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Versailles without the Crowds: Report from Secrets of Paris Readers

Versailles Chateau

I have to admit it: I gave up on Versailles. I can’t remember exactly when it was, or the exact incident that finally pushed me over the top, but I had vowed I wouldn’t be returning any time soon. As a travel writer and tour guide I probably visited the domain more than a dozen times each year. Sometimes it was just to visit the gardens for a special event, or to check out the market in the town. I even did a few running events in the park.

But usually I was there to do “the whole circuit”, which includes the Palace, the gardens, the Grand Trianon, and Marie Antoinette’s Petit Trianon and Hamlet. Even when you “skip the line” with a guide, it’s almost impossible to avoid the crowds. The least painful option was also the most expensive: take a private car instead of the train; get a private tour of the rooms generally closed to the public; dine in the town; attend an opera or concert in the evening; don’t even think of using the restrooms. But maybe I just needed a break. Maybe “It’s me, not you,” Versailles.

“BEFORE COVID” I took this photo in 2013.

Coronavirus Deconfinement Announcement

But I know Louis XIV’s famous castle is a must-see for many visitors, so I mentioned its reopening in the June Secrets of Paris newsletter: “I heard Versailles will only be allowing 500 people into the entire estate at once; they usually have 30,000 people visit per day!  Since all entries have to be purchased online in advance, as long as you can get a spot it may be the best time for Parisians to rediscover these places without massive crowds.”

This week I got a message from Secrets of Paris readers Karl and Marsha, retired Americans living in a small town a few hours from Paris, with the subject line: “Thanks for the tip on Versailles re-opening” and a wonderful description of their visit with photos. They’ve given me permission to share their trip report with you here. Merci Karl and Marsha!


Once in a Lifetime…Chateau Versailles without the tourist hordes

Marsha and I avoid visiting over-touristed destinations, so a tour of Chateau Versailles is normally off the menu.  But when I heard about the re-opening of Versailles after Covid-confinement, I rushed to make reservations.

Chateau Versailles is one of the most excessively visited monuments on the planet, with 10 million visitors each year. On a typical high-season day, 30,000+ tourists enter the main gate.  But after 3 months of confinement, the re-opening would come with Covid-19 rules:  masks required, social distancing enforced, and a one-way route through the Chateau.  The crowds would be limited to 500 visitors in the Chateau at any one time, and a maximum of 4,500 each day.  Most important:  access via timed ticket only, to control the flow of people through the Chateau.

“AFTER COVID” Marsha in front of the Palace of Versailles.

Most hotels and restaurants were closed on June 6, the first day of the reopening.   But in the subsequent two weeks, France would experience a re-awakening. We monitored the weather report and booked 3 nights, starting June 22, at a hotel in Versailles (pop: 80,000).  That would give us plenty of time to fully explore the Chateau, its vast gardens and fountains, the Trianon estate, and take a couple of exclusive museum guided tours.  We’d also be able to dine at the excellent local bistros, which had just re-opened the week we arrived.

The Hall of Battles at Versailles.

Our previous visit to Versailles was almost forty years ago.  At that time, we were herded off tour buses and marched through the Chateau en masse, an opportunity for the peasants to gawk at the royal palace.  Despite the grand expanse of the “Hall of Mirrors”, it was unlikely a visitor could see their reflection over the heads of the crowd.  While it was possible to gaze at the canopy over the King’s bed in the King’s Grand Apartment, there was little chance of taking a photo of the bed itself.  Here’s a 2-minute video from Rick Steves if you want to see what it was like pre-Covid restrictions.

This time would be different.  The route through the Chateau was one-way, but there wasn’t any specific timing.  We could explore the details at our leisure.  

Marsha in the Hall of Mirrors

We also visited the “Trianon” estate, which was built within Versailles for the King and Queen as their local “pied-à-terre” —  a personal escape from the Royal Court.  This second estate has a couple of small palaces, its own gardens, and a working farm:  “the Hamlet of Marie-Antoinette”.  Many visitors miss out on this beautiful part of Versailles because it’s a 30-minute walk through the Royal Gardens to reach Trianon — that’s how expansive Versailles is.

Marie Antoinette’s Hamlet

The sixteen 17th century fountains at Versailles are a destination in themselves.  We saw a news segment showing workers applying fresh gold leaf to the fountains, in preparation for the re-opening.  The result shines as brilliantly as they did in the days of Louis XIV, the Sun King.  It’s said he had a river diverted to supply the needs of his estate, something you can pull off if you’re an absolute monarch.  Water flows from these fountains only a few hours a week.  We were lucky enough to be present on a sunny day, with them gushing in all their glory

The newly-gilded fountains at Versailles.

