Paris, France

Paris, France is known as the “city of light.” It is the subject of countless paintings, novels, poems, and films, and its architecture, museums, and monuments draw visitors from around the world. Paris’s history is only one part of its appeal.

This story was created for the Google Expeditions project by ePublishing Partners and AirPano, now available on Google Arts & Culture

By William VandivertLIFE Photo Collection

It remains a vital center of visual art, fashion, cuisine, and learning. And as the capital of France and the largest city in the European Union, Paris is also a seat of financial and political power. Many people believe the city of Paris demonstrates the height of Western European culture.

Notre-Dame and Île de la Cité

The historic center of Paris is a small island on the river Seine called Île de la Cité. This is where the earliest Celtic peoples founded a trading town. During the Roman empire, Paris expanded onto each bank of the Seine.

When Rome fell, the Franks re-founded the city on Île de la Cité, and up though the Middle Ages it was an important military and political center. Many municipal buildings such as courts sit alongside the Île’s historic cathedrals.

Île de la Cité

The island is considered the center of Paris, and therefore the center of France. Mileage on all French roads is measured from a point just in front of Notre-Dame Cathedral, which was erected on the island beginning in the 10th century.

Pont Neuf

Dozens of historic bridges cross the Seine, a relatively small river. The oldest is Pont Neuf, which connects each bank to the tapered tip of Île de la Cité. Pont Neuf (confusingly named “New Bridge”) was completed in 1606.

Notre-Dame

One of the most famous cathedrals in the world, Notre-Dame is considered the height of Gothic architecture. Its ornate sculptures, gargoyles, and sheer size contribute to its fame, as does a novel about a hunchback living in its towers. 

Gothic Architecture

Characteristics of Gothic architecture found on Notre-Dame include flying buttresses, or free-standing columns outside the main structure. These allow for large stained-glass windows, another Gothic hallmark. Pointed archways and gargoyles are also typical. 

Tuileries Garden and the Louvre

Part of what makes Paris appealing are its many gardens, which serve as parks for recreation, relaxation, or just walking around. The Tuileries along the Seine is one of the largest and most central, serving as access to some of Paris’s most famous monuments and museums.

It provides a shady resting point in the very heart of one of the world’s busiest cities.

The Louvre

The largest museum on Earth, the Louvre contains art treasures from around the world. Its massive wings once served as the royal palace of French kings. The glass-pyramid entrance brings light and modernism to its underground galleries.

Tuileries Garden and Public Squares

The gardens are relatively formal, with symmetrical plantings of trees, lawns, and flowers. The Tuileries is capped at each end by a public square: Place du Carousel near the Louvre, and Place de la Concorde at its west end.

Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel

The Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel, built in honor of Napoleon Bonaparte, is a relatively small sibling to the Arc de Triomphe. It forms one end of the Axe Historique, a straight stretch of boulevards that crosses the city.

Luxor Obelisk

This Egyptian obelisk once stood before the ancient Temple of Luxor in Egypt. The 3,000-year-old granite spike was brought to France as a gift from Egyptian ruler Muhammad Ali in 1833.

Eiffel Tower and the Seine

The most famous icon of Paris was actually controversial when built. The 324-meter (1,063-foot) cast-iron structure was completed for the 1889 World’s Fair, and was the tallest man-made structure until 1930.

Critics objected to its massive size and “raw” construction style, but it quickly became an icon of the city. Today, it puts on a sparkling “champagne” light show every night and hosts Paris’s New Year’s Eve and Bastille Day fireworks. 

Design

Engineer Gustav Eiffel designed the tower’s unusual iron-lattice design. Unlike older, more elegant structures in Paris, the tower was intentionally rough and industrial. Eiffel was also one of the designers of the Statue of Liberty.

Observation Tower

Elevators bring visitors to several levels within the tower. They include observation decks, restaurants, and even a post office to send home cards with a unique postmark. Close to 7 million people ascend the tower every year.

Left Bank

The Seine divides Paris roughly in half. The southern Left Bank is known as the more artistic, gritty side of the city. It has long been home to writers, artists, and students, who attend the area’s many universities and colleges. 

Right Bank

The Right Bank, or north side of the Seine, has a general reputation as being wealthier and more formal than the left. It is home to banking and shopping districts. However, both sides are home to museums and monuments.

Champs-Élysées

The broad, 1.9 kilometers (1.2 mi) long Champs-Élysées runs from one end of Paris to another, joining with other major streets that run along the same line, called the Axe Historique.

The avenue was laid out in 1667 by André Le Nôtre, who also designed the park at the famed Palace of Versailles. Today, the Champs-Élysées is lined with high-fashion boutiques offering goods from the world’s top designers. 

Axe Historique

The extremely long, straight, wide stretch of the Champs-Élysées makes it ideal for military parades. Parades were prominent in the 19th and 20th centuries, and include the Nazis’ infamous march, and later the Allies’ victory parade following World War II.

