Paris has numerous nicknames, but the ‘city of love’ is the most appealing one. The city has a tumultuous past, which is evident everywhere, both above ground as well as underground.
The famous ‘Ile de la Cité’ island in the river Seine is the place where 300 years B.C. the Celts (also known as Parisi) made their camp. There are no traces of their existence left. There is also little to be found from the Romans who lived here from the start of the Christian Era.
From writings, it appears that the city, because of its location on the Seine, became increasingly popular among people from the countryside, through the ages. However, the growth of its population brought about all sorts of new problems. There was always a shortage of living accommodations and poor drainage caused regular outbreaks of infectious diseases.
The enormous Paris sewers used to be synonym for disease, rats and unbearable stench, but tourists were already being guided around there as far back as 1867. Most intriguing underground are the catacombs with bones and skulls of 6 million French.
This is the dark side of the extravagant French life especially according to those with a vivid imagination. Besides the economic growth that Paris enjoyed almost continuously, through the centuries it also encountered other problems. Which, like many other cities also had to do with hygiene and sanitation.
At the end of the 18th century, the graveyards were literally overcrowded and all sorts of diseases started breaking out. The city council took drastic measures. The cemeteries would have to be cleared out. But what can you do with the rotting remains of millions of people? Below the city, there were old limestone quarries, that served as a basis for the houses above ground.
It became the new home for millions of corpses, which were dug up during the nights and were transported through the city on carriages. This was an enormous undertaking. It took years to move all the skeletons: from 1786 to approximately 1810.
Remarkably this operation was carried out without any respect for the deceased whatsoever. Of each cemetery, the bones were simply stacked on top of each other and the skulls were thrown on a heap. Then all the remains were stuffed into the narrow quarries like matchsticks, here and there with a little bit of cement. The catacombs were given the name ‘Cemetery of the Innocent’. It is notable that right before the French Revolution the catacombs were the scene of many wild parties organised by Charles V. During World War II, this was the headquarters of the French resistance.
Although little is left of ancient Paris, medieval times can still be experienced here. It was the rise towards the 17th century, the Grand Century. The country, and obviously Paris as well, was developing quickly. Huge palaces were built in those days, however, at the expense of the French people. July 14th, 1789 was the day of the French Revolution. After this, Napoleon seized power and the young general brought peace over France.
Under his command, France waged war against many of its neighbours, until he was defeated at Waterloo in 1815. Remarkably enough, Paris survived two World Wars, almost without problems. In the past couple of years, the city has expanded gradually and Paris is now considered the cultural heart of Europe.
Nowadays, Paris is ideal for strolls, shopping or simply having a good time, with the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre museum, the Montmartre district and the medieval cathedral Notre Dame as absolute must. The city has even more to offer, though. Obviously there is the refined French cuisine, the many extraordinary shops and countless other monuments. This is a city trip you have to do. Once. Or twice.
Explore the sewers of the underground city
It may be difficult to imagine, but as far back as 1867, the Paris sewers were opened to the public for viewing. The rich could explore them in luxurious cleaning carts and boats. Paris has about two thousand kilometers of sewer lines. It is actually an underground city; it even has street names and house numbers.
You just need to step through a manhole cover and go down. Attention: in summer it can smell really awful, but isn’t that the real challenge? Get off at the Alma-Marceau metro-stop. The entrance is at the Pont de l’Alma, near the Quai d’Orsay 93, in the seventh district, Invalides.
Honour Jim Morrison, Edith Piaff and Frédéric Chopin
Père-Lachaise is a cemetery since 1804. Among others, it is the final resting place of famous people like Jim Morrison of The Doors, whose grave is surprisingly austere. The world famous songstress Edith Piaff also lies here, as do composer Frédéric Chopin and doctor Guillotin who invented the guillotine. Then there is the author and actor Oscar Wilde and Baron Hausmann, a civil planner of Paris.
This cemetery also boasts many grotesque monuments of less known Parisians. The view of the city is beautiful here, especially in the early morning hours or late afternoon. A handy map of the grounds can be obtained at the entrance or at the flower shop.
