Things to see and do - Paris
Unmissable tourist sites
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Paris has been forged throughout the centuries by the changing spirit and sensibility of each era, marked by the major events and upheavals that have occurred there during its long history. For a broader perspective of the city, here is a time capsule that takes you from its origins up to the present.
3C BC — The Parisii, a Celtic fishing tribe, settle on Lutetia, now the Île de la Cité.
52 BC — Labienus, Caesar’s lieutenant, takes the city from the Gauls, who set fire to the Île de la Cité before fleeing.
1C AD — The Gallo-Romans build the city of Lutetia.
c 250 — The martyrdom of St Denis, first Bishop of the city. Christianity takes hold and the first churches are built.
360 — Julian the Apostate, prefect of the Gauls, is proclaimed Emperor of Rome by his soldiers. Lutetia is known henceforth as Paris.
Early Middle Ages
451 — Ste Geneviève deflects Attila’s attack on Paris.
508 — Paris is taken over by Germanic tribes. Frankish king Clovis I makes it his capital, settling on the Cité.
8C — Paris declines in importance when Charlemagne makes Aix-la-Chapelle (Aachen) his main capital.
885 — Paris, besieged by the Normans for the fifth time, is defended by Count Eudes who is made King of France in 888.
12C — Trade picks up on the Cité. The Watermen’s Guild is at its peak. Suger, Abbot of St-Denis and minister under Louis VI and Louis VII, rebuilds the abbey.
1163 — Maurice de Sully begins construction of Notre-Dame.
1180 — During the reign of Philippe Auguste (reigned 1180-1223) a wall was erected around Paris and the Louvre was built.
1215 — The University of Paris is founded, turning the city into an important cultural centre.
1226 — Louis IX, (reigned from 1226-1270) called St Louis, commissions the building of the Sainte-Chapelle, Notre-Dame and St-Denis, and dispenses justice at Vincennes.
1253 — Foundation of a college by Sorbon, later known as the Sorbonne.
1260 — The dean of the Merchants’ Guild becomes Provost of Paris.
1307 — Philip the Fair dissolves the Order of the Knights Templar.
1337 — Beginning of the Hundred Years‘ War. Upon the death of Philip the Fair and his three sons a problem of succession arises: the French barons prefer Philip the Fair’s nephew, Philip de Valois, to his grandson, Edward III, King of England.
The following century is marked by battles between the French and the English, who lay claim to the French Crown, between the Armagnacs, supporters of the family of Orléans, and the Burgundians, supporters of the dukes of Burgundy.
1358 — Uprising under Étienne Marcel, Provost of Paris. The monarchs move to the Marais and the Louvre.
1364 — Charles V (reigned 1364-1380) builds the Bastille and a new wall around Paris.
1382 — During the troubled reign of Charles VI, the Parisians revolt against heavy taxes, but their loss strips them of earlier exemptions and severely weakens the Provost’s power.
1407 — Duke Louis of Orleans is assassinated on the order of John the Fearless.
1408 — Fighting breaks out between the Armagnacs and the Burgundians. The English take Paris.
1429 — In vain Charles VII tries to lay siege to Paris; Joan of Arc is wounded at St-Honoré Gate.
1430 — Henry VI of England is crowned King of France at Notre-Dame.
1437 — Charles VII recaptures Paris.
1469 — The first French printing works open in the Sorbonne.
1530 — François I founds the Collège de France.
1534 — Ignatius Loyola founds the Society of Jesus in Montmartre.
1559 — Henri II is fatally wounded in a jousting tournement.
1572 — The struggle between Protestant and Roman Catholic factions leads to the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.
1578 — Construction of the Pont Neuf (completed 1604).
1588 — Paris strengthens its position as the centre of political power. The Catholic League turns against Henri III, and the citizens of Paris force him to flee after the Day of the Barricades (12 May).
1589 — Returning to Paris with Henri of Navarre, Henri III is assassinated by a fanatical Dominican friar.
1594 — Paris opens its gates to Henri IV after he converts to Catholicism.
