Since April 1st, the colonnade of the Panthéon’s restored dome is open again for visits, offering 360° views of Paris for those willing to climb the vertiginous 206 steps. I haven’t always been a huge fan of visiting the Panthéon. It seemed more trouble than it was worth unless you’re an unusually patriotic French person (bordering on nationalistic) or just want to see Foucault’s pendulum in action. But the additional option to see the panoramic views over Paris makes the whole visit more interesting.
In this Article
Sure, the Panthéon’s architecture is impressive for its sheer size, the artworks engaging if you bother to read the descriptions (you’ll need the audioguide or a smartphone translator), and the views from the dome’s colonnade stunning.
Like Père Lachaise Cemetery, most visitors are just here sightseeing, not to pay their respects to the dead. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Just don’t be one of those people who visits because the heard they “should”, dutifully taking in the dates and names and descriptions of the artworks like the many school children marched through here as part of their civic education, only to leave without any real understanding of what the Panthéon stands for, what makes it special, and why it’s worth your time and money to visit.
So if you’ve come a long way to visit, do take a moment to scan the list of the men and women interred here to see if there’s anyone in particular you’d like to “see” or learn more about. After all, learning something new is one of the great gifts of travel, and every person buried in the Panthéon theoretically has a noteworthy history.
A Short Intro to the Panthéon
You can spot the instantly-recognizable dome of the Panthéon from almost any elevated vantage point in Paris. It sits atop one of the Left Bank’s highest hillsides, the Montaigne Sainte Geneviève, named for the 6th-century basilica housing the relics of the city’s patron saint that originally stood there. After miraculously surviving an illness in 1744, King Louis XV vowed to build a new church in her honor, but it took so long to raise the funds and get started that it wasn’t finished until the beginning of the French Revolution, when it was transformed instead into a mausoleum for the “great men of France” in 1791 (the first woman wouldn’t be interred there until May 1995).
Some Interesting Facts
- If you think the Panthéon looks like the US Capitol, that’s because the neoclassical architectural style inspired by ancient Rome and Greece — large columns, prominent domes, and pediments with relief sculptures — was popular throughout the Western world during the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
- The Panthéon reverted to a church twice during the political turbulence of 19th-century France, only to permanently become a monument to the republic in 1885 with the funeral and “Panthéonization” of Victor Hugo.
- What was left of Saint Geneviève’s relics after being pillaged by French revolutionaries are now displayed in the Eglise St-Etienne-du-Mont next door (also worth a visit while you’re in the neighborhood).
- The Panthéon’s architect, Jacques-Germain Soufflot, died in 1780, before his monument was finished. In 1999 I met one of his descendants (now living in New Zealand) on my honeymoon, and in 2000 showed him and his wife around Paris. They made off with a “souvenir” of his great-great-great grandfather’s Panthéon, which I wrote about in one of the earliest Secrets of Paris articles, Paris in a Week Part 3: Kiwis on the Move!
- The otherwise non-descript Wagner clock above the doorway to Rondelet’s scale model of the Panthéon has a fascinating story behind it. In 2005 a group of “illegal restorers” called Untergunther set up a secret workshop and lounge in a cavity under the building’s famous dome and repaired the antique clock that had been left to rust since the 1960s, only revealing their presence when they completed the repairs a year later.
Artworks in the Main Level
When you enter the Panthéon, it’s not hard to be impressed with its sheer size. The absence of chairs or pews that you’d normally find in cathedrals or basilicas of similar size contributes to the feeling of spaciousness, or even emptiness. With the crypt downstairs, what to do with this enormous space?
They decorated it with art: dramatic frescoes and sculptures glorifying the Great French heroes and conquerors. Although it’s considered a secular monument today, most of France’s early heroes were also closely linked to the church, like Clovis, Joan of Arc and Louis IX, aka Saint Louis (the latter two being the favorite saints of the Far Right in France). Joan of Arc has an entire wall dedicated to her life story (bring binoculars if you want to be able to see the smaller scenes at the top).
