In his wildest dreams, Gustave Eiffel probably never imagined that the tower he built for the 1889 World’s Fair would become the ultimate symbol of Paris and, for many, of France. Originally slated for demolition after its first 20 years, the Eiffel Tower has survived more than a century and is one of the most visited sites in the nation. No less than 50 engineers and designers worked on the plans, which resulted in a remarkably solid structure that despite its height (324m/1,063 ft., including the antenna) does not sway in the wind.

But while the engineers rejoiced, others howled. When the project for the tower was announced, a group of artists and writers, including Guy de Maupassant and Alexandre Dumas, published a manifesto that referred to it as an “odious column of bolted metal.” Others were less diplomatic: Novelist Joris-Karl Huysmans called it a “hole-riddled suppository.” Despite the objections, the tower was built—over 18,000 pieces of iron, held together with some 2.5 million rivets. In this low-tech era, building techniques involved a lot of elbow grease: The foundations, for example, were dug entirely by shovel, and the debris was hauled away in horse-drawn carts. Construction dragged on for 2 years, but finally, on March 31, 1889, Gustave Eiffel proudly led a group of dignitaries up the 1,710 steps to the top, where he unfurled the French flag for the inauguration.

Over 100 years later, the tower has become such an integral piece of the Parisian landscape that it’s impossible to think of the city without it. Over time, even the artists came around—the tower’s silhouette can be found in the paintings of Seurat, Bonnard, Duffy, Chagall, and especially those of Robert Delaunay, who devoted an entire series of canvases to the subject. It has also inspired a whole range of stunts, from Pierre Labric riding a bicycle down the stairs from the first level in 1923 to Philippe Petit walking a 700m-long (2,296-ft.) tightrope from the Palais de Chaillot to the tower during the centennial celebration in 1989. Eiffel performed his own “stunts” towards the end of his career, using the tower as a laboratory for scientific experiments. By convincing the authorities of the tower’s usefulness in studying meteorology, aerodynamics, and other subjects, Eiffel saved it from being torn down.

The most dramatic view of the tower itself is from the wide esplanade at the Palais de Chaillot (Métro: Trocadéro) across the Seine. From there it’s a short walk down through the gardens and across the Pont d’Iena to the base of the tower. The first floor has been closed for the last two years for major renovations. By autumn 2014, visitors should be able to enjoy chic new pavilions and displays, and part of the floor will be glassed over—so you can virtually walk on air. Personally, I think the view from the second level is the best; you’re far enough up to see the entire city, yet close enough to clearly pick out the various monuments. But if you are aching to get to the top an airplanelike view awaits. The third level is, mercifully, enclosed, but thrill-seekers can climb up a few more stairs to the outside balcony (entirely protected by a grill). Note that the thrifty and energetic can skip the elevator and march up the 704 steps that lead you to the second floor of the Eiffel Tower. Not only will you burn calories, but you’ll save money: At 7€ adults, 5€ ages 12 to 24, and 3€ ages 4 to 11, this is the least expensive way to visit. Extra perks include an up-close view of the amazing metal structure and avoiding long lines for the elevator.