1594 — Place des Vosges is created. La Charité and St Louis Hospitals are founded (completed 1610).
1610 — Henri IV is mortally wounded by Ravaillac (14 May).
1615 — Marie de Medici has Luxembourg Palace built (completed 1625).
1622 — Paris becomes an episcopal see.
1629 — The Palais-Royal is built.
1635 — Richelieu founds the Académie Française.
1648 — The Fronde (1648-1653) foments a rebellion in Paris against the Crown.
1661 — Mazarin founds the College of Four Nations, the future Institut de France.
1667 — Colbert establishes the Observatoire and restructures the Gobelins Tapestry Works.
17C — Louis XIV transfers the Court to Versailles, but increases royal control over Paris. Development of the Marais.
17C — The Louvre Colonnade and the Invalides are built.
18C — Construction of place Vendôme and development of the Faubourg St-Germain.
1717 — John Law’s Bank (failed 1720).
1760 — Louis XV has the École Militaire, St-Geneviève (the future Panthéon) and place de la Concorde built (completed 1780).
1783 — First balloon flights by Pilâtre de Rozier, Jacques Charles and Ainé Roberts.
1783 — Versailles Treaty: independence of the 13 American States.
1784 — Paris has nearly 500 000 inhabitants. To the discontent of the Parisians, the Farmers-General Wall is erected, including the gateways and toll-houses by Ledoux (completed 1791).
The Revolution and the First Empire
1789 — Storming of the Bastille.
1789 — Louis XVI at the Hôtel de Ville: the tricolore flag is adopted.
1790 — Festival of Federation.
1792 — A mob invades the Tuileries.
1792 — Taking of the Tuileries (10 Aug) and fall of the monarchy.
1792 — September Massacres.
1792 — Proclamation of the Republic.
1793 — Execution of Louis XVI.
1793 — Opening of the Louvre Museum and institution of the Natural History Museum.
1793 — The Terror (ends 1794).
1794 — Festival of the Supreme Being.
1795 — Royalist uprising suppressed by Napoléon.
1799 — Fall of the Directory.
1800 — Bonaparte creates the offices of Prefect of the Seine and of the Police.
1804 — Napoléon’s coronation at Notre-Dame.
1806 — Napoléon continues construction of the Louvre and commissions the Arc de Triomphe and work begins on the Vendôme Column.
1820 — Gas lamps are used to light the city’s streets.
1814 — The Allies occupy Paris. First Treaty of Paris.
1815 — Battle of Waterloo. Restoration of the Bourbons with Louis XVIII.
1824 — Charles X (reigned 1824-1830) mounts the throne, but his ultra-conservative policies displease the Parisians, who take to the streets to defend their freedom in the July Revolution. Fall of Charles X, who flees to the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh and is succeeded by Louis-Philippe.
1832 — A cholera epidemic kills 19 000 Parisians.
1837 — The first French railway line links Paris with St-Germain.
1840 — Return of Napoléon’s ashes from St Helena.
1841 — Construction of the Thiers fortifications (completed 1845).
1848— Fall of Louis-Philippe in the February Revolution; proclamation of Second Republic.
From 1848 to 1870
1848 — The suppression of the national workshops provokes socialist riots, signalling the failure of the Second Republic. Louis Napoléon is elected President of the Republic.
1852 — Louis Napoléon becomes Napoléon III, creating the Second Empire. When the Parisians once again rise up in protest, the riots are violently repressed.
1852 — Huge urban planning projects are undertaken by Baron Haussmann: Les Halles, the railway stations, the Buttes-Chaumont, Bois de Boulogne and Bois de Vincennes, the Opéra, the sewers, completion of the Louvre, and construction of the new boulevards. Paris is divided into 20 arrondissements (completed 1870).
1855 — World Exhibitions (also 1867)
1870 — Paris is besieged in winter 1870-1871 by the Prussians and capitulates. Napoléon III goes into exile in England.
The Third Republic
1870 — The Third Republic is proclaimed at the Hôtel de Ville.
