The capital of France
and undoubtedly one of the greatest cities
in the world, deservedly the No. 1 city break destination for tourists. Its architectural integrity is unparalleled amongst the world's mega-metropolises, at least as far as the sprawling "city centre" is concerned (while some of the outskirts are notorious for their ugliness and social unrest). In addition to a plethora of general tourist attractions, there are also a few of a dark nature, including a couple of extremely popular ones (the catacombs
and Pere Lachaise cemetery
What there is to see: Several of tourism's top attractions are in Paris, first and foremost the Eiffel Tower, probably the single most iconic structure ever built. Then there's the Louvre, Notre Dame cathedral, the Champs Elysees with the Arc de Triomphe, the Sacre-Coeur, Les Invalides, and so on and so forth. And of course, there's just Paris's fantastic "city-ness": just strolling the streets or along the Seine river banks – delights that don't even cost anything and are amongst the best a city-tourist can get anywhere in the world.
So how can a place of such fabled gloriousness also be a dark tourism destination? Well, it does have its dark bits, albeit not so much of the really sinister sort, but – in true Paris style – ones that are beautifully dark. That's certainly true for the Pere-Lachaise cemetery – and to a degree for the catacombs, although the latter are admittedly a more literally dark experience.
Another major draw is the Army Museum at the Invalides complex, which also comprises the massive tomb of Napoleon Bonaparte.
A few sites relate to the Holocaust
which engulfed France
too during the time of German occupation in WWII
and the Vichy regime:
More places of interest to the dark tourist that are less well known include these, which are also given separate entries here:
In addition, there are more cemeteries well worth a visit, esp. at Montmatre (Heinrich Heine is buried here) and Montparnasse (Samuel Beckett, Man Ray, Jean-Paul Sartre, etc.). At the latter it is Serge Gainsbourg's grave that is the star (the equivalent of Jim Morrison or Oscar Wilde at Pere Lachaise). His grave, located just to the south-east of the central circle, is regularly adorned by visitors who leave little trinkets and mementoes, including, in particular, cabbages and metro tickets, both allusions to songs of his. There are also – somewhat dodgily – Gitanes cigarette stubs and little bottles of wine dotted about Both of these Gainsbourg was so fond of that he literally smoked and drank himself to death.
War history tourists may want to visit places that have some significance pertaining to the Nazi occupation of the city in WWII
, but most of these are just buildings that served a different function then, without any visible traces of this, e.g. the former Gestapo
offices at 9 Rue de Saussaies or 74 Avenue Foch. This in fact includes the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower too – both symbolically charged structures that the Nazis, being fully aware of this symbolism, used to hang giant swastika flags off. But you need a lot of imagination to get the association today.
Furthermore, there are lots and lots of monuments with dark associations scattered all over the city, far too many to list them here exhaustively, including some connected e.g. to the war in Algeria
, to riots in Paris, to slavery (e.g. in Drancy
) or to individual deaths.
The latter should also include the place where Princess Diana died in the tunnel car crash of August 1997 near the northern end of Pont de l'Alma on the border of the 8th and 16th arrondissement. I had heard of a monument or plaque having been erected at the sight, but when I passed by in March 2011 I failed to find any such thing. Maybe I didn't look closely enough – but whatever there may be certainly doesn't draw excessive attention to itself. I did spot a monument alright, but it wasn't for Diana, but apparently it's a replica of the torch flame held by the statue of liberty in New York
. It could have been fitting, however, looking as it does like a kind of Candle in the Wind … And indeed the monument has unofficially been adopted by visiting Diana fans as a kind-of worshipping place – given the fact it sits directly on top of the exit of the tunnel in which the accident happened.
I have twice visited Paris at a time to witness Bastille Day, the national day of the nation commemorating the storming of the Bastille, the quintessential event of the French Revolution. It's still "La Fete National", and accordingly nationalist symbolism is out in full force on that day, especially in the military form. And that can make for some dark-tourist-related spectacle too. It is, after all, not very common to see formations of fighter jets, bombers and other military aircraft soaring over a metropolis such as Paris. I wonder what the risk assessments are … just imagine a mid-air crash over such a city. It would make Ramstein or similar disasters look rather harmless in comparison.
