Most major cities in the world boast about their tallest local skyscraper, monument or mountain. Apparently, building really tall things and then charging people to climb to the top and look around is one of humanity’s favorite activities. Despite the building height restriction laws put into place after the construction of the 59-story Tour Montparnasse in the 1970s, Paris is full of famous towers, gigantic cathedrals, magnificent palaces, rooftop restaurants and a handful of spectacular natural vantage points. If you come to Paris, chances are you won’t be choosing whether or not to pay 10 euro to climb several hundred feet for some stunning city views, but rather you’ll be trying to decide where, exactly, it’s best to climb and which view you’ll enjoy the most.
I spend a lot of my time in Paris climbing stairs or standing in tiny, crowded elevators (my apartment is on the 5th floor, my daily French class on the 6th) and since I’ve gotten so much practice ascending things, I thought I’d share some of my favorite high places in Paris with you. The most famous “tall thing” in Paris is obviously the 1000-plus vertical feet of iron lattice known as La Tour Eiffel. Even if you’re only in Paris for a day or two, chances are the Eiffel Tower is on your list of must-dos, and its upper decks offer sweeping views of the city. It’s a well-worn legend that the French writer Guy de Maupassant detested the Eiffel Tower, but went to eat lunch in its restaurant everyday; when asked why, he supposedly replied that it was the only place in Paris where one did not see the Tower blemishing the horizon.
While this may have been great for Maupassant, it’s a bit of a bummer for anyone visiting the tower to take a picture of the iconic Paris skyline, only to realize they’re standing on the most iconic bit of it.
This problem is easily solved, however, by visiting the next tallest structure in Paris: the Tour Montparnasse. Like La Tour Eiffel, La Tour Montparnasse is located on the Rive Gauche, but unlike the Eiffel (which today looks so Parisian the idea of the Paris before it was built is nearly absurd), it stands out from the Parisian skyline like a really tall and black sore thumb. The lines for admission tend to be much shorter at Montparnasse than at the Eiffel, and the view (if not the ambiance) is just as good. It’s the perfect place to snap pictures of the Eiffel Tower, framed from behind by the modern skyscrapers of La Défense.
Across the river to the northeast, look out for the large patch of green standing out from the grey of the city: it’s the famous Cimetière du Père–Lachaise (well worth a stroll on a sunny afternoon). Looking eastwards, there’s a wonderful view of Notre Dame, Le Panthéon, and the Mosque tucked away in the Quartier Latin, near the ancient arena of Lutetia (the name of the original Roman settlement in Paris).
If buildings that are tall simply for the sake of being tall aren’t really your thing, two other famous Parisian attractions are worth the climb as well: Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris and L‘Arc de Triomphe. Notre Dame is a must on any Parisian itinerary, and the great thing about viewing Paris from the top of the Cathedral, perched as it is on Île-de-la-Cite like a ship cruising up the middle of the Seine, is that you get a closer look at the building itself and its famous gargoyles and chimera. Climbing L’Arc de Triomphe, the imposing monument commissioned by Napoleon I, allows you to see one of the incredible sightlines of Haussmann’s Paris , stretching from Place de la Concorde, to Place Charles-de-Gaulle, and continuing today all the way out to the Grand Arch of La Défense (stop by Tour Montparnasse after dark to see the network of Grand Boulevards beautifully lit up against the night sky). You can peer down at the bustle tourists mingling with the chicest of the chic along the Avenue des Champs-Élysées.
The Eiffel Tower, Tour Montparnasse, Notre Dame and L’Arc de Triomphe are all paid attractions, with admissions prices ranging from about 4-14 euro (mostly hovering between 8-10 for adults). These last two places, however, are free, probably due to the fact that no one had to build them, since their height is simply a natural feature of the land. Basilique du Sacre Coeur, perched atop the famous district Montmarte, can be reached by foot, bus or funicular. The views across Paris are beautiful, though as they’re free the area is nearly always crowded by tourists, street vendors and portrait artists. The view is particularly lovely at sunset, when Paris transforms in the twilight from a field of grey into the city of light.
My last recommendation, less well known than all the others, but just as worth visiting (and refreshingly tourist-free) is the Parc de Belleville. Situated in the northeast of the city, the park is unassumingly beautiful, and its perspective over Paris takes in nearly all of the major monuments.
The park is in the 20th arrondissimment, next to the Parisian neighborhood of Belleville (birthplace of the singer Edith Piaf) which is known for its vibrant mélange of artists and ethnicities. Get there by taking the metro to Couronnes (line 2), and then following Rue de Couronnes northeastwards. The bottom of the park will be on your left (but of course you have to climb to the top for the best views!).
Visiting six places just for sweeping city views may seem like overkill, but the truth is it’s almost impossible to get tired of looking at Paris, especially since after mounting all those stairs, you can always lounge away the evening on the terrasse of a café, rest your feet while sitting for a street portrait, or cozy up in a brasserie with a bottle of wine. So lace up your sneakers (or bring band-aids, if you’re relentlessly fashionable and planning to wear heels), head outside, and happy climbing!