Paris Travel Guide
Book your individual trip, stress-free with local travel experts
Book your individual trip, stress-free with local travel experts
Long considered the paragon of style, Paris is perhaps the most glamorous city in Europe. It is at once deeply traditional – a village-like metropolis whose inhabitants continue to be notorious for their hauteur – and famously cosmopolitan.
The city’s reputation as a magnet for writers, artists and dissidents lives on, and it remains at the forefront of Western intellectual, artistic and literary life. The most tangible and immediate pleasures of Paris are found in its street life and along the banks and bridges of the River Seine. Cafés, bars and restaurants line every street and boulevard, and the city’s compactness makes it possible to experience the individual feel of the different quartiers.
In terms of where to go in Paris, you can move easily, even on foot, from the calm, almost small-town atmosphere of Montmartre and parts of the Quartier Latin to the busy commercial centres of the Grands Boulevards and Opéra-Garnier or the aristocratic mansions of the Marais. The city’s lack of open space is redeemed by unexpected havens like the Mosque and theplace des Vosges, and courtyards and gardens of grand houses like the Hôtel de Soubise. The gravelled paths and formal beauty of the Tuileries create the backdrop for the ultimate Parisian Sunday promenade, while the islands and quaysides of the Left and Right banks of the River Seine and the Quartier Latin’s two splendid parks, the Luxembourg and the Jardin des Plantes, make for a wonderful wander.
Paris’s architectural spirit resides in the elegant streets and boulevards begun in the nineteenth century under Baron Haussmann. The mansion blocks that line them are at once grand and perfectly human in scale, a triumph in city planning proved by the fact that so many remain residential to this day. Rising above these harmonious buildings are the more arrogant monuments that define the French capital. For centuries, an imposing classical style prevailed with great set pieces such as the Louvre, Panthéon and Arc de Triomphe, but the last hundred years or so has seen the architectural mould repeatedly broken in a succession of ambitious structures, the industrial chic of the Eiffel Tower and Pompidou Centrecontrasting with the almost spiritual glasswork of the Louvre Pyramide and Institut du Monde Arabe. Paris is remarkable, too, for its museums – there are nearly 150 of them, ranging from giants of the art world such as the Louvre, Musée d’Orsay and Pompidou Centre to lesser-known gems such as the Picasso, Rodin and Jewish museums – and the diversity of entertainment, from cinema to jazz music, on offer.
It may seem familiar from afar, but close up the Eiffel Tower is still an excitingly improbable structure; an ascent to the top is an unforgettable experience. You can skip the line with priority access.
Join the joggers and cyclists, have a picnic or just soak up the wonderful views on the Parc Rives de Seine, a scenic riverside loop that takes in both the Right and Left banks. Better still, enjoy a cruise on the river itself.
Sainte-Chapelle's stunning stained-glass windows rank among the greatest achievements of French High Gothic.
A fabulously restored Marais mansion is the setting for this unrivalled collection of Picasso's paintings, sculptures, drawings and ceramics. Book priority entrance to bypass the queues.
France's greatest collection of Impressionist (and pre- and post-Impressionist) art is found at the Musée d'Orsay, housed in a beautiful converted railway station.
The Pompidou's radical "inside-out" architecture looks just as ground-breaking as it did when it first opened in the 1970s, and its modern art museum is a knockout.
Rodin's stirring sculptures are shown off to their best advantage in the sculptor's elegant eighteenth-century mansion and garden.
You could easily spend a whole day (and more) exploring the world-class Louvre's collections, including famous Italian Renaissance paintings and ancient Greek and Roman sculpture.
Frank Gehry's astonishing "cloud of glass" in the Bois de Boulogne holds an inspiring collection of contemporary art. Premium access will allow you to use a separate entrance and covers entrance to temporary exhibitions.
The ultimate French royal palace, awesome in its size and magnificence, and boasting exquisite gardens that are free to visit. Go by train for a stress-free trip.
