Paris’s Place de la Bastille: Yesterday and Today

If you’ve seen the 2013 film “Les Misérables,” then you are already familiar with Place de la Bastille. It is the setting for much of the second half of the film, marked by the large, decaying plaster elephant. Place de la Bastille is a historic Parisian square that still plays a large role in contemporary French culture. Here is an overview of the history of Place de la Bastille, as well as its current culture and attractions. 

The Bastille Square

The Bastille Square

Place de la Bastille: Yesterday

Place de la Bastille gets its name from the Bastille prison, which stood here until French revolutionaries stormed the Bastille on July 14, 1789 (which has since become France’s national holiday). Throughout the French Revolution, many members of the French nobility were executed via guillotine in this spot.

By the summer of 1792, the area where the Bastille prison once stood had been cleared of all debris and was transformed into a square dedicated to liberty. Construction began on the foundation for the Colonne de Juillet/July Column (the large patinaed column that now stands in the square) in 1793, but due to financial constraints and regime changes, it was not completed until nearly fifty years later. The column was eventually named for the July Revolution of 1830, which led to the abdication of King Charles X.

Colonne de Juillet

Colonne de Juillet


As for the famous elephant, that was Napoléon’s doing. His vision was to erect a bronze cast “Éléphant de la Bastille” as a part of the widespread urban improvement efforts that were taking place in Paris in the early 1800s. This grand plan was never completed; only a large plaster model of the elephant was built in 1813, and it sat decaying in the square for over thirty years.

Place de la Bastille: Today

Today, Place de la Bastille is a tourist attraction (many visitors come to take photos of the Colonne de Juillet). The area surrounding Place de la Bastille bustles with activity year-round.

Weekly Markets

Each Thursday and Sunday, locals enjoy a large open-air market with stalls that line the Boulevard Richard Lenoir (in the park just north of the Place de la Bastille). Here, market-goers can purchase fresh produce, meat, fish, artisanal cheeses and breads, as well as textiles, soaps, and other handmade products.

The Marina and Canal Saint-Martin

Bastille from the Port de l'Arsenal

Bastille from the Port de l’Arsenal

The large ditch (fossé) that was once located behind the Bastille prison is now a marina for local boaters: the Bassin de l’Arsenal lies at the south end, and the Canal Saint-Martin (a covered canal) extends north from the marina. Over 4km long, the Canal Saint-Martin runs underground between Place de la Bastille and Place de la République, and connects the Canal de l’Ourcq to the Seine River. This is such a lovely area, and tends to attract a lot of locals and tourists, especially on the weekends.

Vestiges of the Bastille/Square Henri Galli

Vestige tour Bastille - Square Henri-Galli

Vestige tour Bastille – Square Henri-Galli

The ruins of one tower of the Bastille are on display in the Square Henri Galli, a park that is located near Place de la Bastille. Workers who were excavating the area in order to build the Métro (Paris’s underground transportation system) discovered the Bastille’s vestiges in 1899. In order to provide context, the original outline of the prison is outlined with distinctive paving stones. You can see them near the Rue Saint Antoine, and near the cafés and shops that surround the square.

Opéra de la Bastille

Opera Bastille

Opera Bastille

A major Parisian cultural landmark, Opéra de la Bastille, is also located in Place de la Bastille. A striking, contemporary building constructed out of glass and steel, Opéra de la Bastille is hard to miss. It is the principal performance space of the Opéra National de Paris, and stands on the former site of the Bastille train station, which was demolished in 1984 to make room for the opera house.
Opéra de la Bastille
67, Rue Lyon
75012 Paris, France
Tel:+33 1 43 47 13 22
Metro: Bastille

Written by Jen Westmoreland Bouchard for 

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