More information: www.pere-lachaise.com
Have dinner on the Seine River
The Seine River has been the lifeline of Paris for centuries. A boat is a perfect means to view the city, especially at night. You will get a different perspective. There is not a whole lot wrong with the French cuisine either and it is enjoyed by many travelers.
See the world-famous cabaret at the Lido
Everybody knows French cabaret and the Lido is one of the best (and best-known) places to see this dance spectacle. The shows are including a grand dinner, champagne is optional.
Actually, you may frequently run into the dancers in various other places as well: the (expensive) shows are advertised a lot, so you will probably see the scantily clad ladies in all sorts of shopping centers and at popular tourist attractions.
Honour Napoleon at Hôtel des Invalides
Napoleon Bonaparte is the most famous French military and political leader in history. After his death on the island of Saint Helena, his remains were later transferred to the Hôtel des Invalides. He lies in the basement under the golden dome, in a grave positioned in a shallow excavation. It is designed so that everybody who comes here needs to bow to him. Otherwise you may walk on the lower ring, which will require you to look up to him.
The conspicuous grave was designed by famous architect Louis Visconti. The body rests in five different coffins: one of tin, one of mahogany, two of lead and one of ebony, all placed in a block of red quartzite from Finland. Around the crypt, the victories of Napoleon are displayed: Austerlitz, Jena and Marengo.
Skate through the Parisian nights
You can skate through Paris at night. Every now and then a Midnight Skate tour is organised. But consider yourself warned. Paris has quite a lot of slopes and hills, so a proper braking technique is required. If you can manage that, you are set to go. This is a whole different way to view the city…
Drink coffee at the oldest cafe in Paris
Café Procope on Rue de l’Ancienne Comédie dates back from 1686. It is considered the oldest cafe in Paris. According to the tales, intellectuals like Benjamin Franklin, John Paul Jones and Thomas Jefferson have come here for coffee. Or in the case of the author Voltaire, a cup of tea. There are various items in the cafe that remind of ‘those good old days’.
Go cycling through the city
The Parisian city council has decided that Parisians and tourists should get onto a bike when traveling through town. So in many locations around the city you can simply rent a bike for a couple of euros. Cycling through Paris is something else, for sure.
It certainly saves a lot of time as compared to going by car. Most bookstores and the local tourist information offices will provide bicycle routes that take you to tourist attractions. At the tourist information offices you can also book guided tours.
Look for Rin Tin Tin at the dog cemetery
The name is Cimetière des Chiens and officially, it’s a dog cemetery. According to stories it was the first one in the world when it opened its doors in 1899. The most famous dog buried here is Hollywood star Rin Tin Tin, a German shepherd dog adopted by an American soldier and taken to the US in the 1920s. However, among the 40,000 animals buried here, there also are cats, rabbits and at least one chicken. Most of the graves are richly decorated and well-maintained.
Taste the cooking school of Le Ritz-Escoffier
The famous cooking school Le Ritz-Escoffier belongs to the prestigious Ritz Hotel. You can take extensive cooking courses here, or a workshop of a couple of hours. It may not be cheap, but it is very good. And it gives you an exclusive look at the French cuisine.
Go nightclubbin’ at the Moulin Rouge
It is the most famous nightclub in Paris. Maybe even the most famous nightclub of the entire world. The cancan became world famous in the 1960s, when it went all over the world. These days, some 100 artists give a dazzling, slightly erotic show. You can also have dinner here.
Explore Paris on a segway
A Segway is a two-wheeled transportation vehicle, which you stand on. The advanced electronic device stands vertically and drives on an engine. It’s not very difficult to get the hang of it and once you do, you’re good to go. Straight through Paris.
Go shopping on the Champs Élysées
It is the most famous street in the world. And home of many expensive shops with the latest fashion. But also for those with a smaller purse, you will be able to find some nice clothing. The enormously wide avenue was recently renovated and has even more appeal now. It is fun to watch the people here, because this is where you meet the trendy Parisians.
