Consistently overlooked by tourists who beeline to the adjoining (and far more famous) Sainte-Chapelle, La Conciergerie is one of Paris' most enigmatic monuments. The impressive medieval palace complete with turrets and the remaining elements of a fortified wall looms over the Seine River, situated at the entrance to the "island" known as the Ile de la Cité. The centuries-old monument once served as a Gothic seat of royal power before being converted into a prison, revolutionary tribunal, chancellery, and seat of the French Parliament.
The Conciergerie served as a royal building from as early as the 6th century, during a time known as the Merovingian period and under the rule of King Clovis. In 1200, during the Capetian Dynasty, King Philip II made the Palais de la Cité (as the site was then known) the seat of royal power. It remained so until the 14th century.
Under Louis IX, a chapel was constructed, while during the reign of Philip IV, the palace was extended and renovated to incorporate administrative buildings. When the Louvre Palace was built during the 14th century, then-King Charles V abandoned the Palais de la Cité to take up residence in the Louvre. It was at that point that the Conciergerie was converted into a royal prison, chancellery and seat of Parliament.
During the French Revolution of 1789 and the period of "The Terror" (1993-1795), many political prisoners were held and tried at the Conciergerie. The ill-fated Queen Marie Antoinette had her cell here before her execution. Today, the Conciergerie continues to house a courthouse and tribunal, situated in the premises of the Palais de Justice.
How to Visit
The Conciergerie is open to visitors year-round, from 9:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. It closes on Jan. 1 (New Year's Day), May 1, and on Dec. 25 (Christmas Day).
An individual ticket costs 18 euros, but there are discounts for groups and students. Many visitors opt to purchase a ticket that offers combined entry to the adjoining Sainte-Chapelle (a breathtaking, light-filled Gothic-era chapel noted for its elaborate stained glass and other decorative elements).
What to See
While only a relatively small part of the Conciergerie is open to the general public—the majority of its space is still dedicated to courthouses and administrative buildings—visiting the section that has been transformed into a museum is simply fascinating. Highlights include:
- The cell where Marie Antoinette was held during the final two months of her life in 1793, during the Reign of Terror. Here, curators have reconstructed the Queen's sparsely decorated bedroom to give visitors a sense of what her life as a prisoner may have been like; a robed figure represents the queen as a prisoner. The cell is also the site of an "Expiatory Chapel" built following the Revolution, following the Restoration period. It was meant to atone for the queen's execution and pays tribute to her and other royal figures executed during the Terror.
- Other cells and low-ceilinged dungeons where various other prisoners were held, as well as the former, tiny offices of prison wardens, complete with period furniture.
- A mural that shows the names of some individuals victimized by the Reign of Terror and imprisoned or tried at the Conciergerie. Their names are printed in different colors depending on their punishments, with those executed by guillotine shown in red. Other plaques and historical displays throughout the museum portion of the visit recount the history of the Revolution and the Reign of Terror, led by the infamous Robespierre.
- The Grande Salle (Great Hall) gives you a sense of the palatial dimensions of the structure and allows you to imagine its history as a gothic royal palace. On the lower level, La Salle des Gens D'Armes (Soldiers' Hall) is impressive at 210 feet long, with 28-foot ceilings. It once served as an enormous dining room for palace workers, as well as accommodating royal banquets and other formal occasions.
What to Do Nearby
Many big-ticket tourist attractions are in close reach of the Conciergerie, making it an ideal starting point for a tour of the area. Notre-Dame Cathedral (currently closed for renovations due to a devastating fire in 2019), the Latin Quarter, Shakespeare & Company bookshop, and the Shoah Memorial are among the other important sites that are easily accessible.
Also consider embarking on a Seine river sightseeing cruise or taking a self-guided tour of some of the most beautiful bridges in Paris. The Pont au Change affords breathtaking exterior perspectives of the Conciergerie, whether during the morning, at dusk or after dark.