|Paris has long inspired opinionated outbursts, from delusional to denouncing, but on one matter travelers remain in agreement: its among the most stimulating cities in the world. Paris assaults all the senses, demanding to be seen, heard, touched, tasted and smelt. From luminescent landmarks to fresh poodle droppings on the pavement, the city is everything it should be - the very essence of all French things. If you come here expecting all youve heard to be true, you wont leave disappointed.
Paris is at its best during the temperate spring months (March to May), with autumn coming in a close second. In winter, there are all sorts of cultural events to tempt the visitor, but school holidays can clog the streets with the little folk. August is usually hot and sticky, and its also when many Parisians take their yearly vacations, so businesses are likely to be closed.
Musée du Louvre
Louvre is probably one of the most world-renowned sightseeing places in Paris. This enormous building, constructed around 1200 as a fortress and rebuilt in the mid-16th century for use as a royal palace, began its career as a public museum in 1793. As part of Mitterands grands projets in the 1980s, the Louvre was revamped with the addition of a 21m (67ft) glass pyramid entrance. Initially deemed a failure, the new design has since won over those who regard consistency as inexcusably boring. Vast scrums of people puff and pant through the rooms full of paintings, sculptures and antiquities, including the Mona Lisa, Venus de Milo and Winged Victory (which looks like its been dropped and put back together). If the clamor becomes unbearable, your best bet is to pick a period or section of the Louvre and pretend that the rest is somewhere across town.
This towering edifice was built for the World Fair of 1889, held to commemorate the centennial of the French Revolution. Named after its designer, Gustave Eiffel, it stands 320m (1050ft) high and held the record as the worlds tallest structure until 1930. Initially opposed by the citys artistic and literary elite - who were only affirming their right to disagree with everything - the tower was almost torn down in 1909. Salvation came when it proved an ideal platform for the antennas needed for the new science of radio telegraphy. When youre done peering upwards through the girders, you can visit any of the three public levels, which can be accessed by lift or stairs. Just south-east of the tower is a grassy expanse that was once the site of the worlds first balloon flights and is now used by teens as a skateboarding arena or by activists bad-mouthing Chirac.
Avenue des Champs-élysées
A popular promenade for the ostentatious aristos of old, the Avenue des Champs-élysées has long symbolised the style and joie de vivre of Paris. Encroaching fast-food joints, car showrooms and cinemas have somewhat dulled the sheen, but the 2km (1mi) long, 70m (235ft) wide stretch is still an ideal place for evening walks and relishing the food at overpriced restaurants.
Centre Georges Pompidou
The Centre Georges Pompidou, displaying and promoting modern and contemporary art, is far and away the most visited sight in Paris. Built between 1972 and 1977, the hi-tech though daffy design has recently begun to age, prompting face-lifts and closures of many parts of the centre. Woven into this mêlée of renovation are several good (though pricey) galleries plus a free, three-tiered library with over 2000 periodicals, including English-language newspapers and magazines from around the world. A square just to the west attracts street musicians, Marcel Marceau impersonators and lots of unsavoury types selling drugs or picking pockets.
The citys cathedral ranks as one of the greatest achievements of Gothic architecture. Notre Dame was begun in 1163 and completed around 1345; the massive interior can accommodate over 6000 worshippers. Although Notre Dame is regarded as a sublime architectural achievement, there are all sorts of minor anomalies as the French love nothing better than to mess with things. These include a trio of main entrances that are each shaped differently, and which are accompanied by statues that were once coloured to make them more effective as Bible lessons for the hoi polloi. The interior is dominated by spectacular and enormous rose windows, and a 7800-pipe organ that was recently restored but has not been working properly since. From the base of the north tower, visitors with ramrod straight spines can climb to the top of the west fa?ade and decide how much aesthetic pleasure they derive from looking out at the cathedrals many gargoyles - alternatively they can just enjoy the view of a decent swathe of Paris. Under the square in front of the cathedral, an archaeological crypt displays in situ the remains of structures from the Gallo-Roman and later periods.
Lying inside the Palais de Justice (law courts), Sainte Chapelle was consecrated in 1248 and built to house what was reputedly Jesus crown of thorns and other relics purchased by King Louis IX earlier in the 13th century. The gem-like chapel, illuminated by a veritable curtain of 13th-century stained glass (the oldest and finest in Paris), is best viewed from the law courts main entrance - a magnificently gilded, 18th-century gate. Once past the airport-like security, you can wander around the long hallways of the Palais de Justice and, if you can find a court in session, observe the proceedings. Civil cases are heard in the morning, while criminal trials - usually reserved for larceny or that French speciality crimes passionnel - begin after lunch.
