If you’re ever wandering the cobbled laneways on the border between the first and second arrondissements, perhaps after a visit to the Louvre, you may come across a pedestrian oasis tucked away off the Rue St Honoré. Across the expansive Place Colette and through the stone archways of the Conseil d’état lies the forum-like open space of the Palais-Royal. A long, rectangular courtyard with a manicured garden in the centre, surrounded by demure paths and bordered on all sides by picturesque apartments and arcades, the Palais-Royal seems like it was made for those quintessential wandering dandies of the 19th century, les flâneurs. And it sort of was. But perhaps more accurately, it basically invented them.
True to its name, the Palais-Royal was originally constructed as a royal residence. The original rows of buildings were erected in the 1630s for the Cardinal Richelieu. Through the proceeding centuries, they passed to several generations of the Ducs d’Orléans, who each added their own touch to the ever-expanding rectangle of luxury. At one point, the gardens were redesigned by André Lenôtre, of Versailles landscape design fame.
But these weren’t just homes. The buildings here almost tell a cultural history of Paris. This was where Molière set up his theatre troupe in the 17th century. This was the headquarters of the Paris Opera for several decades. It was – and still is – the home of the illustrious Comédie Française. This was where some of the most extravagant court parties were held and, perhaps ironically, in the Revolutionary era it was known as the Palais de l’Egalité. Today, the Palais-Royal is also a political and economic hub, home to the Conseil d’état, the Ministry of Culture and the Constitutional Council.
But beyond royal residences and elite cultural institutions, the Palais-Royal is perhaps even more influential for how it shaped Paris street culture in the 18th and 19thcenturies.
Set back from the filth and congestion of roads, this was one of the first spaces in the city where shops and cafes were set up in a pedestrian-only environment, encouraging Parisians to stroll, window shop and people watch. The 17th-century markets are now replaced with gardens, but in the arcades themselves, some of the most charming boutiques in the city remain. Here you can find precious jewels, handmade children’s toys and vintage Chanel and Dior. In the 19th century, the cosmopolitan street culture of the Palais-Royal quickly spread to the surrounding area, giving rise to the tradition of covered arcades, or les passage couverts. This was the domain of the wandering flâneur, that well-dressed, bourgeois Parisian archetype who meandered the city streets in leisure and luxury.
Today, the Palais-Royal is sparser and quieter than it used to be. Compared to the bustling laneways that surround it, you’d be forgiven for not realising how formative the space was for shaping how Parisians navigate their city. Most people would recognise the spot for its 1980s sculptures at the southern edge of the courtyard. And for good reason: Daniel Buren’s iconic black and white columns are a unique and beloved example of public sculpture.
However, if you ever find yourself wandering off the busy thoroughfare of the Rue de Rivoli, into a placid courtyard that stretches hundreds of metres to the north, spare a moment to think of all the centuries of history, art, politics, culture and fashion that made the Palais-Royal one of the most dynamic spots in all of Paris.