Most tourists are keen, rightly, to take a boat trip on the Seine. One good option is the Batobus; otherwise Bateaux-Mouches is the best-known operator. Leaving from the Embarcadère du Pont de l’Alma on the Right Bank in the 8e, boats take you past the major Seine-side sights, such as Notre-Dame and the Louvre, complete with commentary. Night-time cruises use dazzling lights to illuminate the streetscapes – much more fun for people on board than passing pedestrians. The pricey lunch and dinner trips are best avoided. Bateaux-Mouches has many competitors, all much of a muchness, including Bateaux Parisiens, Vedettes de Paris and Bateaux-Vedettes du Pont-Neuf.
Another option, which takes you past less-visited sights, is to take a canal boat trip. Canauxrama offers a number of narrated cruises on the St-Martin, Ourcq and St-Denis canals, along with the Seine and the River Marne. Paris Canal is the company to offer cruises that ally the charm of Canal Saint Martin, and its locks, to the majesty of the major monuments on the Seine. With Paris Canal, you can Cruise Paris differently, from Musée d’Orsay to Bassin de la Villette.
Paris has an awesome emotional gravity: Parisians rarely want to escape, while most visitors find themselves yearning to return. Its power derives from the city’s rare beauty, of course, and its celebrated style and romanticism, but also from its unique history as the beating cultural heart of Europe over much of the last thousand years.
As such, the best places to visit in Paris range from grand monuments to exquisite, secretive little nooks and defined communities revolving around the local boulangerie and café. There are nearly 150 art galleries and museums on offer, brasseries and restaurants line the streets, and after dark, the city’s theatres, concert halls and churches host world-leading productions of theatre, dance, cinema and classical music.
Lying in its shallow river basin, Paris is still confined within its historic city limits and divided into twenty arrondissements, centred on the royal palace and museum of the Louvre, which spiral outwards in a clockwise direction. At its widest point, the city is only about 12km across – roughly two hours’ walk.
At the hub of the circle, in the middle of the River Seine, is the island from which all the rest grew: the Ile de la Cité, defined by its Gothic cathedral of Notre-Dame.
On the north or Right Bank (rive droite) of the Seine, which is the more bustling and urban of the city’s two halves, the longest and grandest vista of the city runs west from the Louvre: this is La Voie Triomphale – comprising the Tuileries gardens, the glamorous avenue of the Champs-Elysées and the Arc de Triomphe.
North of the Louvre is the commercial and financial quarter, where you can shop in the department stores on the broad Grands Boulevards, in the little boutiques of the glass-roofed passages, or in the giant, underground mall of Les Halles.
East of the Louvre, the elegant Marais and Bastille quarters are alive with trendy shops, cafés and bars. Further east, the Canal St-Martin and Ménilmontant are good places to go for cutting-edge bars and nightlife.
The south bank of the river, or Left Bank (rive gauche), is quieter and less commercial. The Quartier Latin is the traditional domain of the intelligentsia – from artists to students – along with St-Germain, which becomes progressively more chichi until it hits the grand district of ministries and museums that surrounds the Eiffel Tower. As you move south towards Montparnasse and the southern swathe of the Left Bank, however, high-rise flats start to alternate with charming bourgeois neighbourhoods.
Back on the Right Bank, many of the outer arrondissements were once outlying villages. Hilly Montmartre, with its rich artistic associations and bohemian population, is the most picturesque, but Belleville and Passy, have also retained village-like identities – working-class in the east, wealthy in the west.
Central Paris has lots of wonderful gardens, notably the Jardin du Luxembourg, but the best big parks are the Bois de Vincennes and the Bois de Boulogne, at the eastern and western edges of the city, respectively.
The region surrounding the capital, beyond the boulevard périphérique ring road, is known as the Ile-de-France. It’s dotted with cathedrals and châteaux. Nearby sights, such as the Gothic cathedral at St-Denis and the astonishing royal palace at Versailles, out in the suburbs, are easy to get to, while full day-trip destinations include the stunning cathedral town of Chartres and Monet’s lovely garden at Giverny.
An equally accessible outing from the capital, and practically a must-see if you are travelling with children, is that most un-French of French attractions, Disneyland Paris.
