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The Eiffel Tower is synonymous with Paris, recognized the world over as the city’s signature symbol. Designed to be the centerpiece for the 1889 World Exhibition, which was being held to celebrate the centennial of the French Revolution, the 984-foot-high latticework iron sculpture was, at the time, the tallest structure in the world. Today, its spire can still be seen from almost anywhere in Paris. At night, you can’t miss it: all lit up, and twinkling, with a golden glow. When visiting the Eiffel Tower, take a lift to the top level where the views of Paris are mesmerizing.
The most important, most famous, largest and most visited art museum on the planet, the Louvre is more an experience than a museum. Housing more than one million works of art today, the museum began rather modestly with little more than 500 paintings, formerly belonging to the Louvre Palace, which was nationalized during the French Revolution—and in 1793 transformed into the Louvre Museum. A few things to note: The permanent collection ends mid 19th Century, so if you’re interested in Impressionist and Modern art, look elsewhere. Long lines at the I. M. Pei-designed Pyramid entrance are almost as famous as the museum itself. The Metro station, Palais Royal-Musee du Louvre, is a saner entrance alternative. First-time visitors might want to consider one of the museum’s excellent guided tours. After that, go with the audio guide, recently upgraded, and available in several languages.
The most exquisite masterpiece of French Gothic architecture, known the world over, Notre-Dame is breathtaking—no matter how many times you see it. Begun in the 12th Century and not fully finished for nearly 200 years, this majestic cathedral on Île de la Cité was the center of Catholic Paris for seven centuries, and is still active today. Its music concerts are transformative, especially those held during the holidays (check the Cathedral’s calendar of events). The west front of the Cathedral, known by its ornate twin bell towers, is its most magnificent façade. The Cathedral’s famous bell, Emmanuel, is housed in the South Tower. The Grand Gallery, where the famed gargoyles can be seen, connect the two towers. For a closer look at the gargoyles, consider the visit to the Towers and the Crypt. There’s a charge to climb the nearly 400 steps from the South Tower to the top, but the view of Paris is second to none, not to mention the fun of coming face-to-face with those gargoyles.
Carved out of an abandoned Beaux Arts railway station so stunning you’d think it should be on exhibit, the newly renovated Musee d’Orsay is devoted to the masters of the Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and Art Nouveau movements—and their masterpieces. In other words, the best of the best. Here, you’ll come face to face with van Gogh’s Starry Night and Bedroom in Arles; Renoir’s Ball at the Moulin de la Galette and Dance in the Country; Cezanne’s The Card Players; several of Degas’s ballerinas and Toulouse-Lautrec’s cabaret dancers. Just exhilarating! If you have time, check out the wonderful collection of Art Nouveau furniture and decorative objets. Don’t miss: the views of Paris through the old station clock’s face. (Pretty cool.)
In an urban-sanctuary sense, Luxembourg Gardens is the Paris equivalent of New York’s Central Park—but with more patina and all the splendor and style that's part of the Parisian DNA. The 60-acre Luxembourg offers meandering paths, terraced woods, grand fountains and pools (as only the French can do) and lots of chairs and loungers, mismatched and worn like a favorite pair of PJs. On warm-weather days, it fills with families enjoying the pony rides, vintage carousel, model-boat sailing and puppet shows. But overall, it’s where Parisians go to recoup contentment. Don't miss: the marvelous 17th Century Medici Fountain, a tribute to Henry IV’s widow, Marie de Medici, who some 400 years ago had the idea for a big, splendid park.
Arguably, as famous a symbol of Paris as the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe is hands down, the most exquisitely detailed monument in the world. Commissioned by Napoleon to honor the victory at Austerlitz in 1805, the Arc wasn’t completed until 1836, long after the Emperor’s reign—but still was engraved with the names of Napoleon’s fallen soldiers. It stands 164 feet above the Champs-Élysées, at the center of the Place de Gaulle roundabout, from which 12 avenues radiate. When visiting, use one of the underpasses at the intersection. After gawping at the Arc’s amazing detail, take the lift to the platform, then climb some 40 steps to the top for a view of the city, including the ancient (and brilliant) city grid. L’Arc de Triomphe is open every night to at least 10pm; go after dark when the whole city twinkles.
