Paris Travel Guide


Arc de Triomphe
The Arc de Triomphe is the world's largest traffic roundabout and the meeting point of 12 avenues. It was commissioned in 1806 by Napoleon to commemorate his imperial victories, but remained unfinished until 1836.

Since 1920, the body of an unknown soldier from WWI taken from Verdun in Lorraine has lain beneath the arch, his fate and that of countless others like him commemorated by a memorial flame rekindled each evening around 6:30pm. France's national remembrance service is held here annually on Nov 11th.

From the viewing platform on top of the arch (284 steps), you can see the 12 avenues - many of them named after illustrious generals - radiating toward every part of Paris.

Tickets are sold in the underground passageway - the only sane way to reach the base of the arch - that surfaces on the even-numbered side of Ave des Champs-Élysées.

Bois de Boulogne
The modestly sized Bois de Boulogne, on the western edge of the city, is endowed with forested areas, meandering paths, belle époque cafes and little wells of naughtiness. Each night, pockets of the Bois de Boulogne are taken over by prostitutes and lurkers with predacious sexual tastes. In recent years, the police have cracked down on the area's sex trade, but locals still advise against walking through the area alone at night. The Bois de Boulogne was damaged in the storms of December 1999; its renovation is due to be completed in 2004.

In 1785, Paris decided to solve the problem of its overflowing cemeteries by exhuming the bones of the buried and relocate them in the tunnels of several disused quarries, leading to the creation of the Catacombes. Visitors to this disturbing 'attraction' will find themselves 20m (65ft) underground, working their way along corridors stacked with bones.

People over 60 can get in for free, which says a lot about the French sense of humour. The tunnels, which were used by the Résistance during WWII as a headquarters, are south of the Seine.

Cathédrale Notre Dame
If Paris has a heart, then this is it. Notre Dame de Paris is not only a masterpiece of French Gothic architecture, but has also been Catholic Paris' ceremonial focus for seven centuries. The cathedral's immense interior, a marvel of medieval engineering, holds over 6000 people and has spectacular rose windows.

Although Notre Dame is regarded as a sublime architectural achievement, there are all sorts of minor anomalies, as the French love nothing better than to mess with things. These include a trio of main entrances that are each shaped differently, and which are accompanied by statues that were once coloured to make them more effective as Bible lessons for the hoi polloi. The interior is dominated by a 7800-pipe organ that was restored but has not worked properly since.

It's well worth the effort of climbing the 387 steps of the north tower. This will bring you to the top of the west facade and face to face with many of the cathedral's most frightening gargoyles, which enjoy a spectacular view of Paris.

Centre Pompidou
The Pompidou Centre, also known simply as Beaubourg, is all about modern and contemporary 20th-century art. Thanks in part to its vigorous schedule of temporary exhibitions, it has become the most visited cultural sight in Paris.

The design of the Pompidou has drawn critical comment since construction began in 1972. To keep the exhibition halls uncluttered, the architects put the building's 'insides' on the outside, with each duct, pipe and vent painted its own telltale colour: elevators and escalators are red, electrical circuitry yellow, plumbing green and air-conditioning blue.

After a massive renovation during 1998-99 the center has a stunning reworked facade on the west side, an expanded exhibition space, and a new cinema, restaurant and cybercafé - plus new facilities for dance, theatre, CD and video.

Two floors are dedicated to exhibiting some of the 40,000-plus works of the Musée Nationale d'Art Moderne, France's national collection of 20th-century art. The top floors have a magnificent view of Paris, and place George Pompidou below attracts street performers, musicians and artists.

Cimetière du Père Lachaise
Founded in 1804, Père Lachaise's 70,000 ornate tombs form a verdant, open-air sculpture garden. Among its resting residents are famous composers, writers, artists, actors, singers, dancers and even the immortal 12th-century lovers Abélard and Héloïse.

One of the most popular graves is that of rock star Jim Morrison of The Doors, who died in an apartment on Rue Beautreillis (4e) in the Marais in 1971.

The cemetery has four entrances, two of them on Blvd de Ménilmontant. Newsstands and kiosks in the area sell a detailed map, 'Plan Illustré du Père Lachaise'.

Two-hour, English-language tours are run on Saturday at 3pm Jun-Sep. French-language tours, are run most Saturdays at 2:30pm.

Eiffel Tower
Built for the 1889 Exposition Universelle (World Fair), held to commemorate the centennial of the Revolution, the Tour Eiffel was the world's tallest structure at 320m (1050ft) until Manhattan's Chrysler Building was completed.

Initially opposed by the city's artistic and literary elite - who were only affirming their right to disagree with everything - the tower was almost torn down in 1909. Salvation came when it proved an ideal platform for the antennas needed for the new science of radiotelegraphy. Just southeast of the tower is a grassy expanse that was once the site of the world's first balloon flights and is now used by teens as a skateboarding arena or by activists bad-mouthing Chirac.

