Best Historic Sites in Paris

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).


8éme Arrondissement

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

Recommended for Historic Sites because: During the French Revolution this square was renamed the Place de la Revolution. In 1793 Louis XVI and Queen Marie-Antoinette were executed here by guillotine.

Paige's expert tip: This square, the biggest in the French capital, was renamed Place de la Concorde in 1795 as a gesture toward reconciliation following the French Revolution. The Luxor Obelisk in the center is named such because it once marked the entrance to the Luxor Temple in Egypt.

Read more about Place de la 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.

Recommended for Historic Sites because: The island is less than half a mile long, so a walk around its full length is accessible for most ages and degrees of fitness.

Paige's expert tip: For centuries, the island has been the preferred address for the Parisian upper-crust. Residents included Georges Pompidou, second President of the Republic, and the Rothschilds who used to own the Hotel Lambert at the easternmost tip of the island until they sold the building to the Emir of Qatar.

Read more about Île Saint-Louis →

8ème Arrondissement
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

Recommended for Historic Sites because: This exquisite bridge anchors Paris between its Right and Left Banks and between Paris' iconic monuments, the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame.

Paige's expert tip: You will likely catch glimpses of any one of the many just-married couples who pose wearing their wedding finery in, on and around the beautiful bridge for unforgettably picturesque wedding photos.

Read more about Pont Alexandre III →

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.

Recommended for Historic Sites because: One of two oldest architectural remains of Paris dating from Biblical times, this amphitheater was re-discovered, then re-opened as a public square in 1896.

Paige's expert tip: This amphitheater, originally used as a stage, was later a cemetery. It was later filled in following the building of the wall of Philippe Auguste in ca. 1210. Les Arénes were rediscovered between 1860-1869 when the Compagnie Générale des Omnibus sought to build a tram stop on the site.

Read more about Arènes de Lutèce →

20ème Arrondissement

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

Recommended for Historic Sites because: Napoleon, declared Emperor three days prior to the cemetery opening, proclaimed, "Every citizen has the right to be buried regardless of race or religion."

Paige's expert tip: Schedule a whole day if you want to explore the entire cemetery: There are a whole 110 acres to cover and many famous tombstones to hunt down in addition to Jim Morrison's and Oscar Wilde's.

Read more about Cimetiére du Pére Lachaise →

14ème Arrondissement
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

Recommended for Historic Sites because: The remains of an estimated six million people are kept here in these underground ossuaries of Paris, known as the catacombs.

Paige's expert tip: Dazzling urban legends surround the catacombs, from cult worshipping to secret societies holding midnight candlelight vigils. It definitely adds to the entertainment factor when viewing all these old bones lodged deep beneath Paris.

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7ème Arrondissement

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

Recommended for Historic Sites because: The tomb of Napoleon I is sculpted from red quartzite and is surrounded by a laurel crown.

Paige's expert tip: Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte's body wasn't interred in the tomb here under the Dome until April 2, 1861. The body was initially transferred in 1840. The architect Visconti, commissioned by King Louis-Philippe, designed the tomb and assisted with the extensive excavations underneath prior to the installation of the tomb.

Read more about Hôtel National des Invalides →

4ème Arrondissement

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).

Recommended for Historic Sites because: Place des Vosges is the oldest planned square in Paris and is an historic testament Europe's royal city planning.

Paige's expert tip: Place des Vosges was built by Henri IV from 1605-1612. It was inaugurated in 1612 to celebrate the wedding of Louis XIII to Anne of Austria. Cardinal Richelieu is one of the many aristocratic and famous residents of this square (1615-1627, No. 21).

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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

Recommended for Historic Sites because: The flame of remembrance for the Unknown Soldier is rekindled here every day at 6:30pm.

Paige's expert tip: Visitors are allowed into the monument until 10:30 pm during winter hours and 11pm in summer hours. It's worth visiting at night since the views from up top over the whole city are rivaled only by those from the Eiffel Tower. Last entry 45 minutes prior to closing.

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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).

Recommended for Historic Sites because: This was the residence of French royalty and seat of French government from 1682 until the French Revolution. It's on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Paige's expert tip: Be sure to include Queen Marie-Antoinette's estate, the Petit Trianon, and its gardens in your visit. Gifted to his queen by King Louis XVI in 1774, the estate was only opened in 2006 and offers a glimpse into Marie-Antoinette's private life.

Read more about Chateau de Versailles →


Meet Paige Donner

Paige's guidebook Paris On 4 Paws, A Dog Lover's Guide To The City of Light , her cookbook, Le CBD Cafe Coockbook and novel, I'll Take Paris are all available on Kindle and Amazon. .

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