Paris is a city with a dizzying history that stretches back to the 3rd century BC. No surprise, then, that important Paris monuments are so numerous, breathtaking, and varied in terms of period and architectural style. From Roman-era ruins to post-World War II memorials, these famous Paris monuments are essential keys to understanding the city's rich and complicated past. And a travel tip: if you're planning on visiting more than one or two of these, I suggest considering the Paris Museum Pass, which includes several sites on this list (buy direct at Rail Europe).
No first trip to Paris is complete without a visit to this marvel of Gothic architecture. One of the most singular and beautiful cathedrals of Europe, Notre Dame Cathedral's dramatic towers, spire, stained glass and statuary are guaranteed to take your breath away. Witness firsthand the spot that was once the heartbeat of medieval Paris, and that took over 100 years of hard labor to complete. Climbing the North tower to see Paris from the hunchback Quasimodo's vantage is essential, too. You'll soon understand why Notre Dame is one of Paris' top attractions.
2. Eiffel Tower
More than any other landmark, the Eiffel Tower has come to represent an elegant and contemporary Paris. The iron tower, which was built for the 1889 World Exposition by Gustave Eiffel, was wildly unpopular with Parisians when it was unveiled, and was nearly torn down. It has since attracted over 220 million visitors, and it would be hard to imagine Paris now without it. The tower crowns the Paris night sky with its festive light, and glitters up a storm every hour. Cliché? Maybe. But essential.
3. The Louvre
Most think of the monumental Louvre as a museum, but it was a fortress and palace long before it became a world center for art. The palace is testament to a rich history spanning from the medieval period to the present. Visiting the Louvre's medeival foundations is fascinating. The adjacent Tuileries gardens are perfect for a stroll pre-or post-visit.
The 164-foot Arc de Triomphe commissioned by Emperor Napoléon I does exactly what it was made to do: evoke sheer military power and triumph. It was built in an age when leaders erected monuments in their own honor, and scaled to their egos. The arch's beautiful sculptures and reliefs commemorate Napoléon's generals and soldiers. Visit the Arc de Triomphe to begin or culminate a walk down the equally grandiose Avenue des Champs-Elysées. You can't help but feel grand yourself.
The Sorbonne University is the historic soul of the Latin Quarter, where higher learning has flourished for centuries. Founded in 1257 for a small group of theology students, the Sorbonne is one of Europe's oldest universities. It has hosted countless great thinkers, including philosophers René Descartes, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir. Enjoy a drink on the café terrace in front of the college before exploring the winding little streets of the Latin Quarter behind it.
Paris counts within its walls many of the world's most poetic cemeteries-- but Père Lachaise outdoes them all. Countless famous figures are buried here: the most popular being The Doors lead singer Jim Morrison, whose tomb is kept constant vigil by fans. The French playwright Molière, Oscar Wilde, Edith Piaf, and Richard Wright are a few others. On a sunny day, climbing to the cemetery's summit and looking down on the lavishly designed crypts can be surprisingly joyful.
Not far from Notre Dame on the Ile de la Cite looms another pinnacle of gothic architecture. Sainte-Chapelle was erected in the mid-13th century by King Louis IX. The cathedral features some of the period's best-conceived stain glass, housing a total of 15 glass panels and a prominent large window, whose colors remain surprisingly vibrant. Wall paintings and elaborate carvings emphasize the stunning medieval beauty of Sainte Chapelle even more.
Seating 2,200 people, the imposing Opera Garnier in Paris -- also known as the Palais Garnier or simply the Paris Opera-- is an architectural treasure and essential spot for the city's ballet and classical music scene. Designed by Charles Garnier and inaugurated in 1875 as the Academie Nationale de Musique -Theatre de l'Opera (National Academy of Music - Opera Theater), the neo-baroque style Opera Garnier is now the home of the Paris ballet. The city's official opera company relocated to the starkly contemporary Opera Bastille in 1989.
The Hôtel de Cluny is a medieval residence that now houses the National Medieval Museum. The famous tapestry, "The Lady and the Unicorn", is displayed there. The ruins of thermal baths from the Roman empire can also be seen at the site. One of the museum's rooms, the "Tepidarium", was originally part of the baths.
Situated in the historic Latin Quarter, the Hôtel de Cluny also boasts a medieval-style aromatic garden that provides a pleasant spot for a stroll, or for reading on a bench in the spring or summer.