The Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, Louvre and Notre Dame Cathedral are the most famous buildings in Paris, and you can read about them in every guide book.
However, with over 2,000 years of history, there are plenty of lesser known architectural highlights that should be on your radar when visiting the French capital — either physically or virtually. Here are ten must-see Paris buildings and monuments that I find particularly inspiring and mesmerising. Many more can be found in my new book: The Architecture Lover’s Guide to Paris.
See posts, photos and more on Facebook.
Inspired by Rome’s Pantheon, London’s St Paul’s Cathedral, and various ancient Greek temples (particularly those visited in Paestum by 18th century architect Jacques-Germain Soufflot), the Pantheon is one of Paris’ most impressive neo-classical buildings. Located on Montagne Sainte-Geneviève, this immense 83-metre-tall edifice was originally constructed as a church and was King Louis XV’s way of thanking Saint Geneviève (the patron Saint of Paris) for his recovery from severe illness. Massive stone columns support the iron-reinforced grand portico, which is decorated with a relief of Mother France presenting laurels to the great men in French history. It formed part of Jean-Baptiste Rondelet’s transformation of the building after the Revolution, from a place of worship into a prestigious mausoleum.
Inside, the Greek columns are part of the ode to antiquity. The Pantheon’s footprint is that of a Greek cross, and two small cupolas sit beneath the high dome (where a replica of Foucault’s pendulum dangles to dramatic effect). Massive, mesmerising murals depicting the life of Geneviève by Symbolist painter Puvis de Chavannes adorn the walls. On view in a small side room is a miniature model of the building, which allows visitors to scrutinise the structure’s design. Beneath your feet is a sober, barrelled vault with tombs of the likes of Voltaire, Dumas, Rousseau, Zola and Hugo. From April to October, for a few extra euros, it’s possible to climb to the colonnade around the dome for tremendous city views. Place du Panthéon, 75005
Unlock the secrets of Paris’s charm with this handy visual guidebook. Learn the history of the city’s most famous landmarks, grasp their fascinating details …
The distinctive Centre Pompidou modern art and cultural centre was designed by architects Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers and inaugurated in 1977. It’s still seen as revolutionary; the escalators, ducts and colour-coded engineering workings are placed outside of the building and are visible from afar. Blue represents moving air (air conditioning); yellow, circulating electricity; green, circulating water, and red, moving people (escalators and lifts). It all comes together as a flexible, functional, and utterly fascinating inside-out mechanism. While some originally considered the centre an eyesore, it’s become a much-loved part of Paris’ skyline and offers 7,500 square-metres of adaptable space over ten floors (the top floor boasts a panoramic view).
The Pompidou Centre houses the Musée National d’Art Moderne (which displays works from 1905 through to the present day), a large library, bookshop, cinema, a children’s workshop, an audio-visual section, and a popular restaurant — Le George. The square below is constantly abuzz with portrait painters, buskers and packed cafés. Place Georges-Pompidou, 75004
Perched majestically on top of the Montmartre hill is the iconic and romantic Sacré-Coeur Basilica. A temple for Mars and Mercury stood here in Roman times, and when you visit you’ll understand why the spot has long been seen as special. As the highest point in Paris, it was literally the closest you could get to the planets and deities, and continues to offer exceptionally inspiring vistas in all directions. Construction of Sacré-Coeur began in 1871 after the defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian War the previous year. Parisians were gloomy (and some say constantly drunk!), and the building of the basilica was seen as a symbol of repentance to God, and of hope for a better future. Finance came from the faithful, whose names are engraved in the walls. The plans by original architect Paul Abadie were inspired by a multi-domed seventeenth-century Romanesque cathedral he had restored in Périgueux (Dordogne) in the country’s south. Known as Saint-Front, its influences included the Hagia Sofia church in Constantinople/Instanbul (circa 537), San Marco Basilica in Venice (consecrated in 832), and possibly India’s Taj Mahal!
