Whether you live in Paris or you’re just visiting, a free concert is a great, economical way to get to know the city better. Many churches in Paris offer free classical concerts on the weekends, including intimate chamber ensembles, bombastic symphony orchestras, and vocal, organ, piano, and instrumental recitals. Normally, you get what you pay for, but here you get a beautiful venue, terrific acoustics, and world-class talent.
The best place to learn about upcoming concerts is at L’Officiel des Spectacles. It’s in French, but don’t be scared, non-French speakers! You can navigate the site easily. Just click on concerts, go to sous-rubriques and click on classique, and the next week’s schedule will pop up. Choose a day and scroll through, looking for Tarifs: entrée libre. You can also pick up a copy of L’Officiel des Spectacles at newsstands.
Here are my tips for enjoying your concert:
- They’ll pass the hat during intermission, so bring a few Euros.
- Get there early to get a good view, because it’s open seating.
- Sit near the front. Sometimes people poke their heads in and then decide not to stay, so you’ll have fewer distractions if you sit up close.
- If you aren’t sure about the performers or the music, google them beforehand. If you wanted lush Romantic piano but the featured composer is Estonian minimalist Arvo Pȁrt, you’ll be confused. (But if that does happen to you, give Pȁrt a chance. It will clear your mind. I recommend listening to Spiegel im Spiegel to start with.)
- Strangers who are going to sit next to each other usually say Bonjour. Say it, even if you don’t speak French. It’s the French way of clearing the air of awkwardness and establishing goodwill. Relax–no further conversation will be required.
- Bring your patience along, and your milk of human kindness. Because the concerts are free, people sometimes bring their children or elderly relatives who might not be able to attend regular concerts. Sometimes tourists come and go. Sometimes someone knocks over a large metal candelabra onto the stone floor, or an ambulance goes racing by, or the pianist’s child escapes from his nanny and goes looking for mom, or a brass band marches past playing When the Saints Go Marching In. (Yes, those have all happened to me during concerts.) Just enjoy the true slice of French life that you are experiencing.
Here are some good places to hear free concerts:
Cathédrale Sainte-Croix-des-Arméniens 13 Rue du Perche, 3rd
This small chapel in the Saint-Germain-des-Près area features chamber music and piano recitals. I heard a lovely clarinet-piano duo there last week, playing Brahms and Schumann. All-German programming is rare in Paris, so it was a treat.
Église Saint-Merry 76 Rue de le Verrerie, 4th
In the Marais, this ancient medium-sized church has vocal and piano recitals, chamber music, and small choirs. The performance area is in the middle of the chapel, with seating all around, so you can see the performer from any angle you chose. This church is located in one of the oldest and most interesting neighborhoods in Paris, so stopping in for a concert will make your day complete!
23 avenue Georges V, 8th Near the Champs-Elysees, the American Cathedral has chamber music, solo recitals, instrumental recitals, organs recitals, and choirs. It’s a large cathedral that can accommodate choral or instrumental ensembles, with an enormous organ.
65 Quai d’Orsay, 7th Located on the left bank of the Seine, it has one of the few nine-foot Steinways in Paris churches and a formidable organ. There are piano recitals, chamber music, vocal recitals, organ recitals, and vocal ensembles. Concerts are at 5pm on Sundays, and sometimes the sun comes slanting in through the stained glass during the performance. Lovely!
6 Parvis Notre-Dame, 4th In the center of Paris, Notre Dame often has organ concerts Saturdays at 8pm. Hearing the organ while looking at the ceiling of Notre Dame is a rare experience.
14 rue de Surène, 8th The Church of the Madeleine has free organ concerts Sundays at 4pm, as well as paid concerts throughout the week.
15 rue d’Ulm, 5th
In the Saint Germain-des-Près area, this huge church that can accommodate a full orchestra. I heard Rachmaninoff’s First Piano Concerto and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring there, and it was perfect. (photos)
Read more about where to hear classical music in Paris .
Yvonne Hazelton is an American living in Paris. She blogs at Escaping the Empty Nest
I enjoy the recitals at St. Julien Le Pauvre in the Latin Quarter- right around the corner from Shekespeare and Company. Upcoming concerts are advertised on flyers posted on their gate. Not free, but very reasonable, in what is claimed to be the oldest church in Paris.
Yvonne, great blog post. Thanks for all the insights. Next time I'm in town I'll check these out.