Before Paris became a city of romance, where misty-eyed lovers could stroll hand-in-hand along beautiful boulevards or lock lips on the city’s graceful bridges, it was the city of Romanticism.

In the first half of the nineteenth century, Paris was not yet the City of Light, but rather a dark place, still medieval in design, and moody in feel. And perhaps that’s why it was such fertile ground for Romanticism, a cultural and artistic movement of yearning for passion and beauty. The city was in desperate need of inspiration after the fall of Napoléon, and Romanticism encouraged Parisians to dream big — of a better world, past worlds, exotic worlds, inner worlds …

It was a period when Parisians wrote or read about heroes, and celebrated them in music and painting and sculptures. But they also knew that heroes were real-life, too, because in this tumultuous time of rebellions and revolutions, anyone could be heroic. And it was a time when people dressed the part, as though characters in their own passion-filled plotlines.

Two new exhibitions look back to this fascinating era. Romantic Paris, 1815-1848, at the Petit Palais, immerses you in this past era, walking you through the major cultural hubs of Paris at the time. Apartments of the old Palais des Tuileries are re-created; also wonderfully re-imagined is the Salon du Louvre, the celebrated contemporary art event of the day, where a jumble of dramatic paintings and sculptures, by the likes of Delacroix, Ingres and Pradier, vied for attention, to capture Parisians’ imagination.

Romantic Paris Petit Palais

But the highlight is the reproduction of the Galéries d’Orléans, the original shopping arcade located at the Palais-Royal. Stroll along this glass-roofed room, past the elegant ghosts of flashy dandies and dainty Parisiennes (the costumes have been provided by the Palais Galliera fashion museum), and window-shop the delicate scarves, embroidered bonnets and porcelain bibelots. This delightful installation is a show in itself.

The exhibition continues over at the Musée de la Vie Romantique, which is fitting because this museum is very much a lieu de mémoire of Romanticism, having been the home of painter Ary Scheffer, who held weekly salons that welcomed such esteemed Romantics as George Sand and Frédéric Chopin. In this inspired location, you can brush up on your appreciation of the French institution that is the ‘salon littéraire’ — then settle in for tea and cake at the museum’s gorgeous garden café, a ramble of roses and vintage park chairs that will have you feeling like Romantic heroine yourself.  

Musee de la Vie Romantic Cafe