Things to Do in Île-de-France
Louis XIV’s Palace of Versailles takes the award for the most visited château in France, and the magnificent Versailles Gardens (Jardins de Versailles) are world renowned. A series of beautifully landscaped gardens, show-stopping fountains, and tree-lined pathways covering 800 hectares (1,976 acres), the gardens center on the cross-shaped Grand Canal.
The Eiffel Tower isn't just a symbol of Paris but a symbol for all of France. Erected by Gustave Eiffel to commemorate the centennial of the French Revolution in 1889, the 1,050-foot (320-meter) tower once held the title of the world's tallest structure. Despite having been dwarfed by Dubai's Burj Khalifa and The Shard in London, the Eiffel Tower remains one of the most recognizable landmarks on the planet. View the architectural icon from afar, or stop in at the three observation levels for stellar city views.
The lifeblood of Paris, the River Seine plays many roles in the city: It separates the Right Bank from the Left Bank, acting as a dividing line between Paris’ historically sophisticated and bohemian halves; it provides transportation via riverboat and plenty of opportunity for romantic strolls; and its riverbanks are a UNESCO World Heritage Site lined with the city’s top landmarks, including the Eiffel Tower, Notre-Dame Cathedral, Musée d’Orsay, Jardin des Tuileries, and the Louvre.
Primarily associated with the steady gaze of Leonardo Da Vinci's famousMona Lisa, Paris' Louvre museum is home to a 35,000-strong collection of paintings and sculptures considered one of the greatest in the world. The contemporary glass Louvre Pyramid heralds the museum's entrance, which millions of tourists flock to every year to feast their eyes on masterpieces that span from antiquity to the 20th century.
Most visitors to Disneyland® Paris—Europe’s biggest theme park—make a beeline for the Disneyland®Park, but the adjoining Walt Disney Studios® Park offers even more shows, rides, and Disney®-themed fun, especially for movie fans. Designed like a Hollywood movie studio, the park has four distinct areas—Front Lot, Toon Studios, Production Courtyard, and Backlot.
The opulence of the Palace of Versailles reaches its peak in the Hall of Mirrors (Galerie des Glaces)—a 240-foot-long (73-meter-long) ballroom with 357 mirrors adorning 17 huge arches on one side and 17 arcaded windows overlooking the formal gardens on the other. It was also the location of the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, which formally ended World War I.
The original Château de Pierrefonds dates to the 14th century, but the version that stands today is a more modern construction. Commissioned by Napoleon III and designed by Viollet-le-Duc in the 19th century, the Château de Pierrefonds is an impressive, medieval-inspired landmark, featuring crenellated towers and myriad turrets.
Second only to the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame Cathedral (Cathedrale de Notre Dame de Paris) is one of Paris' most iconic attractions, a marvel of medieval architecture that was immortalized in Victor Hugo's classic novelThe Hunchback of Notre Dame. Today, the Gothic grandeur and stained-glass windows of the UNESCO World Heritage site continue to reign supreme from Ile de la Cite, an island in the middle of the Seine River.
(UPDATE: Notre Dame Cathedral is currently off-limits due to fire damage)
Rivaling the Louvre as Paris' favorite art museum, the Orsay Museum (Musée d'Orsay) is known for its impressionist, post-impressionist, and art nouveau works from 1848 to 1914. Equally impressive as what’s inside the museum is its exterior: a former Beaux-Arts railway station with an enviable location on the banks of the Seine River. Both architecture and art buffs will want this museum on their Parisian itineraries.
Largely regarded as one of the most beautiful chateau of the Île-de-France region, the Château 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.
More Things to Do in Île-de-France
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.
Founded by Napoleon and placed in a former royal residence, France’s National Archeology Museum (Musée d'Archéologie Nationale) has one of the top collections in the world of its kind. Dating back to pre-history, there are nearly 30,000 artifacts presented in its exhibits that tell the story of humanity through art, culture, religion, and technology. It is fascinating to trace the introduction and development of industrial and agricultural activity in France. The ability to see time periods stretching from earliest Paleolithic to the early Medieval in the same place is a draw for many.
The elegantly restored exterior of the Château de Saint-Germain-en-Laye is worth the trip alone. Inside, the Comparative Archaeology permanent collection, comprised of artifacts collected on five continents, is where you’ll want to spend most of your time. Exhibits are divided into era (Iron Age, Bronze Age, etc.) making it easy to tour in chronological order. Entrance to the museum is included in the Paris Pass.
