Paris: Regal and Intimate

In Paris, amidst all of its grandeur, the little joys of life are still embraced. In this first of two episodes on Paris, we'll cruise the Seine River, visit Napoleon's tomb, and take in the Louvre. Then we'll feel the pulse of Paris — shopping in village-like neighborhoods, attending church in a grand pipe organ loft, and celebrating the mother of all revolutions with a big, patriotic Bastille Day bang.

Travel Details

Notre-Dame Cathedral

This 850-year-old cathedral is packed with history. With a pair of 200-foot-tall bell towers, a facade studded with ornate statuary, beautiful stained-glass rose windows, famous gargoyles, a picture-perfect Seine-side location, and textbook flying buttresses, there's a good reason that this cathedral of "Our Lady" is France's most famous church. It is closed indefinitely due to a damaging fire in 2019.

St. Sulpice Church

After it was featured in The Da Vinci Code, this grand church became a popular stop for the book's many fans. For pipe-organ enthusiasts, a visit here is one of Europe's great musical treats. The Grand Orgue at St. Sulpice Church has a rich history, with a succession of 12 world-class organists — including Charles-Marie Widor and Marcel Dupré — that goes back 300 years. Though the organ loft is no longer open to visitors, you can always hear the organ played at Sunday Mass (10:30–11:30, come appropriately dressed) followed by a high-powered 25-minute recital, usually performed by talented organist Daniel Roth.

Hôtel des Invalides: Army Museum and Napoleon's Tomb

Europe's greatest military museum, in the Hôtel des Invalides, provides interesting coverage of several wars, particularly World Wars I and II. See medieval armor, Napoleon's horse stuffed and mounted, Louis XIV-era uniforms and weapons, and much more. The best part is the section dedicated to the two world wars, especially World War II. Visiting the different sections, you can watch the art of war unfold from stone axes to Axis powers. At the center of the complex, Napoleon lies majestically dead inside several coffins under a grand dome — a goose-bumping pilgrimage for historians.

Arc de Triomphe

The foot of this magnificent arch is a stage on which the last two centuries of Parisian history have played out — from the funeral of Napoleon to the goose-stepping arrival of the Nazis to the triumphant return of Charles de Gaulle after the Allied liberation. Examine the carvings on the pillars, featuring a mighty Napoleon and excitable Lady Liberty. Pay your respects at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Then climb the 284 steps to the observation deck up top, with sweeping skyline panoramas and a mesmerizing view down onto the traffic that swirls around the arch.

Café de la Mosquée

Located behind the Jardin des Plantes and attached to Paris' largest mosque, this café beams you straight to Morocco, with outdoor courtyards and an interior room, all in North African tearoom decor with a full menu to match. Consider an afternoon tea-and-pastry stop here (long hours daily, 39 Rue Geoffroy St. Hilaire, Mo: Place Monge, tel. +33 1 43 31 38 20).

Arab World Institute

This building near Ile St. Louis has free views from its terrific roof terrace (closed Mon).

The Louvre

This is Europe's oldest, biggest, greatest, and second-most-crowded museum (after the Vatican). Housed in a U-shaped, 16th-century palace (accentuated by a 20th-century glass pyramid), the Louvre is Paris' top museum and one of its key landmarks. It's home to Mona Lisa, Venus de Milo, and hall after hall of Greek and Roman masterpieces, medieval jewels, Michelangelo statues, and paintings by the greatest artists from the Renaissance to the Romantics (mid-1800s).

Paris Museum Pass

In Paris there are two classes of sightseers — those with a Paris Museum Pass, and those who stand in line. The pass admits you to many of Paris' most popular sights, allowing you to skip ticket-buying lines. You'll save time and money by getting this pass.

The pass pays for itself with four key admissions in two days (for example, the Louvre, Orsay, Sainte-Chapelle, and Versailles), and it lets you skip the ticket line at most sights. It's sold at participating museums, monuments, FNAC department stores, and tourist information offices (even at Paris' airports). Try to avoid buying the pass at a major museum (such as the Louvre), where the supply can be spotty and lines long. It's also not worth the cost or hassle to buy Paris Museum Passes online because you have to either pay dearly to have them shipped to you or print vouchers and redeem them in person at a Paris tourist information office.

