Versailles is France’s 3rd most visited tourist site, just behind the Louvre and Eiffel Tower. The ranking is justly deserved, but the experience can be overwhelming, especially in the château itself. Visitors shuffle through humid halls, slowly plod up and down grand staircases, and create fierce clusters of photographers in historic rooms like the Queen’s Bedchamber. I occasionally longed to utilize Marie-Antoinette‘s secret door to escape the maddening crush for the fresh air and freedom of the gardens, but there were treasures to uncover that made the tour worth the crowds.
Chandeliers in the Hall of Mirrors evoke the grandeur of the French royal court in the 17th and 18th centuries
How to conquer the château without going completely crazy? My first piece of advice once inside is: look up. Take time to stop, find a decent place to stand not in a major flow of visitor traffic, and marvel at the Italian-influenced art adorning the ceilings, set off most prominently by the many chandeliers in the Hall of Mirrors. You’ll catch your breath and soak in pure beauty, and not have eyes on the tourist hordes surrounding you.
Richly painted scenes, marbled arches, and gold leaf detailing offset the crystal brilliance of the chandeliers
My second piece of advice to easily navigating the crowded château is slow down and watch visitor flow. There are ebbs and flows of when visitors enter each room, and usually simply slowing the pace down can allow the majority of tourists to experience the room, then step into a more private experience ahead of the next large crush of visitors. On an afternoon visit, I made the decision to head to the château last and tour the gardens leisurely first, so by time I headed inside, there were very few people entering.
A chandelier shot from below. The Hall of Mirrors is one of Versailles’ most famous – and most crowded – attractions.
Another good rule of thumb: linger in areas fellow tourists seem to rush by. One of my most favorite quiet moments was in what I will dub the Hall of Statues. Far less ornate than the apartments of the kings and queens of France, the hall had a solemn, simple beauty and was remarkable for both the lack of people in it and the absence of tourists flocking to photograph it. I spent a good amount of time admiring how the statues of saints and royalty seemed illuminated from within.
A hall in Versailles featuring statues lit by sunlight and lanterns, and completely tourist free (besides me)
Finding a way to buy tickets in advance will be extremely helpful to your overall sanity check at Versailles. There are a few ways to do this: Versailles (except for the musical fountains on weekends) is covered in the Paris Museum Pass (my route), or you can buy them online in your home country or while in France, and print them out. And arriving early (around 8:30 – 8:45 to be first in line to let ticket holders in) or planning for a late afternoon (4 PM until 30 minutes before closing) visit will also help mitigate some of the worst crowds.
The magnificence of the château is matched and even exceeded by the beauty of the gardens of Versailles, especially on a day with clear skies.
All in all, take time to soak in the details of the château. The guides are extremely knowledgable resources, so if you have a keen interest in history, I would recommend a tour with a guide for interesting anecdotes and morsels of information the more straightforward audioguide may not include. The gardens and grounds were definitely more enjoyable for me, but I would not have wanted to miss the grand interiors of the Château de Versailles on my visit, and with a bit of strategy, the indoor experience can be manageable and even pleasurable.
To paraphrase Henry IV, the interiors of Versailles are well worth a mass of people, and smart planning can alleviate the overcrowding other visitors face.