Prehistoric Paris did have two things going for it: a river that led all the way to the Atlantic and those strategically placed islands, which offered both protection and shelter. The largest one, the core of what would one day become the Ile de la Cité, attracted the attention of a tribe of Celtic people called the Parisii, who fished and traded along its banks somewhere around the 3rd century B.C. Though they weren’t the first Parisians (traces of human habitations have been found dating back to Neolithic times), they were the first to firmly implant themselves in the area, and they made ample use of the river not only as a source of food, but as a trade link. Their island had the good fortune of being on the “Pewter Route,” a trade route that stretched from the British Isles to the Mediterranean. As a consequence, the Parisii’s wealth was such that by the 1st century B.C., they were minting their own gold coins.


Roman Rule (1st C. B.C.–A.D. 2nd C.)

No recorded history of Paris exists before the Romans showed up in 52 B.C., but when Caesar and his boys marched in, the Parisii numbered several thousand, and the island bustled with activity. Soon thereafter, however, the Parisii’s main activity would be trying to get rid of the Romans. Though they fought valiantly, they were massacred by Caesar’s troops, and a new Roman town was built both on the island and on the Left Bank, on the slopes of the Montagne St-Genevieve (where the Panthéon now stands). The new town, for reasons that remain unclear, was baptized Lutécia and ran along a ramrod-straight north-south axis; the line of this road survives in today’s rue St-Jacques. (The Parisii would eventually get their due, however, as the city would be renamed Civitas Parisiorum in the 4th c., which eventually was whittled down to Paris.) Though there were only around 8,000 inhabitants, by the 2nd century the town boasted three Gallo-Roman baths (you can see the ruins of the largest of these at the corner of blvds. St-Michel and St-Germain in the Musée du Cluny) and a vast amphitheater (a piece of which can be seen at the Arènes de Lutèce, just off rue Monge in the Latin Quarter).

Barbarian Invasions (3rd–5th C.)


By the 3rd century, the city was subject to waves of barbarian invasions. Most of the population took refuge on the Ile de la Cité, which was then encircled by ramparts. Somewhere around this time, St-Denis was decapitated when he was martyred up on a nearby hill, which in time would be dubbed Montmartre. Legend has it that the saint picked up his severed head and walked with it for several kilometers, preaching all the while; the Basilica of St-Denis (just north of Paris) was built on the place where he finally dropped. The event, which supposedly happened around 250, coincides with Christianity’s first appearance on the Parisian scene. Another particularly pious Christian, a young nun named Geneviève, was credited with turning Attila the Hun away from Paris in 451. Alerted that the barbarians were approaching, the citizenry was in a state of panic; Geneviève reassured them, telling them that God was with them. In the end, the Huns didn’t march on Paris, but on Orléans; the grateful population, convinced it was Geneviève’s doing, made her into the city’s patron saint. A church was raised in her honor on the hill that’s now known as the Montagne-Ste-Geneviève; it was pulled down and replaced by a magnificent new one, commissioned by Louis XV in the 18th century, which was subsequently turned into a national mausoleum after the Revolution and renamed the Panthéon. 

Merovingian & Carolingian Dynasties (6th–10th C.)

At the end of the 5th century, the Franks (a Germanic people) invaded and established the Merovingian dynasty of kings; the first, Clovis, made Paris the capital of his new kingdom in 508. The Merovingians were ardent Catholics; under their rule the city sprouted dozens of churches, convents, and monasteries. Childebert I, the son of Clovis, inaugurated a small basilica that would soon be dubbed St-Germain-des-Prés after the saint was buried there in 576. Over time, this church would grow into a powerful abbey and intellectual center that would dominate much of the Left Bank up until the Revolution. Even after the abbey was dismantled, and many of its buildings burned, the church lived on, as did the name of the neighborhood. Though the city enjoyed a certain amount of prosperity during this time, it was short-lived; the Merovingians, known as the “do-nothing” kings, were eventually toppled, and by the 8th century, a new dynasty, the Carolingians, had replaced them.

