For the past 35 years the historic monuments of Paris – and now throughout Europe – are open to the public for two days. This includes embassies, government ministries, town halls, historic libraries, religious institutions, schools, workshops, and offices not normally accessible to the general public. It’s also a time that museums, department stores, gardens, and churches offer special access or guided tours. Here’s a list of our favorites and some tips on planning your visits. Photos from journeesdupatrimoine.culture.gouv.fr
Some Things to Keep in Mind
Most people beeline for the Palais Elysées (the French President’s Residence) or other famous buildings, creating long lines on both days. Looking for the lesser-known buildings that might not have any lines is usually the best way to enjoy more than one site over the weekend.
The official website for the Journées du Patrimoine has been up since early August, but it’s really difficult to use. It’s for all of France and has an interactive map, which seems like a great idea except that it doesn’t always show all of the events, and worse, the search function seems messed up because I’ve put in exact locations and they find no results, but then if I zoom on the location on the map it then “finds” the event. So don’t trust the search function. I actually used OpenAgenda.com to more easily scroll through all of the events for the Ile-de-France region (although they don’t seem to present them in any particular order, their English translations aren’t bad).
There’s an English version, but it’s an auto-translated creation so sometimes it’s more confusing than helpful. If you can, try and use the French version and your own translator app if you have one. And on the same note, I haven’t seen any of the sites offering English tours (which isn’t surprising if they only have limited staff and it’s a special occasion). Don’t let this dissuade you if you don’t understand any French, just follow along and enjoy taking photos (if allowed), or limit yourself to the open visits without a guide and use your smartphone to translate any written info provided.
Even before Covid, a lot of the sites – to avoid the whole problem of lines – started requiring advance registration, sometimes in that horrible “send us an email and we’ll let you know” circle of hell, sometimes showing you a “complet” (full) sign weeks before the event. So…some advance planning is required, and the more effort you put into it advance, the more you’re likely to enjoy the weekend. Unfortunately, a lot of the sites requiring registration don’t accept them until September, and not always at a specified date, so you’ll have to keep checking back to see when it’s possible to reserve.
Secrets of Paris Recommendations for 2021
All that said, it really is quite exciting to see what’s available each year. There are always way more interesting sites than I could possibly visit in just two days. Below is my own personal dream list of what I’d love to check out. Since I like the really obscure and weird things that I can’t usually access on my own, I’ve excluding most (but not all) of the really popular sites everyone knows and lines up for.
The Palais du Tribunal de Commerce de Paris is the gorgeous Second Empire building housing the Commercial Courts on the Ile de la Cité (1 quai de Corse, 4th). The 45-minute tour (they leave every 20 minutes, no reservation needed) includes the elaborately decorated courtrooms and the main staircase, as well as the hall where the names of all of the judges of France since 1564 are engraved on the wall. The tours are in French by judges who explain how the courts work and the role of judges. If your French isn’t good, just enjoy the scenery. Open both days 9am-5pm.
The Hôpital Laënnec (40 rue de Sèvres, 7th) was a 17th-century hospice, then a working hospital from 1871 up until the French government finally sold it in 2000 to finance the construction of a new hospital. The building was purchased and completely restored by the fashion conglomerate Kering group to house their headquarters along with the Maison Balenciaga and opened to the public for the first Journées du Patrimoine six years ago with guided tours focusing on highlighting the history of the building, including the chapel. Open without reservations both days from 10am-6pm.
The Théâtre du Châtelet is open for unguided visits of the theatre and an exhibition of theatre costumes (from Kiss me Kate, The King and I, Orlando Paladino, The Sound of Music, Nixon in China and My Fair Lady) on Saturday from 10am-4pm and Sunday 10am-7pm (all the guided visits are already full); but the reason we’ll be going is that on Sunday over 2000 of the costumes and accessories will be going on sale for €1-€200. Expect a soldes-level mob! There will also be live music performances by the Châtelet Music Club and the Brass Band du Châtelet on Saturday in the Grand Foyer at 6pm and Sunday at the Place de Châtelet at 4:30pm and 6pm, no reservations needed.
