The musée Carnavalet, established in 1880 in the stately Hôtel Carnavalet, is perhaps the most ‘Parisian’ of Paris’ museums. With a vast collection of artworks, furniture and historical artefacts, the Carnavalet tells the story of Paris’ history, from its Roman origins as the town of Lutèce, right up to the twentieth century.
Though it seems a tall order, a visit to the Carnavalet will give you a solid introduction to the key periods of the city’s history. The Roman Empire, Middle Ages, Renaissance, Religious Wars, Revolution, Napoleonic area and twentieth century are all lovingly represented. There are a few unexpected items (look out for Napeoleon’s toiletry case, complete with miniature gilt perfume vials and nail files) plus a fair amount of small-scale architectural models, or maquettes, which French museums are (incomprehensibly) enamoured with.
A beloved maquette
True, if you’re not much of a history buff, the Carnavalet may seem a bit hardcore. But where many an historical museum sticks to the cold, hard facts (such as the ultra-dull Arsenal) the Carnavalet blends its focus on social and political events with Paris’ cultural history: art, design and literature. There’s even a replica of the room where Proust wrote the majority of his masterpiece, A la recherche du temps perdu. (As a sucker for historical living quarters [the beds are so short!] I was sold with this one). Don’t miss the stunning Art Nouveau room, either:
The Carnavalet may not thrill you in the way some of Paris’ more obvious artistic destinations will, but if you’re dedicated to scratching the city’s surface and learning more about its story, then it’s a must-see. If anything, it’s situated in one of the most beautiful corners of the city. Stroll around the area after your visit and imagine yourself in another era. With the Marais’ labyrinth of Medieval streets and passageways, it may not take much imagination at all.