In 1887 a competition was launched to design a temporary monument for the World Fair of 1889. There were many entries, but the winning suggestion was the engineer, Gustave Eiffel’s plan for a huge, iron-work tower, with observation decks that provided a birds-eye view of the city.
At the time, the design was very controversial, with many people deriding the tower as ugly and useless. However, it was an immediate success with visitors, reportedly covering its $1.5m construction cost within the first year of its operation. The Tower's original licence was for 20 years, at which time it was due to be dismantled. However, it had become such a hugely popular attraction and national symbol that demolition was unthinkable.
On its completion, the tower was 986 feet (300 m) tall and became the tallest building in the world - a title it held for 41 years.
Arc de Triomphe
The Arc de Triomphe is a huge monument on the Place Charles de Gaulle at the end of the Champs-Elysees. The arch honours and commemorates the French soldiers who fought and died in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. The Arc de Triomphe is 45m wide and 50m tall. It is one of Paris’ most inspiring landmarks.
The arch was commissioned in 1806 by Napoleon Bonaparte after his famous victory at Austerlitz. The friezes around the arch depict famous battles from that time. There are four large sculptures around the base of the arch, the most famous of which depicts the Marseillaise, which is also the title and lyrical subject of the French national anthem.
Napoleon never saw his Arc de Triomphe completed, dying in exile on the Island of Saint Helena in 1821. The arch was finally completed in 1836 and when his remains were repatriated in 1840, Napoleon’s body was symbolically taken through the Arc de Triomphe en route to his final resting place at Invalides.
At the base of the Arc is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, where a flame continually burns as a poignant memorial to the fallen soldiers from World War I.
French for ‘Our lady’, Notre Dame is a Catholic Cathedral on the Ile de la Cité; a natural island in the centre of the Seine River. The Cathedral is the official seat of the Archbishop of Paris.
The Cathedral is one of the city’s oldest buildings. Construction began in 1163 after Maurice de Sully (Bishop of Paris at the time) decreed that a new place of worship should be created on the site of the Cathedral of Saint Etienne, which itself had a history going back to the fourth century.
The construction of Notre Dame took an incredible 185 years. Over this time, various architects worked on the project, accounting for the different styles of architecture at different heights of the building. However, the finished building remains one of the finest examples of gothic architecture in Europe.
The Cathedral was elevated to global fame by Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel ‘The hunchback of Notre Dame’, which told the fictional story of Quasimodo and Esmeralda.
Embedded in the cobbles, in front of Notre Dame’s main entrance, you will find a plaque marking ‘kilometre zero’. This is the official centre of Paris; the point from which all distances in France are measured.
L'Hôtel des Invalides
L'Hôtel des Invalides is a large collection of buildings on the south-side of the Seine. The buildings were instigated in 1670 by Louis XIV as a home and hospital for aged and injured soldiers. The main buildings were completed in 1676 and are arranged around 15 courtyards. Louis XIV then commissioned a Royal Chapel to embellish the site. The Église du Dôme was completed in 1709, providing an architectural focal point to the complex.
By today’s standards, the magnificent baroque architecture and sculptured grounds seem at odds with the building's primary purpose, but the grand setting is symbolic of the military’s importance throughout French history. Travelling past L'Hôtel des Invalides; it is easy to perceive the value that was placed upon serving the nation at arms.
The list of tombs located within L'Hôtel des Invalides reads like an honour roll of honour for France’s military leaders and includes the final resting place of Napoleon Bonaparte.
Today, L'Hôtel des Invalides holds museums relating to France’s military history, but some of the buildings continue to be used as a residence and hospital for war veterans; the building’s original purpose.
The Palais Garnier is the main opera house in Paris and is home to the Academy of Music and rightly regarded as one of the architectural masterpieces of its time. The tour takes you around the building, so you can appreciate its amazing architectural splendour.
The building was commissioned in 1861 by Napoleon III who wanted a second venue for the Paris Opera. A competition to design a suitable building was launched, and won by Charles Garnier.
Work on the building started in 1860 and initially suffered significant setbacks. Laying the foundations was put on hold when it was discovered that the swampy ground was caused by a subterranean lake, which took 8 months of continuous pumping to drain. Construction was to take many years, but finishing became more pressing when in 1873, Paris’s main opera theatre was destroyed in a fire.
In 1896, a counterweight fell from one of the large chandeliers killing one person. Although tragic, this incident, combined with the mystery of the underground lake and cellars, was to inspire a young author. The Palais Garnier is the setting for Gaston Leroux’s novel, The Phantom of the Opera, the story behind the Broadway and West End musical classic.
