Métro Style

Image 2The Métro is the fastest and most efficient way of getting around Paris. But it’s more than just that, says Keith Hall. It is also a major tourist attraction. Join Keith as he whizzes around the underground system looking into the history and styles of some of the outstanding stations of the Paris Métro.

You may think of the Paris Métro as a safe, clean and fast mass transit system; an efficient means of getting from one tourist attraction to another. With around 300 stations and over 200km of lines, there are few places in Paris that are not easily accessed by this famous underground rail system. But look closely at the Métro and you’ll discover that it is much more than a civil engineering marvel. It is also a major tourist attraction in its own right.

Although there are many metro systems in the world, when one hears the word “metro” it is the Paris system that usually comes to mind. Yet the Paris system is not the oldest or even the largest in the world. When the first two Paris Métro lines opened in 1900 for the Exposition Universelle (World’s Fair), the London Tube had already been operating for decades. Although the Paris Métro transports 4.5 million passengers daily, the subway systems in some other cities have many more stations, longer tracks and transport far more passengers.

The fame of the Paris Métro is, as with most things French, due to its inherent style. Whether they be modern or antique, highly decorated or understated, the Métro stations, located about every 500m in the city’s streets and boulevards, are an iconic part of the Parisian landscape.

Although the early stations look quaintly retro now, when they first opened in 1900 they caused quite a stir. At that time they were striking examples of the avant-garde architectural style, Art Nouveau.

metroFrench architect, Hector Guimard, designed the first, controversial entrances. They featured balustrades, signs and overhead lights made of cast iron in strange, plant-like shapes that now look like they belong in an old science fiction film. Some of Guimard’s original entrances also boasted ornate glass canopies. Only three examples of these still exist today – at Abbesses, Port Dauphine and at the corner of Rue des Halles and Rue Sainte-Opportune.

Over the following decades, many Métro stations gradually took on a more functional appearance. Today, the newest stations have ultra modern lighting and glitzy modernistic styling. The lettering on the signs inside the stations has also evolved over time. Some of the original typefaces were specifically developed for use in the Métro and have names like Parisine and Métro Alphabet. The latest signs at street level now feature a large yellow “M”, which is amusingly reminiscent of the McDonald’s golden arches logo.

Not all modern Métro station entrances are minimalist, however. The most unique entrance can be found in Colette Place near the Louvre, where artist Jean-Michel Othoniel installed a striking sculpture of aluminium and coloured glass known as Le Kiosque des Noctambules (Kiosk of the Owls). The work was unveiled in 2000 to celebrate the centenary of the Paris Métro. It features domes of pearl-like glass balls and is another addition to the quintessential Parisian style of this famous subway system.

It is not only the Métro entrances that are striking. Many station interiors have also been decorated in unique styles. Although there is a deliberate uniformity in some aspects of the interiors, such as step heights and platform widths (which are kept constant for safety reasons), their decorative features often have interesting artistic or cultural significance. Display cases on the Louvre-Rivoli station platforms, for example, contain replicas of ancient artworks housed in the Louvre above.

concordeA particularly interesting station is Concorde, located beneath the Place de la Concorde – the site where the guillotine was erected during the French Revolution. Here, the Line 12 platforms feature ceramic tiles on the wall. On each tile, you’ll see a letter of the alphabet. At first glance, the letters appear to be just a random jumble but, when you look closer, you can see they spell out words. In fact, they make up the text of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, written in 1793.

Head to the Cluny-La Sorbonne station, near the Cluny Museum, to see its beautifully decorated ceiling set in an arched vault above the railway tracks. The centrepiece is a large, colourful mosaic by artist Jean Bazaine called Les Oiseaux (The Birds). Also on the ceiling are the signatures of famous past residents of this part of Paris. While you are waiting for the train to arrive, look for the signatures of famous Frenchmen such as Robespierre, Molière and Richelieu.

Robespierre actually has a whole station all to himself. Many Métro stations were named in honour of notable people or historical events. You can find stations bearing the names of notable people such as Charles de Gaulle, Pasteur, Voltaire and Victor Hugo. Other stations are named after the buildings above them – Bastille, Louvre, Opéra and Pont Neuf – while others are present day reminders of long ago famous battles, including Austerlitz, Stalingrad, Iéna and Crimée.

If you’re a first time visitor to Paris, don’t fear the Métro. Hopping on and off will soon become second nature to you, just as it is to the Parisians. But, rather than just using the Métro to get from A to B, why not add a sight-seeing trip around its stations to your list of things to do in Paris?


The Métro runs daily from 5.30am to 1.15am. It is fast and reasonably safe but beware of pickpockets. Most stations display a map of the Métro system at the entrance. All lines are numbered and the final destination of each line is clearly marked on the maps. To transfer from one line to another, follow the orange correspondance signs to the correct platform. Most trips require only one transfer. To exit the station, follow the sortie (exit) signs.




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