original furniture, tapestries, and art from auction houses and generous patrons of the palace. It's a full-time job to ensure the items are originals and not copies.
Louis XV (1710 to 1774) and his wife Marie (not Antoinette) had ten children in ten years — eight daughters and two sons, Louis XVI (1754 to 1793) was one of them. Called Mesdames de France, the girls did not lead a life of luxury. Only one would see her wedding day. Of those who survived early childhood, most were sent far away from court to live in austere conditions in convents. After the French Revolution, the remaining daughters escaped to Italy.
Louis XIV, AKA The Sun King (1638 to 1715), had three baths in his entire lifetime. At the time, it was believed that cleansing the body would open the pores of the skin and make it vulnerable to disease.
For the royals, daily life was a public event. From the moment they awoke to the minute they went to sleep, they were attended by servants, courtiers and members of the public. Anyone, it seems, could visit the palace day or night. There were security guards, but visitors could stroll through the rooms and enjoy the artwork, sculptures, and tapestries. At any given time, there could up to 3,000 royals, courtesans, and servants in the palace.
During the heyday of Versailles as a royal residence, the most important room was the King's Chamber, which overlooks the Marble Court. It's where banquets took place, and ceremonies were held. If you were lucky, you could even watch the king eat his dinner!
The Hall of Mirrors is lined with 357 mirrors. If you recall your high school history class, the Treaty of Versailles was signed here in 1919, officially ending World War I.
At 1,977 acres the gardens at Versailles are simply not doable on foot, for most people anyway. However, you can rent bicycles, golf carts, or take a little train to the Petit Trianon to see Marie-Antoinette's private getaway.
Versailles was begun by Louis XIII (1601 to 1643) as a humble hunting lodge and was expanded by Louis XIV. In 1682, the Sun King officially moved his court and the government from Paris to the Palace of Versailles.
When the Royal Opera House was inaugurated in 1770, it was the biggest performance hall in all of Europe. But, by the end of World War II, the Royal Opera House at the Palace of Versailles was in ruins. At that time a plan was enacted to return to its original glory. The restored opera house was inaugurated in April 1957, with Queen Elizabeth II in attendance. Today, the opera house is used for events throughout the year. (Everyday entrance to the opera house is reserved for VIP visitors, like on this tour.)
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• Versailles the VIP Way…
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• Versailles Gardens & Park…
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