Our recent trip to Paris (August 2015) gave us the opportunity to re-visit some of the most well-known attractions of Paris and at the same time introduce them to our children. I have taken the liberty to write a guide to five of the most famous attractions to visit in Paris in the hope you will take the time to visit Paris soon. Read it and take it with you next time and you will know where to visit in Paris, sounding knowledgeable to your children is always bonus!
The Arc de Triomphe crowns the western tip of the Champs-Elysees, standing on probably the most famous roundabout in the world, also known Arc de Triomphe de l’Etoile (of the star) for the star-shape the roundabout casts. Within its grounds are the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, installed in 1920 after World War I, and a poignant Memorial Flame. There are wonderful views from the rooftop, 50m (164ft) above street level. Queues when we went in mid-August were not long, so well worth a trip up. From here you can admire the geometry of Baron Haussmann’s web-like street design and look along the so called Grand Axis towards place de la Concorde in one direction and the Grande Arche in the other.
At night the city shimmers with lights. Back at ground level, save some time to admire the magnificent sculpted facade, the work of three different artists. Don’t miss the fearsome winged figure of Liberty on Francois Rude’s sculpture La Marseillaise, calling the French to defend their nation (northeastern pillar, facing the Champs-Elysees). Napoleon commissioned the arch in 1806, wanting an awesome memorial to the French army. In 1810 a full-size model was installed to celebrate the emperor’s marriage to Marie-Louise of Austria but the real thing was not ready until 1836, 15 years after his death.
The wide, leafy Champs-Elysees, Paris’s most famous avenue, is a focal point for the French nation, witness to momentous events such as De Gaulle’s triumphal Liberation march in 1944 and the soccer World Cup celebrations in 1998. The bustling avenue, over 2km (1.2 miles) long and 71m (232 ft) wide, is packed with cinemas, shops, cafes and car showrooms. Go there on 14 July (Bastille Day) and most of the French army will roll past you. Another good time to visit is during the Christmas illuminations. The Champs-Elysees dates back to 1616, when Marie de Medici turned the area into a fashionable driveway. Then landscape designer André Le Nôtre added alleys of trees and gardens, prompting the name ‘Elysian Fields’. Walkways and fountains were installed in 1824 and the avenue soon became crowded with cafes, restaurants and a smart clientele. La Belle Ferronniere is the coffee shop where to visit in Paris to get that classic Parisienne memory.
The Tuileries, at the eastern extent of the Champs-Elysees, is dominated at one end by the place de la Concorde and at the other by the mighty Louvre. There are also views of the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe and Musee d’Orsay. The park runs alongside the Seine and the grandest way to enter is through the gilded gates at the place de la Concorde end. This brings you to the first of the two large ponds. Art galleries stand on terraces either side of this first pondíthe Jeu de Paume and the Orangerie. Follow the wide central avenue towards the Louvre and the gravel gradually gives way to grass and well-tended flower beds.
At the eastern end, the neo-classical Arc du Carrousel forms a symbolic gateway to the Louvre and is also the first arch in Paris’s Grand Axis – the imaginary straight line linking the Louvre, the Arc de Triomphe and the Grande Arche. The Tuileries was the inspiration of Catherine de Medici, who wanted an Italian-style garden to complement the palace built in 1564. The park as we know it today dates from 1649, when Louis XIV asked landscape architect André Le Nôtre to redesign it in the formal French style. The palace went up in smoke at the hands of the Communards in 1871 but the garden survived.
When asking the questions where to visit in Paris the Louvre is one of the first answers. The Louvre is one of the largest and most famous art galleries in the world, with its legendary works and vast collection spanning thousands of years, from ancient civilizations to mid-19th century European paintings.
The main entrance is through I. M. Pei’s striking glass pyramid (1989) in the Cour Napoleon. Escalators take you down to a subterranean foyer, where you can pick up a museum plan and decide which of the three wings will be your first port of call. Don’t be too ambitious, there is no way you’ll be able to see all 35,000 works on display in one visit. As it was the children’s first visit, we headed straight to the most famous works housed here, la Mona Lisa, The Wedding Feast at Cana, Venus de Milo and the Winged Victory of Samothrace to name but a few – starting at Sully and worked our way through to the Egyptian collection in Denon. When it’s time for a break, the museum has a choice of cafes and restaurants.