The neo-romano-byzantine building has a square form with four cupolas and a soaring central dome. Its stand-out feature is the luminous white colour of the exterior, created from self-cleaning Château-Landon stones. Other external features to look out for include a triple-arched portico, elegant bronze equestrian statues of French national saints Joan of Arc and King Louis IX, and the 19-tonne bell known as ‘La Savoyarde’. It arrived from the alpine town of Annecy in 1895, dragged by twenty-one horses. Inside the basilica, the awe-inspiring ceiling mosaic of Christ by Luc-Olivier Merson is a must-see. Consider climbing the bell tower for an incredible panorama of Paris, or just enjoy the view from the front steps (which is particularly spectacular at sunset). 35 rue du Chevalier de la Barre, 75018
The Palais Garnier opera house, circa 1875, is a declaration of love for the arts that has stood the test of time. Created by Charles Garnier, it was part of Napoleon III’s great Paris makeover and is constructed on top of a subterranean lake and swamp. Encompassing Beaux-Arts symmetry and Baroque and Renaissance elements, the highly decorative building employs marble and gilded bronze to great effect and has a concealed iron framework. The exterior displays sculpted Greek deities, busts of famous composers, and personified versions of ‘Harmony’ and ‘Poetry’. Interior highlights include the magnificent marble staircase, velveted auditorium (with a richly coloured ceiling artwork by Marc Chagall), and long galleries with intricate chandeliers and ceilings decorated with cherubs and clouds. You’ll float around on an operatic high — particularly on a sunny day, which creates a magical glow in the galleries. Entry tickets can be purchased at the rue Scribe entrance. Place de l’Opéra, 75009
Inaugurated in 1926 as a token of gratitude to the Muslim tirailleurs (colonial infantrymen), the Hispano-Moorish Grande Mosquée de Paris in the Latin Quarter was designed by architect Maurice Tranchant de Lunel in neo-mudejar style. It’s one of the oldest and largest mosques in France, and features a striking 33-metre green and white tiled minaret. During the Second World War the Grand Mosque served as a secret refuge for North African (and some say European) Jews, providing shelter, safe passage, and much needed forged documents. Today it houses a hammam (traditional bathhouse), a pretty courtyard café serving mint tea and delicious sweet pastries, and an authentic and cosy couscous restaurant (which offers continuous service from lunch through to dinner). 2bis Place du Puits de l’Ermite, 75005
Paris’ municipal government has met on the Right Bank site of the Hôtel de Ville since 1357. An elaborate Renaissance city hall was built here between 1553 and 1628, but it was destroyed by fire during the Paris Commune in 1871. The replacement (which you see today) was erected inside the original stone shell by architects Edouard Deperthes and Théodore Ballu. It maintained the original structure’s Renaissance style, but replaced royal symbols with republican declarations — such as the inscription of the French national motto ‘liberté, egalité, fraternite‘.
The building has a highly ornate exterior and is surrounded by lamp posts and fountains. An equestrian statue of Étienne Marcel by Antonin Idrac was erected in 1888 on the Seine side of the building. Inside, there are life-sized nude statues, an elaborate staircase that parts and reunites, and a function room in the style of Versailles’ Hall of Mirrors (complete with gilded carvings and decorative vaulted ceilings). It was here, in 1870, that the Third Republic was proclaimed. The Hôtel de Ville regularly stages free exhibitions themed around the history and culture of Paris. Place de l’Hôtel de Ville, 75004
Sainte-Chapelle, consecrated in 1248, is a prime example of the Gothic architectural style. The church was built on the Île de la Cité on the orders of Louis IX to house what was reputed to be Christ’s crown of thorns (later moved to Notre-Dame, and following the devastating fire of 2019, to the Louvre). High ribbed vaults are supported by slim columns, but the main supports are ring anchors, iron reinforcements and external buttresses. The lower chapel, with its many columns, was open to commoners for worship, while the upper chapel was used exclusively by the Royal Family.