The pass isn't worth buying for children and teens, as most museums are free or discounted for those under age 18 (teenagers may need to show ID as proof of age). If parents have a Museum Pass, kids can usually skip the ticket lines as well. A few places, such as the Arc de Triomphe and Army Museum, require everyone — even passholders — to stand in line to collect your child's free ticket.


See the Travel Details above for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.

Hi, I'm Rick Steves, back with more of the Best of Europe. And this is one of about a million reasons this place is called "The City of Light." You got it — we're in Paris. Thanks for joining us.

As we return for another visit to Paris, we're enjoying an intimate look at Europe's grandest city. One of the great things about Paris is how, amidst all its grandeur, the little joys of life are still embraced.

We'll feel the pulse of Paris, from village-like neighborhoods to a magnificent pipe-organ loft. We'll visit a megalomaniac's tomb, tour the world's biggest art gallery, and celebrate the mother of all revolutions with a big, patriotic Bastille Day bang.

Paris was born — over 2,000 years ago — on this island in the River Seine. And many of its highlights can be seen from popular sightseeing boats. There's the Notre-Dame…and the Louvre Museum. And, of course, the Eiffel Tower, built to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution. Paris glitters with history. Even the bridges — bestowed on the city by kings and emperors — tell a story.

Beyond its glorious monuments and buildings, Paris is a city simply in love with life. Delightful parks let commoners luxuriate like aristocrats. Here in Luxembourg Gardens there's a tranquility, and refined orderliness — enjoyed by young and old. The gardens are impeccably tended. And for generations, children have launched dreams on this pond.

To establish a foothold in Paris, I like to choose a neighborhood and make it home. Strolling market streets like this, Paris has a small-town charm. For those learning the fine art of living Parisian-style, market streets like Rue Cler are ideal.

With the help of my local friend Delphine Prigent, each shop provides an insight into Parisian life. Delphine's planning a dinner party, and she's taking us along.

Rick: Shopping on a street like this is just a delight, isn't it?
Delphine: It's really nice. We are very lucky to, to be able to walk on the street and have all these very different shops, which are very good for shopping.
Rick: Because in America there's one-stop shopping. We go to one big place.
Delphine: We have one-street shopping here.
Rick: One-street shopping — it's like a market street.
Delphine: Yes. It's a market street, it is. I think for the first course it would be nice to put some shrimps and mayonnaise.
Rick: OK…
Delphine: And so you see you have different types of shrimps. You have like different colors, different sizes as well. So I think we'll go for the moyenne, for the medium ones, which is very flavorful.
Rick: It looks very fresh.
Delphine: So we'll have some meat tonight, as a main course. And we know the neighborhood butcher. You know, my mom used to come here.
Rick: So you can trust the quality.
Delphine: You can trust the quality. You know, you know that they give you advice as well. So I'm going to have rôti de boeuf and I'm going to have, uh, to ask the man for, for some tips. Nous prévoyons, un rôti boeuf? Ça c'est combien de temps au four?
Butcher: Au four25 minutes.
Delphine: D'accord; très bien. Et…combien de kilos pour six personnes?
Butcher: Pour six personnes…1,200 grammes, comme ici.
Delphine: D'accord. Très bien. Merci, monsieur.
Rick: So what did he say?
Delphine: He said, like, 25 minutes, and for six people, 1,200 grams.
Rick: 1,200 grams. For six? Big people!
Delphine: So, Rick: The dinner without the cheese course is not complete. So we have to go and pick some cheese. Before dessert, after main course, and we'll have some, an assortment of different cheeses.
Rick: So you create a variety.
Delphine: Yes. I create a small plate with different cheese. So we'll have some, this one looks good, some good cheese and some bleu, some Camembert, and some hard cheese.
Rick: Good socially, I think.
Delphine: It is very good because you have more wine.
Rick: More wine, more cheese, more wine, more cheese.
Delphine: So once we know what we are eating, we are going to choose the wine.
Rick: Beautiful shop.
Delphine: Yes, it's really nice. Bonjour, bonjour. We are going to talk with the expert and we are going to tell him what I'm going to have for dinner and he's going to pick the wines for us.

In France with so many wines to choose from, expert advice is welcome. He recommends a white for the shrimp, a full-bodied red from the Rhône Valley for the beef, and another white, this time from the Loire Valley, for the cheese plate.

