Steps away from Notre Dame, in a place where many wander past but few venture into, you’ll find it: the oldest hospital in Paris. Named ‘Hotel-Dieu de Paris’ and founded as a place for the sick as far back as fourteen centuries ago, the equipment and buildings may have been updated but this French hôpital remains a wonderful insight into Paris of the past…
A history of the Hotel Dieu
Located in Île de la Cité, one of two natural islands that lie in the heart of the River Seine (the other being Ile Saint Louis), this hospital is easily one of the hidden gems of the 4th arrondissement. Close to Sainte Chapelle and not far from the medieval street that is Rue Chanoinesse, there’s been a hospital here of some form or another on site since 651.
First established by Saint Landry during the 7th-century, Hôtel-Dieu (literally translated into English as ‘hostel of God’) is often alleged to be the oldest hospital in the world still in operation. Originally, the hospital would have stood on the other side of the Parvis de Notre Dame.
The core mottos of the place where charity and hospitality, meaning that Hotel Dieu was founded with the view of caring for those that needed it, rather than as a ‘hospital’ as we would think of one today. Instead, the centre offered food and shelter, as well as the most basic of medical attention.
Hotel Dieu was the only hospital in the city during the Renaissance Period. And by the reign of Louis XV, the hospital soon acquired a reputation as being something of a disease trap and the place was soon scheduled for demolition (at one time close to a quarter of patients admitted to the hospital ended up dying).
However, with the death of the King, these plans were soon abandoned and the hospital was instead renovated and repaired. With this being said, it wasn’t until at least the 19th century when the hospital became known as giving the kind of treatment you’d expect from such an establishment.
Fires ravaged the buildings on several occasions and so the architecture of the buildings you see now dates back to 1877. Typically Hausmmannian in style, these structured and symmetrical buildings are all ornate architecture and high ceilings.
Today, the hospital still operates and specialises in ophthalmology (emergency cases), as well as specialist departments for diabetes and endocrine illnesses. While some parts of the hospital are not in current use, there are still some three hundred and fifty beds still in operation.
How to visit the Hôtel Dieu Central Courtyard
If you want to visit for yourself, then it’s perfectly possible to visit the central courtyard. Open to the public on a daily basis, truth be told, this hidden garden is one of the best-kept secrets of Paris. The perfect place in which to snatch a moment of calm (or simply enjoy your lunch), the shrubs here are manicured to perfection, while the central courtyard is reminiscent of a palace.
When planning a visit, simply head to the Parvis de Notre Dame. When facing the façade of the cathedral face on, head left and towards the large blue door. Once through the sliding doors, someone will check your bag and you can ask for directions on to the central courtyard.
There, you’ll find a piano, wonderful architecture, and an oasis of calm in the heart of the city. Just remember to be quiet and keep noise levels down as while this truly is a hidden gem of the city, Hotel Dieu also remains a working hospital!
And, if you’re incredibly interested in quirky, unique, and downright unusual hotels, then it’s also worth noting that Hospitel Hôtel-Dieu used to be a budget accommodation in the heart of the city. Located on the 6th floor of the hospital, on the Parvis de Notre Dame, the hotel even shared its courtyard with the rest of the hospital.
Things to see and do close to Hotel-Dieu
See Paris Point Zero: On the Parvis de Notre Dame, a place where you’ll see the bread market in May and the Christmas tree in December, Paris Point Zero is a small and insignificant looking plaque on the ground. However, it is from this small metal piece that all places in Paris are measured.
Au Vieux Paris d’Arcole: If you’ve ever spent time perusing photos of Paris on Instagram, then you’ll likely have spied the prettiest coffee shop in the city. Decorated depending on the season and located along a street which dates back to the middle ages, this café is also great for a glass of wine among friends, or even dinner.
See the cherry blossoms near Notre Dame: For those planning to visit Paris in the late spring (around the end of April), it’s worth noting that one of the best places to enjoy the spring blooms in Paris is on Square Jean XXIII. Filled with cherry blossom trees, it’s a great place to enjoy a picnic or simply sit and read a book.