We scored tickets to two group tours (limit:  20 / tour).  These tours have access to areas that aren’t open to the general public.  We toured the King’s Private Apartment (where he actually slept), which included a rare visit to the Opera House.  We also had a tour of the Hamlet of Marie-Antoinette, which just recently re-opened after five years of renovation.

The Opera House at Versailles

Before Covid-19, 80% of the tourists were foreign, led by Asians and Americans.  During our visit, 98% of the tourists were French — seizing the opportunity to see their own treasures without the maddening crowds. The EU borders are gradually opening up, so more foreign tourists will begin flowing in.  But the Covid access restrictions will still be in place, at least through August.

It’s unfortunate that this all comes as a result of the on-going, worldwide tragedy of Covid-19.  We like to view this as a small bright spot in otherwise very dark times.  And it has given over-touristed cities such as Barcelona, Amsterdam, and Paris an opportunity to step back and consider how to make their cities more livable, while still welcoming visitors.

Our apologies to our American friends, particularly the ones that had to cancel planned trips due to Covid-19.  But this was an opportunity of a lifetime, which we couldn’t pass up.  

This time, we felt like royalty.

Take care and be safe,
Karl and Marsha

Secrets of Paris readers Marsha & Karl at Versailles, June 2020

Practical Information

Official website: Château de Versailles

Opening Hours

  • The Palace is open daily except Monday 9am-6:30pm (last admission 5pm).
  • The Trianon Estate is open daily except Monday from noon-6:30pm (last admission 6pm); the Trianon Gardens are open until 7:30pm.
  • Gardens open daily 8am-8:30pm (last admission 7pm); closes at 5:30pm on Saturdays through September 19th for the Night Fountain Show.

Extra Suggestions from Karl

Show up about 10 minutes before your allotted time. The reason? They allow up to 500 visitors at a time, and if you show up on the hour, you’ll find a waiting line, possibly of considerable length.  And to enforce social distancing inside the Chateau, the security detail lets in about 10 people and then stops. Then another 10.  You get the drift. Try to pick a time which is not preceded by one of the “heure:30 minutes”.  That currently means 9, 10, 12, 14, 15 heures.  Otherwise when you show up 10 minutes early, you’re likely to be standing at the end of the previous group’s line.  Any time from noon on is usually pretty good.

Special Events

Tickets

  • The Passport is the most cost-efficient way to see everything at Versailles with one ticket (and includes a timed entry): €20 on regular days; €27 on the days with the Fountains Show and Musical Gardens.
  • Just the Palace with timed entry is €18. Just the Trianon with timed entry is €12.
  • Just the Gardens during the Musical Fountains Show €9.50; during the Musical Gardens €8.50.
  • Night Fountains Show & Royal Serenade: €24-€47

* Don’t Forget: Free entry to the Palace and Trianon for anyone under 18 years old, and all EU residents under 26 (get a free timed ticket online to skip the line); you still need to pay for the gardens on special musical fountains days.

Getting There from Paris

  • RER line C arrives at Versailles Château – Rive Gauche train station, 10 minutes’ walk to the Palace.
  • SNCF trains from Gare Montparnasse arrive at Versailles Chantiers train station, 18 minutes on foot to the Palace.
  • SNCF trains from Gare Saint Lazare arrive at Versailles Rive Droite train station, 17 minutes on foot to the Palace.

Heather’s Suggestions

  • I highly recommend wearing running shoes (your “fashionable” sandals or open-toed shoes will soon become torture devices, trust me).
  • A hat or even a parasol to keep the sun off your head when visiting the gardens is essential in the summer.
  • Take Karl and Marsha’s advice and eat in the town; there are plenty of great bistros around the Marché Notre Dame. The crowds are always smaller in the late afternoon; if you start at the Trianon Estate right after lunch and finish at the Château (book a timed entry after 3pm).
  • If you visit the whole royal domain you’ll be exhausted at the end of the visit; book an Uber or Taxi to take you home instead of public transportation.

* Masks are obligatory. Read all of the rules of Versailles before you go.

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  • My husband and I were in Paris last October and finally made the trip to Versailles. I had been resistant to it in the past because of the enormous numbers of tourists always present but my husband really wanted to see it. I found a day biking tour to Versailles that was really a lovely way to see the palace and grounds, which included a tour of the town and market. We almost had the Hamlet to ourselves and there were very few people at the Grand and Petite Trianon. There were crowds in the main palace but they were not overwhelming. I’m glad we did it; I expect it will be our one and only time out there. I enjoyed biking around the town and in the areas of the gardens that most tourists don’t get to much more than inside the palace!
    Thanks, Heather, for sharing this unique visit.