The opportunity to focus and delve deeply into a fascinating area of the French metropolis is what we feel most about returning to Paris. Although clocks have been around since the Middle Ages, it was in the 19th century that planners and architects placed them in buildings regularly, frequently in unique clock towers. Travelers and employees had to rely on public clocks because pocket watches became common in the 20th century. With its oldest public clock originating from the fourteenth century, Paris was a little ahead of the timepiece trend.
Top 10 Famous Clocks in Paris
Many of Paris’ prominent structures are adorned with intricate, old, and beautiful timepieces, and there are still plenty more waiting to be found by those with sharp eyes. Here, you can find more about some of the fascinating clocks in the city.
- Conciergerie Clock
- Hotel de Ville
- Tour de l’Horloge d’Auxerre
- Musée d’Orsay
- Le Gros Horloge de Rouen
- Gare de Lyon
- Grosse Cloche de Bordeaux
- Gare Saint-Lazare
- Strasbourg Astronomical Clock
- Astronomical Clock of Besançon
France’s first public clock is the Conciergerie clock. This building, located along the Seine River, has served various purposes over the years. The Conciergerie served as a prison during the French Revolution, and Marie Antoinette was even imprisoned there.
The structure now houses the largest Gothic Hall in all of Europe. One of Paris’ most exquisite clocks can be found on the building’s side. The clock dates back to the 14th century, despite the fact that it may not appear that way now, thanks to a renovation and cleaning in 2012.
Hotel de Ville
The majestic building that is now located on Place de l’Hôtel de Ville was truly restored to its former splendor from the 17th-century original. Construction on the old Hotel de Ville started in 1533, and under Louis XIII, it was expanded and finished in 1628. A clock was mounted on the facade during this initial stage of construction. The building underwent renovation and expansion in the middle of the 19th century.
The most painful incident in the Hotel de Ville’s history occurred during a turbulent week in 1871, when a mob set the city on fire under the auspices of the Paris Commune, devastating the structure and erasing precious documents and the historical library. The clock, which weighs a ton and a half, miraculously avoided being destroyed by fire.
The Hotel de Ville was eventually restored and rebuilt inside the old shell after a lengthy twenty-year process. The clock is proudly displayed as it was restored in 1880, surrounded by two statues by the artist Ernest Eugène Hiolle.
Tour de l’Horloge d’Auxerre
Auxerre is a beautiful city with numerous significant churches located in the northern region of Burgundy, situated along the railroad route that connects Dijon and Paris. Saint Germain was born in this region, which was also the site of the founding of an abbey in the fifth century. Today, the crypt of this location houses some of the first Christian artwork in France.
Le Quartier Saint Pierre, Le Quartier de la Marine, and Quartier de l’Horloge are the three separate sectors of the town. This location is home to a clock, specifically one of France’s most beautiful clocks, as the latter district’s name would imply. The Tour de l’Horloge was constructed at the request of a Count of Auxerre in the fifteenth century.
The two recognizable clocks that dominate the extremities of the facade outside of the Musée d’Orsay may be the most recognizable architectural horloges in Paris (especially from the back side). These relics remind us that the building was formerly a train station before becoming a museum.
The Gare d’Austerlitz overflow train traffic was handled by the d’Orsay station, which was opened in time for the 1900 Paris Exposition Universelle but quickly became obsolete due to its inability to accommodate the longer trains that were introduced. It took another four or five decades for the structure to find its final, splendid purpose: hosting the world’s most extensive collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artwork.
Le Gros Horloge de Rouen
Rouen, the capital of the Normandy region in northern France, is home to various amazing sights and activities. This timber-framed city is brimming with history, rumored to be the site of Joan of Arc’s burning at the stake and home to the cathedral where historical figures like Richard the Lionheart and Rollo the Viking are interred.
After enough time spent exploring the area, you’ll come to one of the city’s oldest streets. It is also here that you will see Le Gros Horloge de Rouen, a fourteenth-century astronomical clock with one of the oldest working mechanisms in France, which is cobbled and full of Middle Ages-inspired architecture.
Gare de Lyon
Since 1847, a train terminus has stood in this spot in the 12th Arrondissement; in 1849, the station, which was then known as the Embarcadère de chemin de fer de Paris à Montereau, was made accessible to the general public. (We presume that refers to the southern region, presently known as Montereau-Fault-Yonne.) This small, wooden structure wasn’t substantial enough to qualify as a gare; instead, it was an embarcadère, which is French for “pier” or perhaps “train stop.” Without a doubt, not significant enough for a clock.
A larger, thirteen-track station named Gare de Lyon was constructed in Paris in anticipation of the enormous number of tourists expected for the 1900 Paris Exposition Universelle. The enormous clock tower that stands today was part of the design. You might see parallels between it and Big Ben in London, after which it is said to have been modeled. The faces are embellished with hand-painted brass Roman numerals and clocks on all four sides.
Grosse Cloche de Bordeaux
The capital of the Nouevelle-Aquitaine region and a stunning city in the South West, Bordeaux is frequently cited as the place where Parisians would most prefer to live if they weren’t already residents of Paris.
Bordeaux, located in the center of French wine country, is a treasure trove of undiscovered attractions, stunning architecture, and numerous day trips. You might be surprised to see this tower on the list of the best clocks in France, given that “Grosse Cloche” is really translated as “Great Bell.”
In addition to being one of the oldest belfries in France and housing a bell that dates back to 1775 and weighs more than 7,500 kilograms, the tower also has a beautiful clock with an unusual semi-circular dial on its south side.
Another Paris train stop, another clock. Alternatively, there are two clock manifestations at Gare Saint-Lazare. With a history dating back to 1837, Saint-Lazare is recognized as having the oldest gare in all of France. (Wasn’t that the year we went to Paris for the first time?) It began life as a passenger shed, akin to a bus stop shelter, just like Gare de Lyon and the majority of other Parisian stations. There were no big clocks then.
Saint-Lazare expanded and changed over time. The station we see today, which took more than ten years to build and opened in 1853, would eventually become a favorite subject of artists like Manet, Caillebotte, and of course, Monet.
The upper facade of this building is where we may find the first Saint-Lazare clock of significance to us. Alfred Armand, the station’s architect, created this lovely clock with a classical facade (1805-1888). Being the designer of the Grand Hotel on Place de l’Opera, as well as train stations throughout France, kept him quite busy. The InterContinental Paris Le Grand is open right now. By the way, the 1984 designation of Gare Saint-Lazare as a Historical Monument forbade any alterations to its facades, roofs, entrance, or main concourse.
Strasbourg Astronomical Clock
The beautiful Cathedral in Strasbourg should be your first stop if you only visit one place in the city (aside from the Christmas Markets in the winter). The Cathedral was formerly the highest structure in the world (for an incredible 200 years or more).
Today, the Strasbourg Astronomical clock is the major attraction of the religious tower, which also features some lovely Gothic architecture and several rose windows. Additionally, a ticket can be purchased to see the automaton show of the 19th-century clock, even though you can view the clock for free between 11:30 AM and 12:30 PM every day during opening hours.
Astronomical Clock of Besançon
One of the most incredible clocks in France, an astronomical clock, can be found in Besançon, which is frequently referred to as the greenest city in France. The spectacular Vauban fortifications, which are worth a full day’s visit in and of themselves and are home to numerous Roman ruins, are located elsewhere in the city.
The clock, produced between 1858 and 1863, was designed to replace an 1850s astronomical clock that needed to be revised. Several picturesque locations are worth visiting, such as the spectacular Vauban fortifications and the medieval city gates that previously protected Besançon’s walls.