The entertainment nexus of Montparnasse, with its evocative literary and artistic associations, divides the well-heeled opinion-formers and powerbrokers of St-Germain and the 7e from the relatively anonymous populations to the south. The three arrondissements to the south of Montparnasse have suffered from large-scale housing developments, most notably along the riverfronts to both east and west, but villagey areas such as rue du Commerce in the 15e, Pernety in the 14e and the Buttes-aux-Cailles in the 13e are worth a foray. On the fringes of the city proper, hard up against the périphérique ring road, are three fantastic parks: André Citroën, Georges-Brassens and Montsouris.
Like other Left Bank quartiers, Montparnasse trades on its association with the wild characters of the interwar artistic and literary boom. Many were habitués of the cafés Select, Coupole, Dôme, Rotonde and Closerie des Lilas. The cafés are all still going strong on boulevard du Montparnasse, while the glitterati have mostly ended up in the nearby Montparnasse cemetery. The quarter’s artistic traditions are maintained in a couple of fascinating art museums, while elsewhere you can ascend the Tour Montparnasse, Paris’s first and ugliest skyscraper, and descend into the bone-lined catacombs.Paris Guide - The 12e arrondissement
South of Bastille, the relatively unsung 12e arrondissement offers an authentic slice of Paris, with its neighbourhood shops and bars and traditional markets, such as the lively Marché d’Aligre. Among the area’s attractions are the Promenade Plantée, an ex-railway line turned into an elevated walkway running from Bastille to the green expanse of the Bois de Vincennes, and Bercy, once the largest wine market in the world, its handsome old warehouses now converted into cafés and shops.
A symbol of revolution since the toppling of the Bastille prison in the 1789, the Bastille quarter was a largely working-class district up until the construction of the new opera house in the 1980s. Since then, it has attracted artists, fashion folk and young people, who have brought with them stylish shops and an energetic nightlife, concentrated on rue de Lappe and rue de la Roquette.
The Beaubourg quartier centres on the Centre Pompidou, one of the city’s most popular and recognizable landmarks and one of the twentieth century’s most radical buildings. The area around the Centre Pompidou is home to more contemporary art. Jean Tinguely and Niki de Saint-Phalle created the colourful moving sculptures and fountains in the pool in front of Église St-Merri on place Igor Stravinsky. This squirting waterworks pays homage to Stravinsky – each fountain corresponds to one of his compositions (The Firebird, The Rite of Spring and so on) – and shows scant respect for passers-by. To the north are numerous commercial art galleries, occupying the attractive old hôtels particuliers on pedestrianized rue Quincampoix, while to the west is the rather less alluring Les Halles underground shopping and leisure complex.
The opening of the Centre Pompidou in 1977 gave rise to some violent reactions; since then, however, it has won over critics and public alike. Architects Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers freed up maximum space inside by placing all infrastructure outside: utility pipes and escalator tubes, all brightly colour-coded according to their function, climb around the exterior in crazy snakes-and-ladders fashion. The transparent escalator on the front of the building, giving access to the Musée National d’Art Moderne, affords superb views over the city. Aside from the hugely popular museum there are two cinemas, performance spaces, a library, the excellent Galerie des enfants on the first floor, which stages regular exhibitions and workshops, and the new, free Galerie de Photographies on the basement level, which organizes three exhibitions a year drawn from the centre’s archive of photographs.
The superb Musée National d’Art Moderne presides over the fourth and fifth floors of the Centre Pompidou, with the fifth floor covering 1905 to roughly the years 1970–1980, while the fourth floor concentrates on contemporary art. Thanks to an astute acquisitions policy and some generous gifts, the collection is a near-complete visual essay on the history of twentieth-century art and is so large that only a fraction of the 50,000 works are on display at any one time. Since the opening of the museum’s sister site in Metz in 2010 and a new “pop-up” gallery in Málaga, Spain, many more of the museum’s holdings have been brought out of storage and put on display.
On the fifth floor, Fauvism, Cubism, Dada, abstract art, Surrealism and abstract expressionism are all well represented. There’s a particularly rich collection of Matisses, ranging from early Fauvist works to his late masterpieces – a standout is his Tristesse du roi, a moving meditation on old age and memory. Other highlights include a number of Picasso’s and Braque’s early Cubist paintings and a substantial collection of Kandinskys, including his pioneering abstract works Avec l’arc noir and Composition à la tache rouge. A whole room is usually devoted to the characteristically colourful paintings of Robert and Sonia Delaunay, contrasting with the darker mood of more unsettling works on display by Surrealists Magritte, Dalí and Ernst.
