9 ½ Things To See in Paris
· 22 min. read
This article may contain affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.
Of all the cities I visited in Europe, I was the least excited for Paris. Perhaps this was due to my ignorance of French culture, due to the cultural English/French division in Canada, or perhaps because I was just naive. Now that I'm older, however, I would go back to Paris in a heartbeat, and these are the 9 ½ things I'd make sure I saw!
1. The Eiffel Tower
"We, writers, painters, sculptors, architects and passionate devotees of the hitherto untouched beauty of Paris, protest with all our strength, with all our indignation in the name of slighted French taste, against the erection [...] of this useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower."
Those are some of the nicer words spoken about the initial concept, design and construction of the Eiffel Tower. Artists around Paris and France united against the construction of it, believing it to be hideous, grotesque and an ugly boil in the otherwise flawless city. Guy de Maupassant, a novelist and father of modern short stories, ate lunch inside the Eiffel Tower everyday after it's construction, not because he liked it, but because it was the only place in the city where he couldn't see it.
Today of course, the Eiffel Tower is one of the most iconic buildings in Europe, and the most popular tourist destination on Earth. Built in 1889 for the World's Fair, the building was used was used for cannon fire in the mornings and to illuminate the location of other exhibits around the city at night. It was initially very popular, with over two million visitors in 1889. However by 1904 the building received less than 250,000. Popularity seemed scarce for the next 40 years until after World War II, when tourism bloomed from 2 and a half million in 1954 to over 7 million in 2004!
The tower has seen it's fair share of history as well. Along with being an iconic beacon, it has also been a skating rink, an arcade, a radio and television station, the location where cosmic rays were first discovered, a structure used for stunt airplanes and where bungee jumps and parachutes were tested (the bungee jumper was arrested and the parachuter died so I don't recommend trying either of them).
In 1925 the Eiffel Tower was sold by a con artist as scrap metal. Twice.
In 1967, Montreal's Mayor Jean Drapeau requested to Charles de Gaulle that the Eiffel Tower be dismantled and temporarily relocated to Montreal for Expo 67. The plan was vetoed not because of the costs, but because the construction company didn't think the French government would allow them to rebuilt it in Paris once it was returned.
Another interesting piece of information about the Eiffel Tower: due to the copy written light displays on the structure, it is illegal to photograph the tower at night. It is believed this is so the Eiffel Tower isn't displayed in a negative way, as it is the main icon of the country. However, it is legal if permission is granted by the France or if the tower is an accessory to the photo, such as being seen towering over the buildings.
There are two ways to get to the top of the Eiffel Tower to enjoy the view of the city. You can either climb the 1,710 stairs, or take the elevator. While the elevator is faster, the queue to use it is often incredibly long, so it may be faster to climb it, especially if you want to see a lot in Paris. (You can always take the elevator down after!)
2. Notre Dame Cathedral
Famous for much more than just Quasimodo, Notre Dame is one of the most beautiful remaining Gothic Cathedrals in Europe. Currently a Catholic church, the building has had a long history of switching religions, riots, destruction and repair.
Built in 1160, Notre Dame replaced the previous St. Stephen's Cathedral because the Bishop of Paris found it to be "unworthy", so he had it demolished. It would take about 200 years before different sections of the building were finished being built and the building would resemble what it does today.
In 1548, the French Protestant group, the Huguenots, rioted and destroyed parts of the cathedral, believing the icons inside were idolatrous. King Louis XIV and King Louis XV also had parts of the building remodeled and removed in an attempt to have it modernized.
The French Revolution also brought destruction to the Cathedral. The church was transformed from a Catholic church into a church for the Cult of Reason, and then for the Cult of the Supreme Being, with statues of Judah, believing them to be statues of that of past kings of France, beheaded. Statues of Mary were also replaced with Lady Liberty.
The building also suffered damage in World War II, although not to the extend other buildings were as Paris was never bombed. Several stained glass windows were shot out during the war. They have been replaced with modern geological shapes instead of biblical imagery.
3. Arc de Triomphe
Built in 1801, the arch was made to honor those who fought and died in the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars with stautues, icons, flowers, names and dates all engraved into the stone. An additional Unknown Solider tomb was added at the base of it for those who died in World War I. Prior to the construction of the tomb, parades often went through the arch, but in respect both the Free French Army, the German soldiers and the Americans all went around the arch.
