Paris is known around the world as the City of Lights, or La Ville Lumiere, but the origin or true meaning of this moniker is a matter of some debate. It’s understandable that many assign this description to the fact that beginning at least by the 18th century the city attained a well-earned reputation as a center of enlightenment in fields of philosophy, academia, social structuring and political discussion. As a result, by the middle of the 19th century Paris was widely recognized as one of the most progressive and inspiring cities in the world.
But while recognizing this historical importance of the city as a guiding light for many human endeavors, I must tell you that after many visits I consider the “City of Light” description as an inadequate but well-intentioned description of the city’s enduring nighttime beauty.
While daytime sights and scenes abound, if you have visited Paris without exploring the city at night, you have made a serious mistake. Of course a few of the city’s most renowned locations do attract large crowds at night, perhaps most notably the Eiffel Tower. Actually, as outlined in David Downie’s inspiring book “PARIS, paris: Journey Into the City of Light”, this famous landmark deserves a great deal of credit for the widespread use of the city’s endearing title.
Upon its inauguration in 1889 as the world’s tallest structure, the Tower was lighted by some 10,000 gas lamps and featured two powerful searchlights that panned the surrounding city with bright light. Today, that historic gaslight image is replicated with hundreds of small sodium lamps. But now, every evening on the hour, the tower also sparkles to life with some 10,000 light bulbs covering the entire structure.
While this may be the most visible light show in the Paris night, it is only one small act of a much larger performance. Many other major monuments deserve a nighttime visit, including the Pantheon, Notre Dame, Sacre-Coeur, the Dome at Les Invalides, the Palais Garnier opera house and the Arc du Triomphe. But don’t limit your after-dark excursions to monuments only. Fountains, gardens, bridges and even neighborhood streets and their squares make equally tantalizing evening choices.
And some of the city’s best nightly views combine more than just one of these intoxicating elements. As an example, for one of the best views of the Eiffel Tower, cross over the Seine to the nearby Trocadero where you can add the beauty of its lighted fountains to an outstanding view of the tower. Or add to the glory of a well-lit Arc du Triomphe by climbing to its viewing platform to experience a panoramic vista that includes the glittering and not-too-distant Eiffel Tower and the endless lights of the famous Champs-Elysees stretching out below you.
And at the busy Place de la Concorde you can admire the square’s two glorious fountains and the nearby Madeleine Church while standing beneath the lighted 3,000 year old Luxor Obelisk. Or stand on my favorite bridge, the pedestrian Pont des Arts, and admire the lights of the stately Institute of France building, the Louvre Museum, the tip of the Ile de la Cite and the historic Pont Neuf bridge.
But an evening enjoying the lights of Paris is not about any particular destination; it’s about the journey itself. Just wander along some of the great boulevards or through some of the quaint neighborhoods at your leisure. While there are countless options, one of my favorite nighttime walks is to take the one-mile stroll along historic Rue de Rivoli from the Louvre, past the Tour St. Jacques and then, as Rue de Rivoli becomes Rue St. Antoine, through the Marais district and to the Place de la Bastille.
Regardless of the time of year (but especially during the Christmas season) one of my favorite Paris experiences is an evening stroll. Give it a try and I think you’ll find that the different look and feel of Paris at night will become one of your favorite memories of this remarkable city.