The fourth floor is given over to contemporary art, featuring installations, photography and video art, as well as displays of architectural models and contemporary design. Established French artists such as Annette Messager, Sophie Calle, Christian Boltanski, Daniel Buren and Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster often feature, alongside newer arrivals such as Anri Sala.
On the northern edge of the Pompidou Centre, down some steps off the sloping piazza, in a small separate building, is the Atelier Brancusi, the reconstructed home and studio of Constantin Brancusi. The sculptor bequeathed the contents of his workshop to the state on condition that the rooms be arranged exactly as he left them, and they provide a fascinating insight into how he lived and worked. Studios one and two are crowded with Brancusi’s trademark abstract bird and column shapes in highly polished brass and marble, while studios three and four comprise the artist’s private quarters.
Commonly referred to as the Beaux Quartiers, Paris’s well-manicured western arrondissements, the 16e and 17e, are mainly residential and have few specific sights, the chief exceptions being the Musée Marmottan, with its collection of late Monets, and Frank Gehry’s extraordinary new building, the Fondation Louis Vuitton contemporary art centre, set in the Bois de Boulogne. Bordering the area to the west is the Bois de Boulogne, with its trees, lakes, cycling trails and the beautiful floral displays of the Parc de Bagatelle. Further west still bristle the gleaming skyscrapers of the purpose-built commercial district of La Défense, dominated by the enormous Grande Arche.
One of the most scenic stretches of the river, between the Musée du Quai Branly and Musée d’Orsay, was recently made into an attractive promenade known as the Berges de Seine; it's particularly appealing on weekends in the warmer months, where you can eat out on a sunny terrace, listen to occasional concerts, play a game of chess over a cup of coffee or simply relax in a deckchair and enjoy some of the best views the city has to offer. A busy programme of activities includes free exercise classes, tai chi and various workshops, while children (and grown-ups) can draw on a huge slate wall with chunky chalks, plus there’s a kids’ climbing wall and Velib’ bikes for all ages. Near the Pont de l’Alma are five small floating gardens, each on a different theme: one is an “orchard” planted with apple trees; another is planted with meadow grasses. Picnic tables and benches are dotted all along the promenade, and riverside restaurant-bars offer a good selection of food and drink. For more information, see paris.fr/berges.
Traditionally working class, with a history of radical and revolutionary activity, the gritty eastern districts of Paris, particularly the old villages of Belleville and Ménilmontant, are nowadays among the most diverse and vibrant parts of the city, home to sizeable ethnic populations, as well as students and artists, attracted by the low rents. The main visitor attraction in the area is the Père-Lachaise cemetery, final resting place of many well-known artists and writers. Visiting the modern Parc de Belleville will reveal the area’s other main asset – wonderful views of the city below. Another park well worth seeing is the fairy-tale-like Parc des Buttes-Chaumont.
Père-Lachaise cemetery, final resting place of numerous notables, is an atmospheric, eerily beautiful haven, with little cobbled footpaths, terraced slopes and magnificent old trees which spread their branches over the tombs as though shading them from the outside world. The cemetery was opened in 1804, after an urgent stop had been put to further burials in the overflowing city cemeteries and churchyards. The civil authorities had Molière, La Fontaine, Abelard and Héloïse reburied here, and to be interred in Père-Lachaise quickly acquired cachet. A free map of the cemetery is available at all the entrances or you can buy a more detailed one at shops on boulevard de Ménilmontant. Among the most visited graves is that of Chopin (Division 11), often attended by Poles bearing red-and-white wreaths and flowers. Fans also flock to the grave of Jim Morrison (Division 6), lead singer of The Doors, who died in Paris at the age of 27, and to Oscar Wilde’s tomb (Division 89), which is topped with a sculpture by Jacob Epstein of a mysterious Pharaonic winged messenger. You can also visit the graves of Edith Piaf, Marcel Proust, Corot, Balzac and Modigliani.
