This iconic Parisian landmark commemorates one of Napoleon’s most famous victories and offers panoramic views from the top.
Climb the 284 steps of the Arc de Triomphe to see the beating heart of Paris spread out at your feet. The triumphal arch is the centrepiece of Place Charles de Gaulle, the “star” (or “étoile”, as it’s known to Parisians) formed by the intersection of twelve main avenues, including the world-famous Champs-Elysées. Although it’s on a busy traffic junction, a network of pedestrian crossings and plenty of room around the base makes it easy to explore on foot.
The Arc de Triomphe was commissioned by Napoleon following his famous victory at Austerlitz in 1806. The great general wanted a grand triumphal arch to greet his brave troops as they returned home, but its protracted construction meant that he never lived to see its completion in 1836. However his vision lives on in this powerful memorial to all those who have fought for France throughout the centuries.
The four pillars which form the corners of the arch are so wide that in 1919 it was possible to fly a plane between them. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was added in 1920, in remembrance of the casualties of World War I, followed three years later by an eternal flame, which is ceremoniously rekindled every day at 6.30 p.m. Engravings on the pillars chronicle the various wars fought by France and the generals who masterminded the campaigns.
The arch is richly decorated with sculptures in relief, the most famous of which is The Departure of the Volunteers of 1792. This stirring depiction by the celebrated French sculptor François Rude of Liberty leading a party of patriotic volunteers off to war is known as “La Marseillaise”, and is one of the arch’s most photographed features. On Bastille Day (14 July), the carriageways of the Champs-Elysées are filled with the noise and colour of the grand parade and the French Tricolour is hoisted high above the arch in a flamboyant gesture of national pride.
Once you’ve explored the arch at ground level, climb the steps or take the lift to the top for fabulous views across Paris, especially in the early evening when the skyline is studded with lights. There is also a museum and gift shop where you can learn a little more about the arch’s importance to the French nation and purchase a memento of your visit.
The Arc de Triomphe is open daily and is situated in the 16th arrondissement on the Right Bank. There is an admission charge to reach the top level. Place Charles de Gaulle is easily accessed by all public transport but parking in the vicinity – as in much of central Paris – is very limited.