The Champs Elysées, perhaps the most well-known avenue in the world, stretches from the Place de la Concorde (where one of a pair of giant Egyptian obelisks rests in the center, and where the guillotine did its bloody thing during most of the first French Revolution) to the Arc de Triomphe. It’s often described as « Paris’ most beautiful avenue » (it really isn’t, they are overselling its charm pretty hard, but the hype persists).
The Arc de Triomphe is the opposite: I find it actually quite underrated. Visitors crowd the Eiffel Tower, but the Arc has one of the best views of the city and at sunset, is the best place to watch the Eiffel Tower sparkle (every hour on the hour after sunset for five minutes). And here’s a Paris Secret: the Arc de Triomphe is free to enter on the first Sunday of each month, like most public museums and monuments (hello, Louvre). Be sure to expect a crowd and get ready to climb as there are stairs, 284 of them to be precise, that can only be avoided by the disabled.
At the far western end of the Champs-Elysées, the Arc de Triomphe is an imposing limestone arch that honors those who fought for France in the Napoleonic wars. Unlike Gustav Eiffel who leaned heavily on his college bros for inscribing names on his tower, the Arc de Triomphe bears the names of the generals that distinguished themselves under Napoleon’s command.
With a ticket, you can visit the top for a magnificent view over the Champs-Elysées and the ‘view of the 12 Avenues’ that radiate outward from the Arc. Poor Napoleon didn’t live to see the completion in 1836 even though he was the one who commissioned it after winning the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805.
Napoleon wanted an arch for his men to march triumphantly through so they could flex France’s return to military supremacy, but his troops had a little too much pep in their step after creaming the Austrians and were moving too fast towards Paris (maybe the army canteen was the gas-station sandwich of the 1800s and lacked decent macarons so they were eager to get back to the Bouillons). Because of this, his architects cautioned him that it simply could not be completed in time for their return.
So Napoleon told them, « Ok, let’s build a mini arch so at least they have something to march through », and that’s why there’s another, smaller, arch in front of the Musée du Louvre named the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel (this is where the ‘secret’, line-skipping entrance to the Louvre is, by the way).
Here’s how to visit the Arc de Triomphe:
You can take a posh, small-group tour with the Curiosity Collective that starts with locally made chocolates and skips the line (check calendar here or request a private tour), a less-pricey but more mass-market tour here (still fun and worth it so you don’t miss all the fascinating history), or go your own way and just straight up buy a ticket here:
There is an ‘attic’ which houses a small museum, and of course, the rooftop (which is what you REALLY came for).
And when you are ready to climb to the top, resist the urge to join the daredevils and run across the spaghetti bowl of car traffic that whips around the Arc. There are pedestrian underpasses that will take you to the center where you enter the standard security lines. That flame underneath the Arc is nicknamed, « Tomb of the Unknown Pedestrian » for a reason (no seriously, it’s the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and they light it nightly at sunset). The underpasses can be accessed from the Champs Elysées and Avenue de la Grande Armée, as well as from the Charles de Gaulle-Étoile Metro and RER station.
A plan recently unveiled by our badass mayor, Anne Hidalgo (shout out to my girl Anne, bestowing bike lanes galore on us Parisians like we’re Amsterdam or something ❤️) aims to turn the long stretch of Champs-Elysées traffic into a green and mostly pedestrian park. It’s a welcome change as most locals avoid it’s shopping mall vibe in favor of the hidden side streets surrounding. An excuse to come back again, non? But then again, Paris is always a good idea.
Mayor Hidalgo, Paris’ first female mayor, already booted the tacky and out-of-place Ferris wheel that pockmarked the very beginning of the Champs-Elysées after a long court duel with the owner, who I envision as a sort of living, human version of Whacky Waving Inflatable Arm Flailing Tubeman. The business mogul cornered the market for carnival rides throughout France. This character, named Marcel Campion, retaliated by running against her for mayor in 2020, forming a new political party called (rather apropos) ‘Without Etiquette’ and almost crushed all her eco-centric plans.
LOL, no, not really. He garnered 0.5. % of the vote compared to Madame Hidalgo’s 53%. His big plan for Paris was to return our lovely new pedestrian and bike-only spaces back into highways. I’ve never ‘Bye, Felipe’d’ so hard.