It’s an ode to opulence, this resplendent 17th Century royal complex, built during the reign of Louis XIV to demonstrate the French monarchy’s absolute privilege and continuing as the seat of power for more than 100 years (until the French Revolution). It was designed by the best and the brightest of Paris—architect Louis Le Vau, interior designer Charles Le Brun and landscape artiste André Le Nôtre—with overly lavish ostentation that only the French can translate as elegance. (Wait till you see the Hall of Mirrors.) A visit is de rigueur! Ditto, a guided or audio tour for optimal appreciation. Spend the day, if you can, as the place is as massive as it is magnificent. And don’t skip the Trianon Palaces or the Queen’s Hamlet, created for Marie-Antoinette—they add more than a glimpse into the lives of these royals.
A masterpiece of Gothic architecture, the mid 13th Century Sainte-Chapelle, on Île de la Cité, was commissioned by King Louis IX as a shrine for his coveted collection of Passion Relics (including the Crown of Thorns, believed to be the real one). The church’s rather subdued exterior totally belies what’s inside: a vaulted ceiling, 164 feet high, and walls of stained-glass panels, barely separated from each other, that rise to nearly ceiling height. Damaged during the French Revolution in the late 1700s, the royal chapel was painstakingly restored between 1836 and 1867. And although much of the 800-year-old chapel’s current interior is a re-creation, the majority of stained-glass windows are, amazingly, original.
Basilique du Sacré-Cœur (Sacred Heart Basilica of Montmartre) is one of the most photographed sights of the city, and yet, no picture does it justice. Watching over Paris high above the city on a hill in Montmartre, the Roman-Byzantine beauty—all in white travertine, dominated by three grand domes and a bell tower—was built as much as a memorial to those killed in the Franco-Prussian war as a balm to lift the country’s spirit after the lengthy siege. Begun in 1875 and finally consecrated in 1919, Sacré-Cœur is well worth climbing the winding stairs. Must-sees: The relief sculptures on the bronze doors in the portico entrance; stained-glass window gallery encircling the main dome, which also offers a view of the whole interior; the tremendous mosaic of Christ, glistening with gold on the vaulted ceiling; and finally, the views from the top of the dome.
L’Orangerie has so much to recommend: There’s its setting (within the fabulous Tuileries Garden), its gracious building (constructed in 1852 as part of the Palais de Tuileries, to shelter the Garden’s orange trees…hence, its name) and finally, its extraordinary Impressionist and Post-Impressionist holdings, which include eight of Monet’s exquisite Water Lilies (Nymphéas) murals. The museum is known as the permanent home of these masterpieces, which the painter not only donated himself, he instructed, contractually, how they all were to be hung—which is exactly as they (still) are.
Of the 37 bridges spanning the Seine, Paris’s Alexandre III is without question the most exquisite—quite possibly in the world. Built for the Universal Exhibition in 1900, together with the Grand and Petit Palais, it connects the Champs-Élysées quarter on the Right Bank with the Eiffel Tower surround on the Left. But function is only half the story with this Beaux Arts beauty, which boasts an amazing array of Art Nouveau adornments—gilded, sculpted and otherwise. A cinematic icon, Pont Alexandre III has had cameos on the silver screen countless times and was the star of Adele’s “Someone Like You” music video. But the best part? Walking across, you see some of the most spectacular views of Paris.
Knowing Rodin’s work, it’s hard to imagine this genteel 18th Century chateau as their breeding ground. And yet, welcome to the former Hôtel Biron, Rodin’s workshop from 1908 until he died in 1917. Here, you’ll see Rodin’s most famous (and brilliant) sculptures, for real—The Thinker, The Gates of Hell, the marble The Kiss. The museum includes his personal art collection, which features paintings by van Gogh and Renoir, and a collection of works by Rodin’s protégé, Camille Claudel. The grounds are outdoor galleries, and the English rose garden in the back is like an unexpected little sanctuary in which to while away an afternoon.
Courtesy of Louis XV, Paris has its very own Panthéon. Constructed in the late 18th Century to replace the destroyed Abbey of Sainte-Geneviève, patron saint of Paris, it was modeled after the Pantheon in Rome and topped with a small dome reminiscent of London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral—giving it an eclectic façade all its own. A really lovely building located in the Latin Quarter on Montagne Sainte-Geneviève, the Panthéon, a secular mausoleum today, looks out over all of Paris, much like a patron saint.
