Daybreak cast a hazy pastel backdrop beyond the trellised silhouette. Once viewed by Parisians as a blemish upon the skyline, this wrought-iron structure now proudly stands as France’s most celebrated icon.
Our body clocks, not yet adjusted from Pacific Standard Time, woke us in the early morning darkness on the first day of our first visit to Paris. With fresh croissants in hand from the boulangerie across from our hotel on Rue Cadet, we braved rush hour on the metro. Crossing town from the 9th to the 16th arrondissement, we emerged from the subterranean caverns into Place de Trocadéro.
I’ve been obsessed with France since I began studying French in middle school. My high school French reports explored French architecture like the Châteaux de la Loire; I read French stories such as Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry; I watched French movies; I studied French history and France’s regions. My dream had always been to visit. At thirty years old I was finally able to book a trip.
First stop: La Tour Eiffel.
The Eiffel Tower first came into view as we rounded the corner at Palais de Chaillot. A surreal feeling washed over me. There is a certain profundity that comes with realizing a lifelong dream. I’d only before seen this Parisian symbol in photos and movies. But for me, this symbol stood for inspiration and hope. I stood grateful, absorbing its significance.
The Eiffel Tower, affectionately referred to by the French as the Iron Lady, sits on the bank of the River Seine in the 7th arrondissement and is visible from many places throughout the city.
More famous than the civil engineer Gustave Eiffel who designed it, La Tour Eiffel received heavy criticism in 1889, 100 years after the French Revolution, when the tower was built in a Victorian-era Industrial style as the entrance arch to the World’s Fair, the Exposition Universelle. One of the now most famed towers in the world was, at the time of construction, very controversial, seen as an eyesore against the city’s traditional French styles of architecture.
Arts and Crafts movement leader William Morris (…or perhaps it was author Guy de Maupassant) is believed to have once said, “When I’m in Paris I go to the Eiffel Tower because it’s only when I’m there that I can’t see the damned thing.” Conversely, though similarly reasoned, many today claim that the best view of Paris, which actually includes the Eiffel Tower, is captured from atop Tour Montparnasse—a panoramic view without this unsightly 1973 skyscraper.
A French feat of technological expertise, the tower stood 1,024 feet (300 meters) high at construction—then the tallest in the world. The tower now stands 1,083 feet with its antennas, antennas that ultimately saved it from demise. Only intended to last twenty years, progressive scientific experiments, radio transmission, and telecommunications saved it from its intended deconstruction.
Today, with seven million visitors a year, 75% foreigners, the Eiffel Tower is the most-visited paid monument in the world and a cherished, celebrated French monument.
Standing beneath the immense tower, we were taken by its delicate trusswork supporting colossal arches. The lace-like texture of the structure is created by 7,300 tons of intricate ironwork and archways held together by 2.5 million rivets. 327 budget-friendly open-air stairs take visitors from the ground to the 1st level with another 347 stairs reaching the 2nd mid-level. We rode one of four elevator lifts, one inside each pillar, to the mid-level deck. From here, a single lift provides the only visitor access to the top.
The top observation deck provided us sweeping views of Paris. Through the clear day’s haze, we had a bird’s-eye view of the city’s entirety bisected by the snaking River Seine. Grand boulevards merged at the Arc de Triomphe. In the distance, Notre Dame‘s Gothic towers projected from Île de la Citè, the island in the Seine where Paris originated. A sightline led across the river, through the embracing arms of Palais de Chaillot. In the distance, Bois du Bologne preserves nature before la Défence, the modern business district.
On the opposite side, our eye is led down the green of Champs de Mars to École Militaire, the military school attended by Napoleon in 1784. The self-proclaimed Emporer is buried adjacent to the school under the gold dome of Les Invalides, the military museum. An esplanade connects the museum across the Seine’s Pont Alexandre III, the Beaux-Arts bridge, to the right bank’s Grand Palais and Petit Palais on the other side. Beyond these halls, I can just make out Sacre Cœur on the hill of Montmartre.
On the mid-level deck, the city comes into sharper view. Blending styles formed over several centuries, Parisian architecture is unified by creamy Lutetian limestone often capped by blue-grey zinc and slate Mansard rooftops with dormer windows and iron French balconies—elements of the Second Empire that dominate today’s Paris skyline.
A Beacon of Light
Nighttime provides an extra-special tower experience. Triggered by sensors at nightfall, the Eiffel Tower is illuminated by 336 yellow-orange projection lamps giving it a radiating glow. For five minutes at the start of each hour until 1 am, sparkling lights are superimposed over the golden lights. Several light shows are also on display throughout the year including fireworks shows each Quatorze Juillet (14 July)—known as France’s Bastille Day in English-speaking countries.
Le Jules Verne Restaurant
For a special gastronomic experience, the gourmet Jules Verne restaurant is located on the 2nd level. Reservations are required. The à la carte lunch menu includes an entrée (appetizer), main plate, and dessert. 5- or 7-course tasting menus paired with the finest vintages of wine are offered for lunch or dinner.
In October 2002, we were able to walk across the Pont d’Iéna bridge directly to the tower’s underbelly. Access was completely open.
Almost sixteen years later with our teenage sons in July 2018, perimeter defenses had been erected to guard against ongoing threats of terrorism. To preserve the urban axis between the Palais de Chaillot and the École Militaire, three-meter-high bulletproof glass walls were under construction on two sides with iron fencing on each adjacent park side. We now had to enter from the park, past swarming immigrants selling their wares, then stand in a long security line just to get to the space beneath the tower, which is free to visitors.
For me this security barrier is a reminder that freedom often requires boundaries, limitations, to allow us to sustain within the world more harmoniously. The hordes also spotlight problems caused by saturated tourism and inequity. People and heritage both need protection, and often as a result, restrictions. I’m grateful places like this exist and for opportunities to experience them. But I also realize the fragility of our collective heritage and well-being.
Looking up, and forward, the Eiffel Tower still stands as my symbol of inspiration and hope, not to be taken for granted.
Plan your visit to the Eiffel Tower at the official website HERE.
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