Let them eat cake!
Whether or not you picture Marie Antionette tossing cake down at an angry mob of peasants (she didn’t), Versailles has long been a town of discussion and change. With so much to see and do, visiting Versailles and its famous palace can be a bit daunting. Luckily, I found a tour group that would let me bike through it!
Located a little over 10 miles outside the Paris city center, Versailles has transitioned from being a small town in a swamp-like land, to a town chosen to be the home of royalty, to the unofficial capital of France, to the biggest site of turmoil in the French Revolution, to a town that bounced back as a major site of tourism.
Of course, it is most well known for the world famous Palace of Versailles (Château de Versailles) and the surrounding gardens and lands. The outrageously extravagant palace is bound to be all one thinks of when they visit Versailles, and for good reason, as it has astounding historical significance and is purely a wonder to behold.
However, Versailles is more than just the Palace. It is a beautiful, chic French town, full of picturesque cafes, festivals, and charming people. It is also a important military and political site, as well as the headquarters for a famous equestrian club.
When visiting Versailles, you should see the town and the palace. The palace can be overwhelming due to its extreme popularity, so exploring the town is the best way to take a break.
How does one accomplish both? Especially considering how long the lines for the palace are?
Look no further than – Boutique Bike Tours
About the Tour
Morning + the Town
First, we met our guide Stu at a coffee shop at a train station in Paris (the roundtrip ticket is included in the tour price). The train took less than 15 minutes and gave us time to watch Paris fly by.
Upon arriving in Versailles, we met up with our other guide Niki and our bikes – cute vintage bikes that could even fit my 6’4 father easily. My sister got the mint green bike I had my eye on (still bitter), while I sat astride a red bike with a front basket.
Since we were a larger group than they normally have (around 20 people), they split us into two groups. We would reconvene for the Palace and for important historical sites, but they needed smaller groups to bike through the city for safety reasons and to make sure they gave us as much attention as we wanted.
Biking through Versailles made me feel like I was in classic French movie, peddling under sunlight trees, past cafes and beautiful houses. Stu and Niki were very careful about safety and made sure nobody got left behind and that everyone, regardless of how well they could bike, could easily get around.
Our first stop was the marketplace, the Marché Notre Dame. This is a well-known open air market in Versailles that was originally established by Louis XIV.
It is the quintessential French market, full of giant cheese stands, organic fruits and veggies, delicious meats, breads, pastries, and great wines for cheap. You can also find an assortment of household objects and clothes if you’re so inclined.
Lunch isn’t included (although they have complimentary wine), so we bought supplies for our picnic inside the palace gardens. Stu and Niki guided us and had a cheese tasting set up (I’m allergic so this didn’t do much for me, but my sister was in heaven). They showed us the best places and prices and answered any questions we had.
Stu’s and Niki’s advice – If you want a crepe, do not go to the small yellow stand out in the middle of the marketplace. They call the owner the “Creepy Crepe Guy,” and will point you in a better direction. However, their favorite crepe place was closed for the weekend and I was dying for a crepe. I went against their advice and regretted it, getting a soggy crepe and some uncomfortable conversation.
My advice – Buy some rosé for the picnic. French rosé is the best I’ve ever had. Also, upon buying your treats, tell Stu if you have alcohol because he will need to hide it before you can enter the palace grounds.
First, we headed towards the Queen’s Gate, a side entrance that gives access to the Park. Admission to the park is free and (random fact) you can walk your dog here. This actually follows tradition, because it has been free and accessible to the public since the creation of the palace.
We parked our bikes near the next gate, Neptune’s Gate. This is a side gate for the Gardens of Versailles, which you have to pay for during the more touristy months of the year (like summer), but our tour had it included so we gained easy access to the gardens without waiting in line! For anyone whose ever been to Versailles or knows about how long the lines can get, this was already 100% worth it.
After entering Neptune’s Gate, we found ourselves in front of the Bassin de Neptune – Neptune’s Fountain.
Tip! – The fountains only run on certain days of the year (usually Saturdays and Sundays) because of problems with water supply. So if you want to see the fountains, which I highly recommend, look in advance for dates.
