Although a thoroughly modern city, Paris is nevertheless steeped in the past. The city began its life as Lutetia, a Roman settlement founded on the banks of the Seine, since which it has seen more than 2000 years of history. Paris has been the home of Carolingian kings, a hotbed of Renaissance thought, and the site of the 1789 Revolution, one of Europe’s most important social, political, and cultural watersheds. It therefore has plenty to offer the historically-oriented tourist and if you are short on time and perhaps taking a day trip to Paris then the below may help you decide on exactly what to see when visiting Paris.
Historical highlights in the city include the Paris catacombs, a set of former mines which were transformed into a giant subterranean graveyard during the French Revolution. The catacombs tell the human narrative of the revolution, encapsulated in the countless skeletons littering its walkways. Another revolutionary-themed hotspot can be found at the Place de Concorde, the sight of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette’s execution by guillotine, which is marked by a commemorative plaque and also features the Luxor Obelisk, a remarkable ornament gifted to the city by the Viceroy of Egypt in 1833.
Other Historical Attractions
For a less morbid historical trip, visit the Notre-Dame Cathedral, a beautifully-wrought piece of medieval architecture famed as the home of the Crown of Thorns, an important material relic of the Passion of the Christ. With its stunning architecture and collection of stained-glass windows, Notre-Dame brings Paris’s medieval past to life in spectacular fashion.
Other places of interest include the Arc de Triomphe, commissioned by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1806 as a celebration of French military power, and, of course, the Eifel Tower, the now iconic 324m structure erected to commemorate Paris’s staging of the 1889 World’s Fair. For some ancient history, take a trip to the Crypte Archéologique, an underground museum containing exciting excavations of Gallo-Roman era Paris, or visit the Arènes de Lutetes, which consists of the extensive remains of a grand Roman amphitheatre.
Magnificent Country Houses
Visitors to Paris can also see the Palace of Versailles, royal home of the Ancien Regime, and the Chateaux de Malmasion, a country house on the outskirts of the city that once played home to Napoleon.
Another great historical site in Paris is The Sorbonne. Founded in the Middle Ages, The Sorbonne is one of Europe’s oldest universities, and has played host to the academic careers of such distinguished scholars as Descartes and Sartre. The facility still houses a cluster of institutions of higher education but is accessible to the public. Its magnificent medieval architecture and rich history (it was also the site of the famous 1968 Paris student riot) make it well worth a visit.
History through the Museum
For a condensed, all-in-one history of the city from its prehistoric roots right through to the present day, visit the Musée Carnavalet, which tells the story of Paris through its art, artefacts and interior-design (you’ll journey through rooms which recreate the styles of different Parisian eras and personalities).
France has so much history to offer it is impossible to include all but the most obvious historical landmarks in this article. Ensure that you do your research before you leave so that you can concentrate on absorbing the parts of Parisian history that most interest you.