Paris: City Guide & History

Orsay Museum, Paris, France

The City of Lights, of Love, of Fashion… whatever you call it, the French capital of Paris is a city famous worldwide. So what has happened here, and what should you do when visiting?

 
History
The Celts, Romans, and Franks

Paris has been a settlement for over two thousand years, but it took a long time to become a fully fledged city. In the middle of the 3rd century BC, the Celtic Parisii tribe settled on the banks of the River Seine. They lived quietly for several centuries, until the Romans arrived.

In the 1st century AD, the Roman Empire set off to take control of most of Western Europe, conquering the Celtic tribes. They seized the Parisii fort and town in 52AD, declaring it part of their territory of Gaul, and named the town Lutetia. It wasn’t a very large or important town, but it grew during this time. During the 3rd century, the region converted to Christianity. And in the 4th century, the town was renamed Paris, after its original tribe.

Rome kept control until around the 5th century, when new invaders arrived. Attila the Hun was the Empire’s fiercest opponent, attacking from his territory in Central and Eastern Europe. But Paris, and the surrounding region, were eventually taken by the Franks, a Germanic tribe. In 508, King Clovis I made Paris the capital of his new kingdom. Paris grew and flourished for centuries under the Franks, only facing raids from the Vikings in the 9th century. The Capetian kings came to power in 987, and would last until 1328. 

 
The Hundred Years’ War

During the Middle Ages, Paris grew to be one of the largest towns in Europe. It thrived on trade, being strategically located on the banks of the Seine, and became a city of merchants. The Gothic architectural style was born in Paris, with construction of Notre Dame Cathedral starting in the 12th century. This was followed by Sainte-Chapelle, and the Louvre fortress. The city also established the Sorbonne University in the 12th century.

However, things started to go wrong in the 14th century, when the Black Death swept through Western Europe. It killed about half the population of Paris. And in 1328, the death of the last Capetian king, Charles IV, caused a succession crisis. The House of Valois had the strongest claim, and Philip VI took the throne. But, Joan of Navarre also had some claim (women could not inherit, but she received the Kingdom of Navarre), as did King Edward III of England. In 1337, the Hundred Years’ War began between France and England, the latter attempting to seize control of the former.

The English took Paris in 1420, while the French king, Charles VII, held the south of the country. In 1431, King Henry VI of England was crowned King of France, in Paris. Joan of Arc fought during this time, successfully raising the siege of Orléans, though she was eventually executed by the English.  The English left Paris in 1436, and the French fully expelled them from the country in 1453 – so that’s actually 116 years!

 
Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris, France
Notre Dame de Paris Cathedral
 
Renaissance & Reformation

So the Valois ruled France once more, but they preferred to live in their luxurious châteaux in the Loire Valley. Eventually, in 1528, King Francis I brought his court to Paris. Now both the capital, and the seat of royalty, Paris thrived. It continued to grow in size, and was hugely influential during the Renaissance (‘rebirth’). Started in Italy, this was a period of new art and architectural style, and great cultural importance. Paris became a centre of the arts, with many new Renaissance buildings constructed, including the remodelling of the Louvre, the royal residence.

It wasn’t all fun times though! The Reformation swept through France in the 16th century, causing clashes between Catholics and Protestants, and Paris suffered greatly. This led to the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572, when Catholics murdered around 3,000 Protestants in Paris. Then, in 1589, King Henry III was assassinated, ending the Valois line. He was succeeded by the King of Navarre – but he was Protestant! Only when he converted to Catholicism was he able to enter Paris to be crowned in 1594. He became Henry IV, the first of the Bourbon line.

Fortunately, Paris thrived again in the 17th century, when Louis XIV came to the throne in 1643. Known as the ‘Sun King’, his reign was full of prosperity and decadence for the city. He also chose to move the royal court out of the centre, and built the huge Palace of Versailles on the outskirts of the city.

 
Vive La Révolution!

But, while the monarchy lived in decadence, in the 18th century Paris was full of poverty, with people homeless and starving. This began to stir feelings of resentment towards the King. Add on to this, the Enlightenment, a period of great discovery and learning across Europe. Philosophers – including many French – began to favour ideas of socio-economic equality. Plus, after intervening in the American Wars of Independence, France was close to bankruptcy. Then, as if it couldn’t get worse, the harvest failed in 1788. The French were ready to revolt!

On 14th July 1789, Parisians seized cannons and guns, and stormed the Bastille, the city’s prison and a symbol of royal authority. This was the beginning of the French Revolution. The governor surrendered and was executed, and the people elected their first mayor. They declared Paris independent of royal authority. Several Revolutionary ‘clubs’ existed in the city, but there was much hostility, and conflicts broke out regularly.

