Anyone aiming to better understand the long and complex history of the French capital would do well to pay a visit to the Musée Carnavalet in Paris.
The permanent collection at the Carnavalet traces Parisian history across over 100 rooms and some 615,000 artefacts, dating from the prehistoric period to the present day. The museum also hosts a series of temporary exhibits highlighting various periods and aspects of Parisian history.
And the budget-conscious among you will seize on this point: entry to the main exhibit is free for all. I’ve often argued that it tops the list among Paris’ free, municipally-managed museums. And after a period of closure and ambitious renovations, it’s set to re-open this spring.
Keep reading to learn why it’s more than worth a morning or afternoon, whether you’re visiting Paris for the first time or fancy yourself a semi-expert on the city. There’s such a wealth of information and insight within its walls that learning something new is pretty much guaranteed.
A Bit of History
The Carnavalet often claims to be the oldest museum in Paris. Opened in 1880, its collections are nestled within the walls of two adjoining Renaissance-era mansions, the Hotel de Carnavalet and the Hotel Le Peletier de Saint-Fargeau. These were built in the 16th and 17th centuries, respectively, and are connecting through a central passageway.
The mansions were once home to noteworthy Parisians including Madame de Sévigné, an aristocrat famous for her prolific correspondence and wit. After the French state acquired the buildings in the 19th century, the idea for a historic city museum was born.
The museum initially opened to the public exclusively within the Hotel de Carnavalet. By the late 20th century, the collection had grown to capacity, and in 1989 the city of Paris annexed the mansion next door to expand it further.
Highlights at the Permanent Collection
The permanent collection at the Carnavalet includes a dizzying array of objects and artworks that together paint a deeply rich portrait of Parisian life and history. It comprises some 2,600 paintings, 20,000 drawings, 300,000 engravings and 150,000 photographs– as well as over 2,000 sculptures.
Furniture, ceramics, coins, archaeological items and fragments, city models, portraits of noteworthy Parisians, letters and correspondence, souvenirs and images from advertising and pop culture complete the eclectic and fascinating archive.
My Favorite Section: The French Revolution & Beyond
The main exhibit is particularly strong for its reconstitution of the French Revolution of 1789– in all its bloody complexity.
Once the center of an absolute monarchy, Paris would become the starting point for a revolution that took several centuries to truly reach completion. Counter-revolutions and restoration monarchies interrupted the (long) process of building a durable République francaise (French Republic).
This chaotic and fertile period is vividly reconstructed at the Carnavalet Museum. As you drift from room to room, you’re likely to get a real sense of the social, political, and philosophical transformations at work during the Revolutionary period and beyond.
Prehistoric Period: Archeological Traces From Lutetia
This section unveils how a Celtic tribe called the Parisii settled the central area around the Seine known as the Ile de la Cité sometime during the 3rd century BC.
The burgeoning city that grew out from that early settlement iwould later be called Lutetia under the Roman Empire.
19th-century excavations in Paris revealed even earlier civilizations, with findings including Neolitic-era canoes from 4800-1800 BC and even a mammoth’s molar.
Sumptuous illuminated manuscripts, Christian art, maps, swords and shields, clothing, jewelry, funereal relics and other objects from daily life make up the fascinating collection documenting Paris in the Middle Ages.
At the moment, the museum has a notice on its website saying this section is not currently open to the public; this will hopefully change following the Carnavalet’s spring re-opening.
City Models & Architectural Artwork
This is another section I find riveting. It assembles some thirty models of the city, some dating to as early as the 18th century. It allows you to get a sense of how much the city has changed from the medieval period through to 20th century, challenging the reigning myth that Paris is somehow a postcard-pretty, immutable city that never really transforms. Little could be further from the truth, as this section seems to underline.
Other Departments: Paintings, Photography, Sculpture & More
Meanwhile, countless gems await in sections dedicated to painting, photography, sculptures and other works of art or artifacts related to the city. Especially rich are those from the 18th through the 20th centuries.
Displays centered around Paris in the 19th century tell the riveting story of how a medieval and early modern city gave way to Haussmannian restructuring– and a bold new modernity.
You can visit this page to browse the collections further and see examples of some of their outstanding holdings.
Courtyard & Gardens
The museum’s pleasant central courtyard and formal gardens are a lovely place to perch between sightseeing in the always-busy streets of the Marais. In spring, its lush blossoms and shrubbery offer photogenic perspectives of the 16th and 17th-century mansions.
The courtyard is adorned with a grandiose statue of King Louis XIV, also known as the “Sun King”.
Renovations & Spring 2020 Re-Opening
In 2019, the museum closed for renovations that were expected to take up to a year to complete. These are primarily designed to make the exhibit displays more coherent and accessible, including for non-French speaking visitors.
I welcome this move on the part of the city and the curators. The Carnavalet is simply one of my favorite museums in Paris, but I’ve long regretted that the exhibit isn’t easier to understand for those with limited or nonexistent French.
Modernizing the collections and making them more accessible to all audiences will only add to the appeal of the Carnavalet, I imagine.
And since the dense historical collection requires quite a bit of “parsing”, it can only help visitor engagement to add interactive digital displays and other contemporary improvements.
In addition to updating the displays, architects are working to restore the eye-catching facades of the Hôtel Le Peletier and Hôtel Carnavalet. They’re also rerouting visitors’ pathway through the lush gardens and to the entrance hall.
I’m excited to see how these improvement efforts will make the experience at this wonderful museum even more worth recommending. Expect an update on the re-opening sometime later this year.
Getting There & Practical Info
The museum is located in Paris’ 3th arrondissement (district), in the heart of the stately Marais neighborhood. Entrance is through the gates of the Hôtel Carnavalet, passing through the formal gardens to the ticket hall.
- Address: Hôtel Carnavalet – 23, rue de Sévigné, 75004 Paris
- Metro: Saint-Paul (Line 1)or Chemin Vert (line 8)
- Tel : +33 (0)1 44 59 58 58
- Visitors with limited mobility: Access to the Carnavalet Museum is through the main entrance at 29, rue de Sévigné. For more information, call: +33 (0)1 44 59 58 58.
- Visit the official website
Opening Hours and Tickets (After Re-Opening in Spring 2020)
The Carnavalet museum is currently closed for renovations and is scheduled to re-eopen in spring 2020. Under normal operating times, it’s open every day expect Monday and French bank holidays, from 10 am to 6 pm. The ticket counter closes at 5:30 pm.
Some rooms at the museum are open on an alternating basis. The schedule is generally posted at the welcome desk.
Tickets: Access to the permanent collection at the Musee Carnavalet is free for all visitors.
For temporary exhibits, discounts are available for children, students, and seniors. In addition, groups comprising at least 10 people may receive a discount for tickets to temporary exhibits, but reservations are required.
See this page at the official website for information on temporary shows and tickets for these.