When many people picture Paris, the avenue des Champs-Élysées, capped off by the Arc de Triomphe is what’s in their mind’s eye. It’s an iconic location, but there’s a lot you don’t know about “the most beautiful avenue in the world.”
Let’s learn about les Champs-Élysées in ten questions!
Where is the Champs-Élysées?
The Champs-Élysées (the short, common name of l’avenue des Champs-Élysées) is a long avenue in Paris that connects the Place de la Concorde and the Arc de Triomphe.
What does Champs-Élysées mean?
Champs Élysées means “Elysian Fields”, a part of paradise in Greek mythology.
No one knows the official reason for the name, which came into use about 30 years after the avenue was created, but it’s always made sense to me. After all, why not name what’s widely considered the most beautiful avenue in the world after a heavenly place?
You may be wondering why the words are connected by a hyphen. This is often the case with French street names that include multi-word places (or churches/saints).
How do you pronounce Champs-Élysées?
Here’s how to pronounce Champs-Élysées.
And here’s how to say l’avenue des Champs-Élysées.
How long is the Champs-Élysées?
The avenue des Champs-Élysées is 1.9 kilometers (1.2 miles) long and 70 meters (230 ft) wide.
What is the Champs-Élysées famous for?
The Champs-Élysées and the Arc de Triomphe, at its western end, are iconic Parisian landmarks. Internationally, the avenue is also known for the many luxury shops that line it (although there are lots of other types of establishments there, too).
Early on, the avenue was associated with military parades and victories. The most famous of these is probably the parade of victorious Free French Forces and American allied forces in 1944, after the Liberation of Paris.
The avenue wasn’t just appealing to the French and their allies: enemy troops have marched down the Champs-Élysées, too, as a symbol of victory over the French. These include the Prussians at the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, and the Nazis when they invaded the city 1940.
Today, the Champs-Élysées is retains its military connotation as the site of the annual July 14th (Bastille Day) military parade.
But more peaceful events and sights can also be found on the Champs-Élysées, including the finish line of the Tour de France, the parades following France’s World Cup victories in 1998 and 2018, and Paris’s main Christmas lights display and New Year’s celebration (there’s usually a light show projected onto the Arc de Triomphe, followed by fireworks).
When was the Champs-Élysées created?
The Champs-Élysées was originally created as a road the king and other nobles could take to go from the Louvre palace to the palace in the suburb of Saint Germain en Laye (the French court liked to move around a lot). It was designed by famous French gardener André Le Nôtre and finished in the 1670’s. First called le Grand Cours (to differentiate it from the nearby Cours de la Reine), it began to be called l’avenue des Champs-Élysées around 1694. That name was made official in 1709.
But the Champs-Élysées didn’t really come into its own until nearly a hundred years later. Part of the issue was crime. Although some developers had tried to establish amusements there, including theaters and panoramas, many Parisians didn’t want to be on the Champs-Élysées at night. Over time, the area was cleaned up, and by the early 19th century, when Napoleon chose to construct the Arc de Triomphe, a monument to his military victories, there, it was increasingly fashionable to promenade or have a residence on or near the avenue.
Does the President of France live on the Champs-Élysées?
It seems fitting that such a grandiose and famous avenue would be the site of the French President’s residence. And when you discover that this residence is called le Palais de l’Élysée (or just l’Élysée for short), it seems like a sure thing.
But while l’Élysée is close to the Champs-Élysées, it’s actually located on a side street.
What can you do on the Champs-Élysées?
The Champs-Élysées has a reputation for being filled with luxury shops, and that is somewhat true. You’ll find flagship stores for brands like Louis-Vuitton along the avenue, as well as smaller luxury and mid-range brands.
But there’s also more affordable shopping. For instance, brands like H&M and Disney, not to mention Monoprix (France’s rough equivalent to Target) also have stores on the Champs-Élysées.
Some French car brands also have stores on the Champs-Élysées that feature interactive displays and exhibits. The same goes for Paris’s football (soccer) team, Paris Saint-Germain.
If shopping isn’t your thing, the Champs-Élysées is also full of restaurants, from the high-end Fouquet’s, where Nicolas Sarkozy famously went to eat immediately after winning the 2007 French presidential election, to fast food options like McDonald’s and Belgian chain Quick. You can also taste Ladurée’s famous macarons at their flagship store and tearoom. There are also cinemas, the Lido cabaret, and museums and theaters.
