Paris Sewers Museum
Musée des égouts de Paris
Sewers have been draining wastewater in Paris since the beginning of the 13th Century, when the city's streets were paved and drains were built on orders from Philippe Auguste, the king of France from 1180 to 1223. Covered sewers were introduced during the reign of Napoléon Bonaparte, and today's network of more than 2,100 km (1,312 miles) of sewer tunnels was begun in 1850.
The sandstone tunnels carry drainwater from the streets, sanitary sewers (now in separate pipes), mains for drinking water and the water used for streetcleaning, telecommunications cables, pneumatic tubes between post offices, and (or so one assumes) the occasional rat.
Until recent times, the Paris sewers also carried tourists: initially by carts that were suspended from the walkways along the tunnel walls, later by carriages drawn by a small locomotive, and--until the 1970s--in boats. (I toured an égout in 1966, when municipal workers used chains to haul the wooden boat through a sewer tunnel from the Madeleine to the Place de la Concorde.)
Today, the carts and boats are gone, having been replaced by an even better attraction: the, or . This museum of the Mairie de Paris is located in the sewers beneath the Quai d'Orsay on the Left Bank, and it's a "must see" destination for any visitor who's interested in engineering, public works, or unusual tourist attractions--and for fans of Victor Hugo's novel, Les Misérables, and the musical that it inspired.
What you'll see at the Musée des égouts
After descending the stairs from the aboveground ticket office, you'll enter a long gallery beneath the Quai d'Orsay that runs parallel to the Seine. Here, you can see pipes and a five-ton "flushing boat" in what once was the main sewer line between the Place de la Concorde and the Pont de l'Alma. You'll pass a large basin that traps solid material from wastewater (the sewers recover more than 15,000 cubic meters of grit per year).
At the end of the tunnel are a footbridge and a feeder sewer fom the rue Cognacq-Jay (see photo above); from there, you'll head right to the Belgrand gallery, the main exhibit area of the museum, which is built above the sand trap of the Bosquet main sewer that runs to the Ecole Militaire near the Eiffel Tower.
During your visit, you'll see sewer-maintenance equipment from past and present, mannequins of sewer workers in underground gear, huge wooden balls used to clean tunnels beneath the Seine, fascinating exhibits about the history and design of the Paris sewer network, and rushing drainwater from the streets above. You can also watch a video in the small theatre and browse through the gift shop. (Restrooms are near the gift shop and are connected to the enclosed sanitary sewer pipes, so you can flush without fear of splashing other visitors.)
The Paris Sewers Museum is open daily except Thursday and Friday.
From May through September, hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
From October through March, hours are 11 to 6 p.m.
In 2018, right before the museum closed for a lengthy renovation, ticket prices were €4,40 for adults and €3,60 for students or children from ages 6 to 16. Children under 5 were admitted free, as were holders of the Paris Museum Pass. (We'll publish updated prices after the museum has reopened in 2021.)
Guided tours are free when available; foreign-language tours are offered only in the summer. You can easily explore the museum on your own, using the free booklet that you'll be given with your ticket.
The entrance to the Musée des égouts de Paris is at ground level, in the strip of park between the Quai d'Orsay and the Seine. (Look for the blue-and-white booth east of the Pont de l'Alma on the Left Bank of the river, in the 7th arrondissement.)
The nearest stop is Alma-Marceau (line 9) on the Right Bank; after leaving the station, cross the river to the Left Bank and turn left at the Quai d'Orsay.
The Pont de l'Alma station of RER Line C is very close to the museum. (Line C runs underground along the Seine with stops at St-Michel, the Musée d'Orsay, and Invalides on its way to Pont de l'Alma.) From the station, cross the Place de la Résistance and follow the left side of the Quai d'Orsay to the museum.
Take bus line 63 or 80 to Alma-Marceau. The museum is on the Left Bank, or Eiffel Tower, side of the Pont de l'Alma. (See "Location" above.)
The museum doesn't have an elevator--just a staircase with 42 steps that leads from street level to the sewers.
Related Web links
The Sewers of Paris: A Brief History
Mairie de Paris: The Paris Sewer System
More photos of the Paris Sewers Museum:
ABOVE: Mannequin of a sewer worker with an antique grit-removal cart.
ABOVE: Sewer-boat model in the Belgrand gallery.
ABOVE: The main basin in the Brunesau gallery, which traps solid material for removal by a dredger.
An underground souvenir: Paris Secret
When you're browsing through the souvenirs in the Musée des égouts de Paris gift shop, pull out your credit card or a 20-euro note and buy Paris Secret, a French-language guide to subterranean Paris.
The attractively designed and beautifully printed book is packed with photographs, illustrations, historic paintings, and text on everything from the sewers of Paris to the Mètro and RER to archaeological excavations beneath the city. (Even if you don't read French, Paris Secret is worth buying for the pictures alone.)
Paris Secret is from Guides Gallimard, whose city guidebooks of the same format are published in English as the Knopf Guides.
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