Established over 30 years ago by the French Ministry of Culture, the annual Journées du Patrimoine, or Heritage Days, opens up thousands of historic monuments to the public for the weekend, including museums, churches, gardens, embassies, theatres, schools, libraries, the Senate and National Assembly buildings, and even industrial engineering heritage like the Paris metro control center and the Paris sewers. Most of these places are either normally closed to the public, have heavily restricted access, or (like museums) require an entrance fee, so the Heritage Days are a chance for everyone to enjoy special access to the country’s amazing architectural and cultural heritage. There are usually concerts, special tours, demonstrations, or other activities scheduled alongside the visits. The theme for 2015 is “21st Century Heritage”, highlighting contemporary and innovative architecture (like the newly opened Fondation Louis Vuitton).
The Bad News: It’s Complicated
The annual event gets a ton of press, with Parisians taking advantage of the weekend to explore favorite buildings or to discover new ones. However, if you’re not a French speaker you’ll find very little practical information in English about the Heritage Days. Add to that the fact that not all places are the same: almost all of the visits are free, but some cost a small fee, and although many are simply open so you can wander around freely, many can only be visited on guided tours, some which have to be reserved. There are specific hours and days for each location on top of that, so not every place participating will even be open both days. As much as I would love to translate everything on the program into English for you, it would take weeks. So here are a few tips:
Get a Printed Program
The Journées du Patrimoine website is only in French, so your best option is to get a printed program from the official information point at the Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication de Paris (182 rue St-Honoré, 1st), open daily September 14-20 from 9:30am-7pm (until 4pm on Sunday).
Download the French Program
The official website is a bit clunky and tedious to navigate, so I would recommend downloading the Ile-de-France program (PDF), which has very short descriptions for each location in Paris and the surrounding suburbs, and then using that as a basis for searching for specific places on the website, where you’ll find more details. On the PDF, the “VL” indicates you can visit on your own (VG is for guided tours), and the little key symbol means it’s a place usually closed to the public. The € symbol means there’s an entrance fee, which isn’t always a bad thing because it may mean small crowds, if any. In the more detailed website descriptions, look for “Gratuit, sans inscription”, which means you can just walk-in without having to sign up for a slot on a guided tour. Don’t bother trying the English version, it’s just an auto-translator for the headings.
Avoid the Crowds
The sites that have an entrance fee or require you to sign up for a time (by phone or email depending on the site) tend to be less crowded. Get up early if you have your heart set on a particular site that doesn’t take reservations. Or better yet, don’t even bother with the places that get the longest lines, like the Elysées Palace (the Presidential palace), the Hôtel Matignon (Prime Minister’s residence), Hôtel de Ville, the RATP behind-the-scenes tours (kids!) and the Sénat in Luxembourg Gardens (people line up an hour before opening for most of these). This year there will probably also be long lines for the Vuitton Foundation in Bois de Boulogne and the new Paris Philharmonic at La Villette.
There will be also huge write-up in this week’s French press, including the free metro magazine, A Nous Paris (usually in the racks from Monday night). It might be worth testing out one of those auto-translation smartphone apps. Sortir à Paris website has a nicely curated list with photos and easier links to the main websites (again, only in French, but easier to navigate than the official website).
Not every municipal site is free of charge. The Catacombs and Notre Dame’s Archeological Crypt and Towers are not free on the Heritage Days.
Take a Chance
If you like to leave it up to fate, just wander around any favorite Parisian neighborhood on the weekend and see what’s open (there will be signs everywhere) and check it out if there are no lines. You may be pleasantly surprised!