Paris: Main Sights
The City of Lights
First visits to Paris can be daunting - nearly every square inch of the city seems to be seeping with history and beauty. All of it is worth seeing and exploring, but there are some Paris tourist attractions that can leave you feeling a little short-changed. The Eiffel Tower is riveting to look at, but frequently overrun with visitors. The Champs Elysées has sold out to a less than paradisal parade of international brands. And the steps of the Sacré-Coeur have been invaded by partying teenagers. Nonetheless, Paris remains arguably the most beautiful city in Europe so it’s probably worth seeing its sights for yourself. Here are Paris’s top sights and attractions, chosen for their mass popularity, historical importance, or sheer aesthetic appeal. If you want to experience Paris' most essential attractions, this guide will help you pinpoint what to see and do first.
Probably the best known landmark in Europe, the Eiffel Tower is the symbol of Paris. The iron tower, which was built for the 1889 World Exposition by Gustave Eiffel, was wildly unpopular with Parisians when it was unveiled, and was nearly torn down. It has since attracted over 220 million visitors, and it would be hard to imagine Paris now without it.
The site of the world's largest and most diverse collection of pre-20th century painting, sculpture, and decorative objects, The Louvre is definitely one of Paris' best attractions. Not forgetting the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo, bask in the works of Vermeer, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, and countless other masters. The palace itself is testament to a rich history spanning from the medieval period to the present.
Sacré-Coeur and Montmartre
With its unmistakeable white dome, the Sacre Coeur sits at the highest point of Paris on the Montmartre knoll, or butte. This basilica, which was consecrated in 1909, is best-known for its garish gold mosaic interiors and for its dramatic terrace, from which you can expect sweeping views of Paris on a clear day. Take the funicular up with a metro ticket and stop off at Sacre Coeur before exploring the winding, village-like streets of Montmartre.
Arc de Triomphe and the Champs Elysées
The world-famous avenue, the Champs-Élysées is beautifully framed by the majestic Arc de Triomphe at one end and palatial Belle Époque museums at the other, an impressive setting for an otherwise bland offering of international chains, fast food, and pricey cafés. But what it lacks in character it makes up for in glamour in the luxurious couture houses, palace hotels, and jetsetting club scene found just off the Champs-Élysées along the avenues George V and Montaigne. The area between Alma-Marceau and Trocadéro is thick with impressive architectural monuments and renowned museums such as the Musée Guimet of Asian arts and the avant-garde Palais de Tokyo, but otherwise offers little in the way of shopping, dining, and nightlife. Just across the Seine, the Tour Eiffel lords it over southwest Paris.
This is historic ground. It was here that the French revolution started just over 200 years ago. The popular revolt had far stretching consequences. It swept across Europe, influencing minds and ideas of people all over the old continent. Nowadays the prison is gone. The Colonne de Juillet dominates la place. In the subway station beneath the square, stones from the Bastille's foundation can still be seen. This square is also home to the Opéra Bastille completed in 1990.
The Pantheon was originally a church built by Louis XV between at the end of the 18th century. It is a very impressive building. Not long after it came into being, it was secularized by the French Revolution. Napoleon made it a religious building again, and it was secularized once more in 1885. It is now most famous for its collection of tombs of great French thinkers: Rousseau, Voltaire, Hugo, Zola and Malraux.
Notre Dame Cathedral
No first trip to Paris is complete without a visit to this marvel of gothic architecture. One of the most singular and beautiful cathedrals of Europe, Notre Dame Cathedral's dramatic towers, spire, stained glass and statuary are guaranteed to take your breath away. Witness firsthand the spot that was once the heartbeat of medieval Paris, and that took over 100 years of hard labour to complete.
On that inevitable day when you don't want to go to a museum and you're sick of shopping, come to the Luxembourg Gardens. Quite simply, there's no better people-watching in Paris, and it changes all day long.
Bastille and Eastern Paris
Over the last decade, hip Paris has been leaning farther and farther east, as mega-rehab projects transform what was a dowdy part of town. The Place de la Bastille, where the dreaded prison once stood and the 1789 Revolution began, is now home to the clunky modern Opéra Bastille. But far more indicative of the neighborhood's dynamism are the boîtes, bistros, and galleries that animate the web of streets radiating northeast. Back at the Bastille, head north toward the Place de la République. The Cirque d'Hiver, a handsome indoor circus built in 1852, is still used for circus performances as well as fashion shows and other events.