Every day thousands of people visit Trocadéro on the west side of Paris. It is renowned for its views of the Eiffel Tower, and as a result, it is one of the most popular photo spots in the city. The plaza that hosts all of these photographers is part of the Palais de Chaillot, a sprawling cultural complex that is home to several museums and a theatre. It is a beautiful building, but sadly, very few of the thousands who visit Trocadéro take the time to go inside. But they should. I recently visited the Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine, one of the museums of the Palais de Chaillot, and it was nearly empty. I want to change that.
A Palace for an Expo
The Chaillot hill stands on the right bank in the 16th arrondissement of Paris. It was first developed for the 1867 World’s Fair, and in 1878, a large concert hall and meeting space was built on the hill for the 1878 World’s Fair. The building was called the Palais du Trocadéro, and it was wildly unpopular with Parisians. The addition of the Eiffel Tower across the river in 1889 did not improve its reputation. In 1936, it was demolished to make room for the Palais de Chaillot, which was built for the 1937 World’s Fair. Yes, I know. Paris has hosted a lot of World’s Fairs.
Today, the Palais de Chaillot is famous for the untold millions of photos that are taken from the plaza that is located between the east and west wings of the building. The most famous photograph taken at this location is the photo of Hitler during his victory tour of Paris in 1940. Which is why I think it is fitting that the UN General Assembly later adopted the Declaration of Human Rights at the Palais de Chaillot in 1948. The plaza is now named the Esplanade of Human Rights in honour of this occasion.
A Palace of Museums
The Palais de Chaillot is home to several museums, including the Musée national de la Marine (naval museum) and the Musée de l’homme (museum of humanity). But the one that intrigued me the most was the Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine. I had heard that the permanent collections of this museum were stunning, which is why I recently made the trip to the west side of the city. I can now report that their reputation is correct. The permanent collections of this museum are indeed stunning.
The Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine is a museum of architecture and monumental sculpture. It was Viollet-le-Duc, the great restorer of Notre Dame Cathedral, who first suggested gathering reproductions and casts of famous French sculptures in one location. Thus, the collection that is now housed in the Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine was first begun in the late 19th century. Today, the museum has over 6,000 pieces, spanning thousands of years and multiple countries. But the primary focus is French sculptures and monuments.
The Galleries of Davioud and Carlu
There is lots to see in the Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine, but if you’re short on time, make a beeline for the Davioud and Carlu galleries. This is where you will find plaster casts of some of France’s most famous cathedrals and monuments. And the best part is, you can see them up close instead of towering above you when you visit the actual cathedral. I lost track of how many times my jaw literally dropped as I moved through the galleries and I realized what I was looking at. That I could actually see the details of these beautiful buildings up close. It was incredible.
As an added bonus, the Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine is currently hosting the restored statues from the spire of Notre Dame. In an extraordinary act of luck, these statues were removed from Notre Dame four days before the fire in 2019 for a previously scheduled restoration. Today, they are all that remain of the spire. They will be hosted at the Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine until they can be returned to Notre Dame, at which point they will once again sit high in the air, unavailable for close up viewing. I highly recommend you pay them a visit before that happens.
Yet Another Gem of a Museum
I don’t think I will ever tire of discovering all that the museums of Paris have to offer. Nor will I ever stop being grateful to have so much history and culture at my fingertips. The Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine may not be Paris’ most famous museum. But it is just as extraordinary as the Louvre or the Orsay. If you find yourself visiting Trocadéro on your next trip to Paris, I hope you’ll leave time for a visit to this museum. I’d like to see it a little less empty the next time I’m there.
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.