You've seen it in movies, on postcards and perhaps even up close. But you've never seen the jewel in the crown of the City of Light like this.
It’s almost 11PM at the Hôtel Dame des Arts, in Paris’ latin quarter, when the waiter leans down to whisper, “You should go up to the roof. You need to see it sparkle.” I’m at the hotel’s restaurant inside a tranquil courtyard garden, so secluded you would never know that just eight floors above is the most exclusive rooftop bar in Paris, with a 360-degree view of the city.
Most days, the bar has a waiting list about as long as the Champs-Élysées but right now it’s closed, except to guests. The lift doors open and there’s the Eiffel Tower, beaming proudly over her city. I do a mental countdown as the clock strikes the hour and suddenly, she lights up in a glittering show that seems just for me. Well-heeled Parisians have been known to scoff at the tower and its light display. “An utterly useless monument,” was the summation of sociologist Roland Barthes. But if loving the sparkle makes you a tourist, well, I never want to be a local.
Building an icon
It’s almost unthinkable: just two years, two months and five days to build a 300 metre-high tower. Yet that’s what Gustave Eiffel – visionary engineer and hands-on foreman – managed to pull off some 135 years ago, constructing what was at that point the tallest structure in the world.
In 1889, public opinion leaned toward scepticism at Eiffel’s idea for a modern monument cast in wrought iron with its underbelly on display. But that was his genius. All that curved metalwork? To minimise wind resistance. The iron? Sturdy and durable, especially when repainted every seven years according to a schedule set out by Eiffel himself. And rather than “humiliating all our monuments”, as one nasty petition signed by the author Alexandre Dumas read at the time, it has gone on to become the most breathlessly romanticised of them all.
For better or for worse, without the Eiffel Tower we wouldn’t have Audrey Hepburn in Givenchy couture in Funny Face or Nicole Kidman singing her heart out in Moulin Rouge! It also inspired a boom in the sale of postcards. Patrick Branco Ruivo, managing director at Société d'Exploitation de la Tour Eiffel – the fancy name for the organisation that oversees operations on the monument – reveals that visitors in the tower’s inaugural year could buy one to mail to their loved ones from the structure itself, a stroke of marketing brilliance from the man Ruivo praises as a “creative genius”. Even though the stereotype of the disdainful local exists, no French person I speak to takes issue with the tower’s nightly light show. Ruivo describes it as “her party gown with its spectacular sparkling”. How chic.
In real life
On a hot August afternoon it feels as if the whole world has descended on the seventh arrondissement. “La Tour Eiffel?” my taxi driver confirms, somewhat incredulously. “It will be busy,” she warns me, before admitting that it is, “very beautiful”. She drops me on the corner of Rue de l’Universite, a sun-dappled street that feeds into the Champ des Mars and is so picturesque it’s become an Instagram trap. (The street’s TikTok hashtag has millions of views, mostly of videos suggesting how to take a selfie with an Eiffel Tower backdrop.) I squeeze past the women clad in their summer finest and am not immune, snapping a quick pic as the light filters through the elegant iron.
When I reach the second floor via an excruciatingly long wait for a lift – so long that I decide I’ll walk the 674 steps to the ground floor when I’m done – I find myself next to a young family from Spain. “We came for this,” says the mum. The second floor is only a pitstop; they’re going all the way to the top. All around me is a cacophony of accents and languages: American, Korean, German, Chinese, Italian and, of course, plenty of fellow Australians. I talk to an older couple from Sydney who have been to Paris more times than they can count. They always stop by, the husband tells me. “You see it and you think: ‘Ah! I’m in Paris!’”
Almost seven million people visit the Eiffel Tower every year. Rumour has it that between five and 10 marriage proposals happen every day at the Trocadero, a viewing platform that’s just across the Seine in the 16th arrondissement. I don’t witness a single one, though not for lack of trying. I keep an eye on every canoodling, moon-eyed couple in the hope that someone will drop the knee but no such luck. The monument’s matchmaking power extends far beyond its physical location, though. At the Mandarin Oriental Paris on Rue Saint-Honoré, staff member Eloi takes me up to one of the most elegant suites in the hotel. “I have such a surprise for you,” he says, pushing open the door with a flourish to reveal a sprawling private terrace in the shadow of the tower. Of course the team has organised proposals up here, even once filling the space with 10,000 red roses. “There were roses everywhere,” Eloi tells me with a grin. But his favourite moment was on Bastille Day, when every guest in the hotel was invited up to the room to watch the fireworks with a glass of champagne.
How to Eiffel
Ruivo’s advice for visiting is just do it. During daylight, you can discover everything from “the historic gardens to the incomparable view over Paris from each floor”, and by night there’s the famous light show (your last chance is just before midnight). There are also two restaurants inside the tower: the haute cuisine icon Le Jules Verne and the more casual Madame Brasserie, which opened in 2022 with one of Paris’s best value set menus – three courses for €36. Booking into either gives you a leg up; a reservation comes with a skip-the-queue pass and your own dedicated lift, which is worth the price of lunch alone.
If you’re hoping for an Eiffel Tower view in your hotel room, a word of advice: book early. At the Hôtel Dame des Arts, you can see the sparkle best from neatly designed room 805, with its floor-to-ceiling windows. “You can be in bed and facing Paris,” enthuses general manager Matthieu Bernard. The boutique property has 16 rooms with tower views and all are booked out three months in advance. Even if you don’t manage to snag one, there’s always the rooftop bar. “It’s quite common to see people taking their coffee from downstairs so they can have a moment up there,” says Bernard.
At the Mandarin Oriental Paris, guests return time and time again. The hotel itself is perfectly situated for a Parisian getaway, at the footsteps of The Louvre, the Tuileries and the boutiques of the first arrondissement. But almost everyone wants a room with that view. “There is just something about the Eiffel Tower,” notes general manager Geraldine Dobey. “It really is the icon of the city.”
From July 2024, Qantas will be offering direct flights from Perth to Paris, in time for the summer Olympic and Paralympic Games.