For the 39th year in a row, the historic monuments of Paris – and throughout France and Europe – are open to the public for two days. This includes embassies, government ministries, town halls, historic libraries, religious institutions, schools, workshops, and offices not normally accessible to the general public. It’s also a time that museums, department stores, gardens, and churches offer special access, concerts, demonstrations, or guided tours. After a few thin years of limited visits during Covid, for 2022 the program is back in full swing, it will be hard to decide what to prioritize! Here’s a list of our favorites and some tips on planning your visits.
Some Things to Keep in Mind
Most people beeline for the Palais Elysées (the French President’s Residence) or other famous buildings, creating long lines on both days. According to Le Parisien, these were the top visited sites in Paris and Ile-de-France (* designates those always open to the public):
- Les Invalides *
- Sainte-Chapelle and the Conciergerie *
- The Sénat in the Palais du Luxembourg
- The Panthéon *
- Hôtel de Ville de Paris (City Hall)
- Palais de l’Elysée (President’s Residence)
- Les Gobelins Tapestry Manufacture and Mobilier National *
- The Assemblée Nationale in the Palais Bourbon and Hôtel de Lassay
- Tours by the RATP (vintage bus rides, behind-the-scenes visits of the metro network)
- Château de Vincennes *
- Arc de Triomphe *
As you can see, half of them can be visited anytime with a ticket, but they still draw huge crowds. You can avoid some of the lines if reservations are possible/required (such as for the RATP tours and the President’s Residence), although they will usually fill up immediately. Looking for the lesser-known sites that might not have any lines is usually the best way to enjoy more than one visit over the weekend.
The official website for the Journées du Patrimoine has been up since early August, but it’s really difficult to use. It’s for all of France and has an interactive map, which seems like a great idea except that it doesn’t always show all of the events, and worse, the search function seems messed up because I’ve put in exact locations and they find no results, but then if I zoom on the location on the map it then “finds” the event. So don’t trust the search function. I actually used 75.AgendaCulturel.fr to more easily scroll through all of the events for Paris at once (listed by arrondissement and by event, so the same venue may appear more than once if there are multiple visits/events there). It’s in French, but if you use the right-click Google translate function to translate the entire page it’s pretty easy to browse. Then once I find a place I want to visit, I’d go back to the official site and see if it needed a reservation or not.
There’s an English version of the official site, but it’s an auto-translated creation so sometimes it’s more confusing than helpful. If you can, try and use the French version and your own translator app if you have one. And on the same note, I haven’t seen any of the sites offering English tours (which isn’t surprising if they only have limited staff and it’s a special occasion). Don’t let this dissuade you if you don’t understand any French, just follow along and enjoy taking photos (if allowed), or limit yourself to the open visits without a guide (visites libres) and use your smartphone to translate any written info provided.
Even before Covid, a lot of the sites – to avoid the whole problem of lines – started requiring advance registration, sometimes in that horrible “send us an email and we’ll let you know” circle of hell, sometimes showing you a “complet” (full) sign weeks before the event. So…some advance planning is required, and the more effort you put into it advance, the more you’re likely to enjoy the weekend. Unfortunately, a lot of the sites requiring registration don’t accept them until September, and not always at a specified date, so you’ll have to keep checking back to see when it’s possible to reserve.
Secrets of Paris Recommendations for 2022
All that said, it really is quite exciting to see what’s available each year. There are always way more interesting sites than I could possibly visit in just two days. Below is my own personal dream list of what I’d love to check out or places I’ve really enjoyed in the past. Since I like the really obscure and weird things that I can’t usually access on my own, I’ve excluded most (but not all) of the really popular sites everyone knows and lines up for.
The Tour Chicago is one of the first skyscrapers ever built in Paris, fireproof and practically out of sight because it’s in the courtyard of the Palais Cambon, which was built by Napoléon to house the Court of Auditors. Known as the Chicago Tower for its architectural inspiration, it was built in 1898 with ten floors above ground level (two in the basement). In 2009, it was transformed into an office tower. You can see it during your visit of the Palais Cambon (there are signs with descriptions of the history), entry at 13 rue Cambon, 1st. Open Saturday 11am-6pm and Sunday 10am-5pm.