It is quite impressive, however, to witness the fly-over that is such a central part of the Bastille Day celebrations, I have to admit: the sleek, spiky supersonic fighter jets dragging behind themselves smoke streamers in the Tricolore blue, white and red ... also really big brutes such as aerial tankers or AWACS reconnaissance planes passing overhead. It is quite something to behold. On my first Bastille Day visit they even still had those Mirage IV mid-range nuclear bombers flying over too – presumably unarmed. Meanwhile these have been decommissioned.
There are also parades in the streets of all sorts of soldier regiments in fancy dress – sorry: in full representational uniforms – but this has more of an amusing effect on me, in comparison. The massive fireworks in the evening from and around the Eiffel Tower, however, are quite spectacular.
very much the centre of gravity in decidedly centralist France
, but geographically in the north-eastern quarter of the country, about a hundred miles (160 km) south of the English Channel coast and about 125 miles (200 km) from its north-eastern neighbour Belgium
Access and costs: easy to get to; can be quite expensive (but need not be).
: all roads in France
lead to Paris, so directions are really superfluous. However, you probably don't want to drive in Paris anyway, so the many excellent air and train connections will be more useful. France has a superb train network, including some of the fastest in the world (TGV), and thanks to the Channel Tunnel it even links directly with London
in Great Britain
(Eurostar), making it a very viable alternative to flying. If you come from further afield and need to fly, there are innumerable connections, including budget airlines. Paris's main international airport Charles de Gaulle (CDG) is a right pain in the a*** however ... (but no, better not get me started on this …).
Travel within Paris is easy – the metro system is one of the most extensive and densest networks in the world, and compared to other cities of this calibre the fares are a bargain: 1.20 EUR per ride if using books of ten tickets – in London they'd not even let you look at a train for that little. If you want to use public transport a lot, then tourist day tickets are a good idea, including the 'Visite Paris' travel cards which also entitle you to reduced admission rates at some attractions such as the Army Museum
. Paris's metro stations can be quite labyrinthine, and sign-posting is very French (i.e. unnecessarily confusing), but you get used to it. Within particular city districts, walking is a very good mode of transport in any case.
Food and drink
in Paris are world-famous, but can be pricey, especially in the famous roadside cafes in the touristy centre. Here, you can really burn your euros quick – 4 EUR for a coffee or 8 EUR for a beer are quite normal. But you can save a lot by going to less touristy places, getting take-outs or self-catering. A classic picnic in a park, for instance, is not just a money-saver but also a very French thing to do. On the other hand, a posh formal meal of classic French cuisine is also something to consider if you have the cash spare. And as far as pompous surroundings go, it doesn't get any more palatial than at the station restaurant at Gare de Lyon (called "Le Train Bleu"), it almost looks like Versailles … and the food is very good too. Michelin-starred gourmet temples also abound, but these usually require reservations weeks ahead anyway, so are less an option for tourists (expect perhaps at lunch time).
For those with an experimental palate, the many ethnic restaurants of Paris are an equally exciting and often quite affordable option. Obviously, cuisines of the Francophone ex-colonial world dominate, so look out for Northern African (Morocco, Algeria
), Western African (Senegal
, Togo, Ivory Coast) and Central African (Rwanda
), as well as even further flung cuisines. I had one of my best and most inspiring spicy ethnic meals ever in a little place in Montparnasse called "Restaurant ile de la Reunion" serving outstanding delicacies from the Indian Ocean island of the same name. Extremely memorable.
Accommodation, likewise, can, but need not be, cripplingly expensive. Do some research and shop around well in advance and/or be prepared to stay outside the immediately central areas (preferably near a metro station) and you can get by with lower than average European hotel prices; longer stays than just a couple of nights often qualify for discounts on the nightly rate.
Time required: The dark sites may be doable in as little as a long (and rushed!) weekend, but it would be a shame not to honour this great city with a little more time than that. You can easily while away a full week or two without ever getting bored.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
. Many other dark places in the country aren't necessarily best reached from Paris as they require a car to get there – and you surely don't want to be driving a car in Paris as a foreigner! But you can easily get to other cities such as Lyon (for the Resistance Museum Lyon
), or to Cherbourg (for the La Redoubtable nuclear submarine
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
in general see France
– Paris itself is of course a major mainstream tourist destination, and you can't go to Paris without seeing the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, Sacre Coeur, Notre Dame, etc. – further away, the huge Bois de Boulogne Park is worth an excursion, and so are the palaces of Versailles, Vincennes and Fontainebleau.