While in front of the fountains, Stu told us about the long history of water issues that plagued Versailles. They tried pumping water from local ponds, but as the gardens grew, this was not enough. They tried many different options, including diverting a river, but were only able to fix some issues after the construction of the Grand Canal. However, even then they were not able to keep up with the ever-expanding gardens.
Eventually the gardeners developed a system where they’d signal each other when the king was coming their way, so that before he got there they could turn off one of the fountains and turn on the one he was about to reach. The main signal was that music would play wherever the King was, so if the music got closer then the gardeners would know to turn the fountain on.
To demonstrate, Stu designated roles for people in our group. My dad became Louis XIV “The Sun King” and my mother was his wife Maria Theresa. He told my dad to walk out towards the fountain and to turn and strike a pose. The fountains had been running already, but when he got close they erupted into song with jets spewing water into the air. Apparently this is what the King would see on his daily walks, always extravagant.
We continued up the path until we reached the Palace and the main gardens. This was much more crowded, so we stayed only long enough to take pictures and talk about key features.
The garden area just outside the palace offers views of the canal and showcases the main fountains. Louis XIV, who created the garden, was insistent on meticulous planning and grooming. I saw a significant difference between what he planned and created verses what was built under the reign of other kings.
Up next, a ride through the park to visit the Petit Trianon and the famous Hamlet of Marie Antionette.
The Petit Trianon
There are two Trianons, the Grand and the Petit. Not wanting to rush through anything, our group decided to visit just the Petit Trianon as it is closer to the Hamlet.
(Below, the left area numbered 1 is the Grand Trianon. The center area numbered 2 is the Petit Trianon. The right area numbered 13-22 is The Queen’s Hamlet, including the farm)
The Trianons weren’t very crowded because very few people want to walk all the way through the Park to reach them. The price of admission was again already included in our tour, so we gained access to the Petit Trianon, Hamlet, and gardens easily.
Both were built to be retreats, a way of escaping the strict etiquette that royalty was forced to follow in the main palace. Kings would often go to the Grand Trianon with friends or with mistresses. Other times, it would be a holiday home for their wives as well.
(Below, the Grand Trianon)
The Petit Trianon was built on the land of the Grand Trianon and is significantly smaller. In addition to its smaller size, it is decidedly less ostentatious and more quaint. Of course, within the grounds of Versailles, quaint means grand and expensive, with extensive gardens and the occasional temple or pavilion.
It was originally built for Madame de Pompadour, the famous mistress of Louis XV. However, she died before its completion and it was given to Madame du Barry, who is most famous for being a “rival” to Marie Antionette. Ironically (but not surprisingly), it was then taken away from her after the king’s death and given to Marie Antionette.
Marie loved the Trianon and the freedom it gave her. She was in charge of everything there and allowed very few people inside. Privacy was of the upmost importance to her and constant changes were made within the Trianon to ensure this – such as a dumbwaiter-like contraption that was intended to bring food up from the kitchen so she didn’t have to interact with people.
(Below, Marie’s bedroom)
This need for privacy and desire to escape lead to the construction of The Queen’s Hamlet, an additional refuge on the same grounds as the Petit Trianon.
Tip! – Grab a macaroon or pastry at Angelina Takeaway, a little place next to the Trianons that sell pastries fit for royalty.
The Queen’s Hamlet
The Queen’s Hamlet was gorgeous and strangely empty of people, even when visiting in the height of tourist season. Like the Trianons, some people find the distance to get there daunting and decide not to venture over. This is a shame, because not only is it amazing to explore, its existence is a significant factor in what caused the French Revolution.
Built to emulate a rustic countryside farm, the hamlet is dotted with lush gardens and orchards, surrounding a barn, farmhouse, mill, living quarters, and the iconic lighthouse. Stu informed us that Marie’s architects advised against the lighthouse as it didn’t fit with the theme, but she had seen it in a book somewhere and insisted upon it.
Marie used the hamlet as her own make-believe world, an idealized version of the “simple life”. She hired milkmaids and farmers to keep the fully functioning farm going, while she dressed as a country girl, played with barn animals, and ate the food that the farm produced.
