AOL Travel

Paris History

Paris history is as epic as the city itself, stretching back over two millennia.

Back in the third century BC the Parisii tribe of Celtic Gauls settled on the Île de la Cité, and the Kilometer Zero plaque here outside Notre Dame remains the starting point for measuring distances nationwide.

The evolving city was a battleground with the Romans, Germanic Franks, Scandinavian Vikings and Norman England. Following the Renaissance at the end of the 15th century, more wars raged under the rule of King Louis XIV, who moved the court and government to the extravagant Palace of Versailles, just outside central Paris. Fed up with the aristocracy’s ostentatious lifestyle, impoverished citizens stormed the Bastille prison on 14 July, 1789 (commemorated as France's national day), paving the way for the French Revolution—and for much of the way Paris and the country operates today, from secularism to the propensity to strike for better standards of living.

Revolution general Napoleon Bonaparte took the reins during this tumultuous time but it was his nephew, Napoleon III, who left the biggest impact on Paris history and its cityscape today.

Napoleon III’s chief architect, Baron Haussmann, demolished huge tracts of the city's rat-ridden slums in the mid-19th century and replaced them with vast parks and tens of thousands of 'Haussmannian' apartment buildings lining boulevards too broad to blockade.

Napoleon III's personal power grab led to his downfall, and, ultimately, to the Belle Époque, inspiring Paris’s brass-and-tile cafes through to the Art Nouveau Eiffel Tower. The Nazi occupation nipped this 'beautiful era' in the bud but post-WWII Paris—under the leadership of General-then-President Charles de Gaulle—flourished again as a creative hub. In May 1968, anti-establishment student protests in the Latin Quarter morphed into general strikes that paralyzed the country, and though de Gaulle was re-elected, it was a watershed moment for the more progressive attitudes that prevail today.

It is impossible to enjoy a vacation in the City of Light without experiencing Paris history, it manifests in the attractions, structures and art all around you. In recent times major works undertaken by a succession of presidents have resulted in new museums and public spaces, while occasional political protests maintain citizens' sense of empowerment. Meanwhile, Mayor Bertrand Delanoë has pioneered initiatives such as the summertime Paris Plages (Seine-side beaches) and the Vélib' free bicycle scheme, making the city more enjoyable for residents and vacationers alike.