The Conciergerie

The Conciergerie is one of the most historic sites in all of Paris. Looming large on Île de la Cité in the Seine, right next door to Sainte-Chapelle and a brief walk northwest of Notre-Dame, the structure we know today as the Conciergerie was originally part of the Palais de la Cité. In the eighteenth century, the Conciergerie was the location of numerous major events of the French Revolution. Today, the Conciergerie is a museum with exhibits on the Revolution, its many famous prisoners, and a whole lot more.

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History of the Conciergerie

The oldest remaining sections of the Conciergerie were once a part of the Palais de la Cité, the historic structure that served as a palace for the French royal families from roughly 500 to 1350. It was during the reign of Charles V (which lasted from 1364 to 1380) that the site first became known as the Conciergerie, as Charles V transitioned the site from a royal residence into a courthouse and prison. For the next four centuries it would undergo a number of renovations, and each subsequent monarch would slightly alter the building’s usage to suit their own needs, but its role largely stayed the same.

The most famous episodes in the Conciergerie’s long history would occur in the late eighteenth century when multiple major flashpoints of what would eventually become the French Revolution occurred here. In time, the Conciergerie would house thousands of Revolution-related prisoners, including most famously Marie-Antoinette and Robespierre. The Conciergerie would continue to serve as a prison even after the Revolution, only transitioning out of the role in 1934.

Conciergerie Highlights

As mentioned above, before it became known as the “French Revolution prison,” the Conciergerie was a royal palace, and flourishes of its original splendor survive here and there throughout the attraction. Two areas, in particular, will stand out to these interested in gothic architecture: the Salle des Gens d’Armes, which functioned as a refectory during the Middle Ages; and the Salle des Gardes, built by Philip IV in the early 1300s and where prisoners were held while awaiting their hearings before the Revolutionary Tribunal during the French Revolution. 

Though she was but one of thousands held captive here for one reason or another throughout the years, the Conciergerie perhaps never detained a more famous prisoner than Marie-Antoinette. Visitors to the Conciergerie today can pass through an expiatory chapel that was built in her honor in 1816, supposedly near the site where she (and later Robespierre) was imprisoned. The spot is marked by a small altar, several paintings, and a stained-glass window bearing her initials.

The culinary-inclined visitor will get a kick out of passing through the Conciergerie’s kitchen. This massive room was built in about 1350 to serve as the royal kitchen for the court of John II (aka John the Good), with a separate kitchen that no longer survives serving the needs of his large staff. The vaulted ceilings are quite striking, and four immense fireplaces anchor each corner of the room.

More to See and Do at the Conciergerie

As befits a building that has served so many different purposes over the centuries, there are numerous other things to see and do while visiting the Conciergerie. Read on for a few more suggestions.

•The Conciergerie’s actual prison cells were destroyed during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when the site was renovated and rebuilt. That said, the attraction today features several recreations of historic prison cells, as well as a variety of objects, artifacts, and documents that chart the course of the French Revolution and the role the Conciergerie played in that event.

•The Salle des Noms (Hall or Room of Names) is a haunting space where the names of more than 4,000 people who at one time or another were held prisoner within the confines of the Conciergerie are artfully displayed on the walls. Some of these figures are very famous to this very day, while the majority are rather ordinary individuals who were caught up in the fervor of the revolutionary era.

•The Conciergerie typically hosts temporary exhibitions within its historic walls, too. What, if anything, is showing when you visit the Conciergerie will depend on the timing of your trip. However, just for context, an example of a recent temporary exhibition staged here is Paris, Capital of Gastronomy, from the Middle Ages to the Present, which brought together culinary objects, menus, artworks, videos, photographs, and more on loan from such illustrious organizations as the Louvre, Fontainebleau Castle and the Historical Library of the City of Paris.

•Guided tours of the Conciergerie are offered every day at 11:00am and 3:00pm. Each guided tour lasts approximately one hour. There is no extra charge whatsoever for this service, but you will need to register for the guided tour at the reception desk when you arrive at the attraction.

•If you’re more of a self-guided-tour person, or your schedule doesn’t permit you to visit the Conciergerie during a time period when guided tours are running, then you’ll at least want to stop by the attraction’s reception desk and pick up one of their delightfully named “Histopads.” The Conciergerie Histopad consists of a tablet that uses “augmented reality” technology to create 3D-reconstructions of what various parts of the building might have looked like centuries ago. It also allows users to play a virtual treasure hunt game.

Why the Conciergerie Should Be on Your Must-See List

The French Revolution remains a watershed event in the history of the world, and the Conciergerie found itself at the center of many of those tumultuous happenings. Any visitor to Paris possessing the slightest bit of interest in learning more about this remarkable chapter of French life shouldn’t miss the chance to see the Conciergerie in person. Throw in some amazing examples of gothic architecture and the attraction’s picturesque setting on an island in the middle of the Seine, and you’ve got the recipe for a must-see destination.