World Fairs in Paris

World Fairs, or universal exhibitions, exist since the industrial revolution in the 19th century. Since 1931, they are overseen and regulated by the International Bureau of Expositions.
The first World Fair was held in London in 1851. It is said to have been inspired by the French Exposition nationale des produits de l’industrie agricole and the Exposition des produits de l’industrie française, the latter having existed since 1798.

Prior to 1931, 20 World Fairs were held, five of those in Paris. As in other countries, these Expositions universelles, despite consisting mostly of temporary structures, have left a mark on the host city.


The Palais de L’Industrie was built on the Champs Élysées. It was inaugurated by Napoléon III and was the emblem of the World Fair which had over five million visitors. Contrary to the Crystal Palace of the 1851 London World Fair, the Palais de l’Industrie was meant to become a permanent exhibition space.


The second World Fair to be held in Paris took place on the Champ de Mars, as decided by emperor Napoléon III three years prior. The transformation of Paris by Baron Haussmann had just been completed. On the Champ de Mars, a military site, a giant oval building was constructed, the Palais Omnibus. A young entrepreneur specializing in metallic structures, was tasked with building the galérie des machines, where cranes, weaving looms, machine tools, power hammers, locomotives etc. would be displayed. His name was Gustave Eiffel.


The third Paris World Fair was again held on the Champ de Mars. For the occasion, the Palais du Trocadéro was built on the opposite bank of the Seine, on the Chaillot hill (la colline de Chaillot).

No longer does the Palais du Trocadéro stand on the colline du Chaillot!

One of the main attractions of the exhibit was the head of the Statue of Liberty, and among the inventions presented was Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone.


The tenth World Fair and fourth to be held in Paris, celebrated the centenary of the French Revolution. As a result, European monarchies refuse to attend. However, some of them were represented by private initiatives. The Fair was held mainly on the Champ de Mars but also on the Esplanade des Invalides.

Its main attraction, while controversial at the time and destined to be dismantled after the end of the fair, can still be visited there today.


The fifth Paris World Fair was no longer restricted to the Champ de Mars. While previous World Fairs already includes the Jardins du Trocadéro on the south-eastern slope of the Colline de Chaillot and the Esplanade des Invalides, this fair also occupies the riverbanks on both sides of the Seine, from the new Pont Alexandre III to the Pont d’Iéna.

While the Pont d’Iéna links the Champ de Mars to the Trocadéro, the Pont Alexandre III links the Esplanade des Invalides on the left bank to the Champs Élysées on the right bank. Two palaces were built for this World Fair in the place of the Palais de l’Industrie, demolished in 1896: the Grand Palais and the Petit Palais.

Aerial view of the Grand and the Petit Palais
The Petit Palais

Of those five Expositions universelles held in Paris, it is the 1900 one that has left behind the most landmarks and structures still in existence. Not only the Pont Alexandre III built in a way to allow for a view from the Champs Élysées past the Grand and Petit Palais and across the river to the Esplanade des Invalides and the Invalides itself, but also the Gare d’Orsay (today Musée d’Orsay), the Statue of Liberty on the Pont de Grenelle, and, above all, the first sections of the Métropolitain, inaugurated on July 19, 1900.

The Musée d’Orsay still looks like the train station it once was.
The Statue of Liberty on the Pont de Grenelle
early métro trains looked like this

Take a ride on métro line 1, the first métro line which, at its inauguration in 1900, ran from Porte de Vincennes to Porte Maillot.

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Bones beneath the Stones

When you find yourself with an avalanche of human bones in your basement, you know it’s time for change.

Which is what the city of Paris did when exactly that happened to neighbors of the Cimetière des Innocents in 1774. Looking for a place to store the bones from the overflowing inner-city cemetery, they came up with the idea to put them in the decommissioned stone quarries underneath the city.

After arrangements had been made, bones from the various cemeteries of Paris, Les Innocents included, were carted to a chute in the avenue René Coty (near Place Denfert-Rochereau) to be stored underground. The name Catacombes was borrowed from Ancient Rome, even though there were no graves and funerary monuments. At first, the bones were stacked along the tunnels over hundreds of meters. It was only after the first VIP visits at the beginning of the 19th century that the bones were somewhat organized. More cemeteries had to be closed as the city grew, and their bones were added to the ones already in residence.

Signs were added to indicate the cemetery of origin, and the gravediggers arranged skulls and bones in patterns that can still be seen today.

In 1809, the Catacombes became a museum that today is part of the Musée Carnavalet and gives visitors access to a small fraction of the tunnel network of Paris’ ancient stone quarries.

In one of the first sections of the visit, sculptures made by a quarryman in the late 18th century can be seen. They represent sites from Port-Mahon on the Spanish island of Minorca where he was said to have been a POW.