In Division 97 are the memorials to the victims of the Nazi concentration camps and executed Resistance fighters. Marking one of the bloodiest episodes in French history is the Mur des Fédérés (Division 76), the wall where the last troops of the Paris Commune were lined up and shot in the final days of the battle in 1871.
The Bassin de la Villette and the canals at the northeastern gate of the city were for generations the centre of a densely populated working-class district, whose main source of employment were the La Villette abattoirs and meat market. These have long gone, replaced by the huge complex of La Villette, a postmodern park of science, art and music.
The Villette complex stands at the junction of the Ourcq and St-Denis canals. The first was built by Napoleon to bring fresh water into the city; the second is an extension of the Canal St-Martin built as a short cut to the great western loop of the Seine around Paris. The canals have undergone extensive renovation, and derelict sections of the quais have been made more appealing to cyclists, rollerbladers and pedestrians. A major new arts centre, Le 104, has also helped to regenerate the area.
In terms of climate spring is deservedly the classic and best time to visit Paris, with bright days balanced by rain showers.
Paris in high summer is usually hot and can be uncomfortably humid, especially between mid-July and the end of August, when many Parisians flee south, leaving the city to the tourists.
In autumn things can be pleasingly mild and gratifyingly uncrowded (except during the autumn fashion show and trade-fair season, when hotels fill up early), but on overcast days – all too common – it can feel very melancholy.
Winter can be harsh, with icy winds cutting down the boulevards and snow not uncommon; the winter sunlight, on the other hand, is the city’s most flattering light.
Paris has an extraordinarily vibrant festival schedule; just a few are listed here. For details of the following and more, check at tourist offices or parisinfo.com.
Even outside the Michelin-starred temples to high cuisine, of which the city has many, a huge number of Parisian restaurants remain defiantly traditional, offering classic cuisine bourgeoise based on well-sauced meat dishes, or regional French cuisines.
You can find a tremendous variety of foods, from Senegalese to Vietnamese, however, while the so-called bistronomy movement sees accomplished chefs rejecting over-fussy concoctions in favour of more experimental cuisine, focusing on fresh flavours – and even, shockingly, giving a starring role to vegetables – usually served in less elaborate settings and at lower prices.
Luxurious, hushed restaurants decked with crystal and white linen; noisy, elbow-to-elbow bench-and-trestle-table joints; intimate bistros with specials on the blackboard; grand seafood brasseries with splendid, historic interiors; artfully distressed boho cafés – Paris has them all.
And today, many of the city’s most talked about restaurants are the relatively relaxed so-called neo-bistros, where the focus is very much on creative food, not on traditional service or old-school decor, while a new breed of hipster coffee houses, akin to those you’d find in east London or Brooklyn, has cropped up to serve the needs of caffeine heads not satisfied with the city’s characteristically bitter brews.
Eating out in restaurants tends to be expensive, with three-course evening meals rarely costing less than €45. Lunchtime set menus (known as menus or formules) can still cost as little as €15, however. The big boulevard cafés and brasseries, especially those in more touristy areas, can be significantly more expensive than those a little further removed.
For the more upmarket or fashionable places, and at weekends, it’s wise to reserve. Generally you will only need to do this a day or so in advance, but the most renowned places may require booking up to several weeks (or in some cases, months) ahead.
Traditionally Paris’s gastronomic reputation was largely lost on vegetarians, who had to subsist on salads, omelettes and cheese-filled baguettes. Nowadays, however, most places will often offer at least one or two non-meaty dishes, and some of the new breed of chefs are turning their attention to the fresh flavours and possibilities of vegetables.
There are a number of exclusively veggie restaurants, along with salons de thé, coffee houses and tapas bars offering lighter dishes; neo-bistros and hipper restaurants, along with the ethnic places, are also a good bet. Useful French phrases are Je suis végétarien(ne) (“I’m a vegetarian”) and Il y a quelques plats sans viande? (“Are there any non-meat dishes?”).
Many of Paris’s most historic market streets, such as rue Mouffetard (5e) and rue des Martyrs (9e) are lined with food shops, now, not stalls, but this is still one of the world’s great cities for outdoor food shopping. A few of the more classic or unusual markets are recommended below; for a full list, arranged by arrondissement, see the town hall site, paris.fr, under “Marchés Parisiens”.
