Nearly every visitor to the City of Light pays a visit to the Champs Elysees, either to stroll the long, sycamore tree-lined boulevard or to visit the Place de la Concorde or the Arc de Triomphe that anchor the two ends of the elegant thoroughfare. But relatively few walk the two short blocks from the Champs to visit what is essentially France’s version of the White House—the Elysee Palace that serves as the resident for France’s president.
It’s definitely worth the short detour!
Located at the intersection of Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore and Avenue de Marigny, the palace’s exterior is surprisingly accessible to tourists, allowing a much closer glimpse of how France’s political leader lives and works than our own White House. While still well guarded, visitors can literally get within steps of the palace’s monumental gate and peer into the large courtyard where many dignitaries and foreign heads of state arrive for meetings with the French president or for state luncheons and dinners.
The Vestibule d’Honneur (Hall of Honor), which lies directly off the ceremonial courtyard, is the primary room where visiting officials and world leaders meet with the French president or his staff—and is the site where most media conferences and photo ops are staged.
The French president’s “residence,” as the U.S. president’s apartment in the White House is dubbed, is entered just off the ceremonial courtyard, and extends deep into the complex, overlooking a private salon and garden. Francois Hollande, the President of France since 2012, currently resides at the palace.
Other notable rooms in the palace include the Salon d’Argent (Silver Room) that is decorated with silver wainscoting and silver-edged furniture (this was the room in which Napoleon signed his abdication warrant after losing the Battle of Waterloo in 1815); the Salon des Portraits (Portrait Room) that contains portraits of such current and former world leaders as Emperor Franz Josef of the Austrian-Hungarian empire, Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom, Czar Nicholas I of Russia, and Queen Isabel II of Spain; the Salle des Fetes (Hall of Festivities) that is known for its ceiling mural by Guillaume Dubufe and six Gobelins tapestries and is the site where all French presidents are inaugurated; and the Salle a Manger Paulin (the Paulin Dining Room), named after architect Pierre Paulin, which is the only room in the place not decorated in classic French style (the room’s interior was designed with decor and furniture from the 1970s).
The palace actually changed hands numerous times during the 1700s and 1800s, including being occupied by Russian forces when they invaded Paris in 1814. Only since the French Revolution and the eventual establishment of France’s Third Republic in 1873 has the Elysee Palace been the permanent residence of the democratically elected president of France.
The palace was closed in June 1940 after the Nazi invasion of France and remained empty during World War II, only to be reopened in 1946 by President Vincent Auriol. Surprisingly, Nazi officials living in Paris during the war did not occupy the residence, fearing it would further inflame the locals and lead to increased French Resistance activities in the City of Light.
Sadly, the interior of the palace is open to the public on only two days each year, the Journes Europeennes du Patrimoine (European Heritage Days), set for Saturday and Sunday Sept. 20 and 21 in 2014. But Parisians, other French citizens and tourists alike clamor for a peek inside the presidential residence, so expect to spend hours in line (even if you line up in the wee hours of the morning) and to potentially be turned away if you arrive too late to the queue. The palace officially opens to visitors by 8 a.m, and by 9 a.m. the line to get inside is typically at least five hours long. Local travel experts say that if you want to be assured access to the palace, to be in line no later than 6 a.m.