There used to be a long line of visitors starting out from the old entrance and winding back around the square behind the eastern lodge of the barriére d’Enfer (entry point of the General Farmers’ Tax Wall), but recently, it was closed in favor of a new entrance, and the ticket sale has shifted online, so now visitors can book their spot in advance and don’t need to queue any longer.

signage in the métro station Denfert-Rocherreau
N° 2: Catacombes entrance, n° 5: Catacombes exit
Location of the Catacombes entrances on a map of Paris
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European Heritage Days – French edition

The European Heritage Days, based on an initiative of the then French Minister for Culture, Jack Lang, in 1984, now exist in 50 countries across Europe. In France, the Journées Européennes du Patrimoine, take place on the third weekend of September. This means sites that are usually closed to the public will be open, other sites will be free of charge, many will offer special activities and/or guided tours. Some will require reservations, but many will just let you drop in, from well-known institutions in big cities to ancient buildings in small villages. Often there will be activities for younger visitors.

At some point, when you got in line at 5am at the Elysée Palace, you might be lucky and shake hands with the president, or do the same with the prime minister after queuing at the Hôtel Matignon. I once stood in line at the Senate, the Palais du Luxembourg and indeed met the president of the Senate, the upper house of Parliament. He is the third person of the state in order of importance, after the president and the prime minister, and before the president of the national assembly.

Gérard Larcher, President of the French Senate

I am not sure though if you still queue for these institutions nowadays or sign up online, as I did to visit the National Assembly, the lower house of Parliament, more recently.

When you choose your visits, don’t overlook small events. You never know a hidden gem until you find it. For example, on year in the Latin Quarter, a college offered the visit of ongoing preventive archaeology digs – it turned out there were Gallo-Roman ruins on a site marked for construction, and archaeologists were trying to unearth and save as much as they could. This is something that will never be seen again!

Here are glimpses of some other interesting places I’ve visited during Heritage Days in and around Paris over the years:

King George VI’s bathtub at the French Foreign Ministry
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Bilingual Brittany

Before Brittany became part of France in the 16th century (see my post here), it was an independent duchy. The Breton language, a Celtic language related to Welsh, Cornish and Cumbric, was used there for many centuries, since before the year 1,000. It evolved from Old Breton over Middle Breton to today’s Modern Breton. The number of speakers fell dramatically in the mid-20th century due to the national policy of recognizing only French as official language in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Today, however, the Breton language is part of the regional Breton movement, and there are not only over 50 Breton-speaking schools (Diwan schools) but also numerous private Catholic and public schools with Breton classes.

The Diwan school association estimates the number of Breton speakers at 400,000. (Brittany has around 3,3million inhabitants.) However, many Breton speakers are elderly people, and few actually use it in everyday life.

Five times so far, France has chosen to be represented at the Eurovision Song Contest with songs in regional languages, twice of those in Breton: in 1996 and in 2022. Numerous books and comics have been translated to Breton, local hero Asterix among them but also Belgian reporter Tintin, as well as the Peanuts.

When you visit Brittany, you won’t see it much until you are about halfway into the region. That is where the bilingual signposts will start, and where municipalities will put up signs with “Welcome” and “Goodbye” (Kenavo). However, the deeper you advance into Brittany, and especially in the département Finistère, you will see pretty much all signage in both languages, whether street names, the tourist office, the train station, or “other directions” (da lec’h all).

If you compare terms, you will be able to figure out some words. Ty, for example means house, and ker means town. So what might a ty ker be? A town hall, of course. My personal favorite is one I discovered this summer, a municipal library, or ty boukin.

Canon Inc
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Paris-plages (Paris Beach, or more accurately, Paris Beaches) operates every summer within the period of mid-July to the end of August. Its exact duration has evolved since its inception in 2002. A 3.5km-long stretch of the expressway (now pedestrianized year round) along the river on the right bank accommodates the sorts of installations and activities you would find by the sea – palm trees, deckchairs, hammocks, strand bars, sports activities etc.

From 2002 to 2016, actual sand was provided, allowing kids to build sandcastles (the “building tools” were also provided) and city-dwellers to feel the sand under their feet. The sand delivery partnership was cancelled by the City of Paris after 2016, citing political reasons.

The very first edition of Paris-plage in 2002, seen by night

The origins of the beach operation go back to 1996, when the town of Saint Quentin in the north of France, opened a beach in front of city hall. But it was only when Paris picked up the idea in 2002 that cities and towns big and small all over France and across the world copied it. Even my small town in the suburbs has its beach, including hammocks, swimming pool, and a giant water slide.

Paris added additional sites, such as the beach volleyball fields outside city hall, and the Bassin de la Villette in the 19th arrondissement, hence the change from Paris-plage to Paris-plages (plural).

