European Heritage Days: Explore a Secret Paris

The European Heritage Days (or journées européennes du patrimoine, as they are known in French) offer tourists and locals alike the chance to glimpse behind Paris’ many closed doors and discover the secret history of the city, all completely free of charge. Every year, on the third weekend of September, cities and famous institutions around France offer free guided tours, workshops and exhibitions in some of the country’s most famous buildings, many of which are normally closed to the public. So if you’re in Paris this weekend, here are 10 must-see places, from royal palaces to army barracks, to explore for free. Otherwise, save the date and read on for next year’s travel inspiration…

The Palais-Royal

European Heritage Days: Visit the Palais-Royal for free
Daniel Buren’s sculptures in the Jardin du Palais Royal @danaffen

The Palais-Royal, found directly opposite the Louvre Pyramid, is a national monument that houses the meeting rooms of the State Council, the Ministry of Culture and the Constitutional Council. Despite its name, the palace was never home to the royal family, but was originally the personal residence of Cardinal Richelieu. Normally closed to the public, this weekend the neoclassical building opens its doors to visitors for the European Heritage Days. Discover the hidden heritage of this seat of power, and while you’re there, take a stroll around the beautiful gardens with its fountains and sculptures, including the 260 humbug-striped columns that have become the garden’s signature feature.

Practical Information:

Free visits from Saturday 16th to Sunday 17th September 2017 from 09:00 to 18:00 both days.

Access for disabled visitors.

Guides will be available to answer questions about the institutions. There will be a cloakroom for visitors with small cases, backpacks, umbrellas, helmets and pushchairs. For security reasons, access to the site is restricted for visitors with lots of bags.

Saint-Jacques Tower

European Heritage Days: Visit the Saint-Jaques Tower for free
View of Paris from the Saint-Jaques Tower @luliss

A visit to the Saint-Jacques Tower is the perfect way to see the beautiful skyline of Paris. This imposing, Gothic-inspired belfry, with its gargoyles and intriguing history, is a vestige of medieval Paris. However, you will need to climb its 300 steps to enjoy the magnificent panoramic views of the capital.

Although the tower is usually open to the public (for a fee of only €8), booking a visit this weekend will secure you free entry and a guided tour, specially organised for the European Heritage Days.

Practical Information:

Reservations can be made at the tower on the day, from 09:00 and are limited to only 136 visitors per day, so we recommend you get there early.

Guided tours last an hour each, with one every hour from 14:00 to 18:00 on both Saturday 16th to Sunday 17th September 2017.

The tour is restricted for children under 10 years. It is recommended that visitors wear suitable footwear and bring a bottle of water.

Sainte-Chapelle

European Heritage Days - Sainte Chapelle
The stained-glass windows at Sainte-Chapelle @koopatrooperhooper

A gem of gothic design, with its stunning 13th century stained glass windows of hundreds of brilliantly coloured biblical scenes (one of the finest examples in the world), the Sainte-Chapelle royal chapel is one of the lesser-known jewels of Paris’ architecture. Commissioned by King Louis IX of France to house precious Christian relics, including Christ’s crown of thorns, the building offers a luminous beauty often overlooked by visitors to Paris. Take advantage of the free entrance arranged for the European Heritage Days this weekend.

Top Tip: Download the “Sainte-Chapelle Windows” app (free from Googleplay or the Appstore) to unlock the secrets of the chapel’s ancient stained-glass windows.

Normally tickets cost €10 and under 26s go free (so if you’re a young person staying in Paris for more than just the weekend, save this visit for another day).

Practical Information:

Free visits from Saturday 16th to Sunday 17th September 2017 from 09:00 to 18:00 both days.

The Luxembourg Palace

European Heritage Days: Visit the Palais du Luxembourg for free
The gardens of the Luxembourg Palace @merciparis

If there’s one building in Paris that holds more power than all the rest, it’s the Luxembourg Palace, seat of the French Senate (or Sénat). The upper house of the French Parliament has resided here since 1958, before which the building was a royal residence and, briefly, a prison, during the French Revolution. The visit includes the Vaugirard street entrance, the Golden Book Room and its painted ceilings, the impressive Hemicycle (chamber of the Sénat), the extensive library, the gallery of busts and the majestic gardens (Jardin du Luxembourg) where you can discover greenhouses filled with beautiful orchids.

Practical Information:

Free visits from Saturday 16th to Sunday 17th September 2017 from 09:30 to 18:00 on both days as part of the European Heritage Days.

The visit is expected to last around 2 hours, with information leaflets available in English.

Priority access for disabled visitors and security checks at the door. More than 30,000 visitors are expected to arrive this weekend, however despite the predicted number of visitors, queues are anticipated to be no more than 30 minutes.

