Paris’s Most Beautiful and Interesting Libraries: A Peek Inside

Last Updated on May 28, 2024

The Bibliothèque Mazarine, one of the most beautiful libraries in Paris/ Rachel Naismith/All rights reserved
The Bibliothèque Mazarine, one of the most beautiful libraries in Paris/ Rachel Naismith/All rights reserved

It’s perhaps unsurprising that Paris is home to a vast number of beautiful and distinguished libraries. After all, it’s nurtured the minds of countless intellectuals, scholars and writers, from Voltaire to Simone de Beauvoir and James Baldwin.

The very first city library accessible to the general public, the Bibliothèque Mazarine, opened in 1643. Since then, many remarkable, eye-catching bibliothèques have sprung up across Paris. They range from quiet, wood-paneled sanctuaries in historic buildings to cutting-edge, modern spaces brimming with digital innovation and cultural activity.

These libraries serve not only scholars pursuing their research and students cramming for exams, but also those who wish to experience the city’s architectural splendor and find respite from its bustling streets. Just as vital in the summer months for their cool, air-conditioned premises as they are in winter for their cozy nooks and opportunities for contemplation, these diverse, scholarly spaces give visitors a chance to enjoy a bit of people-watching and observe another, quieter side of Parisian life.

BnF Richelieu (French National Library)

Bibliothèque nationale de France, Richelieu site (photo by Rachel Naismith)
Bibliothèque nationale de France, Richelieu site (photo by Rachel Naismith)

Exploring France’s library landscape invariably leads to the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF), comprising four distinguished libraries in Paris. Among them, the Richelieu site, just a stone’s throw from Palais Royal, is particularly noteworthy and beautiful.

Established from a royal collection initiated by Charles VII in the Louvre around 1461, and enriched by successive French monarchs, especially during the reigns of Louis XII and Francis I, it underwent a transformation during the French Revolution, evolving into a fully public collection.

Recently, after extensive renovations that took 12 years, it has reemerged as a dual-purpose library and museum, offering a journey through the annals of French architecture and history. The Labrouste Hall’s resplendent space, exclusive to researchers, can be admired from afar with a peek through the window.

Meanwhile, the Oval Hall (pictured above) open to everyone and free of charge, is simply stunning. Bathed in soft light, it boasts pistachio-green lamps, a stunning glass ceiling, and rows upon rows of books (mainly devoted to art and cultural history)– presenting an inviting space for reading and quiet contemplation.

There’s also a dedicated section for kids, featuring comfortable red armchairs and an engaging assortment of books and comics. Beyond these halls, the Richelieu Library beautifully integrates modern upgrades with its original architectural features.

The sculptural steel staircases are especially eye-catching and, when the weather is good, the library’s courtyard, teeming with greenery, becomes a perfect spot for a relaxing coffee break at the chic onsite Rose Bakery. The website signposts a range of events, including art and cultural exhibitions (often free or discounted) and guided tours for those interested in its storied past. 

Getting There & Contact Info

  • Address: 58 rue de Richelieu, 75002 Paris
  • Metro: Bourse, Palais-Royal-Musée du Louvre, Pyramides
  • Opening times: Monday: 2 pm – 7:30 pm, Tuesday: 9 am – 8 pm, Wednesday to Friday: 9 am – 7:30 pm, Saturday: 9 am – 6:30 pm, Sunday: 10 am – 6 pm
  • Visit the official website

Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève

Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève (Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen via Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0)
Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève (Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen via Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Operating as both a university library and a public one, the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève is situated just across the square from the iconic Panthéon in the Latin Quarter. It shares a historical and administrative connection with the renowned Sorbonne University and naturally draws numerous students.

With a history dating back to the 6th century when it served as an abbey, the library has undergone various expansions and renovations. In the 19th century, architect Henri Labrouste made a lasting impact by introducing innovative designs incorporating iron and glass. Today, the architectural marvel remains intact, featuring large iron arches supporting a glass roof that bathes the space in natural light.

Widely acclaimed as one of the most beautiful libraries in the French capital, it’s adorned with long, handsome wooden tables where students quietly immerse themselves in their studies. It houses an extensive collection of nearly two million documents, divided into three collections: the general collection for documents from 1830 to the present day, ancient, rare and precious holdings (including manuscripts and incunabula), and the Nordic Library, offering a comprehensive Fenno-Scandinavian collection.

