Check out the Invalides in Paris

by Sharon Odegaard
Stripes Europe

The Invalides, an imposing collection of buildings in the heart of Paris, stands guarded by a line of cannons that hint at its military themes. A visit here allows you to take in France’s history going back about 200 years. What started as a hospital for war-wounded invalids and veterans built in the late 1600s is now a museum and event venue. The landmark gold dome tops a chapel that’s central to the complex. And underneath the giant dome is the most famous tomb in Paris — the final resting place of Napoleon I. With changing exhibits as well as permanent displays and armament, the Invalides offers a place to explore whether you have an hour or an entire afternoon.

The Artillery Courtyard

Once inside the museum complex, you come out into a courtyard with guns, weapons, and a tank. This is the Artillery Museum area, displaying years of French pieces ranging from the squat little mortars to the beautifully designed French Classical Cannons. Inside the museum is a photograph showing the pomp and circumstance of soldiers of WWI and their military leaders in this very courtyard.

The Two World Wars

Exhibits fill the buildings around the courtyard. While some are here for a limited time, a permanent collection on World War I and World War II takes up one long wing of the museum. Dates in the floor help you keep track of the chronology of the displays. You’ll find full-sized items such as a Renault battlefield taxi that shines, showing none of the mud that would have covered it during WWI. The World War II collection includes maps, period photographs, a US Army soldier’s vest, and weaponry.

The Tomb of Napoleon I

The most well-known part of the Invalides is the Cathedral of Saint-Louis, the final resting place of Emperor Napoleon I. Construction of the chapel began in 1677. Most impressive from inside and out is the dome. Covered with gold outside, this dome can be seen for miles in central Paris. Inside, the chapel is ornate and elegant. Our tour guide told us that during World War II, members of the resistance met in an enclosed floor up in the dome, undiscovered by the Nazis. The Invalides was on the short list of Paris treasures that Hitler visited during his only trip to Paris, in 1940. Despite Hitler’s admiration of Napoleon, he ordered the beautiful church to be set with explosives later in WWII. When the wartime mayor of Paris met with the German major general Choltitz one day, they stood on a balcony and looked out over the city. The mayor pleaded with Choltitz to spare Paris.

“Often it is given a general to destroy, rarely to preserve. Imagine that one day it may be given you to stand on this balcony again, as a tourist, to look once more on these monuments to our joys, to our sufferings, and be able to say, ‘One day I could have destroyed this, and I preserved it as a gift to humanity.'”

Today, the Invalides with its glittering dome survives. Choltitz never gave the orders to blow it up. A peaceful place surrounded by gardens, with the Eiffel Tower rising in the background, the Invalides invites you to visit and keep coming back whenever you’re in Paris.

If you have young ones with you, the museum provides fun soldier’s hats. While you may want to skip the war displays, the grounds alone are a great place for little ones to explore. For more information and various ticket packages, visit the official website of the Invalides.

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