The most famous member of this clan was Charlemagne, who went on to conquer Italy and was crowned emperor by the Pope in 800. Arts and letters thrived during this period, and the city began to build up on the Right Bank, around the church of St-Gervais–St-Protais, and the Port du Grève, where the Hôtel de Ville now stands. Starting in the mid–9th century, the city was periodically ravaged by Normans and Vikings, who would sack Paris on their way to plundering Burgundy. The Normans were particularly persistent; after a barricade was erected on the Seine to keep their boats from passing in 885, they laid siege to the city for an entire year. It was only after King Charles the Simple signed a treaty in 911 giving the Normans Normandy that life returned to normal, but by then Paris was in ruins. The age of the Carolingians was drawing quickly to a close.

The Founding of the Capetian Dynasty (11th C.)


In 987, Hugues Capet, the Count of Paris, was crowned king of France; his direct descendants ruled the country for 3.5 centuries, and two branches of the Capetian dynasty, the Valois and Bourbons, would continue to rule (with a brief pause during the Revolution) until 1848. With the Capetians came stability, and Paris rebuilt and grew, particularly on the Ile de la Cité and the Right Bank. The Left Bank, flattened by the Normans, was left as it was; little by little it was covered with fields and vineyards. The 12th century was a period of economic growth; it saw the birth of Les Halles, the sprawling central market around which a new commercial quarter developed. In 1163, ground was broken on the Cathédrale de Notre-Dame de Paris. Finished 200 years later, Notre-Dame remains one of the world’s most exquisite examples of medieval architecture.

It was around this time that that mushy, marshy strip of land on the Right Bank, known as the Marais (or swamp), was partially drained and carpeted with farms. Philippe Auguste, before taking off on a crusade, had a sturdy rampart built around the newly extended city limits; fragments of this wall can still be seen today (see “Walking Tour 2”). Philippe’s grandson, Louis IX (St-Louis), added another architectural jewel to the cityscape: the Sainte-Chapelle, a small church whose upper-story walls are almost entirely made of brilliantly colored stained glass. Louis had it built to house a treasure he bought from the debt-ridden Byzantine emperor: Christ’s crown of thorns and some fragments of the holy cross (the relics are now in Notre-Dame).

Medieval Glory & Gore (12th–14th C.)


By the 12th century, Paris boasted a population of around 200,000, much larger than other European capitals, as well as a burgeoning reputation as an economic as well as intellectual center. Quality fabrics, leather goods, and metalwork were produced in Paris, as well as art objects. The University of Paris was slowly coming into being, and colleges were popping up all over the Left Bank; in 1257, Robert de Sorbon established the small theological college that became the Sorbonne university. The city seemed unstoppable.

But the 14th century would, in fact, put an end to this fruitful period. When the last Capetian king, Charles IV, died in 1328, the succession to the throne was disputed, in part because the closest descendent was Edward III, king of England, who also presided over a chunk of southwestern France. This and many other gripes exploded into the Hundred Years War, which devastated France for over a century. Expansion in Paris came to an abrupt halt, the endless wars and riots wore down the populace, and in 1348 the Black Plague killed tens of thousands. In the early 1400s Paris was hit by famine and a string of extremely cold winters. Between one disaster and another during this period, the city lost about half of its population. In 1420, the English occupied Paris; despite the efforts of Joan of Arc and Charles VII, who laid siege to the city in 1429, troops loyal to the Duke of Bedford (the English Regent) didn’t leave until 1437. This same duke was responsible for having Joan burned at the stake in Rouen in 1431.

Renaissance Renewal (16th C.)