You don’t see too much brick used in Parisian architecture, so the Saint François Franciscan Friars Convent near metro Alésia (7 rue Marie-Rose, 14th) really stands out. It was built in 1936, so not really so “old” by French standards, but if you’re in the area it’s worth checking out this weekend when the cloisters, gardens and chapel are open freely to the public Saturday from 9-11am and 2-6pm, and Sunday 2-6pm.
Not many people seem to visit the Museum of the Légion d’Honneur situated right next to the Musée d’Orsay, and even fewer ever get a chance to visit the Grand Chancellery (64 rue de Lille, 7th). The office of the Grand Chancercy of the Legion of Honor is in charge of awarding national honors (you’ll find many historic medals and such in the museum). It’s worth visiting for the architecture (the building inspired Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello) as well as in the fancy interior and the history dating back to the First Consul under Napoléon. Open Saturday 1-6pm and Sunday 10am-6pm without reservations.
Built in 1894 with a painted coffered ceiling, Le Ranelagh Theatre (5 rue des Vignes, 16th) is one of the last examples of a French-style wooden theatre still in use. From 1931 until the 1980s it was actually used as an arthouse cinema, and today is used for theatre and musical concerts for its acoustics. Open briefly for un-guided visits without reservations both days 10am-1pm.
The Hôtel Schneider, built in the early 1800s by the wealthy Schneider family of the Creusot steel industry, has hosted the Brazilian embassy in Paris since 1971. Located between the Pont de l’Alma and the Pont des Invalides at 34 cours Albert-Ier, 8th, the gardens, interior, and chancellery are open to visits this weekend, not just for the architecture but also the paintings, photographs, tapestries and sculptures by renowned Brazilian artists. Open 11am-5pm both days, no reservations needed.
An exhibition of “Hats as Works of Art” dedicated to the 175th anniversary of the birth of Russian jeweler Karl Fabergé (of “Fabergé egg” fame) is being hosted at the recently opened Russian Orthodox Spiritual and Cultural Centre (1 Quai Branly, 7th, between Pont Alma and the Eiffel Tower; you can’t miss the big golden Hershey’s-Kiss-shaped domes). There will be 100 hand-made hats made by Russian and European milliners and on display both days from 11am-7pm, free entry without reservations. If you’re there on Sunday there will be film screenings of “Virtual Guided Tour of the Rococo Catherine Palace” in Tsarskoye Selo (formerly Pushkin) in the amphitheater at 3pm, 3:45pm and 4:30pm.
The Fondation Dosne – Thiers (27 place Saint-Georges, 9th) is housed in a mansion in the heart of the Nouvelle Athènes district once home to the first president of France’s Third Republic, Adolphe Thiers. Since 1905 it has housed the Institut de France’s scientific library dedicated to 19th-century France. On Saturday the ground floor reception rooms will be open to the local artisans of the neighborhood to display their wares and discuss their expertise — leather worker, lute maker, embroiderers, shoemaker, restorer of paintings, jeweler, and bookbinder. Free entry without reservations Saturday 10am-5:30pm.
The Mazarine Bibliothèque in the Institut de France (that gold-domed building across the Pont des Arts from the Louvre) is the oldest public library in France. Open visit of the 17th-century gallery and temporary exhibition on the academic Fontenelle. No reservations, open 9am-6pm all weekend. 23 quai de Conti, 6th Official website: https://www.bibliotheque-mazarine.fr/
The Lycée Henri IV is a prestigious high school behind the Panthéon that was created in 1804 within the medieval walls of the 12th century Abbaye Sainte-Geneviève (although most of the surviving architecture is from the 17th century). I’m particularly interested in seeing this myself because I want to see if they’ve finished (or even started) renovations of the frescoed cupola in the library. Yes, I have a thing for libraries! Guided, one-hour tours both days from 2-5:30pm, no reservations possible (so there will likely be lines). More info on the school and the fundraiser to restore the cupola.