When Leonardo de Vinci set up his easel in Florence in the early 16th century to paint the Mona Lisa, little did he know he was creating what was to become one of the world’s most famous works of art. The diminutive painting, only 30 inches tall and 20 inches wide, is on the first floor of the Sully wing, surrounded by bullet-proof glass and a constant crowd of admirers. The identity of the woman is not known for certain, although she is believed to be the wife of Francesco del Giocondo, hence the portrait’s other name, La Gioconda. Da Vinci painted the work between 1503 and 1506. Francois I obtained the painting soon after its completion. In 1911 an Italian stole the portrait, wanting to return it to its native Florence. It was recovered two years later, after a police hunt that won it worldwide fame.
The eternally serene Venus de Milo is the most famous of the Louvre’s ancient Greek exhibits, discovered on the island of Melos in 1820. As Aphrodite, the goddess of love, she portrays the Greek image of perfect beauty. The marble statue was created around 100bc, during Greece’s Hellenistic period, although its simple style harks back to Classical Greek sculpture.
The Egyptian collection is the largest of its kind outside Egypt, containing 55,000 items, around 5,000 of which are on show. Don’t miss the pink granite Grand Sphinx, part pharaoh, part lion, that once protected the corridors of a holy shrine. Stylistic details suggest it could be more than 4,600 years old. The collections are presented thematically on the ground floor of the Sully wing, where topics include fishing, funerals, writing and jewellery. On the first floor the displays are chronological, starting with prehistory, tracing the rule of the pharaohs and ending just before the arrival of the Romans in 333bc. To see how Egyptian culture developed under Roman rule you can continue your tour in the lower floor of the Denon wing.
These vast paintings, on the first floor of the Denon wing, draw you into the action not only by their immense size but also the vivid detail. Look out for Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People (1830), where the presence of the allegorical figure of Liberty brings a sense of triumph to the destruction and chaos of the 1830 Uprising it portrays. David’s neo-classical ‘The Coronation of Napoleon I’ seems rather cold when set against the passion of Delacroix’s work, although the detail is compelling. Almost 33 feet wide, it was commissioned by the Emperor himself and completed in 1807.
Charles V transformed Philippe-Auguste’s 12th-century fortress on the Louvre site into a medieval castle in the 14th century. The wily Renaissance King Francois I ordered considerable rebuilding nearly two centuries later, and also launched an art collection. During the Revolution, an art museum opened to the public in the Grand Galerie. Napoleon celebrated his marriage to Marie-Louise in the Louvre in 1810 and lived in the nearby Tuileries Palace. He set about creating a courtyard dominated by the Arc du Carrousel and building a new wing. His victories overseas, and the subsequent looting added to the Louvre’s stock. The 1980s and 1990s saw extensive renovations to the galleries.
We were told that the museum is least crowded first thing in the morning and during late-opening on Mondays and Wednesdays. Sunday is the busiest day. Remember the museum is closed on Tuesdays. If there are particular exhibits you want to see, check the website for the schedule of closures. If you visit on Monday evening, ask at the information desk for the Nocturnes du Lundi leaflet which takes you on a tour of 26 key exhibits.
Visit Les Invalides to see Napoleon’s tomb and an absorbing army museum. Although its architecture is pompous, severe and authoritarian, Les Invalides was actually built to house wounded and elderly soldiers. Louis XIV was thinking of others for once when he commissioned Liberal Bruant to design the imposing building, with its 195m facade.
In 1674 the first soldiers moved in and were welcomed by the king himself. It took another 32 years before the gold-encrusted Eglise du Dome was completed. Today, visitors come to see a later addition, the tomb of Napoleon I, as well as the impressive Army Museum. On entering the stately grounds you’ll be following in the footsteps of many a military hero, including General de Gaulle and Winston Churchill.
The Musee de l’Armee is one of the largest of its kind in the world, and among the extensive collections of weapons, armour, flags, uniforms and paintings are some real gems. As you would expect, Napoleon I features prominently, and you can see his frock coat, hat, coronation saddle and even his actual horse, Vizir. Don’t miss the evocative World War II exhibition, which uses film footage, photos and day-to-day objects to convey the horrors of the war and the bravery of those who fought against Hitler. On the fourth floor of the east wing, the Musee des Plans-Reliefs displays huge scale models of fortresses and French towns, which were used to plan sieges in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Don’t miss Napoleon’s tomb in a grandiose crypt directly below the dome. His remains were brought back to France in 1840, but it took another 21 years to create a mausoleum fit for an emperor. The best way to appreciate the grandeur of Les Invalides is to approach the site from Pont Alexandre III. As an antidote to the war focus of Les Invalides, unwind in the nearby gardens of the Musee Rodin.