In 2020, Paris was the second most visited city in the whole world and the first one in Europe (even with the sanitary crisis which has caused a loss of 14 millions tourists compared to 2019).
So my goal here is to explain how Paris has become the city it is today, whether for its name but also about its architecture, politics, population … through the most important events that marked the capital. Then, we will see the best places to visit if you ever want to go there.
The beginnings of the city
Originally, our megalopolis of more than two million inhabitants was founded by a little Gallic tribe called “Parisii” (which is the first sign of the origin of the name Paris) around 250 BC. Then, the city was the scene of a battle between the Gauls and the Romans in 52 BC. The latter won under the command of the lieutenant Caesar who immediately understood the strategic interest of the site (despite its modest size with approximately 10 000 inhabitants) such as the commercial advantages represented by the Seine and the large cities nearby. The city was renamed as Lutetia (coming from the latin “lutum” which means mud due to the muddy land).
Then, after the fall of the Roman Empire during the third century, Lutetia became known as the “city of the Parisii” before finally becoming “Paris” two hundred years later and being considered as the capital of the kingdom.
The rise of the city
Despite being ruled by a monarchy, the city began to assert itself militarily, economically and culturally. The architecture starts to change with the arrival of Gothic churches. The most famous example being the cathedral of Notre Dame (construction started in 1163).
Paris became the official royal residence (starting with King Philippe Auguste from 1180 to 1223). It logically brought a cultural contribution to the city with new monuments, universities, churches… Which made Paris famous throughout Europe.
It became the largest metropolis on the continent despite numerous disputes such as the Hundred Years’ War.
The capital was greatly embellished at this time with the construction of the Louvre, the Palais Royal, the Place des Vosges around the 17th century.
During the reign of King Louis XIV (from 1643 to 1715) colossal resources were mobilised around the enlargement of the Château de Versailles so that the king could sit there, welcome his court (which included the royal family, nobles, artists, etc.) but also glorify the French monarchy.
Signs of manifestation
However, this political system began to displease the people. Absolute monarchy gives the king a real divine power, considered as the representative of God. He rules and governs alone at all levels. The king did not take into account the opinion of the inhabitants of the working classes. The French people felt neglected which led to an uprising of the population against the royalty and thus to a revolution that began under the reign of Louis XVI.
The French Revolution
The reasons for this revolution are multiple and the responsible is the totally unequal political regime which rules the country. It divides the city between the nobles and the Third Estate (constituting 98% of the population, all of the free but non-privileged people) who at that time were facing extreme poverty caused by :
- increasingly high taxes and crop taxes
- a very harsh weather situation (very cold winters resulting in poor harvests, even greater impoverishment for the peasants and therefore a food crisis)
- a rise in food prices
- a ruler who does nothing for his people.
Another factor in this revolution was the Enlightenment movement. The philosophers who made up this movement questioned the absolute monarchy. They wanted to fight against social inequalities, the place of the Church in society (including its wealth, power and great intolerance) and were looking for new political and social values. The most famous one are Voltaire, Montesquieu, Denis Diderot …
The 14th of July 1789 represents the real beginning of the Revolution. Rioters stormed the Bastille, an old fortress from the Hundred Years’ War that symbolized royal arbitrariness in the eyes of the Parisians. This event led to an increase in revolutionary movements in the cities.
In front of these riots, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (inspired by the American Declaration of Independence) was signed by the deputies on 26 August 1789 and marked the beginning of a new era. After many deaths among the people and the execution of the actual king Louis XVI in 1973, France will experience its first Republic from 1792 to 1804. Citizens became free, equal and had the right to vote for the first time.
The Haussmann revolution : 1850-1914
Between 1841 and 1861 Paris experienced a demographic boom (from 1 million to 1.7 million inhabitants) due to the annexation of neighbouring communes (such as Belleville, Vaugirard, Aubervilliers, etc.). This was the creation of the 20 districts (arrondissements in french) of which Paris is still made up today. Thanks to this enlargement, Paris grew to three times its original size.
It became a city of the industrial age attracting many workers, there was also the arrival of the train in 1837 whose lines converged on the capital, aggravating the influx of population and therefore the urban situation which was already worrying because it was already quite overpopulated.
Napoleon III then called upon G-E Haussmann, who totally redesigned Paris by launching an enormous urban project aimed at destroying the old districts that were too dense and insalubrious in order to replace them with buildings in a new style called the Haussmannian style, characterised by its perfect alignment of windows, balconies, etc., in order to form an architectural ensemble that emphasised the perspective of the street.
Things to know :
The aesthetic gradation of these buildings is parallel to the social gradation of the time. It means that during this period, the nobles lived on the first floors because there was no lift yet. It allowed them not to exhaust themselves and therefore people with less means lived on the top floors. This is why the upper floors are generally more soberly decorated, with lower ceilings.
