Tips for a non-touristy visit to Versailles

By MARY WINSTON NICKLIN, CNN
John Nichols/freeimages.com

The Palace of Versailles

(CNN) - Is there a palace anywhere in the world as famous as the Château de Versailles?

Dripping with gilt and marble, the colossal palace was the singular vision of Louis XIV, aka the almighty Sun King, whose lavish, lusty lifestyle mirrored his global ambitions for France in the 17th century. The monarch recruited the finest craftsmen of the day for his Pharaonic project: transforming his father's simple hunting lodge into a party pad to house the 6,000-person royal court. The numbers are dizzying: 700 rooms, 27 acres of roof, 67 staircases.

Landscape architect André Le Nôtre literally moved mountains to create the endless perspective of gardens. Dotted with sculptures, the groves were designed as open-air drawing rooms -- an extension of the palace (and setting for trysts galore). It took 30,000 workers some 50 years to complete the palace, which was the seat of royal power until it was overrun by mobs during the French Revolution.

The Palace of Versailles is a place of lore and legend.

The Sun King's feasts were so fine -- course after course presented with pomp and circumstance -- that they enshrined the rigorous rules of French gastronomy. And then there were the epic garden parties: fireworks and fountain shows and boating excursions in real gondolas imported from Venice.

Early visitors to the Palace of Versailles were wowed -- a Catherine Green of Boston declared the Hall of Mirrors "the finest room in the world" -- and today's selfie-taking tourists are just as awestruck. Behold the painted ceilings! The crystal chandeliers! The Sèvres porcelain! Screen portrayals, such as Sofia Coppola's "Marie Antoinette" and the hit TV series "Versailles," have only spawned more interest in the political intrigue, scandal and prestige associated with the palace. This translates to millions of visitors every year to this UNESCO World Heritage Site. (In 2015, a total of 7.5 million people made pilgrimages to the palace.)

Don't let the travel crowds deter you. A trip to the Château de Versailles -- just 12 miles southwest of Paris -- is not to be missed. To make the most of your visit, follow our handy guide.

Planning your trip

The Palace of Versailles is easily accessed by RER C commuter train. From the Champ de Mars/Eiffel Tower stop on the left bank, the trip is less than 30 minutes to the Versailles-Rive Gauche station. Then it's a quick five-minute walk.

Keep in mind that since the country's Vigipirate security laws have gone into effect (post-terrorist attacks), there is a security check at the entrance to the grand courtyard prior to the palace's security entrance; large bags are not allowed. Proper walking shoes are essential.

The palace is open every day except Monday, and the May 1 holiday.

It's best to your tickets online in advance (palace-only is 18 euros / around $21; passport starts at 20 euros). Avoid the busiest days of the week: Saturday, Sunday -- and also Tuesdays, when Paris museums like the Louvre are closed, meaning more folks flock to Versailles. National holidays, particularly the bevy of long weekends in May, are very busy.

The best day to visit is Thursday, and the best time to arrive at the palace is between 2:30 p.m. and 3 p.m. You can't miss the pièce de résistance: the Hall of Mirrors. But considering that the State Apartments are the most popular place in Versailles, it's best to stroll the gardens in the morning (free entry), then explore the palace in the afternoon to avoid the morning crush.

To enhance your self-guided itinerary, the Château de Versailles has released some excellent free mobile apps for Android and iOs with detailed commentary.

Note that the Paris Museum Pass -- which provides entry to 50 monuments and museums in the Paris region -- does not get you cut-the-line access to the Château. It's still necessary to wait in the security line.

Group guided tours, bookable online, are a wonderful way to glean insights while also avoiding the crowds. For example, the private tour of the Private Apartments of Louis XV (priced at 7 euros / about $8, in addition to the admission fee), allows visitors a peek inside an intimate world where the king escaped the rigid rules of the court. Get up close and personal with the gold barometers, intricate gilded paneling in the "gold plate room," and exquisite décor like the king's rolltop desk -- considered one of the most famous pieces of furniture in the world.

Keen to treat yourself to an over-the-top experience? Splurge on the Prestige Tour, priced at 800 euros, which is a private, bespoke visit with a professional guide. This tour is the same price for one person or 20, so why not bring your posse? The Prestige Tour must be booked 15 days in advance by email (visiteprestige@chateauversailles.fr) or phone (+33 (0)1 30 83 77 82).

It's also possible to reserve spectacular rooms like The Gallery of Great Battles, The Hercules Room, and the Orangery for private events -- think glittering gala dinners and cocktail parties. Contact the Events department for details (evenements@chateauversailles.fr; Tel: +33 (0) 1 30 83 74 04).

You can give it a good shot, but you can't cover the entire Château de Versailles in just one day. If you book the two-day passport (25 euros), it will give you ample time to explore other parts of the estate.