Montmartre, with its artistic aura, is often referred to as the most beautiful part of Paris, or of the whole of France even. This former village on a hill is an ideal place to stroll around in the afternoon and get a proper overview of the city.
Enjoy it the way Vincent van Gogh did, for example. He came to live here on Rue Lepic 54 in 1886 and stayed here until his death in 1888. Go and sit on one of the steps to the Sacré Coeur and look around you.
Rent a boat in Bois du Boulogne
The famous forest Bois du Boulogne is near the center. It comprises beech forest Pré Catelan, among others, but there are many other types of trees in the park. This is an excellent place to have a look at the French daily life. During the day you can take a trip on the Lac Inferiur in a rowing boat.
Have lunch at the rooftop of Le Printemps
Printemps is the name of an enormous department store in the city center. You can find a huge restaurant on the roof with a 360 degree view. It is ideal to have lunch in this extraordinary decor, with its infinite number of fresh buns. Attention: the place becomes crowded around half past twelve, so either go early or maybe a bit later.
Taste the urban wine from Clos de Montmartre
Clos de Montmartre is the sole remaining vineyard in Paris. In the past, Montmartre hill was a popular spot to grow grapes, especially on the grounds of the former churches. Every year in October, the Montmartre Wine Festival takes place.
A celebration by the Parisians for the fact that their city still produces wine, even if it isn’t a prize-winner. Next to wines, there is a lot of food as well. Ideal to spend an afternoon out.
Enjoy the fireworks of July 14th
Quatorze Juillet (or July 14th) is the annual national holiday of France. On this date in 1789, the storming of the Bastille took place, triggering the French Revolution. To celebrate this, there are many activities in Paris and throughout the country. There are many markets and of course the annual fireworks festival from the Eiffel Tower, among others.
Crack the Da Vinci Code
Just like Rome, Paris plays a prominent role in one of the biggest best-selling novels of recent years: The Da Vinci Code. In the story (which has also been made into a motion picture), a scientist named Robert Langdon investigates a murder at the Louvre Museum.
If you wish, you can visit all the locations that are mentioned in the story, even the train station Gare Saint Lazare, the Champs Élysée and Bois de Boulogne. You can go by yourself, but you can also book a tour.
Sleep in Coco Chanel’s room
The French fashion designer Coco Chanel stayed at the famous Ritz Hotel for many years. Gabrielle Chanel, as her real name was, was considered a pioneer in the world of fashion. Her stylishly decorated suite at the Ritz still looks exactly the way it did in 1971, when she passed away here. The room can be hired for the pretty sum of 3,000 euros.
Seal your love on Pont des Arts
Everybody knows the padlocks. On the Pont des Arts (actually it’s the Passerelle des Arts), the local residents and also many tourists, come to fasten a padlock to the bridge. It is the ultimate display of love, when the keys are thrown into the river.
The 155 meter long bridge across the river Seine connects the Institute de France with the Cour Carrée of the Louvre. Its name comes from the Louvre, which was once named “Palais des Arts”. If you are here anyway, have a look at the view. It is one of the best places to take photographs or perhaps make a painting.
The Paris spring is famous, because it is sunny, yet not too warm. There also are a lot less tourists than in summer. Autumn is also a good time in terms of temperature and tourist crowds. Summer here is really busy and expensive. And keep into account that there will be long waiting lines for the most important sites.
Traffic in Paris is notorious. Not as extreme as before, but if you drive around Paris, you need to pay close attention. In case of doubt, give the right of way. Hitting other cars when parking is quite common here. A parking garage is probably the best option when you arrive by car. If you take the train or airplane, this will not be an issue.
How do I get there?
Paris is a popular destination and from all over the world, airlines will fly direct and often. There are good connections by train from many countries.
Almost all sites are within the Boulevard Périphérique (the orbital road) and the subway will quickly take you just about anywhere. And in many times the metro is the fastest way to travel around.