By Mary Jo Waits
Oddly enough, I don’t think I’ve ever been to the top of the Arc de Triomphe. I’ve been atop the Eiffel Tower, Sacré-Cœur in Montmartre, and the rooftop of Galeries Lafayette on Boulevard Haussmann to find the perfect view of “the most beautiful city in the world,” as some claim. Here are some highlights—and surprising conclusions—from my day devoted to getting on top of the city via the Arc de Triomphe.
Started the day with a walk to my favorite boulangerie! I went later than usual (8:30 a.m. vs. 7:30 a.m.), so more people were there. I ran into Chris, my flat owner, on the corner, which made me feel like I really lived in Paris. I chose a pistachio-chocolate escargot to fortify me for the walk to the Arc de Triomphe and also for climbing the stairs that come with Paris’s “viewing” monuments.
View of the Arc from the Champs-Elysées. The walk from my flat took about an hour, and I did a very touristy thing—I walked down the Avenue des Champs-Elysées.
Ideal location: at the end of the Avenue des Champs-Elysées. Photo shows part of my walk—from the Place de la Concorde (in distance) to the Arc de Triomphe (located in Place Charles de Gaulle). Number of stairs climbed for this view? 284 steps to the top, the terrace. FYI: It’s 669 steps to second level of the Eiffel Tower (elevator after that) and 330 steps for Sacré-Cœur.
View of Eiffel Tower from atop the Arc de Triomphe. Never gets old. Next trip I’ll come to the Arc at night to see the Eiffel Tower lit up. It closes at 11:00 p.m.
Designed so that 12 avenues radiate out from the center. Hopefully this photo gives you a sense of the city’s symmetry. You are in the middle of l’Étoile, the star, that radiates a dozen avenues in geographic harmony, and you are right in the middle of the urban axis.
View of Champs-Elysées (right avenue) from the other side of the Arc. Looks like it leads to a more modern Paris (high-rise business community, La Défense).
View of Montmartre and Sacré-Cœur in the distance. Also, note the gorgeous rooftop garden on the second building and, for my urbanists and economic development colleagues, note that Paris is a city of very few buildings taller than 6 stories.
View of inside the Arc from the ground.
As you probably know, Napoleon I ordered the building of the Arc to honor the glory of the Great Army. Today the Arc honors the sacrifice of the 1,500,000 French soldiers who lost their lives during the Great War; there is a tomb on site to honor the Unknown Soldier.
(Expensive) lunch on the Champs-Elysées. I wasn’t going to eat on the Champ-Elysées, but this resturant, Le Drugstore, had a nice patio with a view of the Arc and I was ready to celebrate my experience and toast Paris’s magnificent architecture and planning (12 radiating avenues). This was a steamed artichoke stuffed with a green bean, mushroom, Parmesan, and pine nut salad. I also had a scoop of chocolate ice cream, fortifying myself for an hour’s walk home.
Oh yes, I did made one stop for a glass of wine at a sidewalk café. I kept watching my weather app because rain was forecast for 4. Time got away from me and it started to sprinkle just as I left the café. It poured—it’s called a thunderstorm for a reason—but I had my umbrella.
So, what’s my surprising conclusion?
It’s really dramatic to view Paris from high altitudes, but the higher you get above the city, the less wondrous it becomes, because you begin to lose the intimacy of its carefully designed uniqueness. The views from the Eiffel Tower and the Sacré-Cœur are magical, but they are essentially the same, with slightly different angles. The views from the Arc de Triomphe are more human, more accessible, more Parisian. There is a gratifying intimacy with the surroundings.*
*Others have made this observation and written about what makes a view “perfect.” I’m just beginning to think about why some views are more gratifying than others.