The Parisian love of style and fierce attachment to small local traders have kept alive a wonderful variety of speciality shops. The nineteenth-century arcades, or passages, in the 2e and 9e arrondissements, are particularly rich in intriguing boutiques, while the square kilometre around place St-Germain-des-Prés is hard to beat for anything from books to shoes, and from antiques to artworks.
Other atmospheric and rewarding places for browsing include the aristocratic Marais, the trendy Bastille quartier, the quirky Abbesses quarter of Montmartre, and the broadly bohemian Oberkampf and Canal Saint-Martin areas of northeastern Paris. For haute couture the traditional bastions are avenue Montaigne, rue François 1er and the upper end of rue du Faubourg-St-Honoré in the 8e.
The traditional shopping heart of the city, Les Halles, is very commercial, and mostly downmarket. The most atmospheric places for book shopping are the Seine quais, with their rows of mostly secondhand bookstalls perched against the river parapet. The quartier Latin is the home of most of the city’s best independent bookshops.
If you’re looking for a one-stop hit of Paris fashion, the department stores are probably the place to go. For more picturesque browsing, make for the streets around St-Sulpice métro, on the Left Bank: you’ll find rich pickings if you wander down rues du Vieux Colombier, de Rennes, Madame and du Cherche-Midi – the last is particularly good for shoes. The home of couture and designer labels is the wealthy, manicured “golden triangle” off the Champs-Élysées, especially av François 1er, av Montaigne and rue du Faubourg-St-Honoré. Younger designers have colonized the lower reaches of the latter street, between rue Cambon and rue des Pyramides. On the eastern side of the city, around the Marais, Canal St Martin and Bastille, the clothes, like the residents, are younger, cooler and more relaxed. Chic boutiques cluster on rue Charlot, rue du Poitou and rue Saintonge in the Haut Marais, and young, trendy designers and hippy outfits congregate on Bastille streets rue de Charonne and rue Keller. There’s also a good concentration of one-off designer boutiques around the foot of Montmartre – try rue des Martyrs, and the streets around rue des Trois-Frères. For more streetwise clothing, the area surrounding the Forum des Halles is a good place to browse; Rue Etienne Marcel and (pedestrianized) rue Tiquetonne are good for clothes with a young, urban edge.
Paris is one of Europe’s great centres for gay men, with the scene’s focal point in the Marais, the “pink triangle” around rue Sainte-Croix-de-la-Bretonnerie. Lesbians have fewer dedicated addresses, but the community is becoming more energetic and visible.
The high spots of the festival calendar are the annual Marche des Fiertés LGBT, or gay pride march, which normally takes place on the last Saturday in June, and the Bastille Day Ball – open to all – held on the quai de Tournelle, 5e (M° Pont-Marie) on July 13. For information, check Têtu (tetu.com), France’s main gay monthly magazine.
Paris’s fame as the home of decadent, hedonistic nightlife has endured for centuries, and today the city has a vibrant bar and club scene and a world-class live music programme. World music and jazz are particularly strong, with gypsy jazz being very popular, but you’ll find everything from house and electro-lounge to home-grown indie rock and chanson.
Pariscope is the traditional first port of call for listings, and the online lylo.fr offers a pretty good run-down of gigs, searchable by genre. For more detail, try parisbouge.com and the arts and music magazine Nova (novaplanet.com). To find the latest club nights pick up flyers – or word-of-mouth tips – in the city’s trendier shops, music stores, bars and cafés.
Other than online, the best place to get tickets is Fnac (fnac.com) – there are branches in the Forum des Halles (Porte Pierre-Lescot, 1er; Mon–Sat 10am–8pm;M° Châtelet-Les Halles) and on the Champs-Élysées (74 av des Champs-Élysées, 8e; Mon–Sat 10am–11.45pm, Sun noon–11.45pm;M° Franklin-D.-Roosevelt). It can also be worth checking billetreduc.com for cut-price tickets at the more mainstream venues.
Paris’s history has conspired to create a sense of being apart from, and even superior to, the rest of the country. To this day, everything beyond the capital is known quite ordinarily as province – the provinces. Appropriately, the city’s first inhabitants, the Parisii, a Celtic tribe that arrived in around the third century BC, had their settlement on an island: Lutetia, probably today’s Île de la Cité. The Romans conquered the city two centuries later, and preferred the more familiar hilly ground of the Left Bank. Their city, also called Lutetia, grew up around the hill where the Panthéon stands today.
