The Arc de Triomphe is one of the most emblematic and unmissable monuments in Paris. Located on the Place de l’Etoile, at the top of the Champs-Elysées, it has a very special history and symbolism. It also offers a nice point of view on the capital, that I invite you to discover in this article through some pictures!
How to visit the Arc de Triomphe? Who built it and why? How to get there, how many steps to climb to the top? Do you have to book your tickets in advance, what are the prices and the opening hours? So many questions that we will answer together!
- What is the history of the Arc de Triomphe?
- Where is the Arc de Triomphe?
- Who built the Arc de Triomphe in Paris?
- What is the Arc de Triomphe used for today?
- At the foot of the monument
- The steps and the terrace of the Arc de Triomphe
- How to get to the Arc de Triomphe ? Tickets and schedule
- The Arc de Triomphe in 5 quick questions
What is the history of the Arc de Triomphe?
The idea of building a triumphal arch in Paris was born in 1805. At that time, Napoleon Bonaparte had been crowned emperor of the French in Notre-Dame de Paris a few months earlier and had led his army, the “Grande Armée”, to a stunning military victory over the Russian and Austrian Empires in the battle of Austerlitz. A victory which, even today, is presented as a masterpiece of strategy because the French were numerically inferior to the enemy.
The story goes that it was after this battle that Napoleon had the idea to honor the soldiers of the Grande Armée by building a triumphal arch in Paris.
In itself, the arch is a very “classic” monument of Roman architecture, which was used both as a temporary construction (made of wood or canvas for example) to honor important personalities arriving in a city… and in a more durable form to celebrate a victorious warlord.
The “triumph”, among the Romans, was a parade during which a victorious general walked through the streets of Rome with his troops to the Capitol, wearing a crown of laurels. It ended, in the most spectacular cases, by the construction of an arch called “triumphal arch”, which explains why there are several in Rome that have lasted until our time.
Napoleon, fascinated by Roman antiquity, was inspired by this tradition to propose a tribute to the armies.
Where is the Arc de Triomphe?
The Arc de Triomphe is located in the middle of the Place Charles-de-Gaulle, called “Place de l’Étoile”, facing the Champs-Elysées on one side (with, in the extension, the Place de la Concorde, the Tuileries and the Louvre Museum)… and, on the other side, the business district of La Défense and the avenue de la Grande Armée (here is a tribute to the famous “Grande Armée”!).
It is thus located in the 8th district of Paris… but things almost happened differently!
Indeed, Napoleon initially wanted it to be installed on the Place de la Bastille because it was on this side of Paris (east of the capital) that the victorious armies had returned from the front. But after reflection, taking into account the fact that Napoleon resided in the Tuileries Palace (now disappeared) and that the “place de l’Etoile” was totally empty at the time, the present location was chosen.
Who built the Arc de Triomphe in Paris?
We have the context, the sponsor, the place… All that is missing is the beginning of the work! In fact, things started quite quickly. Napoleon ordered the construction in a decree of February 18, 1806, and the first stone was laid on August 15 of the same year, the day of the emperor’s 37th birthday.
Two renowned architects are then in the running to design the monument:
- On one hand, Jean-François Chalgrin, 67 years old, had previously designed numerous private mansions, as well as supervised the renovation of the Palais du Luxembourg, the creation of part of the Church of Saint-Sulpice, the entire Church of Saint-Philippe-du-Roule, and the reconstruction of the Odéon Theatre;
- On the other, Jean-Arnaud Raymond, 64 years old, chief architect of the Louvre Palace at the end of the 18th century, among other achievements.
The two men have great difficulty in agreeing on the project, with major architectural disagreements opposing them as to the direction to be given to this Arc de Triomphe. Chalgrin finally decides to draw inspiration from the Roman arches of Titus and Janus.
It takes almost 2 years to build the foundations of the monument… and a few more years for it to reach 3 feet in height. We are in 1811… and fate finds a strange way to solve the latent disagreement between the two architects: Chalgrin, the main architect, dies on January 21… followed by Raymond, on January 28 of the same year.