Spectacularly housed in a former railway station built in 1900, the Musée dOrsay was reinaugurated in its present form in 1986. Inside is a trove of artistic treasures produced between 1848 and 1914, including highly regarded Impressionist and Post-impressionist works. Most of their paintings and sculptures are found on the ground floor and the skylight-lit upper level, while the middle level has some magnificent rooms showcasing the Art-Nouveau movement. Nearby, the Musée Rodin displays the lively bronze and marble sculptures by Camille Claudel and Auguste Rodin, including casts of some of Rodins most celebrated works. Theres a shady sculpture garden out the back, one of Paris treasured islands of calm.
Cimetière du Père Lachaise
[R-p5]Established in 1805, this necropolis attracts more visitors than any similar structure in the world. Within the manicured, evergreen enclosure are the tombs of over one million people including such luminaries as the composer Chopin; the writers Molière, Apollinaire, Oscar Wilde, Balzac, Marcel Proust and Gertrude Stein; the artists David, Delacroix, Pissarro, Seurat and Modigliani; the actors Sarah Bernhardt, Simone Signoret and Yves Montand; the singer édith Piaf; and the dancer Isadora Duncan. The most visited tomb, however, is that of The Doors lead singer, Jim Morrison, who died in Paris in 1971. One hundred years earlier, the cemetery was the site of a fierce battle between Communard insurgents and government troops. The rebels were eventually rounded up against a wall and shot, and were buried where they fell in a mass grave.
Place des Vosges
The Marais district spent a long time as a swamp and then as agricultural land, until in 1605 King Henry IV decided to transform it into a residential area for Parisian aristocrats. He did this by building Place des Vosges and arraying 36 symmetrical houses around its square perimeter. The houses, each with arcades on the ground floor, large dormer windows, and the requisite creepers on the walls, were initially built of brick but were subsequently constructed using timber with a plaster covering, which was then painted to look like brick. Duels, fought with strictly observed formality, were once staged in the elegant park in the middle. From 1832-48 Victor Hugo lived at a house at No 6, which has now been turned into a municipal museum. Today, the arcades around the place are occupied by expensive galleries and shops, and cafés filled with people drinking little cups of coffee and air-kissing immaculate passersby.
Bois de Boulogne
The modestly sized Bois de Boulogne, on the western edge of the city, is endowed with forested areas, meandering paths, belle époque cafes and little wells of naughtiness. Each night, pockets of the Bois de Boulogne are taken over by prostitutes and lurkers with predacious sexual tastes. In recent years, the police have cracked down on the areas sex trade, but locals still advise against walking through the area alone at night.
Outer ?le de France
The relatively small region surrounding Paris - known as the ?le de France (Island of France) - was where the kingdom of France began its 12th-century expansion. Today, its a popular day-trip destination for Parisians and Paris-based visitors. Among the regions many attractions are woodlands ideal for hiking, skyscrapered districts endowed with sleekly functional architecture, the much-maligned EuroDisney, elegant historical towns and Versailles, the countrys former political capital and seat of the royal court. The latter is the site of the Chateau de Versailles, the grandest and most famous palace in France. Built in the mid-1600s during the reign of Louis XIV, the chateau is a keen reminder of just how much one massive ego and a nations wealth could buy in days of old (eat your heart out, Bill Gates). Apart from grand halls, bedchambers, gardens, ponds and fountains too elaborate to discuss, theres also a 75m (250ft) Hall of Mirrors, where nobles dressed like ninnies could watch each other dancing.
Canal Saint Martin
The little-touristed Saint Martin canal, running through the north-eastern districts of the Right Bank, is one of Paris hidden delights. The 5km (3mi) waterway, parts of which are higher than the surrounding land, was built in 1806 to link the Seine with the much longer Canal de lOurcq. Its shaded towpaths - specked with sunlight filtering through the plane trees - are a wonderful place for a romantic stroll or bike ride past locks, metal bridges and unassuming but well turned-out Parisian neighbourhoods.
Paris has two airports, Aéroport dOrly, south of central Paris, and Aéroport Charles de Gaulle, in the north, is a major international hub, so you shouldnt have any trouble finding a flight, regardless of where youre flying. Paris is also famous for its sophisticated underground system, known as Metro. No matter where you are, chances are that theres a metro station within a few blocks.
Europe is famous for its fascinating cultural background and the same is true to Paris. Why shall you wait? Its well worth visiting it.