“Until you spread your wings, you’ll have no idea how far you can fly” – Napoleon Bonaparte
One of the reasons I adore the French capital so much is that for me, Paris is one of those cities you can visit over & over again as it offers up a plethora of opportunities to discover something new each time. It’s a global city filled with a myriad of lessons in art, culture & history, with an abundance of museums, landmarks, architecture & monuments. Anyone who has had the good fortune to see the Parisian skyline in person will undoubtedly have spotted a certain shining gold dome in the distance. This is the Dôme des Invalides and was one of the sights I knew I absolutely had to explore on my latest visit to Paris, given the cultural & historical significance it represents to France. So let’s take a look at Les Invalides – Paris’ greatest military monument and the resting place of not only the first French Emperor but also one of the greatest military commanders in history, Napoleon Bonaparte!
Cité des Invalides
Anyone who knows their history is likely already aware that France once lay claim to Europe’s greatest army way back in the 17th century, under Louis XIV, the “Sun King”. Les Invalides was built in 1764 as a city in itself, providing barracks, a convent, factory, a hospice & hospital to army veterans. Commissioned by Louis XIV, this area was originally called Cité des Invalides. Today, Les Invalides or Hotel National des Invalides as it’s officially known, is an area of buildings & museums, where important French ceremonies & military parades are still conducted within the grounds. One of the main museums in this complex is Musée de l’Armée – this is the part of Les Invalides which I purchased a ticket to visit as it also allows access to visit the tomb of Napoleon the First in the Dome.
The main courtyard is the first area you will see upon entering into the complex of buildings and this is the space in Les Invalides where a lot of parades & formal ceremonies take place. I couldn’t help but notice the massive collection of 60 cannons resolutely displayed on the ground floor, amongst other artillery being showcased. The courtyard is surrounded by two floors, with the second level being accessible by stairs. On the ground floor statues of military leaders keep a close eye on you as you walk by and there is plenty of information about each person to add depth to your understanding about French military history.
Dôme des Invalides
Up until the Eiffel Tower was built, the Dôme des Invalides was actually the tallest building in Paris and was initially designed as a royal chapel, inspired by St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. With construction of the chapel starting from the late 1600’s, it was known as the temple of the god Mars, in the 1800’s during the Revolution. Napoleon the First’s tomb was laid to rest here in 1861, plus it also is the resting place for his descendants as well as significant French Generals & Marshals. So the fact that this resting place holds so many influential & revered leaders is just another reason to visit, apart from the stunning design & artwork on display.
The Dôme is exquisitely beautiful both inside & out and even I wasn’t expecting the interior to be as grand as it was in real life! I hadn’t researched the interior of Les Invalides prior to my visit, so I truly got to explore & witness it without any expectations at all. The exterior of the building is held up by large columns as you ascend the stairs and on the second floor there are four large statues, representing the qualities of Justice, Prudence, Strength and Temperance. It’s the gilded masterpiece which tops off this impressive building, resplendent with carvings of helmets & trophies, with an obelisk that has a cross crowning it at the highest point. The golden Dome rivals the nearby Eiffel Tower in terms of magical vibes at night, as it is lit up and casts an ethereal glow over the city, albeit without a sparkling light show!
I will never forget the feeling that came over me once I entered inside – as soon as you walk in, you can see the main altar straight ahead with the canopy & dome up above. The artwork on the dome’s interior is spellbinding – depicting the “Glory of Paradise” scene painted by Charles de la Fosse. But it was walking towards the circular crypt and then looking down upon Napoleon’s tomb that really had an entirely unexpected impact on me. Looking down into the crypt to view the sarcophagus surrounded by statues, I noticed that the names of cities and a golden laurel wreath on the floor encircled the tomb. The named cities represent Napoleon’s greatest victories at Austerlitz, Marenco, Moscowa, Wagram, Rivoli, Pyramides, Iéna, and Friedland.
A monumental moment
I can only describe the feeling that washed over me as a mixture of awe, astonishment, reverence & something undefinably mystical or spiritual… these are feelings I’ve only experienced in a select few cathedrals, churches or landmarks. I’ve had this same feeling standing in Palace Square in St Petersburg looking at the Hermitage Museum, in St Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, standing in the middle of Red Square in Moscow and also seeing the Eiffel Tower for the first time. So for me to have this incredibly personal feeling overcome me at Les Invalides… it was truly so unexpected! An avalanche of emotions which I wasn’t prepared for found me fighting back tears in my eyes…I’ve always been empathic & highly sensitive but even this experience was a shock for me, in the best kind of way!