On the eastern end of the Champs-Élysées, near the Place de la Concorde, you’ll find the Grand Palais and Petit Palais, two magnificent structures originally built for the 1900 Exposition Universelle. Today the Grand Palais hosts exhibitions and events of all sorts, and is worth the price of entry for a glimpse at its Art Nouveau decorations and stunning, enormous glass roof alone. The Petit Palais houses a permanent collection of art and also hosts exhibits. Nearby, le Théâtre du Rond Pont is a famous Parisian theater, and the Palais de la Découverte is a science museum.
These sites are surrounded by pretty parks.
And of course, all the way on the other end of the Champs-Élysées is the avenue’s most famous site: the Arc de Triomphe. You can get an up-close glimpse of it and even go inside to see a museum and admire the view from its roof.
What is the Arc de Triomphe?
Flush with military victories and power as the Emperor of the French, Napoleon Bonaparte ordered the construction of the Arc de Triomphe (the Triumph Arch or Arch of Triumph), officially called l’Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile for its location at the center of the Place de l’Étoile, at the western end of the Champs-Élysées in 1806.
He’s far from the only person to have ever constructed something like this. The tradition of ceremonial or commemorative arches goes back to ancient times. For instance, you can see another famous one, the Arch of Constantine, just outside the Colosseum in Rome. That one dates back to 312 AD. There are also other, earlier triumphal arches in Paris, the Porte Saint-Denis and the Porte Saint-Martin, on the Grands Boulevards. Dedicated to Louis XIV, these were constructed in the late 17th century.
Still, the Arc de Triomphe is massive, higher and much wider than these other Parisian arches, and one of the tallest triumphal arches in the world. It’s a fitting monument to man who thought of himself so highly. Unfortunately for him, Napoleon ended up being exiled before the Arc de Triomphe was finished. It wasn’t completed until 1836, fifteen years after the former Emperor’s death on the isolated island of Saint Helena.
Today, the Arc de Triomphe doesn’t immediately evoke Napoleon for most people. Instead, it’s become a symbol of French pride and triumph. Beneath it is an eternal flame atop the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, from World War I. Napoleon himself is buried at Les Invalides, all the way on the other end of the Champs-Élysées and across the Seine.
Is the Champs-Élysées worth visiting?
Many people I know who come to Paris want to visit the Champs-Élysées, and I have to admit, I always feel sort of disappointed when they ask. Although the avenue is objectively impressive, and although there are some interesting and cool places to visit there, I personally find that it lacks the personality and beauty of so many other places in the city.
Part of it is the fact that so much of the architecture is given over to shop windows, which aren’t particularly designed with creativity or care (if you love an aesthetic window shopping experience, head over to one of the grands magasins instead, especially in the lead-up to Christmas).
The crowds also make it hard to really stop and take in your surroundings, and in some places, weirdly enough, the sidewalks are unexpectedly tiered, making it likely for you to trip.
To me, if you want to see real Parisian grandeur and elegance, the Place Vendôme or the Jardin du Luxembourg are much better options. And if you want something more unique and charming, there are so many choices, including Montmartre or the Parc Monceau (which isn’t too far from the Arc de Triomphe).
Apparently, I’m not alone in feeling like the Champs-Élysées is not the most beautiful, must-see place in Paris. A recent survey found that 72% of the people on the avenue in any given day are tourists, and an additional 22% are only there for work. That leaves only about 6% of Parisians who spend significant time on the Champs-Élysées.
Some people compare the Champs-Élysées to Times Square in New York, but personally, I find Times Square to be at least a bit more fun, with theme stores that are almost like park attractions, and eccentric characters walking around. Although it’s definitely not the most authentic place in New York, there’s an electric energy (perhaps helped by its enormous lit-up signs) that the Champs-Élysées lacks.
That said, the Champs-Élysées is an iconic location, and it’s totally normal to want to see it at least once in your life. Personally, I wouldn’t plan to spend a lot of time there but might, for instance, walk up it after visiting the much more interesting (in my opinion) Louvre and Tuileries Gardens.
Again, this is just my opinion, and I have French friends who love the Champs-Élysées and are happy to go there every time they’re in Paris. My family and I have spent afternoons with them there, checking out interesting displays in places like Renault’s showroom and standing on line for macarons at Ladurée (their boutique and tearoom actually is a truly pretty and charming place), or browsing through the Louis Vuitton store without intending to spend a cent.
But I think that if you’re in Paris, especially for a short visit, it’s better to plan on spending a bulk of your time somewhere that will probably end up being much more memorable. Still, there’s no shame in standing in the one safe spot between two lanes of traffic to snap a selfie in front of the Arc de Triomphe.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this article about the Champs-Élysées. I’ll leave you with a song you might already be thinking of, since, like the avenue itself, it’s iconic: Joe Dassin’s Les Champs-Élysées.