Paris – The Top Ten Sights

Paris, Ile de France, France

‘If one of us dies,’ the husband told his wife, I shall move to Paris—Sigmund Freud

The Top Ten Sights

ARC DE TRIOMPHE—The largest triumphal arch in the world (about 163 feet high and 147 wide) was erected by Napoleon in 1806 to commemorate his army s victories. Over the years it became the focal point for slate funerals, and during WW II, both the invading Germans and the liberation of Paris parade passed beneath it. It’s the site of France’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and it has an observation deck and exhibition hall at the top, with photos and lithographs depicting the arch’s history.

BASILIQUE DU SACRE-COEUR—Planned as a votive offering to take France’s mind off its loss in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, Sacre-Coeur was built between 1876 and 1914 in an ornate Romano-Byzantine style, after a design by Paul Abadie. Gleaming white and with a 273-foot central dome, the outside of the cathedral is almost confectionary. Inside is one of the world’s largest mosaics, depicting Christ with outstretched arms. Owing to its hilltop location, the view from its dome is the second highest in Paris.

CENTRE GEORGES POMPIDOU—Looking like it were turned inside out so that all its brightly painted pipes and ductwork show, the bold Centre Pompidou opened in 1977 as a center for 20th- (and now 21st-) century art. Yes, its futurism is a bit dated today, but a Iate-’90s restoration freshened things quite a bit, adding feet of exhibition space, improved dining options, and a number of new auditoriums for film screenings, music, and theater and dance performances. Attractions include the National Museum of Modem Art, with its 40,000-work collection (only about 850 are on display though). Outside, street performers are always doing their thing, and there’s a great view of Paris from the rooftop.

THE EIFFEL TOWER—Probably the most recognized structure in the world, the Eiffel Tower was built as a temporary, decorative centerpiece for the 1889 Universal Exhibition and was only saved from demolition because, as the tallest structure in Europe (at the time), it was useful as a radio tower. Today, of course, it’s the very symbol of Paris, 1,056 feet high and providing a 40-mile view from its observation platforms. Two restaurants— Altitude 95 and Le Jules Verne—are located on the first and second levels, respectively.

HOTEL DES INVALIDES/NAPOLEON’S TOMB—Designed originally as a residence for disabled and aged French soldiers, the hotel eventually housed some 4,000 residents, who lived according to military and religious rules and worked in various manufacturing shops. Upon its completion, the structure boasted a huge martial building erected around a large courtyard as well as a church, whose gilded dome was designed by Jules Hardouin Mansart. During the French Revolution, a mob seized enough arms from the Invalides armory to storm the Bastille. In 1840, the body of Napoleon was laid to rest here after being buried first on St. Helena. In addition to the tomb, visitors today can see the Musee de l’Armee, full of weapons, uniforms, and equipment, and the Musee des Plans-Reliefs, with scale models of various French towns and monuments.

THE LOUVRE—This is the big one: once the largest palace in the world and now the largest art museum. Home of the Mona Lisa and the poor, armless Venus de Milo; home of I. M. Pei’s controversial pyramid; and home, all told, of some 400,000 works of art—some of which are on permanent display. Stretching for almost half a mile along the banks of the Seine, the palace began as a medieval fortress and was expanded over the centuries into a luxurious royal residence.

The palace was designated a museum immediately after the revolution, and its collection was significantly expanded by Napoleon. Today the collections are divided into seven departments: Egyptian antiquities; Asian and Islamic antiquities and art; Greek, Etruscan, and Roman antiquities; sculpture; painting; prints and drawings; and objets d’art.

MUSEE DE CLUNY—Built in the 15th century’ as a residence, the mansion was seized during the revolution and later rented to Alexandre du Sommerard, who filled it with his collection of medieval artworks.

Upon his death in 1842, the Gothic building was bought back by the government, along with its collection of tapestries, statues, medieval crosses and chalices, jewelry, coins, manuscripts, and more. The site also contains the ruins of second-century Roman baths.