1871 — The Paris Commune is finally suppressed by the Men of Versailles during the Bloody Week (21-28 May); fire, destruction (Tuileries, Cour des Comptes, Hôtel de Ville, Vendôme Column) and massacres.
1879 — Executive and legislative powers are returned from Versailles to Paris.
1882 — Paris inaugurates its new Hôtel de Ville.
1889 — World Exhibition at the foot of the new Eiffel Tower.
1892 — First multi-storey building constructed of reinforced concrete.
1900 — First metro line in operation between Maillot and Vincennes. The Grand and Petit Palais are built. Cubism is born at the Bateau-Lavoir. The Sacré-Cœur Basilica is erected on the Butte Montmartre.
1914 — At the outset of the war, the government leaves Paris for Bordeaux. Paris, under the threat of German attack, is saved by the Battle of the Marne. A shell hits the church of St-Gervais.
1920 — Interment of the Unknown Soldier under the Arc de Triomphe.
Twenties — Paris is a cultural hub where new literary and artistic movements are born.
1927 — Inauguration of Monet’s Nymphéas series at the Orangerie.
1930s — The worldwide economic crisis hits Paris.
1934 — Riots around the Chamber of Deputies end in a bloodbath.
1940 — Paris is bombed, then occupied, by the Germans. Hostages and resistance fighters detained at Mont Valérien (Suresnes).
1944 — Liberation of Paris.
1946 — The Fourth Republic is proclaimed at the Hôtel de Ville.
The Fifth Republic
1958 — Construction of the UNESCO, CNIT, and Maison de Radio-France buildings (completed 1963).
1965 — The Urban Development Plan for the greater Paris area is published.
1968 — Strikes and demonstrations, triggered by students at the Sorbonne, spread to the whole of France within days, leading to the largest social movement in the country’s history.
1969 — Transfer of the wholesale markets from Les Halles to Rungis.
1970 — The RER (Réseau Express Régional) is launched to extend the metro system.
1973 — Completion of the boulevard Périphérique (ring road) and Montparnasse Tower.
1977 — The first election of a mayor of Paris (J Chirac), 11 predecessors between 1789 and 1871 having been appointed rather than elected.
1977 — Opening of the Centre Georges-Pompidou.
1986 — Inauguration of the Orsay Museum.
1989 — The opening of the Louvre Pyramid, Grande Arche at La Défense and Opéra Bastille during bicentennial celebrations.
1995 — Jacques Chirac is elected president.
1996 — The Bibliothèque Nationale opens at Tolbiac.
1999 — Severe windstorms damage parks and monuments in Paris on 26 Dec.
2001 — Bertrand Delanoë becomes the city‘s first Socialist mayor in over a century.
2002 — Jacques Chirac is re-elected president.
2003 — Thousands of sick and elderly die during a brutal summer heatwave.
2006 — Opening of the Quai Branly Museum, the Simone de Beauvoir footbridge, and Josephine Baker swimming pool on the Seine.
2007 — Opening of the Cité de l’Architecture et du patrimoine (largest collection in Europe) and election of Nicolas Sarkozy as President.
2008 — Opening of the Cité de la Mode et du design (Sept) and Bertrand Delanoë is re-elected as Mayor of Paris.
The capital’s site was carved out of the limestone and Tertiary sands by the Seine which flowed at a level of 35m/115ft, above its present course.
The Gallo-Roman Wall: The Parisii, taking advantage of the Pax romana, emerged from Lutetia, built by the Gauls and defended by the river and surrounding swamps, to settle along the Left Bank of the river. The Barbarians later forced them to retreat to the Cité (c. 276). On the island, they built houses, fortifications and a rampart wall to defend themselves against future invasions.
The Philippe Auguste Wall: Between the 6C and 10C, the swamps were drained and cultivated, monasteries founded and a river harbour established near the place de Grève. Between 1180 and 1210 Philippe Auguste ordered that a massive wall be built, reinforced upstream by a chain barrage across the river and downstream by the Louvre Fortress and Nesle Tower.
