Having had been introduced to Versailles through the works of Alexandre Dumas before I reached my teens, and having had visited modelled-on-Versailles Peterhof in the years before emigration, I had the Sun King’s palace on my must-visit list for our very first trip to France nearly a decade and a half ago. Although that visit was very detailed – we managed to see all parts of the main palace, plus smaller palaces in the gardens – it left a significant gap due to inactivity of the waterworks. We had to return on one of our subsequent stays in Paris specifically to enjoy the fountains.
The UNESCO inscription is minimalist to the extreme but it does state that the palace served as the ideal royal residence model all through Europe. I have since seen quite a few of those attempts to imitate Versailles and exceed it in opulence at the same time, and in my humble opinion, it remains at the head of the pack.
This is the façade of the palace as seen from the gardens.
As you walk towards the palace from this point, you will start losing the sight of it as your plane of view gets obscured by the wide main staircase connecting the palace level with the garden grounds. But then, as you walk up those stairs, the massive structure of the palace comes out to meet you in a shock of awesomeness.
Inside the main palace there is a sizable sequence of rooms of varying luxuriance, but they all get overshadowed by the Hall of Mirrors which takes the entire length of the façade you see in the picture above. Tourists tend to linger there, so in high peak times even that space can become pretty crowded. Nonetheless, this is one room (which is part of the “Grand Apartments” tour of the Palace – there are other itineraries that do not take you there) that you have to see for yourself to appreciate.
This other perspective towards the palace includes a fountain.
Because of well-documented Versailles’ problems with water, the fountains only get turned on on weekends in summer. Obviously, those are the busiest visiting times on the grounds, but the grounds are so vast that you probably will not feel hemmed in when you are outside. Although there are a few very beautiful waterworks in different parts of the park, they probably do not by themselves rise to a reason to visit Versailles. The park is certainly more beautiful when they are on, so if you can plan your itinerary to see Versailles on one of those water-enhanced days all the better for you. But if you have to miss the fountains for whatever reason, the gardens themselves, and the couple of smaller palaces, Grand Trianon and Petit Trianon, are remarkable enough to make a visit not just about the main palace.
If you plan to explore the garden, to see smaller palaces, and to go on as many itineraries in the main palace as possible, a full day is barely enough to see the entire complex. I recall that we bought combo visit tickets at a train station in Paris proper on our first visit and that significantly expedited our access to all attractions. If you do not buy tickets in advance, budget non-trivial time for waiting in line to buy them onsite (probably less so in decidedly off-peak intervals); security line to get through to the palace can also require some wait.
If your goal is to just see the most lavish parts of the main palace coupled with a quick jaunt around the garden, you may fit it all into 2-3 hours, depending on wait lines and your rate of haste. Although organized tours do just that, I think you are short-changing yourself that way. I would recommend a healthy dose of lingering instead.
Versailles is reached by one of the RER lines from the center of Paris – the train ride takes about half an hour.
One other picture is the rare travel portrait work of mine that I count among my best efforts. The young lady in the picture has grown up quite a bit in the years since. The wide central alley running towards the lake probably looks the same today as it looked when we last saw it.