Slowly, the city came to life again. The population increased, as did commercial and intellectual activity. The invention of the printing press spread new ideas across Europe. After centuries of rejecting the texts and ideas of classical antiquity, scholars embraced the concept of Humanism, which would find a home in Paris. Great thinkers such as Erasmus and John Calvin were drawn to the city’s universities. More colleges emerged from the academic landscape: In 1530, François I established a school that would become the prestigious College de France, and in 1570 Charles IX founded the Académie Française. If the Renaissance made its mark on the intellectual life of the city, it had little impact on its architectural legacy. The Renaissance kings liked Paris but lived and did their building elsewhere. François I, the most construction-happy among them, brought some of the greatest masters of the Italian Renaissance, like Leonardo da Vinci and Benvenuto Cellini, to France, but their genius was mostly displayed in François’ châteaux on the Loire and at Fontainebleau, not in the capital. The king’s primary contribution to the cityscape was the remodeling of the Louvre and construction of the Hôtel de Ville, designed by the Italian architect Boccador. The latter building was burned down in 1871 during the fall of the Paris Commune; the existing edifice is a fairly faithful copy erected in 1873. Two glorious churches, St-Etienne du Mont and St-Eustache, also were built during this period; their decoration attests to the jubilant spirit of the times.

War once again interfered with the city’s development when the bloody struggle between the country’s Protestants and Catholics morphed into the Wars of Religion in 1557. Even the marriage of the future king, Henri of Navarre, a Protestant, to Marguerite de Valois, a Catholic, did not diffuse the conflict: A week after their wedding, August 24, 1572, the bells of St-Germain l’Auxerrois signaled the beginning of the St-Bartholomew’s Day massacre, which resulted in the deaths of between 2,000 and 4,000 Parisian Protestants. When in 1589, Henri was declared King of France (as Henri IV), Parisians would not let the Protestant monarch enter the city. After 4 months of siege, the starving citizens relented and in the end, to show his goodwill, the king converted, famously declaring that “Paris is worth a mass.”

Henri IV lived on to be an enormously popular king, whose structural improvements left a lasting mark on the city. He was the force behind the Pont Neuf, which straddles the Right and Left banks, as well as the Ile de la Cité. To create the bridge, two small islets off the western tip of the Ile de la Cité were filled in and made part of the larger island; the tranquil Place Dauphine was also created during this time. Henri also conceived the strikingly harmonious place Royale (now called Place des Vosges). The king would not live to see it finished; in 1610, when the royal carriage got stuck in a traffic jam on rue de la Ferronerie, he was stabbed by Ravaillac, a deranged Catholic who was convinced that Henri was waging war against the Pope.


The Age of Louis XIV (17th C.)

The 17th century saw a building frenzy among the aristocracy. Marie de Médicis built the Italian-style Palais du Luxembourg in 1615, around the same time that the Marais was inundated with splendid palaces and hôtels particuliers, or mansions. The new Ile St-Louis, made from the joining of two previously uninhabited islets to the east of the Ile de la Cité, was filled with stately mansions that only the rich could afford. After Marguerite de Valois moved in to the neighborhood, the St-Germain quarter also became a place to see and be seen. Finally, in 1632 the powerful Cardinal Richelieu built a huge palace, now called the Palais Royal, near the Louvre, which encouraged yet another new neighborhood to develop.

In 1643, a 5-year-old boy named Louis XIV acceded to the French throne, where he would stay for the next 72 years. One of the most influential figures in French history, Louis XIV spent his early years in Paris, under the protection of his mother, Anne of Austria. It was not a happy time: The city was writhing under a nasty rebellion called La Fronde, instigated by cranky nobles trying to wrest control back from the powerful prime minister, Cardinal Mazarin. The young monarch and his mother were chased from one royal residence to the next. When Louis grew up and things calmed down, he settled into the Louvre, commanding his team of architects, led by Le Vau, to complete the Cour Carrée and other unfinished parts of the palace. The spectacular colonnade on the eastern facade dates from this period. Louis eventually decided to build his own castle, one that was far enough from the noise and filth of the capital and big enough to house his entire court—the better to keep a close eye on political intrigues. The result was the Château of Versailles, a testament to the genius of Le Vau and that of master landscape architect André Le Nôtre.


