Things to Do in Île-de-France
The Eiffel Tower isn't just a symbol of Paris but a symbol for all of France. Erected by Gustave Eiffel to commemorate the centennial of the French Revolution in 1889, the 1,050-foot (320-meter) tower once held the title of the world's tallest structure. Despite having been dwarfed by Dubai's Burj Khalifa and The Shard in London, the Eiffel Tower remains one of the most recognizable landmarks on the planet. View the architectural icon from afar, or stop in at the three observation levels for stellar city views.
Louis XIV’s Palace of Versailles takes the award for the most visited château in France, and the magnificent Versailles Gardens (Jardins de Versailles) are world renowned. A series of beautifully landscaped gardens, show-stopping fountains, and tree-lined pathways covering 800 hectares (1,976 acres), the gardens center on the cross-shaped Grand Canal.
Most visitors to Disneyland® Paris—Europe’s biggest theme park—make a beeline for the Disneyland®Park, but the adjoining Walt Disney Studios® Park offers even more shows, rides, and Disney®-themed fun, especially for movie fans. Designed like a Hollywood movie studio, the park has four distinct areas—Front Lot, Toon Studios, Production Courtyard, and Backlot.
Primarily associated with the steady gaze of Leonardo Da Vinci's famous Mona Lisa, Paris' Louvre museum is home to a 35,000-strong collection of paintings and sculptures considered one of the greatest in the world. The contemporary glass Louvre Pyramid heralds the museum's entrance, which millions of tourists flock to every year to feast their eyes on masterpieces that span from antiquity to the 20th century.
The opulence of the Palace of Versailles reaches its peak in the Hall of Mirrors (Galerie des Glaces)—a 240-foot-long (73-meter-long) ballroom with 357 mirrors adorning 17 huge arches on one side and 17 arcaded windows overlooking the formal gardens on the other. It was also the location of the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, which formally ended World War I.
Step inside the humble attic room of the Maison de Van Gogh and it’s almost impossible to imagine it as the final address of one of the world’s greatest artists. But it was right here, in Room N°5 of the Auberge Ravoux that the post-impressionist painter was found dead of a gunshot wound on 29 July 1890. Today, the guesthouse is better known as the ‘Maison de Van Gogh’ and is preserved as a museum in his memory.
Visitors can explore the historic inn, restored in 19th-century style, and learn about the short yet prolific period that Van Gogh spent there, staying a mere 70 days but creating over 80 paintings and 64 sketches during his stay. The highlight is, of course, the chance to peek inside Van Gogh’s room and it’s a haunting space, with its single window, oil-lamp and sparse furnishings recreated as they were at the time of the artist’s suicide.
Marie-Antoinette left a mark on Versailles larger than any other left by the queens of the French monarchy, and the physical embodiment of her maverick ways can be found at her estate on the grounds of the Gardens of Versailles.
The Marie-Antoinette's Estate is comprised of several elements. There is the Petit Trianon, which served as her palace away from home. Often frustrated by the politics of her husband's court, Marie-Antoinette would escape to her royal residence, where no one could enter without her express invitation – not even the king himself.
There are also Marie-Antoinette's personal gardens, through which visitors can stroll today and see that they are much unchanged from the time of the queen's reign. She also had a hamlet–a glamorous, picturesque take on the rustic country homes that the aristocracy at the time had on the grounds of their own estates – with a kitchen garden and a working farm in addition to its mill, decorative gardens and charming lake.
The original Château de Pierrefonds dates to the 14th century, but the version that stands today is a more modern construction. Commissioned by Napoleon III and designed by Viollet-le-Duc in the 19th century, the Château de Pierrefonds is an impressive, medieval-inspired landmark, featuring crenellated towers and myriad turrets.
The lifeblood of Paris, the River Seine acts as a dividing line between Paris’ historically sophisticated and bohemian halves; it provides transportation via riverboat and plenty of opportunity for romantic strolls; and its riverbanks are a UNESCO World Heritage Site lined with the city’s top landmarks, including the Eiffel Tower, Notre-Dame Cathedral, Musée d’Orsay, Jardin des Tuileries, and the Louvre.
Built in 1687 by famed architect Mansart, the serene, pink-colonnaded Grand Trianon, was created for Louis XIV as a tranquil getaway from the pressures of court life. While the Grand Trianon is open to the public, it is also an official residence of the French President.
More Things to Do in Île-de-France
Second only to the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame Cathedral (Cathedrale de Notre Dame de Paris) is one of Paris' most iconic attractions, a marvel of medieval architecture that was immortalized in Victor Hugo's classic novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Today, the Gothic grandeur and stained-glass windows of the UNESCO World Heritage site continue to reign supreme from Ile de la Cite, an island in the middle of the Seine River.
(UPDATE: Notre Dame Cathedral is currently off-limits due to fire damage.)
