Visiting Versailles with our then-5-year-old and 8-year-old was a disaster. I had just finished reading The Hidden Diary of Marie Antoinette by Carolly Erickson, and had visions of strolling in the gardens with the fountains on full display and playing with the kids in Marie Antoinette’s Hamlet. This idyllic vision took a darker turn, filled with tantrums and whining, and felt more like a mini-French Revolution than the lovely family adventure I had planned.
I subscribe to the view that family trips should include activities and sightseeing that are interesting for both the kids and adults. However, what I failed to realize with Versailles is that it’s not really geared toward kids. It has lots of open spaces in the gardens to run and play and I thought this would be enough — it wasn’t. We needed to be more intentional in our planning, like researching Versailles bike rental in advance, to make the day trip more successful.
Evaluate if it’s worth taking an entire day out of your Paris itinerary to visit Versailles. Before you go, consider the ages of your kids and the amount of time you have in Paris. A friend who lives in Paris told me that he never recommends Versailles to visitors if they only have three or four full days in the city. It is one of the most popular day trips from Paris, but with limited time in the city, a full day away just doesn’t make sense.
Taking into consideration our kids’ ages and jet lag, he is right. We would have enjoyed a day at the Luxembourg Gardens and sightseeing in Paris more than the full day we spent at Versailles.
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Arrive early. In the busy summer months, heed the advice of the guidebooks and arrive before opening time. Versailles opens at 9 a.m. in the summer. We arrived at 11 a.m. and the line was already very long. That said, avoiding the crowds at Versailles is nearly impossible. Be prepared for thousands and thousands of people to be joining you that day and plan accordingly.
It was a hot day, so we decided to visit the gardens first and wait until the line went down in the afternoon to visit the chateau — a big mistake. The chateau closes at 6:30 p.m. We entered the chateau at 5 p.m. and, while the line outside was short, inside was another story. We were herded through shoulder-to-shoulder and encouraged to keep moving. We had to hold hands in order not to get separated.
Consider a guided tour. There are a variety of tours that leave from Paris and include a visit to a market for picnic supplies before visiting Versailles. Most guided tours for families focus on the gardens and grounds and provide expedited entrance into the chateau but not a guided visit inside. We especially love Versailles bike tours for families looking for an active day trip.
Note: The Paris Museum Pass does not allow any special entrance privileges at Versailles.
Take advantage of transportation options. My biggest regret, after not arriving early, is that we did not use the little train or rent a golf cart while touring the gardens. If your kids are proficient bike riders, you can also rent bikes at Versailles.
The distance between the chateau and Marie Antoinette’s estate is a good 30- to 40-minute walk, more if the kids are running around. It was hot and we were all tired; a golf cart or train would have made this so much more pleasant and fun. What kid wouldn’t remember driving around Versailles in a golf cart?
Plan well. I thought I had planned well, but in hindsight I could have done a much better job. Plan to spend the entire day, but make sure you visit the Versailles website to understand when and where everything takes place and how much it will cost.
I saw many visitors frustrated when they had to pay an additional charge to visit the gardens, which are normally included in the admission price but are an additional charge when the fountains are running. There is so much to do at Versailles that you’ll get more out of it if you have a strategy and know where you want to go — it’s not all evident. I was interested in seeing the equestrian show or just the horses, but we never even found the stables!
Feed the ducks at Marie Antoinette’s hamlet. It’s a little out of the way and you cannot enter the buildings, but the hamlet feels like a fairy tale, and in fact it was Marie Antoinette’s escape from palace life. Parents in the know bring bread and kids of all ages break their stale baguettes and toss them at the eager ducks.
Note: The Trianons and Marie Antoinette’s estate have additional entrance charges but are included with the Paris Museum Pass.
Bring snacks and water. It was unclear if we could picnic at Versailles, so I didn’t bring much food. There were no formal picnic areas, but there are several restaurants and casual cafes in the gardens, and definitely areas where you can sit and have a snack. We found local families having picnics and playing soccer at a park near the entrance to the Trianons.
Have dinner in the town of Versailles. Most tourists head right back to Paris after their visit. Since it was almost dinner time, we decided to stay and have dinner in the town of Versailles. We found a cute street full of outdoor sidewalk cafes on Rue au Pain about a 10-minute walk from the chateau. We ended our very challenging day on a happy note.
A month after the trip, I asked my 5-year-old if she remembered visiting Versailles. She replied, “You mean the one with the gardens? Yes, but why didn’t we take the choo-choo?” Enough said.
Editor’s Note: Photo by Kristi Marcelle.
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