Some years, the Louvre museum offers activities, a small library is set up along with a board games library, pools (since swimming in the Seine is scheduled only for the Paris Olympics in 2024), sports activities such as Tai Chi, yoga, boxing, beach volleyball, dancing and much more. There are water misters installed to help people stay cool, and of course the essential deck chairs and sunshades!

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Open Your Eyes

I want to encourage you to open your eyes and look around you when you visit Paris. There are two kinds of tourists I see: those who are herded around in groups by tour guides and ferried from one stop to the next in coaches, and those who explore the town by themselves.
This is for you, those who don’t follow a tour guide. Who walk until your feet hurt instead of taking the metro so you don’t miss out on anything.


Look at that red brick building! It says on the façade “Bains douches municipaux”. These are public baths and showers, provided by the City of Paris, with individual cabins. You have to bring your own soap and towel, though.

Look down! Isn’t that a magnificent hopscotch mosaic?

Have you seen this building? It’s the narrowest house of Paris. Can you imagine what the rooms inside must look like? I wonder how much space is allocated to the staircase.

When the Grand Mosque of Paris meets Haussmann buildings, the contrast looks like this.

The Mosque is located in the 5th arrondissement. It was building about one hundred years ago in the Spanish-Moorish revisal style, and it’s minaret is 33m tall.

Sometimes it’s just another Haussmann façade. Remember Baron Haussmann and his transformation of Paris, liking to the kind-of-uniformized façade style? If you look closely, you’ll see the little differences even between two neighboring Haussmann buildings.

Sometimes, you just turn into a street, and there’s this totally not Haussmann building with huge stained-glass windows, but definitely not a religious building, and when you read the inscription above the windows, it says “Compagnie Parisienne de distribution d’électricité” – Paris Electricity Distribution Company.

You never know what you’ll find next.

(Or maybe yes, sometime you do.)

Welcome to Paris!

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A Palace for Stock-Trading

Prior to the 19th century, stock trading took place in different spots of Paris. Napoleon Ier instigated the construction of a building to provide a stable location for stock trading activities.
Paris being Paris, the construction works running from 1808 to 1826 yielded not just any building but a palace – the Palais Brongniart.

The Bourse de Paris was integrated into Euronext in the year 2000, and today the Palais Brongniart has become a convention center, offering 4 000m² of exhibition surface and accommodating 200 000 visitors per year.

The Palais Brongniart on a map of Paris
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Electing the Assembly

The French parliament is composed of the National Assembly (Assemblée Nationale) and the Senate (Sénat). The National Assembly is elected every five years, the same year as the presidential elections.

There are 577 seats in the National Assembly. The deputés (MPs) are elected in single-member constituencies in a two-round vote, just like the French president.

All candidates who receive at least 12,5% of the electorate (which includes all registered voters, whether they cast a vote or not) go into the runoff, unless one candidate gets the absolute majority of valid votes (=votes that were actually cast) and 25% of the electorate (=all registered voters), in which case this candidate wins the seat and there is no runoff.
In the runoff, which is held one week after the first round, the candidate with the most votes is elected.

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100 Posts on Letters from Paris!

This is my 100th blog post!

To celebrate, I’ll go back to the beginning and share some fun facts of the Eiffel Tower.

  • The Tower takes its name from its architect, Gustave Eiffel.
  • Construction of the Tower took 2 years.
  • It was built for the World Fair of 1889, celebrating the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution.
  • Originally 312m high, the Eiffel Tower was the highest building in the word l for 40 years.
  • The highest viewing platform, the upper level of the third floor, is at 279,11m, the highest observation platform in the European Union and the second-highest in Europe:
  • The antennas at the top of the tower are used for the transmission of radio and digital tv signals.

For the fireworks of the national holiday Bastille Day on July 14, the Eiffel tower is incorporated into the show.

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Cluny La Sorbonne

The name of this métro station on line 10 indicates two important sites it serves – the Sorbonne University and the Hôtel de Cluny which houses the Musée national du Moyen Âge, the Museum of the Middle Ages (and also Roman thermal baths).

The station was opened in 1930, initially named only Cluny. At the beginning of WWII, in September 1939, it was closed and due to its proximity to the next station on either side, was not reopened for many years, becoming a “phantom station”. (There are still a few of those in Paris today.)

Cluny was finally reopened in December 1988 to create a correspondence with the RER B and C at the nearby station Saint Michel-Notre Dame (also served by line 4). For this occasion, the station undergoes a full renovation and is renamed Cluny-La Sorbonne.

When you enter the platform, you will immediate notice the mosaics on the ceiling, called The Birds, by French painter Jean Bazaine, as well as a number of mosaic signatures of famous Sorbonne students, among them Racine, Molière, and Victor Hugo.

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