Rick: It's nice to have the advice…
Delphine: Yes!
Rick: …for the little details of the menu.

In France, any good meal comes with fresh bread. And that requires a visit to the local boulangerie.

Delphine: So we'll have some bread for dinner. No meal without today's bread.
Rick: Today's bread? No bread, no party!
Delphine: No fresh, no party! So we'll have some baguettes, and we will have some special bread as well, for the cheese.
Rick: Oh, so it's a variety of bread with the cheese course. Nice.

And the final touch? Flowers for the table.

Delphine: It's very bright. And they're going to be beautiful on my table. It's great.

We're hopping the Métro to visit another neighborhood. Paris has the most extensive subway system on the continent, and it's clearly the fastest and most economic way to get around town. Trains come frequently, and the system is easy to use.

The Marais is another distinct Parisian neighborhood. I'm always impressed by how you can just sit and savor Parisian street scenes like this. Once a mucky slum — "Marais" means "swamp" — it was gentrified in the 17th century by King Henry IV.

With Henry's vision, Place des Vosges became the centerpiece of the finest neighborhood in town. Stroll along its elegant, gallery-lined arcade. The park-like square is a reminder that Paris is not just a collection of world-class museums. For millions of people, it's home — a place to meet a lover, enjoy a relaxed retirement, or raise a family.

In the 18th century, as Parisian high society moved elsewhere, immigrating Jews gradually settled in the Marias. In the historic heart of this neighborhood you'll find Paris' Jewish Quarter — with kosher eateries and falafel joints that draw an enthusiastic crowd.

Strolling its characteristic lanes, pause and observe. It's a celebration of cultural diversity.

The Marais is also the city's gay district — much enjoyed for its lively cafés and clubs. And — straight or gay — trendy Marais boutiques make for fun window-shopping.

Paris' original neighborhood, the Île de la Cité, is well worth exploring. While a church has stood on this island since ancient times, the iconic Gothic cathedral we see today — dedicated to "notre dame," or "Our Lady" — is only 700 years old.

You can brave the line for a look at its interior, and climb to the top of its bell tower. But the church I like to visit in Paris, especially on Sunday mornings, is St. Sulpice — to enjoy its magnificent pipe organ, arguably the greatest in Europe.

For organ lovers, a visit here is a pilgrimage. After Mass, enthusiasts from around the world scamper like 16th notes up the spiral stairs, into a world of 7,000 pipes.

Before electricity, it took three men, working out on these 18th-century Stairmasters, to fill the bellows, which powered the organ. The current organist, Daniel Roth, carries on the tradition of welcoming guests into the loft to see the organ in action.

As his apprentices pull and push the many stops that engage the symphony of pipes, a commotion of music lovers crowd around a tower of keyboards and watch the master at work.

Saint-Sulpice has a rich history with a line of 12 world-class organists going back over 300 years. Like kings or presidents, the lineage is charted on the wall. And overseeing all this? Johann Sebastian Bach.

This sacred music continues to fill the spiritual sails of Saint-Sulpice as it has for centuries.

The good life in Paris — music, culture, an appreciation of its rich heritage and fine architecture — is easy to take for granted. But today's freedoms and a government that seems passionate about its people's needs didn't come to France without a struggle. And the pinnacle of that struggle — an epic event that reverberates in the spirit of its people to this day — was the French Revolution.

The symbolic launch pad of the French Revolution was a notorious prison called the Bastille, which stood on this square. In 1789 angry Parisians stormed it, released its prisoners, and tore it down. It's one of Europe's great non-sights: There's nothing left to see.

While Parisian back lanes feel peaceful and content today, during times of revolution they hid hotbeds of discontent. Before French political leaders learned the wisdom of subsidizing the cost of baguettes, hungry peasant mobs would set up barricades in narrow lanes like these.

Generals, like Napoleon, were fond of quieting the streets by loading chains and nails into cannon, and giving the malcontents what they called "a whiff of grapeshot."

Later, the government commissioned Baron Haussmann to modernize the city. He ripped up most of medieval Paris and created the city's grand boulevards.

Great city planning — but really, it was great military planning. Heavy artillery and grand armies work better with long, broad streets as battlefields. Paris was made easier to rule…and more elegant.