It was meant to be her private sanctuary, but nothing the royals did could ever truly be private. Word got out about her farm and the high building cost. To the poor people of France, it seemed as if their queen was making fun of their misery, playing milkmaid in silk while they starved in rags. This added fuel to the fire that powered the French Revolution and would ultimately lead to the downfall of the monarchy.
During the Revolution, the Hamlet stayed remarkably intact. Furniture was stolen and the barn was burnt down, but other than that all the buildings are completely authentic. The farm itself still runs and produces diary and other goods.
Unfortunately, tourists are no longer allowed to go inside the buildings because of problems with vandalism. However, there are still pictures and descriptions of the rooms and you can visit the farm animals or rest in the shade.
Tip! – There is a shady bridge that overlooks the pond where lots of fish congregate. It’s a funny little place to take pictures and relax.
Lunch by the Canal
Next stop – lunch! Stu took us to the shady banks of the Grand Canal and put down blankets so we could spread out our picnic.
The Grand Canal is the main water feature within the palace grounds. Stretching over a mile long, it was created to connect the main palace to the Trianons and the rest of the Park. This is where a good amount of merrymaking took place, boats taking the royals and their court back and forth during parties and festivals with fireworks set off overhead.
It seemed only fitting that this was the location for our French feast. Although we were on a schedule, Stu didn’t rush us and let us enjoy the day, offering us complementary wine to boot.
We dined on bread, salami, and fruit mostly, watching the rented boats float by. Everyone made sure to eat their fill of cheese and snag a few pastries. Wine was a must, of course, the rosé being a top hit.
Taking a Break
Our guide Stu’s biggest job was to make sure we saw everything without waiting in any lines. This can be a difficult feat, for those who know how crazy Versailles can get. Throughout the day he had been checking in on the palace line, trying to determine the best time to go in.
When it was time, we took the trail alongside the Grand Canal and back up towards the palace gardens, before we turned right and exited through the Sailor’s Gate.
This put us back into the town of Versailles, showing us another side of the palace as we biked up towards the main gate. First, we stopped in the town to grab water and use the restroom.
Tip! – If it is hot outside, BE SURE to bring water with you wherever you go, but especially in the palace. The heat inside will intensify because of all the bodies crammed into one space and fainting is a common occurrence. Also, sometimes the security guards get a little testy if the water bottle is too big or if it isn’t in a clear bottle, so try to bring or buy a regular bottle.
Finally, the main attraction. The Palace of Versailles is world renowned for its grandeur and importance in history. It is perhaps the most famous attraction to visit in France, just after the Eiffel Tower.
This towering reputation = insane lines to get in. Sure you can go early in the morning (it opens at 9) or go during off-season, but I guarantee that you will still find yourself in crowds most of the time.
Our quick entry to the palace is perhaps the biggest reason why I recommend Boutique Bike Tours. There is a separate entrance for tour groups, but even this can get crazy. That’s where Stu comes in. Since Stu is a licensed guide, he took us into the palace himself, rather than putting us in the line and giving us a time to meet afterwards. Due to this, he was able to sneak us into the front of the line and inside the palace in less than 5 minutes (while fighting off an extremely disgruntled German tour guide who wanted our spot).
Once inside, keep in mind that the Palace is gigantic, with hundreds of rooms. Some rooms you may not be able to enter due to renovations or such, and others you just might run out of time to be able to see. Don’t get frustrated by this, because you will see a lot and Stu will show you the places that have the most significance.
We entered through Entrance B on the Garden Level (the ground level or first floor). After passing metal detectors, we found ourselves in the middle of what appeared to be a grand foyer, full of statues and decorated with marble.
(Below, the Gabriel Staircase)
This grand entranceway is one of the newest parts of Versailles, called the “Gabriel Staircase”. You’ll notice that, while impressive, this two story room is perhaps the least grand in all of Versailles. It’s certainly one of the least decorated, showing its young age. The original plans for this staircase are actually very old, as work for it began during the reign of Louis XV. However, after his death it was abandoned and was only finished in the 1980s.
Tip! – If you need to go to the bathroom, go here because it is one of the few places you can go.