If you’re really into horticulture and particularly fuchsia plants, there’s a unique chance to visit an exhibition in the library of the National Horticultural Society (Bibliothèque de la Société Nationale d’Horticulture de France, 84 rue Grenelle, 7th), “Books and Fuchsias: Illustration of Horticultural Heritage” with over 50 varieties of potted fuchsias, rare books housed in their library, and demonstrations of how to grow fuchsias (you get to take cuttings home with you). They also share information about their botanical illustration classes they conduct year-round. Open Saturday only from 10am-6pm, reservations not needed.
Napoléon Bonaparte is the most famous graduate of the Ecole Militaire, that 18th-century building you see on the end of the Champ de Mars opposite the Eiffel Tower (well, now behind the Grand Palais Ephémère). Now officially called the Ecole de Guerre (War School), this is your rare chance to see the inside on an open visit both days from 9am-7pm without reservations (guided tours also possible, sign up on-site for a slot when you arrive). The chapel opens from 11am, and will have a choir performance at 3pm both days. https://ecoledeguerre.paris/
The Grande Loge Féminine de France (4 Cité du Couvent, off 101 rue de Charonne, 11th) is the first women’s Free Masons lodge in the world, opened in 1945 in the former 17th-century convent, Couvent du Bon Secours. The guided tours recount the history of the site including the convent and the Free Masons, “Filles de la Lumière”. Open Sunday 9:30am-5:30pm without reservations.
The Palais de Luxembourg in the gardens of the same name is home to the French Senate. Although always popular, it’s worth a visit if you’re patient to see the library painted by Delacroix, Marie de Médicis’ chapel, and the famous “hemicycle” where Senate sessions take place (and where the political representatives of “La Gauche” sit on the left and the “La Droite” sit on the right, with the moderates in the middle). No reservations, line up outside the door at Place Paul Claudel, 6th (15 Rue de Vaugirard) both days 9am-6pm. No guided tours but the staff will answer questions. I met Charles-de-Gaulle’s son Philippe when visiting with a tour client many years ago, and he happily volunteered some really interesting history about the building to us, in perfect English. 😉
UNESCO headquarters in Paris is offering night tours on Friday and Saturday from 6-10:30pm for the Journées du Patrimoine, a chance to see the Japanese garden and their collection of artworks by renowned artists including Calder, Bazaine, Noguchi, Miro, Moore, Picasso, Tamayo, Basaldella, Matta, and Arp. You’ll need to reserve your interest on their online form before you can even choose a time slot (I’m still waiting for the reply to my application).
Okay, this is a longshot, but who doesn’t love those old historic city buses? If you can manage to snag a spot, you’ll get to ride around Paris in a vintage RATP bus (reservations open in two waves, September 7th and September 14th here:). You can also see them on display for free in the lobby of the Maison de la RATP next to the Gare de Lyon (read the article here).
You could visit a museum anytime, but on the Journées du Patrimoine you can visit the Hôtel Gaillard for free (and save €14). This is a gorgeous neo-Renaissance mansion built at the end of the 19th century (supposedly modelled after a wing at the Château de Blois) for a wealthy banker and art collector Emile Gaillard. It became a branch of the Banque de France from 1922-2006, and, after extensive renovations, was opened in 2019 as Citéco – Cité de l’Economie (a museum trying to explain economics in a fun way, I guess). I haven’t been yet, so this is my chance to take the guided tour and learn all of the history and see the new fresco created by the Institut Français du Design for Paris Design Week. Open Saturday 10am-7pm, Sunday until 6pm, reservations for the tours are “highly recommended”, they open from September 1st: https://journeesdupatrimoine.culture.gouv.fr/programme#/events/12254427
It shouldn’t be surprising that the offices for an organization created to help preserve historic monuments would have an amazing interior, and the Fondation pour la Sauvegarde de l’Art Français (22 rue de Douai, 9th) is no different. I like it especially because it’s not over the top fancy, they actually work in here after all, but it gives you a good idea of what an Haussmann apartment really looks like, colorful walls and all. They haven’t been open to the public for many years, so it’s still relatively unknown, and I couldn’t find good photos, so you’ll just have to come check it out yourself. Open Saturday only for 30-minute guided tours between 10am-4pm, reservations are required via their online form here.
