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A photo of the Musee d'Orsay along the Seine.

5 Ways to Learn Paris History While Out for a Walk

We’re now six weeks into 2021, and museums, theatres, and cinemas are still closed in France. It’s been almost four months since the famous museums of Paris last welcomed visitors, and a re-opening date has yet to be announced. Rumours have begun to swirl that cultural sites will be able to re-open in April, but even if that turns out to be true, that’s still over a month away. I’ll be honest. I can’t wait to visit a museum again. But until it’s safe to do so, there’s a lot to discover around Paris that can be seen on the street. Below are my top 5 ways to learn Paris history by simply going for a walk.

Histoire de Paris

You don’t have to enter a museum to see items of historical significance. The history of Paris can be found throughout the city, most commonly through the Histoire de Paris plaques. These oar-shaped signs were first installed in 1992, and there are 767 of them spread throughout the city. Every day, they help visitors and Parisians alike to discover the story of Paris by giving a brief history of the location on which they stand. Unfortunately for us anglophones, these plaques are all in French, but all you need to do is have Google Translate handy and you’ll be good to go. No matter where you walk, you’ll be learning French history along the way.

Someone Famous Lived Here

Thousands of celebrities have called Paris home over the years. Some, tragically, have spent their final days here as well. In both cases, signs and/or plaques are used to commemorate the famous residents of buildings all over the city. The above photo is from L’Hotel at 13 rue des Beaux Arts, where Oscar Wilde died on November 30th, 1900. This building was where he uttered one of his legendary last words: “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or the other of us has to go.” Sadly, the wallpaper won.

Fallen Resistance Fighters

In August of 1944, as word arrived in Paris that the Allied troops were on their way, the French Resistance rose up against the Nazi occupiers. The Battle for Paris began on August 19th, and by August 25th, when German commanders surrendered the city, an estimated 1,000 Resistance fighters were dead and another 1,500 wounded. Today, plaques commemorating their sacrifice can be found all over the city, many of them marking the location where they fell.

Lest We Forget

Prior to its liberation, Paris was occupied by the Nazis for over four years during World War II. During this time, thousands of Jewish students were arrested while they were at school. They were then sent to concentration camps all over Europe, with or without their families, where many of them eventually perished. Today, over 300 plaques commemorate this tragic history. These plaques are placed outside schools, and state the number of schoolchildren who were taken from each district. In the bottom right, you’ll see “Ne Les Oublions Jamais”. This is the French equivalent of “Lest We Forget”.

Flood Markers

Paris is no stranger to flooding. In fact, the river Seine is currently overflowing its banks as I type this. However, the worst flood in Paris’ history happened back in January of 1910. That was when the waters of the Seine rose to over 8.6 metres, and huge swaths of the city were plunged underwater. Miraculously, no one died in the nearly one week of flooding, but it is estimated that property damage exceeded over 1.5 billion Euros in today’s currency. To recognize this historic event, small green plaques mark the level the waters reached across the city. They read, “Crue, Janvier 1910.” Flood, January 1910. These markers are everywhere, and in some cases, the little white line stands at a height taller than me. The Great Flood of Paris indeed!

Take a Walk Through History

With museums closed for the foreseeable future, I know that it will be a while before I can gaze upon the Venus de Milo once more. But that just means there’s never been a better time to discover the history of Paris through the thousands of markers that dot the streets. It’s a simple and easy way to learn Paris history, and no admission ticket is required. All you need to do is go for a walk.

Laura Moore is a professional storyteller who loves history and the many stories that make Paris one of the most fascinating cities in the world. Join one of her signature tours to learn the story of a city.


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