Opened in 1977 as a multi-cultural space, the Pompidou Centre houses Paris’s Museum of Modern Art, considered one of Europe’s finest; plus a cinema, public library and performance space. But the building alone is worth a visit. Designed by acclaimed architects Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers, it looks like a game of Architectural Twister—wearing its interior-functioning pipes on its exterior, color-coded by function in bright primaries. Highlights: the whimsically animated Stravinsky Fountain; and the courtyard, popular for people-watching.
For one of the most fabulous places to see and be seen in Paris, pull up a lovely café chair in the Jardin des Tuileries. Paralleling the Seine and stretching from the Louvre to the Arc de Triomphe, the Tuileries takes its style from the formal 17th Century French gardens. Designed by the brilliant André Le Nôtre, royal gardener to Louis XIV (that would be Palace-of-Versailles Louis), the Tuileries offers gravel-topped promenades, lovely fountains and basins, pristine lawns, lots of statuary and even more café chairs. Then as now, the Tuileries is Paris’s enchanting antidote to civilization.
Amid centuries’-old architecture and just a few skips from the Eiffel Tower, the contemporary quai Branly museum is a fascinating find. Opened in 2006 and devoted to the cultures of non-western civilizations, the museum presents the indigenous art and artifacts of Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas. It exhibits some 3,500 works at a time (from its holdings of nearly half a million)—including masks, carvings, religious relics and ritual artifacts, ancient and new. Recommended: The excellent audio guides, appropriately available in dozens of languages.
More macabre than one expects to find in the City of Love, the Catacombs—a maze of skull-and-bones-lined tunnels—is a rather fascinating graveyard concept: underground, if not exactly in the ground. In the late 1700s, abandoned quarries at the base of Montparnasse were given a second life, so to speak, as an ersatz burial ground when it was discovered that water sources near the city’s cemetery had become contaminated. Gravesites were all unearthed and their skeletons transported (under cloak of darkness) to the excavated quarry tunnels. Not recommended for the queasy.
Most famous for the beloved Notre-Dame Cathedral, Île de la Cité is essentially where Paris began. At various times in its history, this tiny island in the Seine has been the seat of power and/or law (check out the ancient Palais de Justice, originally an actual palace) and/or religion (hence, Notre-Dame). Today, it’s a charming little neighborhood, 10 streets long and five wide, with one of the prettiest squares, Place Dauphine—perfect for visiting to watch the world go by. It also offers some of the most stunning views of Paris—both on land or from any of the eight bridges linking it to the city, particularly the pedestrian-only Pont des Arts. Oh, and did we mention Notre-Dame?
Called the sister island to Île de la Cité, Île Saint-Louis is more like the little sister island that time forgot. Relatively unchanged since its halcyon 17th Century days, Île Saint-Louis is one of the most picturesque neighborhoods in Paris. Its narrow streets, no public transportation and elegant 17th and 18th Century townhouses lining the quais along the Seine make Île Saint-Louis a lovely place to wander.
Originally the late 19th Century home of a beyond-wealthy couple with a penchant for Renaissance art, the eponymous Jacquemart-André museum looks every inch like an aristocratic chateau. It does boast an impressive collection of works by Botticelli, Donatello, Della Robia and others, but the real showpiece here are the 16 jaw-droppingly magnificent rooms, authentically restored and ornately furnished as they would have been for the cream of Parisian society back in the day. When you’ve finished ogling, replenish at the salon de thé, where the patisserie are as wonderfully ostentatious as the décor.
On a hill in the 20th arrondissement overlooking the city lies Paris’s largest and most famous cemetery. Established by Napoleon and opened in 1804, Père-Lachaise gets more than its share of visitors, owing as much to its roster of esteemed residents—from Moliere and Proust to Edith Piaf and Jim Morrison—as to its collection of “creative” tombs. For Belgian poet Georges Rodenbach, there’s a bronze-sculpted figure climbing out of his crypt; on artist Theodore Gericault’s tomb, one of his paintings was re-created as a sculpture; for “The Lizard King” (aka, The Doors’ Jim Morrison), a simple headstone—forever strewn with fresh flowers.
The Marmottan is a museum to be adored by Claude Monet devotees. Occupying a 19th Century mansion, the Marmottan is an intimate space predominantly dedicated to the works of Monet. Possessing some 300 masterpieces (the world’s largest collection of his work), the Marmottan also owns paintings by Gauguin, Renoir, Degas, Manet and other Impressionist peers, many of which were part of Monet’s personal art collection and donated to the museum by his estate. One of Monet’s most poignant paintings in the collection: Impression, Sunrise, the painting that essentially gave the art movement its name.
