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Things to Do in France

Chic. Sophisticated. Iconic. France’s cultural identity is prominent across the globe. Paris, known affectionately as the City of Lights, tops every list of romantic destinations yet offers something for every type of traveler, from dinner shows at the Moulin Rouge to world-renowned art at the Louvre Museum and Gothic architecture at Notre Dame Cathedral. In Versailles, the colossal palace exudes grandeur; fine wines beg to be quaffed in Bordeaux and Champagne; and war history enshrouds the battlefields of Normandy and the Somme. Gastronomes will find nirvana in France, where freshly baked baguettes, cheese, casseroles, and delicacies such as snails and frogs’ legs are staples on most menus.
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River Seine
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Paris lies 277 miles (445 km) from the river mouth and the slow-moving river is navigable up to 348 miles (560 km) inland from Le Havre, to Paris and beyond. This made it a lucrative trading route and Paris a prosperous city even back in the days of the Roman Empire.

In Paris, many bridges cross the Seine, the oldest being the Pont Neuf dating from 1607 and the newest the Pont Charles de Gaulle completed in 1996. The river forks in central Paris creating two islands: the Ile de la Cité which is one of the most expensive districts to live, and the Ile Saint-Louis. Many of Paris's famous landmarks are beside the Seine: Notre Dame, the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower and the Musée d'Orsay.

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Eiffel Tower
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Built by Gustave Eiffel for the 1889 World Fair, held to commemorate the centennial of the Revolution, the Eiffel Tower (Tour Eiffel) made headlines at the time as the world's tallest structure at 1,050 feet (320 meters). Initially opposed by Paris' artistic and literary elite, the tower was almost torn down in 1909, but its salvation came when it proved an ideal platform for the antennas needed for the new science of radiotelegraphy.

Today, the highlight of a visit is the supreme view over Paris. When you're done peering upward through the girders from the ground, head up to the three levels open to the public, one of which features the famed 58 Tour Eiffel Restaurant. Just southeast of the Eiffel Tower is a grassy expanse that served as the site of the world's first balloon flights. Today, the area is frequented by skateboarding teens and activists stating their views on the current state of France.

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Louvre
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The Louvre may be the world's greatest art museum. Don't be daunted by its size and overwhelming richness; if you have even the merest interest in the fruits of human civilization from antiquity to the 19th century, then visit you must.

The former fortress began its career as a public museum in 1793 with 2,500 paintings; now some 30,000 are on display. The most famous works from antiquity include the Seated Scribe, the Jewels of Rameses II, and the armless duo - the Winged Victory of Samothrace and the Venus de Milo. From the Renaissance, don't miss Michelangelo's Slaves, Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa and works by Raphael, Botticelli, and Titian. French masterpieces of the 19th century include Ingres' La Grande Odalisque, Géricault's The Raft of the Medusa, and the work of David and Delacroix. The Grand Louvre project has rejuvenated the museum with many new and renovated galleries now open to the public. To avoid queues at the pyramid, buy your ticket in advance.

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Île Sainte-Marguerite
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The largest of the Lérins islands located 1 km (2/3 of a mile) from Cannes, the Ile de Sainte-Marguerite is abounding with eucalyptus and pines. The island is most famous for allegedly holding the mysterious Man in the Iron Mask captive during the 17th century. During the summer months, a vast amount of boats stay in the shallow, safeguarded "Plateau du Milieu" between the islands where there is more area for water sports. The village of Sainte-Marguerite is comprised of about twenty buildings. Most of these are home to fishermen, but there are a few establishments offering refreshments to tourists who are exploring the island.

The historic Fort Royal now contains a youth hostel and a Museum featuring items recovered from ancient shipwrecks. Island visitors are also able to explore a number of former prison cells and an old Roman cistern room. Close to the Fort Royal is a small cemetery for French soldiers and another alongside it for North African soldiers.

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Notre Dame Cathedral
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If Paris has a heart, then this is it. The cathedral of Notre Dame (Cathédrale de Notre Dame de Paris) is not only a masterpiece of French Gothic architecture, but has also been Catholic Paris' ceremonial focus for seven centuries. The cathedral's immense interior, a marvel of medieval engineering, holds over 6,000 people and has spectacular rose windows.