Today, like a citywide game of "connect the dots," wide Parisian boulevards lead to famous landmarks, like the Pantheon…the old opera…the Arc de Triomphe…and the Hôtel des Invalides.

Built by Louis XIV in the 1600s as a veterans' hospital, this massive building now houses Europe's greatest military museum. And, at its center, under a grand dome — which glitters with 26 pounds of thinly pounded gold leaf — lies the tomb of Napoleon.

It's hard to imagine a building dedicated to a mortal that's more impressive. Gazing at Napoleon's tomb, I love to ponder the story of the charismatic leader who took France from revolutionary chaos to near total dominance of Europe, and then, catastrophically, to near ruins.

Just a humble kid from Corsica, Napoleon Bonaparte went to military school here in Paris. He rose quickly through the ranks during the tumultuous years of the Revolution. By 1799 he was the ruler of France. After that, within five years, France had conquered most of Europe, and Napoleon declared himself emperor of it all.

As the head of France's grand million-man army, he blitzed Europe. His personal charisma on the battlefield was said to be worth 10,000 additional men.

Imagine Napoleon the emperor — all of Europe at his feet. The laurel wreath, the robes, and the Roman eagles proclaim him equal to Caesar.

As emperor he worked feverishly to implement the ideals of the Revolution into a well-designed and modern society. Probably no single individual destroyed so much and yet built so much. To this day, the French remember Napoleon for his legacy: infrastructure, education system, and legal code.

But, ultimately, his megalomania got the best of him. Napoleon invaded Russia with the greatest army ever assembled and returned to Paris with a frostbitten fraction of what he started with. Two years later, the Russians marched into Paris, and Napoleon was deposed.

After a brief exile on the isle of Elba, in 1815 Napoleon skipped parole and returned to France, where he bared his breast and declared, "Strike me down or follow me!" For 100 days, the people of France followed him, until finally, in Belgium, Napoleon was defeated once and for all by the British at Waterloo. Exiled again, Napoleon spent his final years on a remote island in the South Atlantic, until he died in 1821.

The Arc de Triomphe was finished just in time for the funeral procession that welcomed Napoleon's body home from exile in 1840. The arch is a memorial to France's many military campaigns, and is particularly stirring on national holidays, when it flies the French flag.

It crowns the city's main drag. Europe's grandest boulevard is the Champs-Élysées. Built for the queen in the 1600s, it originated as a carriageway leading away from the palace gardens.

The population of France is becoming increasingly diverse, and this is particularly true here in its cosmopolitan capital. The largest immigrant group is from its former colonies in Africa, especially Muslims from North Africa.

Paris' mosque is a reminder that, even though its colonial empire is long gone, cultural connections remain strong. The challenge for both France and its immigrants is to assimilate comfortably into an ever more multi-ethnic society. Welcoming visitors, the mosque's tranquil courtyard provides a calm and meditative oasis in the midst of the hubbub of Paris.

The adjacent Café de la Mosquée provides an alternative to French cuisine. Parisians and North Africans alike enjoy couscous, tagine, and a characteristic glass of sweet mint chai with the ambience of a Moroccan teahouse.

Nearby, stands the home of the Arab World Institute, a partnership between France and 22 Arab countries. With a museum, art galleries, and library, its mission is to build understanding between the Arab world and France. And, from its rooftop terrace, the rest of the city beckons.

The Palais du Louvre was once the palace of the ultimate kings, and the biggest building in the entire world. Today the vast horseshoe-shaped palace, built in stages over eight centuries, with its striking 20th-century pyramid entry, houses the world's grandest collection of art treasures.

These people are waiting not to get into the Louvre, but to buy a ticket to get into the Louvre. With a city museum pass, I save money and, more importantly, lots of time. Anyone with this pass can walk right in.

Once inside, take a moment to enjoy the modern pyramid entry — a work of art in itself. It leads to three wings. We'll limit our visit to the Denon wing. The Louvre's huge collection covers art history from ancient times to about 1850. It can be overwhelming. A key to enjoying your visit: Don't even try to cover it all. Enjoy an excuse to return.

Remember to look up for a sense of how, long before it was a museum, this was Europe's ultimate palace and home of its mightiest kings. In fact, the collection includes royal French regalia — such as the crown of Louis XV, and the crown Napoleon wore on his coronation.