Dotted with rustic thatched cottages, the Hameau de la Reine (Queen's Hamlet) was where Marie-Antoinette took refuge from the confines of the court. The Grand Trianon, famed for its French formal gardens, is a pink marble palace constructed for the Sun King's private use, while the Petit Trianon was built by architect Ange-Jacques Gabriel for Louis XV and Madame de Pompadour, his mistress. Keep in mind that these buildings don't open until 12 noon. From the palace, it's a good 25-minute walk. If you're not feeling sporty, rent a golf cart or take the mini train.

With the one- or two-day passport, visitors can also do an add-on to see the Musical Fountain Shows -- a magical event taking place in the gardens between April and October.

The King of Cuisine

To streamline the visitor experience, the Château de Versailles opened a new visitor entrance, housed inside the renovated Dufour Pavilion, in February 2016. The building's restoration was entrusted to Dominique Perrault, the award-winning architect behind the National Library in Paris.

What you'll find is a simplified entrance/exit in a gorgeous, contemporary space accented with gold tones. In the ancient vaulted cisterns, a must-see boutique is stocked with covetable gifts, while upstairs, the centerpiece is the new restaurant by Alain Ducasse, called Ore -- Latin for "mouth."

During the day, it's a convivial café serving what Ducasse calls "the perfect expression of French contemporary cuisine." Try signatures like the guinea fowl breast, served with fennel and peaches, or the coquillette pasta with ham, Comté cheese and black truffle. You'll want to linger -- the space is beautiful, adorned with framed vintage architectural prints, while large windows frame views of the palace. Cap off your meal with a soufflé fashioned from Ducasse's bean-to-bar chocolate.

In the evening, Ore is reserved for sumptuous soirées featuring haute cuisine inspired by the royal court. Imagine the Sun King's multi-course feasts, a parade of dazzling dishes inspired by ancient recipe archives, paired with the royal's favorite Champagne, s'il vous plaît.

Just as Louis XIV loved his vegetables, cultivating dozens of varietals in his gardens, Alain Ducasse is a vegetable champion. In fact, the chef has another Versailles connection: the estate's Jardin de la Reine produces organic vegetables for his Michelin three-star restaurant at the Hotel Plaza Athénée in Paris.

And on the horizon, a luxury hotel is expected to open in 2019 on the palace grounds. The Château de Versailles selected Alain Ducasse Enterprise and LOV Hotel Collection to oversee the project, which will transform three historic buildings (including the Hôtel du Grand Contrôle) into a 19-room hotel with a gastronomic restaurant.

Billed as "the smallest palace hotel in the world," this new hotel will be part of the LOV group's newly launched Airelles Collection, also including La Bastide de Gordes in Provence and Les Airelles in Courchevel.

Oh, and if you're eating at Ore, here's a fun perk: you'll get direct Château access if you reserve the "Breakfast & Passport" or "Lunch & Passport." Online bookings here.

Amazing art

What do Anish Kapoor, Jeff Koons and Olafur Eliasson have in common? These giants of the contemporary art world have all exhibited custom artwork in open-air exhibitions at the Château de Versailles. For the last decade, the palace has organized buzz-generating art exhibitions that get tongues wagging. To celebrate the 10th anniversary of this event, the Chateau has teamed up with the Palais de Tokyo to curate an exhibition in the gardens called "Voyage d'Hiver." Sixteen different artists have been commissioned to create a thought-provoking "trail" through the garden groves (October 22- January 7, 2018).

Photography tips

The Château de Versailles inspires incessant photo snapping. Whether you're a serious photographer or a budding amateur, take some tips from a professional. Alex Cretey Systermans is an in-demand Paris-based photographer for publications like the New York Times, Le Monde and Monocle.

As you shoot pictures in the Château, there's a natural flow to the tourist circuit so you won't get lost -- but don't get too tied to this path," he says, "Don't hesitate to retrace your steps as you pursue interesting pictures, immersing yourself deeper into a specific situation. Sometimes the best details hide somewhere quite close!"

He continues, "Since some rooms are dark and no flash is allowed, use a high ISO setting on your camera." And don't forget to look through the windows. "The park is amazing as you gaze down from the palace."

In fact, you may be able to capture better pictures out in the garden. "The park is a pleasure to get lost in. And the statues in winter are covered with thick "clothes" to protect them from the cold. This creates a terrific ghostly look that I love!"

But what about the crowds? Alex notes that "it's easier and more interesting to include the tourists in your frame, rather than avoiding them." Checking out individuals' sometimes unusual or striking looks can "bring a lot of life to your photos," says Alex. "Trying to avoid them can make your pictures look clumsy."

For more travel inspiration, check out the below photo gallery showing some of France's most beautiful places.

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