A stroll across Paris is also a stroll through history. It's a metropolis where you'll encounter a dizzying array of architectural styles if you cover enough ground. Take this self-guided (or totally virtual) tour of Parisian architecture to witness some of the city's most stunning buildings—and learn more about the capital's centuries-long history.
Tip: If you take this tour in person, you have two options. You can either treat it as an "itinerary" by visiting the suggested sites in the order shown below or choose your own starting and stopping points. And remember—the best strolls in Paris include spontaneous discoveries and small detours. Watch out for beautiful buildings and architectural details not included on this list.
The first stop on your architecture tour of the capital is an imposing medieval structure called the Conciergerie. It's probably one of the best-preserved examples of architecture dating to the Middle Ages and has served over the centuries as a royal palace, revolutionary prison, and tribunal. Today it houses the Palais de Justice, an important court of law. It blends elements of both secular and religious architectural styles.
A palace existed on the site from the 6th century, during the Merovingian period. But the facade's dramatic turrets, towers, and other features are the product of elaborate extensions carried out under royal rule during the 10th to 14th centuries, reflecting an ornate Gothic style. King Charles IV built the imposing towers that loom over the Seine River.
Meanwhile, the dazzling Sainte-Chapelle or royal chapel that sits beside the Conciergerie is one of the city's most beautiful examples of "rayonnant" Gothic architecture. Its sumptuous, light-filled interiors are prized for their well-preserved, elaborate stained glass and beautiful lower chapel.
For more on the interiors of the Conciergerie, including details on the remarkable grand hall and well-preserved prison cells, see our full guide. You can also take a virtual or self-guided tour of medieval Paris for more stunning examples of Parisian architecture from the Middle Ages.
Next, it's time to cross the Seine and head to the historic Marais district, home to an interesting blend of medieval and Renaissance-era architecture. At the neighborhood's northeastern edge lies the Place des Vosges, a royal square whose style is both distinctive and relatively rare.
Widely considered to be one of the most beautiful squares in Paris, the site was built at the height of the Renaissance era and completed in around 1612. It consists of a rectangular arrangement of grand buildings with red-bricked facades and steep rooftops in slate; covered galleries formed from dramatic arched structures grace the ground-floor levels. At the center lies a lush garden, also known as the Square Louis XIII. A statue of the eponymous French King stands in the middle.
Admire the harmonious architectural features of the Place des Vosges by strolling beneath its galleries, then stand at the square's center to better survey the red-bricked houses. You can also find many examples of fine Renaissance-era hotels particuliers (mansions) in the same neighborhood, including at the Hotel Carnavelet. It houses a museum dedicated to Parisian history.
Few buildings in Paris generate more controversy than the Centre Georges Pompidou. Some love the boldly colorful, whimsical building, which houses one of France's most important museums of modern art, a bookshop, cinema, public library, and panoramic rooftop restaurant.
Others find it to be nothing short of an eyesore, disliking how its "high-tech" architectural style clashes with the older buildings that surround it.
Regardless of the mixed reactions it attracts, the Centre Pompidou is beloved by locals. They flock to occupy its enormous, sloping plaza and mill around in the airy ground floor lobby, whose floor-to-ceiling glass panes let in plenty of light.
The Pompidou was completed in 1977 and named after the French President who commissioned it. It was designed by architects Renzo Piano, Richard Rogers, Su Rogers, and Gianfranco Franchini. The architects were pioneers of the "inside-out building" concept, designing the building so that all of its functional components—from its mechanical systems to air conditioning—are visible on the facade.
The brightly colored tubes that run across the rear-side facade each designate a function: green pipes correspond to plumbing systems, blue ducts to climate control. Safety and circulation devices are in red, and wires are in yellow. The late modernist, high tech design is a kind of tribute to tech culture and developments.
Renzo Piano said this of the building: "The center is like a huge spaceship made of glass, steel and colored tubing that landed unexpectedly in the heart of the Paris, and where it would very quickly set deep roots."
If you're able to visit, make sure to purchase a museum ticket so you can take the escalators that ascend the building on the outside, culminating in fantastic panoramic views over the city.
Heading slightly westward and back to the banks of the Seine, it's time to admire the facade of the legendary Parisian department store La Samaritaine.