Even if Louis XIV didn’t live in the city, he certainly added to its architectural heritage. He was responsible for the construction of Les Invalides, a massive military hospital, and two squares, Place des Victoires and place Louis-le-Grand, today known as Place Vendôme. Two gigantic entryways, celebrating Louis’ military victories, were built at the city gates; the Porte St-Denis and the Porte St-Martin. Both of these triumphal archways still hover over parts of the 10th arrondissement by Métro Strasbourg–St-Denis, looking somewhat out of place in this working-class district.

From Enlightenment to Revolution

Paris continued to grow, and the population density increased. At the turn of the 18th century, some 500,000 Parisians were crammed into a vast network of narrow, mostly unpaved streets. Sewers were nonexistent, and clean drinking water was a luxury. While life in the rarified atmosphere of the aristocratic salons of the Marais was brimming with art, literature, and deep thought, down on the ground it was filled with misery. Poverty and want were the constant companions of the vast majority of Parisians. On an intellectual level, the city was soaring—under the reign of Louis XV, Paris became a standard-bearer for the Enlightenment, a school of thought that championed reason and logic and helped construct the intellectual framework of both the American and French Revolutions. Salons—regular meetings of artists and thinkers in aristocratic homes—flourished, as did cafes; drawn in by the wildly popular new drink called coffee, these were the ideal meeting place for philosophers, writers, and artists, as well as a new breed of politicians with some revolutionary ideas. Political debates were particularly passionate in the cafes in the galleries of the Palais Royal, which had been filled with shops and opened to the public by Duke Louis Philippe d’Orléans.


Meanwhile, back in Versailles, the court of Louis XVI seemed to be utterly oblivious of the mounting discontent in the capital. As the price of bread skyrocketed and more and more Parisians found themselves on the street (there were more than 100,000 homeless people in the city in 1789, out of an overall population of between 600,000 and 700,000), the disconnect between the aristocracy and the common man threatened to rupture into a bloody conflict. Amazingly, Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette, continued to live their lives as if the civil unrest in the capital didn’t concern them. A financial crisis in the royal treasury prompted a meeting of the Estates-General in Versailles in May 1789, a representative body that had not been convened since 1616. The assembly began demanding a more democratic system of taxation, and better representation of the Third Estate (the people). When the King tried to close down the proceedings, the group, which had renamed itself the National Assembly, dug in its heels and wrote a constitution. The royals kept dithering and trying to break up the assembly, until finally, the Revolution erupted on July 14, 1789, when an angry mob stormed the Bastille prison. There were only seven prisoners in the fortress, but no matter—the genie was out of the bottle, and the pent-up anger of the populace was unleashed.

The royal family was imprisoned and beheaded. But after the initial euphoria faded and the high ideals were set down on paper, the leaders of the Revolution began to squabble, and factional skirmishes became increasingly deadly. The events of the Revolution are too many to relate here, but within a few years, not only were aristocrats being sent off to the guillotine, but just about anyone who disagreed with the ruling powers, including many of the leaders who wrote the rules. Finally, Robespierre, who directed the bloodiest phase of the Revolution, known as “the Terror,” had his turn at the guillotine, and a new government was set up. Called the Directory, this unsuccessful attempt at representational government met its end when a general named Napoleon Bonaparte staged a coup in 1799.

The Empire


Under Napoleon, Paris slowly put itself back together. The economy restarted, and the Emperor turned his attentions to upgrading the city’s infrastructure, building bridges (Pont St-Louis, Pont des Arts, Pont d’Iéna, and Pont d’Austerlitz), improving access to water (the Canal de l’Ourcq), and creating new cemeteries like Père-Lachaise because the old ones were so crowded that they had become public health hazards. Napoleon was also responsible for the rue de Rivoli, a wide east-west boulevard, the first of several that would be laid down later on in the 19th century. The collection of the Louvre was greatly enhanced by all the booty the Emperor acquired during his many military campaigns. Napoleon’s love of war would eventually be his undoing; after his defeat by the English at Waterloo he was exiled to the isle of Ste-Helena, where he died in 1821. Paris holds huge monuments to his memory, in particular the Arc de Triomphe, which honors the Imperial Army. His tomb lies in Les Invalides military complex and museum.

