Marco and I just got back from a lovely 8-day vacation in Paris. Of course with that amount of time we couldn’t skip the Château de Versailles, the opulent royal palace for generations of opulent French kings. We had heard it was the top of the top in Europe. The palace to end all palaces. Opulence and wealth at its height.
Only, we hated it.
After much research, I wasn’t surprised by the hour+ long wait under the sun to get in (even with pre-booked tickets), I wasn’t even surprised by the surging crowds that caused viewing the rooms to be nearly impossible. Yet I still hated the palace.
Tickets to get into Versailles cost 25 euro for a “passport”, which includes “the Palace, the Palaces of Trianon and the Estate of Marie-Antoinette as well as the temporary exhibitions and the gardens.” I repeat: “and the gardens.” So imagine my surprise when we finally left the stuffy, boring, crowded palace to escape to the absolutely gorgeous gardens and then were asked to pay. Again. The gardens cost an additional 8 euro and mean an additional line, not just for tickets, but also, obviously, security.
I know that the palace is dripping in history and that, I appreciated. But the truth is, I’ve visited royal palaces all over the world better executed. This means that they were still furnished (Versailles is largely not), that they had signs in multiple languages, that they only allowed a certain amount of people in the rooms at a time, that there were seats for tired travelers to sit on while listening to audio guides. Versailles had none of these things. It was room after room of gold sheafing, royal portraits with no explanation and largely no furniture at all. Impressive, but not worth it.
The gardens themselves are beautiful, but cost an additional 8 euro to enter. Then, if you’d like to rent a golf cart for an hour to tour the expansive area, you’ll have to shell out another 32 euro, per hour and of course, wait in another line.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a stingy traveler. I believe that we save all year to not have to worry about these things while on vacation. I do, however, want to get my money’s worth. I don’t think Versailles did that. And though I tease Marco for turning back to his Italian heritage all too quickly while traveling, all I could think while I was touring the gardens, desperately looking for a bench to sit on that was in the shade (there were few, and you’re not allowed to sit on the grass…) was all the Royal Palaces and beautiful gardens I’ve visited in Italy that are worlds better than Versailles – and cost less!
Villa Reale and The Park of Monza
Why: The Villa itself is magnificent, on par if not better than Buckingham Palace. With an enormous fountain at front and a large tree-lined boulevard that leads directly into the Villa’s open wings, the villa is even more breathtaking when lit up by soft purple lights at night. Now, for the first time in all of Italy, visitors can admire the “original” furniture of the palace with augmented reality. With a pair of smartglass glasses visitors can see where the furniture and other household objects once stood of the Italian kings who used it as their summer home. Tickets to tour the royal apartments cost 11.50 euro.
The gardens itself include a large rose garden to the left of the villa. Behind the palace is the free, and massive, “garden” of the Villa which is really a manicured park. Lay under the sun, find a spot in the shade or hike around the many trails. After, leave the garden area and head into the Park of Monza. Covering approximately 1,700 acres, the Park of Monza is one of the biggest city parks and the fourth largest walled-in park in all of Europe. It houses a country club with swimming pool and golf course, two restaurants, playgrounds, bike rentals, a petting zoo, picnic tables and the autodromo, the famous Formula 1 racetrack. Here bikes and roller blades are allowed, and you’ll be one of many people strolling, biking, rolling or running through the enormous park Read more about the Park of Monza here. Oh, and did I mention that it’s free?
La Reggia di Caserta, Naples
Why: Perhaps no other palace is as frequently compared to Versailles as the Reggia di Caserta. Actually, the entire structure was built in the late 18th century for the Bourbon kings of Naples specifically to rival Versailles and the Royal Palace in Madrid. This monumental structure is often claimed to be the largest royal palace in the world, but I haven’t been able to fully fact check that yet. I do know that it has more than 40 monumental rooms, while Versailles has only 22.
Unfortunately this summer residence located near Naples, in Caserta, is not the best preserved. Blame it on local politics (bureaucratic thieves) or simply because they don’t ask for 25 euro like Versailles does, in any case this jewel doesn’t shine like it used to. Still, this isn’t any old run-down palace. The Palace (or Reggia) of Caserta covers 47,000 square meters and is 5 stories tall. The park beyond the palace is nearly 297 acres big, filled with monumental fountains and an English Garden that is a veritable botanical garden. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997, the entire structure is praised as being integrated into the surrounding nature, and not imposed onto it. Impressive, for a massive Baroque palace!
According to the website, the gardens combined “the tradition of the Italian Renaissance garden with solutions introduced by André Le Nôtre at Versailles.” For those who might just say that the Reggia is just a lesser-than Versailles I’d argue that it’s a complex just as impressive as Versailles, for half the price. You can rent a bike for 4 euro per hour or bring your own for just a 1 euro entrance fee. No golf carts here, but you can take a horse-drawn carriage for just 5 euro per person. Entrance into the Palace, Park and English Gardens comes in at a whopping 12 euro total and the whole structure is located directly in front of the train station, making for the easiest visit on earth. Game, set, match, Versailles.