This museum is one of the world's oldest — opened to the public during the French Revolution in 1793. I guess it just makes sense. You behead the king, inherit his palace and a vast royal collection of art, open the doors, and — voilà! — a people's museum.

The statue of Winged Victory seems to declare that the Louvre's ancient collection is Europe's finest. Two centuries before Christ, this wind-whipped masterpiece of Hellenistic Greek art stood on a bluff celebrating a great naval victory.

And, just past her, stands an entourage of twisting and striding statues, each modeling the ideal human form. Venus de Milo has struck her pose — like a reigning beauty queen — for 2,500 years now.

There must be more famous paintings here than in any other museum. The crowded Grand Gallery — while a quarter-mile long — displays only a small part of the Louvre's collection.

We'll feature a few paintings representative of three styles: Renaissance, Neoclassical, and Romantic.

François I, who ruled through the early 1500s, was France's Renaissance king. His private paintings became the core of the Louvre's collection.

It was trendy for kings to have a Renaissance genius in their court — one of Europe's greatest kings, François I, got Europe's top genius, Leonardo da Vinci.

Leonardo's work epitomized the esthetics of the Renaissance, and the Louvre's collection of his paintings demonstrates his lasting influence.

His Virgin of the Rocks illustrates his trademark sfumato technique — the subtle modeling of his faces, and, in landscapes, how he shows distance by making it hazier and hazier.

And this portrait, Mona Lisa — believed to be of the wife of a Florentine merchant — is Leonardo's crowd-pleasing masterpiece. With her enigmatic smile, she seems to enjoy all the attention. Her body is solid and statue-like, a perfectly balanced pyramid angled back so we can appreciate its mass. Her arm — level with the frame — adds stability and realism. And again, Leonardo creates depth in Mona's dreamy backyard.

For me, this painting sums up the Renaissance: balance, confidence, and humanism — the age when the common individual — Mona Lisa — becomes art-worthy.

Like the museum, Napoleon was a product of the Revolution. One of the Louvre's largest canvases shows Europe's grandest coronation: Napoleon's. The pope traveled from Rome to Paris to crown Napoleon. But Europe's most famous megalomaniac, crown confidently in hand, pretty much ran the coronation show himself. The pope looks a little neglected.

The French Revolution was all about ending kings…so Napoleon crowned himself "emperor." The politically correct art style of the time was Neoclassical.

Napoleon would approve of everything in this room. Greek, Roman, heroic, or patriotic themes; clean, simple, and logical — it's pure Neoclassical. This Parisian woman, wearing ancient garb and a Pompeii hairdo, reclines on a Roman-style couch — perfectly in vogue.

Neoclassicism was an intellectual movement. After all, during the Revolution, everything was subjected to the "test of reason." Nothing was sacred. If it wasn't logical, it was rejected. The reaction to Neoclassicism was a romantic movement: "Romanticism."

Romanticism meant putting feeling over intellect, passion over restrained judgment. Logic and reason were replaced by a spirit that encouraged artists to be emotional, and create not merely what the eyes saw, but also what the heart felt.

What better setting for an emotional work than the story of an actual shipwreck? In Gericault's Raft of the Medusa, we see a human pyramid ranging from death and despair at its base to a pinnacle of hope as one of the survivors spots a ship — which ultimately comes to their rescue. If art controls your heartbeat…this is a masterpiece.

The Romantic Movement championed nationalistic causes of the 19th century. Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People shows the citizens in 1830, once again asserting their power and raising the French flag at a barricade in those troublesome back streets of Paris. This painting and that struggle reverberate with the French people to this day.

France's national holiday is July 14…Bastille Day. That's today, and that means a big party as all of France indulges in a patriotic bash. In Paris that means lots of flags, and lots of parties. Everyone's welcome to join in.

Like towns and villages all over the country, each neighborhood here hosts parties until late into the night. The local fire department's putting on this party…so I guess it doesn't matter if the fire marshal drops by.

Traditionally, crowds pack the bridges and line the river for a grand fireworks display over the Eiffel Tower.

Paris is a cultural capital with many dimensions, and it certainly knows how to celebrate its freedom. Thanks for joining us. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on travelin'. Vive la France!