I’ve already signed up to visit La Ruche – Cité des Artistes, an historic artist’s colony in Paris (ruche means “hive”) first created by the sculptor Alfred Boucher in 1903 in a building originally used for the Universal Exposition of 1900. Despite some ups and downs over the years, thanks to many donors covering restoration it is still inhabited by working artists, and is now run by the Fondation La Rûche-Seydoux (2 passage de Dantzig, 15th). Visits are available only by reservation on the Patrivia.net website.
Okay, you can see a bunch of old libraries on this list, but the one at CNAM (the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers) is totally different because it’s housed in the 13th-century Priory of Saint-Martin des Champs and its refectory. For the Journées du Patrimoine they’ll also be presenting the exhibition ‘Lady Liberty: Bartholdi’s American Dream’ about the construction of the Statue of Liberty through a selection of rare documents from the library’s collections. Free entry, but reservations necessary online, book now here.
The Hôtel de Bourvallais, headquarters of the Ministry of Justice on the Place Vendôme (right next to the Ritz), opens its doors for guided tours around the theme of Napoléon (once again, because 2021 is the Bicentennial of the emperor’s death). Check out the video of the 17th-century building here. Reservations for entry (which are a must) don’t open until September 13th here.
How much of a basketball fan are you? There are two major sites open for the Journées du Patrimoine you might like: the first is the oldest basketball court in the world, the YMCA Union de Paris (14 rue de Trévise 9th) opened in 1893, which you can visit both days with a reservation online (pick a time slot), the second is the French Basketball Museum (117 rue du Château-des-Rentiers, 13th), which is right down the street from me and I never even noticed it. In its defense, it’s more of a museum space within the offices of the French Federation of Basketball, not normally open to the public except for this Saturday from 10am-6pm (no reservations needed for this one), when players who have worn the jersey for France will be present.
The Palais Royal, once home to Cardinal Richelieu, the young Louis XIV, then the Orléans cousins of the king before becoming State property after the Revolution, is now home to the Ministry of Culture, Council of State, Constitutional Council and the Comédie Française theatre. It’s open this year with a special “interactive game” through the Explorama platform. Reservations aren’t open yet, but will be required (check here). If you just want to check out the gardens, about 20 classic French cars will be on display in the courtyard Saturday from 8am-10pm and Sunday until 6pm; and fencing demonstrations as part of the Year of Napoléon in the gardens on Saturday at 11am, 2:30pm, and 5pm.
Learn about the architecture and the history of the former Menier Chocolate factory in Noisiel (on the Marne River just outside Paris), now home to Nestlé France HQ, where the original owners built housing on-site for their employees. Guided tours Friday through Sunday, by reservation only, online starting September 13th. If you miss it, there are guided tours once per month for €8.
If you’re a fan of the Olympics you can get a sneak peek at the Village des Athlèthes construction site in Saint Denis that will be used for the 2024 Games in Paris. There will be an open house (with family activities) at the Maison du Projet du Village des Athlètes (19 boulevard Finot, Saint-Denis, accessible via metro 13 or 14) on Saturday only from 9am-1pm and 2-6pm, no reservations needed.
Okay, this one is a bit geeky, but I can’t resist. The MEGE association (Mémoire de l’électricité du gaz et de l’éclairage public) houses the historical items that tell the story of the distribution of gas and electricity in the Paris region, including a collection of the first gas and electric street lamps. Located in Nanterre, advance registration on their website for a guided tour on Saturday or Sunday. http://mege-paris.org/
For more ideas visit the official website for the Journées du Patrimoine.