The Apostolic Palace and The Villa Barberini Gardens, Castel Gandolfo
Why: A favorite Pope summer residence for hundreds of years, Pope Francis has decided not to use the house and has instead opened it up for tours. That’s good news for those of us seeking alternatives to snooty Versailles! Apparently the Palace isn’t so opulent, but rather quite homely; I’m sure as a nice change of pace for Popes constantly surrounded by Catholicism’s greatest riches. Throughout history Castel Gandolfo (as it’s colloquially known, after the town it’s in) has been used more or less depending on the Pope, but has made it’s historic mark. During WWII Pius XI publicly withdrew to the Palace when Hitler came to visit Rome and later he used it as a center to house Jewish refugees. The Villa Barberini Gardens span about 136 acres and are overflowing with flower beds, shaded lanes and impressive hedges. During WWII the gardens even had a makeshift maternity ward as pregnant refugees sought safety! Visit any day but Sunday with guided tours. While this costs a bit more than the others (the Vatican-led tour is 25 euro) it is a unique opportunity to see inside one of the Vatican City’s most spectacular real estate properties. Who knows if the next Pope will allow it!
Palazzo Pitti and The Boboli Gardens, Florence
This vast Renaissance Palace passed from Luca Piti, a rich Florentine banker, to the influential Medici Family to Napoleon. The largest museum complex in Florence, the entire Palace block covers nearly 8 acres. High real-estate in the center of Florence! Though I will admit that this is largely your typical royal palace experience – ritzy rooms showing off richy people’s richness – tickets cost just 8.50 euro and includes the royal apartments, the Palatine Gallery and the Gallery of Modern Art. Still, the real draw here are the gardens. Directly behind the Palace lie the marvelous Boboli Gardens. Filled with fountains, caves, temples and numerous Renaissance statues, these are more open-air museum than simply garden. The Boboli Gardens are widely considered the first prototype of a fully “Italian garden” and were imitated many times throughout history. The Gardens cover 111 acres and include a Silver Museum, Costume Gallery, Porcelain Museum and the Bardini Gardens. Tickets for all of the above cost 7 euro.
Villa Borghese and the Borghese Gardens, Rome
Why: What was once a 17th-century palace for the royal Borghese family, The Villa Borghese is now called the Galleria Borghese. Owned by the Italian government, it is now an art gallery spanning 20 rooms and 2 floors and including artists such as Caravaggio, Raphael and Titian. Unfortunately the most admired sculpture of the Villa, the Borghese Gladiator, had to be given to Napoleon and is now housed in the Louvre (thanks again, France!), but the museum is a fun visit nonetheless. Then we have the Borghese Gardens, which are now considered a separate visit. Open to the public, this enormous park is one of Rome’s most beloved green spaces. The Gardens span 148 acres, making it the third largest park in Rome, and house temples, statues, cafés, the Borghese Gallery and multiple other villas. These free gardens are a lovely oasis in chaotic Rome and a must-see in the hot summer months. Oh, and there are even benches in the shade, which I know Versailles has some difficulty with!
Villa Carlotta, Lake Como
Why: More than 750,000 square feet between the Villa’s museum and its gardens, Villa Carlotta‘s spring blooms are a well-known spectacle in northern Italy. The Villa was built in the 17th century for a marchese. Located in Tremezzo, just north of Como, the inside truly is just an opulently decorated house, but the beautiful location between mountain and lake, and the many glimpses the windows give you out of gorgeous Lake Como are enough to imagine a life there. The 16th-century Italian style gardens (thanks, Medici family!) span nearly 20 acres and overlook the lake. Obviously, this is a prime wedding spot! Though nowhere as big as Versailles, the surroundings are far more beautiful. Enjoy blooming flowers, a nice breeze and the looming mountains during your stroll through the gardens, all for just 9 euro.
There are so, so many other palaces and gardens that could be included on this list – Italy is practically dripping in them – but this is a start to prove my point. For sure, touring through ex-rulers and rich noblemen’s houses isn’t my favorite activity, but when organized well and reasonably priced, I think it’s a great way to learn about the area’s history and appreciate the difference between then and now. I appreciated the history behind Versailles, I just didn’t think that the structure was organized in a way that truly got that history across (Even with a Rick Steve’s audio guide). We were herded through like cattle, and paid a pretty penny to boot! Next time, I’ll choose the public park. Even the Luxembourg Gardens were more enjoyable on a hot day than Old King Louis XIV’s stuffy castle!
What do you think? Do you visit the Royal Palaces on a trip? Did you love Versailles or hate it, like me?