The Grand Palais
The Grand Palais was built for the Great Exhibition of 1900. Following the success of the Eiffel Tower, the pressure was on to build something monumental. Four architects were commissioned to design the building and they were given only 3 years for construction.
Externally the building is an ornate mix of Classical and Art-Nouveau stonework, while inside the building is very innovative, using reinforced concrete, iron-work and steel to create the huge barrel-vaulted glass ceiling that floods the building with natural light. This enabled large numbers of people to be gathered inside in the days before electric lighting.
Today, the Grand Palais features a full calendar of exhibitions.
Louvre and the Tuileries Garfen
The Louvre and the Tuileries occupy a large space on the north side of the Seine.
The Louvre is the world’s largest and most visited museum. It is famously home to Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, but holds thousands of other exhibits and antiquities.
The building was a Royal Palace with origins dating back to the 1100’s. After Louis XIV moved his court to the Palace of Versailles, the Louvre was used to hold the Royal Collection.
The Tuileries is a large public garden between the Louvre and the Place de la Concorde. The garden was created in the 1560’s by Queen Catherine de Médici who was building a new palace next to the Louvre. Catherine acquired a large area of land to the west in order to create a huge garden for the Palace. The area had previously housed kilns, or ‘tuileries’, hence the name. The Tuileries Palace was destroyed by fire in 1870 after it was deliberately set ablaze by the Communards, but the garden remains.
Following the French Revolution, the National Assembly decided that both the Tuileries and the Louvre should be made open to the public.
Place de la Concorde
This is the largest square in Paris. Created in 1755, it was originally named Place Louis XV in honour of the King at that time.
However, the square's name and significance changed during the French revolution when it was renamed Place de la Revolution. A guillotine was erected and the square became the stage for hundreds of public executions, most famously that of Louis XVI who was executed in 1793.
Throughout the bloody days of the revolution, large crowds would gather in the square to watch the gruesome spectacle as all kinds of people were led to the guillotine and executed. During the ‘reign of terror’ in the summer of 1794, more than 1,300 people were beheaded in the square in a single month.
The place where the infamous guillotine once stood is now occupied by a 3,300 year-old Egyptian obelisk. The obelisk, which marked the entrance to the temple in Luxor, was a gift to France from the Ottoman Viceroy of Egypt in 1929. It took over three years to travel from Egypt to Paris, arriving in 1933.
La Madeleine is a Catholic Church dedicated to Mary Magdalene. It is located at the end of the Rue Royale with a sight-line to the Place de la Concorde. It was built throughout a time of great social and political upheaval in France, which influenced its unusual design.
At the time of the revolution in 1789, a church had been commissioned, but only the foundations and portico had been finished. Debate then raged as to the best use for the building, with a library, a ballroom and a market all suggested.
In 1806, Napoleon decided to turn the half finished building into a ‘Temple to the Glory of the Grand Army’. A competition was launched, and a jury selected a design by Claude Etienne de Beaumont. However, Napoleon wasn’t happy and overruled them in favour of a design by Vignon, who proposed a neo-classical design in the style of a Roman Temple.
Following the restoration, the building was finally consecrated as a church. Philippe Lemaire’s beautiful pediment, depicting the last judgement with Mary Magdalene kneeling to intercede for the damned, was one of the final additions that completed the building we see today.
The Trocadéro is a popular tourist area on the northern bank of the Seine. It is built on a hill opposite the Eiffel Tower and provides excellent views over the city. Visitors flock here to take photographs and to watch street entertainers on the open concourse.
Originally the Palais du Trocadéro was laid out for the World Fair of 1878. At its centre, was a large concert hall, with two curved wings wrapping round manicured gardens leading down to the Seine.
For the International Exhibition of 1937, the old Palais was demolished and the current building, the Palais de Chaillot, was built on its foundations. However, the concert hall had stood an open space was created between the two wings.
This open space provides one of the best photo opportunities on the tour with wonderful views of the Eiffel Tower. The driver will go slowly to give you every chance of getting the perfect picture, so have your cameras ready.
Place Vendôme is a stunning square at the start of the Rue de la Paix, just north of the Tuileries Garden. The square was commissioned by Louis XIV and designed by the architect Jules Hardouin-Mansart. However, when state finances ran low, the King sold the project to the financier John Law and the square was completed in 1720.
The column at the centre of the square was erected by Napoleon in commemoration of the battle of Austerlitz, his famous victory in 1805. The column is reputedly made from the cannon captured from the Russian-Austrian army.