60% of Parisian buildings were of this style, which greatly facilitated the flow of people and goods. But this renewal of the city’s architecture was extremely expensive, putting Paris in debt for several years.
Even with these great developments, the city is still somewhat overpopulated (huge provincial immigration after the Prussian war). Paris therefore needed an opportunity to revive its economy and to show the world its new image (a large, powerful city with unique architecture).
Then, in 1889, a World’s Fair was organised in Paris to celebrate the centenary of the French Revolution. It was the perfect opportunity for the capital.
A World’s Fair allows the host country to promote all its qualities (technical and artistic know-how, etc.) worldwide by inviting foreign nations to its soil. It is a real strategic tool that aims to embellish the national image within nations and can therefore attract many tourists or even promote inter-country relations (social, commercial).
The Eiffel Tower was built (designed by Gustave Eiffel and his team) to show the greatness of France at the 1889 exhibition, which was to be the greatest attraction of the event and thus gain immense worldwide fame.
The 20th century is very important for the city’s cultural heritage. Indeed, after the two wars which greatly affected the country, whether in terms of the economy, memories or even the landscape. The capital has experienced numerous bombings which have dilapidated and even destroyed parts of the Parisian real estate.
In addition, the city experienced a strong demographic increase with the resumption of provincial and foreign immigration (more than 600,000 people between 1946 and 1954) and was therefore forced to launch a project to build working-class housing called HLM (low-cost housing) in the nearby suburbs, which greatly changed the landscape.
Some of the greatest monuments were also built at this time, such as the Louvre Pyramid, the Montparnasse Tower, the Bastille Opera House…
Places to visit
Now that we know more about the past of Paris, we are going to talk about places you have to visit if your are on a trip in the city. Whether for the beauty of the sites, their history, they are all worth a visit. First, I’ll introduce you to the most popular places. Then, those that are less popular but just as beautiful.
The main places
Notre Dame de Paris Cathedral
One of the most beautiful works of Gothic architecture. It has :
- outstanding stained glass windows
- a 13th century facade
- gargoyles, a very famous feature of the monument (representing human nature in the 19th century)
- bells that are much larger than other cathedrals (the main one weighing over 13 tons)
- and many other things to discover
Dating back over 850 years, the building has undergone several renovations over the centuries, giving it a history and architecture that could be observed for hours as there are so many details.
Unfortunately, after the fires that ravaged its facade, the cathedral will not reopen until 2024. It is still worth a visit from the outside to contemplate the scale/superiority of the building.
One of the greatest treasures of French cultural heritage. It brings together works of art from all ages and regions, all in a place with a style marked by many architectural trends. With the addition of the pyramid, the museum became an international reference and a real tourist attraction. It contains some of the most famous paintings in the world such as the Mona Lisa, the Venus de Milo, the Raft of the Medusa …
The Eiffel Tower
It is the most emblematic monument in France and for some its symbol. More than a century old, the Eiffel Tower is a fine example of engineering at the highest level. The tower is over 320 metres high and has three floors. They are accessible by lift or by stairs. There is a museum, a cinema, shops … And the top surely offers one of the most beautiful views possible, a breathtaking 360° panorama over all of Paris.
The Champs Elysées
Stretching over two kilometers, the avenue is made up of restaurants,
luxury brands such as Louis Vuitton, Guerlain … It is therefore perfect for those who want to shop even if you do not want to spend much money. One of the most beautiful places to walk in France. Thanks to the perfect alignment of the streets of Paris, the Arc de Triomphe can be seen on the upper part of the avenue.
The less popular places
Unlike the last places presented, these places are less famous worldwide. They are perfect for people who don’t like waiting in astronomically long queues such as those at the Eiffel Tower.
The Basilica of the Sacred Heart
A Romanesque-Byzantine Basilica located at the top of Montmartre, giving it a view of all of Paris. Inside, the ceiling is covered with the largest mosaic in France. It is the second most visited religious building in the capital after Notre Dame Cathedral.
The Grévin Museum
It is a very popular wax museum in Paris. There are more than 200 characters represented (actors, singers, politicians …). They regularly add new personalities, but also scenes from French history are recreated which makes it a perfect place to learn and have fun.
It’s not a monument per se but it’s something rooted in the culture of Paris. The whole city is connected by a huge network of public transport, including buses, trams and mainly the metro, making it easy and quick to get around the capital.
The Château de Versailles
The castle is a typical symbol of French glory. It has many areas to visit such as the former flats of the king, the hall of mirrors. Outside, there are also magnificent gardens that have made the place famous. The former royal residence now has 63,154 m2 divided into 2,300 rooms