About Paris - the best place to learn French
MusÃ©e du Louvre
This enormous building, constructed around 1200 as a fortress and rebuilt in the mid-16th century for use as a royal palace, began its career as a public museum in 1793. As part of Mitterand's grands projets in the 1980s, the Louvre was revamped with the addition of a 21m (67ft) glass pyramid entrance. Initially deemed a failure, the new design has since won over those who regard consistency as inexcusably boring. Vast scrums of people puff and pant through the rooms full of paintings, sculptures and antiquities, including the Mona Lisa, Venus de Milo and Winged Victory (which looks like it's been dropped and put back together). If the clamour becomes unbearable, your best bet is to pick a period or section of the Louvre and pretend that the rest is somewhere across town.
Centre Georges Pompidou
The Centre Georges Pompidou, displaying and promoting modern and contemporary art, is far and away the most visited sight in Paris. Built between 1972 and 1977, the hi-tech though daffy design has recently begun to age, prompting face-lifts and closures of many parts of the centre. Woven into this mÃªlÃ©e of renovation are several good (though pricey) galleries plus a free, three-tiered library with over 2000 periodicals, including English-language newspapers and magazines from around the world. A square just to the west attracts street musicians, Marcel Marceau impersonators and lots of unsavoury types selling drugs or picking pockets.
The city's cathedral ranks as one of the greatest achievements of Gothic architecture. Notre Dame was begun in 1163 and completed around 1345; the massive interior can accommodate over 6000 worshippers. Although Notre Dame is regarded as a sublime architectural achievement, there are all sorts of minor anomalies as the French love nothing better than to mess with things. These include a trio of main entrances that are each shaped differently, and which are accompanied by statues that were once coloured to make them more effective as Bible lessons for the hoi polloi. The interior is dominated by spectacular and enormous rose windows, and a 7800-pipe organ that was recently restored but has not been working properly since. From the base of the north tower, visitors with ramrod straight spines can climb to the top of the west faÃ§ade and decide how much aesthetic pleasure they derive from looking out at the cathedral's many gargoyles - alternatively they can just enjoy the view of a decent swathe of Paris. Under the square in front of the cathedral, an archaeological crypt displays in situ the remains of structures from the Gallo-Roman and later periods.
Lying inside the Palais de Justice (law courts), Sainte Chapelle was consecrated in 1248 and built to house what was reputedly Jesus' crown of thorns and other relics purchased by King Louis IX earlier in the 13th century. The gem-like chapel, illuminated by a veritable curtain of 13th-century stained glass (the oldest and finest in Paris), is best viewed from the law courts' main entrance - a magnificently gilded, 18th-century gate. Once past the airport-like security, you can wander around the long hallways of the Palais de Justice and, if you can find a court in session, observe the proceedings. Civil cases are heard in the morning, while criminal trials - usually reserved for larceny or that French speciality crimes passionnel - begin after lunch.
Spectacularly housed in a former railway station built in 1900, the MusÃ©e d'Orsay was reinaugurated in its present form in 1986. Inside is a trove of artistic treasures produced between 1848 and 1914, including highly regarded Impressionist and Post-impressionist works. Most of their paintings and sculptures are found on the ground floor and the skylight-lit upper level, while the middle level has some magnificent rooms showcasing the Art-Nouveau movement. Nearby, the MusÃ©e Rodin displays the lively bronze and marble sculptures by Camille Claudel and Auguste Rodin, including casts of some of Rodin's most celebrated works. There's a shady sculpture garden out the back, one of Paris' treasured islands of calm.
This towering edifice was built for the World Fair of 1889, held to commemorate the centenary of the French Revolution. Named after its designer, Gustave Eiffel, it stands 320m (1050ft) high and held the record as the world's tallest structure until 1930. Initially opposed by the city's artistic and literary elite - who were only affirming their right to disagree with everything - the tower was almost torn down in 1909. Salvation came when it proved an ideal platform for the antennas needed for the new science of radiotelegraphy. When you're done peering upwards through the girders, you can visit any of the three public levels, which can be accessed by lift or stairs. Just south-east of the tower is a grassy expanse that was once the site of the world's first balloon flights and is now used by teens as a skateboarding arena or by activists bad-mouthing Chirac.
Avenue des Champs-Ã‰lysÃ©es
A popular promenade for the ostentatious aristos of old, the Avenue des Champs-Ã‰lysÃ©es has long symbolised the style and joie de vivre of Paris. Encroaching fast-food joints, car showrooms and cinemas have somewhat dulled the sheen, but the 2km (1mi) long, 70m (235ft) wide stretch is still an ideal place for evening walks and relishing the food at overpriced restaurants.
Place des Vosges
The Marais district spent a long time as a swamp and then as agricultural land, until in 1605 King Henry IV decided to transform it into a residential area for Parisian aristocrats. He did this by building Place des Vosges and arraying 36 symmetrical houses around its square perimeter. The houses, each with arcades on the ground floor, large dormer windows, and the requisite creepers on the walls, were initially built of brick but were subsequently constructed using timber with a plaster covering, which was then painted to look like brick. Duels, fought with strictly observed formality, were once staged in the elegant park in the middle. From 1832-48 Victor Hugo lived at a house at No 6, which has now been turned into a municipal museum. Today, the arcades around the place are occupied by expensive galleries and shops, and cafÃ©s filled with people drinking little cups of coffee and air-kissing immaculate passers-by.