Although Notre Dame is regarded as a sublime architectural achievement, there are all sorts of minor anomalies, the result of centuries of aesthetic intervention. These include a trio of main entrances that are each shaped differently, and are accompanied by statues that were once coloured to make them more effective as Bible lessons for the masses. The interior is dominated by a 7,800-pipe organ that was restored but has not worked properly since.

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Orsay Museum (Musée d'Orsay)
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The museum displays France's national collection of paintings, sculptures, objets d'art produced between 1848 and 1914, including the fruits of the Impressionist, Post Impressionist, and Art Nouveau movements.

The Museum fills the chronological gap between the Louvre and the Musée National d'Art Moderne at the Centre Pompidou. Austerely housed along the Seine in a former railway station built in 1900, it was re-inaugurated in its present form in 1986. Upstairs the grand salon still dazzles and there is an elegant tearoom and restaurant with a good view over the river.

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Saint Germain des Prés
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As is common in Europe, the St Germain des Prés neighborhood is named after its church, in this case the sixth-century Benedictine Église de St-Germain-des-Prés, named after St Germain, in honor of the Bishop of Paris. We have this church to thank for the student-led vibe of the area; they donated the land from the church to the Seine and to the University of Paris, thus creating the Latin Quarter that we know and love today.

The main street in the neighborhood, in the sixth arrondissement, is the Haussmann-designed Boulevard St Germain. It has chic stores and plenty of cafes for people watching. In fact, the romance of whiling away the hours at a cafe was practically born in St Germain des Prés, at historic Les Deux Magots and Café de Flore.

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Montmartre
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Montmartre is the hilly part of Paris. There are stairs galore and the crowning glory is, of course, the famous Sacré Coeur Cathedral perched at the top, looming over Paris. There is another church on the hill, the older Saint Pierre de Montmartre, which is the founding place of the Jesuits.

The area is also famous for its nightlife and artists. The Moulin Rouge is here and Pigalle is known both for being the red-light district and for its rock music venues. Artists including Picasso, van Gogh, Monet, Modigliani, Renoir and Dali all lived and/or worked in the area. The Dali Espace museum is also worth a visit.

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Palais Garnier
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It may not be the first iconic structure that comes to mind when you think of Paris, but to Parisians the Palais Garnier - Opera National is a beloved symbol of the importance placed on the arts in the City of Light. Completed in 1875 per architect Charles Garnier's specifications, it has been home to the Opéra de Paris and ballet performances since then – as well as the setting for the novel, film and musical, The Phantom of the Opera.

Today, visitors climb up the Grand Staircase, see the Phantom's famous chandelier hanging from the Chagall-painted ceiling and learn the interesting history of one of Paris's major sites.

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More Things to Do in France

Paris Catacombs (Catacombes de Paris)

Paris Catacombs (Catacombes de Paris)

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In 1785, Paris decided to solve the problem of its overflowing cemeteries by exhuming the bones of the buried and relocating them to the tunnels of several disused quarries, leading to the creation of the Catacombs, basically corridors stacked with bones. They are 65 ft (20 m) underground and contain the remains of six million Parisians. During WWII, the tunnels were used as a headquarters by the Resistance.

The route through the Catacombs begins at a small, dark green Belle Époque-style building in the centre of a grassy area of av Colonel Henri Roi-Tanguy, the new name of place Denfert Rochereau. The exit is at the end of 83 steps on rue Remy Dumoncel, southwest where a guard will check your bag for 'borrowed' bones.

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Arc de Triomphe

Arc de Triomphe

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The Arc de Triomphe, standing proudly in the circular Place Charles-de-Gaulle at the top of the Champs Elysées, is a symbol of the French nation. It stands at the crossroads of the magnificent axial avenues defining Paris, and honors all those who fought for France, particularly in the Napoleonic Wars. Written on the arch are all the wars fought by France and the names of the French generals involved. It is also the location of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier commemorating those lost in World War I.

The arch itself is huge: 160 feet (50m) tall, 148 feet (45m) wide, and 72 feet (22 m ) deep. It's so large that, after World War I ended, a joyous pilot flew his biplane through the Arc de Triomphe.

