Whether it’s your first visit to Paris, or your twenty-first, wandering up the Champs Élysées or along the banks of the Seine are two excellent ways to see the city. This post explains the importance of these two most iconic sights in Paris and gives some ideas on enjoying them to the full.
The River Seine
The river Seine defines the city of Paris. Its figure-of-eight looping around two little islands – Île de la Cité and Île St Louis – is where the city first began. Today every first-time visitor walks or sails along the Seine, the central axis of a city in which all areas are labelled ‘right bank’ or ‘left bank’. The Seine is beautiful and it’s no wonder so many writers have waxed lyrical about it. Thomas Gray, writing in 1793 thought the view from the Pont Neuf ‘the charmingest sight imaginable’. The 20th century writer Julien Green loved to gaze down the Seine towards Notre Dame at night: ‘No more bewitching landscape could be conceived’, he wrote. And Sarah Turnbull, author of ‘Almost French’ was captivated by an early evening sky: ‘The colours of light are Monet-esque – smudged golden-pink skies and soft violet shadows. Now I see why artists and writers have compared Paris light to champagne.’
A Boat Trip Down the Seine
Down the steps behind the big statue of Henri IV on the Pont Neuf you will find Vedettes du Pont Neuf who offer a classic Paris one hour boat trip, taking you first up river to the Eiffel Tower, passing the Musée d’Orsay, the Assemblée Nationale (French Parliament) and the golden dome of the Invalides on your left hand side. Turning round at the Eiffel Tower, splendid vistas on your left will include the Grand Palais and the Petit Palais, then Place de la Concorde and the Tuileries Gardens, before the boat veers to the right around Île de la Cité (with Notre Dame on your left) and Île St Louis, before looping back up the right bank past the imposing Hôtel de Ville on your right and the medieval beauty of the Conciergerie on your left.
For an in-depth look at the Seine, both in Paris and further down its route to its Burgundy source, try Elaine Sciolino’s The Seine: The River that made Paris. It’s a memoir, a history, a travelogue and above all a love-letter to the river.
One of the most Parisian sights of all are the little green stands all along the banks of the Seine where booksellers ply their trade. Their name comes from the word ‘bouquin’, meaning book and books are indeed mostly what they sell. Some have postcards, posters or souvenirs too, but there are laws governing how many of these are allowed. The Paris authorities know that the bouquinistes, whose origins go back to the 16th century and who were granted official licences in 1859, are a charming Parisian institution and they do not want to see them driven out by people selling other merchandise. Today there are over 200 bouquinistes, stretching along 3 km of the river.
The Bridges of Paris
The most stunning Paris bridges are clustered together in the centre of the city. Many think the loveliest of all is the Alexander III Bridge, built for the Universal Exhibition of 1900 so visitors could cross the river between the Invalides and the new Grand Palais and Petit Palais exhibition halls. All along it are Art Nouveau lampposts, decorations of nymphs and cherubs and, at each end, flamboyant golden statues of winged horses. The next bridge along towards Notre Dame is the Pont de la Concorde, built in the 1790s using stone from the newly destroyed Bastille prison.
The Pont Royal is midway along the Tuileries Gardens and was built in 1685 on the orders of Louis XIV. The Pont des Arts, is level with the end of the Louvre and is so called because of its popularity with artists who have long painted spectacular views of Notre Dame and Île de la Cité from there. It was the bridge where thousands of couples affixed padlocks with their initials on them, throwing the key into the river, but these love symbols became so numerous that their weight threatened the bridge and they had to be removed. The mayor of Paris then banned the practice.
The Pont Neuf
The Pont Neuf is the oldest bridge in Paris, a graceful 12 arch beauty completed in 1607 for King Henri IV whose statue, depicting him sitting astride his horse, stands halfway along the bridge. It immediately became a popular meeting and trading place, where shopkeepers set up stall and all manner of services and entertainments were on offer. It’s said that on the Pont Neuf in the 17th century you could buy a painting, watch jugglers, listen to musicians, attempt a balloon ride or have a tooth pulled. It was one of the liveliest spots in Paris!
The Champs Élysées: A Little History
The Champs Élysées stretches just over a mile from Place de la Concorde to the Arc de Triomphe. It began as an avenue of trees planted by Louis XIV’s royal gardener to lead out of the Tuileries Gardens. By the mid 19th century it was the most fashionable avenue in Paris. It has seen many major historical events, including a long silent funeral cortège as Napoleon’s coffin passed through the Arc de Triomphe on its way to the Invalides, German encampments during the siege of Paris in 1870 and the victory march led by Général de Gaulle at the liberation of the city in 1944. Today, it is the venue for the annual Bastille Day military parade, the place where the Tour de France finishes and where football fans gathered to celebrate when France won the World Cup in 1998 and 2018.
The Champs Élysées TODAY
The Place de la Concorde end of the Champs Élysées is the nicer end, as both sides are planted with chestnut trees and flanked by gardens where it’s easy to find a bench to sit on. The Grand and Petit Palais are nearby and so are a number of impressive statues of, for instance, Général de Gaulle and, set back in the garden of the Petit Palais, Sir Winston Churchill. Further west, the traffic builds up and the shops begin, flagship stores from such exclusive companies as Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Swarowski. And right at the end stands the Arc de Triomphe, the splendid monument ordered by Napoleon to commemorate his victories, but not finished until 20 years after his death. Underneath it lies the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, focus of the military parade every year on Armistice Day, November 11th.
Listen to the Podcast
Links and reading
Useful websites for tourists
Three Literary anthologies and a history book for travellers
City Lit Paris edited by Heather Reyes
Paris: a Literary Companion by Ian Littlewood
A Place in the World called Paris by Miles Hyman and Steven Barclay
A Traveller’s History of Paris by Robert Cole