The Paris town hall looks like a fairy tale castle. Located in the heart of the city, on the border of the first and fourth arrondissements, the Hôtel de Ville is known for its striking façade. Throughout the year, an old-fashioned carrousel (or manège) twirls delighted children around. At night, the façade is illuminated and becomes a gorgeous sight for those crossing the Seine. In the winter months, an outdoor ice rink turns the courtyard into a winter wonderland.
But the Hôtel de Ville is also a fully operational government building. There’s plenty of security and most of the building itself is off limits to the public, though you may be able to wrangle a tour if you are in a study group. (Below is an old photo of a very tired Muséophile sitting on a decorative chair that was definitely not supposed to be used. I was obviously too busy looking at an ornate ceiling to see the ne pas s’asseoir sign.) But what many do not know about the Hôtel de Ville is that it also houses a museum showing temporary exhibitions about its muse: the city of Paris.
The entrance to the Musée de l’Hôtel de Ville is around the back of the building in the Salle Saint-Jean, where many people miss it. (Look for the sculptures of lions standing guard on either side of the gate.) The museum is free for all visitors, and while the space is not as magnificent as the room where I sat on the forbidden chair, it shows some wonderful exhibitions. Past shows include Paris vu par Hollywood and the Che Guevara expo Le Che à Paris. When I visited this year, they were showing Les Nuits Parisiennes, an exploration of the capital’s nightlife from the invention of streetlamps to the history of Paris theatre, opera, dance halls, night clubs and maisons closes.
The Hôtel de Ville looks like a fairy tale castle, but it has a lot more substance than that. The city’s stunning town hall isn’t just a municipal building or a pretty face. It is an ode to the city it serves.