Things to Do in Île-de-France
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.
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.
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.
Built during the reign of Louis XIV in the mid-17th century, the Palace of Versailles nearly emptied the kingdom's coffers as 30,000 workers and soldiers toiled to flatten hills, move forests, and drain marshes to create the fantastical palace and gardens that so effectively projected the absolute power of the French monarchy at the time.
The opulence of Versailles reaches its peak in the central gallery known as the Hall of Mirrors — a 75-meter-long ballroom with 17 huge mirrors on one side and, on the other, an equal number of arcaded windows looking out over the formal gardens. Designed by architect Jules Hardouin-Mansart and decorated by painter Charles le Brun, construction of the Hall of Mirrors began in 1678, and it has quite the history: this was the setting for 17th- and 18th-century royal ceremonies, and it was also the location for the signature of the 1919 Versailles Treaty that formally ended WWI.
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.
With its striking white stone façade and attractive jumble of crenellated towers and pointed turrets, the majestic Chateau de Pierrefonds has all the presence of a fairy tale castle, set against the equally enchanting backdrop of the Compiègne forest. Originally built in the 15th-century by Philippe d'Orléans, the castle was torn down by Louis XIII in the 17th century, then rebuilt by celebrated architect Viollet-le-Duc in the 19th-century as an imperial residence for Napoleon III. In recent years the castle has also made a name for itself as a filming location for several movies and TV shows, most notably Les Visiteurs, The Man in the Iron Mask and hit BBC series Merlin. Visitors can explore the Great Courtyard, the lavish state rooms, the chapel and the keep, as well as following the parapet-walk and walking the drawbridge.
Most visitors to Disneyland Paris make a beeline for the Disneyland Park, but don’t miss out on a trip to the adjoining Walt Disney Studios Park too, where you’ll find even more shows, rides and Disney-themed fun. The smaller of Disneyland Paris’ two theme parks is devoted to unveiling the magic behind the movies and it’s designed like a Hollywood movie studio, with four distinct areas - Front Lot, Toon Studios, Production Courtyard and Backlot.
As well as taking a studio tram tour, watching dazzling displays of stunts and special effects and learning how your favorite Disney films were created, there’s also a host of thrilling rides and iconic Disney characters to meet. Highlights include the Rock 'n' Roller Coaster starring Aerosmith, The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror™, Ratatouille: The Ride, Flying Carpets Over Agrabah, and the Toy Story Playland.
Largely regarded as one of the most beautiful chateau of the Île-de-France region, the Chateau de Champs-sur-Marne makes a popular day trip from Paris as well as a worthwhile detour from nearby Disneyland Paris. Built by Jean-Baptiste Bullet de Chamblain in the early 18th century, and lived in by the Marchioness of Pompadour, the Princess of Conti and the Dukes of La Vallière, the stately Château is renowned for its neo-classical architecture and elegant 84-hectare gardens.
Opened to the public in 2013 after extensive restoration, visiting the grand residence is made simple by the use of interactive touch screen tablets placed in each room and there’s plenty to discover, including a collection of exquisite, hand-crafted furniture and the idyllic French-style formal gardens.
Marie-Antoinette left a mark on Versailles larger than any other left by the queens of the French monarchy, and the physical embodiment of her maverick ways can be found at her estate on the grounds of the Gardens of Versailles. The Marie-Antoinette Estate is comprised of several elements. There is the Petit Trianon, which served as her palace away from home. Often frustrated by the politics of her husband's court, Marie-Antoinette would escape to her royal residence, where no one could enter without her express invitation – not even the king himself.
There are also Marie-Antoinette's personal gardens, through which visitors can stroll today and see that they are much unchanged from the time of the queen's reign. She also had a hamlet – a glamorous, picturesque take on the rustic country homes that the aristocracy at the time had on the grounds of their own estates – with a kitchen garden and a working farm in addition to its mill, decorative gardens and charming lake.
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.
More Things to Do in Île-de-France
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.
The pink-colonnaded Grand Trianon was built in 1687 by the famous architect Mansart, as a tranquil getaway from court life for Louis XIV.
Setting the benchmark for Italianate garden conservatory design, the elegantly long and low palace of pink marble and porphyry features geometrically ordered rows of columns and windows, topped by a balustrade roof.
The original furnishings were plundered during the Revolution. Today, the palace is furnished in Empire style, reflecting the decoration installed by Napoleon, who was particularly enamored of the building. Surrounding the palace is a lovely flower garden.
While the Grand Trianon is open to the public, it is also an official residence of the French President.
Versailles’ chateau gardens are vast, laid out in formal French style and famed for their geometrically aligned terraces, tree-lined paths and, notably, their ponds.
Of all the lovely fountain pools gracing the Versailles gardens, the Bassin de Neptune is the largest.
Designed by famed landscape artist Le Notre and laid out between 1661 and 1700, the fountain features three groups of statues, including Neptune and Amphitrite.
A new fountain installed by Louis XV in the 1730s was acclaimed for the force and variety of its jets water playing over the sculptural groups. In all, the fountain boasts 99 water effects and is fronted by the lovely Dragon Fountain.
In summer, Bassin de Neptune is a focus for a display of choreographed fireworks, spectacularly reflected in the fountain’s expansive pool.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
The white stone spans of Paris' oldest bridge, ironically called 'New Bridge', have linked the Île de la Cité with both banks of the Seine since 1607. That's when Henri IV inaugurated the bridge by riding across on a white stallion.
The Pont Neuf and the nearby place Dauphine were used for public exhibitions in the 18th century. In the last century the bridge itself became an objet d'art on at least three occasions: in 1963, when School of Paris artist Nonda built, exhibited and lived in a huge Trojan horse of steel and wood on the bridge; in 1984 when the Japanese designer Kenzo covered it in flowers; and in 1985 when the Bulgarian-born 'environmental sculptor' Christo famously wrapped it in beige fabric.
The Avenue des Champs-Elysées (the name refers to the 'Elysian Fields' where happy souls dwelt after death according to Greek myth) links place de la Concorde with the Arc de Triomphe. The avenue has symbolized the style and joie de vivre of Paris since the mid-19th century and remains a popular tourist destination.
Basically a shopping strip, Avenue des Champs-Elysées is rue du Faubourg St-Honoré (8e), the western extension of rue St-Honoré. It has renowned couture houses, jewellers, antique shops and the 18th-century Palais de l'Elysée (corner rue du Faubourg St-Honoré & av de Marigny), which is the official residence of the French President.
At the bottom of Avenue des Champs-Elysées is an 11.8 ft (3.6m) tall bronze statue depicting General Charles de Gaulle in full military gear ready to march down the broad avenue to the Arc de Triomphe in a liberated Paris on 26 August 1944.
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.
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.
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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