The Restoration & Urban Renewal

Incredibly, after all the blood that was spilled in the name of the Republic, Louis XVI’s brother (Louis XVIII) became King of France in 1814. What’s more, another brother, Charles X, became king after Louis XVIII’s death. What both brothers had in common is that they tried to bring back the old days of absolute monarchy, while the citizenry had become accustomed to the reforms of the Revolution and the relatively benign rule of Napoleon. This, coupled with the continuing poverty of many Parisians, resulted in two serious uprisings, “Les Trois Glorieuses,” the 3 “glorious” days in July 1830, and the Revolution of 1848. In fact, it is these two uprisings, and not the Revolution itself, that are honored on the column in the Place de la Bastille, the site of the infamous prison. After Charles, a republic was declared, and Napoleon’s nephew, Louis-Napoleon, ran for and won the presidency. He liked being president so much that he didn’t want to give up power at the end of his term, so he staged a coup and declared the birth of the Second Empire, calling himself Napoleon III.


Under Charles X, the unhygienic state of the city center started to cause serious alarm, particularly after a cholera epidemic in 1832 devastated the population. Many residents fled to the outer limits of the city, away from the overcrowded poor quarters where the filthy streets were often completely clogged with traffic. City administrators began to draft plans for new avenues, in particular the prefect, Rambuteau, who went ahead and started laying down wide boulevards, like the one named after him.

But it was Napoleon III who really changed the face of Paris when he gave urban planner Baron Haussmann free rein to “modernize” the city. Not only did Haussmann lay down wide boulevards that eased congestion and opened up vistas, he cleverly arranged them so that if ever there was yet another popular uprising, they would facilitate military maneuvers and make it tough for citizens to set up barricades. Over half of the city was ripped up and rebuilt; Haussmann instituted strict regulations for the height of the new buildings and the style of their facades. The result: the elegant buildings and boulevards you see today. On the plus side, the city finally got a decent sewage system and water access, and the squalid slums were knocked down. Several parks were created, such as Buttes Chaumont and the Bois de Boulogne as well as grand plazas like the Place de la République and place du Trocadéro. On the other hand, the character of the city was completely changed, and much of its social fabric was pulled down with the houses. Working-class Paris has been slowly disappearing ever since.

From the Commune to the Belle Epoque


The boulevards were put to the test during the Paris Commune of 1870, a brief but bloody episode that was yet another attempt of the French people to construct a democratic republic—though this time it was in the wake of the Franco-Prussian war. The boulevards did their job: The rebellion was crushed, and at least 20,000 communards were executed. When the smoke cleared, a new government was formed, and to everyone’s surprise, it was a republic. The National Assembly had intended to form a constitutional monarchy, but the heir to the throne had no interest in the word “constitutional.” As a stopgap measure, a temporary republic was set up—little did anyone know that it would last for 60 years.

There must have been an audible sigh of relief from Parisians, who would finally enjoy a little peace and harmony—or at least enough of a break from war and woe to have a good time. And so they did. During the “Belle Epoque,” the years at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, the arts bloomed in Paris. Groundbreaking art expositions introducing new movements like Impressionism (around 1874) and Fauvism (around 1905) changed people’s ways of seeing painting. Up in Montmartre, an entire colony of artists and writers (Picasso, Braque, Apollonaire, and others) were filling cafes and cabarets in their off hours. The Lumière brothers and Léon Gaumont showed their newly hatched films in the city’s first movie theaters. The city hosted a number of World’s Fairs including that of 1889, which created the Eiffel Tower, and 1900, which left behind the Pont Alexandre III bridge, as well as the Grand and Petit Palais. Another great moment in 1900 was the inauguration of the Paris Métro’s first underground line.

The World Wars


The fun came to an abrupt halt in 1914 with the outbreak of World War I, which killed 8.4 million Frenchmen. Calling all Parisians to arms, General Gallieni and his troops fought off the approaching German army (the Battle of the Marne) and saved Paris from occupation. The city did get bombarded, however; on Good Friday, 1918, the church of St-Gervais–St-Protais took a direct hit and more than 100 people died.