After taking pictures, we went upstairs and regrouped in the Hercules Salon. For the rest of our time at the palace we would stay on this floor (in France they call it the first floor, but to Americans it is the second floor).
(Below, the Hercules Salon)
The Hercules Salon was originally a chapel but was replaced by a much larger and grander chapel in the room next door. After, it was used as a reception room of sorts as well as a ballroom, etc.
The room is so named for its ceiling, The Apotheosis of Hercules, painted by by François Lemoyne. The painting is one of the largest ceiling paintings in the palace, it took 4 years to paint and was created by painting canvas on the ground and gluing it onto the ceiling afterwards. While impressive, it also has a sad story. The painter found working for the king to be too stressful for him and shortly after the painting was complete, he committed suicide. Even so, his name remains through his art.
(Below, The Apotheosis of Hercules)
The new chapel is to the right of the Hercules Salon, at the beginning of a long hallway that eventually leads down to the Royal Opera. The new chapel is called the Royal Chapel, and is the tallest building in all of the palace.
Daily services were held here, with the royal family on the top level (The Royal Gallery) and everyone else on the ground floor. Well, not quite everyone else.
Going to service was a way for women at court to shine in front of royalty and the nobility. Mothers would thrust their daughters in front of the crowds and deck them out in the latest fashions in hope they’d catch someone’s eye. The true catch, of course, would be the king, and those in favor of the king could sit upstairs.
(Below, a view of the chapel ceiling from the Royal Gallery)
Moving on, we headed back through the Hercules Salon and stepped into the Hall of Plenty, also known as the Salon of Abundance. With its green walls, gold moldings, and black busts, this salon is eye-catching to say the least.
It is perhaps one of the most versatile rooms in Versailles, mostly used as a display room of sorts, where the kings would display an “abundance” of jewels and precious objects, but it was also known to be a place to take refreshments or an extended addition to the Games Room/Room of Rarities, which was accessed through the smaller end door.
(Below, a bit of green, gold, and the gilded ceiling of the Salon of Abundance)
Next, the Venus Salon. Like the Hall of Abundance, this room was used for evening parties or meetings where small meals would be served.
In this room especially, I saw the significance of mythology in the art of Versailles and how it relates to Louis XIV. The most striking example is of course, the giant statue of Louis XIV as a Roman Emperor. Louis XIV wanted the great deeds of ancient heroes to correlate with what he himself had accomplished, thus increasing his power and majesty. This became a reaccuring theme throughout the Salons.
(Below, the statue of Louis XIV as a Roman Emperor in the Venus Salon)
The Diana Salon was next, a room mostly used for evening gatherings where people would play games. This room was used more often, especially under Louis XIV who would play billiards and wanted people of the court to see him win and admire him.
A famous bust of Louis XIV resides here, one that the king himself was particularly fond of. It is thought that the sculptor wanted to draw allusion to Alexander the Great through the bust, as well as drawing on Louis’s nickname “The Sun King”. Due to Louis’s obvious love of drawing comparisons to ancient heroes, this seems a likely theory and is probably why Louis wanted it in a prominent space.
(Below, the bust of Louis XIV in the Diana Salon)
Next, the Mars Salon and the beginning of the more private rooms. This room is best known as being a “guard room” and the decorations within reflect this, as Mars is the Roman god of war and all paintings depict the great wars in history and of myth. Going along with the theme, they all correlate to the military might of the king.
In its later years, especially after the kings bedchamber was moved out of the Mercury Salon, it was often used as a hall for music and dancing.
(Below, some of the paintings in the Mars Salon)
Next, the Mercury Salon. This was originally the bedchamber of the King (only of Louis XIV), but this lasted only a short time. A bed was eventually put back into this room when the palace was made into a museum, so we were able to see the room as it originally was.
Finally, the Apollo Salon, also known as the throne room. I found it extremely fitting that the throne room was named after the roman/greek god of sun – suitable for the french “Sun King” that Louis XIV proclaimed himself to be.
A famous painting of Louis XIV hangs in this room, perhaps the most famous painting that exists of him (it is a replica, the original is in the Louvre). It was Stu, our guide’s favorite painting in all of Versailles because he pointed out how Louis XIV insisted on having his calves (of which he was very proud) on prominent display.
