Monuments Marking Paris' Rich History
Paris is a city with a rich history that stretches back to the third century B.C. It is no surprise, then, that important Paris monuments are so numerous, breathtaking, and varied in terms of period and architectural style. From Roman-era ruins to post-World War II memorials, these famous sites and monuments in the City of Light are essential keys to understanding the city's elaborate and complicated past.
Dating to the 12th century, the Notre-Dame Cathedral has long towered dramatically alongside the banks of the Seine River, beckoning all to come to visit. With its intricate Gothic architectural details that took workers more than a century to complete, this landmark has become synonymous with Parisian religion and architecture.
Unfortunately, a large fire that broke out on April 15, 2019, destroyed a large portion of the cathedral, including the iconic spire known as "la fléche" ("arrow") and the roof made of 800-year-old lumber known as "The Forest." The 13th-century South Rose Window—which was created and offered to the church by King St. Louis in 1260—the archaeological crypt at Notre Dame, and the 8,000-pipe La Grand Orgue (The Great Organ) survived the flame.
However, visitors are currently not allowed near Notre Dame while it undergoes extensive reconstruction. While French president Emmanuel Macron believes the restorations could be completed by the 2024 Olympics Paris is set to host, architects estimate it may take between 10 to 15 years, realistically, to fully restore the building.
When one of the world's most famous landmarks was presented as part of the 1889 World Exposition in Paris, many decried it as an eyesore on the city's horizon and demanded its removal. Who would have thought then, that the Eiffel Tower would become such an enduring and beloved icon of the City of Light? Before you go, learn about the Eiffel Tower's interesting facts.
If you can, avoid visiting at peak hours and on weekends, so you can make the most of your visit and really enjoy the views from the top. The best times are just after it first opens and in the evenings.
The Louvre Palace and Museum
When most think of the Louvre, it's thought of like a museum, but it was a fortress and palace long before it became a world center for art. The palace is a testament to its rich history spanning from the medieval period to the present. Visiting the Louvre's medieval foundation is fascinating. The adjacent Jardin des Tuileries are perfect for a stroll before or after your visit to the museum. There is so much to see at the Louvre, don't try to pack it into just one day.
Arc de Triomphe
Looming 164 feet above the bustling traffic circle at the head of the Avenue des Champs-Elysées, the Arc de Triomphe seems to exemplify pomp and circumstance. You just do not get structures like these anymore. The arch is an icon of imperial France under Napoleon I and is a testament to a time when European leaders felt no shame in erecting massive structures in the service of their equally massive egos. Many do not bother to take the tour to the top, but the views over the elegant avenue stretching all the way to the Place de la Concorde, through the Jardin des Tuileries, and on to the Louvre is more than worthwhile.
The Sorbonne and the Latin Quarter
You can almost picture it: a student roaming the halls of the Sorbonne with dusty old books clutched underarm, or, that same student sipping cafe perched in its old square situated in the Saint-Michel neighborhood in the Latin Quarter. As one of Europe's oldest and most esteemed universities, the Sorbonne was founded in 1257, but studies here were initially exclusively theological. This is because, during the Medieval period, the scholarship was almost exclusively the domain of monks, scribes, and other figures attached to the Catholic Church. Of course, in later centuries, the Sorbonne would go on to help produce some of Europe's most famous minds, before becoming a site of revolt during the 1968 student movements. After you have had your fill of the school, take a step into the Old Latin Quarter: the Rue Mouffetard district.
The Pantheon is a neoclassical-style mausoleum where many of France's great minds such as Voltaire, Rousseau, and Victor Hugo are buried. It was built between 1758 and 1790. From the Pantheon, a distant Eiffel Tower can be seen. Stop by the Pantheon during a stroll in the Latin Quarter.
There are many beautiful cemeteries within Paris, Père-Lachaise is one of the most popular and loveliest. In addition to hosting the graves of famous souls from Oscar Wilde, playwright Molière, and Jim Morrison of the Doors, the cemetery is simply a gorgeous place to stroll and meditate. There are also important war memorials on the site that pay tribute to the many who perished in conflicts and wars.