Hidden in the heart of Paris, the 15th Century Hotel des abbes de Cluny is home to the National Museum of the Middle Ages, devoted to France’s Gothic beginnings. Fittingly, the Cluny is built on top of the remains of the ancient Gallo-Roman baths, built in the 1st Century. The 1st Century! And that’s just the beginning of this remarkable museum. On display is a remarkable, and remarkably intact, collection of Medieval art, artifacts and treasures, much of it dating to the 12th Century: stone and marble statuary, altarpieces in relief, stained-glass windows, paintings and the most radiant tapestries. This is the kind of museum you pray for rain for—just so you can spend an entire day marveling at some of the most magnificent antiquities.
Housed within the old dining halls of the 17th Century Hôtel des Invalides, the first military hospital and home for French war veterans, the Army Museum contains one of the world’s most extensive collections of military artifacts, dating from almost the beginning of time to the end of World War II. Particularly noteworthy: the Turenne and Restoration galleries, focused on Napoleon’s glory years to his death in 1821; and the Oriental gallery with its vast display of weaponry and armor from China, Japan and India.
Located in northeast Paris, seemingly a world away from the chic cité, lies this romantic 19th Century park, complete with rolling hills, a waterfall and circular lake, a grotto and a long, old railway bridge. Courtesy of Napoleon III (nephew of the more famous Napoleon), Buttes Chaumont was designed with ample geographical relief, providing special vistas of Paris, even including Sacré-Coeur. It's a lovely place to get away to without ever leaving town.
Location alone would make this petit trésor something to behold: having the Seine on one side, the Champs-Élysées on another and across from the Grand Palais. But its beauty, inside and out, is the real showpiece. Built in 1900 for the Universal Exhibition, this stunning Beaux Arts building is today home to Paris’s Museum of Fine Arts. One of 14 municipal museums (aka, free admission), it features permanent exhibitions of French medieval and Renaissance works (think Rembrandt, Rubens, Fragonard, et. al.) and a collection of 19th Century paintings and sculpture by the likes of Delacroix, Pissarro, Modigliani and more. The garden and charming courtyard in the center are just more to adore.
Looking more like an 18th Century government building than the 19th Century Catholic church that it is, La Madeleine survived the kind of tortured past Victor Hugo would appreciate. Designed as a “temple of glory” for Napoleon’s armies—hence, the heavy Neo-Classical architecture and prominent placement in the heart of Paris—the building went through quite the identity crisis after Napoleon’s fall, including consideration as a railway station. Ultimately, sanity won out, and the church was consecrated in 1845. A lavishly gilded and frescoed interior with magnificent sculptures, including one of Mary Magdelene (its namesake) holding court over the altar, perhaps helps atone for the church’s travails.
The Picasso Museum, recently reopened after a renovation that essentially triples its original space, is like a visit with the city’s favorite artwork by the country’s favorite adopted son. Prepare to marvel. Housed within the Hôtel Salé, a 17th Century mansion—considered one of the most remarkable examples of historic architecture remaining in the Marais—le Picasso delights its visitors with displays of some 5,000 pieces by the master, more than half consisting of everything from rough sketches to sculptures. What makes this even more awesome: these pieces constitute the artist’s private collection of his own work. The museum also owns Picasso’s collection of art by his favorite painters, including Cézanne, Degas and Matisse.
Constructed in 1763 for King Louis XV, Place de la Concorde is the largest square in Paris. Adorned with two magnificent 19th Century fountains inspired by the best of the Roman piazzas, the square is perhaps most famous for the towering ancient-Egyptian obelisk at its center—a gift from the Ottoman viceroy in the 1830s and one of the more popular backdrops for selfies today. But it’s most infamous as the site where Marie-Antoinette, Louis XVI and hundreds more were killed during the French Revolution with a guillotine situated right about where the obelisk now stands.
In Dubai or New York City where tall buildings sprout up like weeds, the 59-story Tour Montparnasse might not get a second look. But in Paris, the 1973 skyscraper, second tallest in France, stands out. Like a sore thumb, according to most locals. Yet, from the glass-enclosed Tourist Centre on the 56th floor or the rooftop terrace, the Montparnasse Tower offers the best views of the city—even better than the Eiffel Tower…if only because the Eiffel Tower is within the views. Other pros: Lines are short, admission price is nominal and the guest pass is good for 48 hours. Go on a sunny day and again after dark for two different but equally breathtaking perspectives of Paris.