Although less famous than the Louvre or Musée d’Orsay, a visit to the Carnavalet is a must if you want to get the best overview of the city’s history, from prehistory to the present, set within two beautifully-restored hôtels particuliers from the Marais district’s aristocratic golden age.
Our favorite Paris museum happens to be the city’s oldest municipal museum, opened to the public in 1880 in the 16th-century Carnavalet mansion (Hôtel Carnavalet), once home to the famous femme de lettres the Marquise de Sévigné. Over the next 150 years the museum expanded, annexing the neighboring 17th-century Hôtel Le Peletier de Sant-Fargeau mansion in 1989. The museum closed for a complete overhaul in October 2016, finally reopening to the public on May 30th, 2021.
Even if you’ve already visited the Carnavalet, it’s worth returning to see the 2021 changes. In addition to the thorough cleaning of the facades, overall the museum is brighter and less cluttered inside as well. Windows let in plenty of natural lighting and offer views over the multiple courtyard gardens or the Marais streets. Ample seating areas have been added for tired feet, and clearer signage makes it easier to find your way around.
For those of you who don’t read French, you’ll be happy to find out that all signs are now in French and English and Braille (and in Spanish on the larger panels). Each gallery has an overview info panel to put it into context, and down at kid-eye-level is a shortened version for them to read on their own.
Many of the exhibits are now interactive, with video screens, sound recordings, touch screens, and even little educational games that the adults seem to like playing as much as the kids. This is a far cry from the “Ne touch pas!” you used to hear before the renovations. Having said that, they haven’t overdone it; the museum still maintains its predominantly historic architecture and décor.
The garden courtyards are open, with the new café (due to open in summer 2021) located at the far end of the main courtyard, with windows overlooking the gardens.
Finally, there are several new galleries to peruse, including the Introductory Gallery that presents basic data on the city and its symbols and the creation of the museum, and the new Prehistory, Antiquity, and Middle Ages galleries in the new underground level (beautifully done, not claustrophobic at all).
What to Expect
The Carnavalet isn’t an art museum, although there are artworks. It’s a museum housing over 618,000 items – paintings, sculptures, scale models, shop signs, drawings, engravings, posters, medals and coins, historical objects and souvenirs, photographs, wood paneling, interior decorations and furniture – dating from prehistory to the present.
Aside from the Introductory Gallery and the Gallery of Shop Signs on the ground level, the rest of the collection is presented by date:
- Middle Ages to Early 16th Century
- Paris from 1547 to the 17th Century
- 18th-Century Paris
- Second Half 19th-Century Paris
- 20th-Century Paris until Today
- The French Revolution
- First Half of 19th-Century Paris
What’s really interesting is that the architecture of the rooms themselves reflect the time periods they represent: the Antiquity galleries are in vaulted stone cellars; the Renaissance rooms have terra cotta floor tiles, exposed wooden beams and oversized carved stone fireplaces; the 17th and 18th-century galleries have parquet floors, painted wood-paneled walls, and huge crystal chandeliers; the 21st-century room is modern minimalist.
Many period rooms and facades in the garden courtyard are made up of walls taken from shops, mansions and buildings that were demolished during Haussmann’s 19th-century Paris and reassembled in the Carnavalet, such as the amazing Art Nouveau interior of Fouquet’s jewelry boutique designed by Alphonse Mucha. It really works to transport the visitor to the different time periods.
Opening Hours: Daily except Monday, 10am-6pm (last admission 5:30pm). Closed Jan 1st, May 1st, and Dec 25th.
Tickets: Free entrance to the permanent collection and to certain exhibitions. Prices vary for temporary exhibitions (usually €3). Advance reservations required online for all visitors as of 2021.
Info and Services: The giftshop offers a large selection of books on the history of Paris. The café will open summer 2021. Free lockers at
Heather’s Tip: This museum is huge, but not overwhelming nor crowded. Allow at least two hours to browse all the sections, or head straight for whatever time period you’re interested in, like the French Revolution (on the very top floor) or Roman-era Paris (cellar). There’s a lovely formal French garden with paisley parterres and a café to take a break if needed.
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