Musée Carnavalet – an exceptional museum in Paris

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I can’t believe that I have lived in Paris for 35 years and never been to one of its best museums. Musée Carnavalet in the Marais had always been described as a  museum of French history which seemed very dry to me but someone posted a photo on FaceBook recently which made me think that it was perhaps worth going to.

Musée Carnavalet façade
Musée Carnavalet façade

Jean Michel had a day off on Tuesday and the weather still wasn’t condusive to going to Parc des Sceaux to see the Japanese cherry blossoms so I suggested Carnavalet instead. He didn’t seem convinced, so I dug out the trusty Routard : “One of Paris’ finest museums not only because of its setting, its proportions and intimate character, but also its excellent permanent collections.

Beautiful wood panelling with Voltaire's chair on the right
Beautiful wood panelling with Voltaire’s chair on the right

The French Capital is brought to life in paintings, sculpture, furniture, everyday and decorative objects. Carnavalet is often considered to be a secondary museum that you only visit if you have a bit of time left over after doing the Louvre and Orsay – a most unfortunate opinion. Nothing could be more passionate and amusing than discovering the many faces of Paris in the Middle Ages, the Revolution, the Reign of Terror, the romantic era or the sixties.

I was surprised the skirts were so short - they're cyclists!
I was surprised the skirts were so short – they’re cyclists!

It’s like walking into a picture book where you can let your imagination wander from one era to next, like in a dream, fascinated by the powerful evocation of scenes from the daily life of Parisians in days gone by. Carnavalet: a must!”

Vaulted arcades, Place des Vosges
Vaulted arcades, Place des Vosges

Well, that convinced him and we set off on metro line 1 to Saint Paul and walked through Hôtel de Sully with its flowering lilacs and onto. Place des Vosges. I’d forgotten how attractive it is, with its brick and stone vaulted arcades, terrace cafés and leafy garden surrounded by early 17th century apartment buildings with uniform façades, somewhat similar to Palais Royal which, however, has the added advantages of not having any cars.

Place des Vosges
Place des Vosges

There was no queue when we got to the Museum, mainly because it’s free like all the other museums owned by the city of Paris. The building itself is very large and consists of the original town house built in the mid 16th century and purchased by the city of Paris in 1880 and Hôtel Le Peletier Saint-Fargeau connected by a gallery on one side.

Shop signs at Musée Carnavalet
Shop signs at Musée Carnavalet

The first room was totally unexpected and I knew immediately that I was going to enjoy the visit. It was full of wrought iron shop signs and lead light windows. In the following room, the façade of an old apothecary’s had been reconstructed.

Reception room from Hôtel d'Uzès
Reception room from Hôtel d’Uzès

The late 18th century reception room in the next section comes from Hôtel d’Uzès in rue Montmartre and  is quite magnificent. Its beautiful wood panelling is an original example of the neoclassical style.

Detail of wood panelling
Detail of wood panelling

Many more reconstructed interiors followed, with painted and sculpted wood panelling and matching furniture, all in beautiful condition. A fellow visitor, who seemed to know the museum intimately, told us it was the best collection of furniture outside the Louvre.

Soirée at the Pré-Catalan by Henri Gervex
Soirée at the Pré-Catalan by Henri Gervex

We didn’t see the whole museum, which is very extensive. I particularly liked the gallery connecting the two hôtels which houses the Seligmann donation depicting French society during the Belle Epoque at the turn of the 20th century.

Wood-stove in the shape of the Bastille Prison
Wood-stove in the shape of the Bastille Prison

There is practically an entire floor given over to the French revolution and I saw a painting and mock-up of the Bastille prison for the first time – not to mention a ceramic wood-stove in the shape of the huge fortress-like prison.

Reconstructed bedroom in the Napoleon section
Reconstructed bedroom in the Napoleon section

We didn’t see Paris in the 16th century or Marcel Proust’s bedroom or the Second Empire collection which was closed for renovation. There is also an archeological section including neolithic dugout canoes that are about 4,000 years old so there will be plenty to see for future visits.

Afternoon tea at Carrette's, Place des Vosges
Afternoon tea at Carrette’s, Place des Vosges

After leaving the museum we went back to Place des Vosges and had a wonderful afternoon tea at Carette’s served in Limoges porcelain with exquisite cakes and very friendly service. I saw they serve breakfast and lunch as well so we might be going back there as well!

Musée Carnavalet, 23 rue de Sevigné, 75003 Paris. Open Tuesday to Sunday, 10 am to 6 pm except public holidays, Easter Sunday and Whitsunday. Free of charge.
Carette, 25 Place des Vosges, 75003 Paris. 
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10 thoughts on “Musée Carnavalet – an exceptional museum in Paris”

  1. We went there a couple of years ago because we’d read a very similar review to the one you did. I’m afraid I was not overwhelmed by its wonderfulness. To me it was rather fusty musty dusty stuff. I came away with no very strong impression of anything except that I wandered aimlessly around a lot. It’s a shame Madame de Sevigné isn’t featured more. I’d put Musée Jacquemart-André, the Cluny and the Petit Palace on my list of ‘secondary’ museums above Carnavalet (but what do I know — I’ve never been to the Orsay…)

    Place des Vosges I love though.

    1. Oh really? I loved all the detail. But you really must go to the Orsay sometime. You can even buy tickets on-line now, which helps. The queues are always so long. I have to confess I haven’t been back since the renovations so we’ll no doubt go there in May or early June.

  2. That sounds so fantastic, I’m already thinking about my next visit to Paris, my list of must sees is going to be so long. Thank you. Lyn

  3. Dear Rosemary

    Beautiful pictures. When we were at the Carnavalet (which we loved) last June many of the rooms were closed because of refurbishment. Looks as though they’ve now re-opened quite a lot more. Would love to see Proust’s room.
    We’ve always really liked the Places des Vosges and Carette is our favourite tearoom in that area, their pastries are delish. Last year on the opening day of les soldes we somehow finished up at Carette, collapsing over our late afternoon tea. A youngish woman and her small child were going through her bags and bags of shopping, mostly gorgeous little girl outfits. Suddenly the little girl had to go to the toilet and the woman asked the waiter to watch her things as she rushed her down to the basement. The waiter stayed on guard near her handbag and all the precious designer bags. When called away he was immediately replaced by a young waitress who guarded the things till they returned. It was very impressive how much dedication and service they provided and how much trust the customer had in the staff. We wondered at the time how many customers received this level of attention. It wasn’t Carla Bruni, by the way. Better get back to the packing! Best wishes, Pamela

    1. I can just imagine the scene! We’re packing too today. Have a good flight and see you soon.

  4. Thank you Rosemary, for your description and photos of Musée Carnavalet and Carette’s. These two places will definately be on my ‘wish list’ when we visit Paris next month. I’ve been fortunate to visit Musée de Louvre a number of times in the past and Musée Dosay, so I’m keen to visit the Carnavelet too.

    1. You might like to go back to the Orsay Museum while you’re here because it’s been completely refurbished inside. I haven’t been yet.

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