On February 21, 1916, the sword carried by an angel in the statue La Marseillaise seemingly snapped off without reason. The French government quickly covered the statue with a tarp to keep it hidden from the public until it was repaired because the statue was used as a promotional piece to generate war bonds. This same day the Germans began the Battle of Verdun in North-West France, a battle that would kill over 700,000 to 970,000 people and would last nine months.
On August 7, 1919, after World War I, Charles Godefroy flew his plane through the arch in memory of all the airmen who died during the war. Miraculous, footage still survives of it.
Located at the intersection of 12 streets, 10 lanes of traffic circle the arc, making access to it difficult. The easiest way to get to the arc is via underground tunnels.
Construction began in 1202 to be the Louvre Palace, but has been added to, dismantled, adjusted and remodeled for over 700 years, with the recent change being in 1989 with the addition of the Louvre Pyramid.
Created originally to house the city of Paris and protect it from invaders, the Louvre was built as a massive fortress. As the city grew, the building had to grow as well, and in 1360 to 1380 the palace was converted to house royalty only. The "curtain wall" walls of stone were pierced with windows, new wings were added to the courtyard, and elaborate chimneys, turrets, and pinnacles were placed on the top. For several hundred more years the building was revised, with sections being razed and rebuilt, and the usage of the building being switched from that of a royal palace, a place for artisans to live, a treasury and a museum. At a time, it was the longest building in the world.
In the 1850s the Louvre finally connected to the Tuileries Palace, completed the "Grand Design" of it from the 16th Century. Twenty years later, the Tuileries Palace burned down, destroying the priceless Richelieu Library. Since then the Western end of the courtyard has been open to the public.
On October 15, 1988, the Lourve Pyramid was added into the courtyard to be used as an additional entrance into the art gallery below. In 1993 the "The Inverted Pyramid" was added below the original pyramid, completing the design. Like anything new or different in Paris, the Pyramid was seen as distasteful, but it has since been accepted by the community and has double the numbers of visitors.
The pyramid also has caused some controversy due the number of glass panes used. In the 1980s the belief was that there was 666 panes used due to the official brochure (although earlier it states there are actually 672 panes of glass), which many believed is the Number of Beast, or the symbol of the End Days. Museum officials claim the number to actually be 673, while David A. Shugarts, who spoke to the original designer, says the number is actually 689. According to Wikipedia, mathematicians claim the pyramid has 673. This number was widely accepted until 2006 when Dan Brown published The Da Vinci Code and claimed President Mitterrand demanded it to be done with 666 panes, when the rumor resurfaced.
It should also be noted that in 2005 the aforementioned "Number of the Beast" was corrected to be 616.
5. The Catacombs
Known as being the largest cemetery in the world, the catacombs under Paris are lined with the skulls and bones of over 6 million people. This isn't an exaggeration. The walls are actually created with stacked bones.
When Paris was first created, it was situated on a marshy area. They buried the dead outside the city, but in time the residents set up an extension of Paris beyond the cemetery. These two Paris' grew into each other, with the cemetery being in the center of it.
As Paris grew, limestone was extracted from mines beneath the city. The mining, often done by individuals or companies and not properly documented, led to hundreds of miles of uncharted mines. Overtime these mines became abandoned, and it wasn't until several unexpected cave-ins occurred in Paris that something had to be done about them. Around this time the cemetery in the center of Paris had began to overflow. It was decided to relocate these bodies to the mines below the city.
In 1810 the bones were rearranged into an art gallery, and over the course of the next hundred years the catacombs were opened, partially opened to closed to the public over various reasons. Daily tours are now offered of this section of the catacombs, while many hundreds of miles are still uncharted and too dangerous to go inside of. This has led to many myths about the Paris underground, which was the inspiration behind the movie As Above, So Below, which claims the famous Rosetta Stone is located deep within the catacombs.
These tunnels were also by Free France and Nazi soldiers to move around the city in secret during World War II.
In 2004 a secret movie theater was discovered in one of the closed off tunnels. The walls were covered in swastikas, Celtic crosses and several Stars of David. The theater was set up with electricity and phone lines, and was full of chairs, alcohol and dozens of movies. Three days after it's discovery, when the police went back down into it to continue their investigation, the theater has been emptied, with a simple note hanging for police. It read "Do not try to find us."
