There’s a host of top historical places to visit in Paris and among the very best are Les Invalides, Notre Dame and Sainte Chapelle. Other popular sites tend to include Pere Lachaise Cemetery, the Eiffel Tower and the Palace of Versailles.
We’ve put together an experts guide to Paris’ cultural landmarks, monuments and museums, with our top ten places to visit as well as a full list of historic sites in Paris which shouldn’t be ignored if you have the time.
What are the best historic sites in Paris? The Top Ten
Les Invalides was originally built by the order of Louis XIV as a hospital and home for ailing soldiers. Following its initial construction, several further additions were made to Les Invalids, including a chapel in 1679 and the striking Dome Church or ‘Église du Dôme’, which incorporates the royal chapel built by Louis XIV and completed in 1706. Today, this iconic building is made up of several buildings and now stands as the largest complex of monuments in Paris, including its comprehensive military museum, Musée de l’Armée. Les Invalides operates numerous types of tours, including those specifically dealing with historical, cultural or artistic issues. There is even a tour dedicated entirely to Napoleon. The multimedia presentation on the life of Charles de Gaulle is also worth seeing.
Notre Dame is a world famous gothic cathedral in Paris’s fourth arrondissement. Notre Dame is still an operating church, but visitors are also welcome to tour the building and appreciate both its beauty and sheer size. Some of the highlightsinclude its stained glass windows, gothic architecture and many sculptures. Free tours are conducted throughout the year.
The nearby tower outside the cathedral is also worth a visit. Dating back to the 13th century, it houses the 17th Century Emmanuel Bell as well as Viollet-le-Duc’s 19th century chimera and gargoyles. Those feeling particularly fit can climb its 387 steps for magnificent views.
Sainte Chapelle is a gothic church built by Saint Louis in Ile de la Cité in the centre of Paris. Construction began in 1246 and was carried out with the specific purpose of housing the relics of the Passion of Christ, including the Crown of Thorns and a fragment of the true cross. The relics are now housed in the Treasury at Notre Dame but there are still many attractions in Sainte Chapelle. With its two impressive upper and lower chapels and imposing gothic architecture, Sainte Chapelle a top tourist attraction. Audio tours are available guiding visitors through and explaining the significance of its colourful stained glass windows and statues. In particular, the windows at Sainte Chapelle depict over a thousand images relating to the Old Testament and the Passion of Christ.
Pere Lachaise Cemetery was established by Napoleon I in 1804. From singer Edith Piaf, novelist Marcel Proust and impressionist painter Camille Pissarro to playwright Oscar Wilde, an array of famous figures are buried there today. One of the most popular graves at Pere Lachaise Cemetery is that of The Doors’ front man Jim Morrison, probably attracting the largest number of visitors, but all of the graves are fascinating, including those of the regular citizens. Maps are available to buy at the entrance, but you can also use the directories on the grounds. Overall, Pere Lachaise Cemetery is a peaceful and interesting way to spend an afternoon.
The iconic Eiffel Tower is an imposing iron monument on Paris’ Champ de Mars by the river Seine. The Eiffel Tower was built between 1887 and 1889 based on the design of engineer Gustave Eiffel, after whom the tower was named. Today, the Eiffel Tower is a tourist hotspot and visitors can climb or use the lifts to reach the first or second floors, the latter of which is 115 metres high. The most expansive views can be found on the Eiffel Tower’s third level at 276 metres, which has its own separate lift from the second floor. A backstage tour is available, which details the workings of the Eiffel Tower and its history.
The Palace of Versailles was originally the hunting lodge of France’s King Louis XIII, but was transformed into a magnificent residence by his son and successor, Louis XIV. The ostentatious monarch built the Grand Apartment of the King and Queen which included the magnificent Hall of Mirrors before moving both his court and the government of France to Versailles in 1682. And so it remained until the French Revolution in 1789. There are numerous places to visit at the palace and a range of tour options. Audio headsets are available as are guided tours. When visiting the Palace of Versailles, you can also see Marie Antoinette’s estate and The Grande Trianon.
The Pantheon was built as a result of King Louis XV’s determination to create an edifice to the glory of St-Genèvieve, the patron saint of Paris. The Pantheon’s crypt is now the burial place of many French icons and bears the inscription ‘Aux Grands Hommes La Patrie Reconnaissante’, meaning “To the great men, the grateful homeland”.
Those buried there include Rousseau, Émile Zola, Victor Hugo, Voltaire, Jean Moulin, Marie Skłodowska-Curie, and the architect of the Pantheon Jacques-Germain Soufflot. In fact, Soufflot died before the Pantheon was completed, meaning that his vision of a semi-gothic building with elements of basic principals was somewhat compromised. Guided tours of the Pantheon are available and last approximately 45 minutes.
The Arc de Triomphe is a 162 foot monumental arch in the centre of the Place Charles de Gaulle. It was commissioned by Napoleon in 1806, shortly following his victory at Austerlitz, with the aim of commemorating French soldiers, particularly those who fought in the Napoleonic Wars. Visitors can climb to its peak for magnificent views or enter the small museum inside it, both of which are included in the entrance fee. A further attraction at the Arc de Triomphe is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier , which commemorates those who fought in the two World Wars with an eternal flame.
La Conciergerie is located on an important site which once formed the seat of the city’s Roman leaders during their occupation of Gaul. La Conciergerie itself originally formed part of thirteenth century Palais de Justice, the royal palace built by King Philip IV. It served this role until the 1350’s, when the French royals moved to the Louvre. Visitors to La Conciergerie can enjoy its impressive medieval architecture, such as its large Hall of the Men at Arms and its history, both royal and as an instrument of punishment. Its original torture chambers can still be viewed.
Place de la Concorde in Paris was the site where King Louis XVI was executed on 21 January 1793. Place de la Concorde became the focus of the executions of France’s elite during the Reign of Terror, a period of exceptional violence during the French Revolution. Over 1,300 people were executed here, amongst them Louis XVI’s wife Marie Antoinette and even leading revolutionary figures such as Danton and Robespierre. Today, the site is home of the Luxor Obelisk. This monument was gifted to the French by the viceroy of Egypt in 1833 and it once formed part of the ancient Luxor Temple.