Looming over the Pont Neuf bridge, the store was a boldly modern venture when it opened in 1870, designed by architects Frantz Jourdain and Henri Sauvage.
But the building you see today took many years and phases to complete; it melds different architectural styles and period features. While the "bones" of the department store are from the late 19th century, the elements that are most striking on the store's facades—floral motifs, dramatically painted lettering, heavy use of decorative glass and exposed steel arranged in geometric patterns—are typical of the Art Nouveau and Art Deco styles in architecture, popular during the early twentieth century.
We now turn our attention to an outstanding example of architecture from the neoclassical period: Place Vendome, possibly the most grandiose square in the capital. Trees are nearly absent on the majestic place, which is today lined with expensive jewelry boutiques.
Commissioned by King Louis XIV in the 17th century, the Place Vendome was designed to convey great royal power, wealth, and prestige. It was designed by the "Sun King's" first architect, Mansart, according to a harmonious octagonal plan. It's typical of 17th-century neoclassical French architecture, boasting grand Corinthian-style columns, carved decorative sculptures, and the linking of windows from one floor to the next. In total, 28 mansions, or hotels particuliers, line the square.
In the center stands a statue of Emperor Napoleon I. It's actually a replica of a statue that was destroyed during the Revolution of 1870 or the "Paris Commune." On the west end lies the Hotel Ritz, whose grandiose premises were recently renovated.
Imagine it's pouring rain, and you need a place to take cover from the hustle and bustle of 19th-century urban life. The covered galeries, or "arcades," of the area known as the Grands Boulevards, would have made an excellent place to take refuge from the street. They still do today, too.
The Galerie Vivienne is one of the most opulent and best-preserved examples of the main Parisian galeries, which form a sort of network within the 2nd and 9th arrondissements. This particular passageway is located in close reach of the Palais Royal (another architectural gem to explore, by the way) and was completed in 1823.
Stretching for hundreds of feet, the airy, glass-roofed covered passageways here harbor historic restaurants and cafes, bookstores, antique shops, and clothing boutiques. Admire the elaborate tile-mosaic floors, faux-marble columns, and light-flooded glass panes that stretch across the rooftops.
Make sure to spend some time taking in the details of the Galerie Colbert at one end of the Vivienne; it boasts an impressive colonnade and rotunda. The glass dome house found in this corner of the galerie houses the National Institute of Art. You can also enjoy lunch or dinner at Le Grand Colbert, a lavish old brasserie with impressive Belle-Epoque interiors.
Designed by an architecture student named Charles Garnier in 1861, the Palais Garnier—also known simply as "Opera"—is a winning example of the Napoleon III style. This 19th-century school brings together numerous different architectural elements and techniques, including neoclassical, Renaissance, and Baroque. It makes heavy use of decoration, including gilded facades, statuary and sculpture, lavish staircases, and trellises.
After taking in the opulent facade of the Palais Garnier, note the wide boulevards that surround and lead to it—including the grand Avenue de l'Opéra. These boulevards are representative of Georges-Eugène Haussmann's remaking of Paris from the mid-19th-century.
He transformed the capital's narrow streets into bustling, modern boulevards, and demolished some 20,000 buildings to replace them with residential and commercial structures that are today often seen as "typically" Parisian.
Finally, we head to the western edge of Paris to take in one of the most interesting recent additions to the city's skyline: a bold design from American architect Frank Gehry. Opened in 2014, the Fondation Louis Vuitton is a contemporary art center that purposefully makes a central attraction of its own stunning, singular structure.
Gehry fashioned the building from 3,600 individual glass panels and 19,000 counterparts in concrete. He was partly inspired by the elegant, airy, glass-domed structures that emerged in Paris during the 19th century, such as the Grand Palais. Boldly futuristic yet evoking organic forms, the Fondation has, at times, been likened to a mollusk-like creature. Others say it looks like a sea vessel of some kind, with its 12 glass "sails" seeming to blow in the wind. In any case, it's mesmerizing.
Situated in the middle of the enormous wood known as the Bois de Boulogne, the Fondation Vuitton boasts over 125,000 square feet of gallery space. The permanent exhibit, set within the light-filled, airy interiors, includes a look at the building's innovative design.