(Below, Louis XIV and his calves)
From here, we entered the War Room. The mythology theme halts a bit here, as this room is all about France and her might, showing French battles fought and won. As it is one of the entrances to the Hall of Mirrors, it is extremely opulent – gold, silver, marble, bronze – everything smooth and glittering.
Stu told us that when ambassadors from other countries came to Versailles to meet with the king about treaties, they’d be taken to the War Room first to wait. The room’s finery were supposed to shock them and the paintings on the wall were supposed to scare them, reminding them of the might of France.
(Below, the War Room and the entrance to the Hall of Mirrors)
Then, the ambassadors would be taken through the Hall of Mirrors. This famous hallway is one of the most breathtaking things I’ve ever seen. This, of course, was its intention – shock and awe. The walls are decorated with all the successes of France, of art, economy, military, and politics. It forms a (somewhat biased) ceiling of the history of France during the reign of Louis XIV.
Of course, the Hall was not used for only ambassadors. Visitors passed through it daily, as did the King, who would walk from his private apartments to the chapel for service. It was used for formal events, for weddings, and for balls. Anytime when the king wanted to show off his riches, the Hall of Mirrors would be used.
At the end of this gilded hall, there is the Peace Room. We weren’t able to access it, as it connects to the Queens Apartments, which were under renovation at the time. However, it is still a very important room when you connect it to the two adjoining rooms – War + Peace = Success. However it was used less to create peace and more to create music, especially during the reign of Louis XV.
Our tour continued onward, through the King’s Rooms, of which there were six different rooms.
(Below, the kings bed)
The rooms above are some of the most important rooms in all Versailles, with the most history and the most art. Our tour was nearing its end, and although there was still much to explore and the rooms afterwards were no less impressive, they were perhaps less impactful than those before it.
We visited a few more rooms, a dining room, a few more antechambers, then a couple rooms that were mainly empty of furniture (keep in mind that the palace was ransacked during the French Revolution and most of the furniture that remains had to be bought back, or made into a replica, or is missing).
Finally, we reached the end of our trip and took the beautiful “Queen’s Staircase” down and out of the palace. They’re called this because the Queen’s Apartments connect to it, but unfortunately these rooms were under reconstruction and were unavailable to us.
(Below, my sister on the Queen’s Staircase)
Tip! – Gift shops are an important stop for many people so here’s the breakdown. My guide told us that there was nothing there to buy you couldn’t get anywhere else, but I think he was just in a hurry to leave. There are some overpriced things and some cheaply made things, but there is also fine china that is beautiful and some very cute jam bottles made with fruit from the palace grounds. I wish to this day I had bought some jam so be sure to tell Stu at the beginning of the tour that you want to be able to have a few minutes at the gift shop if you are so inclined.
To conclude our trip we biked back through the city of Versailles to the train station where we said our goodbyes and expressed our thanks for such an amazing experience (be sure to tip, they deserve it!).
Niki led us through the train station and answered any questions we had, be it getting back home or what to do that night for dinner. I couldn’t thank her and Stu enough, it was one of the best experiences in France I had, and I highly recommend it to everyone!
About the Company
Boutique Bike Tours was founded by two people, Stu and Niki, who run the entire company and were our tour guides. In addition to being an adorable couple, they are native English speakers who have a passion for travel and history.
Their company offers tours in three different locations: Versailles, the Eiffel Tower, and an evening Paris boat and bike tour. They also offer private tours of your choice, entirely customizable to you.
Within their tours, they offer:
- Skip the line passes (this is a HUGE plus)
- Licensed guides – meaning they can take you inside all French monuments and historic buildings (including Versailles), for a complete guided tour.
- A historian who spent years as a teacher (this is Stu)
- An experienced paramedic (this is Niki)
- On site bikes that are vintage (great for pictures) and comfortable (good for butts)
- Native English speakers who live in France and speak fluent French
Boutique Bike Tours is a top rated tour in France, with a 5 star rating on Trip advisor. They cater to small groups, so if you want a up-close and personal look at some of France’s most iconic spots, look no further!
Website – https://boutiquebiketours.com