Not far from Notre Dame on the Ile de la Cité looms another pinnacle of gothic architecture. Sainte-Chapelle was erected in the mid-13th century by King Louis IX. The cathedral features some of the period's best-conceived stained glass, housing a total of 15 glass panels and a prominent large window, whose colors remain surprisingly vibrant. Wall paintings and elaborate carvings place more emphasis on the stunning Medieval beauty of Sainte Chapelle.
To extend your visit, you can tour the adjoining Conciergerie, which was part of the former Medieval royal palace. It was used as a prison during the Revolutionary "Terror." Queen Marie Antoinette spent her last days there before being executed.
Seating close to 2,000 people, the imposing Opera Garnier in Paris—also known as the Palais Garnier or simply the Paris Opera—is an architectural treasure and essential spot for the city's ballet and classical music scene.
Designed by Charles Garnier and inaugurated in 1875 as the Academie Nationale de Musique Theatre de l'Opera (National Academy of Music Opera Theater), the neo-baroque style building is the home of the Paris ballet. The city's official opera company relocated to the starkly contemporary Opera Bastille in 1989.
Hôtel de Cluny and Roman Baths
The Hôtel de Cluny is a Medieval residence that now houses the National Medieval Art Museum. The famous tapestry, "The Lady and the Unicorn," is displayed here. Situated in the historic Latin Quarter, not far from the Sorbonne, the Hôtel de Cluny boasts a Medieval-style aromatic garden that provides a pleasant spot for a stroll or for reading on a bench in the spring or summer.
The ruins of Roman Empire thermal baths can also be seen on-site. One of the museum's rooms, the tepidarium, was originally the "warm room" from the baths.
Palais Royal Gardens
Situated between the Louvre and the Opera Garnier is a Renaissance-style palace that was once the residence of the Cardinal Richelieu. Today, occupied by luxury boutiques and restaurants, as well as several government offices, the Palais Royal was for centuries the center of royal amusement. French playwright Molière occupied a theater that once stood here with his troupe. It has since burned down, twice.
The stately palais and accompanying gardens are a very pleasant place for a stroll, cafe, or whirl around high-end shops, while Daniel Buren's quirky modern sculpture adds an interesting contrast to the old-world charm.
Hôtel de Ville (City Hall)
Yet another "hotel" that is most certainly not a hotel in the English sense, Paris' Renaissance-style City Hall sits proudly in the center of Paris. Constructed on the vast plaza that was once called "Place de Greve," a site notorious for gory public executions during the Medieval period, this centerpiece of Parisian culture is a great addition to any trip.
The facade that currently covers Hôtel de Ville was built in 1873; however, some parts of the building are even older. Today, Hôtel de Ville hosts events throughout the year such as free exhibits, concerts during the summer, and ice-skating during the winter months. It can be a glorious sight in its lit evening guise.
This vast complex was built as a hospital and convalescent home for injured soldiers under the reign of Louis XIV. Part of Les Invalides maintains this role today, but it is most famous for housing the tomb of Napoleon Bonaparte. The on-site Musée de l'Armée (Army Museum) boasts a vast collection of military artifacts and an elaborate armory.
Just north of Paris in a working-class suburb is one of France's oldest sites of Christian worship and its most famous abbey—a burial place for 43 kings and 32 queens. The Saint-Denis Basilica, whose current edifice was built sometime between the 11th and 12th centuries, served as a royal burial site from as early as the fifth century. With its sculpted tombs and flamboyant Gothic details, this often-overlooked gem is worth a trip outside the city limits.
This sober memorial pays tribute to the 200,000 people (mostly Jews) who were deported to Nazi death camps from France during World War II. Erected in 1962 on the banks of the Seine (across from Notre Dame) and on the site of a former morgue, the Deportation Memorial was designed by architect G.H. Pingusson to evoke a sense of claustrophobia and despair.
One part of the memorial features an "eternal flame of hope" and an inscription that states the following: "Dedicated to the living memory of the 200,000 French deportees sleeping in the night and the fog, exterminated in the Nazi concentration camps."
Nearby, you can visit the Museum of Jewish Art and History.