Synonymous with Parisian glamour, the Champs-Élysées cuts through one of the city’s most exclusive districts, studded with luxury hotels and high-end fashion boutiques. The avenue forms part of a grand 9km-long axis that extends from the Louvre, at the heart of the city, to the Grande Arche de la Défense, in the west. Referred to as the Voie Triomphale, or Triumphal Way, it offers impressive vistas all along its length and incorporates some of the city’s most famous landmarks – not only the Champs-Élysées but also the Tuileries gardens, place de la Concorde, and the Arc de Triomphe. The whole ensemble is so regular it looks as though it was laid out by a single town planner rather than by successive kings, emperors and presidents, all keen to add their stamp and promote French power and prestige.
The Arc de Triomphe towers above the traffic in the middle of place Charles-de-Gaulle, better known as l’Étoile (“star”) on account of the twelve avenues radiating out from it. The arch was started by Napoleon as a homage to the armies of France and himself, but it wasn’t actually finished until 1836 by Louis-Philippe, who dedicated it to the French army in general. The names of 660 generals and numerous French battles are engraved on the inside of the arch, and reliefs adorn the exterior: the best is François Rude’s extraordinarily dramatic Marseillaise, in which an Amazon-type figure personifying the Revolution charges forward with a sword, her face contorted in a fierce rallying cry. A quiet reminder of the less glorious side of war is the tomb of the unknown soldier placed beneath the arch and marked by an eternal flame that is stoked up every evening at 6.30pm by war veterans. Climbing the 280 steps to the top will be amply rewarded by the panoramic views; the best time to come is towards dusk on a sunny day, when the marble of the Grande Arche de la Défense sparkles in the setting sun and the Louvre is bathed in warm light.
East of place de la Concorde lies the Jardin des Tuileries, the formal French garden par excellence. It dates back to the 1570s, when Catherine de Médicis had the site cleared of the medieval warren of tilemakers (tuileries) to make way for a palace and grounds. One hundred years later, Louis XIV commissioned renowned landscape artist Le Nôtre to redesign them and the results are largely what you see today: straight avenues, formal flowerbeds and splendid vistas. Shady tree-lined paths flank the grand central alley, and ornamental ponds frame both ends. The much-sought-after chairs strewn around the ponds are a good spot from which to admire the landscaped surroundings and contemplate the superb statues executed by the likes of Coustou and Coysevox, many of them now replaced by copies, the originals transferred to the Louvre.