Once I’d had that surprising moment, I wanted to be sure I could take some time to thoroughly explore inside the Dome’s ground floor and lower level. After admiring the stunning main altar with four immense columns and canopy, I descended the stairs towards the lower level where the crypt is located. Prior to entering into the crypt I noticed two main statues at the entrance as well as mosaic decorations on the floor. Walking through the hallway into the crypt, there were additional carvings on the two walls.
Entering into the crypt I experienced a sense of calmness – I was awestruck by the size of the sarcophagus up close as well as the size of the 12 female statues of victories which encircle Napoleons tomb and all face towards his final resting place. Directly opposite the hallway entrance on the other side lies a smaller crypt for Napoleon’s son, Napoleon the Second, also known posthumously as “L’Aiglon”, which means the “Eaglet” in French. Within the crypt there is a statue of Napoleon I and I also noticed a bouquet of flowers had been lain on the floor – whether by a distant relative, a visitor or by someone who works within Les Invalides…I do not know. Napoleon II’s mother was the Austrian Archduchess Marie-Louise (the second wife to his father), and after commanding within the Austrian army, Napoleon II passed away after serving from tuberculosis in 1832 at Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna.
Beautiful gardens and Angelina café!
If you need a quick rest during your time here then you might be very pleased to know that the famed “Angelina” café also resides here at Les Invalides as well! They are famous across the world for making some of the best hot chocolate ever. So this is pretty handy to know if you are planning on visiting one of their cafes, as you can cross off of a visit from your “must-do list”, whilst also exploring Les Invalides well! There is also a picturesque section of gardens just outside the Dome church, which I enjoyed walking through after my visit.
This was the area where I took a few photos of the exterior of the Dome and tried out some depth of field photography as well. Although I visited during the start of Autumn last month, the gardens were still in flower, providing a vibrant backdrop to the magnificent architecture. There are seats throughout the garden area so it’s also the perfect spot to relax for a while after exploring Les Invalides!
Although the Musée de l’Armée is open every day of the year, other parts of Les Invalides including the Dome Church and the Tomb of Napoleon are closed on important national days including 1st January 1st May and 25th December. As a rough guide, the Dome Church & Tomb of Napoleon are open as follows:
1st April to 31 October – 10am to 6pm every day; open until 9pm on Tuesdays; 1st November to 31st March – 10am to 5pm every day.
You can obtain a “Museum” pass which includes access to the Dome Church, Napoleon’s Tomb, the temporary exhibition currently on display, permanent exhibition and a couple of museums for the approximately 12 euros. There are also discounted and group prices which vary, so for further information, please visit the official website. The website also offers additional pricing admission information for people between the ages of 18-25 years and those who hold a “Pass Education” or the “Paris Museum Pass”.
How to get there
Located in the 7th arrondissement, it only took me about 5 minutes to walk there from the Invalides metro station. Being a monumental French sight, there is naturally a security check before you enter the complex. There are two separate entrances at the front of the complex and the at the rear, right next to the Dome Church. The main entrance of the complex is 129 rue de Grenelle on Esplanade des Invalides. I personally chose to enter through this one as walking up towards the main the gates imbues a sense of anticipation, which adds to the allure of what you are waiting to discover! The other entrance near the Dome Church is 2 Place Vauban, which is closest to the Dome and also the beautiful gardens at the rear of the site.
I still haven’t been able to entirely understand why my visit to Les Invalides was such a deeply emotional experience…it may take a while for me to process this now that I’m back home or it may be something that I will never be able to logically understand. Perhaps it’s an experience that can only be felt or understood within my heart… All I can say it that visiting here left an incredible impression on me and remains one of my most significant travel memories. It certainly was the highlight of my latest visit to Paris and I hope it might be that way for many other people as well!
I hope you have enjoyed this article on exploring Les Invalides! Let me know in the comments below what you think, whether you have/would like to visit there or which sight has left a significant impression on you during your travels!