Paris Offers Plenty of Historic Sites for History Buffs

The most useful thing to keep in mind while on your historical quest through Paris is that the Left Bank area surrounding Notre Dame is the oldest part of the city. In fact, within a fifteen minute walk of the ancient church is the old Roman amphitheater, Arènes de Lutèce, the Arènes de Lutèce. It’s hidden up a sidestreet so a landmark worth seeking out. Its ancientness is breathtaking and is a sort of miniature of Rome's gladiator arenas. Lutèce is the ancient name of the city of Paris, when it was under Roman rule.

The Île Saint-Louis, a favorite strolling area among locals and tourists alike, is also ancient. Halfway up the main thoroughfare through the middle of the island is a hotel built around the old tennis courts, called Jeu de Paume, that King Louis XIII erected. The tiny alleyways that are streets in and around Notre Dame and Place St. Michel are historic, too, dating back a thousand years or more, some of them.

Place de la Bastille, with its modern-looking relatively new Opéra House is an historical location where citizens were kept under ball and chain a mere few hundred years ago. Place des Vosges is another one of those monuments that has been so well integrated into the modern urban façade that it’s altogether too easy to forget that it dates back to the era of King Henri II and his Queen, Catherine de Medici (1500’s).


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Place de la Concorde

This impressive square in the heart of the city has seen an incredible amount of history. Created by Louix XV and completed in 1763, it eventually hosted the guillotine that put to death Louis XVI, Marie-Antoinette, Danton and Robespierre. Today, it features a variety of fountains and statues, along with the prominent Obelisk of Luxor, a gift from Egypt that stretches 23 meters (75 feet) into the sky. It was installed on the square in 1836 by King Louis-Philippe, nearly three years after its arrival in Paris from Egypt. This 3,300 year old obelisk is engraved with heiroglyphics that exalt the reign of Pharaoh Ramesses II. METRO: Concorde

Île Saint-Louis
Photo courtesy of MSchuermann

There are actually two islands in the river Seine in the center of Paris: the Île de la Cité, the one that everybody knows about: home of the hunchback of Notre Dame and the Parisian police; And the Île Saint-Louis, the one which is attached by yet another bridge that tourists seem to seek out on their quest for quaint streets, charming shops and romantic French cafés. The Île Saint-Louis has done well for itself the past 400 years in the shadow of its more illustrious neighbor, the Île de la Cité, as its splendid architecture and its large number of exceptional 17th century mansions can attest. It is also one of the oldest sites of the city and home to the vestiges of the one of the city's first tennis courts, a jeu de paume, built by Louis XIII, who was a fan of the sport.

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Pont Alexandre III
Photo courtesy of Paige Donner, Pont Alexandre III Paris copyright 2014

Often considered Paris's most beautiful bridge, Pont Alexandre III was built in 1900 for the Universal Exhibition. It links the 7th and 8th arrondissements across the Seine, and its graceful arch bears the arms of both Russia and France. The bridge is renowned for offering expansive views of nearby Invalides when you look towards the Left Bank, and breathtaking views of the Grand Palais when you gaze towards the Right Bank. It's adorned with beaten copper reliefs and gilt bronze sculptures and is a must-visit during Parisian walking tours. The banks of the Seine just underneath the bridge have recently been turned into a pedestrian zone, with entertaining distractions such as cafés and lounging areas that are supremely enjoyable in the warmer months. METRO: Champs-Elysées-Clemenceau or Invalides

5th Arondissement - Latin Quarte

This Roman-style arena was built between the first and the 2nd century A.D. Named after the city's name when it was still under Gallo-Roman rule in that era, the Arénes de Lutéce are one of only two monuments that are still standing from that early historic time of the city, nearly 2000 years ago. It had been completely covered over and only in 1883, after the demolition of the Daughters of Jesus Christ Convent, that a third of the amphitheater was uncovered. Author Victor Hugo was one of the prominent citizens who headed up the preservation committee to save this archaeological site. The amphitheater was built initially to accommodate 17,000 spectators. Today you can still see the stage and wings where the actors stood when performing in front of the assembled crowd.

