Destination: France: Paris
Basilique du Sacré-Coeur
This triple-domed, snow-white Romano-Byzantine style church on a hilltop in Montmartre was commissioned as an act of contrition after the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71). Construction began in 1875, and the basilica was completed in 1914, just in time for another dustup with the Germans. The rich mosaics inside are impressive, but the main reason to come here is for the views from the dome. Open daily. Métro: Anvers, Abbesses or Lamarck–Caulaincourt.
Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris
Commissioned in 1160 by Bishop Maurice de Sully, Notre-Dame is one of the world’s most profoundly moving Christian cathedrals. After the restoration that was completed in 2002, the soft biscuit-color of the stone of the facade is visible again (it had been blackened by centuries of pollution), providing a chance to see it as people in medieval times saw it. The cathedral was built on holy ground—the site of a Gallo-Roman temple to Jupiter—and has evolved through the centuries. Badly damaged during the French Revolution, it received a heavy-handed restoration in the 1800s, giving the interior the look it has today (nearly all the stained glass dates to this overhaul with the notable exception of two of the famous Rose windows, which date back to the 13th century).
In my opinion, the exterior better expresses the cathedral’s original vocation, since the delicate stone filigree of its twin towers and above its doors could only have been accomplished in a trance of Christian piety. You may wonder if climbing the 422 steps in the north tower for a view of Paris (not to mention the long lines) is worth it…it is for the views and coming face-to-face with the church’s enormous bells en route. Open daily. Métro: Cité or RER St.-Michel.
Built for the Universal Exhibition in 1900 (alongside the Pont Alexandre III and the Gare d’Orsay), the Grand Palais is an architectural showstopper of ironwork and glass. Under renovation for twelve years, it reopened only in 2005. The main nave rises a soaring 197 feet, making it light-soaked, gorgeous space for special exhibits, which are scheduled throughout the year and are the only times visitors can access the massive monument.
This 13th-century chapel is my favorite church in Paris. It’s tucked away on the Île de la Cité, and rarely attracts the crowds found at other churches, so you can quietly contemplate the stained glass windows depicting scenes from both the Old and New Testaments. Open daily. Métro: Cité or RER St.-Michel.
Though Paris’ iconic symbol today, the cast-iron structure was considered shockingly modern when it was completed in 1889, a date chosen to mark the opening of the Universal Exposition and the centennial of the French Revolution. And while its panoramas of the city are amazing, night views are even more dazzling, and if you come late—from June 15 to September 1, the last entry is at midnight—you’ll not only avoid the crowds but get a close-up of the tower’s latest attraction—the magical robe of 20,000 twinkling lights added in 1999 to welcome the new millennium. It proved so popular that it was made permanent in 2003, and every night from sundown to 2 a.m. (1 a.m. during the winter) it glitters every hour on the hour. Open daily. Métro: Bir-Hakeim or RER Champs de Mars-Tour Eiffel.
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