The city rebounded after the war, both economically and culturally, especially during the 1920s, les années folles (“the crazy years”). Paris became a magnet for artists and writers from all over. Americans, in particular, came in droves—F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry Miller, Ernest Hemingway, and Gertrude Stein were some of the better-known names. They and other European expats like Marc Chagall, James Joyce, and George Orwell gathered in Montparnasse cafes like Le Dôme, Le Select, and La Coupole.

The 1930s brought economic depression and social unrest—a dreary backdrop for the approaching war. The Germans were re-arming, and Hitler was rising to power; in May 1940 Germany invaded the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and Belgium, and broke through France’s defensive Maginot line. The Germans occupied Paris on June 14, and for 4 years the city would know hunger, curfews, and suspicion. The Vichy government, led by Marchal Pétain, in theory governed unoccupied France, but in fact, collaborated with the Germans. One of the darkest moments of the occupation was in July 1942, when the French police rounded up 13,152 Parisian Jews, including 4,115 children, and parked them in a velodrome before sending them off to Auschwitz; only 30 survived. General Charles de Gaulle became the leader of the Free French and organizer of the Resistance; after the Allies landed in Normandy in 1944, Paris was liberated, and de Gaulle victoriously strode down the Champs-Élysées before a wildly cheering crowd. He would later become president of the country (1958–69).


Postwar Paris

Writers and artists filtered back to the cafes once the war was over (some had never left), and the Café de Flore and Les Deux Magots were headquarters for existential all-stars like Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. But the late 1940s was also the beginning of the end of French colonial rule, which was punctuated by violent clashes, including a revolt in Madagascar and a war in Indochina that would eventually entangle the United States. In North Africa, Morocco and Tunisia won their independence relatively peacefully, but France would not let go of Algeria without a long and bloody fight, its repercussions still being felt today. The war in Algeria led to the collapse of the French government; de Gaulle was asked to start a new one in 1958. Thousands of Algerian refugees flooded France, with many settling in the Paris region; Algeria finally gained its independence in 1962.

The writer André Malraux was de Gaulle’s minister of cultural affairs from 1958 to 1969 and was responsible for protecting and restoring endangered historic districts like the Marais. Elsewhere, modern architects were putting their own questionable stamp on the city, like the doughnut-shaped Maison de Radio France in the 16th arrondissement, and the vaguely “Y”-shaped Maison de UNESCO in the 15th. The late 1960s also marked Paris in less concrete ways. In May 1968, students, hoping to reform the university system, joined a general workers' strike that was paralyzing the nation. The police invaded La Sorbonne to calm the protests, and students and sympathizers took to the streets. The confrontations became violent, with students attacking police with cobblestones—boulevard St-Michel was subsequently paved with asphalt. This was a period of profound social change; those who participated still proudly refer to themselves as soixante-huitards (68ers).


The 1970s was a period of architectural awkwardness—horrified by the idea of becoming a “museum city,” then-president Georges Pompidou decided to modernize. One idea that thankfully never came to fruition was to pave over the Canal St-Martin to make way for a freeway that would cut through the center of the city. The dismal Tour Montparnasse dates from this period, as does the destruction of the old Les Halles marketplace, which was replaced with an unpleasant underground shopping mall (Forum des Halles, which has been rebuilt and covered over by a massive glass canopy). Pompidou’s one “success” is the nearby Centre Pompidou, whose strange, inside-out design provoked howls of outrage when it was built but now has been accepted as part of the Parisian landscape. When François Mitterrand became president in 1981, he too wanted to leave an architectural legacy, and the list of his grands projets (“big projects”) is lengthy. Fortunately, most were considerably more palatable than his predecessor’s. It is to Mitterrand that we owe the Musée d’Orsay, the pyramid (and underground shopping complex) at the Louvre, and the ultra-modern Bibliothèque National François Mitterrand, as well as the Institute du Monde Arabe and the Opéra Bastille. President Jacques Chirac was the force behind the excellent Musée du Quai Branly.

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