5 Place de la Concorde
The Place de la Concorde resembles nothing more than a bright, welcoming Paris square, with its huge Beaux-Arts fountains, sculptures, and an Egyptian obelisk that was crated over from the Temple of Luxor in the 19th century. However, despite its peaceful name and appearance, the square’s history is bloody. During the French Revolution, over a thousand people, including Marie Antoinette, King Louis XVI, Charlotte Corday and hundreds of everyday French citizens, were guillotined there in front of cheering crowds.
4 Les Invalides
The French seem to run hot and cold on the issue of Napoleon Bonaparte. First they exiled Napoleon to the tiny islands of Elba and St. Helena; then they brought his body back to France and buried him at Les Invalides in the most ornate, showy tomb imaginable. If you visit Les Invalides — which is actually a retirement home for veterans and a war museum — you can pop into the rotunda and see Napoleon presiding over the crypts of friends, associates and relatives. His coffin takes center stage, of course.
3 Musée des égouts – Sewer Museum
Since the mid-1800s, Parisians and travelers alike have been able to visit the marvel of 19th century engineering that is the Paris sewer system. Yes, a small portion of the sewers is open for guests. There are dioramas, displays and a bridge that allows you to walk above the rushing waters. It’s dark, it’s stinky — remember where you are? — and it might teach you more about the history of municipal sanitation than you ever really wanted to know, but it’s also intriguing. Among the things you’ll learn: when he was writing Les Miserables, author Victor Hugo actually visited the sewers to map out the paths taken by Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert.
2 ArÃ¨nes de LutÃ¨ce
What’s that you said? You didn’t know there was an ancient Gallo-Roman arena in the middle of the Left Bank? Now you do. It dates from the 1st century C.E., and it was only excavated in the 19th century. It is now the centerpiece of a pleasant, green park on a residential side street in the 5eme. Once you’ve found it — the easiest access point is a nondescript door on the busy Rue Monge — you’re likely to see football matches in progress, picnickers on the grass and people leisurely reading newspapers and relaxing in the rows of seats.
1 Catacombs of Paris
The sign above the entrance to the Ossuary of the Catacombs reads “Stop! Here is the Empire of Death!” Chances are, since you’ve made the trip downstairs, you’ll keep walking. Beyond the stark black and white painted doorway is a labyrinth of tunnels lined with the bones of thousands and thousands of Parisians of yesteryear. They were all relocated from aboveground cemeteries in the late 18th century and early 19th century in an effort to curb disease, and if you look closely, plaques along the walls will tell you when each group of remains was installed in the Catacombs. You’ll also see thoughtful quotes about mortality and eternity, altars, and crosses, hearts and diamonds made of piles of skulls. Only a small portion of the Catacombs is open to the public, so the corridors of bones are even more extensive than you might first perceive them to be. Urban explorers in Paris love exploring the closed areas of the Catacombs, and in World War II, the Resistance used them to hide from the Nazis. Even if you’re not generally squeamish, try not to go alone. Trust me on that one. It gets quiet down there.