The Charles V Rampart: The Town, which was on the Right Bank (as opposed to the University on the Left Bank, and the Cité), prospered as roads were built connecting it with Montmartre, St-Denis, the Knights Templar Commandery and the castle at Vincennes. By the end of the 14C, Charles V had erected new fortifications, supported in the east by the Bastille. The Paris ramparts enclosed just under 440ha/1 087 acres and protected 150 000 inhabitants.
The Louis XIII Wall: Throughout the 16C, the Wars of Religion and the siege by Henri of Navarre maintained a threat to the city, forcing Charles IX and Louis XIII to extend the 14C wall westwards to include the Louvre Palace.
The Farmers-General Wall: The monarchy moved to Versailles as Paris encroached upon the surrounding countryside, its population 500 000 strong. The Invalides, Observatory, Salpêtrière, St-Denis and St-Martin Gates were erected; new city confines were required, calling for a new wall (1784-91) complete with 57 toll-houses to be designed by Ledoux.
The Thiers Fortifications: During the Revolution many of the larger estates were broken up but little was built. Under the Empire, Paris faced problems of overcrowding and supply. The Restoration encouraged great industrial developments and social change: gas lighting was installed in the streets, and the railway allowed for growth and economic development in outlying villages (Austerlitz, Montrouge, Vaugirard, Passy, Montmartre, Belleville). Thiers determined the capital’s perimeter with another wall (1841-45), reinforced at a cannon-ball’s distance by 16 bastions, the official city confines from 1859. Subsequently, 20 arrondissements were created in the 77.7sq km/30sq mi, as Haussmann began his transformation of the city (population in 1846: 1 050 00; in 1866: 1 800 000).
The present limits: The forts remained intact (Mont Valérien, Romainville, Ivry, Bagneux), but the walls, after serving in the city’s defence in 1871, were razed by the Third Republic in 1919. Between 1925 and 1930 the confines of the city are redefined to include the Bois de Boulogne and Bois de Vincennes, but not extending elsewhere beyond a narrow circular belt to give an overall surface area of 10 540ha/26 045 acres, for a population, in 1945, of 2 700 000.
Association with the British
Many an Englishman has harboured a secret admiration for Paris, while regretting that so many Parisians live there – the French have a similar view of London!
London, England, is a mere 2hr 15min away by train. But in the realms of politics the instinct for self-preservation has maintained a certain distance, commonly known as the Entente Cordiale. This relationship has been reiterated through history with many treaties – 1763 terminating the Seven Years‘ War, 1814 and 1815 ending the Napoléonic era, 1856 sealing the alliance at the end of the Crimean War, 1904-10 commercial treaties which concluded in the Entente Cordiale, and 1919 the Treaty of Versailles.
Since the 17C, Paris has been a major attraction for British travellers: artists on their way to Italy (Charles Dickens, John Ruskin), gentlemen on the Grand Tour (Lord Byron), public figures fleeing from persecution at home (Oscar Wilde, Duke and Duchess of Windsor) or impoverished journalists (WM Thackeray) and students (Orwell).
By the mid-19C, Thomas Cook was organising what he called package holidays. As he stated in Cook’s Excursionist and Advertiser of 15 May 1863:
“We would have every class of British subjects visit Paris, that they may emulate its excellencies, and shun the vices and errors which detract from the glory of the French capital. In matters of taste and courtesy we have much to learn from Parisians...”
Lawrence Durrell wrote: “the national characteristics... are the restless metaphysical curiosity, the tenderness of good living and the passionate individualism. This is the invisible constant in a place with which the ordinary tourist can get in touch just by sitting quite quietly over a glass of wine in a Paris bistrot”.
Americans in Paris
The world’s quintessential expatriate city, Paris has long held a special fascination for Americans. Offering an incomparable urban setting, a rich cultural legacy and a deep-rooted respect for artistic pursuits and individual freedom, the French capital has provided a stimulating environment for successive waves of celebrated American émigrés.