When you're done peering upward through the girders, three levels are open to the public. There are elevators to the top but they have long queues. You can avoid the queues by walking up the stairs in the south pillar to the 1st or 2nd platforms. Guided visits are also available.

Musée d'Orsay
The spectacular Musée d'Orsay displays France's national collection of paintings, sculptures, objets d'art and other works produced 1848-1914, including the fruits of the impressionist, postimpressionist and art nouveau movements.

It thus fills the chronological gap between the Louvre and the Musée National d'Art Moderne at the Centre Pompidou. The museum is austerely housed along the Seine in a former railway station built in 1900 and reinaugurated in its present form in 1986.

Musée du Louvre
The Louvre may be the world's greatest art museum - but it's also the one most avoided by visitors to Paris. Daunted by its size and overwhelming richness, many people head to smaller galleries. But if you have even the merest interest in the fruits of human civilisation from antiquity to the 19th century, then visit you must.

To make your journey through the collection more enjoyable, pick up one of the useful map-guides and check out the works you really want to see, concentrating on only a couple of sections of the museum.

The most famous works from antiquity include the Seated Scribe, the Jewels of Rameses II and the armless duo - the Winged Victory of Samothrace and the Venus de Milo. From the Renaissance, don't miss Michelangelo's Slaves, Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa and works by Raphael, Botticelli and Titian. French masterpieces of the 19th century include Ingres' La Grande Odalisque, Géricault's The Raft of the Medusa and the work of David and Delacroix.

The former fortress began its career as a public museum in 1793 with 2500 paintings; now some 30,000 are on display.

The Grand Louvre project has breathed new life into the museum with many new and renovated galleries now open to the public. To avoid queues at the pyramid, buy your ticket in advance and/or enter through the underground shopping mall.

Place des Vosges
The Marais district spent a long time as a swamp and then as agricultural land, until in 1605 King Henry IV decided to transform it into a residential area for Parisian aristocrats. He did this by building Place des Vosges and arraying 36 symmetrical houses around its square perimeter. The houses, each with arcades on the ground floor, large dormer windows, and the requisite creepers on the walls, were initially built of brick but were subsequently constructed using timber with a plaster covering, which was then painted to look like brick. Duels, fought with strictly observed formality, were once staged in the elegant park in the middle. From 1832-48 Victor Hugo lived at a house at No 6, which has now been turned into a municipal museum. Today, the arcades around the place are occupied by expensive galleries and shops, and cafés filled with people drinking little cups of coffee and air-kissing immaculate passersby.

Sainte Chapelle
The most exquisite of Paris' Gothic gems, Sainte Chapelle is tucked away within the walls of the Palais de Justice. The chapel is illuminated by a veritable curtain of luminous 13th-century stained glass (the oldest and finest in Paris).

Consecrated in 1248, Sainte Chapelle was built to house what was believed to be Jesus' crown of thorns and other relics purchased by King Louis IX. The chapel's exterior can be viewed from across the street, from the law courts' magnificently gilded 18th-century gate, which faces Rue de Lutèce.

Off the Beaten Track

Canal Saint Martin
The little-touristed Saint Martin canal, running through the northeastern districts of the Right Bank, is one of Paris' hidden delights. The 5km (3mi) waterway, parts of which are higher than the surrounding land, was built in 1806 to link the Seine with the much longer Canal de l'Ourcq. Its shaded towpaths - specked with sunlight filtering through the plane trees - are a wonderful place for a romantic stroll or bike ride past locks, metal bridges and unassuming but well turned-out Parisian neighbourhoods. A clean-up of the area should make this an even more pleasant spot to while away the hours.

Égouts de Paris
A city cannot grow, prosper and become truly great unless some way is found to deal with its odiferous output of bodily wastes. Along the Seine, east of the Eiffel Tower, Paris has a unique working museum devoted to such an answer: sewerage. The entrance to the museum is a rectangular maintenance hole that leads into 480m (1575ft) of raw sewerage tunnels, replete with all sorts of vaguely familiar objects flowing beneath your feet.

Île de France
The relatively small region surrounding Paris - known as the Île de France (Island of France) - was where the kingdom of France began its 12th-century expansion. Today, it's a popular day-trip destination for Parisians and Paris-based visitors. Among the region's many attractions are woodlands ideal for hiking, skyscrapered districts endowed with sleekly functional architecture, the much-maligned EuroDisney, elegant historical towns and Versailles, the country's former political capital and seat of the royal court. The latter is the site of the Château de Versailles, the grandest and most famous palace in France. Built in the mid-1600s during the reign of Louis XIV, the chateau is a keen reminder of just how much one massive ego and a nation's wealth could buy in days of old (eat your heart out, Bill Gates). Apart from grand halls, bedchambers, gardens, ponds and fountains too elaborate to discuss, there's also a 75m (250ft) Hall of Mirrors, where nobles could watch each other dancing.