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Named for Louis XIV's confessor, who once lived in the vicinity, this cemetery was established in 1804. It was planned as a repository for human remains when authorities sought to improve sanitation by moving graves from the center of the city to its outskirts. Now park-like in its appeal, Pére Lachaise is a much-desired place to be buried. Within its bounds are the graves of Moliére, Oscar Wilde, Jim Morrison, Chopin, Edith Piaf, Sarah Bernhardt, Marcel Proust, and other famous figures. The very first burial at the cemetery however was Adélaïde Paillard de Villeneuve, a five-year-old girl who was the daughter of a bell-boy. Her grave no longer exists today because it was a temporary concession. Stately trees and beautiful memorials add to the cemetery's present-day calm. METRO: Pére Lachaise, Philippe Auguste

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Catacombes de Paris
Photo courtesy of iStock_000006809433

These underground tunnels date from the Roman period, when quarries were created to obtain building stone. Most sit at the base of Parisian hills like Montparnasse, Montrouge and Montsouris. In the late 18th-century, authorities began to use the caverns and tunnels to deposit bones exhumed from medieval cemeteries that had become unsanitary. During WWII, the catacombs were home to the French Resistance. Today, they're open to the public, who can view artfully arranged bones from years past. Miles of tunnels are still uncharted, but this 2km route, reached down a steep staircase, is well-lit and a constant 14°C. METRO: Denfert-Rochereau

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This gorgeous architectural gem, completed in the 17th century, is located in the city's Faubourg-St-Germain region. It was created by Louis XIV, the Sun King, as a home for aged soldiers and disabled/ injured veterans. Among its prominent features are a sweeping esplanade, a series of gardens, and a striking domed church, where Napoléon I and other military heroes are interred. One of those military heroes is Turenne, one of the most famous marshals of France, whose tomb was installed in 1800 under the Dome. It wasn't until 1840 that Napoleon I's body was transferred to this site under the direction of King Louis-Philippe. The Emperor passed away on St. Helena in 1821. Also at this location is the Musée de l'Armée, an outstanding art and military history museum, with extensive armament collections. METRO: Invalides, Latour Maubourg

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Built on the site of a former royal residence, this planned square was constructed in the early 17th century by Henri IV and was originally called Place Royale. It is a unique example of 17th c. architecture. Consisting of 36 units, the complex is fashioned of red-brick and stone self-standing mansions; ground-floor arcades are today occupied by shops and restaurants. Over the southern gateway is the King's Pavilion; above the northern one is the Queen's. Paris's oldest square is a lovely place to relax and browse; at one time, it was the residence for everyone from Richelieu to Victor Hugo (whose home is now a museum located at #6 Place des Vosges).

L'Arc de Triomphe

This symbol of French victory was commissioned by Napoleon and completed in 1836. Adorned with sculpture and the names of military successes, the enormous arch features a small museum and rooftop viewing platform. At its base is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The arch was inaugurated by the French King Louis-Philippe in 1836, dedicated to the Revolutionary Army and the Army of the Empire. Jean-François Chalgrin, the architect, is said to have been inspired by the Roman Arch of Titus. The arch sits at the center of place Charles de Gaulle (formerly place d'Etoile), a square that branches off into twelve avenues. It also offers great views southeast down the Champs-Elysées to the Louvre and northwest towards La Défense. Pedestrian access is most safely gained via the pedestrian tunnel from the north side of the Champs-Elysées. METRO: Charles de Gaulle-Étoile

This wonderfully extravagant palace, where royals frittered away much of the treasury, is a necessary stop for visitors. Top designers of the day created an ornate complex of gardens, lakes, stables and guest houses to complement the luxuriously furnished palace, where Louis XIV, XV and XVI lived before the kingdom gave way to revolution. Beautifully restored rooms hint at the court's wealth, as seen in the gilt, crystal and hand-painted furnishings and details. Make sure to see the historic Hall of Mirrors. Guided and unguided tours are available. The gardens are as much as an attraction as the interior, especially when the spectacular fountains are turned on to music on summer weekends. Access from Paris by train (RER line C; Versailles Rive Gauche station is an 8-minute walk from the palace).


Meet Paige Donner

Paige's latest book, The Romantic Couple's Guide To The City of Love, Sexy Paris follows her earlier guidebook Paris On 4 Paws, A Dog Lover's Guide To The City of Light and her acclaimed...  More About Paige