The Arc continues to rise over the years, in a more or less linear way depending on the period of history. After Napoleon’s death, Louis XVIII appoints other men and architects to continue the work, including Héricart de Thury (who built the Catacombs of Paris).
It is precisely at this time that the Arc de Triomphe begins to take on a wider and more symbolic scope. As the arch is still under construction, politicians such as Louis-Philippe (last king of France) and Adolphe Thiers (first president of the Third Republic) use the opportunity to integrate other representations of French triumphs.
To make it short, there are several architects who contributed to the construction of the Arc de Triomphe, and several political personalities who participated in its design and in the choice of the scenes adorning the monument. The inauguration took place on July 29, 1836, a symbolic date since it was the 6th anniversary of the July revolution (second French revolution).
What is the Arc de Triomphe used for today?
In view of all this history, you understand more easily that the Arc de Triomphe is not just a decorative monument placed on a strategic axis of Paris… but rather a monument full of meaning.
It is at the same time the heritage of a long tradition going back to Roman Antiquity and the symbol of the military greatness of France as well as the sacrifice of men for the nation.
During the First World War, the idea surfaced to create a “symbol” that would represent all the men who lost their lives for their motherland… In the aftermath of the conflict, the National Assembly suggested the pantheonization of an anonymous soldier, who would symbolize all the others who fell in the field of honor.
The veterans’ associations were not in favor of having the soldier in the Pantheon, so it was decided to bury the body of an unidentified soldier, the (very famous) “Unknown Soldier”, at the foot of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.
The ceremony took place on January 28, 1921 and it was a little later, on November 11, 1923, that the Minister of War André Maginot inaugurated an eternal flame on this tomb. Since then, it is revived every evening at 6:30 pm by the association “La flamme sous l’Arc de triomphe” (which represents 760 veterans associations). If you have the opportunity, do not hesitate to attend the ceremony, it is public and the symbolism is always so moving!
And then, beyond this historical side, the Arc de Triomphe has of course quickly found its place among the must-see monuments of Paris, and makes both tourists and locals happy with its large terrace at the top which offers a beautiful panorama on the city.
At the foot of the monument
The visit of the Arc de Triomphe begins at the foot of the monument, on the Place de l’Etoile. The ground bears many inscriptions commemorating important historical events: the reintegration of Alsace and Lorraine to France, the deaths during the Algerian war or the Indochina war, etc.
You can contemplate the tomb of the Unknown Soldier and walk around the monument to admire the sculptures that appear on the arches and the pillars. The most famous one, facing the Champs-Elysées on the right, is called “Le Départ des Volontaires” (The Departure of the Volunteers) and symbolizes the 200,000 men who, in 1792, rose up to defend the young French Republic, guided by Liberty (represented as a winged woman).
The monument is dotted with engravings evoking battles and famous war leaders. You may notice if you have a good eye during your visit that some names are underlined. This is because these men died in battle.
The steps and the terrace of the Arc de Triomphe
We climb a first flight of stairs to reach the mezzanine, another flight of stairs to reach the attic room and more stairs to reach the outside terrace! What is the total number of steps? 284, including 202 to the mezzanine! All this in a nice spiral staircase hidden in one of the pillars…
And the good news is that the monument is finally accessible to people with reduced mobility, thanks to work completed in 2020. There was already an elevator in a pillar but there were still steps to access it and it stopped at the level of the attic room (museum part) without allowing access to the terrace. Since then, an elevator has been installed as well as ramps so that disabled visitors can also enjoy the terrace.
To date, however, they will have to be dropped off by car at a place located at the foot of the Arc, on the Avenue de la Grande Armée side, because the underground passage that leads to the monument is not accessible.
This digression about accessibility being done, what can you see on site during the visit? On the mezzanine, some sculptures including the casting of the genius of liberty whose photo I put above (the head of the famous “winged woman” of the sculpted group “Le Départ des Volontaires”). You’ll find explanations on panels about the different restoration campaigns that took place in the monument.
