The sprawling, grandiose state complex in Paris known collectively as "Les Invalides" isn’t routinely included on top-attractions lists, but it probably should be. Easily identifiable from a distance by the imposing, gold-capped Hotel National des Invalides at its center, this is one of the most important sites in the capital for French military history. The tombs of Emperor Napoleon I and numerous French war heroes are found within the mausoleum at the Dome des Invalides church, and the site also houses the Musée de l’Armee (Army Museum) whose fascinating permanent collections include old armories and vivid reconstructions of past battles.
Meanwhile, the Hotel National is a former hospital and infirmary, built in 1671 by King Louis XIV to house wounded, elderly, homeless and infirm officers. It’s an imposing sight to this day, flanked by enormous, threatening-looking canons.
Whether military history is a personal interest of yours or not, a visit to Les Invalides practically guarantees that you’ll come away with a deeper understanding of how wars and battles shaped France throughout the centuries. The formal lawns and gardens are also lovely for a stroll or picnic.
The Musee de l’Armée: France's Largest Military History Museum
The collections here house an impressive 50,000 objects and artifacts. The permanent collection includes armories, weaponry and artillery dating from the 13th to the 17th century, as well as maps, artillery, paintings, uniforms, medals and other objects of note. Chronological departments within the collections are dedicated to military history throughout the ages, from Antiquity and the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, the Empires of Napoleon I to Napoleon III, the French Revolution, and the two World Wars.
There is also a monument in honor of French President and Resistance hero Charles de Gaulle. He famously led the French Resistance from London via BBC broadcasts.
The Dome des Invalides Church and Mausoleum
The primary draw card at Les Invalides and the Musée de l'Armée at its center is the impressive domed church and its mausoleum, holding the remains of Emperor Napoleon I and his brothers, Joseph and Jérome Bonaparte.The Dome des Invalides also houses enormous tombs and remains of military heroes and celebrated Marshalls, from Turenne and Vauban to the King of Rome and 20th-century Marshalls Foch and Lyautey. Emperor Napoleon I ordered the construction of the mausoleum himself, notably transferring the heart of Vauban to a dedicated mausoleum next to Turenne's.
The Dome Church was designed by Jules Hardouin-Mansart as a royal chapel, and constructed between 1677 and 1706. It was meant to celebrate the glory and military prowess of King Louis XVI, the successor to the so-called "Sun King". The absolutist monarchy was at the height of its power, and this is reflected in the ornate interiors, dominated by an enormous lantern standing 351 feet tall and an ornate fresco from the French painter Charles de la Fosse.
The unmistakable gold dome was restored with a new coat of real gold leaf in 1989, to celebrate the bicentenary of the Revolution of 1979. It required an impressive 26 pounds of gold to restore the dome to its former glory.
The Tomb of Napoleon I
In 1821, after spending over five years in exile on the island of Sainte-Hélène, the Emperor Napoleon died. He was exhumed on the island and buried there. But in 1840, under the Restoration monarchy of the King Louis-Philippe, Napoleon's ashes were transferred to the mausoleum he himself had fashioned into a military Pantheon.
A grand funeral was held in his honor in December 1840, but the tomb was yet to be constructed. The Emperor's remains were finally transferred to an enormous tomb within the Dome des Invalides Church in April 1861. It was fashioned from red quartzite, and stands on a green granite base.
The ornate tomb is decorated with inscriptions celebrating the great military victories of the French Empire, and with sculptures from Pradier depicting Napoleon's various military campaigns. Meanwhile, a circular gallery in the room is adorned with 10 bas-reliefs showing the Emperor's main achievements, from creating the civil code that still largely stands today in France to the founding of the State Council and Imperial University.
Towards the rear of the crypt, positioned just above the tomb of the King of Rome, visitors can admire a statue of the Emperor, decorated with symbols of the Empire.
Things to Do at Les Invalides
The extensive green lawns outside the domed church at Les Invalides are a favorite spot among locals and visitors alike for strolls and picnics. In fact, most years there's an odd event called the "Dinner in White": a giant pop-up picnic that draws thousands of participants, whose only requirement is to dress entirely in white and bring something to eat. While it's not technically authorized, it's been allowed to happen most years—and can be quite an interesting spectacle.
The green space was created in 1704 as a place where wounded veterans interned at the nearby hospital could tend to small vegetable gardens, as well as interact with the general public and thus avoid isolation and loneliness.
During the summer months, concerts and historical light shows are frequently held out on the lawns. In 2018, a sophisticated light and music show telling the story of World War I and France is drawing crowds.
Classical music concerts are performed all year round at the museum, generally in the "Grand Salon" or the Turenne room at the museum. Visit the official website to see the program and purchase tickets (in French only).
The easiest way to reach the area is to get off at Metro Invalides (line 8 or 13). Alternatively, you can take RER Line C to Invalides. This commuter train line runs east to west and has stops including the Musée D'Orsay and the Champs de Mars-Tour Eiffel, so it can be a useful line to use to explore the area, particularly if you aren't able to or don't wish to walk between attractions.
Main Address: Hotel National des Invalides/Musée de l'Armée
The main entrance to the museum is on the Esplanade des Invalides, 129 rue de Grenelle, 7th arrondissement. There's a second entrance on nearby Place Vauban.
Visitors with limited mobility and/or wheelchairs have a dedicated entrance at 6 Boulevard des Invalides.
The Musée de l'Armée and Hotel National des Invalides are open seven days a week and the hours change seasonally.
- From April 1st to October 31st: from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
- From November 1st to March 31st: from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
- Ticket counters close 30 minutes prior to museum closure times.
Entrance to the museum and the Domed church (housing Napoleon's Tomb) are included in the Paris Museum Pass (skip-the-line access). It's not necessary to present your pass at the ticket counters: you'll be asked to show it at the entrance to the exhibits.
Visit the official website for more information, including current ticket prices and reserving skip-the-line tickets online.
The Hotel des Invalides has a gift and souvenir shop, cloakroom, and wheelchairs on loan for visitors with limited mobility.
There's also an onsite restaurant, Le carré des Invalides.The restaurant, open daily from 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. in high season and until 5:30 p.m. during low season, serves a variety of light, reasonably priced fare. Sandwiches, wraps, salads, quiches, and special hot dishes of the day are on offer, as well as an extensive drinks menu. Reservations aren't required.
Nearby Sights and Attractions
The Invalides is located in the 7th arrondissement, a prestigious district full of noteworthy sights and attractions. These include the grand lawns of the Champs de Mars, leading to the Eiffel Tower; the Trocadero with its sweeping plaza boasting views over the city; and the Musée d’Orsay, housing one of the world’s treasured collections of Impressionist and Expressionist painting.
Also nearby is the Musée Rodin, with its lovely sculpture garden and permanent collection dedicated to France’s most-renowned sculptor, and the Ecole Militaire, a former military academy built during the reign of King Louis XV.
For more info on how to enjoy the area to the fullest, consult our guide on what to see and do around the Eiffel Tower.