MUSEE D’ORSAY—Carved from the neoclassical Gare d’Orsay railroad station, the Musee d’Orsay exhibits works from the years 1848 to 1914, a period that saw the rise of Impressionism, Symbolism, pointillism, realism, the Fauvists, and the late Romantics. Works on display in the arching, glass-roofed building include Daumier, Ingres, Delacroix, Manet, Monet, Courbet, Cezanne, van Gogh, Renoir, Whistler, and Matisse. Also on display are furniture, architectural models, photographs, and objets d’art.

MUSEE PICASSO—With 203 paintings, 191 sculptures, 85 ceramics, and more than drawings, engravings, and manuscripts, the Picasso represents the greatest single collection of the artist’s work in the world. Occupying the 17-century Hotel Sale, the museum’s collection also includes works by Cezanne and Matisse.

NOTRE DAME—The Cathedral of Notre Dame—a “symphony of stone,” according to Victor Hugo—is the historic and geographic heart of Paris. Its foundation stone was laid by Pope Alexander III in 1163, and construction was completed roughly two centuries later.

A 387-step hike to the top of the south tower promises close-ups of the bestiary of gargoyles and a magnificent 360-degree view of one of the world’s great cities beyond.

Other Must-Do’s

Bastille Day (July 14)—On Bastille Day, French patriotism and passion for their history and heritage reaches fever pitch, commemorating the day the revolutionary mob stormed the Bastille. Numerous events across town culminate with a grand parade down the beautiful Champs-Elysees and fireworks over the Eiffel Tower.

A Bateau-Mouche Cruise on the Seine—Bateaux-mouches are to Paris what gondolas are to Venice—a wonderfully touristy way to see the city from a different perspective. These glass-enclosed boats ply the waters of the Seine and slip underneath its famous bridges to give you a glimpse of life along the quais of the refined Right Bank and the storied Left.

ILE St. Louis—A small, romantic island in the middle of the Seine, featuring many 16th- to 18th-century mansions. Since the 17th century it’s been largely residential, and exclusive. Search out Berthillon for its well-known ice cream.

Le Jardins des Tuileries—Designed in 1664 by Andre Le Notre, planner of the grounds at Versailles, the Tuileries gardens form Paris’s loveliest promenade, dotted with statues and fountains.

Le Lapin Agile—Paris’s oldest bar-cabaret and a Montmarte landmark, Le Lapin Agile was immortalized by Toulouse-Lautrec and Utrillo. A glimpse of Paris past, it has been the heartbeat of French folk music for decades, with lively singalongs that warm up after the tourists leave. As authentic as the cabaret experience can be.

Marche aux Puces de Clignancourt— A must for every flea-market lover, with thousands of vendors selling everything under the sun, including one-of-a-kind finds for early birds with sharp eyes. One of the largest in Europe, held daily, and yes, that might be that famous American designer you see sleuthing around.

Marmottan Monet Museum—Boasts more than 130 works from all stages of Claude Monet’s creative life, as well as more than 300 Impressionist and Postimpressionist paintings, pastels, watercolors, and sculptures by Gauguin, Degas, Manet, Pissaro, Renoir, Rodin, and others; collections of illuminated manuscript pages and First Empire furniture and objets j d’art; and works by German, Flemish, and Italian primitive painters.

Opera Garnier—This rococo wonder, with one of the largest stages in existence, was completed in 1875, with a delightful ceiling added in 1964 by Marc Chagall. A serious recent renovation added air conditioning, polished up the gilded statues and busts, and replaced the red damask.

Lavish performances put on here by the National Opera, the Paris Ballet, and others promise the ultimate night on the town.

Place Des Vosges—The small rose-brick Place des Vosges is the city’s oldest and most beautiful square, planned by Henri IV in the early 17th century and entirely surrounded by arcades. Victor Hugo lived here, at no. 6.

Ste. Chapelle—The walls of this small chapel, one of the supreme achievements of the Middle Ages, consist of more stained glass than stone—all told, it forms the largest expanse of stained glass in the world. There are candlelit classical concerts in this Gothic jewel box when the sun goes down.

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