The Palais du Tribunal de Commerce de Paris is the gorgeous Second Empire building housing the Commercial Courts on the Ile de la Cité (1 quai de Corse, 4th). The 45-minute tour (they leave every 20 minutes, no reservation needed) includes the elaborately decorated courtrooms and the main staircase, as well as the hall where the names of all of the judges of France since 1564 are engraved on the wall. The tours are in French by judges who explain how the courts work and the role of judges. If your French isn’t good, just enjoy the scenery. Open both days 9am-5pm.
The Hôpital Laënnec (40 rue de Sèvres, 7th) was a 17th-century hospice, then a working hospital from 1871 up until the French government finally sold it in 2000 to finance the construction of a new hospital. The building was purchased and completely restored by the fashion conglomerate Kering group to house their headquarters along with the Maison Balenciaga. I stood in line for about 20 minutes last year and really enjoyed the artworks (part of the Pinault Collection), the gardens, and the couture gowns from the Balenciaga archives. This year women artists and sustainability will be highlighted themes. Open without reservations from 10am-10pm on Saturday and until 6pm Sunday. Here are a few more pics from last year:
You don’t see too much brick used in Parisian architecture, so the Saint François Franciscan Friars Convent near metro Alésia (7 rue Marie-Rose, 14th) really stands out. It was built in 1936, so not really so “old” by French standards, but if you’re in the area it’s worth checking out this weekend when the cloisters, gardens and chapel are open freely to the public Friday 2:30-6:30pm, Saturday from 9-11:30am and 2:30-6:30pm, and Sunday 2:30-6:30pm.
Not many people seem to visit the Museum of the Légion d’Honneur situated right next to the Musée d’Orsay, and even fewer ever get a chance to visit the Grand Chancellery (64 rue de Lille, 7th). The office of the Grand Chancercy of the Legion of Honor is in charge of awarding national honors (you’ll find many historic medals and such in the museum). It’s worth visiting for the architecture (the building inspired Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello; his statue is right across the street) as well as the fancy interior (right up there with Versailles, honestly) and the history dating back to the First Consul under Napoléon. Last year we walked right in about an hour before closing and had no wait. Open Saturday 1-6pm and Sunday 10am-6pm without reservations.
You could visit a museum anytime, but on the Journées du Patrimoine you can visit the Hôtel Gaillard for free (and save €14). This is a gorgeous neo-Renaissance mansion built at the end of the 19th century (supposedly modelled after a wing at the Château de Blois) for a wealthy banker and art collector Emile Gaillard. It became a branch of the Banque de France from 1922-2006, and, after extensive renovations, was opened in 2019 as Citéco – Cité de l’Economie (a museum trying to explain economics in a fun way, I guess). I really enjoyed my visit here on a rainy fall day long after the Heritage Days, and highly recommend checking it out. Open Saturday 10am-7pm, Sunday until 6pm, reservations for the tours are “highly recommended”.
Built in 1894 with a painted coffered ceiling, Le Ranelagh Theatre (5 rue des Vignes, 16th) is one of the last examples of a French-style wooden theatre still in use. From 1931 until the 1980s it was actually used as an arthouse cinema, and today is used for theatre and musical concerts for its acoustics. Open briefly for un-guided visits without reservations Saturday only noon-4pm.
The Hôtel Schneider, built in the early 1800s by the wealthy Schneider family of the Creusot steel industry, has hosted the Brazilian embassy in Paris since 1971. Located between the Pont de l’Alma and the Pont des Invalides at 34 cours Albert-Ier, 8th, the gardens, interior, and chancellery are open to visits this weekend, not just for the architecture but also the paintings, photographs, tapestries and sculptures by renowned Brazilian artists. There are also contemporary dance performances as part of the Dança em Trânsito Festival. Open 11am-5pm both days, no reservations needed.
