A monument to the Bourbon dynasty’s flamboyant (if doomed) reign, the opulent baroque-inspired palace of Versailles was built by Louis XIV in his own glorious image. It became a symbol of the hedonistic and turbulent times of Louis XVI and his queen, Marie-Antoinette, later immortalised in Sofia Coppola’s anachronistic romp. Make plenty of time to explore this UNESCO World Heritage site: its classical fountain-filled gardens are one of the most visited attractions in France.
Courtiers once whiled away their days in the opulent central gallery of the palace – an intrigue-filled 73 metres from the King's apartments to the Queen's, overlooking the gardens. A high-vaulted painted ceiling boasts of France's military victories while 17 mirror-clad alcoves and dripping chandeliers flaunt the King's wealth.
Marie-Antoinette, and later Empress Marie-Louise (Napoleon's second wife), would escape to this model village on the Trianon Estate to play at rural living. Rustic buildings in Norman and Flemish styles (though grand inside) cluster around an artificial lake with a windmill and a small farm.
Within the theatrical Great Stables, where Louis XIV’s hunting steeds were once housed, this ostentatious display of travelling thrones, coaches and funeral hearses retraces the country’s dramatic history. Look for the sweet goat-drawn number that used to carry the young, ill-fated Dauphin Louis Charles around.
Exploring the whole 800-hectare estate can be a lot for little legs, but the Little Train (€8) gives you a full tour. It’s free for under-12s and takes you right out to the Trianon palaces and Grand Canal. Other fun ways to explore the estate are by bike or Segway; pack a picnic and make a day of it. On a balmy day, hire a rowing boat to see the park from a different angle.
For lunch, restaurant royalty Alain Ducasse serves up his take on French classics in the heart of the palace, from pumpkin velouté to duck foie gras. Plus there's a special €15 'Princes & Princesses' menu for under-10s.
Out and about exploring the gardens? Refuel at this handy kiosk offering sandwiches and paninis, ice creams and crêpes. You'll find it in the Bassin du Bosquet de Dauphin, just off the central Allée Royale.
Legendary Parisian patisserie Angelina is renowned for its luxurious hot chocolate, best accompanied by one of its signature Mont-Blanc pastries. Fittingly for somewhere to eat cake, you'll find them on Marie-Antoinette’s Estate.
The National Equestrian Academy performs in the Great Stables. Watch skills such as fencing, singing and kyudo as part of beautifully choreographed group dressage displays.
Indulge your inner Marie-Antoinette on 22 June at this baroque fancy-dress-party-cum-club-night, held in the Orangery. Don your wig and – it's compulsory – your mask, and prepare to dance till dawn.
Versailles's gardens are famed for their spectacular fountains, featuring allegorical carvings and elaborate water jets. On summer weekends they play to the sounds of Baroque music.
The palace is open 9am-5.30 pm; the gardens 9am-6pm; the Coach Gallery 12.30pm-5.30pm; Trianon 12 noon-5.30pm. Closed Mondays.
Versailles Château Rive Gauche (RER line C) is a ten-minute walk from the Palace. Alternatively take a national train (SNCF) from Gare Montparnasse to Versailles Chantiers or Gare Saint Lazare to Versailles Rive Droite, both a 20-minute walk away.
The €20 Passport gives access to the whole estate, with under-18s and other concessions free. Access to the Gardens is free. The Palace is free for all on first Sunday of the month from November to March.
Versailles is a popular attraction and its queues can test the most patient of souls, so book online for the 9am timeslot. Head straight to the Hall of Mirrors before the crowds – you can always go back to the other rooms later. If you want an audioguide, download it in advance via the free app.
Image credits: © Takashi Images via Shutterstock; © Takashi Images via Shutterstock; © Château de Versailles, Didier Saulnier; © Château de Versailles, Thomas Garnier; © Château de Versailles, Thomas Garnier; © Château de Versailles; © Pierre Monetta; © Château de Versailles, Christian Milet; © Angelina; © Agathe Poupeney; © Agathe Poupeney; © Thomas Garnier