Paris is a deeply cultural town, as les Parisiens are fond of mentioning, and few places embody the city’s cultural and architectural heritage as well as its libraries.
In honor of the recent grand reopening of the National Library of France after 12 years of renovations, we’ve rounded up a tour of the most spectacular libraries in Paris.
Bibliothèque Nationale de France – Richelieu-Levois
Nestled in the heart of Paris, steps away from the Palais Royal Gardens, the newly reopened National Library of France Richelieu-Louvois welcomes visitors to a world of historical literary magic. It houses hundreds of works of art in every sense of the word: some of humanity’s earliest writings, original manuscripts from Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame to Mozart’s handwritten Don Giovani, ancient Greek and Roman pottery, modern prints from Picasso to Matisse, and a map of Paris just before the French Revolution – just to name a few.
Don’t miss the stunning kaleidoscopic Oval Room, once reserved for scholars, now open to the public as a reading room. The 60 foot-high glass ceiling dotted with window mosaics and miles of bookshelves makes for one of the most inspiring rooms for reflection in the City of Lights.
5 Rue Vivienne and 58 Rue de Richelieu, 75002 Paris
Situated at the very top of the illustrious Latin Quarter neighborhood (named for the intellectuals who studied here at a time when Latin was the only language written and spoken in schools), is one of the most visually stunning libraries of Paris. The building was originally an abbey, founded in honor of the patron saint of Paris, Sainte Geneviève, in the 6th century. The massive stone and iron marvel that it is today dates from the mid 1800s, and neighbors the Sorbonne Law School building, serving as a study for many of the Sorbonne students today.
Its more than two million volumes are best enjoyed in the Salle de Lecture (reading room) reminiscent of a grand train station. The façade, although rather bare and austere, does present intriguing details: 810 names are engraved into it, listing some of the greatest minds up to that time. A careful examination may be worthwhile, who knows what your ancestors got up to?
10 Place du Panthéon, 75005 Paris
©Yves Lesven Marie de Paris 1
Technically distinct buildings and institutions, Bibliothèque Forney, Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal, and Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris are close enough together (a couple of minutes walk from one to another) to be visited simultaneously, and are all well worthy of inclusion in our list of Paris’ most spectacular libraries.
Forney is the oldest building of the three, a 15th century hôtel particulier that is one of only three medieval private residences left in Paris. The courtyard with its spires and arches is alone worthy of a visit.
1 Rue du Figuier, 75004 Paris
Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal
The Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal, just feet away from the river Seine, is one of the smallest of public libraries in Paris but is full of historic charm. It became public during the popular fervor of the French Revolution, and is housed in a quintessentially 17th century building. Of particular note are the superb Salon de Musique and the room of illustrations.
1 Rue de Sully, 75004
Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris
The final stop on this circuit in the historical 4th arrondissement is la Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris, which, as its name suggests, specializes in the history of Paris and its surroundings. Housed in the 16th century Hôtel d’Angoulême, with an elegant and studious reading room, it is a key stop for anybody with a keen interest in the city’s history.
24 Rue Pavée, 75004 Paris
With such a grandiose façade and spectacularly luminous reading room, it is hard to believe that this library is so often overlooked by visitors to the city. It is France’s oldest public library, and was originally the private collection of Cardinal Mazarin, who wanted an adequate library to furnish his secondary home in Paris (yes, his main library in Rome was richer!). Most famous among its half a million-strong collection is the Gutenberg Bible, known as La Bible Mazarin, which dates back to 1250, kept in a secret vault.
23 Quai de Conti, 75006
Ending our list of Paris’ most spectacular libraries is the most modern addition to the National Library of France, Bibliothèque François-Mitterrand. Constructed between 1996 and 1998 just along the river Seine, these massive, modern towers were created to house over 13 million documents. While at first the buildings may appear rather industrial, take a closer look and you’ll notice that the structures were in fact designed to look like 4 bookends!
Quai François Mauriac, 75706 Paris Cedex 13