Every trip to Paris must include a visit to the majestic Arc de Triomphe.
The Arc de Tiomphe de l’Etoile is located at the top of the Champs Elysees in the center of Place du Charles de Gaulle, formerly known as the Place de l’Etoile. This intersection of twelve extremely busy avenues that spread out from the Arc like spokes on a wheel experiences such a degree of traffic accidents that most insurance companies only provide 50/50 liability coverage for motorists. The Arc de Triomphe was the largest triumphal arch in the world until 1982, and is one of most well-known and visited attractions in all of France. It is 50 meters tall and 45 meters wide – wide enough that an early pilot once flew his biplane directly through the arch.
After his military victory at Austerlitz, the Emperor Napoleon commissioned JF Chalgrin to begin construction in 1806 on a triumphal arch, borrowed in design from the Romans Napoleon so admired, to commemorate his successes in battle. Napoleon wanted to impress the people of Paris by leading his wedding procession through the arch he commissioned, but as building had barely begun, he instead instructed Chalgrin to construct a full-sized model to be used as he escorted his bride, Marie-Louise, to their ceremony at the Louvre. The monument was not completed until 1836, at a final cost of ten million francs. Unfortunately, this location was so far from the city center that only a small crowd of Parisians arrived for the opening ceremonies. Napoleon planned that his troops would march triumphantly through the arch on their way home from battle, cheered on by those loyal to the cause. Unfortunately, Napoleon’s success in military campaigns diminished prior to the completion of his triumphal arch, and so it was never used during his lifetime to celebrate his troops. Instead, Napoleon first passed through the completed arch himself during his funeral procession.
Arriving at the Arc de Triomphe, you will see four large relief sculptures at the base of its four support pillars, representing the work of preeminent sculptors at the time of construction: The Triumph of 1810, by Cortot; Resistance and Peace, by Etex; and La Marseillaise by Francois Rude. Beneath the arch lies the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, established on Armistice Day in 1920 to memorialize the 1.5 million killed during World War I. Each Armistice Day, the President of the Republic places a wreath at the tomb. An eternal flame is rekindled every evening at half past six. Upon the interior walls of the arch are inscribed the names of minor military victories as well as 558 generals of France. In viewing this inscription, you must know that the names underlined indicate those who died in battle. A small museum is also located beneath the arch, telling the history of this magnificent monument. After climbing 260 stairs to reach the top of the arch, you’ll find engraved the names of major military victories won during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic periods. The view of the city of Paris from the top of the arch is second only to the view at the Eiffel Tower.
While Napoleon was never to view his troops marching triumphantly through his arch, General Charles de Gaulle was able to capture that experience as he led his soldiers on a victory parade from the Arc de Triomphe and down the Champs Elysees upon liberation of Paris by the Allies. Each year on Bastille Day, the largest annual military parade in all of Europe begins at the Arc. Victories of a non-military nature are also celebrated here yearly, as the last leg of the Tour de France reaches the end of the Champs Elysees each July.
The Arc de Triomphe is open daily from 9:30 AM to 6:30 PM with slightly shorter hours during the winter and is closed on all public holidays.
Enjoy your exploration of the Arc de Triomphe and be careful those daredevil Parisian drivers don’t interrupt your visit!