The Hotel de Ville — that is, the Paris city hall — is one of the most enduring landmarks in a city that's full of great things to look at, and it's been that way since the mayor of Paris first moved to the site in 1357. Initially, the seat of Paris city government was in the house owned by whoever was mayor. It wasn't until 1533 that the French king Francis I decided to grace the city with an Hotel de Ville that suited the capital of France.
Nighttime view of the Hotel de Ville
In the 14th-century, the Parvis de l'Hôtel de Ville (the courtyard in front of the building) became execution central, the place crowds would gather to watch those gory spectacles. In 1792 a guillotine was installed here, one which would get a lot of use during the Terror phase of the French Revolution. (Luckily, the last execution took place in 1830.)
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Hotel de Ville following the fire of 1871
Over the centuries the building was expanded and improved. Until 1871, that is, when the Hotel de Ville Paris was set afire during the Paris Commune — a result of the clash between Communards and the central government. All that remained after the fire was the stone shell. (Like Notre Dame more recently, the walls remained standing after the fire.) It took twenty years, but the city hall was rebuilt inside of the original shell. This is the version of the city hall we still see today.
The Hotel de Ville is the official office of the Mayor of Paris and of local government. In case you're wondering, the current mayor is Spanish-born Anne Hidalgo, the first woman ever to hold the office, who's making innovative proposals like curtailing automobile traffic in the heart of the city and creating better access for bicycles and pedestrians.
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Skating rink at the parvis de l'Hôtel de Ville
We always pay a visit to the parvis of the Hotel de Ville, whatever the season — it's one of those places in Paris where there's always something happening. The large place in front of the building (built by Baron Haussmann, is spacious enough to hold the seasonal patinoire — Christmas in Paris is made even more magical with this outdoor skating rink right in the middle of Paris!
Noel village and children's carousel
In some years a complete Noël village is created in the parvis. When our son was little he loved to ride on the turn-of-the-century children's carousel that is permanently set up on the place. It has wooden horses and lovely deep booths.
That's not to say that the parvis de l'Hôtel de Ville has always been a pedestrian paradise. (Remember the guillotine?) In that car-crazy urban planning era of the the 1950s to the 1970s the space in front of Hotel de Ville was a parking lot, surrounded by a circle of busy traffic. Pedestrians who wanted to enjoy the small park risked life and limb to get there!
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Traffic on the parvis in the Dark Ages – the 1960s
These days there's often an interesting exhibit inside the city hall itself. For instance, when the area around Les Halles was undergoing its twenty-first century reconstruction, the city hosted an exhibit of the photographs Robert Doisneau shot when Les Halles was the site of the Paris central market. During important national sporting events large screens are often set up in the parvis for public viewing.
Sumptuous interior of the Hotel de Ville
Being in the center of the city, the area around Hotel de Ville is filled with a slew of interesting buildings and quartiers including the Pompidou Center, Notre Dame Cathedral, the Islands of the Seine, the Marais, and the book merchants (les bouqinistes) that line the banks of the Seine river.
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The Hotel de Ville is part of the itinerary of this small-group walking tour that takes a nighttime journey to hidden Paris. We love this sort of guided tour, where you discover off-the-beaten-path streets, narrow alleyways, and tucked-away buildings, while learning about the violent and dark history that lurks beneath the City of Light.
It's the darker side of the history of Paris that's featured on this tour — the plague, the French Revolution, the Paris Commune, ghosts & mysteries. On this sort of guided tour you really get a feel for the icons that shaped the city, from early French kings Chlothar the Old and Clovis the Lazy to Napoleon and Marie Antoinette.
Landmarks & Historic Buildings
• Chateau de Versailles…
• Hotel de Ville – The City Hall…
• Palais Garnier Opera House…
• The Notre Dame Towers…
• Opera Bastille…
• The Conciergerie…
• Les Invalides in Paris…
• Palais-Royal & Its Gardens…
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