In the attic room, there is a store, a “museum” part with exhibition spaces (recently, they discussed for example the moment when the Arc de Triomphe was wrapped on an idea of Christo and Jeanne-Claude). One wall is covered with bronze palms, a trace of all the tributes received during the burial of the Unknown Soldier.
Then you go to the terrace where you can enjoy a panoramic view of Paris! You can really have fun taking pictures and searching for the most important landmarks of the French capital.
On one side, the ultra-modern silhouette of the new Palais de Justice (Law Court of Paris).
The Butte Montmartre on which you can’t miss the Sacré-Coeur basilica.
The very recognizable dome of the Saint-Augustin Church, created by Baltard.
The futuristic museum of the Pompidou Center.
In the background (but you need a big zoom!), the Pantheon and the Duo Towers (designed by the Jean Nouvel studios).
The golden dome of the Invalides and the Montparnasse Tower, with the pointed bell tower of the American cathedral of Paris in the foreground!
The pillars of the Alexandre III bridge with, behind, the Saint-Sulpice church (left) and the Sainte-Clotilde Basilica (right).
The Saint-Pierre-de-Chaillot Church and the golden domes of the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of the Holy Trinity.
The Eiffel Tower, of course!
Or the business district of La Défense…
This is not my favorite Parisian monument in terms of point of view because it lacks a bit of height to really enjoy the rooftops of Paris (the Arc de Triomphe is 164 feet high, 147 feet long and 72 feet wide). I prefer places like the Pantheon or the Saint Jacques tower (well, and the towers of Notre-Dame de Paris but you’ll have to wait for the end of the reconstruction works of the cathedral!).
Nevertheless, I like to go there from time to time, it has the advantage of being easy to access and with a reasonable attendance, especially when you book your ticket in advance.
The visit is not too long (about 1 hour), the view is still very nice at the top and we understand better why the Place de l’Etoile bears this name (“Etoile” means “Star” and the place is indeed star-shaped)… with all the avenues that leave from it in a very geometrical way !
How to get to the Arc de Triomphe ? Tickets and schedule
As I mentioned, you can buy your tickets in advance online to avoid queuing on site.
The Arc de Triomphe is open almost every day of the year, except for some public holidays: in general, it is closed on January 1st, May 1st, May 8th (morning), July 14th (morning), November 11th (morning) and December 25th. There may be additional closures due to commemorations.
The opening hours vary according to the season: opening at 10 am in all cases, closing at 10:30 pm between October and March, 11 pm during the summer. This allows you to take advantage of it to make some night pictures! The last access is possible 45 minutes before closing time.
The full price ticket costs 13€ at the time of writing, there are also free tickets available in some situations (disabled people, etc).
Note that if you have opted to book the Paris Pass (an all-inclusive tourist pass that includes more than 75 museums and monuments over a period of 2 to 6 days), the visit to the Arc de Triomphe is free during the validity of the Pass.
You can get to the monument by public transport, by getting off at the Charles-de-Gaulle-Etoile station (metro lines 1, 2 and 6 or RER A). The most convenient exit is at the top of the Champs-Elysées, then there is an underground passage to access the center of the Place Charles-de-Gaulle.
You will find two accesses on site: one for visitors who do not have a ticket, the other for those who have already purchased a ticket. You do not need a ticket to walk on the esplanade itself and to see the tomb of the unknown soldier.
So, I hope this information will help you if you are going to plan a visit to the Arc de Triomphe. If you have already seen it, what do you think of the monument and the view? Share your experience in the comments!
The Arc de Triomphe in 5 quick questions
How to get to the Arc de Triomphe?
By metro, bus or RER by getting off at the Charles-de-Gaulle-Etoile station, exit Champs-Elysées, then by taking the underground passage which leads you to the center of the Place de l’Etoile.
How many steps does the Arc de Triomphe have?
Is there an elevator in the Arc de Triomphe?
Yes, and since 2020 the elevator and ramps allow people with reduced mobility to enjoy the terrace of the monument.
Who built the Arc de Triomphe?
The initiative was taken by Napoleon Bonaparte, several architects succeeded one another, the main one being Jean-François Chalgrin.
When was the Arc de Triomphe built?
Between 1806 and 1836.
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