Sightseeing > Neighborhoods > Beaubourg & Hôtel de Ville


3rd & 4th Arrondissements
M° Rambuteau, Châtelet, Hôtel-de-Ville

The Beaubourg neighborhood isn’t quite as chic as the Marais, yet it hasn’t sold its soul to the fast-food and cheap clothing chains found in Les Halles either. Before the colorful Pompidou Center arrived in the 1970s, the quarter was dominated by the Eglise St-Merri, on the corner of Rue de la Verrerie and Rue St-Martin. Like most churches in Paris, this 16th-century flamboyant gothic church was built to replace a much older chapel dating to the 9th century, and has itself been heavily renovated since the French Revolution. The tower holds the oldest church bell in Paris, built for the original chapel in 1313.

Sleepy? Fans of Gothic art and architecture can spend a night in the Hôtel Saint-Merry located in the church’s restored 17th-century presbytery.

The pedestrianized Rue de Verrerie turns into the Rue des Lombards just after the church. It’s lined with bars, cafés and gift shops, a lively place to hang out after dark!

Explore the old surrounding streets of Rue du Cloître St-Merri and Rue Brisemiche, where the animated machines of the Fontaine Stravinsky (by sculptors Jean Tinguely and Niki de Saint Phalle) ease the transition into contemporary Beaubourg. The instantly-recognizable Pompidou Center, with its controversial “inside-out” architecture, is known officially as the Centre National d’Art et de Culture Georges Pompidou. This modern center for the arts is made up of the National Museum of Modern Art, a public library, the Atelier Brancusi sculpture studios, an art house cinema, concert halls, gift shop, book store, café and the trendy Georges restaurant on the top floor.

Outside the centre is the lively atmosphere of the Place Georges Pompidou, where Parisians and tourists watch the bustling scene of street performers and portrait artists from leafy café terraces. Slip down the narrow Rue de Venise, turning right onto Rue Quincampoix, a quiet pedestrian street lined with art galleries and unique shops. Don’t miss the romantic Passage Molière, home to the Théâtre Molière (opened in 1791), a tiny bistro and various bric-a-brac shops. Its uneven cobblestones contrast with the slick concrete of the Quartier Horloge across the street. Ignore the uninspiring copy shops and have a peek at Le Defenseur du Temps, a brass and steel mechanical clock on the wall at the corner of Rue Clairvaux and Passage Brantôme. At noon, 6pm and 10pm, the life-size armored soldier comes to life to battle a dragon, a crab, or a bird with his sword. The dragon’s breathing keeps time throughout the day (you can see his belly moving in and out).

Note: Don’t go too far out of your way to see this clock, since it’s frequently out of commission for tune-ups.

Hôtel-de-Ville

Behind the Hôtel de Ville is the winding Rue François Miron, an ancient street (it was the main east-west drag through Paris from Roamn times up until Napoléon had the Rue de Rivoli constructed). It’s full of unique gift shops and art galleries. On the left at #44 is the information center for Paris Historique, an organization dedicated to preserving the city’s historic buildings. The ground floor houses photo exhibitions of their restoration worksites throughout France, with information on how to become a volunteer. Don’t miss the gothic arches recently excavated in the info center’s cellars. Open daily 2pm-6pm, free entry. Continuing down the Rue François Miron, it would be hard to miss the rare 15th-century half-timbered houses at the corner of Rue Cloche-Perce (or the unmarked front door to the discreet swingers club inside).

Find more half-timbered buildings around the corner on the pedestrian-only Rue des Barres. On the right is the flamboyant gothic rear of the 16th-century Eglise St-Gervais-St-Protais. Walk around the front to see the Doric, Ionic and Corinthian columns of the façade -- the first example of Classic-style architecture in Paris -- glowing from a 2003 restoration. A German bomb was dropped on this church on Good Friday (March 29) 1918, killing 160 parishioners. Today the church is used by the Catholic Community of Jerusalem, whose robed monks and nuns are often seen strolling around the neighborhood. Stop by at 4pm on the first Saturday of the month to hear a free recital on the oldest organ in Paris, built in 1601.

Walk along the Quai de l’Hôtel de Ville to the vast paved square in front of the Paris City Hall, the Hôtel de Ville (aka Le Mairie de Paris). The original city hall, dating back to the 16th century, was burned down during the revolt of the Paris Commune in 1871. The current building was completed in 1882, featuring a neo-Renaissance façade with 136 statues of French grands hommes. Parisians always gather at the Place-de-l’Hôtel-de-Ville for major events and festivals such as Bastille Day. During the Middle Ages it was the location of public executions (Ravaillac -- King Henri IV’s murderer -- was hung, drawn and quartered here). Today it’s transformed into a beach volleyball court for Paris Plage in the summer and into an ice-skating rink in the winter. The elegant interior reception halls, decorated by the leading 19th-century artists, are open to the public on special occasions only. Visitors can pick up free information about the city (usually in French) at the Hôtel de Ville’s Bureau d’Accueil, which also hosts fascinating Paris cultural exhibitions throughout the year. Free admission, entrance at 29 Rue de Rivoli.

Across the street is the Bazar de l’Hôtel de Ville, or BHV, the department store beloved by Parisians for its bricolage (hardware/do-it-yourself) section in the basement. Those who aren’t in the market for a hammer can stop into its Bricolo’ Café, decorated to look like a vintage tool shed, or take the elevator to the 6th floor and follow signs to the outdoor terrace for views over the Hôtel de Ville. To the west is a giant tower of scaffolding. It’s not a Christo installation, but the gothic 16th-century Tour St-Jacques, all that remains of the church St-Jacques-de-la-Boucherie, torn down in 1802. On top is a statue of the physicist Pascal, who conducted experiments on the weight of air in the tower in 1648. The scaffolding and renovations will probably take a few years, so don’t expect to see anything until maybe 2008.

Thirsty? The Aristocracy Lives On! The French royal family may have ended up at the guillotine more than two centuries ago, but the surviving aristocrats and their royalist supporters still gather regularly hoping French democracy is just a phase. If you’re curious, stop into the royalist HQ, the Bar des Templiers (35 Rue de Rivoli). It may seem like a typical scruffy old Parisian café, but one look at the walls covered in fleurs-de-lis and tributes to Louis XVI will convince you otherwise.

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