Rivaling the Louvre as Paris' favorite art museum, the Orsay Museum (Musée d'Orsay) is known for its impressionist, post-impressionist, and art nouveau works from 1848 to 1914. Equally impressive as what’s inside the museum is its exterior: a former Beaux-Arts railway station with an enviable location on the banks of the Seine River. Both architecture and art buffs will want this museum on their Parisian itineraries.
Château de Rambouillet, dating back to the 14th century, is one of the grandest and most historic castles in the Île-de-France region. Frequented by kings and queens, emperors and presidents, it has served as everything from a royal retreat to a setting for international diplomacy. Today, it remains an architectural and cultural gem.
Founded by Napoleon and placed in a former royal residence, France’s National Archeology Museum (Musée d'Archéologie Nationale) has one of the top collections in the world of its kind. Dating back to pre-history, there are nearly 30,000 artifacts presented in its exhibits that tell the story of humanity through art, culture, religion, and technology. It is fascinating to trace the introduction and development of industrial and agricultural activity in France. The ability to see time periods stretching from earliest Paleolithic to the early Medieval in the same place is a draw for many.
The elegantly restored exterior of the Château de Saint-Germain-en-Laye is worth the trip alone. Inside, the Comparative Archaeology permanent collection, comprised of artifacts collected on five continents, is where you’ll want to spend most of your time. Exhibits are divided into era (Iron Age, Bronze Age, etc.) making it easy to tour in chronological order. Entrance to the museum is included in the Paris Pass.
Château de Maisons, also known as the Château de Maisons-Laffitte, enjoys a picturesque location near the Seine, just northwest of central Paris. Commissioned by René de Longueil in the 17th century and designed by celebrated architect François Mansart, the elegant château is a superb example of classical French architecture.
Expect bright lights, extravagant costumes, and raucous music at the world-famous Moulin Rouge. Opened in the Belle Epoque of 1889 to celebrate Paris' thriving creative scene and the end of the civil war, the windmill-cum-cabaret hall has never stopped basking in fun and frivolity. As a staple of Parisian nightlife, an unforgettable evening at the Moulin Rouge is a must on any traveler's France itinerary.
The Grand Palais is one of Paris’ most beautiful and recognizable structures. Debuted in 1900 in time for the World’s Fair, the architectural marvel is famed for its colossal nave, Beaux-Arts architecture, and immense glass roof. Today, the Grand Palais houses several gallery areas and also hosts tournaments, Chanel fashion shows, and other major events.
Though it translates to “New Bridge” in French, the Pont Neuf is in fact the oldest bridge in Paris, built in 1607 to connect the banks of the river Seine to Ile de la Cite. Known in the 18th and 19th centuries for its unsavory street vendors and pickpockets, Pont Neuf is now a tranquil pedestrian bridge and meeting place for visitors and locals alike.
Paris’ Latin Quarter is a popular, historical area of the Left Bank. Home to the main Sorbonne campus, this dynamic, student-filled neighborhood was once frequented by Ernest Hemingway, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and other revolutionaries. Today it’s distinguished for its buzzing cafés, lively restaurants, and must-see landmarks.
One of many bridges that cross the Seine, Pont Alexandre III was officially unveiled in 1900. Widely considered the city’s most beautiful and opulent bridge, it connects the Champs-Élysées and Grand Palais on the Right Bank with Invalides on the Left, making it a popular thoroughfare for tour groups and amblers.
Crowned by the Sacré-Coeur Basilica, historic Montmartre in Paris’ 18th arrondissement is famed for its cobblestone streets, artsy past and present, and central hill. Visitors flock here to imagine what life was like during the Belle Epoque—when artists such as Dalí, Renoir, Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Picasso lived and worked in Montmartre—as well as get their portrait sketched in Place du Tertre.
The Arc de Triomphe looks down upon the grand tree-lined boulevard that is Avenue des Champs-Élysées: one of Paris’ most memorable sights and one of the world’s most famous avenues. It’s not just the striking architecture that captivates visitors—the shopping street is lined with designer boutiques, luxury hotels, and fine restaurants.
Situated on the right bank of the Seine River and flanked by the idyllic Tuileries Garden and the grand boulevard of Champs-Élysées, Place de la Concorde is the largest square in Paris. The infamous guillotines of the French Revolution were located here, but today the square is best known for striking monuments, elegant hotels, and elaborate fountains.
An instantly recognizable symbol of Paris, the colossal Arc de Triomphe stands at the epicenter of Place Charles de Gaulle, where 12 of the city’s busiest avenues converge. The Napoleon-commissioned monument, adorned with high-relief sculptures depicting sword-wielding soldiers and inscribed with the names of generals and battles, celebrates French military victories and remembers all those who have fought on behalf of France. The top of the arch, accessible via 284 steps, affords superb views over all of Paris.
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