Paris’ Natural History Museum is Essential (With or Without Children)

Last Updated on February 27, 2024

La Grande Galerie de l'Evolution at the National Museum of Natural History, Paris. Courtney Traub/All rights reserved
La Grande Galerie de l’Evolution at the National Museum of Natural History, Paris. Courtney Traub/All rights reserved

Entering the Grand Gallery of Evolution at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, it’s immediately clear why this is one of the city’s most popular destinations for families with kids. You’re “greeted” by a towering procession of animals mostly native to the African subcontinent, from giraffes and wildebeests to rhinos and elephants.

This jaw-dropping showcase of enormous animal models and (historic) taxidermied specimens is almost guaranteed to inspire amazement, even if taxidermy gives you the heebie-jeebies. And in many ways, it represents the museum’s historic face.

Established in 1793, the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle (National Museum of Natural History) and its iconic Grand Gallery of Evolution have since been brought up-to-date with more modern approaches to biological sciences and ecology.

But the stunning showcase of animals near the entrance reminds us of that rich history– and continues to inspire visitors of all ages.

The Paris Museum of Natural History’s historic displays have been revamped for 21st-century audiences. Courtney Traub/All rights reserved

{Related: The Best Kid-Friendly Museums in Paris}

The Natural History Museum is in fact a sprawling complex made up of over a dozen sites in Paris and around France. These include the Grande Galerie, Jardin des Plantes (Paris Botanical Gardens) and the Parc Zoologique de Paris (Paris Zoological Park).

This article mostly concentrates on the Grande Galerie de l’Evolution and other natural history galleries located at the museum’s main site in the Latin Quarter.

Keep reading to learn why this museum is essential for anyone interested in natural history, biological sciences or ecology– whether or not you visit with kids in tow.

A Bit of History

An engraving circa 1805 shows the English-style garden at the Jardin des Plantes/Paris/Private collection

The origins of the museum stretch back to the 17th century, when a royal botanical garden dedicated to medicanal plants was commissioned by King Louis XIII. The garden was opened to the public five years later, with courses on botany, chemistry and anatomy offered free to all– a revolutionary concept at the time.

Then following the French Revolution of 1789, the medicinal garden was made into a national public museum in 1793, signaling the birth of the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle. The 19th century saw the museum grow thanks to extensive funding and the rapid development of the natural sciences, and researchers working for the Museum conducted numerous experiments in botany, biological science, paleontology and other fields that rivalled those being conducted at nearby universities in the Latin Quarter.

The 20th and 21st centuries led to a complete overhaul of the museums’ collections, gardens and curation style to better reflect today’s approaches and concerns about biodiversity loss, environmental crises and climate change, among other topics.

You can see more on the history of the museum, and the Jardin des Plantes, here.

The Grande Galerie de l’Evolution

First opened in 1889 (the same year the Eiffel Tower was unveiled) as the “Gallery of Zoology”, this mesmerizing display of mostly-taxidermied animal specimens boasts a glass ceiling that reaches 1,000m/3,281 ft high.

It was closed for many years following damages incurred in the mid-20th century. But in 1994, the gallery was renovated, and it reopened under a new name: The Grande Galerie de l’Evolution. Reconceived as a way to visualize the process of evolution as theorized by Charles Darwin, it’s remained one of the most popular sites in the city, especially for young visitors.

Today, the Gallery stretches across three accessible levels, with different geographical regions and their 7,000 species of flora and fauna displayed in carefully curated zones. Since 2014, when the Galerie underwent another major overhaul, these now have fun digital and interactive features designed to stimulate and engage visitors of all ages, including the youngest.

On the first floor, beyond the famous main historic animal displays, marine life comes to vibrant life with three giant mammal skeletons: a southern right whale, blue whale and sperm whale.

Realistic animal models inhabit the other spaces dedicated to marine life, from giant squid to sharks and penguins. Marine ecosystems such as coral reefs and coastlines are highlighted in some of the displays, showing visitors how interdependence between species of plants and animals is threatened by phenomena such as warming water and plastic.

A giant squid at the Grande Galérie de l'Evolution, Paris. Image by Courtney Traub/All rights reserved
A giant squid at the Grande Galérie de l’Evolution, Paris. Image by Courtney Traub/All rights reserved

Especially if you’re visiting with kids, make sure to encourage them to explore some of the “grottoes” harboring models of smaller marine species. These areas are fun and interesting, and give the whole thing a bit of a “theme park” feel.

Our 1-year old toddler, much to our surprise, was clearly fascinated by the displays, babbling away and pointing at simulated schools of fish, clusters of penguins and other animals.

{Related: What to Do With Babies & Toddlers in Paris?}

In the upper galleries, accessible by elevator or stairs and offering stunning, photo-worthy views of the giant animal displays on the ground floor (highly recommended), many other historic objects from the collection are brought new life and relevance with digital and interactive stations.

