There’s a well-worn path between Versaille's Rive Gauche train station and the palace's gilded gates. One of the world's most-visited monuments, “Versailles” has become synonymous with Louis XIV's extravagant château, which overshadows the town itself. Yet for visitors with a little extra time, there is a bounty outside the palace (and after closing hours) that warrants a trip in itself, or at least an afternoon's exploration.
Divided into two sides flanking the castle—Quartier Saint-Louis to the south, Quartier Notre-Dame to the north—this lovely historic town bears the traces of a more prosaic life lived by the artisans and merchants who served the members of the Sun King's court. Here are six excellent reasons to step off the beaten path for a few hours—or a weekend—to discover the rest of Versailles.
1. Cour des Senteurs (Courtyard of Fragrances)
Inaugurated in late 2013, this elegant 17th-century courtyard, a stone's throw from the palace's entrance, houses a small museum, gourmet café, three outstanding boutiques, and extensive gardens, all with a perfume theme.
La Maison des Parfums charmingly illustrates the history of fragrance and Versailles's role in transforming French perfumery into an art form. The museum features scent buttons, lighted displays, and a gurgling fountain of orange-blossom-scented water (Louis XIV's favorite). After 30 minutes, you'll feel like an expert.
As one of France's first and greatest perfumers, Guerlain needs no introduction. Founded in 1828, the company is the producer of Shalimar and Jicky, the world's oldest perfume in continuous production. Outfitted with exquisite woodwork, chandeliers, and gleaming displays (all hand-made by master artisans), Guerlain’s boutique in Versailles is the only one in the world outside of Paris to carry all the perfumer's exclusive fragrances. The newest scent, Cour des Senteurs, a luscious mix of bergamot, jasmine, and white musk created in honor of Versailles, is only available here.
Sign up for one of Guerlain Versaille's exclusive perfume workshops in English led by director Maxence Nourric, some of which include breakfast by the gourmet caterer Lenôtre, for an unforgettable immersion into the magic of perfume (1 hour, €50; 1 1/2 hours, €70). Little Guerlain, a two-hour workshop for children ages 7–12, lets kids mix the raw materials to create their own personal fragrance (€70). To sign up, call 01 30 84 14 60.
Also check out one of the oldest glove makers in France. Maison Fabre creates à la mode styles (they furnish the top Paris couturiers) in lambskin, peccary, calf, ostrich, and crocodile that feel like a second skin. A perfumed model in two-toned lambskin (perfume included), created in honor of Marie Antoinette's penchant for scented gloves, is exclusive to this boutique.
Renowned for their huge range of perfumed candles—fig, wisteria, tuberose, lily of the valley, amber, cypress—the glorious scents from Diptyque have wafted through Parisian homes since 1961. Now available in a range of products, including perfume and skincare, the search for the perfect gift or memento stops here.
Finally, Paris's reigning gourmet caterer and pâtissier, Lenôtre café is a stellar dining choice, whether you're visiting the city or just the chateau. The café offers fresh salads, warm lunches, coffee, tea, and jasmine-scented macarons in its sleek dining room and courtyard terrace. For quality, price, and convenience, it can't be beat.
2. Potager du Roi
A five-minute walk from the palace, near the lovely Quartier Saint-Louis, sits the Potager du Roi. Originally the king’s kitchen garden, Potager du Roi offers up a tempting display of tender spring asparagus and sun-kissed summer fruits. Still cultivated using 17th-century techniques, it is now a world-famous gardening school harboring ancient, rare, and endangered species of fruits and vegetables, many of which can be purchased here, along with confitures, honey, and other handmade delicacies from the gardens.
3. Académie Équestre de Versailles (Versailles Academy of Equestrian Arts)
Headed by Bartabas—founder of Zingaro, the world's most spectacular equestrian circus–ballet—this is one of the few places that teaches equestrian choreography and dressage (along with fencing, dance, and traditional Japanese archery).
The academy is open to the public every weekend for dressage demonstrations and equestrian shows choreographed by Bartabas for the academy-trained riders. Book your tickets here, though some events are included in the price of your admission to the palace.
4. Marché Notre-Dame and Marché Les Halles
Gastronomes will gasp at the goods on display at one of the largest gourmet markets in the region. With four covered halls and a huge outdoor market, this astounding cornucopia offers an array of wine, pâté, charcuterie, cheese, fish, fruits, and vegetables from every corner of France in eye-popping and mouth-watering abundance.
(Les Halles, open Tuesday–Saturday, 7 am–7:30 pm, Sunday 7 am–2 pm; open market, Tuesday, Friday, and Sunday, 7 am–2 pm.)
On weekends the Quartier des Antiquaires, steps away from the market, is the perfect place to find everything from bric-a-brac to 18th-century furnishings (open year-round except August; Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from 10 am–7 pm).
5. L'Opéra Royal
Completed in 1770, just in time for the wedding of Marie Antoinette and the Dauphin of France, the Royal Opera is considered by many to be the most beautiful in Europe. A veritable sea of gilding, trompe l'oeil, and glistening chandeliers, this intimate opera house dazzles the eyes as well as the ears. World-class opera performances, orchestral concerts, and recitals benefit from “the exceptionally warm and lovely acoustics,” according to Ryan Brown, conductor and artistic director of the Opera Lafayette, one of the many important companies to perform here.
6. Jeu de Paume
A must-see spot for French history buffs, the Jeu de Paume is the site of the famous Tennis Court Oath. Signed by the Estates General (precursor to the French Assemblée Nationale) in 1789, the pledge signaled the start of the French Revolution. Although tours in English are not available, busts, artifacts, and a large painting on the court's north side movingly depict the momentous occasion.