Situated on the right bank of the Seine River and flanked by the idyllic Tuileries Garden and the grand boulevard of Champs-Élysées, Place de la Concorde is the largest square in Paris. The infamous guillotines of the French Revolution were located here, but today the square is best known for striking monuments, elegant hotels, and elaborate fountains.
Château de Maisons, also known as the Château de Maisons-Laffitte, enjoys a picturesque location near the Seine, just northwest of central Paris. Commissioned by René de Longueil in the 17th century and designed by celebrated architect François Mansart, the elegant château is a superb example of classical French architecture.
The Paris Catacombs (Catacombes de Paris) date back to the 1700s, when the ossuary was formed from an old underground quarry. Over the years, more and more remains were brought here from overcrowded cemeteries to make room for the city's development, up until 1860. For those with an interest, it’s a fascinating look at a former burial practice.
The Grand Palais is one of Paris’ most beautiful and recognizable structures. Debuted in 1900 in time for the World’s Fair, the architectural marvel is famed for its colossal nave, Beaux-Arts architecture, and immense glass roof. Today, the Grand Palais houses several gallery areas and also hosts tournaments, Chanel fashion shows, and other major events.
Though it translates to “New Bridge” in French, the Pont Neuf is in fact the oldest bridge in Paris, built in 1607 to connect the banks of the river Seine to Ile de la Cite. Known in the 18th and 19th centuries for its unsavory street vendors and pickpockets, Pont Neuf is now a tranquil pedestrian bridge and meeting place for visitors and locals alike.
A large hill in the 18th arrondissement of Paris, the historic district of Montmartre is crowned by Sacré-Coeur Basilica, attracting visitors who come to walk the cobblestone streets and imagine what life was like during the Belle Epoque, when artists such as Dalí, Renoir, Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Picasso lived and worked here from the late 19th to early 20th century. Today, artists still gather at Place du Tertre to sketch tourist portraits—a favorite souvenir.
The Arc de Triomphe looks down upon the grand tree-lined boulevard that is Avenue des Champs-Élysées: one of Paris’ most memorable sights and one of the world’s most famous avenues. It’s not just the striking architecture that captivates visitors—the shopping street is lined with designer boutiques, luxury hotels, and fine restaurants.
One of many bridges that cross the Seine, Pont Alexandre III was officially unveiled in 1900. Widely considered the city’s most beautiful and opulent bridge, it connects the Champs-Élysées and Grand Palais on the Right Bank with Invalides on the Left, making it a popular thoroughfare for tour groups and amblers.
Paris’ Latin Quarter is a popular, historical area of the Left Bank. Home to the main Sorbonne campus, this dynamic, student-filled neighborhood was once frequented by Ernest Hemingway, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and other revolutionaries. Today it’s distinguished for its buzzing cafés, lively restaurants, and must-see landmarks.
An instantly recognizable symbol of Paris, the colossal Arc de Triomphe stands at the epicenter of Place Charles de Gaulle, where 12 of the city’s busiest avenues converge. The Napoleon-commissioned monument, adorned with high-relief sculptures depicting sword-wielding soldiers and inscribed with the names of generals and battles, celebrates French military victories and remembers all those who have fought on behalf of France. The top of the arch, accessible via 284 steps, affords superb views over all of Paris.
Formerly a humble hunting lodge, the Palace of Versailles (Chateau de Versailles) is the extravagant creation of Louis XIV, also known as the Sun King. Embellished to epitomize royal decadence (the inequality of which tindered the French Revolution), Versailles features 700 rooms replete with frescoed ceilings and carvings, plus the Versailles Gardens (Jardins de Versailles), which brim with geometrically designed walkways and fountains. No visit to France is complete without experiencing the grandeur.
Expect bright lights, extravagant costumes, and raucous music at the world-famous Moulin Rouge. Opened in the Belle Epoque of 1889 to celebrate Paris' thriving creative scene and the end of the civil war, the windmill-cum-cabaret hall has never stopped basking in fun and frivolity. As a staple of Parisian nightlife, an unforgettable evening at the Moulin Rouge is a must on any traveler's France itinerary.
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