So it’s a bit heavy on the romanticism/nationalism (even going as far as putting the faces of popular politicians of the time like Gambetta in the historic battle scenes alongside Clovis), but if you’re aware of it then it’s not so weird. Same goes for the visit to the crypt to see the burials. In any case knowing more info will help with context, so getting the audioguide is helpful (€3 extra, and you’ll need to leave your ID as collateral); the free brochure in English at the entrance is pretty sparse on its info (and doesn’t even mention the Foucault’s Pendulum), so a translator app on your phone to read the various inscriptions can be helpful.
This immense statue and the mosaic above it pretty much capture the complicated story of the Panthéon in one glance. The National Convention by François Sicard was commissioned in 1913 to celebrate the French Republic, placed in the spot usually occupied by the altar in a church (France had legalized the separation of church and state in 1905). The woman in the center wears a Phrygian cap, aka Liberty cap, an icon of the French Revolution (and the inspiration for the Paris 2024 Olympics mascot, weirdly enough). On one side are members of the French Parliament taking their oath, and on the other side are soldiers and drummer boys from the army of the republic. Ernest Hébert’s mosaic above, created between 1875-1884, shows figures representing (l to r): Joan of Arc, Saint Generviève, Jesus, “the Angel of France”, and the City of Paris (kneeling with the little boat in her hand, as in the city’s coat of arms). The title in Latin below it roughly translates to “Jesus showing the destinies of his people to the Angel of France”.
Because of when it was completed, there aren’t any frescoes of WWI or WWII, but there are plenty of statues and inscriptions on the walls from the 20th century, as well as more recognition in the crypt. And because this is France, there are also many writers and scientists honored in the Panthéon, because they bring glory to the republic, as well. I actually checked to see if anyone buried there is a soccer player, but there aren’t any athletes (yet).
In the center of the Panthéon’s main floor, hanging from the cupola by a steel wire, a 28-kilo brass and lead ball swings slowly back and forth. This is where the famous 1851 science experiment by the French astronomer and physicist Léon Foucault (also the inventor of the gyroscope) proved the rotation of the earth. It was reinstalled permanently in the Panthéon in 1995 (it was temporarily removed during renovations of the dome from 2015 until very recently, which may explain why it’s not mentioned in the English brochure).
Visiting the Crypt
As the monument is dedicated to the notable citizens of France, it seems fitting to visit the crypt to pay your respects. Follow the signs to the doorway leading downstairs, where you’ll find galleries housing the tombs of the 81 Panthéonized French men and – only quite recently – women from all walks of life, including Resistance heroes (Jean Moulin, Josephine Baker), politicians (Jean Jaurès, André Malraux, Simone Veil), writers (Victor Hugo, Emile Zola, Alexandre Dumas), scientists (Marie ad Pierre Curie), philosophers (Rousseau, Voltaire), and even inventors (Louis Braille). These names are usually known outside of France, but most visitors (and even most French people) won’t recognize the majority of the names carved into the stone.
The Panthéonization of someone is up to the French president, so tends to reflect the politics of the time, even if a lot of lobbying happens when someone ‘popular’ dies in France (singer Johnny Hallyday isn’t in there). Not everyone who can be buried in the Panthéon wants to be (Louis Pasteur is in his own custom-built crypt at the Pasteur Institute; Charles de Gaulle wanted to be buried in his hometown cemetery).
You can learn more about the people interred in the crypt thanks to the many informational touch screens (which have info in English). Some of the mausoleums are open so you can visit the individual tombs inside, others you can only see through small windows. It’s supposed to be a solemn, silent visit, but once it gets crowded people get quite chatty and you’ll occasionally hear a guard call for silence.
There are also a few shelves of books in one corner of the crypt where you can sit and read works written by or about the people interred there (at a glance, all in French), although I don’t know who would have time (they’re also for sale upstairs in the giftshop).