The Champs is lined with shops (some of the big names like Louis Vuitton but also Sephora, car dealerships, and bewildering, mall-esque things you can find at home like, uh, Restoration Hardware) and more appropriately, restaurants and cafés which would be our picks for where to spend your time; the Pierre Hermé cafe and Publicis Drugstore.
First, Pierre: The other Pierre Hermé locations are takeaway but here, darling, NOW you are on the Champs-Elysées and you can get what you came for; glamour, refinement, luxury, a sense of being Somewhere worth the plane ticket (sorry H & M and Zara, but we’re going to save that room in our suitcases for IKKS, the Kooples, and Maje).
At the Champs-Elysées Pierre Hermé spots, you can have the full luxe ambiance AND luxe dessert experience. His version of iced coffee costs 12€ and I had to try it for the sheer audacity. Ok, we are on the Champs-Elysées, but really? Is the rent that damn high?
But here it comes, Pierre’s (I write like we’re old friends) iced coffee; deconstructed, a delicate mound of finely shaved coffee-ice that looks like sand over which you pour an espresso. I’m an iced coffee lover so I’m both an easy and demanding audience here. I was not disappointed. I wanted to applaud but didn’t want to look like an ass. If you are looking for a luxe afternoon ‘pause gourmand’ near the Arc de Triomphe, Pierre is your man.
Pierre Hermé is called the ‘Picasso of Pastry,’ and he apparently didn’t let anything leave the kitchen without a master’s touch. His macarons are the best in the city for several years running, so take a few of them to go as well. Get freaky with Truffle macaron (as in the mushroom, not the chocolate), a Caviar macaron, a Foie Gras macaron, or even ‘Céphée,’ made from Japanese shiso leaves and forest strawberries.
If you are feeling decadent, then visit Publicis Drugstore which is many things, including an actual 24/7 drugstore, but more importantly a pretty cool resto-bar.
While the tourists have the Champs, the locals have the tiny side streets off of the main avenue. This is where you can avoid crowds and mediocrity (unless you follow our list, of course), plus this is a bona fide neighborhood. You just have to know where to look.
Take a walk farther east away from the crowd for the ambiance and décor at Beefbar. (calling all Art Nouveau lovers). Enjoy meat-centric dishes (you were warned by the name) nestled in one of the most beautiful restaurants in Paris.
Start in late afternoon with lunch at Publicis Drugstore, or if truffles are your thing, Maison de la Truffe. Scratch that shopping itch at the Galerie des Arcades, which has more small, indy brands than the mass-retailers found on the street-facing storefronts. If Louis Vuitton gets you going, buying it from the Champs-Elysées store is kind of like injecting French luxury straight into your veins (there’s usually a line, so only plan to shop at this location if you are a committed Louisphile). Then allow yourself to succumb to a Pierre Herme macarons bacchanal. Now you’re sugared up and buzzing to to climb up the Arc de Triomphe for one of those sherbet orange Paris sunsets (subject to weather and availability). Then take a short stroll to BeefBar for dinner (reservations here). If you still want to see more, take a walk to the River Seine to see the City of Lights from it’s actual most beautiful avenue, the river, on a night cruise. These range from the accessibly-priced (and closest to the Champs-Elysées, Bateaux Mouches) or the more luxe option of small-group (like max 12) pontoon boats from Paris WaterWay.
Other addresses of note:
Masion Nicoulet: a charming indy chocolate, tea, and coffee shop
Raspoutine: equal parts old-school/glitzy/freaky club, dress to impress
Lido de Paris: glamorous cabaret, more contemporary and edgy than the Moulin Rouge
Le Relais de l’Entrecote Marbeuf: Get your Steak Frites on! They serve steak and only steak, so you can be sure they know what they are doing.
Kith Paris: trendslut shopping mecca
Crazy Horse Paris Cabaret: more risqué than the others but no, it’s not a strip club thank you very much
Address: Place Charles de Gaulle, 75008 Paris, France
Metro: Charles de Gaulle — Étoile (lines A, 1, 2, 6) (you can also access the Arc’s underground entryway from the metro)