The balcony displays of the upper levels focus on the diversity of species through historic specimens and fossils of animals and plants, and tell the story of scientific fields such as anatomy, molecular science and paleontology

Concepts such as Darwin’s theory of evolution and the discovery of DNA and genetics are explored in these areas, making for a fascinating educational experience, especially for teens– and adults who want to brush up on the topics once covered in science class.

Extinct and species threatened by extinction are also highlighted in the upper galleries. Visitors can see examples of species that have, sadly, disappeared, including a Tasmanian tiger (actually a marsupial that resembled a wolf) and a giant panda or “big bear-cat”, as it was once referred to.

Elsewhere, visitors can contemplate endangered species such as the Sumatran tiger, and learn about efforts to protect them.

The Gallery of Comparative Anatomy and Paleontology

Image: Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle

At this separate site for the museum (also within the Jardin des Plantes, but in a different building whose entrance is located at 2, Rue Buffon), visitors can encounter massive reconstructed skeletons and fossilised remains of both terrestrial and marine animals. In total, 7,000 fossils populate the galleries.

On the Paleontology floor, massive dinosaur skulls and reconstituted whole bodies offer easy chills. On the ground floor, rare specimens abound, including an elephant once belonging to King Louis XIV and the bones or fossils of several extinct species.

In the Comparative Anatomy section, human skeletons are set in contrast against many other species of vertebrates, offering interesting perspectives on similarities and differences between them, insight into processes of evolution.

Find more info on this collection and how to access here.

Gallery of Geology and Mineralogy

Image: © MNHN – J.-C. Domenech

For anyone interested in the fascinating history of the Earth itself, this separate gallery (entrance located at 36 rue Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire) is an essential stop.

The Earth Treasures room harbors some truly stunning mineral specimens, from around 20 giant crystals to rare gems and ornamental stones. Both younger and older visitors should enjoy the mesmerizing displays.

The Jardin des Plantes and the Parc Zoologique

Jardin des Plantes in Paris/pic by Courtney Traub/All rights reserved

The Museum of Natural History also includes the lovely Jardin des Plantes (see more here), a massive botanical garden dedicated to the science of botany. Comprising 11 separate thematic gardens and botanic laboratories operating in the open air, it harbors around 8,500 species of plants and flowers.

It’s particularly lovely in the spring and early summer months, when its numerous themed gardens come into full blossom. Even better? Entrance to the open-air gardens (excluded the arboretums and hothouses) is free– ideal for families on tight budgets.

Other parts of the Jardin des Plantes, including the “Grandes Serres” (hothouses), arboretum and other areas, can be accessed with a special ticket; see more info at this page.

Meanwhile, the Parc Zoologique (Zoological Park) is a treat for kids, who can see and interact with around 1,200 animals– from kangaroos and seals to monkeys, jaguars and penguins. The purpose of the zoological park is to protect and offer refuge to endangered species– it’s a modern wildlife refuge rather than an old-fashioned (and many would say, cruel and unethical) zoo.

Unlike the rest of the Jardin des Plantes, the Zoological Park is accessible to ticketed visitors only. You can buy tickets here (via Tiqets).

Location, Contact Details & Tickets

The Grande Galerie at the Paris Museum of Natural History is located within the sprawling Jardin des Plantes. Courtney Traub/All rights reserved

The main site for the Museum National de l’Histoire Naturelle and its various collections (including the Grande Galerie de l’Evolution) is located in Paris’ legendary Latin Quarter, not far from the Gare d’Austerlitz train station.

As mentioned above, you can also access the Jardin des Plantes and the Ménagerie or Zoological Park (Parc Zoologique de Paris) from the same site– making this an excellent destination for a morning or afternoon with the family, especially in the warmer months.

Which Ticket to Buy?

This will depend on how much time you have and what you’d like to see. If you’d like to see several of the galleries as well as the Zoological park and/or hothouses of the Jardin des Plantes, your best bet is to buy a combined ticket straight from the museum. This offers you entrance to all of the areas at the Jardin des Plantes site.

If, however, you only want to see the Grande Galerie de l’Evolution or another part of the museum, it’s typically less expensive to buy a ticket for only one of the galleries or restricted areas in the Jardin des Plantes.

  • Main Address: 57 Rue Cuvier, 75005 Paris (5th arrondissement)
  • Metro: Jussieu or Gare d’Austerlitz
  • Visit the official website for more info on opening times, current exhibitions, ticket prices (including family rates), directions to various galleries, accessibility, restaurants, shops and more.

You can book skip-the-line tickets for the Grande Galerie de l’Evolution and the Museum of Natural History (via Tiqets) or book joint tickets to the museum and the adjoining Menagerie (zoo) (also via Tiqets).

Like This? Pin & Share

Why to visit Paris' Natural History Museum? A Guide for visitors and families

Editor’s Note: This post contains a few links to affiliate sites. If you book tickets or other experiences through these, you contribute to funding more free, in-depth features like the one you’re reading. Thank you.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *