Want to know the best way to experience Paris? Get lost.
No, I’m not being rude (for once). Simply wandering the streets is an excellent way to soak up the sights and sounds of one of the world’s great cities. The trick is to have some sort of guidebook handy so if you find something interesting you can look it up and get a bit more info. And take some cash and a piece of paper with your hotel address written on it to ensure that when you have walked yourself to a standstill, relief is just a taxi ride away,
I found this out on my first trip to the Eiffel Tower. We set out, map in hand with a mission: walk from Avenue des Invalides to the tower, which we could see peeking out from behind the gilded gold dome of the Hotel des Invalides, which is the world’s most glamorous VA hospital.
We walked and walked but the tower didn’t seem to get any closer. In fact, it started ducking behind other buildings and then vanished entirely. I’m not sure if this is what Ernest Hemingway meant by Paris being “a movable feast.”
Finally, we saw a main thoroughfare ahead and thought, OK, now we’re getting somewhere. The street was, you guessed it, good old Boulevard des Invalides. We had walked the proverbial circle. But you know what? The pointless stroll past cafes and down tree lined streets had been so enjoyable, we didn’t even care.
By dint of a bit more map reading, we finally did make it to the tower, which was built as the archway to the 1889 World’s Fair. You probably know it’s named after engineer Gustav Eiffel, whose company designed and built the tower. But you may not be aware that it was quite controversial. A number of people, including the writer Guy de Maupassant, a protege of Flaubert’s, hated the idea of plonking a huge metal oil derrick in the middle of elegant Paris.
Eiffel, in typical modest, retiring engineer fashion, blandly compared the tower to the pyramids and the project steamed ahead. At 1,050 feet tall (somewhere near the equivalent of an 80-story building) the tower ought to be completely out of place. And yet, with its soaring arches and elegant narrow lines, it is quite beautiful, whether viewed up close or from a distance.
Just don’t tell that to de Maupassant. He is said to have regularly eaten lunch at one of the tower’s restaurants, remarking tartly that that was the one place he could be sure of not having a view of the structure.
If you would like to visit the structure, go here for more information. You can either take the lift to the top, which costs €14, or take the stairs to the first or second floor, which is €5. Check the website before visiting for valuable info on things like whether the lifts are working and approximate wait times.
Be sure to walk up the steps of the nearby Palais de Chaillot, which offers the best views of the tower and the skyline. De Maupassant may never have been won over, but I will tell you a little secret. When I looked at that view on a soft, drizzly day, the lines of the city set out square and bold, the Hotel des Invalides gleaming gold in the distance and the black spires of Notre Dame jutting into the dove gray sky, it took my breath away. And not all of the blurriness of the landscape was due to rain.