Tips for Visiting the Panorama
A clear day is best for enjoying the 360° views of Paris from the colonnade, including the Eiffel Tower, Notre-Dame Cathedral (and its reconstruction cranes), the Montparnasse Tower, the Center Georges Pompidou, the Sacré-Coeur Basilica, the Arc de Triomphe, the skyscrapers of La Défense, and Jean Nouvel’s leaning Duo Towers in the 13th.
There are 206 steps to get to the panorama, which don’t feel particularly exhausting because there are several places to stop and rest and a mid-point view (which is outside) before climbing the final steepest stairs to the top (these are most dizzying on the way down). Once up in the colonnade, it’s roomy enough for everyone to walk around and get a good vantage point on the different monuments.
Not that you can always know the weather in advance, but if it’s bad the panorama will be closed (because you’re walking outside on steep stone steps, so there are sections unprotected from the elements). Not sure if this means “light rain” or if it has to be gale force winds and sleet, but you wouldn’t really see much of a view anyway in those cases.
Get Your Tickets in Advance
The panorama is only open from April 1th until October 31st. You’ll need to purchase a specific timed ticket online that includes the entrance to the Panthéon as well as the panorama for €15 (just the regular entrance and crypt are €11.50). It’s free if you’re under 26, or with the museum pass, although you’ll still need the online ticket reservation. Note that you can get the discounted partner rate of €12.50 if you have a Thello, Thalys, SNCF Intercités, Paris Visit, or Les Amis du Louvre card, or if you have your river cruise ticket from the Vedettes du Pont Neuf. The audio guide (€3) only covers the Panthéon and crypt, not the panorama. The last audioguide is rented at 4:45pm.
The time on the ticket isn’t for the entrance to the Panthéon itself, just for the panorama entrance, so you’ll actually need to arrive at the Panthéon a bit in advance. Give yourself 30-45 minutes, since you can always spend that time visiting the crypt and the main part of the Panthéon if you don’t have to wait long in line.
Spoiler Alert: You Can’t “Skip the Line”
Because even if you have purchased your ticket in advance (or have a museum pass), you may still have to wait in the specific line for everyone else who already has a ticket or museum pass (I waited about 15 minutes in line). The other two lines are for people without tickets and large groups with their guide. The line for people without tickets might look shorter at first, but that’s because it wraps through several switchbacks, whereas the line for those with tickets is just one straight line.
When To Visit
Opening hours are 10am-6:30pm April 1st through September 30th, until 6pm the rest of the year. As for when it’s least crowded? Right when they open and an hour before they close, however the last entrance for the panorama is 4:30pm (which should give you plenty of time to visit everything unless you get carried away taking selfies with the Eiffel Tower in the background).
Beware of Vertigo & Uneven Stairs
I don’t recommend trying to visit in high heels, flip flops, or any other footwear that isn’t secure and good for walking on uneven surfaces. If you get vertigo, you may also want to avoid this particular visit, as you’ll be going downstairs with views going directly to the street below!
“…and Louis XIV, aka Saint Louis…”
Louis XIV is commonly referred to as “the Sun King”, but it was Louis IX who was called Saint Louis, in part because he acquired what he believed to be the Crown of Thorns and a piece of the True Cross from Emperor Baldwin of a 13th century Crusader state.
Oops! I did actually mean Louis IX, just typing away and not paying attention. Will correct and fire the copy-editor immediately. 😉
Fabulous article on the pantheon .. thanks . I have visited a couple of times it not really got it. Thanks
Thank you! Is Eglise St-Etienne-du-Mont – next door to the Pantheon – the place in the Movie – Midnight in Paris, were the Peugeot picks up Gil and transports them to the past?
One and the same church! Great spot! Fun movie! Cool church! And thanks to our host, Heather, for an interesting and informative read on the Pantheon. I, too, have visited the Pantheon a couple of times. I have to make it three times now and hike topside and take in the view. I’m sure it is spectacular!