Other France Attractions

On summer days, watch the waves of heat rise from the plains, just as Van Gogh did a century ago; olive groves and vineyards still cover the surrounding limestone hills. Central Arles is a relaxed place of intimate squares, terraced brasseries perfect for sipping pastis and men with long moustaches playing pétanque.

The charming city of Arles is renowned for its Roman remains, its houses with their striking red barrel-tiled roofs, and its shady, twisting alleys so narrow you'd be hard pressed to swing a cat there.

The high-toned coastal town of Biarritz, 8km (5mi) west of Bayonne, started as a resort in the mid-19th century when Napoleon III and his Spanish-born wife, Eugénie, began coming here.

These days Biarritz is best known for its fine beaches and world-class surfing. Its sights are compactly arranged; if you're in Bayonne, it's easy to come over for a day-trip and see everything of interest.

During the Film Festival in May, Cannes is crammed with more money, more champagne, more mobile phones and more cleavage than anywhere else in the world. Apart from posturing boutiques, hotels and restaurants, it also has beaches (studiously avoided by the sallow) with the equivalent of room service.

Cannes has just one museum and, since its speciality is ethnography, the only art you are likely to come across is in the many pretty galleries scattered around town. Still, the harbour, the bay, the hill west of the port called Le Suquet, the beachside promenade, the beaches and the people sunning themselves provide more than enough natural beauty.

The town of Chamonix lies in one of the most spectacular valleys of the French Alps. Reminiscent of the Himalayas, the area is dominated by deeply crevassed glaciers and the cloud-diademed peak of Mont Blanc. In late spring and summer, the glaciers and high-altitude snow and ice serve as a backdrop for meadows and hillsides carpeted with wildflowers, shrubbery and trees. This is the best time for hiking; in winter, travellers can take advantage of over 200km (125 mi) of downhill and cross-country skiing trails.

Not to be missed is the Aigulle du Midi, a solitary spire of rock several kilometres from the summit of Mont Blanc that stretches across glaciers and snow fields. Easily accessible, the views from the top are postcard-perfect. A further treat is a trans-glacial ride on the world's highest téléphérique (cable car), which stops en route at skiing and hiking destinations. The Mer de Glace is the second-largest glacier in the Alps. It measures 14km (9 mi) long, 1800m (5900ft) wide and is up to 400m (1315ft) deep. For a better look at the glacier from the inside, you can tour an ice cave that is carved anew each spring. There is also a train that ascends to an altitude of 1915m (6275ft) and a number of uphill trails, but traversing the glacier is dangerous and should not be done without proper equipment and a guide.

Other activities in and around Chamonix include mountain biking, parasailing, ice-skating and screaming down a spit-shined summer luge track. The Swiss town of Martigny is only 40km (25mi) north of Chamonix, should you wish to border hop for watch repairs or chocolate.

Château de Chambord
The Loire Valley was the playground of French nobility, who used the nation's wealth to transform the area with many earnestly extravagant chateaux. The largest and most lavish is the Château de Chambord (1519). It was built by King François I, a rapacious lunatic who was fanatically dishonest with his subjects' money.

Begun in 1519, its Renaissance flourishes may have been inspired by Leonardo da Vinci, who lived nearby from 1516 until his death three years later. Construction of the chateau, during which François unsuccessfully suggested the rerouting of the Loire River so it would be nearer to his new abode, took 15 years and several thousand workers, although the king died wizened and drooly before the building's completion.

Inside is a famed double-helix staircase that buxom mistresses and priapic princes chased each other up and down, when not assembled on the rooftop terrace to watch military exercises, tournaments and hounds and hunters returning from a day's deerstalking. From the terrace you can see the towers, cupolas, chimneys, mosaic slate roofs and lightning rods that comprise the chateau's imposing skyline.

Saint Malo and the North Coast
The Côte d'Émeraude (Emerald Coast) stretches west from the oyster beds of Cancale to the broad beaches of Pléneuf-Val-André, a tempting coastline of rocky reefs and islets fringed with golden sand, vividly green shallows and aquamarine deeps.

The port of St-Malo is one of the most popular tourist destinations on the Emerald Coast. It is famed for its walled city, acessible beaches and one of the highest tidal ranges in the world. However, it is not the region's only gem; the Coast is studded with small towns that tempt their own share of eager visitors.