The Mazarine Bibliothèque in the Institut de France (that gold-domed building across the Pont des Arts from the Louvre) is the oldest public library in France. Open visit of the 17th-century gallery and temporary exhibition on the academic Fontenelle. No reservations, open 9am-6pm all weekend. 23 quai de Conti, 6th Official website: https://www.bibliotheque-mazarine.fr/
The Lycée Henri IV is a prestigious high school behind the Panthéon that was created in 1804 within the medieval walls of the 12th century Abbaye Sainte-Geneviève (although most of the surviving architecture is from the 17th century). I’m particularly interested in seeing this myself because I want to see the recently-finished renovations of the frescoed cupola in the library. Yes, I have a thing for libraries! Guided, one-hour tours both days from 2-5:30pm, no reservations possible (so there will likely be lines). More info on the school.
If you’re really into horticulture and particularly geraniums, there’s a unique chance to visit an exhibition in the library of the National Horticultural Society (Bibliothèque de la Société Nationale d’Horticulture de France, 84 rue Grenelle, 7th), “Books and Geraniums: Illustration of Horticultural Heritage” with artworks and live geraniums of several varieties (not just the red ones on every French country home’s window ledge). They also share information about their botanical illustration classes they conduct year-round. Open Saturday only from 10am-6pm, reservations not needed.
The Grande Loge Féminine de France (4 Cité du Couvent, off 101 rue de Charonne, 11th) is the first women’s Free Masons lodge in the world, opened in 1945 in the former 17th-century convent, Couvent du Bon Secours. The guided tours recount the history of the site including the convent and the Free Masons, “Filles de la Lumière”. Open Sunday 10:30am-5:30pm without reservations.
Visit the newly-restored Chapelle Sainte-Anne in Saint-Eustache Church, originally painted by Hippolyte Lazerges between 1849 and 1855. There are two guided visits Saturday only at 10:30am and 11:30am, meet in front of the chapel entrance (inside the church). No reservations needed.
A few sites require reservations to visit, up to you to give it a try. Some allow you to pick a timeslot and sign up online, others like the Comédie Française ask you to send an email and they will let you know if you got a spot…très French. If you’re feeling lucky, you can always try and show up without one if you don’t have to go out of your way, since a lot of people simply don’t show up even if they have a reservation, but no guarantees!
Okay, this is a longshot, but who doesn’t love those old historic city buses? If you can manage to snag a spot, you’ll get to ride around Paris in a vintage RATP bus (reservations open in two waves, September 6th and September 13th here:). You can also see them on display for free in the lobby of the Maison de la RATP next to the Gare de Lyon (read the article here).
Last year I visited La Ruche – Cité des Artistes, a historic artist’s colony in Paris (ruche means “hive”) first created by the sculptor Alfred Boucher in 1903 in a building originally used for the Universal Exposition of 1900. Despite some ups and downs over the years, thanks to many donors covering restoration it is still inhabited by working artists, and is now run by the Fondation La Rûche-Seydoux (2 passage de Dantzig, 15th). It’s currently partially covered in scaffolding for restoration works, but you can visit during the Heritage Days with a reservation for a specific time slot on the Patrivia.net website. Here are some more photos from 2021:
Okay, you can see a bunch of old libraries on this list, but the one at CNAM (the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers) is totally different because it’s housed in the 13th-century Priory of Saint-Martin des Champs and its refectory. It’s considered one of the most beautiful libraries in Paris. Free entry, but reservations necessary online, book now here.
And now for something very French, a visit of Le Mouffetard – Théâtre des Arts de la Marionnette (National Theatre of Puppetry Arts), which is a unique theatre that promotes contemporary puppetry for adults as well as kids. They will be also be screening the documentary “Guignol” (for all ages, but obviously in French). Free entry, and reservations for screenings are recommended (3pm, 3:30pm, and 4pm both days) .
For more ideas visit the official website for the Journées du Patrimoine.