To access the library for study or research, registration for a card is required. But for those wandering through the literary Latin Quarter, complimentary visits are possible on Wednesdays and Saturdays from 4pm to 5pm, subject to reservation with a maximum group size of five. V

Getting There, Reserving Visits & Contact Info

  • Address: 10 Place du Panthéon, 75005 Paris
  • Metro: Cardinal Lemoine, Maubert – Mutualité
  • Opening Times: Monday to Saturday 10am – 10pm  
  • Visit the official website to reserve a visit on Wednesday or Saturday

Bibliothèque François-Mitterrand

The BNF Francois Mitterand site at night/Image by Art Buck/Some rights reserved under the Creative Commons 2.0 (share-alike) license
The BNF Francois Mitterand site at night/Image by Art Buck/Some rights reserved under the Creative Commons 2.0 (share-alike) license

In 1988, then-French President François Mitterrand led a significant project along the Seine River to establish a new branch for the Bibliothèque nationale de France. The Bibliothèque Francois-Mitterrand in the 13th arrondissement, a modern counterpart to its venerable sibling at the Richelieu site, is a marvel of contemporary design.

The site, which resembles a quartet of book-like towers in sleek metal reaching into the sky, houses two distinct libraries: the Haut-de-Jardin for the general public (open Tuesday through Saturday) and the Rez-de-Jardin for researchers (accessible Monday to Saturday).

The vast space also houses offices, various reading spaces, an impressive one-hectare forest garden created in collaboration with the Natural History Museum, and a peaceful café that becomes even more inviting as it opens its terrace to the sun on clear days.

All the reading rooms and other facilities at the BNF feel modern and slick, with tall ceilings, enormous windows offering peaceful views of the inner gardens/”forest”, and long hallways between reading rooms that feel a bit like a contemporary cloister.

Reading rooms are equipped with comfortable seating, electrical outlets, and fast Wi-Fi.  At the time of writing, entry to the reading rooms costs a few Euros per day, but post-5pm visits are complimentary.

For frequent visitors, a reading/culture pass, offering unlimited yearly access, is available for a reasonable full rate and reduced rates for students under 35 and others under the age of 26. Throughout the year, the library also hosts free exhibitions and features a small bookstore filled with a well-curated selection of fiction and non-fiction books, alongside a collection of attractive posters and postcards.  

{Related: Original Places for Gift-Shopping in Paris}

Lastly, film fans will enjoy seeing a movie post-library visit at the nearby MK2 Bibliothèque, an immense cinema complex with several screens, bars and restaurants, and stunning views of the library.

Getting There & Contact Info

  • Address: 10 quai François Mauriac, 75013 Paris
  • Metro: Quai de la Gare, Bibliothèque François Mitterrand
  • Opening times: Monday: 2pm to 8pm, Tuesday to Saturday: 9am to 8pm, Sunday: 1pm to 7pm
  • Visit the official website

The Mazarine Library

Mazarine Library in Paris, one of the city's most beautiful libraries (photo by Rachel Naismith)
Mazarine Library (photo by Rachel Naismith)

The Mazarine Library, located in the Palais de l’institut de France and overlooking the Seine in an area of Paris rich with literary history, holds the title of the city’s oldest library accessible to the general public. Nestled in the 6th arrondissement, it originally housed the private collections of Cardinal Mazarin, First Minister during Louis XIV’s reign. Today, it retains its original charm, adorned with chandeliers and opulent golden furnishings.

{Nearby: Exploring the Saint-Germain-des-Prés District}

The entrance hall of the library itself is a sight to behold. With its checkered marble floors and an array of sculptural busts, it offers a grand welcome to visitors, setting the tone for the historical and aesthetic riches that lie within.

The Mazarine collection exceeds 600,000 works, ranging from illuminated manuscripts and rare book editions to engravings, drawings and historical maps. While study access (i.e. sitting at a desk) is limited to registered students and researchers, visitor passes allow the public to walk around and explore this beautiful space, with its gorgeous wooden tables, towering ladders, and elegant chandeliers. Just make sure to bring some sort of ID with you. 

The library offers a serene, studious environment, where the occasional creak of floorboards underfoot lends an old-world charm (though a warning for parents: this might not be the most child-friendly setting in Paris!)

Open to the public Monday to Saturday from 10am to 6pm, the library’s gallery and exhibitions offer intriguing and unusual temporary exhibits on eclectic topics including the history of the library, great scholars of the past, botany and others.

Free guided tours, led by a curator, explore the library’s history and collections. Visitors can sign up for these tours is available on the library’s official website (in English, see below).

Getting There & Contact Info

  • Address: 23 Quai de Conti, 75006 Paris
  • Metro: Pont Neuf,  Saint-Germain-des-Prés
  • Opening Times: Monday to Saturday 10am to 6pm
  • Visit the official website

Bibliothèque publique d’information (BPI) at the Centre Georges Pompidou

Bibliothèque publique d’information (photo via www.bpi.fr)

The Bibliotheque publique d’information (BPI) finds its home on the second floor of the Centre George Pompidou: a cultural hub straddling the Marais and Halles districts, renowned for its revolutionary inside-out architecture from a team led by Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers.

