The annals of art history are littered with tales of once-reviled artists and artworks that became masterpieces—Picasso was dubbed satanic, Cezanne a madman, Van Gogh a loon. One perhaps lesser-known turnaround story is that of Paris’ Eiffel Tower: somewhere in the past 126 years, the monument went from the city’s most abhorred structure to one of its most beloved.
Parisians still have mixed feelings about it, and we’re inclined to agree: the Tower is notoriously overcrowded, with relentless lines and personal space that would make a sardine tin feel like the Ritz. However: there’s no ignoring that the Tower has become an international symbol of not only Paris, but of France as a whole. So while we may never see an actual Parisian atop La Tour Eiffel, it still has plenty of tales to tell the curious traveler.
With that in mind, voici, our top five facts about the Eiffel Tower:
The Eiffel Tower’s history, en bref:
Let’s start from the bottom, shall we? First commissioned as the entrance for the Exposition Universelle in 1889—the centenary celebration of the French Revolution—the Tower was originally meant to stand for a mere 20 years. Gustave Eiffel, known for his expertise in metalwork, was awarded the contract—though it was famously an engineer named Maurice Koechlin who designed most of the structure. It wasn’t until 1909 that the Tower gained permanent status in the city after proving its worth as a radio beacon.
It’s true, artists hated it.
On February 14, 1887—a somewhat coincidental date given the tower’s current reign as a worldwide symbol of amour
—40-some artists including Guy de Maupassant and Charles Garnier published a protest letter
decrying the Tower’s “monstrous” aesthetics. Writing in the “name of French art and history”, the artists villainized the Tower as a “gigantic black factory chimney [spreading across the city] like a dark ink stain”. Featuring marvelously crafted insults—truly, the French have a way with words—the letter is perhaps more notable as an example of the broader cultural tensions that emerged across Europe during the late 19th century, as industrialization and mechanization began to profoundly alter aesthetic sensibilities as well as the ins and outs of daily life.
The French, it seems, have always questioned American taste.
One fact about the Eiffel Tower that never fails to tickle us is this internationally-minded barb in the artists’ protest: “the Eiffel Tower, which commercial America itself would not want, is, doubtless, the dishonor of Paris.”
Just one in a long line of transatlantic snubs over the last three centuries—everyone from de Gaulle
has been enmeshed in one—the quote reveals not only an unsurprising view of America as an uncouth upstart, but also belies the mounting international insecurities of France at the time. The end of the 1800s was a particularly difficult era for France: the country’s disastrous defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1871 is generally accepted as the end of its leadership across Europe, a shift in power that left scars on the French psyche. The war was also one with profound political implications, giving rise to the German Empire, the French Third Republic, Italy’s annexation of the Papal States, and Germany’s annexation of Northern France—all actions that unsettled the Continent as a whole and fomented the eventual unrest of WWI.
… though even Eiffel couldn’t escape the US entirely.
The Tower was built over the course of two years using French labor, French manufacturing, and Eiffel (and Koechlin’s) French designs. The construction project couldn’t quite get away with an entirely French build, however—the Tower’s elevators were furnished by the Otis Elevator Company of New York. Widely recognized as a feat of engineering at the time, the elevators introduced the concept of the counterweight lift, in which two elevator cabs operated as a pair in each of the Tower’s pillars: when one cab went up, the other came down.
Interestingly, an even closer tie to America came in the form of Eiffel himself: seven years prior to building the Tower, Eiffel and Koechlin had contributed to designs for the Statue of Liberty’s metal coverings.
There’s plenty of better food—and comparable views—to be had in Paris.
This is admittedly less a fact about the Eiffel Tower than it is an opinion, but after twelve years in Paris, we’ve had plenty of time to test our theories.
Many wax poetic about the views from atop the Tower, but what you don’t usually hear mentioned are the steel fencing and frequent fog that can obscure the sightlines. For our money, we prefer the sweeping vistas from the steps of Montmartre’s Sacre Coeur
, from atop the Centre Georges Pompidou
, or from the rooftop of the Centre du Monde Arabe—which, until this year’s heartbreaking Notre Dame fire, had an unspoiled view of the Cathedral’s elegant flying buttresses. We certainly won’t blame you if you fancy a look from the Tower anyways—but be sure to beat the lines by buying your tickets ahead of time, either as a part of our new Paris in a Half Day with Optional Eiffel Tower tickets tour
, or directly with the Eiffel Tower ticket office
The Tower’s food options are also something that, we think, are skippable. Though the Jules Verne (now headed by Chef Frédéric Anton) is no slouch—and for many years had a Michelin Star to prove it—we far prefer the city’s plethora of less formal, but equally tasteful, culinary options. One of our go-to resources for the latest on Parisian restaurants is this list
from pastry chef, author, and former Context guide David Lebovitz.
(We would, however, heartily recommend reading Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea before your visit—its intricately constructed world of gears and gadgetry is the perfect companion to accompany a trip up one of the Eiffel Tower’s marvelous latticed pillars).