18C-19C : Franco-American ties developed out of shared conflict with the British and a steadfast commitment to Revolutionary ideals. Francophiles Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, sent to France as official emissaries of the new republic, contributed to establishing early political, cultural and scientific links between the two countries.
Throughout the 19C Paris reigned as the cultural capital of the Western world and as such attracted numerous American artists including Whistler, Eakins and Impressionist Mary Cassatt. Many of America’s leading architects – notably Richard Morris Hunt, Henry Hobson Richardson and Louis Sullivan – studied at the world-renowned École des Beaux-Arts, the supreme arbiter of Neoclassical 19C architectural trends.
“Where the 20C was” : Referring to the city’s pivotal role in the birth and development of modern literary and artistic movements, Gertrude Stein asserted “Paris is where the twentieth century was”.
Like two other prominent life-long expatriates – Natalie Clifford Barney and Sylvia Beach – Gertrude Stein was lured by the city’s stimulating environment, which allowed a degree of artistic and sexual freedom unthinkable in early 20C America. Beach’s Shakespeare and Company bookshop and the celebrated literary salons of Stein and Barney became important meeting places for the city’s intelligentsia.
American expatriate life in Paris reached its heyday in the 1920s. World War I was over, the exchange rate was favourable and Paris was the place to be. During that historic decade, the Left Bank was home to an astounding number of literary personalities: Ezra Pound, F Scott-Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson, Ford Madox-Ford and Ernest Hemingway, whose life and work is more intimately linked to Paris than that of any other American writer. This foremost Lost Generation novelist brilliantly captured the unbridled expatriate experience as played out in the legendary cafés, night spots and streets of Montparnasse and the Latin Quarter (The Sun Also Rises and A Moveable Feast). The period’s unprecedented literary production gave rise to a proliferation of avant-garde expatriate reviews (Little Review, Transitions) and publishers (Black Sun Press, Black Manikin Press and Hours Press founded by Nancy Cunard). The first uncensored edition of James Joyce’s masterpiece Ulysses was published in France in 1922 by Sylvia Beach.
Simultaneously Paris played host to an international colony of prodigious artists including Picasso, Chagall, Modigliani, and Americans Man Ray and Alexander Calder. Among the expatriate performing artists were dancer Isadora Duncan and Revue Nègre star Josephine Baker, who cherished the racial equality and the international fame offered by France. The dizzying Paris scene was astutely observed by Janet Flanner who, under the pseudonym Genêt, authored the “Letter from Paris” column in The New Yorker from 1925 to 1975.
The 1930s were marked by the presence of Henry Miller. Like Hemingway, Miller came to Paris to become a writer and chose a Paris setting for his first novel. The quasi-autobiographical Tropic of Cancer (1934), banned in the US until the 1960s, explicitly depicts a seedy Paris well off the beaten expatriate trail. During his Paris years, Miller met his American protector, muse and lover, Anaïs Nin.
Post-World War II to the Present: Expatriate life in Paris was interrupted by the outbreak of World War II: most of the American writers of the 1920s and 30s had gone home or moved on to safer havens. Shakespeare and Company, a Left Bank institution, closed its doors in 1941 after 20 years of existence. During the late 1950s and 1960s, a new American-run bookstore and lending library opened in the Latin Quarter. This picturesque haunt (which took over the name Shakespeare and Company following Sylvia Beach’s death in 1962) was frequented by Beat Generation writers Ginsberg and Burroughs, as well as by many of the newly arrived black writers. Lured by France’s reputation as a nation fostering a non-racist cultural climate. The most influential member of this group was acclaimed writer and intellectual Richard Wright (Native Son), whose self-imposed Paris exile began in 1947 and lasted until his death in 1960. Fellow-expatriate black American writers included Chester Himes, William Gardner Smith and James Baldwin (Another Country, Giovanni’s Room).
Although Paris’ heyday as an avant-garde expatriate haven may be over, the City of Lights continues to entice Americans. For an idea of the range of activities and events organised for and by today’s expatriate community, consult the monthly newspaper, The Paris Free Voice (available in English-language haunts throughout the city).