This hill, now known as the Montagne Ste-Geneviève, gets its name from Paris’s first patron saint, who, as legend has it, saved the town from the marauding army of Attila in 451 through her exemplary holiness. Fifty years later Geneviève converted another invader to Christianity: Clovis the Frank, the leader of a group of Germanic tribes, went on to make the city the capital of his kingdom. His newly founded Merovingian dynasty promptly fell apart under his son Childéric II.
Power only returned to Paris under Hugues Capet, the Count of Paris. He was elected king of France in 987, although at the time his territory amounted to little more than the Île de France, the region immediately surrounding Paris. From this shaky start French monarchs gradually extended their control over their feudal rivals, centralizing administrative, legal, financial and political power as they did so, until anyone seeking influence, publicity or credibility, in whatever field, had to be in Paris – which is still the case today. The city’s cultural influence grew alongside its university, which was formally established in 1215 and swiftly became the great European centre for scholastic learning.
The wars and plagues of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries left Paris half in ruins and more than half abandoned, but with royal encouragement, the city steadily recovered. During the Wars of Religion the capital remained staunchly Catholic, but Parisians’ loyalty to the throne was tested during the mid-seventeenth-century rebellions known as the Frondes, in which the young Louis XIV was forced to flee the city. Perhaps this traumatic experience lay behind the king’s decision, in 1670, to move the court to his vast new palace at Versailles. Paris suffered in the court’s absence, even as grand Baroque buildings were being thrown up in the capital.
Parisians, both as deputies to the Assembly and mobs of sans-culottes, were at the forefront of the Revolution, but many of the new citizens welcomed the return to order under Napoleon I. The emperor adorned the city with many of its signature monuments, Neoclassical almost-follies designed to amplify his majesty: the Arc de Triomphe, Arc du Carrousel and the Madeleine. He also instituted the Grandes Écoles, super-universities for the nation’s elite administrators, engineers and teachers. At the fall of the Empire, in 1814, Paris was saved from destruction by the arch-diplomat Talleyrand, who delivered the city to the Russians with hardly a shot fired. Nationalists grumbled that the occupation continued well into the Restoration regime, as the city once again became the playground of the rich of Europe, the ultimate tourist destination.
The greatest shocks to the fabric of the city came under Napoléon III. He finally completed the Louvre, rebuilding much of the facade in the process, but it was his Prefect of the Seine, Baron Haussmann, who truly transformed the city, smashing through the slums to create wide boulevards that could be easily controlled by rifle-toting troops – not that it succeeded in preventing the 1871 Commune, the most determined insurrection since 1789. It was down these large boulevards, lined with grey bourgeois residences, that Nazi troops paraded in June 1940, followed by the Allies, led by General Leclerc, in August 1944.
Although riotous street protests have been a feature of modern Parisian life – most famously in May 1968, when students burst onto the streets of the Quartier Latin – the traditional barricade-builders have long since been booted into the depressing satellite towns, known as la banlieue, alongside the under-served populations of immigrants and their descendants. Integrating these communities, riven with poverty, unemployment and discontent, is one of the greatest challenges facing the city and is one that a new administrative entity, the Métropole du Grand Paris, incorporating some four million people from the immediate suburbs and due to come into effect in 2016–17, hopes to address. Meanwhile, the city’s Socialist and first woman mayor, Anne Hidalgo, is continuing the green policies of her popular predecessor, Bertrand Delanoë, creating a more cycle-friendly environment, and planning to reclaim for pedestrians more of the riverbank, as well as the city’s famous squares, place de la Bastille and place de la Nation. In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shootings in January 2015 – when seventeen people, including well-known journalists of the satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, were shot dead by three self-confessed jihadists from the Paris area – the city experienced a renewed sense of unity and solidarity, which prompted the mayor to put the city forward as a candidate to host the Olympic Games in 2024.
Top image: Sainte Chapelle © Jan Willem van Hofwegen/Shutterstock
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