Paris is awash with historic buildings and monuments; you only have to walk among the cobbled streets to admire the city’s impressive assets that pop up at every corner. From ornate Renaissance facades, to French Gothic engravings – not to mention a splattering of medieval masterpieces, too – there’s something of every century marking its place in Paris’ urban history.
To make sure you see the best of all the eras, we’ve picked out our top five attractions in Paris from the old, to the really old!
1. Palace of Versailles
The Palace of Versailles is one of Paris’ most illustrious buildings. Nestled among 800 hectares of manicured gardens, meadows and woodlands, this lavish palace is fit for a king. And literally was. From its origins as a mere hunting lodge in 1624, it’s now one of the world’s largest and most opulent castles in the world, let alone France, boasting 2,143 windows, 1,252 fireplaces and 67 staircases alone. And that’s only the structure; the interior décor is not to be sniffed at, with opulent chandeliers and gilt decorations from floor to ceiling – not to mention the Hall of Mirrors.
A stunning example of 18th century French art, great halls, the King’s Grand Apartments and the Museum of the History of France, discover the revolutions and the royals from the past. Don’t forget to visit Marie-Antoinette’s Estate, the Petit Trianon, and if you book in advance you can catch the fountain display events in the gardens held over the summer, too.
2. Notre Dame
One of the finest examples of French Gothic architecture in Paris, Notre Dame Cathedral, which sits on the Île de la Cité, is definitely up there in our favourite historic buildings in Paris. Built in the mid-14th century it is complete with gargoyles and chimera, stained glass windows and huge bells. The imposing towers which help give Notre Dame its towering silhouette stand at 200ft in height and you can climb to the top for spectacular views along the Seine and central Paris.
Musically, this Cathedral is steeped in history, too, as its organs date back to the 13th century. One of which Notre Dame claims to be the most famous organ in the world. The famous tolling bells have also been part of Notre Dame since the late 17th century and Emmanuel, the biggest bell, one of ten, weighs over 13,000kgs! Learn about the role the Cathedral had to play in France’s religious development and how Emmanuel rang through the streets of Paris to alert the citizens that France was on its way to liberation.
3. The Louvre
The Louvre is well known for being the most visited art gallery in the world – but there’s so much more to this museum than meets the eye. Juxtaposed with the contemporary glass pyramid in the courtyard, it is the perfect example of past and present Paris. The grand palace itself was built in the 12th century, but as a fortress, and later re-constructed to be a royal palace in the 16th century before the monarchy moved out to the Palace of Versailles. If you explore the crypt of the Louvre, evidence of the old fortress structure can still be seen.
Over the years the Louvre has taken on various shapes and sizes, undergoing transformations in the Middle-Ages and Renaissance years, but it has been a museum and art gallery since 1793 when it opened to exhibit royal works of art and prohibited church property. Napoleon even tried to change its name to Musée Napoleon after he expanded its collection, but the name was changed back after his defeat at Waterloo – and all the pieces were sent back to their previous owners, too…
4. Basilica of Saint-Denis
The Basilica of Saint-Denis is a large abbey church in Paris and is believed to have been the first Gothic church ever built – even before Notre Dame! – in the mid-1100s. Built on the site of a Gallo-Roman cemetery, the archaeological remains still lie underneath, and it later became a place of pilgrimage and the burial place of the French kings. Legend has it the patron saint of France, Saint-Denis, was decapitated on the hill of Montmartre and his head was carried all the way to the abbey; the place he wanted to be interred. The high alters inside the church are supposed to mark the site of his grave.
Architecturally, the Basilica of Saint-Denis is important as it marked a move from the Romanesque style which dominated construction from the 6th-10th century, to the new Gothic style. With a long central nave and beautiful stained glass windows, it’s a must-see on your trip to Paris.
5. Château de Pierrefonds
The Pierrefonds Castle is one of Paris’ most prominent castles (albeit with a slightly tarred history) and sits on the edge of the Forest of Compiègne, northeast of Paris. Built on top of the original castle from the 12th century, the ‘new’ Pierrefonds was built from 1393 to 1407. Later during the reign of Louis XIII it was besieged and taken by troops to destroy – but halfway through the demolition they had to stop as it was a bigger job than they initially anticipated…
But despite being derelict and ruined for more than two centuries, Napoleon bought it up for pennies (or should we say, francs) and inspired a wave of improvements which spanned over years to come. It’s now thought of as a nostalgic romantic ruin and has even featured in many Hollywood blockbusters.
With The Paris Pass you can visit all of these stunning historical attractions for free! Want to find out more? Learn about what you get with the pass, the attractions pass, the museum pass and even a free travelcard. Click here to start your sightseeing adventure of Paris.