Notre-Dame Cathedral

European Heritage Days: Visit the Notre Dame Cathedral for free
View of the Notre-Dame Cathedral @michelleahunziker

The Notre-Dame may not be the biggest cathedral in Europe, but it’s certainly the most famous, and very much the heart of Paris. In fact, Paris ‘Point Zero’, from which the distances from Paris to all other parts of metropolitan France are measured, is located at the cathedral square, just in front of the main entrance. This beautifully symmetrical building is a quintessential Gothic cathedral, complete with flying buttresses and frightening gargoyles which can be seen up close for free this weekend.

Climb the 400 steps of the belfry and see the enormous tenor bell, weighing in at 13 tons, before walking out onto the panoramic terrace with its 360-degree view over Paris. Made legendary thanks to Victor Hugo’s novel, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, the Notre-Dame cathedral is a must-see when visiting the city.

Practical Information:

Free visits from Saturday 16th to Sunday 17th September 2017 from 10:00 to 16:30 both days.

Essential for booking for the European Heritage Days free visit: Reserve your time slot with the application ‘JeFile’ (free from Googleplay or the Appstore) from 07:30 the morning of the tours.

Normally tickets cost €10 and under 26s go free (so if you’re a young person staying in Paris for more than just the weekend, save this visit for another day).

Hilton Paris Opera

European Heritage Days: Visit the Hilton Paris Opera for free
The Grand Salon of the Hilton Paris Opera

If you’ve always wanted to get a glimpse inside a luxury hotel, but never dared go inside, then this visit is for you! The Hilton Paris Opera, an historic 4-star hotel in the very heart of Paris, is opening its doors to the public for guided tours. A chance to admire the stunning architecture and decoration of the Belle Epoque (the ‘Beautiful Era’ of the 1870s-1900s), the tours offer a view of the entrance hall, the Grand Salon, one of the most beautiful suites, and more…

Practical Information:

Free guided tours from Saturday 16th to Sunday 17th September 2017 from 10:00 to 18:00 both days.

Visitors must be aged 18+

The Élysée Palace

European Heritage Days: Visit the Elysee Palace for free
A red carpet entrance to the Élysée Palace @melissageorgeofficial

The Élysée Palace, the official residence of the President of France, is an architectural masterpiece that can only be visited on European Heritage Days. This 18th century building near the Champs-Élysées is considered the most beautiful mansion in all of Paris, and has previously been the residence of the Comte d’Evreux, Louis XV and Napoleon. Besides electricity and running water, nothing has really changed since the building’s 1889 layout!

Practical Information:

Free visits from Saturday 16th to Sunday 17th September 2017 from 09:00 to 19:00 both days.

The entrance for visits will be located at the back of the garden, Avenue Gabriel, Grille du Coq. Warning: queues can be very long so arrive early and bring something to drink.

The Palais Bourbon

European Heritage Days: Visit the National Assembly for free
The Palais Bourbon, seat of the National Assembly @naive_hours

Normally closed to the public, the European Heritage Days offer the chance to see inside the Palais Bourbon, seat of the French National Assembly. The most impressive building in Paris after the royal residences, a visit here is a must for history lovers and fans of monumental architecture. This year, as well as a tour of the building’s impressive halls, visitors can also discover its gardens and the bee hives that produce the organic honey of the National Assembly, recently installed to promote pesticide-free honey and educate the public on the importance of bees.

Practical Information:

Free visits from Saturday 16th to Sunday 17th September 2017 from 09:30 to 17:30 both days.

Visitors will have to present a valid photo ID to enter.

The Republican Guard

European Heritage Days: Visit the Republican Guard for free
The French National Guard on parade @paris_cherie

You’ll see them on parade on the Champs-Elysées for the 14th July Bastille Day celebrations, serving as ceremonial escorts for France’s highest government officials and guarding the Sénat, Palais de l’Elysée, the Assemblée Nationale, and the Palais de Justice. And for two days this year, the French Republican Guard opens its doors to its barracks (the Caserne des Célestins) so that visitors can see behind the scenes and meet its members. Dressage performances and historic re-enactments are regularly on the agenda, making it a fun choice during the European Heritage Days for families and, of course, any horse lovers.

Practical Information:

Free visits from Saturday 16th to Sunday 17th September 2017 from 09:00 to 18:00 both days.

The French National Museum of Natural History

European Heritage Days: Visit the French National Museum of Natural History for free
The Gallery of Evolution at the French National Museum of Natural History @le_museum

Built in 1635, the French National Museum of Natural History was originally a royal garden for medicinal and educational purposes. In 1793 it was established as a museum and in the following four decades it has been the source of major scientific discoveries in natural sciences. A fascinating place to visit for anyone interested in the natural world and all its curiosities.

Practical Information:

Free visits from Saturday 16th to Sunday 17th September 2017.

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