Patrick Alk, a photographer who has published several books about it, says the discovery of the theater was a shame, but that there was several others like it. With beliefs that the tunnels are used for everything from human sacrifices to orgies, to picnics and dance parties, Alk simply told RTL radio "You guys have no idea what's down there."
6. Les Invalides
Commonly known to the English speaking world as "Napoleon Bonaparte's Tomb", Les Invalides is both a war museum, a veterans retirement home, a hospital and tomb.
Built in 1671, the building's purpose was simply a hospital and veterans home. It is decorated with massive stone, oaks and gold structures, with angelic beings guarding the doorways of the most important tombs. Using St. Peter's Basilica in Rome for inspiration, the tomb has gone on to inspire countless other buildings around the world, including parts of the Saskatchewan Legislative Building, the United States Capitol building, the National Pantheon of the Heroes in Paraguay and dozens more.
On July 14, 1789 it was stormed by revolutionaries and cannons were stolen to be used during the famous "Storming of the Bastille" that same day.
The section of the building most visited by tourists is the tomb of Napoleon, but over a dozen other military men, almost 80 people and 10 hearts are buried in different sections of the building.
7. Luxor Obelisk
It is difficult to write about the Luxor Obelisk in a post about Paris, considering it was built in Egypt and spent over 2,500 years there, where it's twin still remains. In 1400 BCE, the Luxor Temple was created in the city then called Thebes, now Luxor. Luxor is known as being the world's "biggest open aired museum".
The obelisk was given to France as a gift from Muhammad Ali (not the boxer) in 1832.The French ship Sphinx arrived in Alexandria and received it, as well as instructions on how to erect the massive 75 foot high stone structure. It wasn't until 1836 it was placed in it's final resting place, on Place de la Concorde on the way to the Louvre.
On December 1, 1993 the obelisk was covered in a giant pink condom to mark World AIDS Day, and in 1998 a golden pyramidion (cap) was added to the obelisk to finish it, after the original was stolen sometime during it's 3,300 year long history.
The Luxor Obelisk marks the end of the famous Avenue des Champs-Élysées and the begging of the Tuileries Garden, the garden that leads up the Louvre. It is also in the center of Rue Royal, a street that connects La Madeleine, a Roman Catholic Church, to it's architectural twin the Palais Bourbon across the Seine.
8. The Scribe Museum
A little quirky, but while in Paris I visited the Fragonard perfumery, where the offer free guided tours of their museum. I couldn't find much online about it, but the museum was opened in 1983 and is located in a townhouse built in 1860. Full of alembics, vintage perfume bottles, and old perfume commercials, the museum is a quirky fun treasure trove for those who love off the beaten path locations.
9. Moulin Rouge
Built in 1889 (the same year as the Eiffel Tower; for the same reason), the Moulin Rouge is known around the world for its can-can dancers and its red windmill. Originally meant to be a place where courtesans (an escort) could seduce men, the place quickly became known as a center of entertainment. Known for its women, its music, and the usage of opium, it was controversial in Paris and thus very successful.
Its existence gave Paris the feel of a modern Babylon during the World's Fair, and many other versions of it popped up around Europe, however more oriented towards female exploitation and not entertainment.
On October 26, 1890, the Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, or future Edwards VII, had booked a private table at the Moulin Rouge after its reputation had already made it to England. Louise Weber, or "La Goulue" as her stage name, recognize him and while mid-can-can, shouted, "Hey, Wales, the champagne's on you!". La Goulue was known for her eccentric dancing and was their first star.
9 ½. The Villages Around Paris
For those who read my blog, you'll recall while trying to get back to my hotel in Paris, I either missed my stop or took the wrong train and ended up 45 minutes outside of the city, in some unknown French village. I have no idea where I went and I have been unable to figure it out ever since. While searching for villages around Paris, I came across Fontainebleau, a very quaint village. Although I doubt this was the same one I accidentally ended up in, this is only one of the many very beautiful villages surrounding Paris, and if you're going to the City of Lights, and you have a free day, you may as well check them out too!
Picture of the Catacombs of Paris taken by Djtox, used under the Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons, originally posted on October 2007.
The three images of the Scribe museum were taken from the official website.
Don't forget to pin it!
Categories: Europe, France, Travel Tips