The people were still furious at King Louis XVI, for his apparent indifference to the suffering of his people. He tried to flee Paris, but was brought back, and in 1792, the people attacked the Tuileries Palace. They declared the First Republic of France, and had Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette, executed by guillotine. The French monarchy was no more.

 
Napoleonic Empire

From 1793, Paris lived in the ‘Reign of Terror’, under the new government. Many uprisings started, but were quickly crushed. Thousands were executed, religion was banned, and the city was chaos. That is, until Napoleon Bonaparte arrived on the scene. A revolutionary general, he was able to lead a coup d’état and stabilise the government in 1799. He made himself the First Consul, the leader of the country.

Napoleon wasn’t exactly a democratic leader though. By 1804, he had replaced the Republic with his First French Empire, declared himself Emperor, and moved into the royal Palace of Versailles. His taste for power spread, and he began to invade the surrounding countries of Western Europe, and colonised large parts of Africa. The Napoleonic Wars were a series of struggles between the Empire and other European powers. The Empire fell in 1814, and Napoleon was eventually defeated in 1815, by the UK and Prussia, at the Battle of Waterloo.

 
Arc de Triomphe, Paris, France
Arc de Triomphe
 
Political Instability

After the Empire fell, the Bourbon monarchy was restored, with Louis XVIII returning to Paris that same year. The restoration would last just 15 years though, with the 1830 revolution resulting in the Bourbons being ousted. Louis-Philippe, Duke of Orléans, became the constitutional monarch. But Paris continued to grow, becoming densely populated with over 1 million residents, and there was unrest amongst the working classes. There were frequent riots – including the 1832 uprising, immortalised in Les Misérables. And yet another revolution, in 1848, led Louis-Philippe to abdicate.

Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, nephew of Napoleon I, was elected as the First President of the Second French Republic in 1848. But then, like his uncle, he led a coup d’état, dismissed Parliament, and became Emperor Napoleon III in 1851. During his reign, he rebuilt much of Paris and changed the urban structure to what we see today. His Empire fell in 1871, during the Franco-Prussian War, when Prussian troops captured Paris. The Third French Republic was established.

The late 19th and early 20th century were known as La Belle Époque, a time when Paris became famous for its art scene. Experimental movements like Art Nouveau, Fauvism, and Impressionism appeared, as well as the Beaux Arts architectural style. Montmartre became a bohemian village of creatives, and other writers and artists from around Europe also came to live and work in the city. In 1889 and again in 1900, Paris hosted the Universal Exposition, and unveiled the Eiffel Tower.

 
World War One to the Present

Much of the 20th century in Europe was characterised by war. During WWI, France was largely fighting against German troops. They bombed Paris, but never captured it. Eventually, both sides declared an armistice on 11th November 1918, and Paris hosted the Peace Conference the following year. There, the Big Four (France, Britain, USA, and Italy) signed a series of treaties, imposing their terms on the defeated empires.

Between the wars, Paris’s art scene continued to flourish, with more movements in art, literature, and music developing in the city. But, the Great Depression in the 1930s, brought much hardship to the city, as well as most of Europe.

Paris fared worse in WWII though. In 1940, Nazi forces successfully captured and occupied the city. General Charles de Gaulle fled to London, to lead a resistance movement from there. Thousands of Jews were deported from Paris to concentration camps. Eventually, on 25th August 1944, Allied troops liberated Paris, and the Nazis surrendered on 8th May 1945.

Paris soon recovered, and the Fourth Republic was established, but quickly collapsed. In 1958, General Charles de Gaulle formed the Fifth (and current) Republic and became President. However, huge student riots rocked Paris again in May 1968, protesting Gaulle’s administration. Politicians feared it could start yet another revolution, but the violence soon subsided.

Today, Paris continues to be a cultural capital, famous for its art and fashion scene. It is the governing seat of France, and home to over 2 million people.

 
Eiffel Tower lights at night from below, Paris, France
The Eiffel Tower
 
Your Visit
Famous Sights

Without a doubt, the Eiffel Tower is one of Paris’s most iconic sights, recognised around the world. Many visitors climb to its peak, but it is also impressive to see from the Champ de Mars below. A few streets away, lies the Arc de Triomphe, built to honour those who fought in the Revolution and Napoleonic Wars. It is surrounded by a crazy roundabout, where twelve streets converge! The most famous of these is the Champs Elysées, leading to Place de la Concorde, and the Jardin des Tuileries. The Palais Garnier opera house is also nearby, an incredible Baroque building, full of gilded decor inside!

