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A Short History of Paris (& 66 Paris Cultural Attractions)

Tourists flock to this city on the Seine in their droves seeking an elusive imagined Paris that lives in a set of images: carelessly flicked cigarettes; rock star philosophers debating; the smell of freshly baked baguettes wafting from the baskets of passing bicycles; beauty in all things – buildings, art, food, clothing, people and ideas. Visitors come to revel in the elegance of the urban, where artistry can be found around every corner; they hope to sample just a hint of the irresistible city that provided the sustenance and setting for works such as Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers and Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables.

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Paris borrows its name from the Parisii, a Celtic tribe that established a settlement here in the 3rd century BC on what is now the Île de la Cité. In time the Romans built a town here and called it Lutetia, Latin for ‘midwater dwelling’. Since Clovis I, King of the Franks, made the city his capital in AD 508, Paris has been a centre of power. Clovis’s Carolingian dynasty ruled until 987 when Hugh Capet was elected ‘King of France’; Capet’s male descendants formed the Capetian line of kings who reigned until Louis XVI was deposed in the famous French Revolution of 1789. After over 800 years of monarchy, Paris lurched between republics, emperors (the three Napoleons), and kings in the 19th century before the Belle Époque (or the ‘Beautiful Epoch’, the era in which Paris flourished as the world’s centre for established and avant-garde culture) had its day. Paris, really, is a city of revolutions. It has never been stationary, and its present remains vibrant.

In many ways, we are attracted to an idea of Paris – the city of that storied Belle Époque, the ville lumièré (or the ‘City of Light’), originally derived for its celebrated luminaries. We imagine a city, home to one of the oldest universities in the world (the Sorbonne), whose sophistication, beauty and dizzying splendour, from the gasping gothic and opulent baroque to the soaring modern and mind-bending post-modern, has attracted artists and intellectuals for centuries.

As we gaze up at the Eiffel Tower, at the red windmill of the Moulin Rouge or at the paintings that adorn the walls of the Musée d’Orsay, we are grasping for those seductive years of the Belle Époque. Between 1880 and the outbreak of the First World War, the tumult of French politics seemed to abate, and Paris became the world’s cultural North Star; the place of possibilities. Automobiles were appearing on the streets, the city was lit by tens of thousands of gas lamps, and Auguste and Louis Lumière were showing the first films in history. In the whirlwind freethinking fervour Paris drove art’s evolution: from Impressionism and Modernism to Art Nouveau and Art Deco; from Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Cézanne to Henry Matisse and Pablo Picasso. Eric Satie played his minimalist melodies on a piano in Montmartre as the cancan, set to Offenbach’s music, was danced at cabarets and music halls around Paris’ distinctive boulevards, squares and parks recently designed by Georges-Eugène Haussmann. To open the 1889 World’s Fair, Gustave Eiffel built the world’s tallest structure, a wrought-iron lattice tower topped with hundreds of gas lights beaming out The Tricolore (the flag of France). Quite literally, this was The City (and The Nation) of Light.

The Paris of which we fantasise, its bohemians milling outside late-night cafés in the shadow of palaces and luxurious galleries, can still be found; but the real Paris is more than this projection. Beyond the limelight is a sprawling metropolis that extends well beyond the elegant boulevards of the city centre. It’s first and foremost the nation’s capital, where most of its financial activity has taken place, and where its politics has been shaped over the centuries.

Paris' Top Cultural Attractions

Below, in no particular order, are our top picks for the cultural attractions you should check out on your next trip to Paris.

1. Arc de Triomphe

2. Atelier des Lumières

3. Bois de Boulogne

4. Centre Pompidou

5. Sainte-Chapelle

6. Cimetière du Père Lachaise

7. Basilique du Sacré-Cœur

8. Jardins du Trocadéro

9. Église Saint-Germain-des-Prés

10. Église Saint-Paul-Saint-Louis

11. Église Saint-Séverin

12. Église Saint-Sulpice

13. Square René Viviani

14. Hôtel de Ville

15. Square Louise Michel

16. Maison de Victor Hugo

17. Place Dalida

18. Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle

19. La Ménagerie

20. Musée Carnavalet

21. Musée de Cluny

22. Musée de l’Orangerie

23. Chapelle de la Sorbonne

24. Pont de l’Alma

25. Palais de l’Élysée

26. Palais de Tokyo

27. Musée Picasso

28. Palais Garnier

29. Place du Tertre

30. Musée Rodin

31. Palais Royal

32. Saint-Étienne-du-Mont

33. The Thinker

34. Petit Palais

35. Saint-Eustache

36. Jardin du Palais Royal

37. Pont Alexandre III

38. Tour Saint-Jacques

39. La Villette

40. Parc des Buttes-Chaumont

41. Parc de Bercy

42. Place des Vosges

43. Wall of Love

44. Conciergerie

45. Musée du Louvre

46. La Madeleine

47. Les Invalides

48. Grand Palais

49. Musée d’Orsay

50. Musée de Montmartre

51. Jardin des Tuileries

52. Palais du Luxembourg

53. Assemblée Nationale

54. Avenue des Champs-Élysées

55. Basilique de Saint-Denis

56. Place de la Bastille

57. Les Catacombes

58. Place de la Concorde

59. Eiffel Tower

60. Notre-Dame de Paris

61. Panthéon

62. Pont Neuf

63. Palais du Louvre

64. Tour Montparnasse

65. Jardin du Luxembourg

66. Champ de Mars

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