If anything rivals the Eiffel Tower as the symbol of Paris, it’s this magnificent 1836 monument to Napoléon’s victory at Austerlitz (1805), which he commissioned the following year. The intricately sculpted triumphal arch stands sentinel in the centre of the Étoile (Star) roundabout. From the viewing platform on top of the arch (50m up via 284 steps and well worth the climb) you can see the dozen avenues.
Av de la Grande Armée heads northwest to the skyscraper district of La Défense, where the Grande Arche marks the western end of the axe historique.
The most famous of the four high-relief panels at the base is to the right, facing the arch from the av des Champs-Élysées side. It’s entitled Départ des Volontaires de 1792 (Departure of the Volunteers of 1792) and is also known as La Marseillaise (France’s national anthem). Higher up, a frieze running around the whole monument depicts hundreds of figures, each one 2m high.
Beneath the arch at ground level lies the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The Unknown Soldier was laid to rest in 1921, in honour of the 1.3 million French soldiers who lost their lives in WWI. An eternal flame is rekindled daily at 6.30pm.
To access the arch, don’t cross the traffic-choked roundabout above ground. Stairs lead from the northern side of the Champs-Élysées to pedestrian tunnels (not linked to the metro) that bring you out safely beneath the arch. Tickets to the viewing platform are sold in the tunnel.