The whole architecture of Paris is a sight in itself – few cities of this size sport such a consistent architectural style. To some degree this is the achievement of one city planner: Georges-Eugene Baron Haussmann, who shaped the face of Paris in the 19th century (especially those wide boulevards and traffic roundabouts). Paris was also lucky to escape the aerial bombardments that destroyed so many of central Europe's cities in WWII
– and Hitler
's orders to level Paris when it had to be given up towards the end of the war were fortunately disobeyed. So the typical character of Parisian streets survived.
There's some modern architecture too these days – especially at the La Defense complex to the west of the city, with its characteristic Grande Arc, which replicates the Arc de Triomphe in a sleek modernist (and quite gargantuan) way.
Of the typical, unspeakably ugly 1960s and 1970s architectural crimes Paris has thankfully few – although the redeveloped area around the train station at Montparnasse is a painful counterexample. Its most brutish component, La Tour Montparnasse, does however redeem itself with providing a splendid view over the city from its roof terrace, possibly the best view to be had anywhere in Paris – especially since it is the only spot from where you can't see the Tour Montparnasse itself. The building of which the same was at first said (that you have to go to its top in order to avoid seeing it), namely the Eiffel Tower when it was new, can, in turn, be seen nowhere better than from the Tour Montparnasse either … such are the ironies of architectural history.
As far as the arts other than architecture are concerned, Paris is so chock-full of it that I won't even begin to go into the subject. Other sources do that far better than I ever could. Just one word of caution: the most famous painting in the world, the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, is so small that most visitors (and there are many thousands every day) tend to be rather disappointed ... if they can see it at all through the throngs. There's masses of other high-class art both within the rest of the Louvre as well as in the countless other museums and art galleries anyway, so the famous lady is not all that crucial after all …
And for those who can handle that sort of thing at the other end of the artistic scale, there's also a Disneyland outside of Paris. Personally, I find the whole Disneyland concept more creepy than any dark site, and not 10,000 horses could ever get me inside one; but I'm aware that this is probably a minority point of view.
- Paris 01 - Eiffel Tower
- Paris 02 - Eiffel Tower by night
- Paris 03 - Paris boulevards by night from above
- Paris 04 - metro station
- Paris 05 - Algerian war indication
- Paris 06 - near where Princess Di died - a candle in the wind perhaps
- Paris 07 - the Seine
- Paris 08 - Hotel de Ville
- Paris 09 - Notre Dame
- Paris 10 - Notre Dame closer up
- Paris 11 - head-banging a la Notre Dame
- Paris 12 - Sacre-Coeur
- Paris 13 - French colours reflected at the Louvre
- Paris 14 - so classic
- Paris 15 - Bastille Day
- Paris 16 - massive fly-over
- Paris 17 - La Defense with helicopters
- Paris 18 - choppers over the city
- Paris 19 - flag and tanks at Arc de Triomphe on Bastille Day
- Paris 20 - standing by the flag
- Paris 21 - Champs Elysees on Bastille Day
- Paris 22 - Grand Palais
- Paris 23 - Pont Alexandre III
- Paris 24 - golden lizard
- Paris 25 - on Pont Alexandre III
- Paris 26 - sunset over the Seine
- Paris 27 - Denfert Rochereau and Tour Montparnasse
- Paris 28 - Montparnasse cemetery
- Paris 29 - Montparnasse cemetery
- Paris 30 - Montparnasse cemetery
- Paris 31 - Serg Gainsbourg grave
- Paris 32 - Serg Gainsbourg with his Spitting Image spitting image
- Paris 33 - Gare de Lyon
- Paris 34 - palatial dining hall
- Paris 35 - a humble typical picnic
- Paris 36 - the Eiffel Tower from below
- Paris 37 - the city can make you wobbly
- Paris 38 - confusing cluster of clocks outside St Lazare station
- Paris 39 - Gare du Nord
- Paris 40 - chic