Offering free access and attracting a steady stream of students and independent researchers, the library gets particularly busy at the weekends, when throngs of people line up outside to pass through metal detectors.

Funky and brightly colored with an industrial flair, it provides an alternative to more traditional library environments. Its diverse resources include music, videos, comics, manga, and a press area. While you can only read books on-site (they’re not available to be checked out), the library hosts various exhibitions and workshops throughout the year, details of which are available on their website.

The BPIhas extended opening hours until 10pm daily except Tuesdays, and is well-equipped with fast Wi-Fi, charging stations, and a substantial number of computers.

Outside the library, be sure to discover the various offerings of the Pompidou Center (see our full guide), including art galleries, film screenings, bookshops, boutiques and even a rooftop restaurant, Georges, offering stunning panoramic views over the city.

Both the library and the Pompidou Centre offer engaging, fun spaces for kids, with plenty to see and friendly staff. Just be sure to join the correct line when arriving at the centre — entry for the library is via the green line (take the escalator to level 2 from ground floor)

Getting There & More Info

  • Address: Place Georges-Pompidou, 75004 Paris
  • Metro: Rambuteau, Hôtel de Ville, Châtelet
  • Opening hours: Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday: 12pm to 10pm, Saturday, Sunday and bank holidays: 10am to 10pm
  • Visit the official website

Médiathèque Françoise Sagan 

Médiathèque Françoise Sagan, a media library in Paris (photo by Rachel Naismith)
Médiathèque Françoise Sagan (photo by Rachel Naismith)

Tucked away in the 10th arrondissement and just a short stroll from Gare de l’Est, the Médiathèque Françoise Sagan is a peaceful retreat in a busy, not especially green corner of Paris. A lush courtyard garden, with its lofty palm trees and meandering stone path, welcomes visitors into a world far removed from the urban frenzy on nearby Boulevard de Magenta.

Once housing a hospital and prison, the site was transformed in 2015 into a stylish and inviting cultural hotspot, home to a diverse collection of over 100,000 multimedia documents. The interiors are modern and welcoming, with spaces designed for all ages.

Book displays, elegantly arranged to resemble those in bookshops, entice visitors to browse, while a calm mezzanine area, complete with free WiFi and power outlets, offers an ideal spot for students and freelancers.

The toddler zone is particularly beautiful, with its Scandinavian-style wooden accents and minimalistic décor creating an attractive space for little ones. The current ‘mushroom’ exhibition in this space, vibrant in pastel colors, is brilliantly whimsical and fun.

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

More than a book repository, the Médiathèque Françoise Sagan– named after the famous French author of Bonjour, Tristesse and other works– serves as a lively community hub, offering French classes, film screenings, art exhibitions, and diverse cultural programs in collaboration with local organizations. Entry is free, and reservations aren’t required– ensuring easy access for all.

Getting There & More Info

  • Address: 8 rue Léon Schwartzenberg, 75010 Paris
  • Metro: Gare de l’Est 
  • Opening Times: Tuesday, Thursday, Friday: 2am to 7pm, Wednesday: 10am to 7pm, Saturday: 10am to 6pm, Sunday: 1pm to 6pm. 
  • Visit the official website

Bibliothèque de l’Institut du Monde Arabe

Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris/via official Facebook page

Situated at the edge of the Latin Quarter and overlooking the banks of the Seine, the Institut du Monde Arabe, opened in 1987, stands as a symbol of the cross-cultural exchange between the Western and Arab worlds. Its distinct architecture from Jean Nouvel is a stunning, geometrically complex fusion of glass and steel.

The library, spread across three levels and encompassing over 1,000 square meters, is connected to the institute by the Book Tower, inspired by Iraq’s 9th-century Samarra tower. This tower offers panoramic views of landmarks such as Notre-Dame and Boulevard Saint-Germain.

The library’s modern interior is calm and cozy, featuring a mix of comfortable sofas, armchairs, and desk seating. It houses a ‘Discovery’ area with diverse media resources and dedicated study spaces. Within the main library, there’s a separate lively section for young readers, housing a collection of 5,000 works about the Arab world.

Additionally, the institute features a cinema, bookstore, exhibition spaces, and dining options, including the delightful Café Littéraire, perfect for relaxing with Middle Eastern pastries and fresh mint tea. The library is accessible to everyone, open without the need for registration. 

Getting There & Practical Info

  • Address: 1 rue des Fossés Saint-Bernard, 75005 
  • Metro: Jussieu, Cardinal Lemoine
  • Opening Times: Tuesday to Sunday: 1pm to 7pm
  • Visit the official website


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beautiful and interesting Paris libraries/Pinterest image by Paris Unlocked

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