Known simply as Sarlat, this lovely Renaissance town in Périgord (better known in English-speaking countries as the Dordogne) grew up around a Benedictine abbey founded in the 9th century. Caught between French and English territory, it was almost left in ruins during the Hundred Years' War and again during the Wars of Religion. Despite this, Sarlat retains a distinctive medieval flavour with its ochre-coloured sandstone buildings and enticing streets. If you want to avoid the crowds, plan a visit outside high summer, when the town is overrun by tourists.

Among Sarlat's architectural treasures is the Cathédrale Saint Sacerdos, originally part of the Benedictine abbey. Higgledy-piggledy in style, most of the present structure dates from the 17th century. Behind the cathedral is the town's first cemetery, containing the Lantern of the Dead, a 12th-century tower built to commemorate St Bernard, who visited in 1147 and whose relics were given to the abbey. The town's other main focus is the Saturday market. Depending on the season, foie gras, mushrooms, truffles, trussed-up geese and sheep's heads with rheumy eyes are traded among a racket of vendors and spectators.

Sarlat also makes an excellent base for trips to the nearby Vézère Valley, which is peppered with nearly 200 prehistoric sites, including the Lascaux cave, thought to have been the site of a hunting cult where magical rites were performed. Discovered in 1940, this capacious labyrinth holds a number of 15,000-year-old doodles and paintings of bulls, horses and reindeer. There are other painted caves in the area, but Lascaux is sans pareil. Unfortunately, the exhalations of enthusiastic rock-watchers caused a carbon-dioxide fungus to cover the paintings; visitors today are restricted to a precise cement replica of the painted original, sealed off just a few hundred metres away.

Located between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic coast, Toulouse is a city of students, a centre of cutting-edge European technology, and the capital of the good life; its taste for celebrations and fine food is attracting a growing number of new inhabitants.

Toulouse rewards the wanderer. Its small, 18-century Old Quarter is a maze of narrow lanes and plazas in which to get happily lost. Its River Garonne is peaceful by day and romantic by night, when the Pont Neuf is floodlit. Stumble across grand churches, fine art and handsome 16th-century mansions.

Balzac described Corsica as 'a French island basking in the Italian sun', but the island has a singular character that is entirely its own. This beautiful, wild playground is the ultimate combination destination - physical exertion in the elements by day, French wine and cuisine by evening, and a peaceful night's sleep to boot.

Corsica isn't called l'îsle de beauté (the island of beauty) for nothing. The delicately-shaded capital, Ajaccio, is a shrine to its famous native son Napoleon. The rest of the island is like a miniature continent, with marshes, mountains, coastline and a small uninhabited desert.

Grasse has served the country well in the art of perfume production for centuries. It is here that master perfumers - called nez (noses) - train their probosci for seven years to recognise around 6000 scents. The town, with its distinctive orange roofs sheltering densely packed cottages, was heaven-sent for flower fans.

Grasse and its surrounds produce some of France's most highly prized flowers, including lavender, jasmine, centifolia roses, mimosa, orange blossom and violets. In springtime, the green-fingered should take a stroll around Jardin de la Villa Noaille. Of the 40 perfumeries, only three are open to the public.

Ile d'Ouessant
This wild and beautiful island epitomises the rugged Brittany coast. An old local saying 'Qui voit Ouessant voit son sang' ('He who sees Ouessant sees his blood') expresses its untamed nature and the fear inspired by its powerful currents and treacherous rocks. There are stunning walks and amazing scenery.

Lampaul is the main village of the island, but it is only a tiny huddle; the most interesting things to do here are to visit the phares (lighthouses) and to walk along the island's rocky coastline.

The tiny walled town of Vézelay, another of France's exasperating number of heritage spots, is surrounded by some of the most beautiful countryside in Burgundy - a patchwork of vineyards, sunflower fields, brunette furrows of farmland and stacks of hay reinventing Impressionism. Originally built on a hilltop for defence purposes, it became an important site of pilgrimage in the 10th century and later a gathering place for crowned heads and grandees embarking on the Crusades.

Vézelay's focal point is the Basilique Sainte Madeleine, a former abbey church that was founded in the 9th century. During the Middle Ages, it housed what were believed to be the relics of St Mary Magdalene, which ensured a steady stream of pilgrims on her saint's day, 22 July. This tradition continues, and every year celebrations include a procession in which the relics are paraded around town. Magnificently restored, the church features a tympanum that is considered a masterpiece of Burgundian-style Romanesque architecture, grotesque carvings, sculpted capitals and an enormous nave. Behind the basilica is a park that has wonderful views of the Cure River valley and nearby villages, while walks in almost any direction will deposit you in rural loveliness.

Vézelay is 15km (9mi) from Avallon, 51km (31mi) from Auxerre, and lies within the Parc Naturel Régional du Morvan.

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