Further along the River Seine, is the Île de la Cité, the island where the city was first founded. One of the bridges that crosses it is the Pont Neuf, now the oldest bridge in the city. On the island, you’ll find the legendary Notre Dame Cathedral (currently under renovation after a tragic fire in 2019), and the smaller Sainte-Chapelle, a stunning Gothic chapel, full of stained glass. There is also the Conciergerie, a building of fairy tale like towers, which was used as a prison.

Across the river, on the south side, are the Sorbonne University buildings, and the Jardin de Luxembourg, a vast public park with views of the Eiffel Tower. Nearby, is the Montparnasse Tower, a tall skyscraper, with an observation deck and roof terrace. On the outskirts of the city, the decadent Palace of Versailles is well worth a day trip!

 
Museums & Galleries

Paris is famous for its artists, so there’s no shortage of galleries to visit around the city. The most famous is the Louvre, with its huge glass pyramid in the courtyard, and which houses the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo. The museum is inside the old Louvre Palace, a vast building, so there are thousands of artworks to see! Just across the river is the Orsay, another huge art gallery, housed in an old railway station. It contains mostly works by French artists, including man Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings, as well as sculptures, architecture, and decorative arts.

One of the more controversial buildings in Paris is the Pompidou Centre, built in the mid-20th century, and far more modern than any other buildings in the area. This unique building houses a collection of modern and contemporary art, as well as special exhibitions and events. Near the Champs Elysées, look out for the Beaux Arts style Grand and Petit Palais, both built for the Universal Exposition in 1900, during La Belle Époque, which now host exhibitions and house various artworks and sculptures.

There’s plenty more besides these though – Paris has over 100 museums and galleries, on every topic, not just art, and featuring exhibits from around the world.

 
Shopping & Neighbourhoods

Paris is full of history and art, of course, but it’s also a city to just soak up the atmosphere. It’s famous for its fashion, and also its gastronomy, with thousands of restaurants and cafés. The Champs Elysées and the area near the Tuileries is where to find all the major designer labels. Paris is also known for its vast department stores, along Boulevard Haussman, near the Palais Garnier. For more high street chain stores, head to Les Halles and the Rue de Rivoli, east of the Louvre.

Continue east along the river to the fashionable Le Marais district, where you’ll find more eclectic shops, including many handcrafted and vintage items. There’s also plenty of nightlife here, particularly popular with the LGBTQ+ community, or head along to Bastille, for even more bars and nightclubs. On the south side of the river, explore the leafy boulevards of Saint-Germain-de-Prés, once walked by the city’s intellectuals, close to the Sorbonne. Here you’ll find chic, classic styles, including many art galleries and bookstores.

One of the most famous districts of the city is Montmartre, to the north. This was home to Paris’s artists during La Belle Époque, and retains a bohemian, village-like feel, with its cobbled streets winding up the hill. The most famous sight is the Sacré-Coeur, the huge white church atop the hill. The shops here are quirky and artsy, and the area is also home to the iconic Moulin Rouge, as well as dozens of other cabaret shows.

 
Sacre Coeur, Montmartre, France
Sacré-Coeur, in Montmartre
 
Important Information

Language:

The official language is French.

Currency:

The currency is Euro (€), as in most of the European Union.

Transport:

Paris has two international airports, Charles de Gaulle and Orly. Charles de Gaulle is the larger, and you can reach the city centre on the RER train, bus, or taxi, which take around 45-50 minutes. From Orly, you have to take the Metro and change to the RER train (60 minutes), or take a bus (45 mins) or taxi (30 mins).

The Metro is the easiest way to get around, and single tickets cover your whole journey, including connections. The RER trains connect with the Metro, but travel further out of the city. Prices vary depending on which of the 5 zones you travel through. You can also take the bus, or a taxi, or use ‘Vélib’, the city’s bike sharing system. See the public transport website for more details.

Public holidays:

France uses both national and Christian holidays. Most shops and public businesses will be shut, and possibly some tourist attractions. Bastille Day is a particularly big celebration in Paris, with fireworks and parades.

1st January – New Year’s Day

Mid-April – Easter Monday

1st May – Labour Day

8th May – Victory in Europe Day (end of WWII)

Mid-May – Ascension Day (40 days after Easter)

Mid-June – Whit Monday (50 days after Easter)

14th July – Bastille Day

15th August – Feast of Assumption

1st November – All Saint’s Day

11th November – Armistice Day (end of WWI)

25th December – Christmas Day

 

Have you visited Paris before? Leave a comment about your experience!

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