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Travel just over 10 miles (16 km) southwest of Paris and you reach the city of Versailles, a small and elegant suburb of the Paris metropolis. The town became the de facto capital of France in 1682 under Louis XIV, serving as the seat of government until the tumultuous French Revolution forced the royal family to return to Paris in 1789. The city bears the legacy of the French monarchs most notably in its most famous attraction—the lavish and grandiose Palace of Versailles. Beyond the UNESCO-listed château and its enormous grounds, there's plenty to explore among the wide avenues, aristocratic mansions, and stately townhouses of the city of Versailles itself. While in Versailles, a visit to the palace is a must, but set aside time to wander the town and you'll be rewarded.
Originally a hunting lodge that was expanded by Louis XIV starting in the mid-17th century, the Palace of Versailles is a masterpiece of French art and architecture spread across 679,784 square feet (63,154 square m). Gold and crystal cover nearly every surface of its 2,300 rooms, a portion of which are open to the public. Admire the opulent, Italian-style decoration of the State Apartments, get a more intimate glimpse of royal life in the King's and Queen's Private Apartments, and take the dazzling walk down the legendary—and aptly named—Hall of Mirrors.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site in their own right, the Gardens of Versailles are just as impressive as the palace they accompany. Nearly 2,000 acres (809 hectares) of manicured lawns, parterres, sculptures, and fountains reflect the artful symmetry of the French formal garden style. You could spend hours uncovering the treasures of this paradise, which range from the expansive Grand Canal to the immaculately landscaped Orangerie.
Separate but still close to the main palace, the Estate of Trianon was constructed to be an intimate escape from the formalities of court life. The largest of its structures, the Grand Trianon, is renowned for its pink marble panels and unique sheltered colonnade. Its smaller counterpart, the Petit Trianon, was the preferred residence of Marie Antoinette. In the château's surrounding park, the idyllic Queen's Hamlet served as a rustic retreat for the Queen and her closest friends.
Louis XIV also left his mark on the city of Versailles, ordering the construction of tree-lined boulevards, mansions, and the grand Church of Notre-Dame. The town retains its sophisticated feel, and today is populated with designer shops, chic restaurants, and townhouses still painted in bourgeois shades of beige.
In Versailles, the main event is the sumptuous palace, but the charming town also has its fair share of sights to discover. Notre-Dame's adjoining square is home to a bustling, open-air market, where you can shop for fresh produce, cheese, herbs, and seafood like the locals do. For a look at 17th-century gardening, visit Le Potager du Roi—the King's Kitchen Garden—which produced fruits and vegetables for Louis XIV and still functions as a garden today. On weekends, horse lovers can get swept up in beautiful and passionate live equestrian performances from the artists at the National Equestrian Academy of Versailles, which transformed the Royal Stables into a stage in 2003. History buffs won't want to miss the Jeu du Paume, in which the National Assembly took the pivotal Tennis Court Oath that spurred the French Revolution. Just down the street from Notre-Dame de Versailles, the Musée Lambinet chronicles the story of the city with a collection of art, artifacts, and period décor gathered over the centuries.
If you're planning your excursion to Versailles around visiting the palace, you'll find no shortage of tours and activities to help you create your ideal experience at the impressive royal residence. Skip the lines and head in to explore on your own, or let a guide introduce you to the rich history and secrets of the grounds. Choose your preferred itinerary with half-day and full-day options, as well as tours that feature Trianon. For a different perspective on the gardens, pick up picnic ingredients and hop on a bike tour to cruise around the parterres and groves, or experience the many fountains of Versailles in their full glory with the Musical Fountains Show. Between June and September, you can also spend a magical evening at the palace as fireworks light up the glassy surface of the Grand Canal.