In Paris, walking around the city is a great experience in itself. Mondo selected three streets that everyone should experience at some point in time. They feature memorable sights, attractions and authentic discoveries, loved by the locals. The first choice is Champs-Élysées, famous for historical monuments and grand culture.
EVERYONE KNOWS THE NAME. Avenue des Champs-Élysées, or Champs-Élysées for short, is one of the most famous streets in the world. It runs across the western part of Paris, and it is less than two kilometers long, seventy meters wide and completely straight. Over the years, royals, soldiers, business people, crowds and countless tourists have walked along it.
Today, Parisians come to the Champs-Élysées mainly for work, shopping, partying or demonstrations. But the street, running from Place de la Concorde to the Arc de Triomphe is worth walking end to end, to discover its historic sights. Moreover, along the street itself and nearby streets, you can stop by fascinating museums, theaters and small parks.
A walk on the multi-faced Champs-Élysées should start in Tuileries Park adjacent to the Place de la Concorde. The courtyard of the Jeu de Paume museum of photography offers magnificent views of the square, the Eiffel Tower and the famous avenue.
Despite the roaring traffic, you should take time to stop by the Luxor Obelisk soaring into the sky on the Place de la Concorde. The spectacular monument, imported from Egypt, is one of the oldest attractions in Paris.
Here, you can feel you are spot in the middle of the city’s historic core, the route that runs eight kilometers directly from the Louvre Museum to La Défense, and Champs-Élysées is part of it. You can also try to imagine a guillotine in the place where the obelisk stands. People were formerly executed in this square, and one of them was Marie-Antoinette in 1793.
During the French Revolution, the poor people marched on the Champs-Élysées, but now wealthy Parisians stroll along the street.
As you step to the other side of the square, where the carefully planted rows of elm and linden begin, it feels strange to know that once the place was just a swamp. Construction of the Champs-Élysées began when King Louis XIV decided to make a high street for his royal household between Tuileries Palace, his home at the time, and his future home, the Palace of Versailles. Little by little, after the mid-17th century, it extended further and west across the River Seine. During the French Revolution, the people marched along the street demanding an end to the monarchy, but these days, you mainly see wealthy Parisians strolling here.
It was not until after the world expos in the late 1800s that Champs-Élysées became a fashionable spot to be seen at, and a residential area coveted by the nobility. This is still the most expensive part of Paris, but the street has once again become a symbolic gathering place for the nation. In addition to the annual National Day parade, the Tour de France culminates here.
If France wins in sports, the celebrations take place on Champs-Élysées. And when the street’s fabulous Christmas lights come on in November, people come all the way from the suburbs to see them.
As you walk down the Champs-Élysées, you can see the end of the street all the time. The Arc de Triomphe just seems to grow in front of your eyes, the closer you get to it. A couple of times a year, around May 10 and August 1, the sun seems to set “inside” the Arc de Triomphe. That is an impressive sight.
But the parks, carrés, surrounding the promenades, are also impressive, before the Franklin D. Roosevelt station of the Paris Métro. Opened in 1840, the park area is full of fountains, theaters, museums and pavilions, as designed by architect Jacques Hittorfsen back in the 1800s. This is a wonderful place to sit down for a while to, for example, read a book at Allée Marcel Proust. Nearby is the Michelin-starred restaurant Le Laurent – where the Sun King’s hunting pavilion used to stand, as did a cabaret for the whole nation at the time of the Revolution.
You should reserve more time to spend on the other side of the park. The Petit and the Grand Palais, two art museums where you can easily spend the whole day, are there. The Grand Palais also hosts fashion shows, art fairs and film screenings, as well as an ice skating rink in winter.
Next to the museums, there is the magnificent science museum, Palais de la Découverte and the Théâtre du Rond-Point, opened in 1860, where you can see contemporary theater, stand up shows or even a star like Isabelle Huppert, interviewed in an intimate hall. A short walk away you get to admire historical fashion at the Palais Galliera and the Musée Yves Saint Laurent Paris, or contemporary art at the Palais de Tokyo and the Paris Museum of Modern Art. One of the best concert halls in Paris, Salle Pleyel, is also nearby.
When the park ends, the vanity fair begins. Boutiques’ neon lights flicker here and there, and busy people walk down the street, shopping bags on their arms. The Artcurial Auction House is worth a visit. You can stop by to admire the free changing art exhibitions, permanent collections and museum shop, even though seen from the street, it seems that the place is exclusively aimed at art professionals. The Artcurial is housed in a 19th-century hôtel particulier behind a gilded fence, and the doormen are dressed in fine attire.
Hôtel de la Païva is the most incredible journey through time.
However, not all of the great buildings on the Champs-Élysées can be entered by anyone, at any time. One of these is the Hôtel de la Païva, built in the 1850s by Countess La Païva, or Esther Lachman. The villa has belonged to the gentlemen’s club called ‘Traveller's Club’ since the beginning of the 20th century. Today, the palace can only be visited on weekends, accompanied by a guide.
This is the most incredible journey through time: you can't help but marvel at the original patterns on the ceiling, the spiral staircase made of onyx, old paintings and sculptures.
Many come to the Champ-Élysées to shop, but in many cases, the buildings housing the shops are even more interesting than the shops themselves. For example, Louis Vuitton, Monoprix and Galeries Lafayette sell their products in 1930s art deco buildings. You can also dine in an authentic historic atmosphere, for example at restaurant Le Fouquet’s, which is 121 years old. The place has been refurbished, but its façade has suffered in the demonstrations in the spring 2020.
The cutest place to eat is in the Galeries Lafayette department store. Created by fashion designer Jacquemus, Café Citron brings a breath of Mediterranean France to the heart of hectic Paris.
The Champs-Élysées ends at the Arc de Triomphe. Napoleon Bonaparte started building it and Napoleon III completed it to its current form. It once served as the gateway to Paris and is said to be the center of a star, as twelve avenues in different directions start by the monument.
After the Arc de Triomphe, the historic axis continues all the way to the business quarter La Défense, but the most interesting thing to do is to walk back on the other side of the Champs-Élysées to Place de la Concorde and continue through Tuileries Park all the way to the Louvre, the beginning of the axis.
While you walk, you can try to recall the ways in which this iconic street has been featured. For example, in Jean-Luc Godard’s film Breathless (1960), Jean Seberg sells newspapers and walks back and forth along the Champs-Élysées. And of course, when you walk here, you have to hum the song by Joe Dassin, singing the praise of this world-famous avenue.
Text: Pihla Hintikka Photos: Heli Sorjonen
The story was originally published in Mondo's issue 1/21.