Grand Palais

The Grand Palais, erected in 1900, has a domed roof made of glass—its interior is filled with light. The palace was built as an exhibition hall, and today hosts art galleries and occasionally fashion shows.

Theaters

Two round theaters are visible in this view. Théâtre Marigny, shown here, and the Théâtre du Rond-Point still host shows. The Théâtre du Rond-Point focuses on the work of living playwrights.

Arc de Triomphe

This massive, 50-meter (164-foot) tall marble monument honors those who died in the French Revolution and the following Napoleonic Wars. The Arc de Triomphe is a major landmark along the Axe Historique, and forms one end of the Champs-Élysées.

During times of war, military parades pass under its sculpted columns. In times of peace, tourists and everyday Parisians gaze at it from the enormous traffic circle at its feet.

A Monument to Victory

Sculptures honor the French Revolution that overthrew the corrupt monarchy, and Napoleon, who took over and formed his own empire shortly after. While Napoleon is still respected for his military and political genius, France is most proud of its democracy.

A Unified City Style

Napoleon’s successor appointed Georges-Eugene Haussmann to remodel much of Paris in 1853. Haussmann replaced dark, crowded streets with broad, light-filled avenues in a characteristic hub-and-spoke pattern. Later leaders restricted building heights within the city, keeping its classical character.

The Look of Paris

Many buildings in Paris use the same material, a cream-colored rock called Lutetian limestone. This, plus the uniform height and style of many buildings, gives Paris a remarkably unified, cohesive style of bright, distinctive city blocks.

Sacré-Cœur Basilica

This enormous white stone church is not nearly as famous as Notre-Dame or some of Paris’s other cathedrals, but it has an advantage that draws tourists. It is located on Montmartre, the highest hill in Paris, and has a grand view of the city even from the front steps.

Construction of the basilica began in 1875, and was completed in 1914. The Basilica is still an active church, and has become a landmark of the city.

Unusual Architecture

The Basilica’s design includes domes and arches that are characteristic of Byzantine architecture, a style not often seen in Western Europe. It contrasts with the more ornate Gothic cathedrals and highly decorated palaces, though it is still very complex.

Joan of Arc

A bronze statue honors Joan of Arc, a young girl who claimed that God had called her to lead the French army. She won unexpected victories during the Hundred Years’ War, but was executed for her religious beliefs.

Montmartre

Montmartre is both a hill and a neighborhood. The Basilica stands out not just because of its position at the top, but also because it is surrounded by nightclubs, rock-music venues, and bars.

Saint-Pierre

Sitting almost unnoticed next to the gleaming white Basilica is the church of Saint-Pierre. It does not get many visitors, but this is one of the oldest churches in Paris. It claims to be where the Jesuit order began.

Les Invalides

This complex of buildings is known as the Hôtel national des Invalides (The National Residence of the Invalids). Construction of Les Invalides was ordered by Louis XIV in 1670. The complex includes museums and monuments in honor of French military history.

It also contains a church and mortuary, or graveyard, holding the remains of some of France’s most honored military heroes.

Home for Veterans

Les Invalides, or “the invalids,” was built to honor and serve members of the French military. It held a hospital, housing, a church specifically for aged and unwell soldiers. It still offers services for veterans, including medical care and a retirement home.

Musée de l'Armée

The Musée de l'Armée houses a collection of cannons, weapons, and armor dating back to the Middle Ages. It also houses the Musée des Plans-Reliefs, an unusual collection of scale models of French fortresses once used for military planning.

Napoleon’s Tomb

The Dôme des Invalides, completed in 1861, is widely considered a masterpiece of French Baroque architecture. The church originally hosted services for veterans. In 1840, it was rededicated as the tomb of Napoleon Bonaparte. The red granite tomb lies under the dome.

Tour Montparnasse

The Tour Montparnasse is often called the “most hated in Paris.” Critics complain that it is totally out of place among beautiful older stone buildings. After it was completed in 1973, the city limited new buildings to 7 stories tall.

La Défense

La Défense, Paris’s business district is visible on the horizon, just outside the main city. Unlike other parts of Paris, La Défense is a towering collection of modern skyscrapers. Its glass towers were kept outside of the main city, to preserve the historic beauty of Paris. 

This specialized section of the city is home to finance and banking firms and other companies and corporations you would expect to find in the largest city in Europe. 

La Grande Arche de la Défense

This enormous hollow cube (those dots on the bottom are people) echoes the Arc de Triomphe, but with a modern twist. It was designed to honor those who work for peace, in contrast to the war memorial.

Center of New Industries and Technologies

The Center for New Industries and Technologies is a convention center. It houses trade shows, global meetings, and other business gatherings. It also holds shops and a hotel.

Avenue de la Grande Armée

La Défense is not entirely separate from the rest of Paris. The Axe Historique continues along the Avenue de la Grande Armée, directly linking the Grande Arche de la Défense to the Arc de Triomphe.

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