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Grand Palais

Grand Palais

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You'll probably notice the Grand Palais before you go there; its spectacular glass roof can be seen from several points in the city, and at certain times of the day the sunlight makes it seem like a steam-punk spaceship has landed near the Seine. But if you don't go inside you would be missing out on a spectacular space.

Like many structures in the area, it was inaugurated in 1900 and since then, has hosted a wide variety of events, exhibitions and collections. From equestrian shows to Chanel fashion shows, from military hospital to a point of the WWII liberation of Paris, Parisians have always known to check out what's happening at the Grand Palais. There are also permanent exhibits, such as the science museum, National Society of Fine Arts and the Galeries nationales du Grand Palais.

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Pont Alexandre III

Pont Alexandre III

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Arguably the most beautiful bridge in Paris, Pont Alexandre III was inaugurated in 1900 and crosses the Seine from Le Grand Palais to Invalides. If it looks familiar to you, that's because its elegant design and Art Nouveau elements have been featured in Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, Adele's iconic video for her smash hit “Someone Like You” and even James Bond's film A View to a Kill.

The theme of the bridge's coats of arms celebrates the alliance between France and Russia, with the Nymphs of the Seine and Neva Rivers. The four gilt statues symbolize Science, Art, Contemporary France and the “France of Charlemagne.”

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Versailles Gardens (Jardins de Versailles)

Versailles Gardens (Jardins de Versailles)

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The most acclaimed example of formal French garden design, Versailles’ vast chateau gardens are famed for their geometrically aligned terraces, tree-lined paths, ponds and canals. Spreading west of the palace, the Versailles Chateau Gardens cover 800 hectares (1,976 acres) in the style of garden landscape artist, Andre Le Notre.

One of the most special aspects of the gardens is the 50 fountains which act as focal points, enhancing the geometrical design. From late spring to early autumn, the fountains come to life as part of the annual Grandes Eaux water spectacles. Garden highlights include the horses and chariot of the Apollo Fountain, the Grand Canal stretching off to the horizon, and the detailed parterres of the Orangerie.

Wherever you stroll, you’re bound to come across a grove, colonnade, fountain or sculpture that will surprise, delight and take your breath away.

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Promenade des Anglais

Promenade des Anglais

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The Promenade des Anglais (Walk of the English) stretches along the seafront between the beach and the road. It is constantly busy with promenaders, dog-walkers, joggers, cyclists, skaters and sight-seers sitting on the iconic blue chairs to enjoy the deep azure of the sea in the Baie des Anges. In the late 18th century, the English adopted Nice, then a sleepy town, as a place to escape the harsh English winter. One particularly nasty winter, many beggars from northern France drifted south to Nice so the wealthy English put them to work building a beachfront walkway. The City of Nice stepped in to increase the scale of the project. These days the locals just call it The Promenade.
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Latin Quarter (Quartier Latin)

Latin Quarter (Quartier Latin)

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The Quartier Latin (Latin Quarter) in Paris is commonly thought to be synonymous with the fifth arrondissement, but it actually stretches to the sixth as well. It's also known as the epicenter of Parisian academic life, as it is home to no less than six universities and technical schools. In fact, it's how the Latin Quarter got its name; back in the Middle Ages, area students commonly spoke Latin, - conversationally!

The Roman ruins make the Latin Quarter, also known as Quartier Latin in French, one of the oldest parts of Paris, while the Sorbonne University gives it an intellectual and existential air. The district is tailor made for walking, its legendary cafes, historic jazz clubs, boulevards and narrow lanes capturing the essence of Paris. Today, the Latin Quarter welcomes students from all over the world, and the shops, restaurants and bars reflect this international vibe.

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Île de la Cité

Île de la Cité

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Ile de la Cité shares the Seine River with its upstream neighbor, Ile Saint-Louis, right in the middle of Paris's city center. The westernmost end of the island is mostly residential with a small park at the tip, while the eastern end gives visitors the best view of the flying buttresses of Notre-Dame Cathedral. The Palais de Justice is also housed on the island, which has the Sainte-Chapelle inside, a tiny jewel box of almost kaleidoscopic color thanks to its wonderful stained glass.