Sainte-Chapelle is famous for arguably the most beautiful stained-glass windows in the world. Light is filtered through fifteen towering windows to produce divine, kaleidoscopic effects (recitals here are magical). The nave windows depict scenes from the Old Testament, while the eastern apse windows are devoted to stories from the New Testament. A large rose window on the western wall is decorated with flamboyant tracery, while west of the south windows, the scenes of the discovery of the relics of Christ and their journey to Paris with King Louis IX are epic and illuminating. 8 Boulevard du Palais, 75001
Not to be confused with the Arc de Triomphe at the top of the Champs-Élysées, the neo-classical Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel at the eastern end of the Tuileries Garden has a large arch set between two smaller ones. Inspired by the Constantine Arch in Rome and built by the influential architect/interior designer duo Charles Percier and Pierre Fontaine between 1806 and 1808, its purpose was to mark Napoleon’s victory at Austerlitz during the Napoleonic Wars and to serve as a grand entrance to the Tuileries Palace (the Louvre). Bas-reliefs of key battles from the campaign decorate the monument, which also incorporates eight Corinthian-style columns in red and white marble — each topped by a statue of a soldier of the Grand Army. The crowning chariot pulled by four horses was originally taken from the basilica in Venice by Napoleon, but returned in 1815 and replaced with a copy. It’s a particularly moving experience to walk under the arches when a young virtuoso violinist is playing something like Pachelbel’s Canon in D. Place du Carrousel, 75001
Printemps Haussmann is one of Paris’ best known department stores, and its flagship building on Boulevard Haussmann has a rich history. Founded in 1865 by Jules Jaluzot and his wife Augustine, the store was cleverly positioned close to the Madeleine church and Gare Saint-Lazare — the train station that linked Paris to affluent Normandy. It was a master stroke, and today around 80 million people pass by every year. Many are drawn in by the product range, but also the window displays, bright lights and air conditioning (it’s warmer than many people’s apartments in winter!). The building is stabilised by a giant iron frame and clad in stone, with statues representing the four seasons welcoming shoppers. A grand staircase and balconies once provided an opera-like atmosphere, where shoppers would go not just to purchase goods, but to see and be seen. The staircase was eventually removed to create more commercial space, but a contemporary vertical atrium allows you to glimpse the various levels.
Treat yourself to a hot chocolate in the Art Deco-styled brasserie under the magnificent stained-glass dome by René Binet, with its twenty-one shades of blue, pink, gold and green. Alternatively, if it’s a pleasant day, indulge in a cocktail with a view at rooftop bar Peruche (modelled on a pool house). 64 boulevard Haussmann, 75009
Designed by French ‘starchitect’ Jean Nouvel, the legendary Architecture-Studio (Martin Robain, Rodo Tisnado, Jean-François Bonne, Jean-François Galmiche), Gilbert Lèzenes, and Pierre Soria, the striking Institut du Monde Arabe (Arab World Institute) was the result of a joint funding initiative between France and the Arab States. It was constructed with the aim of encouraging dialogue between cultures. The steel, aluminium and glass exterior is light and reflective, and the south facade displays geometric Arabic patterns complete with photoelectric cells and mobile apertures to control the level of natural light entering the building. It’s stunning, serene and very elegant.
The centre houses a museum, library, bookshop, cinema, restaurant and events spaces. Head to the rooftop for another terrific view across the capital. 1 rue des Fossés Saint-Bernard, 75005
The Architecture Lover’s Guide to Paris by Ruby Boukabou is available worldwide. Buy it from your favourite bookseller or order a signed copy from www.rubytv.net/books.
Do you have any suggestions to add to our list of must-see Paris buildings and monuments? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Cover image: Panthéon, Paris. Additional images: Bigstock
Ruby Boukabou is a travel, culture and food writer based between Europe and Australia, and has written for The Age, The Australian, Qantas, Issimo, The Diplomat, Paris Voice and Inside Film. She has also produced culture and travel stories for the ABC, SBS and Screen Australia. When Ruby’s not writing, she’s probably tap dancing. She’s a founding member of the Paris Tap Crew and a member of jazz/world music group Le Shuffle Project, which records and performs in Paris and beyond. Ruby’s books — The Art Lover’s Guide to Paris and The Architecture Lover’s Guide to Paris (White Owl Books) — are available in bookshops and to order online.