Arc de Triomphe is a French icon, behind only the Eiffel Tower as recognizable Paris landmarks go. In this post, we’ll share tips for visiting, how to avoid lines & crowds, and share photos from the galleries and top viewing deck of the Arc de Triomphe during the day, sunset, and at night.
As with all things in France, the story of the Arc de Triomphe begins with its rich history. Construction of the Arc de Triomphe was ordered in 1806 by French Emperor Napoleon, who wanted to honor France’s military after a remarkable victory at the battle of Austerlitz. Construction paused in both 1814 and 1826 after invasion and Napoleon’s abdication.
Work on the Arc de Triomphe was also delayed due to the death of the original architect and designer. Construction was ultimately completed in 1836, over a decade after Napoleon’s death, and at a cost of $9.3 million French francs, an astronomical sum at the time. The Arc de Triomphe now serves as a parade gateway for triumphant armies, and a ceremonial location of army festivities. As with so many symbols of France, it has proved enduring; worth the wait and expense…
Part of what makes it such a powerful symbol of France is the traffic circle around the Arc de Triomphe where 12 roads converge, including major avenues such as the Champs-Élysées. That traffic circle around the Arc de Triomphe is infamous for its dangerousness, a veritable free-for-all that bears more in common with the wildebeest stampede in the Lion King than a proper intersection where cars. Here, the normal rules of the road are less rules, and more “guidelines.”
When it comes to the Arc de Triomphe traffic circle, there are a number of urban legends and supposed facts. One claims that an accident occurs here every 7 minutes; that seems unlikely given that we’ve spent hours upon hours here and have never seen a single collision (perhaps any impact counts, and most drivers keep moving?). Another contends that no car insurance company in the world insures drivers on it, which is probably a myth.
The final claim is the most likely and reasonable: that all collisions are deemed to have 50/50 fault, and that each driver’s insurance company splits the cost fifty-fifty. If the dings and dents we’ve observed in even the nice cars in the city are any indication, most drivers accept that a pristine car is an impossibility in Paris, and just accept the reality of having some dents.
It boggles my mind when I see compact cars or little scooters zooming through the traffic circle. I’d be terrified to drive around the Arc de Triomphe in an armored truck, let alone an exposed motorbike or a tin-can car. It reminds me of the motorcycles that weave between lanes when traffic is otherwise at a stand-still. You can’t imagine the survival rate of either looks particularly great on a long timeline of that behavior.
Tips for Visiting the Arc de Triomphe
Use the Underpass – I cannot imagine crossing the traffic circle in a car or motorcycle, let alone on foot. Yet, without fail, we see someone running towards the middle every trip.
Don’t do this. There’s an underpass running from Avenues des Champs-Élysées to de la Grand-Armee with steps offering access to the ground level around Arc de Triomphe, which is free.
Use the Paris Museum Pass – To go up into Arc de Triomphe, we highly recommend the Paris Museum Pass (read our review of it here), which will bypass the ticket line that sometimes stretches through the underpass.
Not only will this save you a good deal of time, but it’s almost certain to save you money if you visit a few pricey museums and monuments, like the Arc de Triomphe.
Go for Sunset – We recommend arriving to the Arc de Triomphe underpass with your Paris Museum Pass in hand at least 60 minutes before sunset (75 minutes in advance if you’re buying tickets). This gives you a bit of time to get through security, climb the 284 steps to the top, and grab some photos with nice golden light.
No less than 15 minutes before official sunset time, grab a spot as close to the southeast corner of Arc de Triomphe as possible (facing Avenue Victor Hugo). This will give you a panoramic view of both the Eiffel Tower and the sun as it dips below the horizon, similar to the photo above.
Stay for Dusk – Watching daylight fade and blue hour begin, as the City of Light…well…lights up, is a beautiful sight to behold. Tripods are not allowed at the Eiffel Tower, but beanbags and other stabilization devices are allowed.
We’d recommend sticking around until the first Eiffel Tower Light Show, at the top of the nearest hour. You’ll probably see this numerous times during your visit to Paris, but it’s a unique perspective from the top of Arc de Triomphe.
Budget 20 Min. for Exhibits – At the top of the never-ending spiral staircase is an enclosed, two-floor exhibit with details about the creation of the Arc de Triomphe and France’s military history. While a couple models here are interesting, this is hardly a deep-dive (to be honest, it’s all skippable if you’re doing the exceptional Musée de l’Armée).
When you get back down to ground level, take a few moments to marvel at the list of French victories and names of great French generals inscribed under the arch, as well as France’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Its flame is lit nightly at 6:30 p.m.
It’s Open Late – While we recommend visiting the Arc de Triomphe for sunset and dusk, if your time is limited in Paris to only a few days, instead consider going late.
Depending upon the season, Arc de Triomphe is open until 10 or 11 p.m., which is much later than other points of interest in Paris, even those with evening openings. Take advantage of this and visit an hour before closing, when your alternatives are limited.
Overall, we love the Arc de Triomphe. It’s not the most centralized view in Paris (that would be the Eiffel Tower), but it has the huge advantage of actually offering a view of the Eiffel Tower and other key landmarks. It doesn’t hurt that the Arc de Triomphe is itself an iconic monument, which is a claim that cannot be made by Montparnasse Tower or other observation decks in Paris. As such, this is our top pick for Paris viewing spots, and a must-do for all visitors to the city.
If you’re planning a trip to France, we recommend starting by consulting our Ultimate Guide to Paris, France to plan all aspects of our vacation. You should also check out our other posts about France for ideas on other places to visit!
Have you visited Arc de Triomphe? What did you think of the experience? What did you think of the view from the top as compared to other popular observation decks in Paris? Would you recommend it to a first-timer visiting France? Any thoughts or tips of your own to add? Does the Arc de Triomphe interest you? Hearing your feedback—even when you disagree with us—is both interesting and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts or questions below in the comments!