Archaeologists found evidence of habitation on this island by the Romans, as early as the first century BC. But the early 17th century was when the island came into its own, after the construction of the Pont Neuf that spans the river and intersects with the western end.

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Annecy Castle (Chateau d'Annecy)

Annecy Castle (Chateau d'Annecy)

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Soaring dramatically over Annecy’s intact Old Town and set atop a rocky promontory, the medieval castle is a fine display of Savoyard defensive architecture as it was the princely residence of the Counts of Geneva between the 13th and 17th centuries; it was later on abandoned and served a military barracks until the end of World War II. Imagine yourself as a brave 14th century knight and try to identify the primitive keep, the gates, and the cellar rooms. Like many other fortresses elsewhere in Europe, the castle was considerably extended and given several upgrades throughout the centuries, both in terms of style and defensive purposes. The furniture, artworks, and accessories nowadays found inside the otherwise bare yet fascinating exhibition area are testament to these changes, and perfectly complemented by sections on contemporary Savoyard art and Lake Annecy’s eventful history.

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Le Marais

Le Marais

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Each arrondissement in Paris has a number and a name; the fourth arrondissement is known as Le Marais. You'll probably find yourself in this neighborhood more than almost any other in the city.

The historical home of the Parisian aristocracy and the Pletzl, its Jewish community (as well as Victor Hugo and Robespierre), Le Marais includes the practically cloistered first square ever designed in Paris, known as Place des Vosges. Its stately homes surround a park so quiet, that the only sounds heard are from the fountain and bird-songs. But the rest of the arrondissement is much livelier, with the bustling Rue de Rivoli, the gay community along Rue des Archives and the funky labyrinth of stores, galleries and cafes in the Village Saint Paul (its entrance can be found at 12 Rue des Jardins Saint-Paul).

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Conciergerie

Conciergerie

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With its castle-like turrets and dramatic riverfront location, La Conciergerie is an imposing sight, stretching along the west side of the Île de la Cité. Once part of the Palais de la Cité, along with the neighboring Palais de Justice and Sainte Chapelle, the former medieval palace is best known for its role in the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror, when it served as a prison.

An estimated 3,000 prisoners were held at the Conciergerie prior to being taken to the guillotine during the Reign of Terror, among them Charlotte Corday, Madame Élisabeth, poet André Chénier and Marie Antoinette, and it continued to serve as a prison until it was decommissioned in 1914. Today, La Conciergerie is preserved as a National Monument and visitors can discover its dark legacy on a tour of the grounds.

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Place de la Concorde

Place de la Concorde

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The Place de la Concorde is between the Tuileries Gardens and the Champs Elysées on Paris's famous axis. It was laid out between 1755 and 1775. The 3,300-year-old pink granite obelisk with the gilded top in the square's centre was given to France in 1831 by Muhammad Ali, viceroy and pasha of Egypt. Towering 75 ft (23m) over the cobblestones, it once stood in the Temple of Ramses at Thebes (modern-day Luxor).

The 8 female statues adorning the 4 corners of the square represent France's largest cities. In 1793, after the French Revolution, Louis XVI's head was lopped off by a guillotine set up near the statue representing the city of Brest. During the next two years, another guillotine was used to behead 1343 more people, including Marie-Antoinette and the Revolutionary leader Danton. The square was given its present name after the Reign of Terror ended in the hope that it would be a place of peace and harmony.

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Basilique du Sacré-Coeur

Basilique du Sacré-Coeur

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The Basilica of the Sacred Heart, or Basilique du Sacré-Coeur, perched at the very top of Butte de Montmartre (Montmartre Hill), was built from contributions pledged by Parisian Catholics as an act of contrition after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. Construction began in 1873, but the basilica was not consecrated until 1919. The basilica's domes are a well-loved part of the Parisian skyline.

A 234-step climb up narrow spiral staircases takes you up to the dome, which affords one of Paris' most spectacular panoramas. It is, however, outside on the steps where the action takes place - lovers, buskers, locals and foreigners all converge to take in the vistas and each other.

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